Science and Mysticism with Beverly Rubik, Ph.D

What follows is an interview with Dr. Beverly Rubik, a UC Berkeley-trained biophysicist, who embodies the words of Nikola Tesla when he remarks:

The day science begins to study non-physical phenomena, it will make more progress in one decade that all the previous centuries of its existence.

JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. I’m Jeffrey Mishlove. Our topic today is “Science and Mysticism,” and my guest, Dr. Beverly Rubik, is a biophysicist. She’s a member of NEXA, the science and humanities convergence program at San Francisco State University, and also a member of the faculty of the Institute for Culture and Creation Spirituality at Holy Names College in Oakland, California. Welcome, Beverly.

BEVERLY RUBIK, Ph.D.: Thank you, Jeffrey.

MISHLOVE: It’s a pleasure to be with you. You know, I remember about five years ago I had the privilege of participating with you in a very unique series of experiments which you set up with a psychic healer who I was working with from Brazil. I know you had done that work for a period of many years, looking at the ability of various psychic healers to influence bacteria — their growth, their life functions, their motility. I thought that research was almost paradigmatic of what you can do with the scientific method in terms of looking at a mystical or spiritual phenomenon such as healing. Perhaps we could start by talking about the research itself, and then moving into where that led you, personally, spiritually, and philosophically.

RUBIK: Well, the research stemmed from my dissertation work, of course. I’d spent some six or seven years studying bacterial growth and motility, a common gut bacteria.

MISHLOVE: Motility means their ability to move around.

RUBIK: Right, their ability to swim through the liquid media. And so I was well versed in that system; it wasn’t like I pulled it out of thin air and subjected people to study it. But I was very familiar with it, and I knew when in fact I intoxicated my bacteria with a certain dose of a certain chemical agent, that indeed they would not swim. And what we found with some of the psychic healers such as Dr. Olga Worrall, who is now recently deceased, is that she was seemingly able to revive a certain percentage of them. We found about seven percent motility in that experiment, as I recall.

MISHLOVE: Where you would expect none.

RUBIK: Where we saw virtually none. I’ve done that over and over again as a control experiment– many, many times over six or seven years — in the course of my dissertation work.

MISHLOVE: So that would be an example of, I suppose, what you would call an anomaly — something that just wouldn’t be explained by the normal rules of science.

RUBIK: That’s correct.

MISHLOVE: I think that research stands as a model, in terms of what the scientific method is capable of accomplishing as we look at parapsychological phenomena, and it’s probably very important in the history of science itself, and the convergence of science and spirituality. But your path then went in different directions from that of the experimental research, didn’t it?


MISHLOVE: Let’s talk about that.

RUBIK: Well, I was raised as a very conventional biophysicist, through the years at Berkeley. Of course the current paradigm in the life sciences is what I would call reductionism. It’s taking a living system and dissecting it down into bits and pieces, often with no sense of life anymore. You get down to the biochemical realm and you’re just dealing with a bag of biomolecules that was once a living, intact, holistic system, and studying the bits and pieces to try to make sense about the whole — to try to make some statement about the living state, looking at the essentially dead biomolecules. I was bred on that paradigm. One of the turning points for me in my career was writing my dissertation. I got pneumonia; I called it dissertation disease. It was pretty severe, and I wasn’t getting over it, and I remember going deep within and asking myself why was I so sick, and what was the meaning of this illness. And the fact that I was always previously healthy, and suddenly this whopping disease. The answer that came was that somehow this work didn’t speak true to me; there was something missing that didn’t quite speak to the depths of my soul.

MISHLOVE: You mean, there was something in effect about your very research that was sick, and that expressed itself in your body.

RUBIK: Right, exactly. My body was an expression of my deepest self, and it was saying, this work is not truest to you. And I had to make a decision whether to finish — I mean, after six or seven years it was sizable hunk of one’s life and life energy and time, etcetera — whether to seriously continue with it, or just simply drop it, I was so sick. I decided to continue with it, and I remember writing poetry, which helped me get over my disease. I was really focusing on that inner process of the disorder and what it meant, and the poems became part of the dissertation, in fact.

