A Conversation Between Basarab Nicolescu and Arthur Versluis
© Copyright 2017 Basarab Nicolescu and Arthur Versluis. All rights reserved.
No republication or reproduction without express written consent of the speakers.
Arthur Versluis – (AV)
Basarab Nicolescu – (BN)
Part One: Spirituality and Transdisciplinarity
AV: I’m sitting here with Basarab Nicolescu and it’s Tuesday afternoon on the day of the American election. I thought we could start by talking about your focus over the years on transdisciplinarity and especially on transdisciplinarity, spirituality and the sacred and how these concepts intertwine to the extent that they do intertwine. Could you start by talking a little bit about transdisciplinarity and how you became and why you became so focused on it, and how you became—
AV: —essentially an intellectual activist on behalf of transdisciplinarity and what its connections are to concepts like spirituality and the sacred.
BN: That is a vast, vast subject, but let’s start with the beginning. Transdisciplinarity, I became interested because of physics. Looks quite strange because transdisciplinarity looks more like a philosophical approach, but in physics, I am a quantum physicist, I work more than forty years in quantum physics, I became more and more convinced that we, physicists, are confronted with a vision of reality which is radically new compared with that of the nineteenth century. But, very strangely, in the society, in academia, this view is a lost phenomenon. In other words, I was shocked, really, from the time when I was post-doc in Berkeley, this means around 1976, by the huge difference between the view that philosophers, people in human sciences, have on reality and what we know from quantum physics. it seemed to me that this is a very dangerous situation. You see, because all the time in culture and in the history, the view of reality was connected with nature. In a way or the other, science, nature, in whatever sense in different periods of time over history. But in a very strange way, we developed a larger and larger gap between the new views of nature in physics and philosophy, social science, and so forth. It is because of that that I had more and more the conviction that I have to elaborate a methodology for the dialogue between science, exact science, and humanities, between different disciplines, between cultures, between religions, between spiritualities, between people. And I start to do that in 1985 and I wrote my first book Us, the Particle and the World, in French. My motivation was that scientists had arrived at the limits of science. At the boundary of science. And when you arrive at boundaries, you begin to discover what is the connection with the rest. It is not a failure to arrive at boundaries; it’s a fabulous thing. Because we now that we have limits, because we have a methodology of science. But the thought made obvious by quantum physics, quantum mechanics, quantum physics, allowed us to begin the conversation with other disciplines than just exact sciences. And that was the real motivation for transdisciplinarity.
AV: With regard to your different books on transdisciplinarity what would you suggest as the one, if you’re going to say one book, and this is the essential, this is the essential, reading on transdisciplinarity, what would that be?
BN: The Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity.
AV: And what in particular would you say about the manifesto? Looking back on the manifesto now.
AV: What would you say about it?
BN: I think it’s the axiomatic structure of transdisciplinarity which we expose there. Usually in my books I put hundreds of references. There is no reference in my manifesto, just names that I refer to. So the point is that, you know, at that moment of time when I wrote the manifesto, I made a lot of talks at congresses, there was even a world congress of transdisciplinarity. A friend of mine said you have to write a compact thing to put all the ideas because will be for the benefit of many people if you just write something like that. It happened there was a general strike in Paris, everything stopped, everything. Even cars didn’t work. People went by foot from their home to work, so at that moment I wrote this manifesto during one month. I think it remains valid until now, I mean I have no changes to make because it is an axiomatic thing. Of course there have been many, many manifestos published almost every day or every month. But in my mind there are only two who remain, the Manifesto of the Communist Party, written by Marx, and the Surrealist Manifest, written by André Breton. I said let’s make a third one. So I think it’s important to have this axiomatic approach also. You know it introduced the structures, what this manifesto did. It also introduced levels of reality, complexity, logic of the included middle, everything is there. So in fact my books are kind of
constellation preparing this manifesto and the book on cosmodernity.
AV: But the book on cosmodernity is an elaboration of aspects of the manifesto. It’s a—
BN: Not really.
BN: Not really because in Cosmodernity, the word “transdisciplinarity” appears only at the end. So I consider that in a different way. In other words, we introduce facts from theatre and literature, science, and so on, to give something again to introduce the hidden third. So a small part concentrated on the hidden third, which was not really elaborated in the manifesto.
