Mark Swint

Exoteric and Esoteric Knowledge

In Bible, constantine, creation, Genesis, Geology, God, Library at Alexandria, Moses, Nicean Council, Philosophy, Plate Techtonics, Renaissance, science, Science and Religion on January 31, 2009 at 4:01 pm


Mark Swint

author of

OCULUS: The Zebulon Initiative

Oculus book cover

Knowledge comes in several flavors. The most basic and common knowledge is ‘exoteric’ knowledge; that is, the basic facts of the matter. Exoteric knowledge was made famous with Jack Webb’s famous tag line “Just the facts Ma’am” from the 60s TV show “Dragnet”.

We often operate with ‘just the facts’. We know the ‘what’ of the matter without necessarily knowing the ‘how’ or the ‘why’. This is the basis of how the military works, where people receive orders and execute them without knowing the bigger picture or the reason for the execution of the orders. But the same thing happens in business as well. In fact, in much of our daily lives we receive and react to information without ever knowing why or how it was generated or to what purpose it aspires. We simply follow orders. Societies and civilizations enjoy stability and longevity, without progress or growth, just fine when the populace is happy to follow orders without questioning or challenging the purpose or motivation behind them.

Esoteric knowledge, on the other hand, leads to revolution, growth, progress and expansion. Esoteric knowledge is the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ behind the ‘what’. It was and is this quest for understanding why something is so or how something works that has driven curious people and forward thinkers to seek answers beyond the simple facts of any matter. Esoteric thinkers are not happy to just acknowledge that birds can fly; they want to know HOW birds fly. They want to understand the forces that allow wings to develop lift and permit heavier that air objects to soar aloft as lightly as a feather.

For millennia people observed and acknowledged that lightening was a frightening and lethal force to be respected and feared. It took someone like Benjamin Franklin to ask what lightening was and how it did its horrible magic. “Why does lightening kill?” he wondered. “How does it form and how does it make such awful noise?” Because of his curiosity, and with the help of others like JJ Thompson and Michael Rutherford, the world slowly gained an understanding of electricity, what it is, how it works, and why it kills. Because of the work of men and women like these, the world became electrified; it came out of the darkness – literally – and was changed forever.

It is the quest for understanding the esoteric nature of things that moves the world forward. It is the gaining of knowledge that provides us with an ever growing array of devices and machines and services that have enabled us to do incredible and marvelous things – to be sure, we have gained some terrible powers as well – and which has allowed the world to grow and provide sustenance and support for an ever increasing population that would be unsustainable without such technology.

In ancient days the world was awash in exoteric knowledge. People saw the changing phases of the moon. They watched the sun go daily around the earth. They observed the changing seasons, all without understanding the forces at work to bring about such phenomena. People watched with awe as birds soared, seemingly effortlessly, on wind currents. They puzzled as to how fishes could breath underwater. Weather phenomena such as tornadoes, hurricanes, hail and thunderstorms brought fear and amazement and generated countless myths and legends.

Without an esoteric understanding of the things they observed and knew to be fact, people turned to superstition in a futile attempt to give reason for things they could not understand. This led to the establishment of traditions and behaviors that were not always in the best interest of the portion of the population that fell victim to the execution of those superstitions. People were sacrificed to any number of false gods. Others were burned or otherwise killed for being witches or demonically possessed. Wars were waged and battles fought over the preservation of ideas supported by superstition and tradition and much progress was lost that otherwise would have brought the light of understanding to people.

Science, which was originally labeled ‘natural philosophy’ or ‘the love of nature,’ arose when curious men and women were able to set aside some of their superstitions and traditions and listen to the earth and to nature around them. They started with the simplest of matters and studied them, seeking a deeper understanding, seeking the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the object being studied. Slowly people began to see the truth of the things around them. Superstition was replaced with understanding and understanding led to harnessing the truths learned for the eventual benefit of all. As the knowledge of electrons came to light researchers were able to induce current and electric motors were invented. These motors were employed to do the work otherwise done by hand or by horse and harness. This same electric current was captured in a filament and coaxed to produce incandescent light which illuminated the world and opened up the nighttime hours to more productive uses and enjoyment.

The laws of physics were expanded and the study of aerodynamics finally unlocked the secret that the birds had known for so many thousands of years. At last man was able to soar on the winds and travel across vast distances just as the birds had done for so long.

It is important to understand the relationship between exoteric and esoteric knowledge to understand the relationship between good science and good religion. I say ‘good’ because there is an abundance of both good and bad religion and good and bad science.

