Chapter 16: Developments in Modern Physics and Their Implications for the Social and Behavioral Sciences

By Mark A. Schroll

Mark A. Schroll, “Developments in Modern Physics and Their Implications for the Social and Behavioral Sciences,&rdquoin The Religion and Family Connection: Social Science Perspectives, ed. Darwin L. Thomas (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1988), 303–23.

Chapter 16: Developments in Modern Physics and Their Implications for the Social and Behavioral Sciences

Mark A. Schroll


Mark A. Schroll was an adjunct instructor in the Physics Department at Kearney State College, Kearney, Nebraska, when this was published.


The present article is a brief overview for social and behavioral scientists who are unfamiliar with the modern physics movement and the emerging “new age paradigm.” Evidence of the emergence of this new age paradigm is reflected in the plethora of books and articles published throughout the last decade on the modern physics movement and its relationship to the perennial philosophy of the world’s great religious traditions (Bohm and Weber, 1982a; Bohm and Sheldrake, 1982b; Capra, 1975,1983a, 1983b, 1984; Comfort, 1983, 1984; Deikman, 1982; Pelletier, 1978; Valle, 1981; Weber, 1986; Wolf, 1981; Young, 1984; Zukav, 1979; etc.).

Unfortunately this movement is often mistaken as an occult uprising, antiscientific, and a belief in the irrational. Many reasons could be given, and have been (Capra, 1983a; Ferguson, 1980), as to why this area has continued to gain the interest of countless authors and larger audiences. Historian Theodore Roszak has put forth the view that the emergence of these books, articles and the rising culture surrounding them is the indication of a great religious appetite, reaching out into areas that are not traditionally religious in character (Roszak, n.d.).

This same view is held by Ken Wilber, editor of the New Science Library, Shambala Publications. In his introduction to this series, Wilber says that the “New Science Library has come into existence for the purpose of exploring and encouraging the dialogue between the scientific and spiritual views of the world” (1984: 2).

My first exposure to what is now generally referred to as “new age thinking” was through Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics (1975) and an unpublished manuscript, “The Awakening” (Sallach, 1976), which had been greatly influenced by Capra’s book. Since then my world perspective has been greatly influenced by the eminent physicist David Bohm, a student of Einstein. Bohm has added significantly to the new physics literature by discussing connections between modern physics and the perennial philosophy of the world’s great religious traditions. Bohm’s viewpoint is that the empirical evidence stemming from modern physics suggests the need for a new metaphysics. (Bohm and Weber, 1982a; Schroll, 1987a; Weber, 1986.)

According to Bohm, this new metaphysics would rest upon the premise that the universe is an undivided wholeness. This undivided wholeness, this transcendental source-ground is, says Bohm, the fundamental Reality and through a cyclic process of projection, injection, re-projection, this primary Reality gives rise to a secondary reality, the manifest world of sensory phenomena. Bohm’s viewpoint counters the present metaphysics of Western science, which rests upon the premise that the domain of manifest sensory phenomena represents the primary and “only” reality.

Furthermore, Bohm believes the present worldview of Western science is maintained through the self-deceptive fragmentary division of subjectivity and objectivity. This division of our self-worldview has been humanity’s major source of suffering and confusion.

Believing that Bohm was essentially correct in his plea for a new metaphysics and sensing great confusion stemming from efforts to retain the traditional objective-subjective dichotomy in Western thought, I wondered, could developments in the modern physics movement provide a more adequate philosophical foundation for the social and behavioral sciences?

My research over the past few years and this manuscript provide a possible answer to that question, that “new age thinking” has the potential to generate a new ontological and epistemological metaphysics, providing the possible reconciliation between positivistic science and the perennial philosophy of the major world religious traditions—eliminating the presently existing separation of the sacred and the secular.

The developments of the modern physics movement have already had a profound effect upon the worldview of physics as well as the physicists themselves. Indeed, as the profoundly shocking ontological and epistemological developments of the new physics come to be more fully understood by social and behavioral scientists, their paradigm will also undergo a transformation (Schroll, 1987b). Niels Bohr argues that those who are not at first shocked by quantum mechanics do not understand it.

Contrary to the view of classical science, the ontological position of the new physics is not to prove or disprove the reality of objective phenomena. Rather, the ontology of the new physics cannot be separated from its epistemology, because the purpose of the new physics is to track down, as precisely as possible, the relationship between the manifold aspects of the world of phenomenological events (the observed) and the symbolic construction of these phenomenological events as they are experienced by the observer. (Guillemin, 1968.)