AV: When you describe reaching a boundary, or, reaching a point after which is a boundary implies that when you arrive at a point and, you pass over that point then you’re in new territory.
BN: That’s right.
AV: And the boundary point here that you’re implying is reached, with quantum physics, is that boundary, is the other side of that boundary what we would call spirituality or the sacred?
BN: Not yet.
BN: I mean not yet, it’s also, it’s also—
AV: What is the boundary, then, that you’re referring to?
BN: So, let us imagine physics, biology, economy, with all the results that were discovered and were all the results that will be discovered based on the methods of the given discipline that I call a boundary or a limit. Not only the results from now but results also in the future, and it’s obvious that you have a limit once you have a methodology. We can imagine this discipline as being a sphere, with boundaries with, surfaces of the sphere. you ask what is in between? And that is the general idea, per se, which… in 1970 required coining the term transdisciplinarity. He had the question “what happens in the fluctuations of boundaries of a discipline?” I tried to answer; many other people now try to answer: what is that in between the boundaries, which crosses the boundaries, and is beyond any boundaries? That I called transdisciplinarity. In fact, is this a place of information? Part of that is connected with spirituality. But we cannot limit this place, it is a space, also, say of freedom of problems, of imagination, it’s a space of maximum information, because it’s connected with what? It’s connected with the subject. And that was the main point I tried to make in my first works on transdisciplinarity: how the subject is restored, resurrected. You see, in our normal science we push out the subject. We say that’s subjective, that’s subjectivity, so we push out the subject and we try to be objective. I mean if we just have an object, we can manipulate with subjects, but we manipulate, not interacting with objects by just dummy writing and money polluting it through the losses. That was the vision of the nineteenth century, which is still circulating now, in fact in human sciences. that’s, I’ll say, the main point here: what is in between crossing and beyond is, I will say, us. Human beings. And a human being cannot be captured in a formula, in a definition. Marxism and communism are outlets for the belief that we can advance a mathematical formula for a human being. We can’t. In fact, what we discover is ourselves. That’s, I think, the biggest discovery of the twentieth century, which can be good for twenty-first century. The fact, that we are not, like a French philosopher says, the subject is just, he said, a word in a proposition. This is now a reality, and this, for me, as a physicist, I was very surprised to see that this is from physics, from where you don’t expect it from… this is an assertion about the importance of the subject. Why? Because in quantum physics we are confronted with a scale, a very small scale, which, compared with us, is very different. With this confrontation between two different scales we see that there’s dialogue, the same preference doesn’t mean that the subject creates reality: it interacts with reality.
AV: I think that the subject-object relation is an essential part of understanding mysticism in that, in our contemporary society, regardless of what exists in terms of the domain of quantum physics in our society what we actually experience is, largely, an objectified external world. We live in a world of objects that are manipulated just as you’re describing and from which we are separated. One reads that Plato is dualistic or that many other figures in the past are dualistic or that different religious traditions are dualistic, but the reality is that we, in our contemporary society, are actually dualistic, not them, but us.
AV: —in that we have a very deep division between subject and object, and, as you say, the subjective is often, pushed out, with the denigration of the term subjective as “only” subjective. As if there is an objective reality in which we live, a view that is fundamentally dualistic. Those assumptions are, I think, fundamentally incorrect from the point of view of different mystical traditions or, broadly, you could say mysticism. I define mysticism in a very particular way in my book Platonic Mysticism, in which I argue that Christian, what is often called Christian mysticism is ultimately traced back to a Platonic metaphysics that is not dualistic. There’s precedent for non-dualistic metaphysics in the west. But in our society, which, I think, fundamentally is dualistic, transdisciplinarity offers what in a contemporary context?
AV: How, or in what way, does transdisciplinarity begin to address this fundamental dualism in our contemporary social structure, intellectual structure? Or does it? Or is it possible to address?