In generations past, when people believed what the scriptures said, they took the ‘truths found therein and viewed them as exoteric knowledge. The Bible simply said ‘what’ was true and ‘what’ was real. A careful reading of the Bible, however, will show us that the scriptures seldom, if ever, explain how or why something was so. It seems the purpose of scripture was and is merely to tell us what is what and leave it to our faith to accept or reject it. In earlier days this was acceptable because, having been told what was real, we then let our scholars and scientists explain for us how those things could be. In other words, the Bible was a legitimate source of exoteric knowledge.

For example, Moses said that in the beginning the earth was featureless and covered with water. He did not offer any explanation for how this was so or why this was so, he merely said that is was thus. He also said that after a time, the waters were gathered together and the dry land appeared. Again, he did not explain the mechanism that made this true. He simply stated it as fact – observed fact that he had seen in a vision. Moses’ history would indicate little to suggest that he had the technical or scientific training to understand the processes at work. But, as a simple and humble man, he claimed that he was given a vision of the creation of the world and this is what he saw. Imagine for a moment that you sit down in a movie theater and watch a short film by Steven Spielberg on the creation of the world. With his extraordinary vision and special effects teams he makes a movie of wonderful detail showing us exactly how it looked as it was happening. When the movie is over you leave the theater, filled with wonder and amazement at the things you have just seen. You know the creation of the world. The things you have seen are fantastic and astounding. However, you do not know how those things came about or what mechanism drove them to be. You simply know what happened. You are now tasked to relate what you have seen to your grandmother who could not go with you to the theater. You tell her all the wonderful things you have just seen and she stops you with questions like ‘how did that happen?’ You say, Mom, I don’t know but it did! Congratulations, you have just experienced what Moses experienced when he had his vision. He was a goat herder not a scientist. He did not know about Plate Tectonics. No one knew about Plate Tectonics and no one would know until 1965. However, Plate Tectonics is the scientific explanation for the formation of the Earth’s surface features. It in no way contradicts the scriptures and it provides the ‘how and why’ to Moses’ ‘what’ as he related it in Genesis.

 In many other examples science and religion worked hand in hand to decipher the world and our surroundings. This partnership propelled the Phoenicians, the Egyptians, the Persians and the Babylonians to seek answers to their greatest mysteries, almost all of which were related to their relationship to their Gods and to their world around them. The advances they gave to the world form the foundation of much of the knowledge we enjoy to this day.

The great rift between science and religion began during the dark ages, that period of time in the Western world that started in the fourth century A.D. and ended with the renaissance, beginning in the late fourteenth century. For the Middle East it began around the seventh century A.D. and continued well past the Western renaissance. In each case it was powerful and almost totalitarian religious dominance that brought a screeching halt to progress and understanding.

In the West it began innocently enough and with good intentions. Constantine, last Emperor of the Roman Empire, decided that this emerging Christian movement, which he was unable to stop, would be a good unifying force to hold his increasingly restless empire together. Wisely, he decided that he should convene a council of all the Christian bishops and leader from throughout the empire so that they could come up with a single, unified – Catholic – doctrine under which all would live and be judged. A council was convened in 325 A.D. in Nicaea, now Turkey. At this council doctrines were hammered out for just about everything the leaders could think of. Items included the nature of God and the Trinity, the proper date and observance of Easter, as well as more worldly things such as whether or the not Sun or the Earth was the center of the universe, and just what, exactly, was the sun? What were the planets and the stars and how did the planets move in the night sly against the curtain of immovable stars? Much great work was done and in the process a few errors were made. This would have been OK had there been a provision for revisions to be made as knowledge was gained, however, the council made one fatal error. They included a point of order that stated that the doctrine of the Nicene council was infallible. In other words, it was perfect and could not be wrong in any point. That meant that anyone disagreeing with any point of doctrine in the Nicene doctrine was a heretic, a sin punishable by death.

Well, this worked for a few years though it had a chilling effect on inquiry and research. After all, with the answers so clearly and unbendingly stated in the Nicene doctrines, there was no need to look for any other or contrary answer. Thus, progress was stopped.

In the Middle East it was the establishment of Islam that cooled the scientific enthusiasm of their greatest thinkers, thinkers who had given us astronomy, mathematics (Al Gebra for example) and medicine. Indeed, Islam declared that all of the progress and all of the knowledge brought forth by their forefathers was contained in a period for ever after known as the ‘time before enlightenment’. This is not to say that Islam repudiated the acquired knowledge of their progenitors but rather that the emphasis was taken from academic pursuits and turned towards Allah. By implying that the early thinkers were unenlightened the new law stifled further thought and progress.

