marcilio ficino


    With the inwardness of scientists strengthened by personal training in meditation and self-examination, and with their careers guided by saner markers for success, the choice of projects pursued and experiments performed would certainly change. The changes might bring the ethical and technical minds into better balance.
    Experiments don’t design themselves; observations don’t record themselves. We know what we know because of the choices we made. Had we undertaken other projects, we would have made other discoveries. Some might have taken us down different routes of inquiry.
    Encourage us differently and we will discover differently.
    In areas hardly touched by science, much simple observation and experimentation remain to be done.
Mendel founded the science of genetics by growing pea plants in his kitchen garden. Darwin observed, collected thought, wrote, and consulted with local farmers, and amateur naturalists, using hardly any big-budget scientific equipment. Galileo’s budgets were minimal. Einstein did his work with pad and pencil.


    With different discoveries in pursuit of different goals, we will in future times develop new sciences with new kinds of applications. If the technical and ethical minds rise together to the historical challenges to protect biodiversity and restore the balance in nature, the balance in us will be improved. We will cooperate better. We will care differently about the things we value. With the technical mind strengthened, we will invent tools that tune us to the rhythms of life across scales from cells to societies. With the ethical mind vitalized, we will harmoniously integrate our discoveries with basic ecological and human needs.
Along the way, we will uncover the fundamental approach-separation and withdrawal-return pathways in nature. We will use them to configure love and wisdom in wider circles and deeper interactions.
Scientists working freely in a spirit of conviviality, I am confident, will generate strong forces for moral progress.


But how would different goals and better communications change the scientific method? Would it give it sharper powers of apprehension? Would openness to intellectual beauty give scientists a way to make moral discoveries from within the sciences themselves? Would scientists see themselves as activists on the leading edge of the search for goodness, as do doctors who save lives? Could scientists revere the scientific method as their finest tool, and also see it as their ethical contribution to human progress?


    Francis Bacon in the New Atlantis envisioned a utopian brotherhood of scientists dedicated to human advancement through an ethically elevated science. They lived and worked together in the House of Solomon. They observed three maxims.
    “The first, that we do not so place our felicity in our knowledge, as we forget our mortality: the second, that we make application of our knowledge to give ourselves repose and contentment, and not distaste or repining: the third, that we do not presume by the contemplation of nature to attain to the mysteries of God.”16

In his biographical study of Bacon, The Man Who Saw Through Time, Loren Eisley reported that he “warned that knowledge without charity could be as dangerous as the modern world has finally discovered it to be.” 17
    “Mere power and mere knowledge exalt human nature but do not bless it,” Bacon argued, “We must gather from the whole store of things such as make most for the uses of life.”
    Eisley traced out the consequences of our not following this route: “… the worlds drawn out of nature are human worlds, and their imperfections stem essentially from human inability to choose intelligently…Instead of regarding man as a corresponding problem, as Bacon’s insight suggested, we chose, instead, to concentrate on that natural world which he truthfully held to be protean, malleable and capable of human guidance. Although worlds can be drawn out of that maelstrom, they do not always serve the individual imprisoned within the substance of things.”18


    A revision of science that regarded man “as a corresponding problem,” and drew out of nature “human worlds,” would take us to the mind/body edge. To get there we would have to develop not only new instrumentation and experiments, but also deeper turnings that transfigured the psychic organization of scientists through modification of the passing rules.
    It implies that as the core concerns of the people doing science develop, the way they do science, as well as what they do science about, changes.
    Our core concerns do change. They are changing now as we fight to keep love and wisdom intact and convergent against mounting cultural and environmental injuries.
    Our core concerns are time-bound and come into consciousness through a creative, morally plural, neurally competitive effort. Scien-tists who choose what to work on, who decide what to deal with first, how to observe and measure it, how to present the findings and where to go with them from there, will surely play a central role in that effort.
    The environmental crisis challenges the scientific enterprise to play new heroic guiding roles. If we rise to the occasion, we will come out the other end as fuller human beings with a better understanding of the world.
    If we succumb to the pressures, we will become drones in a new repressive social order.
Which way will we go depends on whether we find the “effective rival” to moral indifference that eluded Polyani. We can do it by looking in places he neglected.


