Willis Harman was the president of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, an organization focusing on the further reaches of human potential, founded by Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell. Harman’s books include “Global Mind Change,” “Higher Creativity,” and “Creative Work.”
DiCarlo: You’ve been president of the Institute of Noetic Sciences since the mid-70s. Could briefly talk about the origins of this organization and its mission?
Harman: Yes. While Edgar Mitchell, one of the Apollo astronauts was on his way back from walking on the moon, he had a kind of spiritual experience. It struck him that traditional science didn’t allow for the kind of non-ordinary experience, nor with what they meant to the people who had them. In general, science didn’t handle the topic of consciousness very well. So he set up this non-profit organization called The Institute of Noetic Sciences to work in this neglected area of science by focusing upon consciousness related phenomena and experiences.
As the years have gone on, the Institute has chosen two main tasks. One is leading-edge research in consciousness related fields, such as spontaneous remission of cancer, the mind, meditation, healing in general and research on creative altruism. Secondly, and with the aid of a couple dozen scientists and philosophers, the Institute has studied the question, “why does science have the particular characteristics that it does?” and “what sort of changes would have to take place in order for science to be better suited to handle these areas of consciousness?”. In scientific jargon, we’re seeking a different epistomology for science. Put another way, we are wanting to answer the question, “how do we know what we think we know scientifically?”
DiCarlo: Let’s talk about healing since that’s an area of interest for the Institute. What’s the bottom line message that scientific researchers are telling you about the relationship between the body and the mind?
Harman: The evidence suggests that the mind plays a much greater role than has been recognized by the scientific and medical community. This is the heart of the issue regarding complimentary medicine and alternative forms of health care. Most, if not all of them, hinge upon the powers of the mind. This isn’t necessarily obvious in an area like homeopathy or acupumcture, but there’s a suspicion at least, that the powers of these types of approaches depend upon the body being much different than the mechanistic view that has prevailed in the medical community thus far.
DiCarlo: Energy medicine seems to be an emerging area of Institute interest that seems to offer exciting possibilities in the treatment and prevention of physical and even psychological illness. What is it?
Harman: Energy medicine is a term that is used by some people who believe that there are fields around the human body that are influential in the healing process and in other ways. They propose that through the study of these fields, much knowledge can be obtained to help treat and diagnose people who have the potential of developing an illness. Other people use the same term, but really leave open the question as to whether these fields and influences are really physically measureable or are whether they exist in some other domain, some other dimension so to speak.
I think there is some advantage in leaving the term open-ended at the time being. At the very least, the energy field involves the exploration of faint electrical magnetic fields around the body and their relationship to health. It may have to do with much more than that.
DiCarlo: In your view, are these energy fields metaphorical or are they real? Who has produced the most compelling scientific evidence to date that these fields exist, that we are more than the physical?
Harman: Well you see, that hinges on the definition of scientific evidence and that’s precisely why the epistological question, “how do we know what we think we know scientifically?”, is so important. According to the world view of many, many scientists, what is “real” is only what is physically measureable. All their scientific concepts and theories are derived from that assumption. That implies the use of the physical senses in the usual sense. George Solomon, who coined the term, “Psychoneuroimmunology ” and who is one of the leading experts in that field, includes among our senses the immune system because he claims that it’s sensitive to things that the other senses are not. Others would go still further and say there’s whole realms-levels of consciousness-spirit and what have you, which have not been included in traditional science but which are real in the sense that they produce real effects. Since we apprehend these realms with the deep mind or the deep intuition and not the usual five senses of taste, touch, smell, sight and hearing, they are not physical in the usual sense. So the epistomological question about the “rules of evidence,” asks, “Beyond the five senses, how much you are willing to include as being a legitimate organ of perception?”
In fact, what is really at issue, is a total world view and the beliefs we hold at unconscious levels. Every one of us resists the change of our own internalized assumptions. We’re being called on to answer the deeper questions, like “what is the nature of reality? Is it the same as conventional science has been saying? Or is it more like what is contained in the perennial wisdom of all the great spiritual traditions, in which the material world is only one end of the spectrum-or continuum-with spirit at the other end? That the human being is potentially capable of exploring the whole.”
DiCarlo: What does conventional science tell us is the nature of reality?
Harman: Well, according to science, about 15 billion years or so ago, there was a big bang and the universe began to evolve and this was an evolution of stars and the planets and then elementary life forms on at least one of those planets. This all happened accidentally; that is, things were behaving according to scientific laws and coincidentally, certain chemical elements came together in such a way as to create the first elementary life forms. Then, with other coincidences of random happenings and natural selection, we finally get this evolution up to the present human being with this very complex network of neuronal cells in our crania and out of that, we get something that we call consciousness or mind or spirit. Then, from this basic story, come other conclusions: you are your DNA; you are whatever was given to you genetically-that’s the essential you-the programs in your DNA. And of course, everything that has ever been said about religion and spirituality now has to be re-examined in the light of this dominant story, which we all accept as true, because we were all taught it in school. We know the authority of modern science, especially now with quantum physics and chaos theory, and it looks as though it’s on the edge of really explaining everything. This dominant myth infuses our education system, it infuses our health care system, it infuses our legal justice system-every institution in society.
