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Undoing the Gordian Knot

The British Philosopher and Religious Thinker Douglas Harding and Man’s Place in the Universe

Axel Wernhoff

The presumed contradiction between religion and science seems to haunt the history of Western civilization, but also, quite often, being the fuel for its development. This has been a conflict not only about knowing or believing. Its deeper consequence deals with how we view ourselves, and our relation to ourselves and the surrounding world. Or in other words, between the subject and the object observed. Is there any spirit (or God) around or is everything just plain matter behaving according to its own logic?

Religious beliefs have been more or less exterminated as the scientific method, since the Renaissance, has explained away the religious view of man and the universe and introduced a cosmology based on matter.

The thrust behind the scientific quest has unrelentingly been aimed downwards and inwards, towards the smallest parts of matter in its eagerness to explore and explain. The same thrust has also worked its way through art and philosophy. Postmodernism has swept away all points of reference while philosophy has abdicated from its role to unite the different sciences into one meaningful cosmology. We have been on a long journey from Dante to Joyce, from Giotto to Pollock,  from Palestrina to Schönberg! The result? A fragmented cosmology, a T.S. Eliot’s ”Waste Land”, no meaning, no ethics. And where language itself has become so specialised within the different academic disciplines it seems to have ceased to be a bearer of true communication (Babel!).

But this thrust downwards and inwards has been absolutely necessary. The scientific method has furnished us with tools to create a standard of living that renaissance-man could never dream of, and an individual freedom which religion did not deliver. But at a price: a view of the universe, and man, as a soulless machine which led to the last century’s disasters such as Gulag and Auschwitz, or for that matter, Hiroshima. But determinism, the consequence of materialism, is now put into question by science itself. After Einstein and quantum physics, matter behaves regularly rather than in a determined way - it behaves more or less the same tomorrow as today. And finally, or rather as far in as you can get into matter, there is only energy and emptiness left when the last particle has been identified. On close scrutiny matter dissolves.

In spite of all our scientific landmarks we don’t seem to be able to cast off the need for meaning or spirituality. Religion turns up again and again through the backdoor and in the most different disguises, offering a variety of remedies for peace of mind. No wonder the talk about the return of religion is becoming more frequent, but the case might actually be that it never went away.

But a spirituality which is not in line with the ideals of enlightenment and scientific thinking will without doubt lead us into new dead ends. Our civilization’s great task is still to reconcile science with spirituality and finally settle the score. Is there then an instrument, like Alexander the Great’s sword when he undid the Gordian knot, something that can release the “ghost in the machine” and thus the dichotomy between spirit and matter? 

Douglas E. Harding, the British religious thinker, insisted that there was a way out of this dilemma, that religion, in its deepest sense, and science, in its deepest sense, were absolutely complementary. The Gordian knot becomes undone, according to Harding, by turning the scientific method one step further, 180 degrees to be exact, towards the observer (the subject) instead of towards matter (the object). The latter has by tradition always been the focus of science. But doing it this way the division between subject and object, or spirit and matter is resolved, without having to give up the fundamental scientific method, claims Harding. This, he says, is nothing but applied theory of relativity (where the understanding of matter/object depends on where the observer/subject is situated). It is a very strict appliance of the scientific method. As did Copernicus and Galileo, insists Harding, we have to observe the physical reality instead of believing in whatever current religious and intellectual convictions there are at hand. It is by observation (and verification) that religious and intellectual misconceptions of the world have been destroyed, and thus man has found the freedom to form his own destiny.

It is in this perspective that Harding’s cosmology becomes understandable where he tries to replace the religious notion of insight (or enlightenment) with the scientific search for knowledge. While the former (enlightenment) is related to the truth about the subject (of oneself), the latter (knowledge) is related to the truth about the object (matter). Between these two, object and subject, there is only an illusory discrepancy, according to Harding. The point of departure is the experience of reality which mystics in all times, often in a poetic and obscure language, have described. It is a realization of the individual’s experience of “now”, as first person singular present tense.

Consciousness can only be experienced (by the subject). Consciousness will not be found in matter (as object) – it is an impossibility. Harding follows here a tradition by religious thinkers such as Meister Eckhart, Kirkegaard or Buber, all of them united by a deep respect for the individual experience and a highly personal meeting with the world. The Self is nothing but a self-aware Capacity filled with the world – “I Am”. This is the spirituality of the gospel of Thomas more than anything else, but no incomprehensible gnosis, according to Harding. And it is this realization which is the common denominator between all of the worlds great religions in their highest forms of expression, such as in Zen, Sufism or Christian mysticism (a thesis Harding propagates in his excellent “Religions of the World”). Harding insists that this is nothing mystical whatsoever, but rather the contrary. It’s about the Obvious. This is pure phenomenology and has to be experienced. It’s easier done than said! Language will not take you there. Insight must come before the word if the word, so to say, shall become “flesh” and filled with meaning.

To share this experience - to make Kirkegaard’s existential leap possible: the change of perspective - and to avoid the linguistic labyrinth of metaphysics, Harding developed during the 1960s a number of scientific experiments for exploring the question “Who are you really?” And the science is the science of the 1st Person, of the Subject (of the observer), and not of the Object (of the observed). “Who are you really”, this is the question, according to Harding. Look!!! What do your senses tell you? He asks you to point a finger towards your own face, the 180-degree changeover(!), i.e. when your gaze is observing yourself as the seeing subject. What’s there “looking out” watching the pointing finger – or in this instant these words on this paper? No face, but a Capacity, an Emptiness or a Consciousness, aware of itself and yet one with the world. You are not face to face with others, but face to no face! To experience this Capacity is to be united, or rather reunited, with your spiritual centre, always and immediately accessible. This is the true religious experience which makes us totally involved in the world, which fills us with wonder that the world exists, not how. We are this Capacity in which the world occurs. This is spirit co-existent with matter. And one could add, a religion which is not religious (but spiritual). This is the heart of the message and Seeing is the necessary tool.

