When Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell travelled to space, he experienced an overwhelmingly profound sense of universal connectedness. In his own words, “The presence of divinity became almost palpable, and I knew that life in the universe was not just an accident based on random processes. . . .The knowledge came to me directly.” This experience challenged Mitchell’s understanding of the world, causing him to conclude that reality is much more complex, subtle, and mysterious than conventional science had led him to believe. Mitchell states, “I realized that the story of ourselves as told by science—our cosmology, our religion—was incomplete and likely flawed. I recognized that the Newtonian idea of separate, independent, discreet things in the universe wasn’t a fully accurate description. What was needed was a new story of who we are and what we are capable of becoming.” In 1973, Mitchell founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) to explore, research, and uncover the full capacity of human potential using scientifically rigorous methods of examination. At IONS, this “new story” of who we are and what we are capable of becoming is beginning to unfold.
Edgar Mitchell and his colleagues at IONS contend there are multiple “ways of knowing” the world around us. Scientific understanding, derived using external observation, involves methods like objective evaluation, measurement, and experimentation. This is the kind of “knowing” Michael Dowd spoke exclusively of last week on the Brew. In addition to this external, objective way of knowing, there is also a subjective or internal “way of knowing” which includes things like gut feelings, hunches, and intuition. Such experiences cannot often be explained or proven “rationally” but feel absolutely real. This way of knowing is what is meant by the term noetic.
While I can appreciate Michael Dowd’s call to live in right relationship with reality, his emphasis on the physical, material world, with little or no credence given to inner wisdom, leaves me uninspired. Dowd contends that what is real is what’s important, but what if our understanding of what is real is lacking or incomplete? Dowd’s assertion that God is Reality implies that God is impersonal and indifferent. Why would anyone care to know more about a God that is impersonal, indifferent, and unaware? Furthermore, if as Dowd suggests, the only way for us to “know” God is through scientific, historical, and cross-cultural evidence, then it is impossible to be in relationship with God. In that case, the best one can hope for is to learn “about” God and God’s creation. This might inspire one to live with greater integrity, but it doesn’t have the same transforming, sustaining, uplifting, and upholding power as God’s active presence in one’s life. At first glance, Dowd’s message appears to be one that unites science and spirituality, but really it’s just an inspiring spin on science. A true marriage of science and spirit would more closely resemble the emerging worldview at IONS, where both the subjective and the objective, the outer and the inner, the physical and nonphysical are considered equally valid (and in my opinion, sacred).
Throughout history, people have been experiencing God in profoundly “real” ways that cannot be explained rationally or evidentially proven. We shouldn’t dismiss these experiences because they appear “outside of reality.” If we focus our attention exclusively on the external, observable ways of knowing God, while dismissing our inner space, we risk losing our most direct connection with God. There is no greater discovery to be made than discovering that we are not alone, that God loves us, reaches out to us, and wants to be in relationship with us. We know this to be true not because our rational minds have observed it, but because our intuitive hearts have perceived it.