The following is excerpted from Science Revealed, published by Psychedelic Press UK.
It is futile to do with more things that which can be done with fewer — Brother William of Ockham1
On my first and only trip to Bavaria, I was pleased to wander into a street named Occamstrasse, in honour of the Godfather of the Scientific Method. There was Occam Taxis (presumably driving via the most direct route), an Occam supermarket (perhaps with only essential groceries), and an Occam pub (where they might siphon alcohol directly from keg to stomach). The very idea of drinking made me feel sick though, on that day. Oktoberfest had nearly destroyed me two days previously.
It was all good fun to begin with – men with curvy sausages and Fräuleins bearing beer jugs – but after following a call of nature, I returned into the tent of three thousand shouting, singing Bavarians, stamping on tables and clanging tankards, and I had no idea where my table was. I wandered in circles amongst the pretzels, and never found my friends, but I did find some funny Italians. ‘Do you feel a-lika-skinnin-up?’ they asked. The rest of Oktoberfest was a barely lucid dream set to oompah music; I didn’t see another friendly face until I peeled myself off the floor the next morning.
Brother William of Ockham Abbey would have made a beeline back to his table. Back in the fourteenth century, the monk proposed that a question be answered with the simplest explanation possible. This is often formally paraphrased as: entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem (entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity)2
It seems fair enough, but Ockham’s razor caused havoc in the Vatican, over the question of apostolic poverty. While the friars of the Franciscan order followed the example of the apostles, and lived as beggars without private property, the Pope was the largest real-estate owner in the known world, and the question arose as to which was the correct Christian lifestyle. Brother William was called over from England to adjudicate. He drew his razor to cut through the complexity, and found, to his surprise, that his beloved Pope was at fault. Moreover the Pope was ‘stubbornly heretical’,3 maintaining his heresy even after it had been explained to him. This, according to the monk, disqualified him from the esteemed office of the holy hat. Ockham spent four years under house arrest, fled to Munich and was excommunicated for apostasy; but his principle of simplicity became one of the cornerstones of science. It keeps us from getting lost amidst twisting tunnels of theory.
Some 300 years later, Galileo looked up at the same old sky and saw something new. In the cosmology of the era, Man stood firm on Earth at the centre of Creation, and the planets looped around him in curly-whirly epicycles against the backdrop of the fixed stars. Galileo saw through the scheme. He took Ockham’s bread-knife to the pretzels, and made a fresh set of bagels from the planetary orbits. In the realm of ideas, all he did was nudge the sun to the centre, but it was blasphemy for the old hats of the old cosmos.
The first Christian to propose this model was Copernicus, in 1543, but only on his deathbed. Giordano Bruno burned at the stake in 1600 for defending the heresy. But Galileo felt confident, for he revealed what had previously been hidden, with a nautical device he doctored and turned towards the night sky. For the first time in history, the moons of Jupiter came into focus, stubbornly heretical heavenly bodies orbiting something other than Earth. But Catholic cosmologists found fault with the new-fangled device. Their model, indeed the Creator Himself, placed Earth at the centre of the universe (according to their theology, though the Bible has nothing to say on the matter, and the geocentric universe is pure, unadulterated Aristotle). Galileo was a devout Catholic with no reformist agenda, but the Inquisition forbade him from teaching his model, and he died under house arrest. Why the extreme reaction?
We use our theories to grasp the world. Do we ignore a crazy man, or incarcerate him? Do we reason with him or listen to him? Does he need lithium, or needles in his meridians, or electrodes across his brain? Does he need an exorcist? It depends on our theory of madness. Theories are the hands of the mind, with which we grapple with problems. A radical new perspective, if it proves to be persuasive, forces a culture to redefine itself, to question its assumptions. Galileo’s detractors would not sit back and allow mankind to be pushed from centre stage. Many people prefer their half-baked pretzels to freshly baked bagels, but eventually they must be ejected. After the blur of Oktoberfest, the streets are awash with vomit. My hangover lasted for two days. The ban on Galileo’s book lasted over two centuries, and a rather tardy Vatican finally cleared him of any wrongdoing in 1992.
