The Four-Fold Synthesis: East – West – Religion – Science

Summer School 1965 Lecture 4. SCIENCE AND RELIGION 
J. G. Bennett

First published by the Institute for the Comparative Study of History, Philosophy and the Sciences. Note that the terminology of positive (+) and negative (-) as used in the original has been reversed here, for sake of clarity, and the text correspondingly adjusted. In the first paragraph on page 8 three significant changes are marked by asterisks, but they occur throughout. Readers of The Dramatic Universe Volume Four will find even there that the nomenclature of positive and negative or active and passive is somewhat difficult to follow and sometimes used inconsistently. The reason for this has to do with what is meant by a ‘determining condition’ – such as time, eternity, etc. – which we have no space to discuss here.

I can start from the diagram of the present moment that we used in the last session.

The present moment is represented, not by a point in the line of time TT as people usually do; but, by a circle to remind us that it is a region of experience within which it is possible to act. This region expands and contracts according to the state of being of the person or group of people by whom the moment is defined. We speak of a ‘strong will’ and of a ‘weak will’ and this can be taken to mean the power of holding together a larger or smaller present moment. The size of the circle, therefore, indicates the strength of the will: but it does not tell us what is happening. This comes from each of the eight directions. I will set them down to help you to remember. I have marked each of the lines with plus and minus signs to indicate whether the contribution to the present moment is active or passive.

T –   passive time or the ‘past’

T +  active time or the ‘future’

S –   passive space or separation

S +  active space or configuration

E –   passive eternity or form

E +  active eternity or pattern

H –   passive hyparxis or decision

H +  active hyparxis or destiny

All our experience flows into the present moment from one of these eight sources. In the present seminar, we are primarily concerned with the distinction between two* directions.  The one* direction is that which is directly given to us in sensations, thoughts and feelings. It makes what we call the ‘visible world’. The other* direction is experienced as imagination, expectation, sense of obligation, wonder and awe; all that belongs to the ‘invisible world’. It would not be right to equate the distinction with that between science and religion, because science is concerned with expectation and requires imagination, and religion is concerned with decision and form.

Nevertheless, on the whole, we can say that science seeks to bring order into our experience of the visible world, whereas religion seeks to bring us into more intimate relationship with the invisible world. Science deals with what we know or can know. Religion deals with what we believe or can believe.

These formulae are deceptively simple.  There can be no science without faith and there can be no religion without knowledge.  Though science deals with facts that we can know only as traces of the past, it also looks towards the future to predict and to perform. Religion looks beyond the present towards life beyond death, but it recognizes that without decision and commitment there is no escape from the pre-determinate future. We cannot take the diagram and say that the field of science is the positive half and that of religion the negative half.  The distinction is one of emphasis rather than of substance. The Truth is One and Indivisible, but our perception of It is multiple and imperfect. The emphasis is constantly changing. At times, science has acknowledged the importance of the invisible, at other times it has denied it. At times, religion has sought for God in Nature and, at others; it has repudiated Nature as the enemy of God. Spirit and matter at one moment appear the same; and, at another, contradictory.

We are now passing out of a phase of history in which science and religion have stood poles apart and entering a new phase in which the simple dualism of spirit and matter is seen to be insufficient. I hope to show you in this summer school how we can get beyond it. Before we come to that, we must see what science and religion look like when they are taken as opposite or contradictory.

In its extreme expression, science studies only what we discover in the present moment as traces of the past and expectations of the future. In other words, science studies only that which is given positive direction of predetermination. This is called ‘positivism’ and as I said last night, this view reached its extreme expression in the notion of the absolute world of Minkowski, though it already existed in the eighteenth century, with the celestial mechanics of Laplace. Laplace supposed that everything that happens in the world and everything that enters into the present moment, on every scale, depends upon antecedent causes that are capable, at least in principle, of being calculated and that the consequences are also in principle to be calculated. It was thought, at that time, that the laws which govern changes are wholly knowable and were of the same kind as the mechanics of Newton that was developed through the eighteenth century and reached its culmination in Hamilton’s principle of stationary action in about the thirties of the last [19th] century, That principle in effect really says that everything that we can observe remains on the line of determination; that means, its action does not change.

So we can say that from the time of Newton until the time of Einstein – two and a half centuries – we had a certain conception of the world which was based upon recognizing only these two directions. It must be understood that the notion of forms includes not only such a notion as circles, but a notion of laws – such as the laws of motion – and the conception of action, or the conception of energy, which came into current use in the beginning of the early part of the last [19th] century. All these belong to the content which we may call subliminal, or below the present moment.