Thus, an important thesis of this article is that emergent phenomenological reality is inextricably entwined with the act of measurement, which implies participation, as opposed to the classical scientific stance of passive observation. Therefore, emergent reality can neither exist apart from nor prior to the act of measurement, but is in fact the act of measurement itself.

The participatory ethos of new age thinking which underscores emergent phenomenological reality can serve to heal the fragmentary metaphysics and methodological reductionism of Western science. However, it should not be seen as a panacea for the ills of humanity. It will be the responsibility of humanity as a whole to help heal the split between the sacred and the secular, and help to bridge the gap between ancient wisdom and modern science.

The Historical Overview of Modern Physics

Some came for the reasons

some came along for the ride

some knew what they needed

others needed time to decide.

The first of a new breed

standing on a new frontier

seeking direction when a voice

came through loud and clear—


Open your eyes up to the ways of the world [universe].

Keith L. Volquardsen and Phillip C. Potter

musicians and songwriters, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1983

It is appropriate to begin our historical overview of modern physics with Lord Kelvin, one of the leading theoretical physicists of the nineteenth century, and his view of the state of classical physics as summarized by Bohm:

[Lord Kelvin] . . . expressed the opinion that physics had more or less completed its development. He therefore advised young men not to go into this field because further work would only be a matter of confirming the next few decimal points. He did however mention two small clouds on the horizon. These were the negative results of the Michelson-Morely experiment and the difficulties of understanding quantized [sic, blackbody] radiation. We must admit that Lord Kelvin was able to choose his clouds properly. These were precisely the points of departure for the developments of relativity and quantum theory. (Bohm, 1984.)

The Michelson-Morley experiment, conducted in 1887, was designed to measure the ether breeze. The ether was believed to be a corpuscular web that extended throughout the universe and served as the invisible medium through which light propagated itself 0eans, 1943).

The ether breeze was thought to be the result of the earth’s rotation and movement through space. The Michelson-Morley experiment failed to detect the ether. Various explanations to account for why the ether had not been detected began to emerge. However, it took the bold statement by a young scientist named Albert Einstein to declare eighteen years later than the ether was not detected because the ether does not exist!

During this same time in history, Max Planck (known as the father of modern physics), having been influenced by the writings of Lord Kelvin, believed he would be one of the world’s last theoretical physicists. Ironically, it was his work on blackbody radiation that helped to change all this. (Briggs and Peat, 1984.)

For simplicity’s sake, blackbody radiation refers to an object that absorbs all the radiation that falls upon it. The word blackbody is a bit of a misnomer, as the word blackbody also denotes an object capable of turning heat energy into electromagnetic radiation—such as the sun (Gribbin, 1984).

Thus a second seemingly unanswerable problem emerged for nineteenth-century physicists when their predictions of blackbody radiation in terms of classical thermodynamics produced results indicating that blackbodies at very high temperatures and short wavelengths contained infinite amounts of energy. This prediction came to be called the “ultraviolet catastrophe.” (Gribbin, 1984.)

Planck’s attempt to solve the ultraviolet catastrophe created the anomalous solution (contrary to Thomas Young’s experimentally confirmed wave theory of light) that light or thermal radiation is emitted in discrete energy packets or “quanta.” Even though this hypothesis helped to explain thermal radiation, Planck was hesitant to accept his own discovery because it contradicted scientific “fact.”

Although Planck himself was still doubting the existence of quanta as a physical entity, the existence of light quanta or “photons” were seen to be a necessary condition toward the explanation of the photoelectric effect. This bold conclusion was published in 1905 by the same young physicist who had denied the existence of the ether, Albert Einstein. This also marked the beginning of the many quantum paradoxes. How, physicists began asking themselves, can light and other forms of energy possess the qualities of individual, pointlike particles (such as the photoelectric effect suggested), as well as Young’s theory of light as continuous waves?

Although the hypothesis of light quanta or photons appeared to explain the experimental results of the photoelectric effect, Einstein, like Planck before him, balked at his own discovery; this dual personality of light made as much sense to classical physicists as saying that stones are also steam (Briggs and Peat, 1984).

While this controversy was still far from being solved, Niels Bohr was trying to resolve certain peculiarities in Rutherford’s model of the atom. Early in the twentieth century, from his research on radioactivity, Ernest Rutherford had proposed that the atom was like a tiny solar system—having a massive central core of protons surrounded by orbiting electrons of lighter density. This model had satisfied and convinced most physicists of the day, but Bohr noticed that based on the electrons’ orbital decay, all atoms should collapse in a moment. Bohr asked, why don’t they?