    F.C. S. Northrup found the “effective rival” – the ethical key. He considered immersion in the “undifferentiated aesthetic continuum” of the Eastern mindset the real jointure between the scientist and nature. He believed scientists could use this “effective rival” to build a bridge connecting nature, science and morality. He believed this project would firm up the world’s foundations. It would solve the “basic problem underlying the ideological issues of these times…”19
    In the aesthetic continuum, we meet the world completely. Nothing of us is excluded from it. Our material and mental interests come together in the aesthetic continuum. We do science, make art, discover ethical truth and live full-bodied lives in it. It is our field of endeavor.

     You and I are immersed in the aesthetic continuum now. The words in this book are my embracement of you and your reading is your embracement of me at this moment. But the moment has perished and past, and something else has replaced it. Now it too has passed. All organic nature flows and perishes as Whitehead understood.
    From the Eastern perspective, a person immersed in the aesthetic continuum with the skills to keep balanced there can learn to do the least disturbing thing in the turning dramas of life consistent with realizing an intention, and do it from the smallest and most provisional sense of self he or she can hold.
But this spontaneous action cannot be insouciantly or randomly applied. It must beautifully flow with the inflections of the aesthetic field that makes us part of the truth.
    In Northrup’s view, this gift of the East to the West “makes the aesthetic immediacy, the communal, compassionate, emotional quale of all immediately apprehended things, whether they be human or non-human natural objects, something ultimate and primary in their own right.”20
    The rhythms in the aesthetic continuum endlessly pulse. They cohere or dissolve in us as we form and dissolve in the field that creates us and itself forms and dissolves. Jack Kerouac put it a simple way in his novel Desolation Angels: we are “passing through the that which passes through”. The I Ching describes the way becoming goes through changes as it moves in the world. The sages who compiled the ancient Chinese classic elaborated a set of 64 patterns, built on a math to the base two, that express the basic changes in images.
    We are immersed in different sets of changes as they rise and fall. By knowing our current place we can guide ourselves or at least understand our own changes. But we must perform that act of knowing in a state of immersion ourselves. Tossing coins or counting yarrow stalks puts you there in the moment.


    Western scientists, Northrup continues as he develops his detailed argument, “fall into the error of supposing that the flashes, i.e. the aesthetic objects, are the mere appearances of unseen and unaesthetic molecules and electrons…” [Here he is discussing the Wilson Cloud Chamber apparatus. When you do this, you] “forthwith require an observer… to clarify the relations between the aesthetic appearances and the supposedly non-aesthetic molecules.” You’re not just you any longer, you’re “you” the observer. Something has spilt off to watch. You’ve got 1) a postulated reality of molecules and electrons banging into each other, 2) an observer who holds an explanation for this atomic and electromagnetic realm in mind (and his mind is also a postulated reality) and 3) a world of colors, shapes and sensory appearances that we live in, and though it means everything to us, it has no ontological status.21  Northrup wanted to replace the Western “three-termed relation of appearance“ with the Eastern “two-termed relation of epistemic correlation“.


    What would it actually take to do science in the aesthetic continuum? Can we really apply the field approach to nature in all its sensory subtlety? Can scientists rigorously use the aesthetic presence and the wu wei attitude it requires, in controlled experimental settings? Can such experiments be repeated? Quantified? Observed from outside?
    In other words, how can an experiment command the full presence of the scientist when the conditions of repeatability and verifiability demand on the contrary that anyone doing the same experiment under the same conditions gets the same results? This seems to require the absence rather than the presence of the scientist in the aesthetic field.


    One approach would be to study the scientific possibilities of immersion much more closely. To do that we would have to find ways to dwell in the aesthetic field for longer stretches of time (spans matching the contours of the withdrawal-return pattern as a whole.) If we could do that, we could deploy attention from one kind of awareness to another from within the continuum without jarring ourselves out; we could see the crone and the beauty simultaneously and know ourselves as knowers far better than we do now. That would mean developing self-examination skills to study gestalts from within. It would give interoceptive, exteroceptive and proprioceptive sensations equal status and equally good access to information about the world.


