How can we reconcile values and scientific facts?

Håkan Snellman


© H. Snellman, 1999. Published in "Life and the Environment", Proceedings of the 3rd Yoko Civilsation International Conference, Vol. 4, Takayama, August 1999. L.H. Yoko Phublishers, Tokyo, 2004.


The topic of this discussion, Universe, Life and The Environment, brings us far out into space and deep down into our existential conditions.

To this panel of specialists from many widely different disciplines ranging form theology to medicine and physics, the special task has been given to consider "theories and reality''. In my address today I would like to focus on the lack of values in present day scientific theories and its relation to the theme of our conference.

To begin with it seems that there are certain in-built limitations in the Natural Sciences that prevent it from defining precisely what life is. This is probably a good sign: if it could be defined in terms of something else it might mean that it is reducible to something else. But life is basically an irreducible phenomenon. Life encompasses of course not only physical, intellectual, cultural and spiritual life of human beings and all biological life, but also the mutual interaction between all forms of existence in the Universe.

The word Environment, also, has this multidimensional ring: our natural environment, the biosphere as a whole, our Earth suspended in the solar system which is part of our galaxy the Milky Way, and ultimately the Universe. There are also the mental and spiritual environments, as well as the economic, political and social environments, not to speak about the visible, invisible and audible environments. All of these environments exert an impact on our lives and our well being.

Some scientists and scholars think that we discover our theories about reality, others that we create them. Personally I belong to the latter category. This means for me that we can create theoretical structures that will make it possible to unify our view on life and the environment. What we should remember, however, is that reality is always something more than our theories about it, and something different. Even though we sometimes dream about the "Theory of Everything'', our theories can never exhaust what they describe. Because of this we need to investigate - or illuminate - reality from different points of view, different disciplines. The word "discipline'' itself indicates that it is restricted and therefore non-exhaustive with respect to its subject matter.

If we could accept this creative view on theories in relationship to the reality the try to map, I think there might be an opening for a constructive dialogue between our disciplines.

One obvious common ground to all disciplines is that in the final analysis they are all expressions of human activity and culture. It seems that in whatever undertaking human beings engage, they do project some of their ambitions and dreams into that activity. In my own field, physics and cosmology, I can see this very clearly. There is a desire to see everything in the light of a unifying principle - that the basic natural forces all originate from one and the same force, that all matter are forms of energy, and that the most fundamental notions of space and time are related intimately to the properties of this energy, such as its structure and possible interactions. Nothing of this is obvious from the facts alone. It is all in the minds of scientists.

In many other disciplines there are also attempts to use similar unifying principles.

Now, a theory about reality is always about the common, the general features. Essentially no theories exist about unique events. Here again lies a difficulty. Life is often unique. We can have theories about the life we share in common. However, will it say anything essential about the unique situation that the individual experiences? On the other hand, many artists and authors claim that in their most personal and unique experiences, they have found what is most common and general. This apparent paradox is part of life.

This dilemma also highlights the fact that the Universe as an "object'' is unique and therefore quite distinct from other objects in physics. This presents certain problems of interpretation and model-building.

Science, as any other scholarly activity, is about the order we recognize in reality. Unfortunately the present day order in the Natural Sciences, based on the Cartesian order of independent parts, has lead to a fragmentation of knowledge. Each scientist is a specialist only in a tiny fraction of reality. Although it is true that science and technology have brought us many blessings and made daily life easier in many respects, the specialization has at the same time lead to a negative development in many branches of human endeavor in general, and e.g. in the area of health care in particular. The order in the Natural Sciences is only a question about the order of function: how is the universe built up and how does it function. There is no quest for meaning or purpose, of aim or intention.

Influenced by this order in the Natural Sciences, mankind has explored and exploited the Earth's natural resources in a fragmented way. This has created enormous problems with the environment, bringing about desertification and deforestation leading to natural catastrophes, the pollution and poisoning of land and even to the melting of the polar ice-caps.