His first clue to this question came from optical spectroscopy, the science of studying atomic spectra. When an atom emits energy, light is given off, forming the so-called emission spectrum. When energy is absorbed by an atom, a negative image of the emission spectrum (the absorption spectrum) is formed. Furthermore, this optical spectrum (of a chemical element such as hydrogen) acts as an identifiable pattern—much like a fingerprint. (Briggs and Peat, 1984.)

It was Bohr’s insight—to combine the quantized energy concept of Planck and Einstein with spectroscopy and Rutherford’s atomic solar system—which birthed a new model of the atom. This hybrid was an immediate success with the physicists of the time, who applauded Bohr’s ability to account for the insights of Planck and Einstein by bringing them into accord with the traditional Newtonian framework.

Despite this, the paradox of the dual nature of light had yet to be properly addressed. But the majority of scientists, then as now, were simply going along for the ride and, in the wave of excitement over Bohr’s new atomic model, this anomaly was soon forgotten (as anomalies usually are [Schroll, 1987a]). Fortunately for science and humanity, there are those who listen to an inner voice, choosing to march to a different drummer.

Indeed, before the wave/particle paradox of light energy would once again become a topic of debate, another young physicist needed to open his eyes up to the ways of the universe. This healthy young voice of objection came from Werner Heisenberg, who, along with his friend Wolfgang Pauli, began to notice some irregularities in the Bohr atom.

To begin with, technical improvements in spectroscopy had revealed finer spectral lines, producing computational abnormalities in Bohr’s atomic model. However, these experimental and computational objections were overshadowed by an insight that was to help produce the next visionary breakthrough. These pliable young minds had realized what senior physicists following classical scientific dogma could not, that “Bohr had grafted the new quantum ideas onto older nineteenth-century notions like planetary orbits. While older physicists felt content with this hybrid, the compromise seemed unsatisfactory to the two [young] students.” (Briggs and Peat, 1984: 42.)

Social and behavioral scientists have a valuable lesson to learn from scientists such as Pauli and Heisenberg. Unlike Planck and Einstein, they were not afraid to question the scientific dogma of practical realism or positivistic science. Instead they trusted their own intuitive insight.

Following the completion of his thesis on hydrodynamics, Heisenberg took an academic post at the University of Gottingen. It was at this time that Heisenberg turned his full attention to the structure of the atom. But his progress toward finding any sort of solution was impeded as a result of his teaching schedule. Ironically, as a result of a severe hay fever attack toward the end of May 1925, he was freed from his teaching responsibilities for two weeks. To recover from his illness, Heisenberg retired to the pollen-free island of Helgoland. Here, free from interruptions, he made rapid progress. Guided by his inner vision of how things ought to go, he developed an algebraic method based on his observation of atomic spectra to account for the energy fluctuations of electrons in the Bohr atom. This method came to be known as matrix mechanics.

The tremendous exhilaration experienced by Heisenberg from his “seeing” into the heart of atomic structure is best expressed by Heisenberg himself in his autobiographical account:

I reached a point where I was ready to determine the individual terms in the energy table, or, as we put it today, in the energy matrix. . . . When the first terms seemed to accord with the energy principle, I became rather excited, and I began to make countless arithmetical errors. As a result, it was almost three o’clock in the morning before the final result of my computations lay before me. . . . At first, I was deeply alarmed. I had the feeling that through the surface of atomic phenomena I was looking at a strangely beautiful interior, and I felt almost giddy at the thought that I now had to probe this wealth of mathematical structures nature had so generously spread out before me. I was far too excited to sleep. (Heisenberg, 1971: 60, 6l.)

Returning to Göttingen, Heisenberg spent three weeks summarizing his discovery in a form suitable for publication, which he completed in July 1925. Remarkably, just as with Planck’s concept of the quantum which appeared in 1900, “there was no historical precedent for Heisenberg’s idea” (Pagels, 1982).

Exhausted from his efforts and still unsure if his paper really made sense, Heisenberg sent a copy to his old friend Pauli, who, after reviewing it, was enthusiastic. Heisenberg then departed for Leyden and Cambridge to give a series of lectures, leaving his paper with one of his former professors, Max Born, “to dispose of as he saw fit.” (Gribbin, 1984.) Seeing the importance of Heisenberg’s work, Born happily sent the article off to be published.

Initially Heisenberg’s matrix mechanics were warmly received by the scientific community, who, lacking Heisenberg’s personal intuitive vision, were simply going along for the ride. But the fanfare of Heisenberg’s matrix mechanics seemed doomed to extinction a few months later with the publication of a rival theory by the Austrian physicist Erwin Schroedinger in January 1926. Schroedinger’s theory, which came to be known as wave mechanics, had its inception in the Ph.D. thesis of French nobleman (and later prince) Louis Victor de Broglie.