MISHLOVE: They must have loved that in the biophysics department.

RUBIK: Something I slipped in after it was approved, you know, just to be sure. So I vowed at that time in my life never to do more of that type of science, and consequently did not go on to Harvard to a position I had arranged, but instead took the position over at San Francisco State University at that time, doing teaching where I could be pretty much my own boss and look at the gentler aspects of the universe such as healing and holism, interconnectedness and relationship. Because San Francisco State University is primarily a teaching school and not a research institution, I would have a little bit of time to devote to research, and didn’t think much attention would be paid to that realm over there.

MISHLOVE: So as a teacher, you’re almost getting, really, into the humanities, because of the human relationship that you have to have with your students. So you began to move away from the reductionistic paradigm which is so implicit in physical science and biological science today.

RUBIK: That’s right. Well, another way I saw that break down, in fact, was in some of my experiments with the psychic healers. I recall some experiments just simply did not manifest with so-called positive results. We couldn’t seem to replicate from session to session or day to day some of the results we saw with Olga. That was disturbing, and then I later realized, well, the days that things didn’t work, that we didn’t get the effects that she somehow apparently had manifested on other occasions, were days that her breakfast didn’t agree with her. And on another occasion some intruder came and popped in and tried to disrupt the whole experiment, and there was definitely a difference in the psychology, the psychological makeup, of both the psychic participant and the experimenters, myself. We were all agitated, and under those circumstances we did not manifest those results. And I began to see it — it was really pushing the limits of the scientific methodology, because of course science demands replicability and reproducibility of experiments, by any observer at any time point, if there’s true objectivity here. And I began to realize that was a serious limitation for so-called parapsychological experiments.

MISHLOVE: The very notion of objectivity, when we’re measuring the direct effects of the mind itself on a physical system, seems to be a paradox.

RUBIK: Right, yes. And one of the other things I got involved with in graduate school was of course my real education in the Fundamental Physics Group up at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab, where Fritjof Capra and Nick Herbert and several other physicists and psychologists were discussing the emerging paradigm, the real meaning of twentieth-century physics — that is, quantum mechanics and relativity theory — which really shook up that old world view of reductionistic physics that we talked about a moment ago, which portrayed a real concrete role for consciousness now in the universe, as a participator, almost like a mystical participant, where you can’t separate the object and the observer anymore; you are simply one, just as you are in the mystical experience of uniting yourself with that part of nature.

MISHLOVE: Of course these physicists — I used to attend some of those meetings myself; in fact, they were hosted by Elizabeth Rauscher, who was your experimental partner later on in this research. She coauthored a number of papers with you. This is a view which seems quite acceptable to people who are on the leading edge of theoretical physics, and is just, I suppose, beginning to filter in to the rest of the scientific community — that our fundamental notion of objectivity, that there’s something flawed in the notion that there is such a thing as an objective universe, separate from ourselves, separate from our minds.

RUBIK: Yes. In fact this so-called paradigm shift in science may be the biggest ever, because it might mean the end of experimental science as we’ve assumed it — the separability, thingness.

Meister Echhart

MISHLOVE: Well, this seems to be what the skeptics fear so much.

RUBIK: I think so. They’ve got good reason. You know, the whole world view will be thrown into smithereens.

MISHLOVE: I see. I never thought they had such good reason to fear, but I don’t know whether to take optimism or pessimism in your remarks there. I mean, what would happen if our world view was thrown into smithereens?

RUBIK: Well, we’d have to view ourselves as inseparable, and there are no real things out there. That’s pretty earthshaking. These are things, of course, well known to the mystics, but that scientists have tried to snuff out, and that in fact the whole cultural world view which has become the scientific world view of the seventeenth century has tried to eliminate. Actually, what’s interesting is that these notions of inseparability and sort of thinglessness goes back to ancient times and medieval times. It’s as if we lost touch with it, and now we’re sort of regaining touch with that. I think what would happen is that people would feel a sense of being home in the universe for the first time, perhaps, in centuries — you know, a sense of being one with the cosmos, really feeling at home, that it’s a friendly place.

