A Scientist Experiences the Spirit

William Kent
March, 1994


For centuries people didn’t know about air, though they lived and moved through it all the time. They felt breezes, saw clouds move, experienced storms. Sailors certainly knew that wind pushed, but not what it was made of. People felt their chests heave rhythmically and knew that they couldn’t live very long under water. But imagine trying to talk to someone in the eighteenth century about air as real stuff. Try telling them they were moving through palpable matter just as fish move through water. Hah! You’re out of your mind, sir. There’s nothing there.

And light, too. People could see things, and sometimes it got dark, and they knew about shadows and sun dials. But stuff? Something, some medium, that "carries" an image, that has to move from an object into my eye in order for me to see it? Something that flies down from the sun, or first bounces off the moon at night, then bounces off my hand so that I can see it in front of my face? Stuff that actually moves with a measurable speed, like flowing water? How absurd, my good man! Get away.

How silly, we say. Of course air is real stuff, and so is light. We can hardly imagine not knowing that. Nor can we imagine being unaware of sound and gravity as facts of physics, though these also had to be "discovered". People have always experienced their effects in the very fabric of every moment of their lives, but it took an intellectual revolution for us to notice these things.

It was a dislocating experience for us to recognize these as substantive things, having real value in explaining how life works. Suppose I said that love is next.

Wow. If I were to talk about love and spirituality among my colleagues, I would expect raised eyebrows, smirks, embarrassment, quizzical looks. Maybe a suspicion that I’ve burned out or gone senile. I’ve had the same reaction myself when friends have thrust certain books at me as though they bestowed the keys to eternal wisdom. The books bounced right off my mind. It was all such arcane mysticism, esoteric mumbo-jumbo. I recognized the words, but they didn’t make sentences I could relate to. That stuff was just too weird. I hope this is different. I hope what I'm writing here will be more comfortable for you, and that you’ll keep reading a while longer.

What needs fixing in the world today? Crime, violence, cruel revolutions and civil wars, terrorism, homelessness, unemployment, gang wars, graffiti, pollution, decline of family and community, decline of religion, deterioration of ethics, starvation, genocide, parentless children, guns, drugs, overpopulation, … Had enough? Get the picture?

How are we trying to fix things? With technology and commerce. That’s the dominant wisdom of our time. This is bedrock for the people who control things today. These are people who dismiss love and human spirituality as irrelevant and embarrassing distractions, unrealistic and impractical. These are people who snicker about the self-esteem and human potential crackpots.

So what are technology and commerce doing for us? They are frantically producing and advertising more and more goodies for people to buy while throwing more and more people out of work so they can’t afford to buy anything. The world of business isn’t working. One world is killing the other, as computers displace more and more people. We’re making the rich richer and the poor poorer. The information avalanche is driving people apart, as more and more of us must deny the reality of all the suffering we see in order to preserve our sanity. Mobility is disrupting family and community ties, with cyberspace serving as a hardly human substitute for human interaction. We’re careening madly toward technological apocalypse. The pace of change can’t sustain this sort of acceleration without self-destructing.

It’s hard to see how much longer this can go on. The good news and the bad news is that we appear to be heading for an apocalyptic transition into our next cultural "age", the next in a series that started with the agricultural and industrial revolutions. The information revolution is now in progress, shifting our perceived reality from physical space into the virtual reality of cyberspace. Ironically, the underlying technological frenzy which makes everything obsolete almost as soon as it arrives could mean that this brand new information revolution is itself almost obsolete.

If we choose, a likely and desirable successor could be the spiritual revolution, moving the focus of our consciousness into spiritual space. Isaac Asimov captured this march of the ages in a marvelous story about two pages long. [I don’t recall any more than that; does any reader have a reference to the story?]

If you cringed at the thought of such an ascendancy of spiritual values, it might help to think of it as an emerging science. (Not to be confused with certain pseudo-disciplines that have co-opted the word "science" into their names.) A key "discovery" will be that love is real and important stuff. I use the word "stuff" advisedly, in the sense that human spirituality will feel palpably real to us. Understanding it will be essential to understanding how the world works and how to fix what doesn’t work. It’s just as real as air, light, and gravity, and far more important to real life than technology and commerce.

Our understanding will advance beyond folklore and the advice of our grandmothers, beyond the current forefronts of psychology and anthropology. We will discover a hard science about stuff that flows from mother to infant as the foundation of the child’s inner life, as real and important as milk. We will think of nurturing as a real process. We will understand the "ether" of a caring environment in which a healthy family and community thrive. We will understand the phenomena and failures of society in terms of interpersonal "fields" not unlike the fields which explain the interactions of physical particles. The bonds of friendship will be as real as chemical bonds. We will learn that phenomena which can’t be displayed on meters are nevertheless real and significant. We will adapt our philosophy of science, with a different attitude toward observability and repeatability. We will learn to respect rather than dismiss common sense and intuition. (Gendlin) We may already be drifting in that direction with chaos theory and fuzzy stuff, and also with the increasing acceptance of alternative healing practices. The fact that many of us believe in the reality of the subconscious and the ego is another step along the way.

None of this is really new. Most women already understand. Almost everybody except the hard core technologists and businessmen above the glass ceiling already know. It’s just that too many influential people dismiss it as the province of romantic songwriters, effete poets, sermonizing ministers, swoony teenagers, mushy romance novels, lovelorn cowboy ballads, trashy soap operas, and the aforementioned self-esteem and human potential visionaries, none of which get any respect from pragmatists. People laugh at the poor pioneers at the forefront of the self-esteem movement, just as people once laughed at Freud, Ben Franklin, and the Wright brothers. But those pioneers are on the right track.

It’s hard to "come out of the closet" and talk about this stuff publicly in such a climate. It seems to be the intellectual equivalent of being gay. Real men don’t talk about love.


Will we really see the advent of the spiritual revolution? It’s up to us, you and me, more so than with any of the other revolutions. There’s nothing new that has to invented, nothing complicated we have to learn. We already know and have the basic knowledge and skills. All we need is the will and the courage. And the desire.

What’s preventing it? Not everybody wants it. There’s too much greed and poverty around. How can we get people to devalue material comfort for spiritual well-being? What an age-old question!

What will facilitate it? Ironically, things have to get worse before they get better. That’s the only way enough people will accept the fact that the current system doesn’t work. It has to be really broken before we’ll fix it.

Is this realization just a matter of age?

Rediscovering Indian ethics.

A real sense of what self esteem and family values are all about. More than just hype and tokenism.


Influences: Pirsig, Peck, Tannen, Gendlin/Nichols, Brodie, Koyaanisqatsi, Hillerman.

Lots of quacks and charlatans out there. New Age stuff is probably half valid, half hokum.

Getting there won’t be easy. The dominant philosophies of our culture are technology and commerce. That’s what’s real. We can hardly conceive of them as transient philosophies, having alternatives that might also be valid. We can’t imagine them as passing fads which did not dominate cultural outlooks in the past and might not in the future.