    In fact, a science based on immersion flourished in the European Renaissance only to be stifled during the Reformation.
    Giorgio De Santillana, one of the important recent historians of science, treats the influence of the Protestant Reformation on modern science in an interesting, non-obvious way. In his view, the religious wars demonized the Renaissance love of the natural world, the female body, sexual expression and magic. By doing so, it suppressed the powers of personal presence and aesthetic immersion. The scientific worldview was drained of color, literally. The scientists focused their attention on primary qualities. With mass, position, and velocity their data points, they hoped to comprehend everything. In the effort, they developed the standards of induction, experiment and quantitative analysis we work with today.
The seventeenth-century scientists from Galileo through Newton opened amazingly productive paths that the Renaissance magi, because they insisted on personal presence, could not follow. But their unprecedented predictive powers over nature came at a cost: they broke the bonds between the technical and ethical mindsets. They had to absent themselves.

Natural Magic and Science

akchemyThe Renaissance magicians tried to harness personal turning points to the turning points in nature through timing. The science in this, such as it was, rested on a belief in the power of imagination to repattern nature through low-mediated intentions sent into the world at the right moment, and in those days, the timing was determined astrologically.
    Marsilio Ficino, Lorenzo Medici’s tutor, the translator of Plato into Latin, consultant to artists on the thematic content of their paintings, and a central Renaissance thinker, authored numerous books on magic. Of his approach, de Santillana, wrote

“Ficino’s theory is currently described as mystical Neoplatonism; yet contemplative withdrawal looks more like the literary side of it, while its intellectual ambition is strongly anchored to reality. It strives, like Pico’s, [Pico della Mirandola, Ficino’s protégée, polymath, bringer of Cabala to Renaissance magic] toward the conquest of ‘natural magic,’ the capacity for command that comes to man’s soul from standing thus in the cockpit of the universe… It believes that we can reach out for as yet unknown harmonies and powers… The true distinction of man [is that he has] the power to share in the properties of all other beings, according to his own free choice. He is a universal and protean agent of transformation, hence it behooves him to orient his soul properly to-wards the good, so as not to use his powers wrongly.”22

    Here we come upon a clear description of the fusion between the ethical and technical mind mediated by free choice and immersion in nature (“standing thus in the cockpit of the universe.”)
    Frances A. Yates, the indispensable historian of Renaissance magic, treats the technique with its personal moral character in more detail. “Internally in the soul or the imagination,” Ficino tried to create “a ‘figure of the world’ and to keep the inner attention concentrated on its images.” By this effort the magus attained “through the magical organisation of the imagination a magically powerful personality, tuned in, as it were, to the powers of the cosmos.”23
    The repatterning of nature could only proceed in the presence of the magician.


    Did the Renaissance magi advance the scientific enterprise? Yes. Did they do magic? No. Did their work guide the scientific revolution of the 17th century? Hardly. And yet the European Renaissance has to be considered a high point in Western culture, its artistry perhaps unsurpassed. How could its explosion of creativity fail to contribute to the sciences?
    William H. McNeil, the world historian, argued that you have to look to the art to evaluate the science in the Renaissance; you have to appreciate the efforts of those great practitioners who, in making beauty, created a revolutionary new mathematics of space and light. McNeil points out that their work caught the central themes of Western science.

“This truly remarkable definition of a new and distinctively Western style of painting involved a sophisticated mathematization of space and an intellectual reorganization of intuitive optical experience. Italian painting thus presaged the mathematical development of natural science that came to full expression only in the seventeenth century.”24


  da vinci water  And let’s not forget Leonardo. Santillana considered Leonardo da Vinci the crucial figure linking art and science. He insisted that Leonardo’s renderings of human anatomy, birds in flight and the flowing forms of water took empirical observation to degrees of penetration it had never achieved before (or possibly since.)

“He was the most original natural philosopher of his own time. That time did not possess what we call science, but it possessed art in a sense that is lost to us. Leonardo’s guiding idea was not that the eye alone is able to see reality; but that the trained intent eye, the eye ‘knowing how to see,’ which controls the skilled hand, can come as close to the hidden structure of reality as it is possible for man to read – insofar as he has redesigned it himself.”25

    Leonardo’s “trained intent eye” which, like Goethe’s “exact imagination,” sought to discover laws of nature revealed through beauty, may have made discoveries that we still haven’t been able to express in the language of science. Santillana quotes an astonishing passage from Leonardo’s notebooks to illustrate this:

“Write the tongue of the woodpecker and the jaw of the crocodile. Write the flight of the fourth kind of chewing butterflies and of the flying ants, and the three chief positions of the wings of birds in descent… Write of the regions of the air and the formation of clouds, and the cause of snow and hail, and of the new shapes that snow forms in the air, and of the trees in cold countries with the new shapes of the leaves… Write whether the percussion made by water upon its object is equal in power to the whole mass of water supposed suspended in the air, or no.”

