Science Set Free from Reductive Materialism ? Rupert Sheldrake on Morphic Resonance Fields

In the “values clarification” tradition it is recommended that values (and beliefs) “be chosen freely, after thoughtful consideration, and among alternatives.” In that spirit I would like to offer an alternative worldview to scientific materialism and reductionism for your consideration.  Rupert Sheldrake articulates such an alternative view in such books as Morphic Resonance: The Nature of Formative Causation, and Science Set Free . Here’s some biographical information followed by several reviews of “Science Set Free.” This book and the worldview it represents is at counterpoint to the two books referenced to Peter Watson in my previous blog. It’s important to offer “equal time” for different worldviews. This information is gathered from Amazon Books.

Rupert Sheldrake


Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist and author of more than 80 scientific papers and ten books. He was among the top 100 Global Thought Leaders for 2013, as ranked by the Duttweiler Institute, Zurich, Switzerland’s leading think tank. He studied natural sciences at Cambridge University, where he was a Scholar of Clare College, took a double first class honours degree and was awarded the University Botany Prize (1963). He then studied philosophy and history of science at Harvard University, where he was a Frank Knox Fellow (1963-64), before returning to Cambridge, where he took a Ph.D. in biochemistry (1967). He was a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge (1967-73), where he was Director of Studies in biochemistry and cell biology. As the Rosenheim Research Fellow of the Royal Society (1970-73), he carried out research on the development of plants and the ageing of cells in the Department of Biochemistry at Cambridge University. While at Cambridge, together with Philip Rubery, he discovered the mechanism of polar auxin transport, the process by which the plant hormone auxin is carried from the shoots towards the roots.

From 1968 to 1969, as a Royal Society Leverhulme Scholar, based in the Botany Department of the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, he studied rain forest plants. From 1974 to 1985 he was Principal Plant Physiologist and Consultant Physiologist at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Hyderabad, India, where he helped develop new cropping systems now widely used by farmers. While in India, he also lived for a year and a half at the ashram of Fr Bede Griffiths in Tamil Nadu, where he wrote his first book, A New Science of Life, published in 1981 (new edition 2009).

Since 1981, he has continued research on developmental and cell biology. He has also investigated unexplained aspects of animal behaviour, including how pigeons find their way home, the telepathic abilities of dogs, cats and other animals, and the apparent abilities of animals to anticipate earthquakes and tsunamis. He subsequently studied similar phenomena in people, including the sense of being stared at, telepathy between mothers and babies, telepathy in connection with telephone calls, and premonitions. Although some of these areas overlap the field of parapsychology, he approaches them as a biologist, and bases his research on natural history and experiments under natural conditions, as opposed to laboratory studies. His research on these subjects is summarized in his books Seven Experiments That Could Change the World (1994, second edition 2002), Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home (1999, new edition 2011) and The Sense of Being Stared At (2003, new edition 2012).

In his most recent book (2012), called The Science Delusion in the UK and Science Set Free in the US, he examines the ten dogmas of modern science, and shows how they can be turned into questions that open up new vistas of scientific possibility. This book received the Book of the Year Award from the British Scientific and Medical Network.

In 2000, he was the Steinbach Scholar in Residence at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. From 2005-2010 he was the Director of the Perrott-Warrick Project, funded from Trinity College, Cambridge University. He is also a Fellow of the Institute of Noetic Sciences in California, a Visiting Professor at the Graduate Institute in Connecticut, and a Fellow of Schumacher College in Devon, England.

He lives in London with his wife Jill Purce. They have two sons, Merlin, a graduate student in Plant Sciences at Cambridge University and a research fellow at The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and Cosmo, a musician.

Editorial Reviews: Science Set Free
By Peter White on September 4, 2012

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase

“We all have assumptions that frame how and what we know; without them we couldn’t think at all much less discover a cure for Alzheimer’s. But assumptions can take on a life of their own and choke off the pursuit of knowledge; especially vulnerable are those who sit atop powerful hierarchies for long periods of time. The medieval Church required astronomers to assume that the earth was at the center of the solar system. Science overthrew such groundless imperatives but today seems unable to disenthrall itself from its own long and tautly held assumptions. In “Science Set Free,” Rupert Sheldrake names ten of these assumptions and explains, without raising his voice, why science needs to have another look at each one.

“His arguments make sense to me. For example, the first assumption Sheldrake takes on is the hypothesis of materialism: the idea that only matter and energy exist and that the cosmos is a machine with no original purpose and a bleak entropic future. Under this assumption, held as an unassailable dogma by science, existence is purposeless, consciousness is an illusion, we have no free will, and God is out of the question. These are not small issues.”