De Broglie’s revolutionary ideas had been presented a few years earlier in September 1923, where, reasoning by analogy, he proposed the concept that electrons could exist as both a wave and a particle. De Broglie then “deduced the wavelength of the electron,” referring to these ambidextrous electrons as “matter waves.” (Pagels, 1982.)

Paul Langevin, an examiner of de Broglie’s thesis, later sent a copy to Einstein. It was Einstein who later suggested the heuristic value of de Broglie’s ideas to Schroedinger. Originally Schroedinger believed that de Broglie’s “matter waves” were real physical entities, which was more appealing to the worldview of classical physicists because it offered a picture of atomic processes—where Heisenberg’s matrix mechanics did not.

In support of his work on wave mechanics, Schroedinger received in April 1926 the following letters from Einstein and Planck respectively:

I am convinced that you have made a decisive advance with your formulation of the quantum condition, just as I am equally convinced that the Heisenberg-Born route is off the track (1926).

I read your article the way an inquisitive child listens in suspense to the solution of a puzzle that he has been bothered about for a long time, and I am delighted with the beauties that are evident to the eye (1926). (Quoted in Briggs and Peat, 1984: 46).

Later, “when Schroedinger accepted Planck’s chair in Berlin, the retiring Planck praised him as the man who had brought determinism back to physics” (Pagels, 1982). To illustrate what fair-weather friends those scientists who go along for the ride can make, Born—who had even contributed to matrix mechanics mathematical formulation—came to believe (like the majority of physicists during that time) that Heisenberg’s matrix mechanics would soon be forgotten. But, as history shows, this was not to be the case.

Six months later, in June 1926, Born recanted his position with a new interpretation of Schroedinger’s “matter waves,” which is generally heralded as “the birth of the God who plays dice and the end of determinism in physics” (Pagels, 1982). This reinterpretation of Schroedinger’s “matter waves” came as a result of applying wave mechanics to atoms that had more than one electron. Schroedinger’s wave mechanics had given a clear, almost direct representation of “matter waves” when applied to the hydrogen atom that had only one electron.

Contrary to this conceptual clarity, when Schroedinger’s classical picture of physical “matter waves” were applied to atoms having more than one electron, Schroedinger’s wave equations could no longer be written in three dimensions of space. Thus it became clear that Schroedinger’s wave mechanics did not describe physical objective reality at all; rather, wave mechanics had to be “expressed in abstract mathematical space.” (Briggs and Peat, 1984.)

Indeed, it was Born’s reinterpretation of Schroedinger’s “matter waves” that helped to end this conceptual enigma, as it was Born’s realization that Schroedinger’s “matter waves” were not real physical entities at all; rather, they were waves of probability.

To better understand the statistical nature of Born’s probability waves, Pagels provides a very lucid analogy:

Imagine that an individual atom is a deck of cards and a specific energy level of that atom corresponds to a specific poker hand dealt from the deck. Poker hands have probabilities that can be calculated—using the theory of card playing it is possible to determine precisely the possibility of a given hand’s being obtained from the dealer. The theory does not predict the outcome of a particular deal. Demanding this latter kind of determinism requires looking into the deck—cheating. According to Born, the de Broglie-Schroedinger wave function specifies the probability that an atom will have a specific energy level just as the theory of card playing specifies the probability of a certain hand. The theory does not say whether in a particular single measurement the atom will in fact be found in a specific energy level, just as the theory of card playing can’t predict the outcome of a specific deal. Classical physics, in contrast to the new quantum theory, claimed to be able to predict the outcome of such specific measurements. The new quantum theory denies that such individual events can be determined Here we see for the first time the new idea of causality in quantum theory—it is probability that is causally determined into the future, not individual events. (Pagels, 1982: 64.)

A vicious debate arose between physicists who favored Schroedinger’s model, with its pictorial benefits, and the Heisenbergian approach based on the experimental observation of atomic spectra. These two approaches were eventually shown to be mathematically equivalent by the transformation theory of British physicist Paul Dirac. Analogy must also be employed to elucidate Dirac’s transformation theory. Language and mathematics “are both symbolic means of representing the world; language is richer, while mathematics is more precise.” (Pagels, 1982.)