And, Harding claims, this is an old truth described through the centuries by mystics and writers alike. Take Shakespeare in “Measure to Measure” (and often cited by Harding): ”Man proud man! Dres’t in a little brief authority, Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d, His glassy essence, like an angry ape, Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven, as makes the angels weep.” Or Kurt Vonnegut (from the novel “Timequake”):

”Once the fastest thing possible, they say, light now belongs in the graveyard of history, like the Pony Express…
I picked two points of light maybe ten feet apart.
One was Polaris…
- …for light to go from one to the other would take thousands or millions of years…
- But now I ask you to look precisely at one, and then precisely at the other… It took a second, do you think?
- No more, I said.
- Even if you’d taken an hour, something would have passed between where those two heavenly bodies used to be, at, conservatively speaking, a million times the speed of light.
- What was it? I said.
- Your consciousness…That is a new quality in the Universe, which exists only because there are human beings. Physicists must from now on, when pondering upon the secrets of Cosmos, factor in not only energy and matter and time, but something very new and beautiful, which is human awareness
…Let us call it soul.”

One person who discovered Harding’s greatness early on was C.S. Lewis. In 1951 after having read the condensed version of the manuscript of Harding’s ground-breaking philosophical work ”The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth – a New Diagram of Man in the Universe”, Lewis wrote: ”You have made me drunk, roaring drunk, as I haven’t been on a book…You have written a book of the highest genius…England is disgraced if this book doesn’t get published”. And later in the preface of the book Lewis wrote ”This book is, I believe, the first attempt to reverse a movement of thought which has been going on since the beginning of philosophy …if (this book) should turn out to have been even the remote ancestor of some system which will give us again a credible universe inhabited by credible agents and observers, this will still have been a very important book indeed.” (“The Hierarchy Of Heaven And Earth – A New Diagram Of Man In The Universe” was published by Faber & Faber 1951 on Lewis’ recommendation.)

The point of departure of Harding’s thesis is the Here and Now (first person singular, present tense), ”the narrow waist of the hour-glass”, from which his cosmology expands in Time and Space. Space is defined as different “hierarchies” with the observer at “ground zero”. Each ”hierarchy” has its proper science and observers (scientists); biology, chemistry and physics immediately close, the humanities in between and geography and astronomy further away. Time is in direct relationship with the distance from the observer (the subject) to the observed (the object). Time is in Space but disappears in the subject where it becomes an everlasting Now. Consciousness (spirit) expands through all the hierarchies and binds them together. It is only the observer (scientist) who can travel between the different hierarchies who can unite them into one many-faceted whole. From such an approach a new view both of science and the humanities could hopefully develop.

Furthermore, Harding paints a broad picture of Western civilisation as a development of consciousness. He identifies three major epochs; the theological which seeks Goodness (before the Renaissance) the humanist which seeks Beauty (the Renaissance) and the scientific which seeks Truth. The reverence of the medieval priest, the renaissance artist or the scientist in the 20th century illustrates these three periods. Philosophy, argues Harding, if it takes its task seriously, should integrate these three perspectives into one whole and reconcile science with religion and both with art. As we, in line with Carl Jung, must do the same within. Thus can Beauty and Goodness be rediscovered without having to sacrifice Truth. Even if the split between the three approaches was needed, according to Harding, we have now reached a stage where it has become absolutely necessary to reintegrate them if we are to survive.

Harding demystifies mysticism by the simplicity of the exercises. This is probably the greatest challenge – it’s too simple! But without the experience you will never get the meaning. And one should not underestimate the deep meaning and depth in the perspective behind the exercises. They bring the religious experience in line with modern science and the ideals of enlightenment into the kernel of religion. They can be seen as a ritual for our time, like transubstantiation, imbued with experience and meaning.   

Surely it was no coincidence that the inspiration and structure of  ”The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth…” came when Harding was contemplating a self-portrait of the Austrian physicist Ernst Mach – the man whose research was a prerequisite for the theory of relativity, according to Einstein. In this drawing one sees that Mach’s body, arms and legs stretch out in space from this central, empty, headless ‘nothingness’. 

Harding presents a new way forward for our thinking. Every major breakthrough in the history of our civilisation comes with a sudden and radical change of perspective, and often from unexpected areas of human endeavour. If the noise of our times does not drown Harding’s perspective it might very well be the much needed doorway to a new ”humanistic science”, a science which hopefully can rectify the basic misunderstanding, religious as well as scientific, about who we are in our relationship towards the world around us. This misunderstanding, this false existential grammar so to speak, with its conceived dichotomy between spirit and matter has impregnated our thinking (and thereby our emotional lives). It is to a large extent the deeper philosophical force behind many of the conflicts plaguing our world today.

Perhaps it was just a simple twist of fate that T.S. Eliot, the foremost interpreter of the 20th century’s intellectual and emotional morass, already in 1942, 9 years before he published the “Hierarchy…” as a director of Faber and Faber, zeroed in on Harding’s ideas in the following lines from 'Quartets' (Little Gidding):

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.



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