Science Set Free takes us through the history of materialist theory, showing how it emerged in the Renaissance in a religious context, acquired self-confidence in the deism of the Enlightenment, and in the 19th and 20th centuries attained megalomania, leading to the notions of reality mentioned above. Sheldrake rejects materialism and depicts nature as an organic whole with boundless evolutionary potential. His arguments are based on the sound science in which he is grounded as a Cambridge and Harvard-trained biologist; but what I admire especially is that he is also a man of “scientia sacra,” which reveres the poetry and beauty of life and knows that there is more to knowledge than measurement.

By Pete Sargasso on October 3, 2012

“SCIENCE SET FREE is an excellent work, well worth the reading. Here are ten reasons why.
1. Good writing. The sine-qua-non of all good books… and the test is that once started it is hard to put down.

2. Personal. One can feel the engagement of the writer in the prose. He is there in light touches of humour: but more importantly, he is there in his conviction, in his willingness to share data and in his reporting of the way his work has been marginalized – not because it is wrong- but because it challenges some of the current assumptions of Science.

3. Coherent Structure. All the chapters follow the same pattern, and this gives the book a special kind of unity. Each chapter begins with a question followed by a historical analysis of how that question has been answered in different epochs, and leading to an up-to-date analysis of the available data.

4. Superb bibliography. Enough reading here for a lifetime.

5. Breaks new ground. No one can tell where research will lead, but an openness to fresh ideas is necessary for progress.

6. Educational. Whether one agrees with Sheldrake or not, SCIENCE SET FREE serves as an introduction to many areas of scientific research. Where the jargon of science is necessary to avoid confusion, he explains not only the meaning of a given term, but its etymology. That is a courtesy to the reader and greatly facilitates understanding.

7. Interdisciplinary. The text moves easily from scientific research to conclusions from ancient and modern philosophy. Also, it is not restricted to one science but ranges from physics to botany, to the experiences of shamans, to telepathy, and yes, to religion somewhat…. Hence we gain a comprehensive picture.

“His arguments make sense to me. For example, the first assumption Sheldrake takes on is the hypothesis of materialism: the idea that only matter and energy exist and that the cosmos is a machine with no original purpose and a bleak entropic future. Under this assumption, held as an unassailable dogma by science, existence is purposeless, consciousness is an illusion, we have no free will, and God is out of the question. These are not small issues.“Science Set Free” takes us through the history of materialist theory, showing how it emerged in the Renaissance in a religious context, acquired self-confidence in the deism of the Enlightenment, and in the 19th and 20th centuries attained megalomania, leading to the notions of reality mentioned above. Sheldrake rejects materialism and depicts nature as an organic whole with boundless evolutionary potential. His arguments are based on the sound science in which he is grounded as a Cambridge and Harvard-trained biologist; but what I admire especially is that he is also a man of “scientia sacra,” which reveres the poetry and beauty of life and knows that there is more to knowledge than measurement.

By Robert McLuhan on September 5, 2012

“For those of us who are suspicious of the claims of materialism it’s astonishing, and also heartening, to hear a scientist agree that it’s a hidebound ideology, dismiss the belief in determinism as a ‘delusion’ and call on the ‘high priests’ of science to abandon their ‘fantasy of omniscience’.

“This all sounds rather rhetorical, but this is as polemical as his language gets; the book certainly has little about religion. For the most part it’s a dispassionate expose of materialism’s failures, and a plea for scientists to open up to new thinking. Despite his reputation as a heretic, gained from his controversial theory of morphic resonance and his psychic research, Sheldrake has impeccable credentials as a biochemist – Cambridge, Harvard, ground-breaking research and a stint in India helping to develop high-yield crops – that demand respect.

“Sheldrake identifies ten core beliefs that scientists take for granted:

that people and animals are complex mechanisms rather than goal-driven organisms; that matter is unconscious and human consciousness an illusion;
that the laws of nature are fixed; that nature is purposeless;
that all biological inheritance is carried via material structures like genes, and so on.

“Each is the basis of a chapter, in which he draws attention to unresolved tensions, problems and dilemmas. Most scientists think these will eventually be ironed out. However Sheldrake argues they are symptoms of a deeper malaise, and that the failure of the materialist model to make good on its predictions will eventually lead to its demise.

A key idea for Sheldrake is the existence of information fields that act as a kind of universal memory.

Rich’s Comment: Sheldrake’s holistic theory of  morphic resonance fields and emergent systems has affinities with the worldview of “panpsychism” and Alfred North Whitehead’s “process panexperientialism.” Similar authors include Ervin Laszlo (Quantum Shift in the Global Brain), Christian de Quincey ( Radical Nature, Radical Knowing), David Ray Griffin (Unsnarling the World-Knot: Consciousness, Freedom, and the Mind-Body Problem}, and Fritjof Capra (The Hidden Connections, The Web of Life), among many others.

