Don Giovanni and the Universe: Aldous Huxley on How the Moon Illuminates the Complementarity of Spirituality and Science

Don Giovanni and the Universe: Aldous Huxley on How the Moon Illuminates the Complementarity of Spirituality and Science

“The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both,” Carl Sagan wrote shortly before his death. Two decades earlier, he had found a lyrical intersection of science and spirituality in Diane Ackerman’s scientifically accurate poems about the Solar System, which Sagan sent to his pal Timothy Leary in prison.

Leary had been jailed for his experiments probing precisely this meeting point of science and spirituality through his experiments with psychedelics, the most famous of which he conducted at Harvard in the early 1960s together with his friend Aldous Huxley (July, 26 1894–November 22, 1963).

Long before his collaboration with Leary, thirty-something Huxley began exploring the complementarity of the scientific and the spiritual realms of existence not through psychedelics but through immensely poetic prose, nowhere more beautifully than in his 1931 essay collection Music at Night (public library) — the out-of-print treasure that gave us Huxley’s moving meditation on the transcendent power of music.

Aldous Huxley

In an essay titled “Meditation in Arundel Street,” Huxley beings by wresting from the geographic cohabitation of two disparate journals — a religious magazine and a periodical on the science of poultry raising — a metaphor for two radically different ways of looking at the same thing: the universe and our place in it. He writes:

A walk down Arundel Street in London remains, after all, the best introduction to philosophy. Keep your eyes to the left as you descend toward the river from the Strand. You will observe that the Christian World is published at number seven, and a few yards further down, at number nine, the Feathered World. By the time you have reached the Embarkment you will find yourself involved in the most abstruse metaphysical speculations.

The Christian World, the Feathered World — between them a great gulf is fixed… The values and even the truths current in the world of number seven Arundel Street cease to hold good in that of number nine.

Just a few years before the great biologist and writer Rachel Carson extended her pioneering invitation to imagine Earth from the perspective of other creatures, Huxley uses the contrast between these two worlds as the leaping point for illuminating what a tiny sliver of physical reality we perceive through the limited lens of the human mind and spirit. That lacuna between the physical world of science and the metaphysical world of art, he suggests, is where the human consciousness takes shape and takes flight:

The world of Christians and the world of the feathered are but two out of a swarm of humanly conceivable and humanly explorable worlds. They constellate the thinking mind like stars, and between them stretches the mental equivalent of interstellar space — unspanned. Between, for example, a human body and the whizzing electrons of which it is composed, and the thoughts, the feelings which direct its movements, there are, as yet at any rate, no visible connections. The gulf that separates the lover’s, say, or the musician’s world from the world of the chemist is deeper, more uncompromisingly unbridgeable than that which divides Anglo-Catholics from macaws or geese from Primitive Methodists. We cannot walk from one of these worlds into another; we can only jump. The last act of Don Giovanni is not deducible from electrons, or molecules, or even from cells and entire organs. In relation to these physical, chemical, and biological worlds it is simply a non sequitur. The whole of our universe is composed in a series of such non sequiturs. The only reason for supposing that there is in fact any connection between the logically and scientifically unrelated fragments of our experience is simply the fact that the experience is ours, that we have the fragments in our consciousness. These constellated worlds are…

The Fear of Supernatural Punishment and Not “Big Gods,” Gave Rise to Societal Complexity

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Though larger numbers of people in developed countries are abandoning organized religion, no one can deny that religion or perhaps spirituality, has been a significant part of the human experience, historically. It’s been found in all cultures throughout the world. This leads evolutionary scientists to believe that spirituality must have played a critical role in our development. But exactly how has been difficult to discern.

Of all religions, Islam and Christianity have been the most successful. Together they account for 3.5 billion people in the world. The global population currently is a little over seven billion. To be so successful and grow so complex, you need to include the help of almost everyone in society. Freeloaders or those who go off to serve their own interests could hamper development. So how do you ensure that everyone buys in?

A previous study posited that the strong gods portrayed in Christianity and Islam helped to develop their respective societies into larger, more complex civilizations. These are omnipotent, high gods who enforce the moral code, and punish those who run afoul of it. One study out of the University of British Columbia concluded that such gods may have helped spur societal development. However, there isn’t consensus among scholars, as to whether a belief in such gods is in fact a driving force.

A New Zealand research team now says that these societies were already well on their way before “big gods,” came along. Instead, it was fear of supernatural punishment that kept everyone in line, they suggest. These included punishments from mighty gods, “fallible localized ancestral spirits,” and even, “inanimate processes like karma.”

Hindu God.

Do you need a moralizing high god for society to develop, or is a belief in supernatural punishment enough?

One problem is how to study such influences. Some cultures share lots of traits, not only because of common development, but a common ancestry, history, and so on. Following back which associations influenced what development, has traditionally, been difficult. Researchers at the University of Auckland borrowed a technique from evolutionary biology that analyzes data models, to arrive at their conclusions.

Researchers looked at 96 out of 400 indigenous Austronesian cultures. This is was a great seafaring culture of the Asia Pacific region who at one time inhabited parts of Taiwan, Australia, the Philippines, Madagascar, and many of the Pacific Islands, including Hawaii and Easter Island. Cultural evolution expert Joseph Watts was one of the researchers on this study. He said, “Austronesian cultures offer an ideal sample to test theories about the evolution of…