To me, as a physicist and natural scientist, the impact on human thinking from the Natural Sciences has therefore always been ambiguous. True enough, scientific training clarifies much obscurity in our understanding and thinking and dispels many superstitions about the properties of the material aspect of the world. At the same time, its restrictive pattern has affected our life view in quite negative ways.

After Francis Bacon, 400 years ago, the quest for purposes in the Natural Sciences, the so called "final causes" of Aristotle, was split off from the description of the world. As a result, in the domain of facts obtained from the scientific knowledge system, all causes today are "effective causes". Purposes are delegated to the world of value and values have no place in science of today.

The more we come to know about the Universe, the more awe-inspiring it seems, it still does not give any meaning to our lives. What is most important for us in terms of our experience and our life-view is left unsaid in the great myth of the Big-Bang theory that tells that we come from nowhere, that is, from a vacuum fluctuation, and are going nowhere, that is, everything is accelerating away from us, and in the meantime our lives is nothing but a rattling of the atoms.

Gradually we begin to believe that this lack of meaning is a property of life and nature itself, and this brings with it new superstitions, of a different kind. This sense of loss of meaning leads modern man to all kinds of destructive behavior - drug abuse, indulgence in sex, violence and crime, or simply to mental breakdown in addition to a destructive behavior towards Nature.

It requires much educational work and, not least, some moral courage to point out the root cause of this situation, to unmask the present scientism for what it is - the superstitious belief that the contemporary scientific method is the only way to obtain useful knowledge about reality.

Personally, I feel the necessity to emphasize that our life view is our existential common ground. The life view is about our lives - who we are - spiritual beings, what we strive for - spiritual growth, and what we are capable of - love, care, compassion and so on.

Starting with our life view we should create a map enabling us to guide our lives and grow in harmony with our fellow beings and the environment. Today, however, it is the other way around and the fragmentation of knowledge has come to act on our life view and on our general attitude to Nature - of how to perceive it - in a fragmenting way. The lack of values in the scientific method, makes it easy to use - and, unfortunately, to misuse.

It is here, in the crossing of the life view with the world view that I feel we should try to create new theories about reality that can clarify our existential situation.

The prevailing attitude today regarding science and values is a kind of dualism. Although we recognize the lack of values in science, many people think that it can enter the human sphere in terms of humanistic activities that would bring balance to the whole. For these people this point of view is seen as a convenient solution. However, for many others this dualism is very unsatisfactory.

To anchor the system of values in the system of facts elucidated by the Natural Sciences and overcome this dualism, a unified vision on matter, the "hyle" of the ancient Greeks, is called for.

There are then, as I see it, essentially two roads to take.

One is the mechanistic approach, based on the concept that life is a mechanism. This is largely the way of modern Natural Science. Life is a complex but nevertheless reducible phenomenon of chemical and physical activity, not essentially different from any other chemical or physical activity observed in the laboratory, only much more complex. In this scenario nature dies in front of our eyes, and, as Jacques Monod said, man "must at last realize that, like a gypsy, he lives on the boundary of an alien world", that seems deaf and indifferent.

Some scientists of course claim that we will one day be able to explain everything within this scientific scheme. They claim that the qualities of value would be "emergent properties" of matter, and some claim that consciousness would be so as well. However, so far it has not been done and there is no value system emerging from science in sight.

You might consider if you feel elated by the prospect that the love you feel for your wife could be reduced to nothing but the seventy-seventh or something order of electromagnetic interactions related to the molecular processes in your hormone system. It would still not explain the experience or mystery of love.

To me this approach is in fact contradictory, since values are by definition left out from the scientific quest. However much we add in quantity to the world of fact, we will still do not come any closer to the fundamental need for values and purpose in our lives.

If words like "love, truth, beauty, purpose", etc has no meaning, life is not worth living. Our experience of and feeling for life demands these expressions and categories, and so it must mean that these are irreducible elements of experience that should be recognized in their own right, and as such they are not reducible to facts of matter.

