Content of Education and Science in the Twenty-First Century: Integrating Multiple Cultures
My fifty years as a professional scientist.
Brian O’Leary, March 2005
Almost fifty years ago, as an undergraduate, I first read C.P. Snow’s prophetic essay The Two Cultures, in which he lamented the huge divide between the sciences and the humanities. I was at the time poised for a career in physical science to help fulfill a deep passion to explore space.
My elders had advised me to major in physics, a popular move just after the surprise 1957 Soviet Sputnik launch. The classrooms filled with aspiring young space scientists, myself being one of the most eager and optimistic. I took the elders’ advice about the physics, but it was a difficult chore to fulfill. Physics never came easy to me. I then went on to get a Ph.D. in astronomy and was appointed in 1967 as a NASA scientist-astronaut destined for Mars. When that project was cancelled because of the war in Vietnam, I joined Carl Sagan on the astronomy and space science faculty of Cornell University. For fifteen years to follow, I became a university professor ensconsed in the scientific culture, culminating with a position on the physics faculty at Princeton University.
As much as I enjoyed my career successes I had always felt a curious disconnect from the scientific community ever since the time I had struggled through all those advanced physics and mathematics courses to the time I was teaching the same recipes—25 years during the prime of my life. I had enjoyed music, art and literature much more. Most of all, I had been bored by memorizing equations and tasking and tinkering with machines and chemicals in drab laboratories. I slowly came to the realization that Snow had been right: I came face to face with a no-man’s land between disciplines, wanting to explore new territory if anyone would join me. Science was put into a box of materialism and reductionism, with the humanities and arts placed incommunicado somewhere far, far away on campus.
It was much later in life when I began to awaken to a third way, a more integrative way, which could provide a basis for the content of education in the new century. At first I stumbled onto this path, through no awareness of the process that was unfolding for me. In 1979 at Princeton, I began to open myself to some unusual experiences that did not have any explanation in Western science: remote viewing, healing, near-death experience, past life recall, UFO phenomena and energy from the vacuum. I slowly learned that many of these phenomena were not only open to our experience but were also available for experimentation using rigorous scientific methods. At that time, none of my physics colleagues at Princeton had the slightest interest in these matters; in fact, some of them expressed denial and disdain. A common topic of discussion among the Princeton physicists was how ridiculous were claims to the paranormal.
The self-styled “skeptics,” including Carl Sagan himself, kept promoting the adage, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, raising the bar of proof well above any reasonable experimentation, thus reinforcing the denial of any truth outside the existing box of science. This became to me a scientific double standard, a politically motivated application of Occam’s Razor that the simplest explanation shall suffice even though it may turn out to be wrong. Arbitrariness in the standards of proof protected scientists so they could deny any exceptions to their own world views. My colleagues seemed quite rational in addressing issues within their own specialties, but were abysmally inadequate in addressing paradigmatic issues.
During my Princeton years, my learning was slow and my awareness of the “other culture” was woefully missing. I had not applied Snow’s principles. For example, I had been unaware of Princeton sociology professor Thomas Kuhn who had written the classic text The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. One main thesis was that scientific revolutions require that the old prevailing beliefs don’t die quickly, that it might take a generation or two or maybe longer to change the paradigm, even though the facts clearly show it must change. He cited numerous historical data to prove his point. Why hadn’t I known about all this during my Princeton years? Because the educational system itself operated in an old paradigm. I hadn’t reached out from my elite status as a physicist. The artificial compartmentalization of academic disciplines had separated me not only from the artists and writers, they had separated me also from the social scientists and historians, even from biologists, chemists and astronomers. The cultures were hydra-headed yet curiously separated. I never met Kuhn even though we were both on the Princeton faculty. In and of itself, the separation of my science from the other cultures prevented the new inquiries I wanted to make.
It was getting obvious that interest in exploring other cultures was also driving a wedge between my colleagues and myself. My feeling of isolation was a casualty of my growing defiance of the physics culture. At the time, though, I had no idea that I would never be invited back to their elite club. The permanence of this separation deeply hurt and angered me.