The Modern Mind & The Age of Atheists: Intellectual & Cultural History by Peter Watson

The Modern Mind, by Peter Watson (2000)

Editorial Review from Amazon:
“Just as the 20th century dawned with an unparalleled optimism regarding the moral, social and scientific progress of humanity, it ended with an unshakeable confidence in the promises of technology and the power of free-market economics to deliver a better life for all humankind. British journalist Watson’s (War on the Mind; The Caravaggio Conspiracy; etc.) panoramic survey traces various 20th-century ideas and their power to bend and shape society and individuals. At a frenetic pace, he gallops through the modern intellectual landscape, pausing long enough to graze the founts of philosophy (from Wittgenstein to Richard Rorty to Alasdair MacIntyre), literature (Kafka, Woolf, Mann, Rushdie), literary criticism (F.R. Leavis to Jacques Derrida), art (Picasso to Warhol), economics (Milton Friedman to John Kenneth Galbraith), science (Linus Pauling to E.O. Wilson) and film (D.W. Griffiths to Fran?ois Truffaut). He also briefly examines the significance of a wide range of political and cultural movements, such as socialism, communism, fascism, feminism and environmentalism. Watson’s rich narrative covers every corner of intellectual life in the 20th century, yet the style is so breezy and anecdotal that it lacks the deep learned elegance of a history of ideas by, for example, Isaiah Berlin or Jacques Barzun. Unfortunately, for all the book’s breadth, Watson’s workmanlike approach has the feel of a handful of school assignments cobbled together from encyclopedia articles rather than of work drawn from years of thoughtful reflection and an intimate acquaintance with, and love of, ideas.”
“In this long and astonishing narrative, British journalist Watson presents an unconventional history of the 20th century, which, he argues, “has been dominated by a coming to terms with science.” Although this massive volume is packed with a multitude of events, ideas, and influential people, Watson’s infectious writing carries the reader swiftly along. The mosaic he creates can best be illustrated by this typical sentence: “On 25 October 1900, only days after Max Planck sent his crucial equations on a postcard to Heinrich Rubens, Pablo Picasso stepped off the Barcelona train at the Gare d’Orsay in Paris.” In 42 chapters, Watson travels from Freud to the Internet, from pragmatism and relativity to Brave New World and Hiroshima, while considering the impact of the arts, existentialism, feminism, sexuality, genetics, medicine, the Great Society, race, AIDS, and more. Key people and ideas are highlighted. It is hard to spot any major omissions, though post-World War II music seems to get overlooked. While this work is reminiscent of Paul Johnson’s Modern Times (LJ 5/1/83), Watson’s scope goes far beyond politics and history.”
[Yes, Read Isaiah Berlin (The Roots of Romanticism) and Jacques Barzun (From Dawn to Decadence) to see how two of the greatest scholars of intellectual and cultural history have honed their craft. They are the gold standard!


The Age of Atheists, by Peter Watson (2015)

Editorial Reviews from Amazon:

“As humanity (limited here to Western humanity) was losing the sense of certainty that came with a belief in God, with Nietzsche famously pronouncing His death, what was to fill that spiritual void? This is the enormous question tackled by English intellectual historian Watson. How have thinkers, artists, and others in a secular age sought to anchor humanity in relation to the universe? Watson’s breathtakingly vast coverage ranges chronologically from the immediate post-Nietzschean generation to the present, and culturally across an immense canvas, an encyclopedic who’s who in twentieth-century arts and sciences (and more) somehow confronting a spiritual vacuum in a period marked by two world wars, the Holocaust, a multitude of other horrors, and the atomic age. American poet Wallace Stevens thought that “in an age when God is dead, the arts in general, and poetry in particular, must take over.” What was created were not only lasting works of art but also, in aggregate, an anti-theology theology. Watson’s theme seems to be that an astonishingly broad spectrum of manifestations of the human spirit, in a human community, ground us in a less-certain world. His style, like many of those he discusses, can be recondite, but Watson’s encompassing treatment of a difficult subject, in a world growing no less uncertain, is impressive and, ultimately, reassuring.”