Pagels continues this analogy by saying:

Suppose someone describes a tree in the English language while someone else describes it in Arabic. The English and Arabic descriptions are different symbolic representations of the same object. If you want to describe the tree, you must pick at least one language or representation. Once you have one representation you can find the others by the rules of translation or transformation. That is how it is in the mathematical description of quantum objects like electrons. Some representations emphasize the wavelike properties, others the particlelike properties, but it is always the same entity that is being represented. . . . It is by varying the symbolic representations through transformations that we arrive at the notion of invarients: those deep, intrinsic properties of an object which are just artifacts of how we describe it. . . . Invarients establish the true structure of an object. (Pagels, 1982: 65–66; italics added.)

Together these two approaches came to be known as quantum mechanics or quantum theory. To this basic structure of quantum theory must be added the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and Bohr’s concept of complementarity. The Bohr-Schroedinger debate had failed to solve the conceptual differences between wave mechanics and matrix mechanics. This perplexing polemic weighed heavily on Heisenberg, who in his 1927 discussions with Bohr concerning this issue became nearly overwrought with despair.

Heisenberg struggled to make sense of the absurdities of this quantum paradox, until finally the psychological trauma triggered an insight so pre found scientists today are still discussing the full impact of its implications. In its most simple exposition, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle states:

The closer we try to measure the position of a quantum object, the more uncertain becomes its momentum. It seems the very act of observation or measurement changes the system. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle showed that the actual properties of objects could no longer be separated from the act of measurement and thus from the measurer himself. . . . The pre-Heisenbergian scientist is metaphorically seated behind a half-silvered mirror, a spectator to nature, observing things as they really are. With the uncertainty principle, as physicist John Wheeler was later to put it, the scientist smashed through that imaginary window separating him from nature. (Briggs and Peat, 1984: 51.)

Heisenberg’s excitement and enthusiasm concerning his new discovery, however, was met with mixed emotions by Bohr. While Bohr agreed with the basic view of the uncertainty principle, he believed this notion was part of a more basic ontology of the cosmos. This notion was referred to as complementarity. Essentially, this view says that the universe cannot be known by, nor does it have, a single ontological picture. Instead, the ontological nature of the universe is only clearly apprehended through complementary views that overlap with each other and may be paradoxical. (Briggs and Peat, 1984.)

Complementarity found itself not only in the wave/particle paradox, but, as Bohr later discovered, in the Chinese philosophy of Taoism and its symbolic representation of complementary opposites known as Yin and Yang; also in Gestalt psychology, specifically the perceptual enigma of the gestalt switch, where the cognitive shift from foreground to background cannot be understood using logic and reason but can only be known through an intuitive process.

These and other differences were finally resolved through what was later to be called the Cophenhagen interpretation of quantum theory:

Bohr and Heisenberg finally agreed that any property is, to some extent, a result of the act of measurement. As Bohr said, the photon depends on us to exist. And presumably the converse is also true. We also depend on it! There are no separate, independent objects. (Briggs and Peat, 1984: 54.)

Thus we have once again returned to the thesis of this article: that the ontology of emergent phenomenological reality is inextricably entwined with the act of measurement itself. That is, reality emerges during the act of measure at the point of contact between the measurer and that which is being measured.

The Ontological and Epistemological Significance of the New Physics

If the present interpretation of the new physics holds up, the philosophy of science may be seeing the beginnings of a reconciliation of the centuries-old argument between idealism and realism. Idealism refers to the ontological stance that physical reality exists only as thoughts and ideas—which reflect a timeless order of external laws or archetypal forms. Therefore, according to the subjective idealist the external world we see and experience is merely a reflection of this timeless order, an illusion created by our linguistic descriptions of a domain we can never truly know except on rare transcendental occasions.

Despite the attempts of competent philosophical argument, this view of reality has never been thoroughly refuted. Nevertheless, classical science has built its foundation upon the bedrock of practical realism or positivism. This ontological stance declares that there does exist an empirical world “out there” independent of our sensory perceptions, whose characteristics are immutable, complete, and ready to be observed. Radical positivists give an even stricter definition, saying that “all we can know is the set of our observations and/or our actions.” (d’Espagnat, 1983.) Therefore, it is the purpose of empirical science to objectively inquire and analyze these fixed forms—thus coming to know and understand the ontological nature of the world.

Physicists of this century, however, have realized that it is no longer meaningful to separate the observed object, the observing instrument, the experimental conditions, and the experimental results (Bohm, 1971). Instead, the entire process of the experimental situation must be considered as a whole, as an emergent phenomenon resulting from the participation between the observed object and the observing instrument.

Despite the inseparability of the ontological and epistemological aspects of the experimental situation, the profound significance of the new physics has been much simpler and distinctly unsettling. To summarize the difference between the old and new physics, it is best to refer to the writings of the great physicists themselves, beginning with Sir James Jeans.