MISHLOVE: Well, how do you reconcile that notion, which you derive both from ancient mysticism and now from the leading edge of theoretical science, with your own daily experience in this body, using these eyes that look out, using the skin as an organ which seems very much to separate the inside who you are from the outside?

RUBIK: Yes, we do have our boundaries in a physical sense. But I’m also aware of those ineffable states of consciousness — I just spent a week at Esalen this past week —

MISHLOVE: You seem to be glowing a little bit.

RUBIK: — where somehow you have an expanded view, and your mind is simply not contained within the four walls of your skull. You definitely have a sense of expansion, mind and heart — of being out in some larger domain, and not simply contracted. I think within the limits of the skin is perhaps the most contracted state of the mind and heart. But one can experience the mind, I think, in the most ultimate mystical states, the mind and heart as big as the cosmos — that deep, that connected.

MISHLOVE: Your scientific search ultimately led you to explore the tradition of Western spirituality, the great mystics in the Western tradition. Can you comment on that a bit?

RUBIK: Yes, actually I started looking at Eastern mysticism, because I was unaware that there was a Western mysticism. I was raised a Catholic, but no one ever told me about Western mysticism connected to a Christian heritage. And I was very surprised to discover there were, and they hadn’t been made manifest in my Catholic upbringing. Actually, the Western mysticism is deeply connected to the roots of the old goddess religions, and then some of the oldest literature in the Bible — the yahwist tradition, the Old Testament, the creation myths of Genesis. And it’s been kept alive and nurtured by medieval mystics like Meister Eckhart and Julian of Norwich and Hildegard von Bingen and several others. And I would say today we have Thomas Merton and Thomas Berry, and of course Matthew Fox, of the Institute for Culture and Creation Spirituality, and company, keeping it alive.

MISHLOVE: Let me ask you a few questions. What basically is the thrust of Western spirituality as you see it? You were speaking earlier of this sense of connectivity with the world around you.

RUBIK: Right. The type of Western mysticism that I’m involved with has been called creation-centered. That is to say, nature is primary scripture. The cosmos, the whole universe, is seen as God’s great creation, and is of utmost importance, and humanity is certainly, as we know it, at the pinnacle of that creation, but we’re not to exclude and insist that our path is the only meaningful thing. And the notion of a salvation would be the saving of the whole — the whole earth, in the case of humanity, because it’s teetering on the brink of destruction.

MISHLOVE: So it sounds to me that what you’re describing is not so much, then, a transcendence into a heavenly sphere, or that type of pie-in-the-sky mysticism, but rather a connectivity with all of nature, an appreciation of nature itself in a very earthy way.

RUBIK: Exactly. It’s extremely earthy mysticism, very connected, very grounded.

MISHLOVE: And that earthiness suggests to me that it might have something very directly to say about science itself — ways of doing research, that there might be another paradigm for science besides the reductionistic model that we spoke of earlier.

RUBIK: Well, it certainly elevated the position of the scientist to someone who looks at the creator’s great creation. You know, there was really no special position for someone as a scientist in the old fall-redemption theology of Christianity, which sort of denigrated the nature of the world and the cosmos as sort of meaningless.

MISHLOVE: The old fall-redemption theology?

RUBIK: Yes, the current — well, I would say still the contemporary world view within Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic, today.

MISHLOVE: In other words, that we’ve fallen from grace, and that we have to redeem ourselves through faith and works and things of that sort.

RUBIK: Yes. And that this world is so rather unimportant compared to the next, and so you can use it as you need to use it — you know, kind of use up the resources without regard for the whole, for the other creatures.

MISHLOVE: After all, Armageddon is around the corner anyway, so who cares if we deplete all the oil?

RUBIK: Right. But you spoke earlier about this new paradigm, which is really an old paradigm within Western spirituality, giving us perhaps a new way to do science, and I would say that reminds me of something one of the mystics said. Meister Eckhart said that every creature is a book about God — really looking deeply, shinking into the depths of every little unique being and creature, every rock, for its statement about that divinity within, and of course connecting it to our own. The scientist becomes a mystic at that point, which I think is what real scientists were anyway. Albert Einstein wrote extensively about this, that the real essence of science was keeping alive that mystical feeling. That was his whole purpose in science — science and art, he said.

