Reply to Algeo's article in AT
Sep 28, 1995 11:31 PM
by Don DeGracia
I'm uploading this responce to John Algeo's article in the recent American
Theosophists entitled "Brain, Consciousness and Self". I wasn't too happy with
John's attitudes here and would like to stimulate some discussion and see what
other people think about the points John raised. I sent John Algeo the
following letter and thought I'd share this with the cyber-community as well.
I've also asked John Mead to post this message to Theos-l. Thanks everyone for
your time with this.
P.S. Please either respond on theos-buds or write me email directly. Thanks.
"In volume 83, number 6 of the American Theosophist, John Algeo, in his article
Brain, Consciousness, and Self, presents a viewpoint about science, and about
the relationship between science and theosophy that I feel is both an
oversimplification and an unhealthy attitude for theosophists in general to
To briefly recap, John mentions the work of Canadian researcher Michael
Persinger (whose name he fails to mention in the article) who is looking at the
effects of magnetic stimulation of the brain. John quotes some of Dr.
Persinger's comments but then goes on to take this researcher's conclusions as
somehow representing all of science. John then proceeds to do some pretty
typical science bashing; making blanket statements about the reductionist nature
of science, commenting on science's failure to look at purpose, presenting the
idea that "soul" and "spirit" are outside the purview of science. Finally, John
ends with some comments about the nature of self as relates to the brain and
consciousness. Throughout the article, John presents the idea that science is a
"game" with rigid rules, and implies that science can't be blamed for its short
comings because it is bound to stick to these limited rules. He contrasts the
game of science with Theosophy and other esoteric traditions, saying, in effect,
that there are other games in town.
There are a number of weak points in this article and the overall attitude
presented is simply not a theosophical attitude, in my opinion. To elaborate:
The first weak point of John's article is that he takes the work of one man and
from this draws conclusions about all of science. There is no justification for
this leap in logic. I routinely study the scientific literature that pertains
to the study of the brain and consciousness, and if anything, this literature
reflects a very broad diversity of opinion and outlook. To make the blanket
statement that this field of science (or even science as a whole) is
reductionistic is simply false. Take for example the work of Charles Tart, one
of the leading researchers in Altered States of Consciousness. Tart is both
holistic and spiritual in his orientation, and has as well produced useful and
practical results about the nature of consciousness, as well as starting the
whole field of altered states studies and giving legitimacy to the academic
study of these experiences. I could cite many, many other examples: Dr. Stephen
LaBargre's work on lucid dreaming at Stanford, Dr. Arthur Ellison's work on
parapsychology, Hiroshi Motoyama's work on chakras, just to name a few. The
point here is that John is generalizing from only one example, and anybody that
is used to making generalizations knows, drawing conclusions from only one
example is a dangerous thing to do.
Next, John goes on to state that science is a game: "...ordinary science...is a
game played according to certain strict rules limiting the scientist to what is
repeatedly observable under controlled conditions." I would assert that the
view John is presenting here is so overly simplified as to be wrong. Since the
dawn of science with Newton, philosophers and scientists alike have attempted to
define science. There are as many definitions of what science is as a cultural
activity as there are folks who have attempted to define science. In other
words, there is no fixed, immutable definition of science. Anybody familiar
with the history of science knows that science has changed as the culture around
it has changed.
If there is one common theme to science as it has existed over the past four
centuries, it is that it is a method of eliminating false ideas. The layman's
view of science is to think of science in terms of the content of the various
branches of science: science is physics, or chemistry or biology, or what have
you. However, these disciplines are only the accumulation of applying a method
to ideas. The fact is, science is a method for determining if ideas are false.
The main tool it uses in this determination is the experiment: if an idea can
stand up repeatedly to experimental test, then the idea probably is not false.
It is this method, or *attitude*, that is the heart of science; all the rest,
all the accumulation of facts in physics, chemistry, psychology, ect. are the
result of applying this criteria, called "falsifyability", to various ideas.
So, in short, science is not inherently reductionistic, it is inherently a
method, or a better way to state it, it is a tradition, a mind-set, for the
testing of ideas. What all sciences share in common is their lack of belief or
faith. No idea is sacred in science. Any idea that cannot withstand
experimental tests againsts Nature are destined to be banished from science.
When seen in this fashion, the way of science is general and can be applied to
any wake of life, even to theosophical or spiritual ideas. Any belief we may
have about our spiritual nature should not be taken for granted or simply
believed in blind faith. It should be tested against the reality of our
experience. This is something early Theosophists stated explicitly. For
example, C.W. Leadbeater never taught his readers to blindly believe all his
fascinating descriptions of the planes, auras and chakras. He presented these
ideas as hypotheses to be tested and encouraged his students to prove for
themselves the realities he described. Thus, Leadbeater was very much operating
in the scientific spirit of testing one's ideas and not accepting things on
blind faith. It is unfortunate that this attitude has not become a stronger
part of Theosophical tradition.