Ockham would have loved his adopted hometown, where the people go straight to the point. When you ask a Bavarian ‘Sprekenzi Englischer?’ in a shameful approximation of his language, he might respond with a frown and a ‘nein, ich spreche Deutsche.’ No frills, and no messing around. All a party needs is trombones, leather shorts, and beer by the litre. Prost! Ockham would have made a great English drunk at Oktoberfest, swaying and scowling, cursing into the sleeve of his habit as the pontiff pontificates in front of the Fräuleins, and his whole know-it-all air starts to get the monk’s goat. He eyeballs the Pope across the beer tent and nods towards the table football.
The Pope calmly drains his glass of red and accepts the challenge, and the ultimate dream team approaches the table. Magellan fashions a ball from a beer-mat and rolls it into play. The Pope knocks it upfield, but Galileo takes control at the back line and sends it past the Pope’s strikers to Newton. The two old virgins eye each other for a furtive moment as Newton’s fingers tickle his abacus under the table. He passes to Kant with startling precision as the Pope spins poles wildly. Kant gazes at the table and then calmly kicks the ball to the corner, where it comes to a gradual stop at the edge of the Milky Way. The Pope starts shaking the table and muttering incantations, and Ockham’s quick eyes dart around the tent and fall on Einstein, enjoying a pipe at the bar. Einstein strikes a match, and the table jumps up and flips into a sphere. The Pope recoils shrieking, hat tumbling as Einstein smiles his goofy smile, but the monk glares back. ‘I’m off to play dice with God,’ he growls. He clinks glasses with Schrödinger, downs his pint, and burps a foul, mathematical cloud of gas on his way out.[i]
Ockham’s razor cuts away, but it gives nothing back. The monk just takes your beloved beliefs outside and gives them a good kicking. Medieval cosmologists did not know how God pushed the planets round. Newton knew no better:
I have not been able to discover the cause of those properties of gravity from the phenomena, and I frame no hypothesis; for whatever is not deduced from the phenomena is to be called an hypothesis; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, whether of occult qualities or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy.4
Today’s most advanced hypothesis on gravity requires a purely hypothetical particle called a graviton, for which no evidence exists. In the absence of reliable knowledge, models are born, they develop and compete, and they are killed; but they never become true. They become superstitions. The theoretician, a different beast from the experimental philosopher, is counselled by Karl Popper to accept models only provisionally. Popper called this falsificationism, and took it almost word for word from Newton:
In experimental philosophy [said Newton] we are to look upon propositions collected by general induction from phenomena as accurately or very nearly true, notwithstanding any contrary hypotheses that may be imagined, ’till such time as other phenomena occur.5
What is knowledge anyway? It is not a physical thing; but neither is it a metaphysical ideal, like a perfect circle that can never be drawn, a mathematical constant with an infinite decimal tail, or a goddess of sublime beauty who never ages. Knowledge, eventually, relates to nothing but itself, and leads nowhere but back to itself:
What is sugar?
A sweet, white, crystalline substance.
What does white look like?
Like snow and sugar lumps.
What does sweet taste like?
We are none the wiser until we know sugar intimately, until our tongues taste it and our teeth fall out, after which wordy descriptions are redundant. The same is true for any proposition one can make. In the final analysis, it refers to an experience that reveals the ‘suchness’ of a thing. The revelation might be our own, or it might be someone else’s, in which case we place our faith in their judgement. Otherwise, we must admit our ignorance.
We move the planets and the goalposts, but can we be sure they will stay where we put them? The sun rises in the east, but how do we know it will obey the same law tomorrow?[ii] Can we be sure of anything?
‘Can you bollocks!’ bellows Ockham, urinating against the Pearly Gates.
