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The Dawn of a New Worldview

An interview with Frank Poletti
by Joel Pitney

Listen to the interview with Frank Poletti.

When I was in college, the most profound experiences of what I considered to be real learning happened when everything that I was studying in my various classes would mysteriously come together. In these rare moments, I would recognize each subject to be a particular aspect of one broader picture. What my Invertebrate Zoology class was teaching me about the biological order of things would line up with what I was learning in my History of Western Philosophy class about the development of human thought, which would be inexplicably informed by the insights produced by the Zen painting research I was doing for my Religious History of Japan class. It was in these experiences that I saw both the incredible potential that academia could hold for developing real knowledge of reality as a whole and, in light of this comprehensive vision, how fragmented and compartmentalized our educational system usually is.

Since college, I’ve often wondered just what it would be like if higher education was actually designed to foster the development of such a deeply unified worldview. After speaking with Professor Frank Poletti of JFK University in Pleasant Hill, California, last fall for an article in EnlightenNext’s March–May 2009 issue, I found renewed hope that such a radical vision might actually be possible. Poletti is the coordinator of Esalen Institute’s Center for Theory and Research, a cutting-edge mystical think tank started by Esalen founder and human potential pioneer Michael Murphy in the late nineties. The goal of the CTR, as it is called, is to “connect the dots” in ways the mainstream academy often doesn’t and to cover topics considered too esoteric for the halls of Harvard, MIT, or Oxford. To that end, they hold a variety of annual conferences to which they invite an impressive array of professors and researchers from universities around the world. Over the course of each five-day conference, these scholars explore, debate, and present papers on topics as diverse as integral capitalism, religious fundamentalism, near-death experiences, and evolutionary metaphysics, all in an atmosphere that is much more conducive to cross-disciplinary thinking than they find at their home institutions. And when it’s all over, they return to their tenured professorships to publish, teach, and share the wisdom that they gained at the CTR.

While the CTR is focused mainly on the academic world, Poletti sees its work as having a much broader impact on culture. In fact, to Poletti, academia is a microcosm of the rest of society. The transformation of one can lead to the transformation of the other. That’s why he’s so passionate about the work that the CTR is doing to help pioneer a new worldview that draws upon and incorporates all of the world’s many areas of knowledge. In the interview that follows, Poletti talks about some of the CTR’s most exciting projects and explains why he feels that now, more than ever, we need to forge a new spiritually informed cosmology in order to transcend many of the philosophical, cultural, and religious polarities that exist on the planet today.

ENLIGHTENNEXT: The conferences held at the Center for Theory and Research cover quite an eclectic mix of topics, including integral capitalism, Western esotericism, nonordinary states of consciousness, and evolutionary metaphysics. What would you say is the overarching theme of the CTR? What holds it all together?

FRANK POLETTI: The driving theme behind all the CTR conferences is to do stuff that isn’t being done. Let’s face it—there are all these blind spots out there in the world. For example, there is this immense blind spot in higher academia for spirituality, for consciousness, and for things like near-death experiences and reincarnation. Just think of all the millions of dollars that are pumped through the mainstream universities like Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and the University of California at Berkeley, and they completely ignore all the things that we’re interested in. They completely ignore spirituality. They completely ignore meditation. They completely ignore evidence for things like survival of death. They completely ignore a more meaningful and purposeful view of the evolution of the universe.

So the driving mission of CTR is to connect dots that the mainstream universities just don’t connect. We live in a culture where higher academia is completely nonintegral. It’s completely unintegrated. That’s why someone like Ken Wilber is popular. He’s addressing, in his own way, the need to come up with a comprehensive world vision for the future of humanity. And mainstream universities are just dead in the water on that. So we’re doing our part. Ken Wilber’s doing his part. Other organizations are doing their part. That’s our core vision.

EN: One thing that makes the CTR unique compared to other outside-the-mainstream think tanks is that many of the scholars who participate in your conferences hold distinguished positions at very reputable institutions. It seems like you’re making some major inroads into mainstream academia.

FP: Yes. I would call this bridge building, which is the second prong of our efforts—the first being to address topics that mainstream institutions aren’t addressing. Bridge building is essentially getting people within academia to become more open to holistic and integral thinking. A great example of this is our series of conferences on the history of Western esotericism. For that series, we invited scholars from Europe and America who are trying to revitalize our scholarly understanding of esoteric spiritual practices and esoteric lineages within Western culture, from the Greeks to the present. Now, they are all mainstream scholars from places like the University of Amsterdam, the Sorbonne in Paris, the University of Michigan, and Rice University in Texas. But we bring them to an environment that’s holistic, that’s integral, and we get them to talk. So that’s an example of bridge building and of trying to put a dent in the edifice of higher academia.