“Peter Watson’s hindsight, foresight and insight into the role atheists play in creating our cultures makes The Age of Atheists a must read. Readers will gain a deeper appreciation of the rich world in which we live.” (Charles de Groot, co-chair of The de Groot Foundation)

“Peter Watson’s book has made the extraordinary leap of assessing each of the 20th century’s important secular philosophic traditions. Along the way, as an ultimate reference, he has also given us the intuitive methods and insights of that century’s leading poets, painters, musicians and choreographers. Perhaps no one else at this moment has the background for such an adventure. Whether as a guide to the last century’s thinkers or as a reference to the insights of its artists, The Age of Atheists is an indispensable map to locate our present.” (William Kistler, poet and essayist)

“Watson’s encompassing treatment of a difficult subject, in a world growing no less uncertain, is impressive and, ultimately, reassuring.” (Booklist (starred))

“The beauty of this book is Watson’s ability to impose order on a riot of ideas…even the casual reader will find much to delight and enlighten as Watson elegantly connects the dots from Nietzsche and William James to Bob Dylan and jazz.” (Publishers Weekly)

“Highly readable and immensely wide-ranging….Peter Watson has produced what is, in every way, a big book, one that bears reading thoughtfully, with a pencil in hand. For anybody who has wondered about the meaning of life, and that pretty much covers everyone past the age of 12, discovering “The Age of Atheists” will be an enthralling and mind­-expanding experience.” (Michael Dirda The Washington Post)

“A vividly engaging conspectus of the formative ideas of the past century, The Age of Atheists shows how Nietzsche’s diagnosis evoked responses in many areas of cultural life, including some surprising parts of the political spectrum.” (The New Statesman)

“An exhilarating ride through the cerebra of disparate men…who have tried to fashion a Godless yet nonetheless ordered and sustaining worldview. It is a topical book, to be sure, but also one that will stand the test of time as a masterful account of its subject.”

Rich’s comments:
One feature that struck me in reading these two books by Peter Watson was this: In the first book, The Modern Mind, published in 2000, Watson documents and celebrates the ascendency of scientific hegemony and especially Darwinian evolution trajectory of atheism. But in The Age of Atheists, published in 2014, he seems more interested to showcase how atheistic, agnostic and in particular non-theistic and anti-theistic worldviews have been expressed by thought leaders not only in science but in a wide variety of other fields, including philosophy, literature, art, painting, choreography and economics. Rather than subordinate all other fields of intellectual and cultural expression to science, as in scientism, Watson seems more willing to embrace the irreducible plurality of ways of looking at the world. He concludes with a quote by the neo-pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty: “Cultures with riches vocabularies are more fully human — farther removed from the beasts — than those with poorer ones.”
Watson has done an impressive job of surveying many of the modern secular philosophers, literati, artists and scientists who have adopted their various disciplines, worldviews and epistemologies as functional surrogates for religion. He freely admits that we live in a more anxious, uncertain and potentially nihilistic world with the cultural “death of god.”  Watson himself has clearly become impressed with the neglected philosophy of phenomenology (within the existential tradition) as a complement and corrective to scientific positivism, especially celebrating the voices of the artists and poets who are usually subordinated to those of philosophers and scientists.
I also recommend his book, “The German Genius.”

Exposition & Confession: Speaking & Writing in Both the Objective & Subjective Voice

One of the benefits of keeping a personal journal or diary for many years is that one is enabled to “overhear” one’s own thoughts and feelings and to learn from them. I’ve noticed that in my own journals I alternate unpredictably between impersonal exposition and personal confession, that is, between the archetypally masculine detached “objective voice” and the archetypally feminine participatory “subjective voice.”

There seems to be both an advantage and disadvantage to speaking and writing in each of these voices:

The advantages of adopting the objective thinking and judging voice is that one can thereby set forth one’s ideas as a set of coherent and consistent principles and observations about life. This is the voice we expect to hear in reading philosophy, history, mathematics and science. It is the language of ideas, theories, observations and discoveries. The disadvantage is that we may try to hide from ourselves, and also from others, our hidden assumptions and biases, our blind spots, our vulnerabilities, limitations, confusing what is only partial truth for total reality.

The advantage of adopting the subjective feeling and perceiving voice is that we allow ourselves to be human, vulnerable, transparent, conditioned, admitting to ourselves and to others the qualified nature and contingency of our insights and observations. The disadvantage is that we may be tempted to “wallow” in and indulge our subjectivity in a way that is unhinged from any attempt to achieve critical distance from what we feel, perceive and simply want to be true.

Fortunately as human beings we are endowed with both an objective and subjective voice, the ability to think with critical detachment and to feel with participatory engagement. It is the dialectical tension and creative balance between these two modes of awareness and expression that round out our humanity. So with my mind I will continue to set forth ideas and principles such as the ones I have recently written on the great ends of education, including the competing agendas of these educational traditions. And with my  heart I will continue to inwardly feel and openly express my own existential needs, hopes, fears and longings in every realm of existence.

When it comes to the subject of education this means seeking to comprehend and expound upon the big picture through detached observation of multiple traditions. It also means revealing what it means to me personally to make connections between each of the educational traditions, and in so doing to live a more fully human, intelligence, effective and creative life. It is my hope that the artful blending of the objective and subjective voices would result in greater wisdom and compassion, awareness and empathy, critical reflection and intimate communion.