BN: What is nice is that we are no more limited to wishful thinking or even metaphysical claims, philosophical claims. We can demonstrate when it’s wrong, when something is wrong. Dualism is wrong. And I think that why it’s wrong, from my point of view, is wrong first of all because of a terrible confusion, which was made between matter and substance. That, I think, it’s usually not said like that, but basically this is the fundamental error in all the dualist conflicts. Also, it’s a moment of time: when matter was reduced to substance. What will this cause, slowly? It took around thirty years, which is not magic. In fact, between 1900 and 1930, quantum mechanics was constituted, was discovered slowly. In fact matter is much complex, is complex of four aspects. There is substance, there’s energy (which is not substance, it’s something different), the relation between substance and energy… which everybody knows… the square of the speed of light. This means transformation of substance and energy, because the second aspect is energy. Third aspect is information. Information came towards the end of the twentieth century in science, more in the development of information and so, and information has nothing to do with energy and substance. It’s a different complement. It’s just an abstract complex… one zero one zero one. It’s something that can be connected with electron and electron, but it doesn’t matter what, the problem is that it is abstract. Quantum numbers, abstract numbers, depend on the material support, of the substance. And fourth aspect, very strange but already present at the beginning of the twentieth century… was the connection between matter and space-time. Space-time becomes a complement of matter and that has proved experimental things. If, for example, the light goes through any, very big, heavy, planets of heavy densities, the trajectory of the light is curved: it feels the curvature of space-time. To say matter today means substance, energy, information, and space-time, together. where is the limit now with spirituality? You see where is the error, is a epistemological error, very important, is the fact that confusion is substance, and other parts, which is to say they are different. They are not different. The limits between spiritual, what we call usually spiritual, and material become completely blurred. We have to speak in a different way about materialistic writing so in any case there’s a connection. There’s one basic thing, say an epistemological thing, which will be very important. Now, connected with the sacred, that’s a different story, the sacred can be defined as an idea, as being the fitting of an irreducible reality. In other words, there is something there in nature, in the world, which is reality but which cannot be reduced to something arbitrary, to descriptions. And what we have faced, what we were facing, in the twentieth century is that problem. For example, a big problem in 1930, saying that whatever the system that gives us facts, you arrive first at contradictions, things you cannot decide if they are wrong or right. It’s fabulous because it means that you cannot arrive at the point where you can define everything by clarity, by models, by mental things. You’re going to open the door to something very deep. Which is not, even now, understood very well. I try to clarify that in my books, which open the door towards the limits again of science. What does this mean, the limits of science? It refers to science that will not be not defined like it is now. The science of being. Spirituality is essentially the science of being, not the science of nature. It opens the door towards an area in which people for centuries in past civilizations experimented—on themselves. In other words, this shift I tried to quote on the view of what is matter opens the problem, big problem, of how we observe it. We take a fragment, we study very well this fragment and from that we discover everything. That was the methodology of science like we know today, even. This produces something fragmented. The science I’m referring to now, of spirituality, opens the door to the fact that you have not only instruments from outside, to see nature, to see matter, but you have also instruments inside of the human being. We forget totally that human being is in fact, a universe. I mean, I am fascinated by the medieval thinking in which this idea spread, that the human being is a universe, similar to the reflection of the universe in a mirror. We have everything inside ourselves: planets, suns, everything. But we forget that because we try to make this cut, the epistemological, philosophical cut between subject, being, and thought. I think this became very dangerous because it contradicts scientific facts.
AV: It’s interesting to hear you describe or refer to a science of being. There’s a contemporary author, his PhD is in Religious Studies actually, but he spent many years with Tibetan Buddhists, and his name is Alan Wallace. He’s been a guest here, as a speaker and he has proposed, and some people have been creating, what he calls contemplative observatories. He has an institute in Santa Barbara, and he has been a proponent of creating a systematic ways of, you could say, subjective-objective, exploration in which consciousness is the means for its own investigation, which is very much along the lines of what you’re talking about.
BN: Yes, this proposal looks very interesting. If, if the results of this observatory are not analyzed by old methods. I think all the trouble, I saw a lot of things from the time when I was in California when I saw many things happening there—
AV: Your time in Berkeley.
