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Shifts in mental models of thinking will be required to build
our global future. You suggest that the important Worldviews today are
naturalism, rationalism and humanism. Would you explain?
Those are basically three ways of saying who we are as human
beings — head, heart, and hands. People have said it in many different
ways. Chinese culture has three different traditions: Taoism, which is
physically based; Confucianism, which is relational or the social
philosophy of the heart; and Buddhism, which is more mentally centered.
We have a tremendous imbalance in our schools with so much emphasis on
the pure development of the intellect. Rationalism is the dominant
worldview today. The primary example of this is the economic worldview that
basically says no person does anything unless self-interest is involved and
the benefits exceed the costs. It’s not very enlightened or thrilling, but
that’s rational-economic man.
Also we are aware that we are part of nature. We are physical. We live in
a body, and that is in a process of continual construction, so we are tied
to the unfolding of the universe. Every seven years every cell in the body
is replaced. We have a very deep sense of connection to nature. I don’t
know of anyone who hasn’t had a profound experience in nature. So that kind
of naturalism or physicalism is a critical part of our nature. I also think
that learning is nature. The best definition of learning I know is Tom
Johnson’s: “Learning is a process of discovering and embodying nature’s
patterns.” What is walking? It is discovering and embodying a pattern of
mobility that nature makes possible for this particular physiology.
Humanism, the third worldview, points to our life as a journey of becoming
a human being, which includes but goes beyond the physical and the mental
aspects of existence.
We have substituted the rational-economic man viewpoint for a more
integrated one. This worldview dominates today. It runs the modern world
and our societies, and is programmed into our kids from a very early age.
Ultimately, it cannot supplant the deeper awareness that there is more to
life than how much you acquire. But it’s a kind of brainwashing that goes
on in modern society, particularly with the powerful, ever present media we
have. You actually start to be convinced that the key to your happiness is
that car you are about to buy. At another level all human beings know the
craziness of it. Eric Hofer, a famous mid-20th century philosopher, had a
wonderful way of saying it. “You can never get enough of what you don’t
really need to make you happy.” It is a brilliant statement because it
makes two important points about our predicament simultaneously. The first
is obviously about human nature. But it also makes a point about the
economic system, a system based on deluding people about what will make
them happy, and thereby creating a self-reinforcing engine of growth based
on insatiable desires, the engine that drives the modern economy. So, we
live in a kind of crazy world. We are sleepwalking into disaster, going
faster and faster to get to where no one wants to be.
NR: You speak about the new unfolding story of the universe. It is alive
and carries a psychic-spiritual dimension as well as a physical-material
one. What is this story and what difference would it make if we embraced
it? Can it be reconciled with scientific rationalism?
Native peoples and many older cultures had a profound sense of
mystery. The universe was alive and a kind of enchanted place to them. We
basically bastardize that sensibility when we talk about all these poor,
ignorant people who believe the trees are alive. Somehow the mystery all
got lost in the western scientific revolution. People like Bacon talked
about wresting her power from nature’s bosom. In Schools that Learn
Fieldbook we quoted Johannes Kepler, who in 1605, said, “my aim is to show
that the celestial machine is to be likened not to a divine organism but
rather to a clockwork.” According to historian Daniel Boorstin, “Descartes
made the clock his prototypical machine.” Isaac Newton, says Arthur
Koestler, assigned to God a twofold function “as Creator of the universal
clockwork and its Supervision for maintenance and repair.” Somehow in this
scientific revolution the sense of the animism and vitality of life, the
living presence of the universe which was so fundamental to peoples for
much of human history, gradually started to be supplanted by the idea that
it was a big machine. And, if we figured it out, we could make it do what
we wanted. That’s the journey we’ve been on for 400 years, continuing
right to today’s genetic engineering. Now part of our struggle is the re-
enchantment of the universe. Einstein said shortly before his death that,
“the most beautiful experience in the universe is the experience of the
mysterious. It is the source of all science and art.” You find a few
scientists who live this enchanted universe. Unfortunately, the vast
majority are technicians cranking their formulas, still operating in a
mechanical worldview. But, there are signs of change.
This weekend there is a two-day meeting with the Dalai Lama, hosted by
MIT and organized by scientists. For ten years there has been a series of
private meetings with a growing network of Western scientists meeting with
the Dalai Lama to talk about subjects of common interest like the nature of
perception and our growing understanding of the brain. One meeting was
about dreaming and dying from the Western and the Buddhist perspectives.