What are we composed of? Ask a physiologist and it would be cells and sinews, whereas an artist might picture you as line and light. A Freudian might describe urges and neuroses, and an economist demands and means; but who knows? Knowledge is a bubbling cauldron of meaning, suspended over the abyss on invisible strands of nothingness. Knowledge always boils down to nothing – which is not a problem in itself, but we invariably confuse subjective knowledge for objective reality. We think we have worked something out, so we stop thinking about it, and forget that the map is not the territory, and the territory is not terra firma. The menu is not the food, so mind you don’t choke on laminated cardboard. Theories are tools, not truths. Ockham preferred the simplest tool for the job, and partly thanks to him we have a fantastic toolbox; but the raw material of life is something different. To cross the abyss to the infinite, knowledge must be left behind.
Charles Fort could ‘conceive of nothing, in religion, science or philosophy, that is more than the proper thing to wear, for a while.’6 Etymologically speaking, philosophy is the love (philo) of Sophia, the goddess of intimate knowledge. Hers is the knowledge which comes from inspiration, not from books. Philosophy should be like making love to a goddess, but the word has come to refer to a set of beliefs used to judge the world and organise your life. For example, your philosophy may be Marxism, or maybe it is the Golden Rule, doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. Very good, think what thou wilt; but too often we get lost in our definitions and identifications, and we forget the lovely Sophia. Philosophy liberates. ‘A’ philosophy binds. ‘A’ philosophy ultimately fails in the real world – when a sadomasochist applies his version of the Golden Rule to your nipples, or a Marxist finds herself in a room full of horny men on Viagra, obliged to give according to her abilities to each according to his needs.
We often claim to live by some kind of philosophy when we are in fact philosophising by some kind of life, weaving some makeshift garment to cover our habits and desires. By way of illustration, allow me to introduce a seeker I met at the feet of an extraordinary sadhu. This ash-clad holy man had raised his hand aloft over 20 years previously in devotion to Shiva, and left it to mortify into place, with hideous nails curling downwards. I could hardly refuse a toot on this holy man’s ‘Kali chillum’ (which was, after all, one of his only possessions, besides his mobile and his Rolex). As I exhaled, I noticed said seeker. We exchanged pleasantries as I coughed, and he told me he’d spent 26 years wandering around India, visiting saints and sages.
At this point a nearby sadhu asked if I was married, as Indians are wont to do, even those who have renounced such fetters as wives. ‘No, but I have a Japanese girlfriend,’ I replied, pushing my nose flat and saying ‘chota naak’, thereby exhausting my Hindi vocabulary. The ascetics creased up laughing, but the seeker looked blankly at me, so I told him ‘chota naak’ and pressed my naak flat. He shrugged his shoulders mournfully. He didn’t know the word for ‘nose’ in Hindi. He didn’t know any Hindi at all.
Perhaps I was in no position to judge, having practically exhausted my vocabulary already. But though I reached for a state of samadhi beyond judgement, my holy-hash mashed mush must have betrayed me, as he began to justify himself. ‘I have purposely not learnt any Hindi, lest the verbal interfere with my spiritual experience of the sadhus.’
This is a philosophy, clearly, something to wear for a while, but this malodorous tie-dye rag has grown so crusty that it restricts his movement. Better to go naked like the naga babas, and mortify something less vital than your cerebral cortex! At least his garment covers nothing more sinister than laziness. Amafioso sees a dog-eat-dog world because he wants to eat other dogs. Nazi theorists reasoned that the Sudetenland was theirs because they wanted it. This philosophising has nothing to do with love, nor Sophia.
Our scientific beliefs are a laundry bag of second-hand rags cut to resemble lab coats, dyed in the distillate of our prejudices. To a great extent, they are given to us, not chosen by us; but they define our world and set the limits of acceptable belief and behaviour. Stray too far, and one might be ridiculed, or even incarcerated.
Back when philosophers still knew how to make Sophia shudder, Socrates sought wisdom from the wise. The poets, priests and politicians he asked knew a few things about a few things, concluded Socrates, but their faith in their incomplete knowledge blinkered them. Socrates maintained his ignorance, and the Oracle at Delphi judged him to be the wisest of men, as he at least knew his own ignorance. The state judged him to be a corrupter of the young, and executed him.