One can say that science concerns itself only with the traces that we find of the past, with our expectations of the future, with the forms in which we think, and with the laws which govern changes. This notion comes to its final and complete expression when the principle of restricted relativity is interpreted to mean that time and space are uniquely related to one another through the velocity of light, and that all possible observations can be interpreted as a pattern of momentary events, linked together by simple and knowable laws.

I said that this is the extreme pole of the scientific view, which is sometimes also called positive, or deterministic, or mechanistic. But, although in principle science claims to be concerned only with traces and expectations and laws, and forms of thought, every scientific action requires decision. The significance of this is overlooked, or disregarded. Because we are so accustomed to selecting one action and not another, it does not seem to be relevant to the understanding of science that in fact scientists are all the time selecting the field of their enquiry, and if they did not select, there would be no observations, no science, and nothing would have got anywhere.

The common observation about the progress of science is that its dependence upon close selection results in the situation that scientists come to know less and less in general and more and more in particular. Science, for its success does depend upon selection and selection, by its very nature, is something other than this determined world which science appears to be presenting to us. It means, in effect, that science has to take into account that there must be something which escapes from the complete determination of line T+ -, and that the scientist has, in this present moment – let us say when he decides he will make this experiment or that one – in fact got an objective choice in the region between T + and H +; i.e. between the temporal future and the hyparchic future.  So that the scientific activity itself is incompatible with the extreme scientific views. Another way of putting it is that if determination were the only law which fixes the content of our present experience, then that present experience would have no science in it.

This is not, by any means, the whole story. As I said, a hundred and fifty years ago, and even much more recently than that, there was a view that the best and ultimate explanations were mechanical; that if we could observe the existence of apparently non-mechanical phenomena, this would be due to the incompleteness of our knowledge. People were confident, and indeed still are, that the progress of human knowledge would always be the elimination of the uncertain, the contingent, and its replacement by knowledge of the certain and determined mechanism. This view is held to this day in many parts of the world, perhaps mostly in the United States and in Russia. Scientific thinking still claims to be based on an overall confidence that progress is towards understanding mechanisms. But side by side with this there has been a realization that one cannot explain everything in terms of one single kind of mechanism.

Because we find a range of structures, we have to conclude that not everything can be reduced to simple motions of simple particles, such as the ancient Greek atomists believed in.   Modern physics is no longer able to describe its results in these kinds of terms.  The whole tendency of modern physics, especially in these last few years has been to see that without thinking of structures, one cannot think of anything at all. And of course this is even more true when we pass, let us say, to the study of material objects, because such sciences as crystallography and the theories of matter, are all studies of structures and not of atoms in motion. At about the same time as Minkowski’s Absolute World came out, William and Laurence Bragg established, with their X-ray methods, the intimate dependence of all solid matter upon a planned structure; that means, upon something which was not reducible to matter and motion. Since then, we have made much progress towards the discovery of the structures that underlie living processes, and we also have come to see that it is very necessary to think in terms of different orders of structures. In other words, it is no longer possible for us to think of mechanisms without thinking that these mechanisms have some structure, and that that structure is altogether relevant and can never be eliminated from the scientific picture.

This is a very important step. The tendency now throughout scientific research is to transfer the emphasis from the study of mechanisms to the study of the structures that make processes possible. This amounts to the recognition that it is necessary to take into consideration what I call form and pattern. i.e., E – and E + on the diagram. Scientists are beginning to understand that there is a dynamic pattern in everything which leads it on to become what it is. One can say that the progress of science itself is leading to the realization that something must fill the region between determination and destiny. The notion that the whole of this present moment of life on the earth can be understood as a predestined pattern, is still far away.

I happened to be reading yesterday a paper published in Nature, by a Professor Blum who is engaged in cancer research, in New York. He brings out the amount of order – the amount of patterning – because order is patterning – involved in this world, with man and perhaps a million different species of living creatures on the earth, each of which has presumably come into existence through a process of what is called mutations or deep-seated changes. The interesting conclusion he reaches is that the odds against this world coming into existence by chance are ten to the minus eighteenth – a million times a million times a million  From this he draws the conclusion – which does not seem quite to the point to me – that as this is probably the same number as the possible total of inhabitable planets in the entire universe, it is not at all probable, as many scientists think, that there is life anywhere except on this earth, A life including intelligent and cultured beings is against all probability.  This is assuming, of course, that the pattern of life on the earth has arisen simply by chance combinations and nothing but chance combinations; that is, entirely by random processes that are possible in the line of determination, coupled with universal laws, particularly of course the second law of thermodynamics, which is the one on which he bases the whole calculation.