EN: One of the topics that seems to be closest to the CTR’s heart is covered in the Survival of Bodily Death series, which has been going on since the CTR started and has even led to the publication of a comprehensive book on the subject. Could you talk about your survival research and why you find this topic so important?

FP: Sure. We have a conference that has met every year for a decade to explore the evidence for life after death. Amazingly, this topic barely gets addressed by higher academia. No one wants to touch it, so there’s an immense gap. The funny thing is, however, if you interview mainstream Americans, you’re going to get a high percentage of them—like sixty or seventy percent—saying that they think something like reincarnation is possible. Many people would tell you that they’ve had a near-death experience, or know someone who has had an out-of-body experience, or, if you really press them, even that they’d seen a ghost. But if you did the exact same questionnaire with all the tenured professors in America, you’d get more like a zero or one percent response on those same questions. So mainstream culture is actually ahead of the higher academic world in that area.

EN: Why do you think that is?

FP: It has to do with the modern and postmodern worldview that currently dominates academic culture. Ken Wilber calls it flatland. Richard Tarnas calls it disenchantment. It’s a materialistic worldview that denies consciousness. It denies that there’s anything more than the physical.

So we are trying to fill this gap by bringing together leading researchers and theoreticians and historians who are looking at these issues that mainstream academia doesn’t pay attention to. We bring together near-death researchers. We bring together people looking at the evidence for reincarnation. We bring together people who are defining a metaphysics that doesn’t deny spirit and consciousness but rather supports and acknowledges them. We’re trying to put the pieces of our scientific and spiritual worldviews together.

And our work is not just theoretical. We’re looking very closely at the hardcore evidence for these things. What does the evidence for near-death experiences tell us about how things really work in the universe? We’re not just spinning schemes; we’re trying to stay grounded in the evidence. We’re always asking, “Is there really evidence that scientists and researchers have studied to support these phenomena?”

EN: So you’re not just coming up with a comprehensive theory that would include these different aspects of reality, but you’re also testing them against the evidence.

FP: Exactly. And this point really needs to be emphasized. There’s a term in our world called “New Age,” and it’s a vague term. It’s been around for twenty or thirty years, but in the public consciousness it’s kind of a catch-all. It could mean anything from channeling to astrology to Ken Wilber to Esalen to Shirley MacLaine. But we’re trying to distinguish ourselves from what is popularly known as New Age. And we’re doing this by keeping one strong foot in modern science. In other words, we want to push beyond the materialistic assumptions of science, but we’re definitely scientific in the sense of being empirical. If there’s evidence for something, we listen. We don’t just turn away. People like Richard Dawkins, who claim to be open-minded scientists, won’t even look at the evidence for these things. They’ll just ridicule it.

EN: So your empiricism is different from Richard Dawkins’ empiricism?

FP: It is. We’re both empirical, but there’s a difference between science and scientism. Science is the open-minded inquiry into the universe that yields evidence. Scientism is that same thing, except carrying along the baggage of materialism—the baggage of believing that the universe is purposeless. Those are assumptions. And there isn’t evidence for them. There is actually a lot of evidence against these materialistic assumptions.

So the main point is that we’re spiritual, we’re mystical, we’re open to consciousness, but we’re not doing it in a fluffy way. We’re trying to say, “Look, this can be studied. We can engage spirit and consciousness with an empirical attitude.” And this attitude distinguishes us from anything that could be considered New Age.

EN: Would you say that this empirical attitude informs all the different topics you’re looking into?

FP: Yes. I’d say that it’s a foundational attitude of the CTR. A perfect example is the work of the late University of Virginia psychologist Ian Stevenson, which has played a major role in our conferences on survival after death. Stevenson, who was a good scientist, got a grant to research the evidence for reincarnation, and over the course of his life he studied thousands of cases of children who had memories of past lives. Some of these children even had striking birthmarks on their bodies that correlated with wounds they experienced in a past life. It’s mind-blowing evidence for something like the survival of death.

Now of course we want to remain open-minded and don’t want to say, “Well, this conclusively proves it.” But at the same time, this is evidence that should really shift the paradigm. It’s like Darwin’s evidence. Darwin discovered that the beaks on the finches on the Galapagos Islands were of varied lengths, densities, and strengths, depending on the specific ecosystem they lived in. Softer-beaked finches lived up in the hills and harder-beaked finches down on the shores. He saw that variation and then came up with the idea of natural selection. I mean that was groundbreaking evidence. That was evidence that really tipped the scale to show that natural selection is the medium by which evolutionary change works in the biological world.