BN: —Yes, my time in Berkeley. I discovered a lot of things that were fascinating because they were bringing this observation of contemplation, but they tried to analyze the intents of both sides, so everything got lost again. I think the problem is how we would analyze that. And I think the only way is to replace thinking, the mental thinking, by feelings and sensations— they are also kinds of knowledge. We forget totally that feelings have intelligence. We have forget completely that we know that from practical life. But if we forget, there are also instincts that can have very big intelligence. I think the problem here is to invent a new language in terms of feelings, sensations, sensation I mean for example of the body, of the muscles, of, very fine sensation in the body. We should not fall in the trap of analyzing new results with old thinking. What I mean by old thinking, is to try to make a formula for that, try to make mathematics that confuse an observatory with being able to see if there is emotion in the brain or not. For instance, we see studies of these Buddhist monks, and scientists seek to analyze the waves in the brain. Okay, but the waves in the brain don’t see that. That’s the point. That I mean the old kind of methods, so that’s a big trap out there and it’s not easy because we are accustomed to that; not trying to analyze in terms of objective things, things that are not objective. The only way, I think, and this is not a paradox, sorry, not to give the feeling that I’m playing with the words, the only way, I think, to make an objective statement on subjective observation is to apply subjective methods. You see, if we use machines, they are not humans.
AV: Wallace and those with whom he’s been working, are not opposed to objective means of inquiry. Scientists, for example, use fMRI mapping, which is commonly used for brain mapping that produces colored images. However, we’ve had people here who come and speak about that and I’ve found it ultimately unconvincing because I’m convinced of course on the flat level that something happens in the brain but that’s all I see and, in other words, some part of the brain lights up but that that doesn’t actually show us very much. I think it’s actually using a two-dimensional, you could say it’s a way of using something two-dimensional to try to investigate what is actually multidimensional. And it cannot be reduced to that.
BN: That’s it exactly.
AV: So the imagery is there, and it’s valid on its own level but its own level is not the same as the subjective-objective level. And I say subjective-objective together because there’s a sense in which what we’re talking about is neither strictly subjective or objective.
BN: And we see here another trap. If you allow me to underline the irrational term, our trap is a logical trap. Because to say a thing is either subjective or objective without applying the logic of the included middle, this very special logic, different than classical logic. This means there is not-either, which is at the same time a and non-a. In this kind of phenomenon—fields of knowledge, consciousness—we have to learn new logics. This is another point, and I think it’s not an accident, in the history of culture, that at the beginning of the twentieth century when quantum mechanics was invented, an abstract art was invented. When a measured thing, the universe, which was thought to be static, never in evolution, is revealed to be also in evolution, which is changing the universe and the same time it is discovered that logics are not given in our brain as a definitive kind of structure. In other words, a new logic we invented in the period between 1920 and 1930 is the logic of the included middle. A thing can be one thing and the contradictory of the thing. And if you say it like that, that’s plain absurdity, of course, to say that one thing is same and not, you can say that there are different levels of reality and here we get another important aspect of transdisciplinarity: which is the idea of levels. That reality is not just one, single level but different levels with different laws. Acting on the systems, belonging to their levels, we have to change also the logic. And the best logic, I think, for this kind of framework is the logic of the included middle. This is not the only one, but it is the most adapted one. Formal logic, yes, in that sense, we arrive at something, I think, that is very important. A logic that includes contradiction in turn allows spirituality.
AV: We’re using the term “spirituality” because that’s the term that typically I’ve found is most amenable to those in the sciences. Religion, the term “religion,” is a term with more external or outward social aspects, whereas there would seem to be a natural connection between what we could call esoteric religion or esoteric forms of religious literature or philosophical literature or art, spirituality, and the multidimensional logic you are referring to. What constitutes “esoteric” spirituality fits very well in the kind of multidimensional aspects of transdisciplinarity that you’re describing. In other words, there’s a natural affinity there, or overlap, and, in fact, that may be there because it most closely fits with what you’re describing as transdisciplinarity. Can you elaborate on that a little bit?