Ignorance is a good start, but if knowledge is empty and nothing we can say about the world is true, what are we to believe in? Ockham believed in God, and considered any other rigidly held belief to be an obstacle to his grace. Today’s seekers are more sceptical, and with good reason. God and the devil have been used as umbrella terms to explain things beyond our ken, as shields against uncertainty. In the beginning, God created Heaven and Earth; he caused the rain to fall and the belly to swell; but as our understanding broadened, the unknown shrank and scientists moved in on God’s territory. Jealous medieval gods are fighting a reactionary counter-attack, burning down abortion clinics and chasing Darwin from schools in the US.7 But Richard Dawkins, ayatollah of a new church, answers with bombast, pointing cameras at rabid fundamentalists to prove that religion is the root of all evil. In his theology, religion is a mind virus caught from one’s parents; but he is talking about doctrines, taboos, guilty urges and hand-me-down maps of the universe – the outer trappings of religion. The inner, esoteric traditions are something else.
For Gnostics, there was and is more to God than the unknown: the divine can be known directly through a process of gnosis, through dreams, insights, trance and sudden revelation. Church fathers have militated against such ideas since the third century, and continue to insist that God still moves in zones beyond our understanding. A miracle cure is recognised by the Vatican, therefore, ‘when there is no remaining possibility of a natural explanation’.8 (In other words, if we can explain it scientifically, it is not a miracle; and if we can’t, it is.)
In 1882, Nietzsche announced that God was dead, and the thinking man breathed a sigh of relief.9 The modern scientist may not invoke God in her theories. The eternal questions remain, but without the Holy Inquisition and eternal damnation to worry about, our scope to think is broader.
Meanwhile the established faiths have fallen on hard times, rent by schisms and shamed by child-molesters. For the spiritually minded, Buddhism offers superior techniques, Taoism funnier stories, and Rasta funkier bass-lines, outcompeting pallid priests, reactionary imams, wheeler-dealer Brahmins and nitpicking rabbis who commit the ultimate blasphemy of making God boring. It doesn’t matter if you are a tangled beard of orthodoxy or a well-trimmed liberal mincing about the pulpit: if you represent the divine, then surely it should lend you some charisma (from kharis meaning ‘divine grace’). But old-school monotheism, with its moralism and its dirges, is like a frail old man wheeled out for christenings and funerals, breathing softly through the mucus as he dreams of the good old days.
Many bemoan the loss of faith and morality, but in some ways we are closer to God today than ever before. A mind full of cobwebs and mumbo-jumbo is no good to anyone; but with razor in hand, the seeker is free to follow ideas wherever they wander, beyond the puke and the pretzels, beyond the bagels, and eventually beyond the confines of the beer tent. We have incredible resources at our fingertips: science journals, lecture courses, translated scriptures from all over the world, meditation classes, devotional music to download, therapies, workshops, and a plethora of sects, from ayahuasca to Zen.
Novices once pounded on the gate of the Zen monastery for days before being allowed in. Yoga, Kabbalah and Latin were restricted to certain classes of men. Magickal secrets were buried in code, but today the hidden is revealed, and online. The acolyte need only put aside business, laziness and TV, and burrow through the layers of half-truth and half-witted commentary caked over the teachings. But if he (or even she, for the first time in a long time) is as persistent as the Zen monks of old, the libraries are open. She can believe what she likes, or believe nothing at all, and God is entirely optional. As Rabbi David Cooper puts it in his excellent God is a Verb:
What is God? In a way, there is no God. Our perception of God usually leads to a misunderstanding that seriously undermines our spiritual development.10
Even if she has swallowed the narcotics of materialism, the lonely vacuum of atheism is far less stifling to the mind than the fiery lakes of hell, and she needn’t fear thumbscrews, excommunication, or death, unless she is careless enough to go and do a Rushdie.
Before the Reformation, if you disagreed with the church there was nowhere else to turn, you couldn’t just don a skullcap and gatecrash a synagogue. Despite this, Brother William went against convention and the immense power of the Pope, losing his liberty and risking his life. What would drive him to attack the Pope he once believed to be infallible?