Right-Wing or Left-Wing: Where Do Our Political Identities Come From?

Have you ever wondered where our adult social, economic and political identities, ideas and ideals come from? There are at least four major sources that are worth taking into consideration. They are psychological temperament, family-of-origin, cultural values and social interests. Let’s examine each of these in turn:

One: Psychological Temperament cannot be ignored as a factor in the formation of one’s social, economic and political ideas, ideals and identity. However we look at temperament, there are clearly psychological differences between those who habitually describe themselves as “right-wing” and “left wing.” Generally speaking, those in the “right-wing” tend to have more archetypally “masculine” personality structures. They naturally value and are drawn to hierarchy, strictness, individualism, competition, tradition, ethnic purity and certitude. By contrast, those in the “left-wing” naturally value and are drawn to egalitarianism, permissiveness, collectivism, cooperation, progress, multi-cultural diversity, and ambiguity. These are not only psychological orientations but cultural values as well.

If we drawn from the Jungian temperament polarities we can recognize the right-wing as predominantly extraverted, sensing, thinking and judging (ESTJ). Again, by contrast, we can recognize the left-wing as predominantly introverted, intuitive, feeling and perceptive (INFP). Of course this model is not meant to be merely dualist and either-or but rather modeled on a bell-curve with perhaps even a majority people (the true silent majority of moderates) in the middle between the extreme right and left wings.

Two: Family-of-Origin cannot be ignored in understanding how we arrive at our adult political identities. It should not surprise us that most people adopt the political ideologies of the families in which they were raised. Socialization and indoctrination occur quite naturally around the family dinner table and in conversations of friends of the family. Birds of a feather flock together. As we grow up we tend to hear half of the conversation, the side with which our family-of-origin agrees. The other side is often distorted and satirized, and sometimes demonized with name-calling and labeling. We learn to respond predictably to the family dog-whistle. Words like “liberal” and “conservative” become fighting words, never mind that we don’t have any historical context for understanding the merits of these social traditions.

If and when we marry we often adopt the same political party and ideology as our partner. Sometimes one member of the partnership has stronger and more fully shaped political views than the other. He or she will tend to influence the other to “come around” to his or her way of thinking. Life is easier if a couple share the same political views, even if political identify is more important to one member than the other.

Three: Cultural-Moral Values are constellations of connected ideas that form a gestalt. We speak of the right-wing as the law-and-order party and the left-wing as the peace-and-freedom party. These ideals and principles mirror our psychological temperaments. All of us grow up in a cultural milieu whether we know it or not. It is influenced not only by our family-of-origin but also by our peer-group, intellectual aptitudes, educational fields, academic pursuits and work-place environment. We know that by conducting value surveys of different demographic regions we can predict which political parties a majority of those citizens will belong to. It seems we are herd animals and like to be among our own. For example, If I drive a few miles south to Ashland, Oregon I will find myself in a community that is overwhelmingly liberal, progressive, bohemian, artistic, esoteric, expressive, permissive, Democratic, left-wing. If I drive a few miles north to Medford, Oregon or west to Jacksonville I will find myself in communities that are relatively conservative, traditional, bourgeois, practical, exoteric, restrained, strict, Republican, right-wing. People move to Ashland who want to be among other liberal, progressive people. Sometimes people move away from Ashland because they want to be around more conservative and traditional types.

Four: Social-Economic Interests also play an important role in political identities. It is no secret that the libertarian and conservative right-wing party appeals more strongly than the left-wing to the white, male, working-class and to the white, rich upper-class and oligarchs who want to get rid of what they regard as wasteful and anti-free-market government regulation. By contrast, the communitarian and liberal left-wing appeals more strongly to a diverse multi-cultural and multi-ethnic citizenry, including women, gays, Blacks and Hispanics.

Economic employment is a major factor in social interests. Those who earn their living in the private enterprise, banking and commerce sector tend to be right-wing, while those who earn their living in public health, education and welfare sector tend to be left-wing.

All of this is to say that the process whereby we form our divergent political identities is a complex and many-sided process, but that its is not entirely an enigma. Our psychological temperament, our family-of-origin and peer group, our collectively reinforced cultural values and our social-economic interests all play a part.

One final comment: Whether its a bird or a plane, both the right-wing and the left-wing are required for the bird or plane to fly. In the Taoist Wisdom Tradition the Yang and the Yin are necessary to the creative dialectic which is the Integral Tao. If either the Masculine Yang or the feminine Yin were to make Total War on the Other, the health and integrity of the Tao would be undermined and destroyed. When a society rushes to the polar extremes where either or both sides can no longer listen to and truly hear each other, where each holds the other in mutual contempt, that society is in a state of fragmentation and alienation. Sanity involves a recovery of critical reflection and constructive dialogue where both sides, actually multiple sides, can meaningfully and respectfully engage the others. As E.M. Forster put it, “Only Connect.”