Ian Stevenson’s evidence is similar, in our view. It’s paradigm-shifting evidence that says, “Look, something is really going on here.” How could kids be having these very accurate dreams that correspond with these amazing birthmarks on their bodies? The evidence is striking. If you read Stevenson’s books and you’re open-minded, it’s almost impossible not to see it. If you’re not connecting the dots, then your worldview assumptions are really stuck. So that is an example of the evidential approach that we take to these subjects as opposed to just saying, “Hey, this is great stuff and we wish everyone would believe in it.” It’s the scientific spirit.

EN: One of the most compelling ways that the CTR is trying to bridge the gaps between academic disciplines is through the study of evolution. Why do you feel that evolution has such unifying potential in the academic world and beyond?

FP: Higher academia is horrendously compartmentalized. The English department doesn’t have a clue what’s going on in the mathematics department, and the anthropology department doesn’t know what’s going on in the Russian literature department, and so on and so forth. The divide between the humanities and the sciences is like a brick wall that’s a hundred feet thick, and people don’t talk to each other. No one is encouraged to think integrally. Dissertations are always on a very narrow topic. That’s the way you get tenure. So the whole structure of higher academia is disintegral and compartmentalized.

One of the ways that we’re trying to integrate the many academic disciplines is through the story of evolution. In the past 150 years, since Darwin, we’ve discovered amazing things. We’ve discovered the big bang. We’ve discovered the background radiation of the universe. We’ve discovered dark matter. We’ve discovered DNA. We now know that we live in a fourteen-billion-year evolutionary event that has formed massive galaxies. We live in one that we’ve dubbed the Milky Way. We’ve discovered that our Earth is about five billion years old and that bacteria have lived on Earth for two billion years. We’ve discovered that hominids are about five million years old, that Homo sapiens are about 150,000 years old, and that civilization is about 5,000 years old. It’s a massive, massive, massive story that we’ve uncovered. We’ve discovered this immense scope of time and the fact that who we are is a product of an immense evolutionary journey.

That’s a big piece of news. But what is higher academia doing about it? Almost nothing. In other words, higher academia studies the minutiae of different aspects of this story, but no one ever puts all the pieces together. No one ever talks about the grand story. You get people talking about the origin of life. You get people studying the big bang cosmology and the origin of the universe. You get people studying the evolution of the human species, or you get people studying spiritual potentials of humanity. But no one’s putting all the pieces together. No one’s saying, what does this stupendous evolutionary journey say about us? What does it say about our future? And how can we view it in light of the evidence for consciousness, in light of the evidence for mystical experience, in light of the well-documented evidence for supernormal human performance?

In order to help develop this new, more integrated understanding of evolution, we did a series of conferences from 1999 through 2005. We brought together physicists, cosmologists, anthropologists, primatologists, historians, and sociologists to talk about this story and to try to connect the dots between many different disciplines. That conference has now morphed into a new conference series that we call evolutionary metaphysics. The new series builds upon our initial research, but it is more explicitly focused on pioneering a new metaphysical worldview that is based on the theory of evolution and includes mystical insights about the spiritual potential of humanity in the sense of Sri Aurobindo, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and Michael Murphy. We’re calling this new metaphysics “evolutionary panentheism.”

EN: How would you define evolutionary panentheism?

FP: Pantheism is the divinization of matter—all of material creation is filled with consciousness, with the divine. Panpsychism tends to be thought of similarly, but it has less of a theistic overtone and deemphasizes the personal god. So pantheism is divine matter, but with a theistic or Western, Christian overtone. Panpsychism is similar: all of matter, all of nature is divine, filled with consciousness, filled with sentience, but it doesn’t have a theistic overtone. So then panentheism—making a third term with the “en” in the middle—is sort of a third position that draws on the first two but adds a slight twist. It says that it is true that the divine and consciousness pervade all of material creation—trees, stones, bodies, doors, apartment buildings, everything—but that it also has a transcendent dimension. It’s a both/and position.

So evolutionary panentheism is essentially what Ken Wilber, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Sri Aurobindo, Mike Murphy, Georg Hegel, and other thinkers have articulated over the past two hundred years. It’s a view that spirit, or the divine, is transcendent to the world and yet also involved in the world. Evolutionary panentheism is the doctrine or the idea that the universe is an evolutionary revelation of the divine and that the divine is transcendent to that process, but also deeply involved and incarnated in it.