BN: Yes, let me first remark about the word “esoteric,” because if we take that in the meaning that there is something hidden there, I think there is nothing more esoteric than quantum mechanics, in fact. What is quantum mechanics for a man who doesn’t know quantum mechanics? Just complete magic because no one understands a word… but they know it produces incredible facts. I think that the notion of something hidden is not because it is hidden by will but it is hidden because we didn’t go through the knowledge of that domain of phenomenal systems. So I think that, like if I said that quantum mechanics is an esoteric teaching in that sense, it’s also hidden because you have to go through that in order to understand what it is about. The textbook is your own experience. And I think that’s very important. In that sense, we can offer a framework to understanding rationally what we is thinking about when we speak about spirituality when we apply this idea of levels of reality, we apply these ideas of different logics, which is not the excluded middle logic. I also bring a new notion, which is the notion of the hidden third. The hidden third is something, which is in between the subject and the object, which mediates the interaction between the subject and object. If the hidden third is not present, either you have an object completely disconnected from the subject and that is the modernity model, in which we have a subject with just manipulates the object, this means you sink to one level of reality. The hidden third allows the richness of reality. Richness in diverse logics, and approaches. I think the concept of the hidden third is the best way to approach this field you are speaking of, spirituality, because it allows us to speak of irreducible reality in a new way.
AV: Let’s start with an irreducible—
AV: —an irreducible reality.
BN: An irreducible reality, which is there, doesn’t mean that it is irrational in the usual sense of the word, it’s more transrational. You see, there is the transhistorical aspect of history. I think it’s a very deep observation to enter into a transrational approach to reality, and this doesn’t mean that it’s against reason but rather that it is collaborating with reason to understand the transrational.
AV: I think that, that perspective that you’re putting forward does fit with what I understand to be esoteric, that is, all that includes magical and mystical works, figures, and movements, all of which have to do with the hidden connections between subject and object which we call magic or the transcendence of the subject-object division that we would call mysticism. But one of the things that I’ve come across or experienced, in this area, the study of religion, is hostility to what we are talking about. That is to say, there seems to be considerable fear or antagonism to what you could call transdisciplinary approaches that would be very, I think, very appropriate to the study of esoteric religions or literary or artistic works, but people want to study them from, you could say, or to compel everyone to study them, from what we could call a two-dimensional approach.
AV: That is, you’re referring to historical and transhistorical or rational and transrational, which are not opposed. They’re not opposed. There’s no opposition, they’re collaborative. But what do you think accounts for that antagonism or fear or toward this kind of acceptance of multiple levels of reality, the idea that there, the ideal like irreducible reality? What causes that tendency in the contemporary academic world, do you think?
BN: Yes, yes I have a lot of experience, of course, with this hostility, both in academic circles and in non-academic circles and so I try not to send myself crazy trying to find an answer to the question you just formulated. And my answer can be very simple, very simple in fact and I hope that it’s not a huge simplification of the problem but I think the simple answer to that fear is habits of mind. You see, when we have habits of mind, which are installed in ourselves for years and years and years, we begin to think that these habits of mind are the truth. But it’s a fake truth. Because habits of mind are not truth, it’s just a reflection, a representation. In some sense, people are slaves of representations. As a result, I’m so much insisting in my books and talks and speaking on education. It’s a very complicated story because it goes into the depth of our functioning, which is very often hidden to us, to ourselves. And the only way, I think, to eliminate this fear was to make these people understand once that their identities aren’t in danger. Because when you change your habits of mind, you think your identity is lost. And that is nonsense because our mind has nothing to do with our deep identity, in fact. That’s one thing. On a more practical level, I think, to eliminate this fear is to make people convinced that in the framework of the contemporary life, of the twenty-first century, globalized world, this means communications everywhere putting in connection every part of the world, it’s every part of the world. Keeping this habit of mind puts the university in danger of disappearing totally. We see a lot of universities that eventually become more and more like institutes. Technological institutes. We see more and more all over the world. It’s not just in one country that humanistic studies are marginalized, that they forget them because they are not considered very powerful. They are not meant for practical things. It’s to make these people understand that kind of knowledge, which is connecting different aspects of reality, which is initially thought of as universal thinking and not specialized thinking. Ah, some people begin to understand that.