Six Educational Traditions: The Tensions Within and Between Them

In my most recent blog I outlined five educational traditions that alternately compete with and complement each other in our academic institutions today. These are (1) the utilitarian (or instrumental), (2) individuating (or developmental), (3) transcendental (or existential, (4) classical (or canonical), and (5) progressive (or pragmatic) tradition. Now in response to the insightful analysis of my daughter Christy Lang Hearlson, who is completing her Ph.D. from Princeton in a related field of scholarship, I am adding a sixth tradition, (6) the Critical Justice (or prophetic) tradition.

In addition to these we can include the strictly individualistic and opportunistic tradition that is singularly focused on materialistic, commercial and consumer values, on money, status and success, or getting ahead in the rat race. For many this had become the new default purpose of education.

What I want to point out in this blog is that there are fissures, tensions and divides not only between these educational traditions but also within them. Here are some of the internal tensions between each of the six educational traditions. Sometimes these differences are viewed as compatible and complementary. Sometimes they are viewed and competitive and incompatible. And sometimes they are simply viewed as incomparable, like comparing apples and oranges, or better, bananas and elephants.

One: Within the utilitarian (or instrumental) tradition we can differentiate between these who emphasize basic life skills and basic work skills. We can also differentiate between those who emphasize proficiency in math and those who emphasize proficiency in reading.

Two: Within the individuating (or developmental) tradition we can differentiate between those who emphasize different aspects of the whole person and those who emphasize the development of all the vital life systems. The elements of the whole person include the physical, emotional, social, aesthetic, rational, volitional, ethical and spiritual dimensions. The various life systems include the self, partner, family, friends, work, leisure, culture and society. Obviously these can all work together, but there are whole schools of counseling and psychotherapy that tend to fixate on one or several of these elements while largely ignoring or minimizing the importance of the others.

Three: Within the transcendental (or existential) tradition we can differentiate between those whose worldview includes some kind of spiritual, metaphysical or transcendental dimension that is at work either beyond the natural physical world or more complexly both beyond and within it, and those who reject all metaphysical truth-claims with the conviction that “nature is enough.”

Moreover, we can differentiate between various “theological worlds” such as the existential, intercessory, redemptive, humanistic, prophetic and mystical options. The existential option views the divine mystery, however conceived, as “suffering with us.” The intercessory option views the divine mystery as that to which we pray for the provision of protection, healing and our daily bread. The redemptive option views the divine mystery as the source of forgiveness and adoption. The humanistic option views the divine mystery as concerned with the realization and fulfillment of our true humanity. The prophetic tradition views the divine mystery as engaged in the human struggle for social justice and compassion. The mystical tradition views the divine mystery inviting us to participle in or to become one with the divine life.

 Four: Within the classical  (or canonical) tradition we can distinguish between those who emphasize the primacy of the humanities and the arts on the one side and mathematics and the sciences of the other. We can also distinguish between those who emphasize the ancient Judeo-Christian tradition, the classical Greco-Roman tradition, the European philosophical tradition, the American constitutional tradition, or some other tradition, whether religious or secular, ancient or modern.

Five: Within the progressive (or pragmatic) tradition we can distinguish between the classical American pragmatists like William James and John Dewey and the so-called neo-pragmatic ironists like Richard Rorty and the post-modern tradition. Classical pragmatism emphasizes relational pluralism and the practical consequences of different beliefs, values and practices. Neo-Pragmatism moves further in the direction of post-modern relativism, irony, contingency. It seeks to live with not only competing but also an ironic and perhaps absurd plurality of incomparable narratives. There is no “grand narrative,” just local stories and myths deluding themselves that they constitute grand narratives. “Theories of everything” are viewed as the last delusions of rationalistic modernity.

Six: And finally, within the critical justice (or prophetic) tradition we can distinguish between those who emphasize either social class, gender, sexual orientation, race, tribe or nation as the primary power-struggle and political divide. Within the social class approach we can distinguish between those who identify primarily with the under-class, working class, middle class or upper class, along with the various educational and occupational levels and pursuits that correlate with the American social class system.

In any case the distinctions between our various educational traditions are far more complex and nuanced than any simple classification would suggest. Once people decide which of the six major educational traditions that most strongly identify with, a new argument breaks out among those who inhabit different “tribes” and “camps” within the same tradition. We continue to parse our differences to make finer and finer points until it appears to those outside the particular tradition that we are all make much ado about nothing. Some of the fiercest debates are not between the six educational traditions but between those who inhabit the same tradition but see it from a slightly different perspective. Of course if one is comfortable with mystery, ambiguity, plurality and paradox these debates, whether within or between educational traditions, or for that matter religious and political traditions, can be a critically constructive dialogical process. Those who are committed exclusively to the zero-sum logic of absolute dualism will succumb to the temptation to engage in a war of one against all.



