9. Scientific/Cosmological Introduction

It may seem strange to talk about science and mysticism in the same sentence, but the fact is that some mystics, particularly nature mystics, have applied their views of the world in a scientific manner. They were involved in the genesis of modern science, and the fact that the Enlightenment largely drained the spiritual significance out of the scientific enterprise should not detract from the possibility that the spiritual significance is really there. Early Greek mystics focussed on nature, and tried to determine the principles of organization and understanding of nature. Albertus Magnus, Nicolaus of Cusa, Ramon Lull, Paracelsus, and others continue this tradition. We could even put later figures like Kierkegaard in this camp. All were interested in the nature of knowledge about the world and about ourselves. In some cases, what start as mystical views of the world end as scientific theories. One can point to the transition from Renaissance hermeticism and neo-platonism to Newton, for example. Leibnitz picks up the ideas of people like Cusa, and the Enlightenment draws some of its inspiration from Leibnitz.

This is not to say that science is mystical at its root. However, certain place-holders in science seem to have all the characteristics of mystical entities -- the concept of force, for example.

This is maybe an appropriate place to make a comment on why this course doesn't go past about 1700. One obvious reason is that there is just so much material that we'll be lucky to get to 1700, much less further. But it also comes from a kind of conviction I have, a hunch or perhaps a prejudice, that serves as a kind of dividing line between modern mysticism and ancient/mediaeval mysticism. It concerns the structure of science itself. I think that much modern mysticism or mysticism analogues have taken on the character of a pseudo science. Mystical experience is taken as a set of alternate causes in the world, in much the way that people in the Enlightenment and early 19th century used to think about God. God was the cause for the natural order that science could not explain. The problem was, as time went on science could explain more and more, and God got squeezed out.

Now, various movements and activities loosely brought together under "New Age" thought have the same character, at least to many adherents. You will often hear about being able to "explain" a person's character, or an event in nature or society. Many of these activities will claim a very old pedigree, usually a legitimizing technique relying on a notion like "older is better, or at least wiser". Perhaps it is (I have no issue with that). However, what is not realized is that the older is not appealed to at all, but rather a particularly 19th century version of German science that accounts for the world by seeing a kind of underlying order, almost an intelligence. Humboldt is a good example of this.

There is not time here to adumbrate the (somewhat vexed) difference between explanation and understanding, but what I think is happening with the various modern versions of mysticism is understanding of the human condition and the world, not unlike the kind of knowledge a novel might bring about humanity. It is not science, but it is still knowledge. The fact is, I think this is what mysticism does at any time, but after about 1700 people start thinking that it is a substitute for science, another kind of knowledge like science in its truth claims. This is where I have a problem. Mysticism is not science in this sense.

Now, as I have said, the distinction between explanation and understanding is potentially problematic, and we might find that there is more understanding in science than there is explanation in mysticism. That is a discussion for a philosophy of science course. The point is that there are large areas that are referred to today as mysticism that I think have deviated from the spirit of historical mysticism. This is a reason why I don't go later than I do in this course.