 . . . from the broad philosophical standpoint, the outstanding achievement of twentieth-century physics is not the theory of relativity with its welding together of space and time, or the theory of quanta with its present apparent negation of the laws of causation, or the dissection of the atom with the discovery that things are not what they seem; it is the general recognition that we are not yet in contact with the ultimate reality. We are still imprisoned in our cave, with our backs to the light, and can only watch the shadows on the wall. (1931) (Quoted in Wilber, 1984b: 9–10.)

This reference to Plato’s cave image does not end with the former description by Jeans, but we find it in the following statements by Sir Arthur Eddinton and Erwin Schroedinger, who tell us:

In the world of physics we watch a shadowgraph performance of familiar life. The shadow of my elbow rests on the shadow table as the shadow ink flows over the shadow paper. . . . The frank realization that physical science is concerned with a world of shadows is one of the most significant of recent advances (1929). Schroedinger drives the point home: “Please note that the very recent advance of quantum and relativistic physics does not lie in the world of physics itself having acquired this shadowy character; it had ever since Democritus of Abdera and even before but we were not aware of it, we thought we were dealing with the world itself” (1958). (Quoted in Wilber, 1984b: 6.)

With regard to these ontological descriptions (especially those of Jeans and Eddinton), while they may have transcended the illusion that the episte-mology of physical science cannot lift the veil of shadow symbols, their descriptions remain essentially dualistic. Dualistic in the sense that Jeans, Eddinton and Schroedinger merely emphasize the symbolic representation of objective observations—that is, their descriptions continue to be those of mere spectators, despite the fact that these physicists realize the need to give an equal amount of emphasis to an aspect of Reality that lies beyond such symbolic representation. Indeed, to fully escape this illusory ontology, we must not only “watch a shadowgraph performance of familiar life,” we must become the shadowgraph performance ourselves.

Capra (1983a) addresses this issue—that the act of measurement creates phenomenological reality—by saying:

In atomic physics the observed phenomena can be understood only as correlations between various processes of observation and measurement, and the end of this chain of processes lies always in the consciousness of the human observer. The crucial feature of quantum theory is that the observer [measurer] is not only necessary to observe the properties of an atomic phenomena, but is necessary even to bring about these properties. . . . We can never speak about nature without, at the same time, speaking about ourselves. (Capra, 1983a: 86–87.)

Thus, contrary to classical physics, modern physics stresses an observer-created reality, woven from the symbolic construction of the measurement of phenomenological events, inextricably linking the event-probabilities of nature with the perceptual awareness of human consciousness.

Implications for the Social and Behavioral Sciences

Having explored the recent developments in physics and their implications upon the metaphysical framework used to contruct the scientific nature of Reality, let us turn our attention to the subsequent impact this “new age paradigm” may have upon the social and behavioral sciences.

Many of the characteristics of the emerging new age paradigm and its potential effects upon the social and behavioral sciences have been outlined in an article by Willis Harman, “The New Copernican Revolution.” A partial list of these characteristics provided by Harman suggests that one of the dominant characteristics will be a relaxing of the subject-object dichotomy. The range between perceptions shared by all, and those which are unique to one individual, will be assumed to be much more of a continuum than a sharp division between “the world out there” and what goes on “in my head.” Related to this will be the incorporation, in some form, of the age-old yet radical doctrine, that we perceive the world and ourselves in it as we have been culturally “hypnotized” to perceive it. The typical commonsense-scientific view will be considered to be a valid but partial view—a particular metaphor, so to speak. Others, such as certain religious or metaphysical views, will be considered also, and even equally valid but more appropriate for certain areas of human experience. (Harman, 1972: 102.)

 To further emphasize the difference between the old and new social science viewpoints, Floyd Matson clearly demarcates these differences in the following discussion:

It is noteworthy that in his methodological arguments Mannheim was far from seeking to disparage “objectivity” in the name of a radical or ineffable “subjectivity,” such as Romanticism had undertaken. What he sought was rather to redefine for social science the fundamental relationship between subject and object which the standard canons of the field had ordained as one of absolute detachment and disinterest [e.g., value neutrality]. Where for the orthodox behav-iorist the distance between observer and observed was a vast Newtonian void filled with the ether of indifference, the sociologist of knowledge proceeded on the basis of “relativity,” or relationship, by abolishing the ether. The main point was that, with respect to things human, it is not disinterest that makes knowledge possible but its opposite. Without the factor of interest, in the primary sense of concern or care, there can be no recognition of the subject matter in its distinctive human character—and hence no real awareness of its situation and no understanding of its behavior. [Most poignantly] in the development of his sociology of knowledge, Mannheim was very much aware of the quality of complementarity—the alternation of objective and human perspectives—in the study of human affairs. (Matson, 1972b: 113–14.)