The Great Ends of Education: And Why We Are Dumbing Down

From time to time the Chronicle of Higher Education publishes an article on “the great ends of education.” When I was engaged in campus ministry in higher education at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington in the 1080s this was a lively topic of academic discussion. When I served in campus ministry in higher education at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon the topic once again become one of lively interest, with the president of the university at the time addressing this question to parents and alum.

I would like to propose that there are five central purposes of education as embodied in five different educational theories and practices. There seems to be no universal consensus either within academic or the general American public as to which of these, if any, deserves to be regarded as of the greatest importance. Different educational institutions weigh these five central purposes and educational visions differently. Stated quite simply, they are the utilitarian, individuating, transcendental, classical and progressive traditions.

Allow me to elucidate what is meant by each of these five traditions.

One: The utilitarian or instrumental tradition holds that the central purpose of education should be to equip young people to manage their practical life and work in effective and efficient ways. For this they need proficiency in reading, writing, and arithmetic. They need to know how to manage their time and money, how to work with their hands, how to build things, clean things, fix things, organize things. They need to know how to work, earn, save, and invest wisely. They need to know how to pay their bills and manage their credit cards wisely, to stay out of debt. They need to know how to purchase a car, buy a house, plan a trip, shop for bargains, manage a household. They need to now how to type and use a computer. This is also sometimes called the realistic and conventional tradition. For some people this is the extent of their educational achievement. But for others it is only the beginning of an educated life.

Two: The individuating or psycho-social development tradition holds that what matters most is psychological and social intelligence, maturity in knowing oneself and getting along with other people. Personal introspection and interpersonal relationships are what really matter. So does the ability to express oneself through creative endeavors, whether in music, art, dance, acting, handcraft, sculpture or painting. The prime directive is to know and express oneself in authentic and creative ways, and to collaborate with others in creative and productive projects.

Three: The transcendental or existential tradition holds that what matters as our greatest good is to contemplate our relationship to the highest order of reality, however we envision and conceive it, whether as God, Spirit, Being, Essence, Process, Consciousness, Nature, Matter/Energy, Particles/Waves or the Expanding Universe. And it is also to consider the existential contingency of our natal and moral  lives that are suspended between the miracle of birth and the mystery of death. It will consider our perplexing and ambiguous existence as suspended between the paradox of being and nothingness, fullness and emptiness, realization and negation, emergence and dissolution. For this religious-philosophical-scientific tradition, the great debate between the competing worldviews of theism and atheism, pantheism and polytheism, idealism and materialism, dualism and panpsychism are matters of consequence. This tradition is preoccupied with the ultimate questions of existence and the meaning of life, and approaches them in a concentrated and direct way. It may assume the primacy of either spirit or matter. It may assume that spirit and matter constitute two orders of reality, as in metaphysical dualism. Or it may assume that what we call spirit and matter are two aspects of a single binary yet inseparable reality as in “neutral monism.” Fundamental metaphysical and naturalistic worldview commitments depend upon our existential choices in response to the questions, “What is the nature of reality and what is man’s relationship to the absolute?”

Four: The classical or canonical tradition holds that a truly educated person will possess a broad and deep appreciation for the liberal domains of knowledge and the shape of the past. This will include intellectual inquiry into the liberal disciplines of philosophy, religion, history, languages, mythology, poetry, literature, music, arts, psychology, sociology, as well as mathematics and all the physical and life sciences – physics, chemistry, geology, geography, botany, biology, anthropology, paleontology, anatomy and physiology. It will cultivate an appreciation for the multi-disciplinary language games of symbols, myths, ideas, principles, narratives, poetics, creations, discoveries, theories and practices.

Moreover, it is centered in the ideal of encounters with the best that has been thought and written, created and discovered by the best minds across the ages in the world’s many cultures. It aspires for not only specialties in the various humanities, arts and sciences, but for a general knowledge of everything that his common to our general humanity. It is the classical tradition that cares about “the great books” and about the importance of libraries, book stores, museums, dictionaries and encyclopedias that contain the general knowledge of the world. It is the classical tradition that cares about keeping alive the great ideas and narratives of Greek and Roman antiquity, as well as the  classical knowledge and wisdom of all the other world civilizations. While such knowledge is often regarded as in intrinsic good that needs no further justification, sometimes the classical tradition will reach out to join hands with the instrumental, individuating, existential and social-civic educational traditions. It will make common cause with other traditions to strengthen its own hand.

