There are two opposed viewpoints about the origin and nature of being, the universe: in the first it arose from spirit or ’universal’ consciousness (e.g. as God), and is also called ‘creationism’. The other view describes a physical event (Big Bang) which was (presumably) self-generated and developed over an extremely vast time span, eventually leading to human evolution. The first of these is sometimes termed ‘mentalism’ as opposed to the second as ‘materialism’.
Mentalism is historically predominant, arising in speculation about agencies making everything happen, eventually one such (God). This is theory in the sense of ‘just theory’ – not proven or provable, nor does it set about systematically to examine its assumptions critically or consistently try to test and even disprove its own tenets or beliefs. It rather embroiders them further in speculative thought. On the other hand, scientific theory began with assumptions about physical events being due to natural causes, but it constantly questioned the validity of all assumptions and puts them to the test of experience, observation and experiment.
Materialism depends on hypotheses which are verified (increasingly so at a deeper levels and wider scopes) and essentially regard the origin of everything as energy (not only in its material form). It ensures that every statement it upholds is based on observation or experimentation. It eventually expanded so vastly that it has confirmed the assumption that the universe arose from a single material event (the Big Bang) and that all life on earth evolved from the simplest physical processes, right up to the rise of human beings (with consciousness or ‘spirit’).
Mentalist theories, including ‘creationism by intelligent design’ are bolstered by various theological and philosophical speculations that are invariably opposed to the outlook of the physical and other sciences. Mentalist theories do include some very sophisticated versions, and though all is based on beliefs and speculations, they have strong appeal to many intellects and so need to be examined. Such is Advaita (lit. ‘Non-divisiveness’) In one form or another it is historically behind most modern mysticism, certainly most Indian gurus and their Western counterparts. It rejects materialism in favour of universal awareness/bliss/being, arguing that the split between spirit (or soul/mind) and matter (or psyche/body) is an illusion of the phenomenal world, which is itself ultimately an illusion.
Of course, that is non-empirical, even though it appeals to personal experiences (mainly of an extra-sensory kind) and aims – through spiritual mystical practices – to raise individual awareness to the level of the undifferentiated universal unity.
The ideal of unity of knowledge: The unity striven for by science is that of validated theories which together form a consistent and non-conflicting account of everything. This may be referred to as the ‘unity of science’. Unlike mentalist theories, the sciences do not strive to uphold any unitary theory unless it is in accordance with all known facts.
I have gone deeply into non-dual theory both in the philosophy of science and in spirituality/religion – both in practice and theory in both respects. In post-graduate research into scientific research from the angle of sociology of knowledge I became aware of the complexities and problems of the process of scientific development towards establishing knowledge in competition and with evolving paradigms. In spirituality, where experience is a prerequisite and is understood as the result of willful good actions and inward reflection/meditation, I found after many decades, that the unity of transcendental experience is but an inward perception and does not actually require any belief in – or application of – the theologies or doctrines which promote it.
Eventually I emerged from the spell of mentalism in its many forms to become increasingly aware and convinced that this entire otherworldly project (as in all religions) is fruitless and largely without real basis. I do not deny that exceptional states of being can occur – I assert it from experience – but I no longer see these as necessarily connected to any form of spirituality or religion.
Sciences do have a common unifying agenda in that science aims at universality of knowledge, and compatibility of all its findings as based on experience as analysed and tested by its methods. Thus it combines subjective perception with objective generalisations within a unifying framework. The various religions, whether relying on mentalist or other ‘spiritual’ theologies, doctrines, theories, ideologies, and speculations, neglect common experience where it goes against ancient scriptures and, when they do appeal to experience, it is only subjective experience without it having been subjected to any rigorous test whatever (i.e. meditation, prayer, visions and much else of that kind). Thus the religions all assume an insuperable dualism at the very start – between soul and body (or mind), or spirit and matter, which is a fundamental schizm between the subjective and the objective. This is not so in science – which rejects fundamental dualism a priori – and is therefore capable of reaching overall, testable knowledge. This applies in all those areas it has so far conquered (and they are very many, even though there always remain issues it has not so far been able to address, things it has not yet been able to study for technological, financial or other practical reasons).
I have set out to explain some of the problems of speculative spirituality and religious mysticism through the last decade such as at Experiences and Ideas of Unity – with Social and Other Consequences