    He comments on this amazing train of associations:

“His indefatigable endeavor surveys the whole terrain of experience in search of the outline of a science as yet dimly seen but which he thinks can be eventually grasped only from the whole. It is a science which is expected, on the first level, to yield the laws of shock and fall, and also of dynamic equilibrium through the principle of virtual velocities (on this Leonardo had more penetrating insights than most of his successors) but should then proceed to levels not simply reducible to mechanics, nor dominated by the mechanical model.”26

    Fritjof Capra, in The Science of Leonardo, draws the many areas of Da Vinci’s scientific interests together in an accessible and insightful study. Freeman Dyson, who regularly reports on efforts to do science “eventually grasped only from the whole”, urges us in that direction too. But so far the adherents of the holistic approach have neglected the power of “the trained intent eye” and what I have described as the “exact imagination” as tools for investigating the subtle patterns informing the whole. Without the trained intent eye and the exact imagination, however, personal presence, phenomenological analysis and self-examination lose their essential underpinnings.


    Can one make a reasonable argument supporting “the trained intent eye” in science? Can one claim that the Renaissance magi, though on the right track, didn’t go far enough into presence to reach the phenomenological/physical frontier where caring and seeing could fuse? Can we do better?
One approach is to consider the possibility that certain information only comes to us through the secondary qualities of sensation – through the beauty that Goethe experienced. Perhaps synergistic effects occur when certain primary qualities interact neurologically in certain states of consciousness, and may only be perceived, (fused with colors shapes and sounds) as secondary qualities. Perhaps traditional Chinese medicine follows this path.
    Further, we transduce the secondary qualities to primary qualities as they travel through the central nervous system. Electrochemical impulses from the retina, cochlea, nasal receptors, etc. become frequencies, wave trains, moving electrical charges. Voltage potential differences and electromagnetic field effects carry information. The information gets in on bursts of pulses. The body transmits it by pulse train modulation using nature’s own versions of wavelet, amplitude and frequency modulation.
    Though in all cognition reality makes its ultimate impression on consciousness through mass and energy, the Leonardo seen by Santillana took on the subtleties of sensation directly and penetrated its gestalts. Through skilful means, combining art and science, he may have succeeded in discerning the primary qualities as they streamed from the secondary qualities at the transduction points in his nervous system. We still have a great deal to learn about attending to our own states of consciousness, a project the Dalai Lama has repeatedly recommended in his conferences with scientists. He discussed these scientific possibilities in his recent book, The Universe in a Single Atom, where he described

“a vast body of practices that involve the use and enhancement of visualization and imagination, and various techniques for manipulating the vital energies in the body to induce progressively deeper and subtler states of mind… they may suggest unexpected capacities and potentials within the human mind…”

“…if the scientific study of consciousness is ever to grow to full maturity – given that subjectivity is a primary element of consciousness – it will have to incorporate a fully developed and rigorous methodology of first-person empiricism. It is in this area that I feel there is a tremendous potential for established contemplative traditions, such bas Buddhism, to make a substantive contribution to the enrichment of science and its methods.”27

Not least, it opens possibilities for being present at the transduction point from primary to secondary qualities.


    I am suggesting we put more, not less, rigor into our experimental designs:

1)    That we focus more narrowly on the unexplored venues where mind and body meet by analyzing our personal qualities of comportment, bearing, quietude, sensory acuity and meditation as the “personal knowledge” Polyani sought,

2)    That by including these experiences we apply the “observer effect” to the sciences of mind too,

3)    That we use this data to re-evaluate which are and which are not the nuisance variables in an experiment.