Only love drives drunks to reject their drinking partners. Ockham did not believe in God as a theory. He loved God as reality permeating the universe, in the revealed and the hidden, at the beginning and at the end. His divine was more intimate than words and theories, more important than politics and material concerns, including his own safety. He was looking in on the illusion from outside. The razor is only part of the story. Trading insults at the bar is only part of the story. After an evening arguing with fools, Ockham returns home to the monastery and changes from belligerent drunk into affectionate lover, reciting poems to his beloved, staying up all night to be near his beloved, praising his beloved before and after every meal.
Over the millennia, monks from Shaolin to Santiago de Compostela developed a range of meditative techniques. They did not observe vows of poverty and silence for kicks, and pray through long vigils or sit shivering under waterfalls because they had nothing better to do. These are the techniques of ecstasy (ex- ‘out’ + histanai ‘to stand’), a state available to anyone sincerely devoted to getting out of their heads, and exploring beyond their boundaries.
Since the dawn of civilisation, people have been praying, singing, sacrificing, and confessing to something invisible; but recently, we have decided collectively that there is nothing more to life than the tiny slice that fits on a microscope slide. Materialistic culture rejects mystical techniques and experiences with tremendous arrogance. If scientific paths to wisdom are so much better, then why all the imperfection in our scientific world?
Meditation has all but fallen away in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Humming along at church on the odd Sunday lacks the depth of the traditional monastic meditations, and Madonna is far more into Kabbalah than most Jews I know (including the rabbis). Many seekers prefer to go east, to the daddy of godless metaphysics. The Buddha taught more psychology than religion, and he did it without walking on water or knobbing thousands of milkmaids. At the centre of the story is a normal man at his wits end, sitting under a tree and refusing to move until he had sorted it out. Freed from the tyranny of the gods, Buddhists developed techniques for exploring the immense scope of the inner world. Though the cosmology admits plenty of deities, even ‘garlanded with black serpents and fresh skulls’, they are recognised as ‘the form of your own mind’,11 along with everything else in the universe. The evidence of one’s own senses is paramount:
Do not go upon… tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; … nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ … When you yourselves know: ‘These things… lead to harm and ill,’ abandon them.12
With this sentiment in mind, the Dalai Lama at a talk I attended poked fun at Buddhist scriptures describing the sun as a few feet across. The Pope, by contrast, does not ridicule creationist accounts of six days of Creation. Faith is serious business in Catholicism.
Of course, the sublime Buddha-mind without opinion is not easily attainable, so the Buddha recommends non-attachment as a steppingstone on the way. Opinions are employed as needed, and ditched when something better arises. This ancient doctrine, which closely resembles falsificationism, quietly draws us away from the drunken brawls of the beer tent.
Meditation is also a most scientific of disciplines, and its results are more directly knowable than anything in the mundane sciences. A chemist observes a colour change in a beaker and a moving needle on a thermometer. She infers that heat has been produced and a compound formed, and from there speculates further into the acts of the particles involved, but what is an ion other than a speck of speculation swimming in wavy gravy? All a scientist actually knows is that the needle moves, or that data fills a computer page.
With meditation, the jumpy needles of the technician’s own perceptual apparatus gradually settle, and the page becomes blank. Repeat investigations gradually develop focus, balance and calm, and the technician also finds herself cushioned from the stress of burnt toast and other everyday irritations. There may be no great revelation, but who ever found the meaning of life inside a test tube? Scientific theories, though fascinating and useful, have also been used to justify the oppression of women and various races, and sometimes the fruits of science contaminate rivers for decades. Science cultivates data and knowledge, but not necessarily the wisdom to use it.
If the seeker perseveres, however, then one day, quite suddenly as she pours a cup of tea or glances out of the window, she may find that the world suddenly melts into harmonious unity. This happened to me during a dinner party in Japan with my Aikido class, as my friend leaned forward to take a piece of meat from the grill. Somehow the tremor of his chopsticks, his stuttering speech and general nervous disposition came together, along with the quiet air of authority surrounding sensei at the head of the table, the smell of the food, the sound of two young karaoke crooners in the background, and everyone and everything there, including the straw mats, the sliding doors, and including me. It all blended into a scene of transcendental normality. For about two minutes, I chewed on a grilled pepper in a state of complete bliss, high as a kite but totally present. It was one of the strangest things that ever happened to me. Yet nothing happened.