Five: The progressive or civic-minded tradition, often identified with John Dewey’s progressive pragmatism, holds that the highest purpose of education is to develop and raise up disciplined “professionals” in every walk of life and to groom competent leaders with character and courage who will serve our democratic republic for the greater good of all.

Of course there is another hidden purpose of education that I have not mentioned. And yet it is the proverbial elephant in the living room. This is a view of education that sees it as nothing other than a ticket to making money and getting ahead, to looking out for Number One and grasping the brass ring. It is highly individualistic, acquisitive, commercial and competitive  without being “individuating” in the sense of cultivating emotional and social intelligence, much less philosophical reflection, cultural literacy or civic engagement. To a great extent it seems to me that much of our educational enterprise today as succumbed to the temptation to abandon the greater ends of education, especially the individuating-creative, transcendental-existential, classical-canonical and progressive-civic.

This failure of education has serious social consequences. The result is a society of uneducated and misinformed yahoos and philistines whose lowered intellectual IQ and educational vacuity inclines them to rally in mass to the raging, insulting, narcissistic and obscene voice of a racist, xenophobic, sexist, bigoted demagogue. It is time for our society and academic institutions at all levels to revisit the essential questions: What are the great ends of education? What is the relation between life-work management, self-cultivation, spiritual/existential reflection, cultural literacy and civil society? What is the meaning of an authentic, whole and fully human way of life?

Heterogeneous Temperament, Multidisciplinary Intelligence

It has long occurred to me that some people are endowed with homogeneous temperaments while others are endowed with heterogeneous ones. Those with the former tend to become specialists in one field of intellectual field of enquiry and to reflect a singular point of view. By contrast, the latter tends to become generalists in many fields of intellectual inquiry and to reflect a plurality of points of view.

Our society tends to recognize and reward the specialists, whether the field is science or spirituality, philosophy or poetry, history or literature, politics or psychology. But what do we do with those relatively rare individuals who develop their multifarious humanity as “passionate amateurs” throughout their lives in many disparate fields of intellectual inquiry and cultural experience? What do we do with our multidisciplinary learners who may or may not achieve the status of “polymaths” through a lifetime of broad reflections, diverse encounters, inclusive empathy and voracious reading across the entire liberal arts curriculum?

Some multidisciplinary thinkers with heterogeneous temperaments may initially establish themselves as authorities in one specialized field of knowledge, but eventually expand from that base to include an ever widening circle of interests that encompass all the humanities, arts and sciences, as well as the social, economic and political realms of our common life. Some of them make their start as nature writers and scientists like Loren Eiseley and Michael Polanyi, or literary essayists and cultural critics like Lionel Trilling and Joseph Epstein. But soon enough it becomes clear that their minds are inwardly compelled to roam as freely across the Serengeti of existence as the lions and antelope roam in the boundless wild. There seems to be little that they do not think about and imaginatively consider in one way or another. They do not belong to one sectarian party or ideological camp, though they have their considered preferences and are not without sober convictions. They seem to defy the ready made categories by which we conventionally pigeon-hole individuals as “this or that.” They seem to be “a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and a whole lot more” that defies our reality-fixing labels.

We need such free spirits today whose minds roam across wider territories than most of us in our modern, specialized and technocratic society allow ourselves to consider. They retain a sense of the sacred and a sacramental reverence for life but without the trappings and dogmas of any established religion that would capture and contain them. They have become “lights unto themselves,” illumined by the torches of ten thousand wise souls from many traditions who have come before them. They have a kind of native wanderlust, a gypsy spirit that is on a perpetual caravan to find out more without reducing the mystery of being to the categories we have invented to explain it, capture, predict and control it. They have not been domesticated but retain some of their original wildness.

They continue to retain “beginner’s mind” while expanding appreciation for the rich diversity of experience and their knowledge of many disciplines. They are able to look at life from many points of view are resist the tendency toward dualistic either-or thinking. They value both the introspective and the observational, the intuitive and the sensory, the emotive and rational, the perceptive and the judicious. They care about the individual and the community, they care about tradition and progress, the past and the future. They respect the rights of the insiders and outsiders, the majority and the minority.  One could say they have ecological minds that always consider the relation of the parts to the whole, seeking the interconnectedness and relation of all things.

Whatever the case may be, it is my contention that these temperamentally heterodox and intellectually multidisciplinary seekers and sojourners embody a many-sided philosophical, poetic, artistic and scientific approach to life, learning, knowledge and experience. I believe they may serve to ground us in our common humanity and the spirit of civility in the midst of today’s society and world that have become increasingly polarized and polemical. We need wise souls who  can help us to see the world through more than one lens lets we be blinded to everything outside our preferred method of insight, analysis, inquiry and investigation.