But meanwhile, over at the engineering quadrangle at Princeton, the dean of engineering Robert Jahn was clandestinely doing experiments in his basement on psychokinesis. He didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t know what he was doing. While our paths were somewhat different, our arrivals into a new paradigm were similar. Initially through experiments (Jahn) and experiences (me) and the subsequent building of new models, we were both discovering that human intention could alter the physical universe beyond purely materialistic means, that there was much more to physics than we had been led to believe. We were uncovering the power of consciousness, which demanded a look at other disciplines both objectively and subjectively.
When the word began to get out about all this, our colleagues tried to punish us at every turn. Cre-dentials and accomplishment in mainstream science didn’t matter so much when it came to choosing to inquire into breakthroughs and new paradigms. Snow and Kuhn had already known about the challenges Jahn and I and others would be facing. Throughboth bitter and exhilarating experience, we “new scientists” were to slowly follow Kuhn’s and Snow’s examples without even knowing about their research at first. The disparate cultures had to join to be able to explore and explicate the new paradigm. Without that courageous step, we would get nowhere beyond fictitious abstractions such as string theory, which vainly attempts to mathematically reconcile the four known physical forces (gravity, vector electromagnetics, weak atomic and strong nuclear) without so much as a thought given to consciousness which can overwhelm the other forces any time. The old paradigm was ever so slowly dying, the new one coming in, with great ignorance and resistance among my physics colleagues. We’re also acquiring new colleagues scattered all over the world open to the new paradigm.
The culminating event of my Princeton years was when we on the physics department faculty were invited by the drama department to attend the satire “The Physicists” showing at the McCarter Theatre. Sitting in the front two rows, my bewildered colleagues were mostly serious and silent while I was bemused reflecting that they may not have known the joke was on us.
It was time for me to leave Princeton to explore a new more creative science that would embrace paranormal phenomena. It was time to step outside the box into uncharted waters. My career suffered, and it became a struggle to confront the new without the financial and moral support of institutions and colleagues. Yet I moved on anyway and rarely looked back. Jahn kept his tenured position at Princeton, and had great courage to prevail publicly with his revolutionary research in the presence of faculty and administrative attempts to remove him. I don’t know which of our paths created more suffering (yet sometimes provided an unusual opportunity to make a difference for those who would listen). Both paths have been difficult.
In the years that followed I produced five books about defining a new paradigm of science, energy, ecology and healing. It became clear to me that we scientists, in the presence of a vast and magical universe, have arbitrarily limited ourselves in time and space: time between our births and deaths, and space (metaphorically) between an outer space teeming with life and an inner space full of consciousness more fundamental to reality than the material world itself. But the leading physicists had already made up their minds: the anomalies were much too transformative for them to want to embrace, so they denied the new, clinging to their old coveted “laws. “ What they didn’t realize was that these “laws” are only theories which may hold for a wide range of conditions familiar to most of us, but they can be broken when our consciousness enters the picture.
By consciousness, I mean the mysterious cosmic dance in which alligned human and cosmic intention can transform the material universe, an interplay of cause and effect between the observer and observed, popularly uncovered by quantum physicists during the twentieth century and reinforced by parapsychologists, healers and paraphysicists. Traditional physics is unraveling in the presence of a new perception of our empowerment to change the rules of the universe. In a word, investigating consciousness is heresy according to many mainstream scholars. The old paradigmers are digging in, irrationally defending their turfs while producing more and more Ptolemaic epicycles in a Copernican universe. Kuhn was very persuasive in concluding that scientific revolutions happen when the resistance to them is greatest. Bertrand Russell said, “The resistance to a new idea increases as the square of its importance. “ We are certainly living in a time of enormous potential change.
Scientists—especially we physicists—were too busy to notice the revolution in our midst. We were too busy shoring up our own hierarchical positions in what was a high priesthood of a materialistic and reductionistic physics. This was not unlike the behavior of the Catholic church during the times of Bruno and Galileo. Inquiry outside the box was, and still is, punishable through denial, neglect, ridicule, dismissal, imprisonment or death. The “truth became institutionalized while the mystery unfolded before our unbelieving eyes.