4)    That by doing this, we stop using  personal presence as a
n automatic nuisance variable,

5)    That through aesthetic immersion of the sort Northrup rec-mmended we will receive hints of higher correlations that appear at the interface of biophysics and phenomenology and fit the standards Goethe proposed when he described “the manifestation of secret laws of nature, which, were it not for their being revealed through beauty, would have remained unknown for ever,”

6)    That we apply Clarkes law, described below, to cognitive science with the hope and expectation of doing work here “indistinguishable from magic” in experiments on dream and trance states, precognition, telekinesis, remote viewing, etc.

7)    That our accomplishments will shift the borders between scientific and magical thinking with great benefit to psychic health and moral judgment.


    As we attain better voluntary control over autonomic functions, we will become capable of engaging nature with fewer, saner ego investments, less delusion and less dependence on cultural conditioning. With personal presence restored, perhaps nature will open to us in ways she has never shown before.
    Focusing scientific research on the mind/body frontier will give us the creative zest to make discoveries that nurture our own human-heartedness from within the flow of aesthetic immersion. Perhaps we will find the place where beauty, truth and goodness meet. As love and wisdom converge, we may get the strength, courage and smarts to deal with radically expanded possibilities only accessible to deep caring. New discoveries merging phenomenology with psychophysiology would give us access to unexplored regions of the mind.
    Exciting times, but not lighthearted ones, because we will be relying on the strength of the ethical mind to create a viable world under the Damocles swords of nuclear proliferation, economic oppression, cultural collapse, climate change, overpopulation, racism and aggression.


    All told, the effort to restore the rudiments of a science of personal presence in a time of depersonalization and powerlessness like ours could help reconcile the conflicts between the ethical and technical mindsets. As observer-participants in the new science of presence, we could study our own resonant relationships with nature. Using advanced brain imaging systems, we might find correlations between the frequencies and amplitudes of thoughts and images and the natural processes entering through the senses that underlie them. We could analyze them musically.
Since love and wisdom, as we have reconceived them here, are the primary carriers of natural rhythms in human life, we can anticipate their showing up in neuroscience in the frequency characteristics of approach/separation and withdrawal/return oscillations in the nervous system.
    This knowledge, strengthened by our personal presence at its source, would help widen the range of volitional over autonomic responses. Would this not open new opportunities of advancement for our creative powers? And if our creative powers can be augmented by changes in passing rules bringing new inputs from the neutral traits, might this not favor a reconciliation of our technical and ethical interests at a time when we need it badly?
    Do we have examples of it? The poets got there first.


The Magic in The Tempest

                                                   prospero in the tempest

Prospero, Shakespeare’s great magician, was perhaps the last and best representation of the Renaissance magi. And he did all of his magic for wisdom and love.
    In briefest outline, the magical repatternings converge on combined turning points in love and wisdom. At the turning point Prospero restores his dukedom, ends his island exile, liberates his familiar spirit Ariel, sees his daughter Miranda betrothed to the shipwrecked Ferdinand.
    When Prospero accomplishes these tasks, he breaks his staff and buries his magic book in the sea.
    Prospero’s magic requires his full participation in the workings of nature. Mind and body, memory, intentions, historical knowledge and his gorgeous words all play parts, words particularly, because they live on the mind/body interface.
    Stephen Orgel in the Oxford Shakespeare edition of The Tempest describes Prospero’s magic. “From one aspect, Prospero’s art is Baconian science and Neoplatonic philosophy, the empirical study of nature leading to the understanding and control of all its forces.”28
    Harold Bloom emphasizes the non-theurgic nature of the magic. “Evidently, Prospero is a true scholar, pursuing wisdom for its own sake…His quest is intellectual, we might even say scientific, though his science is as personal and idiosyncratic as Dr. Freud’s.”29  Commenting on his speech “We are such stuff/ As dreams are made on; and our little life/ Is rounded with a sleep,” Bloom tells us: “Prospero’s great declaration confirms the audience’s sense that this is a magus without transcendental beliefs, whether Christian or Hermetic-Neo-Platonic.”30
    Here wisdom reaches toward magic by treating reality as a dream-like field of endeavor in which the mage can seek and find the points of contact to induce turning point dramas.
  cave art  The binding force in the aesthetic continuum is time itself, time expressed in the periodicities and opportunities rising and falling in nature, in language rhythms, in the breath of the body, in heartbeat, and nerve traffic. “Prospero’s awareness of the drama of time, his ability to seize the instant,” Orgel argues, “in large measure constitutes the source of his power.”31
      He never loses track of time.
    This immersion in time rests on the steadiness and power of his personal presence, on his rhythmical entwinement in the moments that spiral out from his sensory awareness, intention and imagination. As Bloom asserts, “Prospero’s mastery depends on a strictly trained consciousness, which must be unrelenting.”32
    Prospero’s tuned consciousness apparently can perceive the flow of time directly. He streams along in time independently of the outer material changes we now take as the only markers of its passage.