This weekend is the first public meeting, and some two thousand people,
many of who are scientists, will be there. Everyone at MIT is very proud of
hosting the event, and the president, Chuck Vest, will give the welcome.
The weekend dialogue between Buddhists and scientists will discuss four
topics. One is emotion. How do Western scientists understand emotion both
psychologically and physiologically? The traditional Western view is that
emotions get in the way of rationality and we have to control them. The
whole aim in the Buddhist view is to develop positive emotions: you spend
your life trying to make anger less present not by suppression but by
developing the capacity for compassion. Seven or eight Western scientists
and Buddhist scholars will discuss each of the subjects. The Dalai Lama
will participate in on all the sessions. When meetings like this occur in
the middle of our scientific establishment, there is something afoot.
Science is kind of the religion of this particular era. We look to science
to tell us how the universe works. Unfortunately too many comply and tell
us their mechanical, reductionist worldview. This causes this, and this
causes that, and when you’re dead it’s all over. By the way, that was the
bottom line in the earlier dialogue among the scientists and the Dalai Lama
about dying. The Dalai Lama said he always wanted to ask western scientists
about how they understood death from the modern scientific worldview. The
answer: It’s like pulling the plug out. People are not too excited about
this for good reason. But the conversation is continuing.
What kind of spirituality do we need in the global era and where does
science fit in?
I do not have a simple answer for this, but something is shifting — to
me there is no doubt of this. There is an openness today that simply wasn’t
there before. People are starting to ask anew timeless questions that
people have always cared about. What does it mean to be a human being?
How do we live well? What does it mean to live well together? There is also
a growing sense of urgency that we are on a collision course and its not
going to be solved by new technology.
I don’t think it is surprising that there is a tremendous renewed
interest in so many sorts of traditional spiritual practices, whether
Western or Eastern. This is a phenomenon that has been developing over 30
or 40 years. Clearly there is a role and a place for traditional spiritual
practices, cultivation practices, and developmental practices. The
distinctive feature of this era is that it is the first time in human
history that we have had to deal with global problems and global
institutions. Why do we have a global economy today? Because we have
global businesses and all the infrastructures that interconnect them. So we
have the emergence of global institutions. You might say that the Catholic
Church and the British Empire were examples, but neither had competitors.
We have had one or two examples in the past, but now they are everywhere.
Most of these boundary-spanning institutions are business, but there are
also quasi-governmental examples — like the UN and the World Bank. But the
most numerous and undoubtedly most impactful are the global corporations
and the growing number of global NGOs, like Greenpeace and Oxfam, which,
though small by comparison, have substantial impact.
Arie De Geus, who is a good friend, says it’s like a new species has come
on to the planet in the last one hundred years; the species of large
institutions and the networks they create. They are living systems of a
higher order of complexity than the living system of a person, and they are
completely out of control. The one thought that perhaps our work adds to
the many others about a new kind of spirituality is that the real need
today is not just for personal spirituality but a spirituality that
penetrates into the mindlessness today of large global institutions.
Spirituality is now a collective phenomenon.
Science is also a global institution although it is not a single
organization. People come from China, study at MIT, go back to China and
create similar programs. So you see the spread of science as a global
I think a key feature of the developing spiritual revolution could be a
blending of some elements of Western science and some elements of
traditional spirituality. The problem with traditional spirituality is that
it becomes religion. It becomes belief systems. It becomes a body of
religious fundamentalism. We all know that there has been no greater source
of warfare in the last 2000 years than religion. Today we have the
fundamentalist Christians against the fundamentalist Muslims. What’s new!
This is the past 1000 years played over again in the last two or three
years. That is the problem of the spirituality embodied in large
institutions based on rigid beliefs.
But, what if the spirit of inquiry, skepticism, and learning that
undergirds science were connected to deep personal development? Skepticism
is the natural antidote to fundamentalism, having the one ‘true’ answer.
Skepticism says, “I hear what you say, but I have to test it against the
data of experience.” Without this value, spirituality naturally drifts
toward a religion based on rigid belief systems.
I think this is why the meeting this weekend at MIT with the Dalai Lama can
occur. Buddhism is perhaps unique among major religions in embracing
skepticism and direct experience over dogma – certainly unique when
compared to Western religions. I once remember reading an interview with
the Dalai Lama that really impressed me. The interviewer asked a brilliant
question. “If a basic tenet of Buddhism was demonstrated to be false
scientifically, would you reject it?” His answer was that it would be a
very serious matter but if there were enough contrary evidence, he would
have to reject it. It is hard to imagine a leader of a Western religion
answering in such a way.