So, what if it were wrong? It would affect everything. Now that’s a pretty bold statement-and remember that I was trained as a scientist too and I have a lot of respect for science in terms of what it does. But what we’ve done, in modern society, is to take this scientific world view which was really aimed at prediction, and control, and creating technologies, and we’ve given it so much prestige and power that we put it in the position of a world view to try to live our lives by, and guide our societies by, and shape our powerful institutions by, and that’s where it gets to be misleading. I could quibble and make it sound a little bit better if I just said “incomplete” or a “little bit off” but I don’t want to say that. I want us to think seriously about the possibility that there is a fundamental error in there and that it’s important for ordinary citizens to recognize that.
DiCarlo: Could you expand on that thought?
Harman: Science for three and a half centuries has been built on the premise that consciousness as a causal factor does not have to be included. Now nobody has every lived their lives on the basis of such a contrary premise. Nobody has ever said “I’m going to live my life as though my consciousness-my mind-weren’t capable of making decisions, weren’t capable of making choices, weren’t capable of taking action.” Science is exquisite for getting a particular kind of knowledge-the kind of knowledge that you need if your main purpose in life is to generate new technologies, to manipulate the physical environment-but the idea that consciousness might be causal in any sense was left out.
If what I really am is a collection of physical and chemical processes, modulated by some program in the DNA-if that’s the essential nature of my being-then it follows that when those processes stop, when I come to the point of physical death, then I am no more. All the meanings and purposes I thought I stood for, are no more. There’s little wonder that we then tend to fear death and have all sorts of other fears that link to the fear of death, or the fear of non-existence, but if you really look carefully, you will see that our whole education system teaches us- among other things-the fear of death. So imagine how much of a difference it would make if somehow, culturally, we came to conclude that death is a transition to something else-not to be feared-and that means that most of the other fears in our lives really have no basis either. Well, there’s lots of evidence to suggest that that’s a pretty credible point of view. For example, a lot of people have Out-Of-Body Experiences. Now, I don’t mean a lot in the terms of tens, or dozens, or hundreds-I mean tens of millions of people in this society have had Out-Of-Body experiences. You can take a poll in any group and you will find a pretty good sampling. What that means is that they’ve had the experience-and it’s very real-it’s the difference between dreaming and being awake. This one experience has been known to change the lives of many people simply because if you have once experienced yourself as not totally identified with your physical body, then there are lots of implications of that in terms of asking the fundamental question – “Who am I?”
Well, if you don’t want to look at that area, we’ll put it on the table. But then there’s this whole matter of, so-called perennial wisdom of the world spiritualist traditions. Now, it turns out-and of course nobody was really interested in comparative religion until a half or three quarters of a century ago-that when you examine the various spiritual traditions around the world, there tends to be, even though they have obvious differences in their public or esoteric forms, the inner circle, esoteric, hidden form of the various spiritual traditions are much more experientially based. It has to do with peoples’ experiences in deep meditation or yoga-and that tends to be more or less the same in these different spiritual traditions. So a Christian mystic and an Islamic mystic and a Hindu mystic don’t have any real trouble communicating with one another, if you pardon my use of that particular word. Those who seem to be understanding the inner circle, esoteric understanding of the tradition, recognize that there are differences in emphasis but there’s an awful lot that can be agreed upon. But then, inherent in this whole perennial wisdom-which we very nearly discarded by the middle of the century which is now coming back-central to that, is the assumption that we do persist. That there is purpose and meaning in all of this; that this is a particular learning experience on this planet, but we go on with our learning; that we don’t go somewhere else when we die, we simply remember where we’ve been all the time. And so this area, which has been a political and educational “no-no,” something that you couldn’t even talk about on university campuses not too long ago, is, I think, also a part of this shifting belief system.
DiCarlo: As you have mentioned, intuition can been regarded as an organ of perception to augment our analytical, reasoning mind-certainly that’s been true in Eastern cultures where it is more highly valued. Isn’t intuition unreliable?
Harman: Everything is unreliable, especially your physical senses. Of course intuition is unreliable….it’s as unreliable as your eyesight. You can be fooled by optical illusions and you can be fooled by listening to something you thought was your deep intuition and it turned out to be your internalized mother or something else. And there are ways of checking. We don’t believe everything we see, or think we see. We check it in various ways. Similarly, you don’t believe everything that is perceived as some sort of inner vision or inner voice. You apply appropriate tests. And in that sense, intuition can be extremely reliable, but it’s not necessarily so. Especially if you haven’t been using it much, and all of a sudden you hear some inner voice speaking to you that may come from any source.
DiCarlo: Has intuition played a significant role in your work?
Harman: Oh it’s absolutely central. I think that’s probably true of leaders in almost any field though they don’t always say so.
