Great Spiritual Teachers have always counseled humanity that the world has meaning. Our soul has descended from the divine, and it has come here with an attainable purpose - a need for worldly experience, spiritual awakening, and perfection, before it returns once again to the divine. They tell us that the visible world is grounded in a higher order of reality, which is the source of life and life’s meaning, and which is only accessible through higher levels of Mind.
This, of course, is a complete inversion of the dominant scientific view. Rather than the reductionist analysis of science, which takes for granted that the smallest material phenomena are the ‘real’ constituents of the universe, and that they explain and cause all the larger and higher-level phenomena, the Tradition presupposes that the lower can only be understood as issuing from, and caused by, the higher: The ‘whole’ is primary, not the parts.
In the scientific scheme of things, life and consciousness are merely by-products of the accidental motions of inanimate matter. Thus, the ‘parts’ are primary – atoms, particles, quarks. In the Tradition, to the contrary, life and consciousness are the primary characteristics of reality: matter is the secondary offspring.
It is not self-evident that only one or the other of these viewpoints is singularly true.
In its recognition of higher and lower levels of reality, the Tradition places the human being in a unique position within the hierarchy - i.e., squarely in the middle as a ‘Microcosm’, a tiny recapitulation of the full essential nature of the universe. On the one hand, human beings possess all the essential characteristics of minerals, plants, and animals. And yet, at the same time, unlike these lower forms, we can also be open to levels of reality that transcend the visible world.
A human being, standing at the center of the creation, is thus potentially capable of intuiting meaning, truth, goodness, and divinity. This is the quintessential human quality. This is what makes a human being human. And as a consequence of being intimate with both nature and divinity, the Tradition imposes responsibilities upon human beings: we are “our brother’s keeper”, we are the stewards of the earth.
When engaged in our scientific “way of knowing”, on the other hand, a human being stands in requisite isolation outside of the creation, as an inquiring, analytic, ‘onlooker’ - and from this standpoint it is reasonable that we can make Nature subservient to our intellect and our will. From this sensible, useful vantage point, come all our noteworthy achievements in science and technology, and the economic growth and abundance that these occasion. But as a spectator to life and creation, science itself has no, and needs no, intrinsic system of ethics: ethics must come from within life. Unfortunately, Douglas Sloan notes, because this detached modern endeavor is so little informed by traditional wisdom, “With all our mushrooming know-how and frenzied hurry to transform the world out of all recognition - if not indeed out of existence - we are increasingly helpless and confused in the face of the world we are creating.” A moment’s reflection upon the stunning developments taking place each day in the worlds of computers, weaponry, genes, and clones, provides sufficient verification for this statement.
The Tradition lives on, of course, and most of us retain at least some vague feeling that there must be some sense and significance ‘behind it all’. But we are typically hesitant to allow these vague feelings to carry the same weight as scientific facts, they are not really considered to have anything to do with authentic ‘important’ knowledge, and we may even feel somewhat ashamed to harbor such ‘irrational feelings’. Yet there is no rational justification for such an unexamined attitude - it is just a symptom of our indifference, our deeply ingrained submissiveness to the current scientific vogue.
Socrates declared that the soul is immortal. This may or may not be true. But the truth of this statement cannot be decided one way or another by anything scientists have to tell us. In fact, a purely quantitative science contributes nothing to the great questions of human existence. Explications of the ‘lower’ do not explain all the complexity and miraculousness of the ‘higher’. A reductive analysis of the ‘parts’ will never grasp the meaning of the ‘whole’. Quantitative measurements cannot explain our essential human qualities.
If the great questions and issues still move us, we cannot turn to science for much help. This responsibility cannot be delegated.