EN: When I was in college, a lot of people were trying, with limited success, to unify the humanities and the sciences. But what’s striking about what you’re saying is that it doesn’t seem like the different academic disciplines could be brought together without first establishing this new evolutionary narrative as the background story for everything.

FP: Well, that brings up a fundamental point, which is that some scholars, like Alfred North Whitehead, have argued over the years that the fundamental basis of any civilization or any culture is its cosmology. And the cosmology of any given culture usually is clearly articulated as an origin story. For example, in Native American tribes, they have an origin story of how people came to be and how nature came to be and why we’re here and what we’re doing. If you read the work of Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist, you’ll find all of the mythological origin stories of the different civilizations of the world.

Now, what’s unique about modern scientific culture—our age of corporate globalization—is that we don’t have a planetary origin story. We’re transcultural now. All the cultures of the world are meeting each other. What could be more a symbol of the world becoming multicultural than Barack Obama becoming the President of the United States? He’s such a symbol of our time.

So the most profound question for humanity is: Are we, as a human global culture, going to create a mutually agreed upon global origin story? We’ve become planetary economically. I mean, my clothes are probably made in China. The computer that you’re typing this interview on is probably made in Singapore. We’re global economically, but we’re not global yet spiritually or culturally. We haven’t matured yet in these other dimensions, and we’re certainly not global yet in terms of our cosmology—in terms of the fundamental origin story that we tell ourselves.

The cosmology of modern science says that the big bang is an accident, that the origin of life is a fluke, and that human existence is a lucky break. Stephen J. Gould, the great Harvard evolutionary paleontologist, always said that we’re just being anthropocentric when we say that the evolution of the universe has a purpose and is headed towards us. But that is corrosive. It is corrosive to meaning. It is corrosive to purpose. And we’ve got to build a viable, enchanted, meaningful view of our role in the universe if we want to create a sustainable global civilization.

Evolutionary panentheism is our proposal. And I think that it’s a darn good one, because it’s a spiritually informed cosmology. We know the majority of the world’s cultures and peoples are religious and that only a small percentage of the world’s population are atheists. So there’s a role for spirituality. There’s a role for religion. And there’s a role for science. There’s a role for this stupendous evolutionary story that science has uncovered—big bang to the present. So evolutionary panentheism is a proposal for a broad cosmology that can guide our human community into the future.

EN: Can you give me an example of where you are seeing this need for a new cosmology playing itself out in the broader world beyond academia?

FP: Look at our current global economic crisis. What are the deeper assumptions that inform globalization? What are the deeper assumptions that inform capitalism? What are the deeper assumptions that inform the way global banking works? I would argue that the reason we’re in this crisis is because the assumptions of the modern scientific, capitalistic worldview are not fundamentally sustainable assumptions. They just aren’t. And we’re seeing the evidence for that right in front of our faces.

Now this current banking crisis is getting our attention, but the fact is that there have been banking crises all over the planet for the past twenty years. There was a huge one in Argentina in 2001. There was a huge one in Russia in the late nineties. There was a huge one in southeast Asia at the same time. There was another one in Mexico in the early nineties. In other words, the landscape of the global economy has been dotted with banking crises for decades. All of this points to the failure of the modern worldview. The modern worldview is going to destroy itself. It’s destroying itself right in front of our faces. The question is, what are we going to build out of the ashes of that? What vision is going to emerge out of that crisis?

The other alternative is fundamentalism. But fundamentalism is not a viable worldview for a sustainable human community. The events of September 11th tell us that. Islamic fundamentalism versus American fundamentalism will just end in nuclear destruction. So that isn’t going to work. Nor is the disenchanted modern capitalistic worldview. We’re seeing that destroy itself right now in front of our faces. Meaningless postmodern relativism isn’t going to work. So we need something that’s going to work. Ken Wilber’s got a proposal. We’re putting together proposals. Other people are putting together proposals. We’ve got to build a new world vision.

Even with a man like Obama in office, if he is just working from the assumptions of the failed system, he’s just going to be the last president of a dying age. If Obama can fundamentally change the assumptions by which America and the world work, and if he can embrace some of these more planetary, more spiritual, more post-capitalistic principles, then he’s got the chance of being the first president of a new world. So I’m actually glad there’s this crisis, because it really gives Obama the opportunity to make deep changes. I’m hoping that he will be the first president of the new age, not just the last of the dying old age.

EN: It certainly feels like that could happen.

FP: I think it could go either way, personally. We’ll see. Maybe it’ll be a little bit of both.

Listen to the interview with Frank Poletti.


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