Open Letter to Inst of Noetic Science

To Helané Wahbeh, Director of Research

Dear Helané –

   I just listened to your address to Breakthrough 22, in which you challenge us to visualize a flourishing future for parapsychology in its funding and application to everyday life. I agree that the potential of parapsychological science is open-ended. I want to encourage you to think even more broadly about the difference that it can make (that WE can make).

   All of our present culture, social organization, and technology is rooted in a mechanical view of the world that has dominated Western culture for 200 years. Call it “scientism”. It has led to extraordinary “progress”, in the sense of motion in a particular direction. But scientism is not just an incomplete view of the world; it is fundamentally wrong. It is the reason we work at Bullshit Jobs; it is the rootlessness that permits Duchamp to feature a urinal in a museum; it is the emptiness in our core that is the source of churning dissatisfaction; and it is the deep anxiety that leads to addiction, suicide, and war.

   We have laid aside the insight of William James at our peril

Science, so far as science denies [the reality of psychic phenomena], lies prostrate in the dust for me; and the most urgent intellectual need which I feel at present is that science be built up again in a form in which such things may have a positive place.

(from What Psychical Research Has Accomplished, 1895) 

James was telling us that our attitude toward the world was (already 127 years ago) overdue for change, including the way that we think, how we do science, and how we define “truth”. He was speaking before the quantum revolution, but his words prefigured what the most fundamental science would be telling us a generation later: that there is no separating subject from object and thus no experiment for which the human environment does not affect the result.

As we flounder, seeking to expand our vision sufficiently to catch a glimpse of where we are headed, here are some of the things we may have to leave behind

  • As scientists, we assume that the world obeys fixed laws, without exception, the same in all times and places. There are no miracles. We are called to let this go. (My essay on this subject is called The Zeroth Law of Science.)
  • As scientists, we hang our hats on reproducibility. A fact is not established until several different labs repeat the same experiment and confirm the same finding. We are called to let this go. Science is about noticing patterns in nature without preconceptions about what form such patterns may take. 
  • The most reliable and respected science is based on mathematical analysis and quantitative prediction. We are called to let this go. There are real and important phenomena that defy quantification.
  • We have regarded Nature as a hostile and unpredictable realm that must be tamed and controlled to maximize our safety. We have learned efficient ways to kill. We are growing into a more mature relationship, trusting nature as we trust ourselves and creating our unique human niche in a thriving, diverse global ecosystem.
  • Human “progress” began with agriculture=monoculture, which is ultimately unsustainable. We will leave behind the war against weeds and insects and rabbits that claim a share of our lettuce. We will study the tribal wisdom that allowed some Native American peoples to culture entire ecosystems, diverse and bounteous ecosystems enriched in the species that the native peoples relied on for food and clothing.  
  • As we come to trust the finding that death is not a final ending of our individual experience and ambitions, we will value safety less, and find ourselves more inclined to take greater risks on behalf of whatever it is that we most deeply value.

If science aspires to be a universal framework of understanding, then science must expand beyond its mechanistic paradigm and embrace the realities she has refused to acknowledge.

We will redefine what science is. We will redefine our relationship to one another, to nature, to our bodies, to our intuitions and our logic.  Following Lao Tzu, we may learn to do by not doing; stop calculating our next move and allow action to flow from a part of ourselves that is harmony with the Dao. The alternative is a losing battle against reality and a spiral to extinction.

— JJM

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