Now does my project gather to a head:
My charms crack not; my spirits obey; and time
Goes upright with his carriage. How’s the day?


                                          flammarion cosmos

    The world conjured by Prospero has mass and matter, but it is vibratory matter, shimmering, made of finer stuff, an abode for sprites and spirits too, something like the Buddhist universe that flips in and out of existence millions of times a second, a luminous matter of the photonic sort we posit in quantum electrodynamics. It is time-centered, floating on temporality. That which passes is time. Thus, Prospero tells Miranda and Ferdinand

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
the cloud capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.
(IV.i. 148)

    He does not say the world is unreal, but that the “baseless fabric” is the space-time continuum. The fine matter/energy of reality, which flows as a process, is mutable; it is a perishing that, with timing, presence and insight, you can change in low-mediated ways. The spirit helpers Prospero directs are real too, real in the same way the clouds are real, real as cloud castles, real as the photonic cosmos. Ariel travels on the mind/body interface where words themselves manifest as deeds, and then perish in the instant. Like Shakespeare’s language, Ariel operates as an engine of change. When Prospero releases him/her/it, Ariel vanishes into larger nature.
    The language of magic tries to seize the potentialities in the moment impeccably well, without waste or excess. The spells move in the undifferentiated aesthetic continuum. However, they have no magic to them. The spiritual-mechanical advantage comes from the wonderful expression of perfectly timed approach-separation and withdrawal-return patterns. Every spell makes a change in love or wisdom that favors their convergence. To the outsider they look like Jungian synchronicities.

Magic and Freedom

    In Irrational Man, William Barrett wrote, “the figure of the magician is as it were, the primitive image of human freedom.” He explained that “to free oneself, to break the chains of a situation, whether inner or outer, that imprisons one is to experience something like the magical power that commands things to do its bidding. The figure of the magician is as it were, the primitive image of human freedom.”33
But how primitive is it? Jacob Needleman, in Money and the Meaning of Life, connects sorcery with the philosophic traditions concerning the “Way in Life.”

“Throughout history,” Needleman writes, “the idea of the way in life has been spoken of as the ‘path of the warrior’ or as the ‘teaching for kings.’ Both the warrior and the king represented, in literal fact and symbolically, the individual engaged in all the forces of life, as opposed to the priestly class or the ascetic removed or protected from many of the influences that permeate the greater world. Often, this idea of the way in life was transmitted as the ‘way of the magician,’ that is, in the language of sorcery. Again, it is a matter of the individual who confronts and masters all the forces, high and low, that constitute reality…”34

    The language of sorcery and the Way in Life both seek empowerment by low-mediated means and subtle timing. But the borderlands where imagination and intention fuse to empower deeds are hard to describe. The magical aura, while real enough in the experience, later seems hardly communicable to others. The numinous moments pass by too quickly for us to put them into words. Their tracery fades. We doubt ourselves. Maybe we were dreaming, maybe not.
    If there’s a better language for describing the rare and recondite, we haven’t found it yet. What about the promises of religion? How much like magic to turn the wafer and wine into the body and blood of Christ! C. S. Lewis describes religious miracles as “revelations of that total harmony of all that exists. Nothing arbitrary, nothing simply ‘stuck on’ and left unreconciled with the texture of total reality can be admitted. They will not be like unmetrical lumps of prose breaking the unity of the poem; they will be like that crowning metrical audacity which, though it may be paralleled nowhere else in the poem, yet, coming just where it does, and effecting just what it effects, is (to those who understand) the supreme of the unity of the poem’s conception.”35

Between belief in miracles, the pursuit of magic, and the methodical accumulation of scientific knowledge of the laws of nature, where does the truth lie?