But of course it is possible to interpret this same conclusion much more plausibly the other way round. It is, at the very least, a million million, million times less probable that the pattern of human life as it is, plus the rest of life that is present together with us on the earth should have come into existence by chance than that it should have come into existence according to a pattern. If it is so improbable that a pattern of this kind came into existence by chance then it probably came into existence by design; that is, it came into existence in response to an intentional programme of action directed by intelligence.

Now let us come to it from the side of religion.  We can also look at religion in terms of an absolute. As we have this absolute notion of determination with science, so we can have the notion of absolute unity in the whole structure of the entire universe; that it is created as it is and that within it there is no other will except the Will of the Creator, and that the whole structure of the universe is simply the expression of an absolute scheme of values, which eventually therefore comes back to one single value. This can be said to be the extreme notion, and it has been held, and is held, that all truth, all value, all power, resides in One and this One is called God or the Absolute. But in order to avoid any suggestion that this is similar to the determination of science, it is personified. It is not merely the very source of freedom, it is also supposed to produce everything that happens in the world, and produces it according to a scheme of values which are imposed upon the world in the form of commandments, requirements, that the world itself is unable to satisfy because only the Source can satisfy them.

This one can call the extreme, uncompromising religious interpretation of reality.  This interpretation in effect denies that there is any interest in knowing about it all or any purpose in studying anything because all is wholly decided along the line that joins E – which is the Divine Form, with E + which is the Divine Decree. Just as absolute science says there is nothing but line T T so absolute religion in effect says that there is no reality except in line E E. All forms, all patterns, all laws, are existing once and for all, and accompany the universe throughout its existence.  That is to say, that they are eternal and always present, and also that all values, all purposes, are equally absolute and unchanging.  You will notice that this would make the notion of the present moment empty and meaningless.

Such absolute religion is no less repugnant to us than absolute science, and the reason for this is that our very nature is to live in the intermediate region of the present moment. It is on this account, and through the experiences of people, that these absolute notions begin to give way to the notion of there being a certain participation of the created universe in the realization of its own destiny.  That is what is implied by departure from the absolute line which says that nothing can be other than it is.

If one begins to depart from this line of absolute decree to a notion that the universe, or existence – which of course includes us men also, because this is what most intimately concerns us – one has to accept that it has some responsibility; that we in some way participate or co-operate.  This means that there is something intermediate between the absolute values and the region of freedom. And on the whole there has been a tendency, especially in more recent times, for the extreme interpretations of the religious standpoint also to give way somewhat like science is giving way. It, however, remains true to say that any relative notions in religion never, or very seldom, go so far as to give an independent objective significance to created beings such as ourselves.  That is to say that however broad religious views may be they always tend to hold back at a certain point and feel that something is not right in the notion that man’s freedom of action may be as legitimate, as substantial a part of the whole picture as is the power of God, or the working of natural laws.

The general effect of all this is that those who try to make some sense of man’s intuition of objective values are searching in one region, just as those who are trying to make some sense of the extraordinary enrichment of our knowledge of the world through the progress of science are working in another region. There is very little awareness that both are moving towards a common point.  I think the reason for this is that theological or religious thinking tends to be closed to the notion that limited beings can be a necessary part of the whole scheme of things, and not merely permitted as it were, to pretend to play a role.  The notion, for example, that we, in the fulfilment or the failure to fulfil our destiny are an essential part of the scheme of things is not entertained by religious people, who think it is inconsistent with Divine Omnipotence.

My belief is that we have a legitimate place in the universe, not merely by being scientific objects, nor by being the puppets of an omnipotent Creator; but because we, in our present moment, have, not only the power of choice but even creative possibilities of bringing something into existence which could not exist without us. That is really the essential meaning of the present moment.   If the present moment is a region in which the will is free to act, it follows that a limited being, capable of having a present moment large enough to be able to entertain purposes and to distinguish between values, has also to be a creator, And as I said, not merely a creator by permission, as it were, but a full-fledged real creator – making something which, without him, would not be there at all.

This view, it is easy enough to see, is really no more admissible from a scientific than from a religious standpoint. It is quite incompatible with the supposition that all reality is in the lower half of this diagram or with the belief that all reality is in the upper part of it. It requires that we should accept a different kind of reality; that is, a reality which is not a reality of values and forms, and a reality which is not that of traces and expectations, but a reality that is the reality of the will. To accept this, we should be prepared to think that will is something which is not just a kind of value or a kind of mechanism; it is quite, quite different from either.  Will is a freedom here and now, in this present moment. It certainly is not a right to destroy what belongs to the line of determination, nor a freedom which is to cast out of the present moment the forms and the values that accompany it; neither of those things is possible. But to work, to fashion with traces, expectations, values, forms; that is, to bring into existence forms that do not accompany the present moment anyway, to realize values that are not abstractions from experience, to make something which is not just a rearrangement of the traces of the past, but something different from any of these.