As history repeats itself once again in the new century, some of us have stepped over the line into a heresy that will also become the fertile ground for an emerging science and art. And hardly anyone has the slightest idea that the change is coming. Only education can remedy this problem, and that education must join together the insights of many cultures. Only informed dialogue and education can expand our awareness of our empowerment to transform society from the tyrannies of politics, economics and dangerous science to solutions based on a new paradigm of science, consciousness, ethics and ecology. Through education, we can begin to formulate the new paradigm itself.
In the unfolding century, it seems we do not have the luxury of time to wallow in the old paradigm for another generation, waiting for the old guard to die off first, or waiting for the end of the struggle to extract the last oil ,water and trees for the benefit of the elite. The human destruction of ourselves and our planet cannot continue as has. Necessity must be the mother of invention. But invention itself cannot happen without awareness and education.
Because of the separation of the cultures, my own education into the new paradigm was painfully slow. Through integrating the cultures, however, we can meaningfully accelerate that education and so the new paradigm itself might take wing more quickly, hopefully in time to avert global disaster.
What might, then, the new paradigm of education become? Such an education should incorporate at least the following actions:
1. Learn that consciousness can create or alter the material world. This is sometimes called “downward causation.” Here the whole (consciousness, oneness, awareness of the whole) is more fundamental than the parts, rather than the reverse (c.f., Roger Sperry and Willis Harman). The opposite of this is reductionism, the attempt to understand the whole in terms of the parts (Western science).
2. Open to anomalies in science. History is replete with examples of the conservative biases of mainstream science, and should provide ample evidence of looking for the anomalies themselves as the very ground from which a new paradigm can emerge. People should become aware that a “balanced” media show on the UFO question, for example, might include true experiencers and good research but also the credentialed “skeptical” scientists who don’t really know what’s going on but pretend they do. The public emerges confused and bewildered about the truth. Only a process of speedy education spread through the internet and through activism might transcend this bias in time. The willingness to “think big” and go outside the box, yet still be realistic about the process, is an important first step in understanding what is possible—miracles by our standards! This exploration forms the foundation for a new science which will become an important element of a new paradigm.
3. Explore many epistemologies of scientific inquiry. This would include some experiential and experimental metaphysical explorations into areas forbidden by mainstream science. Experiments verifying the reality and nature of the anomalies are at the center of our intellectual inquiry. To broaden our perspective, we can use social science techniques such as polling and model-building. And we can study ethics and deep ecology as approaches to the global crisis. We must study nature and learn about natural law. As powerful and important as rigorous scientific methods might be, any future epistemology of science must also include the intuitive, the ineffable, the value of subjective experiential aspects of consciousness.
4. Creatively solve problems crossing disciplines to develop solutions to global challenges. For example, when have you ever seen a rational and thorough discussion of energy alternatives? We have advocates for more oil, we have advocates for nuclear, we have advocates for hydropower, we have advocates for solar, wind, hydrogen, biofuels, we have advocates for new energy such as cold fusion or vacuum energy. But where are the discussions of the full range of possibilities? Have we taken a whole-systems approach to both our critiques of global corporate domination and the solutions such as those suggested by Arne Naess, Patrick Reinsborough, Paul Ray, David Korten, Buckminster Fuller or Ervin Laszlo? What is the role of innovation in transforming society and why has it been so underemphasized?* Why have the media and politicians given only lip service to solutions, while benefiting the status quo? Why are the scientists so articulate about pointing out the problems yet reluctant to embrace the new possibilities? In an age of specialization and careerism, the solutions simply don’t appear to untrained minds unaware of the whole.
The educational content of the twenty-first century must be open to new possibilities, unfettered by the cultural biases of the elite, whether they be scientists, teachers, clergy, politicians, bankers, corporate managers or journalists. There is great richness and diversity in an interdisciplinary approach. An accurate reading of the history of science can give us the insights to muster the courage to investigate the unknown. Just knowing that the materialistic view of reality is, at best, very limiting, and that we must step outside of the box for our solutions becomes very liberating and may just arrive in time to avert global disaster. But the courage to change comes from the awareness of new possibilities and the rewards of taking a cultural road less traveled.
*I have just been appointed Fellow of the World Innovation Foundation to advise world leaders on how innovation can transform culture towards a sustainable global future.