AV: I think that is paradoxically really a risk, because what we could call a two- dimensional or strictly dualistic approach to knowledge ends up divesting it of its meaning and of the power that it actually has, and I think that’s part of the reason that the humanities in the United States are at risk. In fact, there are a significant number of scholars that are kind of motivated by what I would describe as a kind of neo-Marxist, materialist approach, that want to deconstruct religion and reduce it ultimately; not deconstruct for the purpose of along the lines of what you’re describing, which is ultimately leading to a renaissance, but ultimately deconstruction that leads towards a kind of nihilism that’s the end result of strict materialism, and I term this “self-erasure.” There’s a considerable tendency in the humanities in the last twenty or thirty years toward what I call self-erasure and a loss of an internal narrative. People, for example, who study literature no longer have an internal narrative to describe why they study literature. I have a PhD in literature and at the time I got it, I was engaged in the study of literature at the tail end of the real narrative for the study of it, of an explanation of why we study it, what its purposes are, what its meanings are. That has since disappeared for the most part. That’s happened also to some extent, a lesser extent, to the study of religion, certainly to academic philosophy, and it’s possible that transdisciplinarity could provide a way of re-envisioning these. That the kind of approach you’re talking about, we’re talking about a very radical re-envisioning of understanding what higher education is for and how meaning is constituted in it. Previously, say, in the mid twentieth century, the argument would be, and this would be a whole range of scholars, John Crowe Ransom, Irving Babbitt, or Robert M. Hutchinson, the president of the University of Chicago, these were people who were champions of the idea of great books. And that the purpose of the humanities was exposure to great books. And out of that comes deepening of human meaning. I still personally subscribe to that to some extent. However, in the environment we’re in now, and given the changes in scientific understanding, the development of quantum physics, quantum mechanics, quantum theory, and the kind of radical disintegration of narratives for the humanities themselves, it t seems to me that there’s an opportunity to regard all of that as actually an opportunity.
AV: Transdisciplinarity may provide a way into that revitalization.
BN: Yes, reconstructing that.
AV: That’s right. Reconstruction.
BN: Reconstruction. Because you reconstruct how? In terms of the new methodology, that’s the powerful thing. If you reconstruct the name of the one ideology, the name of a practice, the name of a method, the name of a philosophy, that’s not very powerful. Because it’s limited, because you have other ideologies, other philosophies, other methods. On the other hand, a scientific methodology is very powerful. Proof is the scientific methodology invented in the fourteenth century. Is it staying the same? No, for centuries, in spite of the fact that some were completely antagonistic to science, the same overall methodology developed. I think methodology is a way of reconstructing fields of meaning. I have students who have shown how incredible potentialities come if you align through this new methodology.
AV: I’m interested to see what you think. I have two chapters in my next book on mysticism. And in one chapter what I’m looking at is the study of consciousness, literature, and art and I give some examples of literary figures and artists whose work is sublime. By viewing it, by looking at the works of art, you’re participating in the works of art and it actually has a transformative affect on you, which brings you beyond yourself. There’s something sublime that happens with some works of art. Not all works of art, I don’t think. I think there are certain ones that can do this.
BN: Certain ones. Certain ones. I think that has to do with the notion of vibrations. For example I look in a painting by Matisse, to give a name of a painter, at the beginning I see just a representation of some clouds but after some point that becomes so much, vibrating in myself, that I begin to circulate in the painting. This inner movement I think illustrates the role of the hidden third. Because it’s the third between the subject and object. Between the man who looks at the art, painting, sculpture, or reading literary work, there’s a third that appears between them. It’s the magic from some other place. Peter Brook, in his books, puts forth very much the idea of the role of the public. He doesn’t go really to the point, saying there’s a third there which appears, but in fact that’s the reason how the public can be important. How the public can interact with what is happening on the scene is if the third is present. In Christian religion we have the Holy Spirit, which is the, I will say, incarnation in some sense of this hidden third in the framework of a given set of doctrines of Christian religion. In other places we have other ways. In religion, this hidden third has many, many possibilities of interaction and revealings. I don’t take the word “vibration” in the sense of new age meaning, which I heard all the time, “the vibes,” you know, in California. Vibration, again, in the scientific meaning of the word because we have defined that today in physics, that everything is vibration. Everything is string, super string we call. That there are small, small, small, infinitely small strings which are interacting, one with the other, and creating this huge diversity of the world. Which is an extraordinary, kind of metaphysical narrative, coming from this.