This experience is not unusual; it happens to non-meditators as well, and it is momentous. Our piecemeal theories become less binding after glimpsing the cosmic dance-floor, where everything moves to the pulse of the universe under the party lights of the Milky Way, where every agent is a disco dancer getting their groove on, with continental plates traversing the floor in a slo-mo tango, seasons switching the visuals, protons and electrons spinning in clinches of desperate affinity, strands of DNA swapping juicy secrets, doing the twist again and again and again. This moment is a philosopher’s stone, which transmutes every mundane experience into gold. From then onwards, nothing can ever be the same again. I stepped up to sing another Carpenters classic a completely new man.
The highest goal of mundane science is a theory to bring together everything in the universe. Newton’s theory of gravity was the first universal principle, governing apples falling at the local scale and planets orbiting at the astronomical. Newton, however, was no mundane scientist. He practised the forbidden art of alchemy, and only managed to avoid trouble by keeping a lifelong ‘high silence’ concerning it.13 As above, so below was, for him, a familiar mystical formula relating the microcosm to the macrocosm. He simply reformulated it as a physical law.
Galileo Galilee, whose very name is an opera of extravagance, kept no high silence, and died under house arrest. Such outspoken pioneers rarely escape controversy, because the mind that devotes itself to the order of the beer tent is a political mind, which slots into positions of power behind the bar, comfortable to be serving another round of the usual to the regulars.
Ockham’s razor cuts through our models. Some mourn as their edifices crumble; but for the open-eyed and uninvested, all that is lost is that which lies between them and deeper understanding. In life, the razor can reveal opportunities. In science, it became the first rule, as restated by Newton:
We are to admit no more causes of natural things, than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.14
Science grows along the wound made by Ockham’s razor, but truly revolutionary ideas rarely result from beavering away in labs, tapping at computers and totting up tables. Revelation comes when the rational mind is bypassed in dreams, trances and sudden insights, as we will see in the following chapter. The rational mind wields the razor to choose between models, but this is secondary to the creative, non-rational processes of the unconscious, which generate the models in the first place. Some of the models we will be considering in this book are unorthodox, even unpopular, but let us set aside theory for a while. We can suspend our disbelief (or rather, our belief), and focus on how things happen in the real world, beneath the layers of meaning and interpretation.
For the immoderate amongst us, drunken with dogma, Ockham’s razor is wielded without finesse. Rather than slashing the ropes of the tent to reveal, we remain at the bar, fighting amongst ourselves as we down theory after theory, toasting our potency and getting lost whenever nature calls. Look closely into the dregs in your glass. The kegs are running dry and spitting foam. The bell for last orders rang decades ago. The lights are flicking on and off, and a nasty hangover is brewing. It is time to drag our sorry selves back home, and have a good think about what we have been doing.
1. Summa Totius Logicae – William of Ockham i. 12
2. A Dictionary of Philosophy – Flew, A (London: 1979) p. 253
3. Handbook to Life in the Medieval World – Cosman, M. P. et al (New York: 2008) p. 356
4. The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy – Newton (A. Motte trans.) (London, 1729)
6. Wild Talents – Charles Fort, chap. 22.
7. From the National Abortion Federation website
8. Letters of the Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval, March 1st, 1999
9. The Gay Science, Book III – Nietzche, F, p. 108
10. Cooper p. 65
11. The Tibetan Book of the Dead – (Chogyam Trungpa trans.)
12. Kalama Sutta – (Soma Thera trans.) (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1981)
13. The Forge and the Crucible: The Origins and Structures of Alchemy – Mircea Eliade (Stephen Corrin trans.) (Chicago, 1978) p.231
14. The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy – Isaac Newton (London, 1729) (Motte, A. trans.)