The alternative approach is to take the hylozoistic approach that assumes that all matter is alive and conscious, to various degrees. This approach goes back to at least Pythagoras in Western thought. Interestingly enough, several thinkers in modern times have come close to this point of view. They include physicists like David Bohm, Freeman Dyson, John Wheeler, Robert Dicke, and Brandon Carter, and biologists like Max Delbrueck, Rupert Sheldrake, and many others. Many spiritual thinkers and teachers, of course, have nurtured similar notions. Perhaps this is after all the viable way to follow, in order to restore the "enchantment'' of Nature to modern man, and to re-introduce to him the concept of meaning and intention into Nature and the Universe.

In the hylozoistic approach existence has both a material aspect, as studied in the Natural Sciences, and the aspect of will and consciousness that relate to the domain of values. We know that the word "ought-to" makes sense. We are told that "we ought to live in different way with respect to Nature and the environment". We acknowledge this, but cannot come to act since our grasp of values has become too much weakened. The tremendous accumulation of facts and advance in knowledge about of the Universe over the last few hundred years has eliminated a lot of superstition about the material aspect. This has been a good thing, but it has also lead to the erosion of our values.

Today, the domain of values based on the spiritual aspect of life must become prominent again to give direction and purpose to our lives. The words "ought to", "care", "meaning", "love" etc have real content and one of our tasks must be to give them their rightful place in the theories about reality that we create. What is needed is a genuine dialogue in a spirit that strives to build a synthesis between all aspects of reality visible for us. Such a synthesis is always more difficult that the analyses we are used to make, since the process of thought is more apt to analysis than to synthesis.

To make a synthesis we need support form our visionary faculty, that which can bring us from the divided and split, considered by the ancients as an evil, the "diabolic" - to the unified and integrated, the "symbolic". The age old hermetic dictum that man is a microcosm in the great macrocosm, the Universe, our ultimate environment, is such a symbol of mutual relationship and intimate interdependence. This symbol could give us inspiration especially when it comes to developing our relation between Nature, the environment and the Universe. Recently, this symbol has been given new impetus by the Anthropic Cosmological Principle and the Gaia hypothesis.

Life could then be seen to play a fundamental role in the Universe and be the link between the world of material processes and the world of cosmic purposes. Our roles as human beings should then be to reconcile the material and the spiritual worlds. By this I do not mean that there is a fundamental duality between the world of spirit and the world of matter. Rather that the distinction between them lies in the state of consciousness that we, as observers and actors in the cosmic drama, hold at each moment.

In reality life in all its aspects is experienced as the most complex, infinite and non-exhaustive order we know of. As we collect more and more data of this order we realize how intimately each higher life-form is connected to its context, the environment.

The Anthropic Principle tells us about the physical constants of Nature and their marvelous fine-tuning, that makes biological life on Earth possible.

According to the Gaia hypothesis, pioneered by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, the order in the biosphere that permit higher life-forms to exist stabilizes itself largely by the presence of smaller organisms, such as bacteria and algae. Should man disturb the order in the biosphere too much, the system will react back on him, and, pushed to its limit, eventually eliminate him.

The Gaia hypothesis shows us only one facet of the complicated interlocking relationship between human life and the environment. It shows us a system of transformations of energies and suggests that Gaia could be looked upon as a living being, a "mesocosm" between us and the Universe. But my question is this:

- How would the Gaia hypothesis look like, if it is seen instead as a system of transformation of values?

To answer this question I think we must be able to see Nature and our existence as part of a chain of purposes and values, stretching from the elementary particle to God. How else could we get motivated to modify our behavior relative to Nature on a long term basis? I believe we have to perceive an order beyond that of mechanical life-processes that includes values and gives meaning and direction to our lives. Our relationship with Nature and the environment will depend on how we can make such a higher order visible, and show how it could guide our behavior. We still have to realize that this vision is always one in the making - by the very fact that it is a creative process.

In conclusion, I think the hylozoistic road would give us new possibilities to describe our place and role in the symbiotic interplay between man, Nature, the environment and the Universe, that might help us to bridge the dangerous gap that exists between our present theories and reality.