Thus we can see that contrary to the present methodology of the social and behavioral sciences stressing value neutrality, predictive power, and a cool disinterested objective stance, the new social and behavioral sciences expand this perspective by including value embeddedness, human freedom, subjective/ethnomethodological interpretation of data, transcendence of enculturation and the cultivation of global attitudes.

We should therefore see the emerging new age paradigm as a breaking away from the strict reductionistic stance of Descartes and his separation of the observer (mind) and the observed (body). Furthermore, the new age paradigm rejects the notion of objectivity in the strict Newtonian sense, where Newton envisioned the universe as a multitude of separate objects—atoms in the void—working in accordance with causally determined mechanistic principles. (See Capra, 1983a for a more complete discussion.)

However, despite our overview of the emerging new age paradigm, our full understanding of it will require a much more sustained effort than mere intellectual knowledge can provide. The central problem of our full understanding of the new age paradigm is, says physician Alex Comfort, the problem of “empathy.” To quote Comfort:

By empathy I mean incorporation going beyond intellectual assent. We know the earth is spherical, and many actually have flown around it, but not until astronauts saw it ab extra can its roundness be said to have been empathized. . . . [Hence] empathy has two overlapping aspects: how we feel about the process of making knowledge incorporate affects the content we give to what is incorporable. (Comfort, 1984: xviii.)

Therefore, the development of empathy is for Comfort closely tied to “the proper purpose of metaphysics which is the study of world models. . . . This involves the making of new, and the description of old, world models, and the study of the way such models are formed, with the considerations, mental mechanisms, and other matters which enter into them.” (Comfort, 1984: xviii.)

To reiterate Comfort’s main message concerning the proper study of world models, we must first begin by consciously realizing that many of the so-called “facts” we use to construct our paradigm are not “facts” at all, but socially constructed shared assumptions, consensus reality, and agendas for research. We adopt these agendas for research through the process of enculturation, that is, cultural amnesia, becoming “hypnotized” by consensus reality and begin acting toward our cultural assumptions as “social facts,” which later manifest themselves as social-psychological pressures.

Physician Roger Walsh (1984) discusses the problem of cultural amnesia and its crippling effect upon our psychological growth and understanding in his book Staying Alive: The Psychology of Human Survival. In order to free ourselves from the symptoms of cultural amnesia—from our limiting and distorted cultural biases—Walsh suggests the curing process of “de-tribalization.” (Walsh, 1984.) Walsh embellished his discussion of de-tribalization during a presentation (1985a) he gave at the 1985 Annual Association for Transpersonal Psychology Conference.

De-tribalization is the process by which we step outside the distorting beliefs and biases of our own culture and develop perspectivism, the capacity to look at things from other people’s point of view. This also requires inner work, some periodic disengagement from the cultural belief system, perhaps some time and reflection, or time in retreat. It is interesting that the historian Arnold Toynbee found the one common characteristic in people who had contributed most to human history was that they withdrew from their culture to go into themselves as deeply as they could to find answers to the existential questions of their time. Once they had done that, they returned to their culture to contribute their understanding. (Walsh, 1985b: 6.)

Several examples of such socially constructed “facts” have been presented throughout this article. A resume of these are: the belief in the ether breeze; the belief that the atom is a tiny solar system; the belief that “matter waves” are physical entities; the belief in causally determined individual events; and finally, the assumption that the real empirical world is “out there,” whose characteristics are immutable, complete and ready to be observed.

The primary importance of providing these examples, however, does not lie so much within the theories themselves, but in the empathetic understanding, the personal transformation or “quantum leap” that helped to free the pioneers of the modern physics movement from their culturally induced consensus reality, and the resulting revolutionary shift in their conscious perception of the cosmos.

A proliferation of movements resembling the historical revolution that took place in physics during the early part of this century have been going on in the social and behavioral sciences; beginning with the existential-phenomenological movement growing up on European soil, whose development later midwifed the birth of transpersonal psychology and transformational sociology. (See Schroll, 1985; Gilbert, 1985, for a more complete discussion.)