MISHLOVE: What you’re suggesting reminds me of the Anthroposophists I observed in Switzerland, followers of the Austrian mystic Rudolf Steiner, who would spend a great deal of time watching, for example, a plant as it goes from the seed and begins to sprout, and then blooms and then flowers, and then begins to fade and decays and dies. Their way of doing science and of teaching science was to feel the whole cycle of that organism, and to incorporate it somehow within their being, rather than — I mean, they did statistical studies, but they were very unconcerned about the results of their statistics as compared to the impression of just being with nature on their spirit, their own soul, their own mind.

RUBIK: Hmm. That sounds very much related.

MISHLOVE: It sounds as if, when you describe yourself as scientist-mystic, you’re moving in that direction.

RUBIK: Yes. Ever since my dissertation disease disorder, I’ve paid a lot more attention to what bubbles up from within, and I’ve learned to trust it; you know, it’s been an ongoing process. It’s one of the things I’ve also noticed as a teacher, particularly of liberal arts students — how much people distrust this inner knowing, this intuition which we all have. Because it seems to me they’d rather accept on some sort of faith the dictums of modern science, without really a full understanding of it, more than they would trust what comes from within, for themselves. There’s something very dangerous about a culture that somehow allows its knowledge to come so much from outside, from other sources that aren’t necessarily something they can test within.

MISHLOVE: It seems that that conflict goes back to the seventeenth-century debate between the empiricists and I think they were called the naturalists, who said all knowledge either comes from without or comes from within us. Certainly the empiricists seem to have gotten the upper hand in that one in our culture now, leading to reductionistic science, in the sense that if we haven’t put it through a proper controlled experiment we can’t know what the truth is in any situation.

RUBIK: Yes. I think there are reasons for that — that empiricism gained ground over this other approach. Because empiricism and the scientific method led naturally to technology, and technology made life easier and people rich. So the culture saw it as extremely powerful, and naturally adopted the world view of science. It became a sort of turnabout; science and religion completely did a turnabout, and science now reigns over religion, I would say.

MISHLOVE: What do you see as the value, then, of your approach — the scientist-mystic approach?

RUBIK: Well, a few things. One of the things we haven’t touched on here is the importance of values, and reconciling fact and value, because these two have been also separated — value being in the realm of religion, and fact being in the realm of science. The two haven’t mixed very well over the last three hundred years, like oil and water. But I think bringing the two back together, where they really belong in the terms of a cosmology which requires a science and a spirituality for the whole truth. And there’s only one truth ultimately. And with that, of course, the subjective and the objective are unified, or in fact those are nonexistent, because you only have participating consciousness in the world, and then you recover aesthetics, morality, and all these things reconnected to our knowledge.

MISHLOVE: You seem to be jumping way ahead of me, though. We already have the reconciliation and unification of science and religion, and I don’t quite see how that’s to be done. I certainly don’t feel that it has been done yet.

I mean, we may have made a few tentative steps in that direction.

RUBIK: I’m projecting.

MISHLOVE: I mean, how do we possibily derive values from science?

RUBIK: I don’t know, I don’t think we’re going to derive values from science, but I expect that the enduring values from the deep esoteric cores of various spiritualities will somehow become married to the science, within the very scientists themselves, for example. The scientists will cease to be the sort of pseudo-objective observers, sort of drawing the line about how they probe nature, and become involved with their own psyches within the experiment, all that they bring to that — their system of values, their personal beliefs, and the work they’re doing.

MISHLOVE: Of course in your case, Beverly, it was your dissertation disease that led you through almost like a shamanistic process of healing yourself, and in that healing process growing to a richer, deeper level. I wonder if scientists who are trained in the reductionistic paradigm would be willing, would have the courage, to go through that process, or if they can possibly do it without confronting the disease, the sickness, of their own work?

RUBIK: Well, I think somehow each person has to decide for themselves. If something doesn’t speak true to them, and if it begins to hurt bad enough on the inside, whether it’s a sort of dull, gnawing ache — you know, that something’s not quite right — or whether it really manifests as a physical illness or a mental illness, then one really has to take a look at it when it becomes a strong enough signal. But otherwise scientists go about their business as before. And this is by and large the majority, I would say, of academic scientists and even corporate scientists that are involved in the old story.