This notion of a third reality, other than the reality of matter and spirit, may seem very strange and unexpected.   This third reality is really the secret of the reconciliation of science and religion. You may ask “What evidence is there of this third reality?” There is just as much evidence of this as there is of either of the other two. Although very limited and very small in what it produces, it is always there. That is to say that we people, with the kind of present moment we have got, are sometimes in a state in which we are free to choose, free to accept or reject, and sometimes even free to make, to do, to work.

Unless we are able to strengthen our will, to be able to embrace a greater present moment, our possibilities of creative action must remain very small.  This does not mean that creative action is the same as constructive action. There are various degrees of constructive and intelligent action possible, the most intelligent one of all being to know and to fulfil one’s destiny. But there is beyond the realm of destiny, that other region that lies between hyparxis and eternity. Here intelligence is no longer enough; there is a spontaneous uncaused element. We have to be responsive to that also. We have to be capable of recognizing its entry into the present moment. It probably enters all the time, but it is wasted because it is unnoticed.  The waste consists in this power being turned into a kind of self -indulgence, whereas it could be the means by which man does more than fulfil his destiny; that is, he becomes a creator in his own right.

We should look at the whole of existence as being a task, a challenge, what I call a Drama.   In such a situation, there is something to be done, and the kind of world in which there is something to be done, is neither of the two absolute worlds.

Once the supposition that there is an absolute dominant power that determines everything is sacrificed, then the whole of existence begins to acquire a real meaning.  We then accept that everything has to be done, that nothing whatever is guaranteed, that everything is being created and nothing would be there unless it is created.

There have undoubtedly to be great changes in the way men speak about religion, but there will not have to be great changes in religion itself, because the religious experience of man really derives from the inescapable conviction that we owe an obligation to something that is beyond ourselves.  That sense of obligation really means that there is some part of man which belongs to the upper region.

The idea that all can in principle be known is an axiom of science rather like the axiom of religion I have just been speaking about. And it is this belief – that in principle man can know everything – that science will have to sacrifice.

It is a strange thing that the very increase in knowledge, the explosion of knowledge that is taking place at the present time, is just the very factor that is leading people to ask themselves whether, after all, it may, even in principle, be impossible to know everything. The effect of knowing more and more, and seeing the truly incredible complexity of the world, will raise the question; is the world, after all, something that is beyond man?

Just as religious people refuse to face the question of the possibility of a real drama in the world because of the omnipotence of God; strangely enough, scientists also refuse to believe in the possibility of a real drama in the world because of the omnipotence of matter. They still tend to think that the world is not dramatic, not exciting, but by its very nature knowable and, like everything else that is knowable, it ceases to be very interesting. The progress of science is undermining that attitude. Once the idea that the progress of science is leading towards complete knowledge is sacrificed, then, with that sacrifice, comes the realization that there remains something mysterious in this world that is mysterious by its very nature, not because we do not yet know it. This attitude produces the same sort of challenge that we found before; in this uncertain and mysterious world, there is something we are obliged to do, something which we have to serve, that is greater than ourselves.

The knowledge and understanding of structure is bound to bring with it some knowledge of man’s nature. At present; the world mostly disregards the notion of man’s nature as being capable of transformation and capable of seeing and understanding things that are beyond his sensory perceptions and his mental operations. When this change of attitude comes about, then those who are trying to understand the problems and the future of the human race will find themselves drawn closer and closer to the hyparchic line  H + . The realisation that there is something that does not work in the religious life of man so long as man’s part in the world is played down, or ignored, will also operate in the same direction. When this change comes – and it will be difficult and hard for it to come – then there will be a meeting-point and an agreement between science and religion.

If we ask ourselves, what can make our lives worth living, surely we must say that our lives are only worth living if we can serve some purpose. And that in serving that purpose we are doing something which needs to be done, and which needs to be done in a total sense, not just for our own benefit or even for the benefit of the whole human society. The world is put together in such a way that there is something that everyone has to do to allow it to fulfil its purpose. When we can really come to that conviction, there will be renewal of satisfaction in life for humanity, a satisfaction that at the present time is terribly shattered, more shattered than anything else. This particular conviction has gone because in the past things were presented as important, and behind the scenes they were regarded as not important. We do not accept that sort of hypocrisy any more.

It is very strange how our language and our thoughts continue to be conditioned by absolutes which have been fashionable in the past. How difficult it is to come round to a real relativism. And to understand this kind of relativism is not a weakening, or a compromise, it is coming to grips with another reality, a far richer reality. This is the reality of the Work.