Although the theoretical framework of phenomenology has to a large extent provided the foundation of transpersonal-transformational behavioral science, their methodological approach has become primarily that of the participant observer or ethnomethodological-hermeneutics. Participant observation is the behavioral science application of what I referred to as the act of becoming the shadowgraph performance of familiar life. The act of becoming the shadowgraph performance of familiar life requires the act of measurement and has as its foundation the metaphysical position of emergent phenomenological reality.

Family theorist Patrick McNamara (1985) has suggested the use of participant observation as a method of gaining a more accurate description of the New Christian Right (NCR). McNamara stresses the need to clearly define the methodological presuppositions employed by social and behavioral scientists in an attempt to “analyze the degree to which popular evangelicalism meets cognitive, emotional, and interpersonal needs often unmet in the larger culture or in alternative systems of faith.” (Warner, 1978: 8; quoted in McNamara, 1985: 452.)

This same viewpoint finds support in the work of Darwin L. Thomas and Vern Sommerfeldt, who tell us:

In addition to making explicit our presuppositions, we see a second benefit accruing from an intellectual milieu surrounding social science analysis characterized by a decline of dogmatism [e.g., the blind acceptance of metaphysical assumptions without empathetic understanding]. We shall call this a reevaluation of the pretense of objectivity. . . . There has been a well-entrenched custom in the social sciences to portray an objective, value-free stance toward the subject matter. . . . However, given our view of scientific knowledge, we suggest that it would be good to move away from the pretense of objectivity, announce our value positions, and present our arguments so they can be more easily evaluated by others. We would then know whether a given analysis was constructed by insiders or outsiders in various religious groupings. (Thomas and Sommerfeldt, 1984: 122.)

To sum up, the direction the new age paradigm appears to be taking the social and behavioral sciences is toward a holistic metaphysics, stressing empathetic rather than strictly intellectual understanding, and toward methods and models that promote a participatory role of the observer in the process of scientific investigation of social-psychological phenomena.

However, despite the participatory ethos of the emerging new age paradigm which underscores emergent phenomenological reality, Wilber suggests the use of caution in a completely uncritical application of this methodological perspective, explaining that:

For hermeneutics, all religious expressions—indeed all symbolic productions—are to be understood from the inside; verstehenden sociology at its extreme. If you are in the hermeneutical circle, consensual interpretive agreement is validation; if you are outside the circle, you are not allowed a judgment. In neither case can the circle itself be shown to be wrong, or partially wrong, or even just partial. Such theoretical absolutizing of cultural relativity often translates itself, in the field, into exasperation, an exasperation apparently due in some cases, not to incorrect methodological application, but to a more native pre-understanding that not all religious expressions are “true” and that some form of critical appraisal is mandatory. (Wilber, 1983: 15.)

Wilber’s caution against extreme relativism reflects Walsh’s suggestion to develop perspectivism via de-tribalization and Comfort’s emphasis on empathetic understanding to help free ourselves from the hypnotic effect of consensus reality. Indeed, only a concentrated effort of questioning, dialogue and sustained reflection will provide the psychological milieu necessary to produce genuine empathetic understanding—leading toward a redefinition of the metaphysical, theoretical and methodological assumptions of the social and behavioral sciences.


In retrospect, the general notion of this article has been to invoke within the reader a sense of urgency toward the need to begin questioning the metaphysical, theoretical and methodological assumptions—both explicit and implicit—upon which the social and behavioral sciences have been founded. Specifically to focus this process toward a central point, I have discussed the problem of measurement.

We have seen that the new age realization resulting from the development of modern physics is that physics is dealing with shadow-symbols and not Reality. The result of this profoundly shocking realization has shifted the ontological position of physics from attempting to prove or disprove the reality of objective phenomena toward a position of emergent phenomenological reality.

Emergent reality refers to the inseparable relationship between the manifold aspects of the world of phenomenological events (the observed) and the symbolic construction of these phenomenological events as they are experienced by the observer.

Many new age writers have referred to the adoption of this position as the “death of the spectator”—the termination of the passive observer seated in the audience watching the drama unfold before him. Boldly we have risen from our seat of objectivity in answer to our curtain call, becoming “recast” as actor and director, thus enabling us to see Reality as a divine play, exorcising the shadow-symbols haunting our senses and realizing that these phantoms are creations of our measuring and categorizing cognitive processes.

Indeed this recasting has thrust our ontological view of reality through the epistemological eye of the needle of measurement, weaving the tapestry of emergent reality; whereby the participatory weaving process of emergent phenomenological reality has shown us most vividly (if not painfully) that the cosmos cannot be fully comprehended through a single ontological picture (such as realism or idealism). Rather, the cosmos can only be understood and appreciated through overlapping complementary and ofttimes paradoxical worldviews.


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