MISHLOVE: So what you’re basically suggesting is simply the possibility of a unification of science and mysticism, not really any actuality — or not a lot of actuality to it yet.

RUBIK: Right, yes. It may not change the methods by which we do science, and we may still have our reductionistic way of taking a piece of the universe into the laboratory to study it, but I think the level of consciousness that we will bring to that experiment will be very, very different — you know, we will bring our whole being instead of some cut-off pseudo-fragment part of my being, in order to probe it, and do science in a new way.

MISHLOVE: Well, let’s go back to the earlier studies that we referred to — the work of psychic healers that are attempting to affect the motility of bacteria. I think of that research as being some of the classic work that’s been done in psychic healing. In spite of your failures to constantly repeat the results, you repeated them often enough to establish that work as something of a landmark. If you were to redo that work again, would you do it differently?

RUBIK: Yes. I think I might include group meditations before the experiment. We always had the ritualistic lunch before we did our experiments, or breakfast, as it turned out. We sort of got everyone on an even keel and a cooperative mode. I think I would extend that even to some deeper process like a meditation or guided visualization, in fact, to try to bring about more coherent consciousness among all participators in the experiment.

MISHLOVE: In other words, you wouldn’t conceive of only Olga Worrall, or the Brazilian healer, Brother Macedo, as being the person who had some sort of a mysterious gift, but you might consider you as a conscious being, or other participants having minds, being conscious, might be able to reach inside of themselves to that same level of affecting the bacteria in the test tubes.

RUBIK: That’s right. And we don’t really know where the psychic ability comes from, so to speak. We only know it’s a property of this experiment with these people present, on certain occasions, given certain psychological states of mind which are very difficult to describe or measure, but we know that these things manifest. It’s really hard to point the finger and say, you know, this person did it. All you know is that you open up to that possibility as a scientist, when you might not otherwise, because you don’t have a so-called psychic present in your domain. So it does take a certain leap of faith, or a quantum leap in consciousness for myself as a scientist in those years, to even assume that that might occur. Because normally I wasn’t even thinking that I might affect my bacteria — you know, I came with the same kind of neutral mind set that in fact they do their thing, and I simply measure it as a passive observer. That’s very much old-paradigm thinking, and you have to come with a new vision that there is a possibility for consciousness to interact, in which case not only Brother Macedo or Olga Worrall, but possibly my own level or state of consciousness might in fact have a very important part to play in manifesting this. So I would come with a very different state of mind.

MISHLOVE: Ultimately it sounds like a different attitude toward yourself.

RUBIK: Yes, I think so.

MISHLOVE: And that change in your own attitude toward yourself, your own relationship to yourself and to the process of being conscious, is something that one doesn’t derive directly from reductionistic science. It has to come from elsewhere, I suppose — from the process of engaging in the research and then really looking deeply at the ramifications of it.

RUBIK: Yes, I think in the research and just within one’s life, you know, as one matures and grows older and looks more deeply and examines and meditates, little glimpses get revealed that slowly change one. I’ve certainly felt that over the years — small openings on occasions. Sometimes dreams have played an important role in the process of discovery, things like that, where I’ve recognized that how is it that this level of my mind is capable of coming up with this idea, when my conscious mind wasn’t? And I realized there’s something very deep within us, and of course this is in the creation-centered tradition the link to divinity which all of us have, because the tradition holds that God is in everything and everything is in God, and that’s called panentheism, in theological terms. And so it certainly fits with that.

MISHLOVE: Well, Dr. Beverly Rubik, it’s been a pleasure having you with me. I think your work expresses perhaps the forefront of what a new science could be like, when people are able to move from the laboratory into the realm of spiritual encounter and then back into the laboratory. Thanks so much for being with me.

RUBIK: Thank you, Jeffrey.

The following transcript is used with permission from Thinking Allowed, Conversations On the Leading Edge of Knowledge and Discovery, with Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove.

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