Beyond physicalism: a short note on why we need Sri Aurobindo’s vision

The physicalism that is widely assumed to be an essential element of the scientific method and way of thinking, even by those who consider themselves post-positivist, is actually neither a necessary condition, nor a finding of science. It is no more than an assumption that simplified physics and chemistry to a level where they could flourish. And flourish they did, as is evident from the ever increasing speed with which our knowledge and practical know-how in these areas is expanding. But physicalism has been an unmitigated disaster for the humanities and for our understanding of ourselves, as in a purely physical universe there is no place for consciousness, nor for anything that is based on it. Our awareness of our own existence, of the world, of others, agency, meaning, purpose, love, joy, values, belonging, gratitude, awe – in fact everything that really matters to us as human beings simply evaporates when it turns out to be no more than an epiphenomenal side-effect of intrinsically meaningless brain-states.

Religion can mitigate the devastating effects of a physicalist world-view to some extent for those who still have faith in it. But religions typically depend on belief and on ancient scriptures which need a socially privileged class of priests to explain them. As a result, their role in society is inevitably conservative. The world’s scriptures — at least in the superficial exoteric interpretation that priests most typically prefer — tend to contradict not only science but also each other (and quite often themselves). All this becomes problematic for those enamoured by the progressive, self-critical attitude of science, which is so obviously right, given the social justice it seems to engender and the technical marvels it produces.

Interestingly, the Indian tradition has something that goes spiritually further than most, if not all religions, and that is at its best as open, self-critical and progressive in the domain of our inner life, as science is in the physical domain. These are the consciousness-based systems of yoga and meditation. They have their own difficulties however. While the most popular schools are broad but superficial, others go deep but are narrow, encrusted in rituals and entangled in limited philosophies that can be as divisive as the religions based on them. Fortunately, in the beginning of last century, several attempts have been made to distil the essence of all these different approaches to our inner truth. The most profound and comprehensive of them may well be Sri Aurobindo’s who not only made a synthesis of the psychological essence of the major schools of Indian spirituality, but combined this with the best that mainstream science has to offer: its rigour, intellectual rectitude, openness to innovation, and perhaps most of all, its idea of evolution and collective progress. The direct outcome of his broad, global integration was the idea of an ongoing evolution of consciousness, which in a fascinating manner adds a whole new dimension of beauty and purpose to our individual and collective existence on this planet. It can serve as an inspiring back-ground story for a new approach to psychology that integrates the very best of what West and East can contribute.

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2 Responses to Beyond physicalism: a short note on why we need Sri Aurobindo’s vision

  1. Don Salmon says:

    Hi Matthijs:

    Clear, concise and as elegantly written as ever. Nice to have you back on the blogs, too!

    I just wanted to add one point – I realize this site is mostly about psychology, and no doubt, the most immediate effects of the dying away of physicalist dogma will be felt in the sciences of mind.

    But I think, if we go to the life sciences and the whole understanding of evolution, we’ll find enormous new potentials, even revelations, in terms of our understanding of life, the working of the cell, heredity, etc, when the physicalist dogma dissolves.

    And – I realize this is probably the most radical proposition – I suspect that we may find, as we move away from our left-hemisphere dominated obsessions with quantitative science, that as we bring qualitative observations into the physical sciences (and beyond both quantity and quality – fundamental intuitive knowledge by identity) we may discover aspects of matter that were previously undreamt of.

    I just received a manuscript from a retired professor of physics, “Heretics of Science”, in which he begins by showing the absurdity of applying “1 + 1 = 2” to the “real” world. One plus one in the real world involves bringing together entities which are utterly unique, so when you bring them together it’s not just two but something entirely new – you have a relationship with infinite potential.

    Anyway, just some thoughts as I’m in between psych evaluations here in Asheville. Looking forward to seeing more from you.

  2. Arun says:

    Create something that will still still live even when you die.

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