There is a basic reason such a response would not come from a Western
religious leader, one that has implications for science and religion. This
is the doctrine of dualism. We Westerners simply do not believe that
science has anything to say to religion, or vice versa. They exist in
Dualism is about a division between the world of manifest or physical
phenomena and the world of the intangible or immaterial. But, modern
science shows more and more that the universe is not divided up that way.
For example, modern physics shows that what appears solid and tangible to
our senses is mostly empty space, and that what is most real are
relationships not things —and relationships are not measurable, they are
not manifest. Dualism sent Western religious and scientific institutions on
diverging paths several hundred years ago. The paths must now reconnect.
Interestingly, Buddhism has no such dualistic ontology. According to
Buddhist theory, the universe has a manifest or phenomenal dimension and an
absolute dimension or infinite dimension, and the two are inseparable. In
the Buddhist tradition, the absolute is called the Tathagata, but it only
exists as it continually unfolds or manifests in the phenomenal world,
which in turn exists only because of its connection to the absolute. That
is what you call Nondualism. Nondualism is not unique to Buddhism; it sits
at the root of many of the world’s oldest religious traditions, especially
those of the east and indigenous societies, but not the Western. The
Western traditions, like mainstream Christianity, eventually bought into
dualism, although not originally – especially in its “gnostic” roots.
The church embraced the doctrine of dualism in the 17th Century, because
it was quite evident to a number of people that they weren’t going to be
able to jail all the Galileos of the future. So Descartes proposed a deal:
scientists would confine their attention to the manifest world (res
extensa) and the Church would do likewise for the inner world (res cogens).
The Cartesian split enabled the Church to continue as the most powerful
institution of society for another two or three centuries and gave the
fledgling scientific establishment breathing room to grow. Now, however,
the consequent split between mind and matter has brought us to
unprecedented levels of dis-connectedness to the world, to one another, and
even to ourselves.
Imagine a nondualistic science, a science that strove to integrate ‘the
outer’ and ‘the inner’ dimensions of experience, that could be about
understanding the universe and ourselves, as different facets of a unity.
That would be something very different from today’s fragmented mainstream
So, the science needed to connect with spiritual development must be a
different science. Such a science would not be the unique province of a
handful of lofty ‘scientists’ who make quasi-religious pronouncements about
the nature of the universe, as only they understand it. It would be a
science accessible to more humans because it would continually strive to
connect the outer and the inner. Such a science could potentially also lay
the foundation for more balanced economic, social and natural-system
Interestingly, China began its own scientific revolution 2000 years ago,
when they achieved a level of mathematics and basic experimental science
roughly comparable to 17th or 18th century Europe. But the Emperor said it
was not the path that should be followed and stopped this line of
development. The Emperors foresaw problems, many of which the West is
living with today — empirical science would be applied to create increasing
material well-being, material affluence and attachment. In short,
materialistic science leads eventually to economic materialism.
But, failure to encourage scientific inquiry in ancient China also deprived
the society of a culture of skepticism and inquiry. Eventually, it led
people to rigid beliefs about their ancestors and superficial understanding
of their knowledge, because they lacked direct experience and deep personal
It’s too late now to reject materialism. We’ve got the material goodies,
and we’re probably not going back, short of global catastrophe. I think
the global economy and Western scientific revolution are here to stay, and
they will shape the future spirituality. We have to recognize the
distinctiveness of our setting, and imagine a new spirituality that
addresses the realities of today, while also enabling humans to strive for
what we care most about — a way of living, with one another and with all of
nature, that expands our sense of love, connectedness, and wonder.
There is nothing that is going to connect us around the world with the
extraordinary variety of social and economic conditions in which we live,
except our commonality. And our commonality has to take us back to the
essence of what it means to be a human being. What does it mean to grow as
a human being? What does it mean to live well? What is our responsibility
to other life? As far as I can see, people everywhere come to very similar
answers to those questions, if they ask them. The problem is that most of
us in the West have stopped asking.
Peter M. Senge Ph.D. is a Senior Lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is also Founding Chair of the Society for Organizational Learning (SoL), a global community dedicated to the “interdependent development of people and their institutions.”
Fall | Winter 2016