Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction ― E.F. Schumacher
The Western world is insane. It suffers from a persistent delusion called the materialist-reductionist paradigm. We learned this from the Greek philosophers who preferred to look at objects in isolation: nature, for example, was defined as the universe minus human beings and their culture.
They divided the world into parts assumed to be static and unchanging, and categorized the parts according to their attributes (solidity, whiteness, etc.). We are socialized as children to learn the names and categories of things and psychologists have confirmed that Westerners tend to focus on discrete objects (a left-brain emphasis), while Easterners tend to focus on relationships (a right-brain emphasis).
The intellectual approach to perception was alien to Chinese philosophers, who perceived the world as a mass of substances rather than a collection of discrete objects.[iii] Their universe was a continuous medium or matrix within which interactions of things took place, not by the clash of atoms, but by radiating influences.
Quantum physics tends to confirm this view of the universe, suggesting, for example, that particles can behave like waves and can remain connected even when separated over large distances.
Taoism exemplifies the holistic view: objects and events are embedded in a meaningful whole in which yin contains yang and yang contains yin in an ongoing cycle of change, giving rise to a “both/and” orientation.
By contrast, the Aristotelian law of non-contradiction favoured in the West gives rise to an “either/or” orientation.
Quantum physics and fuzzy or multivalent logic challenge Aristotelian binary logic and imply that the view of the universe expounded by Eastern mystics may be a more accurate representation of reality.
The difference is illustrated by contrasting the ideas of traditional Chinese medicine with those of Western medicine. The latter focuses on the parts of the body and treats problems in isolation, whereas traditional Chinese medicine considers the body to be influenced by its context (lifestyle, current activities, food intake, environment and seasons) and all its parts to be interrelated. While Westerners readily see themselves as a machine, Japanese see themselves as deriving from nature, analogous to a plant.
Notions of an organic, living and spiritual universe were largely eradicated in the 17th century by Newton’s conception of a mechanistic universe. Europeans welcomed the Scientific Revolution as evidence of progress, a concept that arises from the Christian notion of rectilinear time. In Christianity, time appears to run in a straight line from the Creation, by way of the Fall of Man and the Revelation, to the Last Judgment. Since time was seen as a line moving forward towards salvation, it entailed a belief in progress being made over the course of time.
Spirituality in the West was finally extinguished by René Descartes, who pronounced that mind and body are separate, which was readily accepted by Christians already primed with dualistic notions of the Bible such as heaven and hell, good and evil, God and Satan. Descartes’ famous dictum of “I think, therefore I am” completed the schism in the West between the head and the heart and made the individual ascendant. The Bible having already granted him dominion over the animals, Western man could now believe that he was separate from his environment.
He saw himself as contributing to human progress and acting both rationally and morally in exploiting his environment for his own individual profit, heedless of the consequences for others who shared it. He was as cut off from his environment as he was from the emotions that informed his thoughts. As a result, interest in spirituality was largely extinguished for several centuries in the West, while rationality reigned supreme, such that labelling an idea “Illogical” was to condemn it out of hand. The way of thinking about the world that developed between 1500 and 1700 has dominated Western culture for the past 300 years.
Physicist Wallace Thornhill is challenging the left-brain view. He believes that we don’t understand the world by putting it together bit by bit, suggesting that the method used at the Large Hadron Collider is like smashing countless jumbo jets into mountains and picking over the debris to see how they fly.
The machine metaphor reduces things to isolated bits and loses sight of the connected whole: stars and galaxies are isolated objects; we are isolated individuals. Thornhill compares the modern academy to the universities of the 16th and 17th centuries that conformed to the Church and to Aristotle’s text. He accuses modern science of ignoring or suppressing counter-arguments and sanitizing the history of science to give the impression of progress.
The materialist-reductionist paradigm has run its course. The world is undergoing a new period of enlightenment that is changing our understanding of everything and vindicating what Chinese mysticism has taught for thousands of years. Everything isconnected and we are not isolated from nature but are a part of, and interact with it. Modern scientific gatekeepers are like King Canute, struggling to turn back the tide, which has definitively turned against their scientific orthodoxy to threaten their dominance, prestige and power.