DiCarlo: In your view, what is the essence of the new paradigm that you write about? How does that contrast with the average person’s view of “The way things are?”
Harman: Well, in modern society, we’ve all been pretty well schooled in a world view in which material goals and the insights of physics, the closest thing to ultimate reality we know, have both been considered to be quite important. It’s true that we have had a lot of religious influences, but let’s limit ourselves to what is put across in the public schools. Let’s say that represents the world view of this society and its built upon a very mechanistic and materialistic foundation.
Onto that platform we have built an economy with a lot of assumptions which relate to that materialistic worldview. We convince ourselves that the economy won’t even work unless we are being good consumers and gathering all the goodies we can.
The paradigm that’s emerging-and I think it’s sort of foolish trying to describe it since it’s still emerging-but at the most fundamental level, it places the cause of things not out in the material world at all, but at non-measureable, spiritual levels. Therefore, the source of meaning and the source of values is out in that spiritual realm, and it’s precisely in that realm that our official science doesn’t know anything and can’t know anything. Nevertheless, it turns out to be the most important area of our experience to know about.
So at one level, the emerging world view is almost upside down, when you compare it to the world view of positivistic science. One of the big shifts-it’s obvious to everybody-is the shift from separateness as a way to understand things, to the concept of everything being connected to everything else. We really have to think of things in ecological terms, as whole systems. That’s part of what the feminist movement is all about. Certainly a big part of the ecological movement is conerned with that. Even the new spirituality, and so on.
Then another shift is from authority being externally “out there”-whether it’s the Pope, or the Encyclopedia Britannica or the white gowned scientist-to much more reliance on inner authority, inner knowing. At a still deeper level, the cause of the things that happen to me is not “out there” somewhere. In some very, very deep sense, the cause is inner, and subjective.
That’s a very, very profound shift. It’s not obvious to a lot of people who are partly in the new paradigm that it goes as deep as that, but as nearly as I can read the signs of the last 30 years, that seems to be the direction we’re headed. That is the direction of the perennial wisdom, so it’s been around for a while. Maybe it’s not too surprising that we should be heading there.
DiCarlo: For many years, you were a futurist for Stanford Research International. In your view, what are the major trends impacting us at this time, and what do you suppose the future has in store for us?
In terms of the new paradigm, nothing is impacting us. It’s all coming from within. But in the more practical terms in which you meant the question, I think we really have two fundamental problems. One is ecological sustainability. And the other involves the coherence of our society in view of the tremendously powerful alienating forces that are coming about. This sense of alientation is very much related to the increasing rich/poor gap, and the increasing awareness on the part of the poor that it’s not an accident.
The combination of those two is going to require a total re-definition of society and the social contract. Most people aren’t really ready to think in those terms yet.
DiCarlo: All that we have been discussing is revolutionary in its implications. How would you respond to the individual who says that this new paradigm talk is utter nonsense?
Harman: Well, some of it is! Some of the more sensational aspects of the New Age are partly passing fads. The spiritual traditions have been fairly clear on this issue. As you go along the inward path, you are going to find a lot of temptations to explore. There are those who get involved in psychic phenomena, or get totally fascinated with one thing or another that somehow relates to all of this. Those are really digressions from the main task of discovering what Alan Watts called the Supreme identity-your own oneness with the Oneness.
So some of the New Age stuff is probably that. Some of it is becoming commercialized so it’s pretty well corrupted. But underlying all of that, is this powerful current of cultural change, and that seems to be, in a historical sense, both new and necessary. It’s wholesome. And in a certain sense, it’s a wedding of the inward looking of the Middle Ages to the excessive outward looking of the modern era. It’s more of a balancing of masculine and feminine, inner and outer. Material and spiritual.
In fact, if there’s any one thing that characterizes the emerging paradigm, I think maybe it is this concept of balance-it’s not black and white, good and evil-there’s a balance in here somehow.
Excerpted from the book Towards A New World View: Conversations At The Leading Edge with Russell E. DiCarlo. The 377-page book features new and inspiring interviews with 27 paradigm pioneers in the fields of medicine, psychology, economics, business, religion, science, education and human potential. Featuring: Willis Harman, Matthew Fox, Joan Boysenko, George Leonard, Gary Zukav, Robert Monroe, Hazel Henderson, Fred Alan Wolf, Peter Senge, Jacquelyn Small, Elmer Green, Larry Dossey, Carolyn Myss, Stan Grof, Rich Tarnas, Marilyn Ferguson, Marsha Sinetar, Dr. Raymond Moody, Stephen Covey and Peter Russell.
Russell E. DiCarlo is a medical writer, author, lecturer and workshop leader who’s focus is on personal transformation, consciousness research and the fields of energy and anti-aging medicine. His forthcoming book is entitled “The Definitive Guide To Anti-Aging Medicine” (1998, Future Medicine Publishing). DiCarlo resides in Erie, Pennsylvania.
Copyright 1996. Epic Publishing. All Rights Reserved.