Thus, John's definition of science is ill-informed and even goes against the
teachings of Leadbeater. Leadbeater, of course, worked closely with scientists
of his day, particularly Sir William Crookes, who was also a member of the TS.
John's ideas about science being reductionistic are less a reflection of science
than they are a reflection of a particular philosophy of science called
positivism. Positivism had its heyday in the early part of this century. But
today, in the post-modern era, positivism is dead. Post modern philosophers
have literally racked science through the coals and have dissected the
positivistic influence right out of science (see for example, the works of Steve
Woolgar). Aside from the attacks of post-modern philosophy, science itself has
naturally outgrown positivism. The advents of quantum mechanics, chaos theory
and cognitive psychology have destroyed reductionism is science and today,
holism is the keynote. John is simply not well informed about the current state
of scientific thinking.
So, we have gotten John on two counts now: 1. overgeneralizing from one man's
work and 2. presenting wrong ideas about the nature of science. But we are not
done with our critique yet.
John claims that science cannot address issues of the spirit or the soul. Here,
John is building a straw man then knocking it down. As I said above, there is
no fixed, immutable definition of science. Science changes as the culture
itself changes. What is common to science is the attempt to test ideas against
experience. In this regard, the essence of science can be applied to issues of
our spirituality. And since our spirituality is so important, it is the last
place we should want to have mindless, blind faith in ideas. The truth is, our
secular culture has ignored spirituality as a whole. Because of this, our
current sciences are not spiritual in their orientation. But there is nothing
anywhere preventing us from applying the scientific method to our own
spirituality. And the truth is, many are right now involved in this task. In
particular, there is occurring today a ground swell in the UK where scientists
are extremely interested in the facts of our spirituality and are groping to
apply the scientific method to the understanding of our human spirit. The
Theosophical Society should be attempting to contribute constructively to this
movement instead of sitting on the sidelines criticizing what it only half
And this leads to the final criticism I have of John's article: it is divisive.
By distinguishing between science as one game and theosophy or other esoteric
systems as another game, John is artificially dividing what in fact does not -
actually, should not - be divided. The fault of modern science is that it *has*
divided itself from our spiritual sides. John is only reinforcing this when he
could instead be attempting to correct it.
Furthermore, it is supposedly the object of the TS to promote unity and
brotherhood. John has done the exact opposite in this article: he has promoted
divisiveness and difference - he has created an "us verses them" mentality which
builts a wall between science and theosophy. This is completely inappropriate
coming from the highest level of leadership in the American TS.
Another weakenss of John's critique is he tries to make science look bad, which
suposedly makes Theosophy look good in comparison. Not only is this a weak form
of rhetoric, it reveals a basic insecurity when we must draw on the weakness of
others to think it makes us look good. We, as theosophists, have nothing to be
insecure about, and we can face the world in earnest as long as we are willing
to interact with it, not wall ourselves off from it.
Finally, this article is in fact offensive to theosophists such as myself who
are both theosophists and scientists. It is offensive because it is wrong,
because it portrays science and theosophy in an antagonistic fashion which
simply does not need to be, because it is vastly oversimplified, because it
misinforms non scientifically inclined theosophists and because it only serves
ultimately to alienate scientifically inclined theosophists.
If anything, we as Theosophists should embrace a scientific orientation. We
should subject the ideas of theosophy to tests of falsifyability (which in fact
has been started by small groups of British researcher-theosophists throughout
this century, whose work serves as a model for future approaches). There is
nothing inherently sacred about the ideas of Theosophy. They are only useful
insofar as they improve the quality of our spiritual expression. To the extent
theosophical ideas do not do this, they are not worth keeping around. Unless of
course, we simply want a set of ideas we can believe in that, for whatever
reason, make us feel comfortable, or even smug. However, if we seriously want
to contribute to the betterment of Humanity, it is within our grasps as long as
we possess the moral fortitude to truely analyze our own spirituality.
See, no matter how you criticize science, it will continue on. Science is a
tradition that is self-correcting. If it is mistaken in its outlook, it will
inevitably correct itself because this is built into the very fabric of science
as a tradition. Science never accepts anything on blind faith - it always finds
a means to test what it posits, which incidently is the art of science - being
creative enough to find a means to test the ideas you are considering.
Theosophy could stand to imitate this approach and in doing so, lead to a deeper
science that was, in fact, envisioned by the founders of the Society.
Thank you for considering my remarks.
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