The Library of Alexandria was one of the original Wonders of the World. It was the repository of all of the world’s accumulated knowledge and we can only imagine the truths and histories that were contained therein. Its destruction was one of the greatest tragedies of all time. It is a matter of much controversy, with many scholars claiming several different destructive events, including an accidental fire by Caesar’s men in 48B.C. However, one account attributes some of its destruction to the Arab army led by Amr Ibn al’Aus in 642 A.D. Though this is a matter of much dispute, one of the statements attributing the event to him is revealing of the attitude of the times. It is claimed that he said, speaking of the scrolls in the library, “They will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous.” Here we see the same attitude as that held by the Roman church with regard to contradictions with the Nicene Creed. It is claimed that they (al Aus’ army) used the scrolls to fuel the fires that heated their bath water and that there were enough scrolls to fuel the fires for six months.

Whatever the truth, the fact is that serious scientific inquiry was dramatically curtailed during the first millennium after the meridian of time. Suddenly, scientists and the scientific method were viewed warily and esteemed as ungodly. The prevailing attitude was that there was no need for science, and only the worship of God, as ordained by the state, was a worthy venture.

Then, along came Galileo Galilee, son of a musician, and an accomplished lute player in his own right. He lived and worked in Firenze, Tuscany, (You know it as Florence Italy). He was a brilliant and insightful thinker and just the kind of person that the Medici’s, rulers of Tuscany, were looking to patronize. With their support, Galileo was able to pursue his quest for understanding and knowledge.

It was the invention of the telescope that really got things riled up in Galileo’s world. His first endeavor was to turn his new invention to the heavens. He set his sights on the brightest star in the night sky, Jupiter. What he saw changed the world. Besides the spectacle of a clearer view of our largest neighbor in the solar system, Galileo saw four small distinct points of light. He observed them nightly for a month, carefully noting their position in a note book. After a month it became clear that the objects were orbiting the great giant planet. They were moons. To this day Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto are still referred to as the Galilean Moons. The problem was that the Nicene doctrine did not allow for anything to orbit any other thing except the Earth. The doctrine had clearly defined the nature of the cosmos, and moons orbiting other planets were not part of the equation. Galileo was a heretic. Nevertheless, he had seen what he had seen and no written doctrine could change that. Through his telescope Galileo saw other wonders equally contradictory and equally damning. The age of conflict between science and religion had finally been fully established and the rift would only grow over the years.

The assumption that the Nicene doctrines accurately reflected the writings of the Bible and the thoughts and intent of God meant that one must either choose to follow religious leaders (And by extension, God) or scientific reason and evidence, but not both. For the first time the scriptures were not viewed as a source of exoteric knowledge. In fact, everything said and claimed in the scriptures was suspect and began to be viewed as fantasy and superstition. People of reason and understanding were suddenly forced to choose between their faith and their understanding. It was an awful choice and many great scientists struggled mightily with the issue.

The sad truth is that one simple change to the great work done by the participants of the Nicene council would have changed the world. Had they simply allowed for a provision to modify and adjust the doctrine as knowledge was gained, they would have formed a partnership with the scientific community that would have allowed for an ever more refined and accurate world view. Obviously, there are many matters that rely on faith alone, but a greater understanding of the true nature of measurable things would have led to the elimination of false and silly superstitions and notions that kept many good people of faith from seeing as far as they might otherwise have.

If God is real – if God is true – then truth in all things will only lead closer to Him and to the truths of the universe that He, through means not fully understood just yet, created. To understand how someone does something does not diminish the accomplishment. So too, to understand just a little bit more of God does not diminish His Godliness. To know that Plate Tectonics may be the method that God used to form the landmasses of the earth does not diminish the accomplishment of that fact. After all, don’t the scriptures tell us that “ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” and, “this is life eternal, to know thee the one true God…”?

To know what God does gives us faith. To know how God does it should only build on that faith. If we could get science and Religion back together again just think of the possibilities. Of course it would take great humility and cooperation on both sides. If we could accept the general nature of things said on the scriptures, with faith, and then turn our own considerable powers of investigation and inquiry to those subjects for understanding, just think what we might learn.

If you think this would destroy faith then I remind you of the promise contained in the scriptures which says, “Ask and ye shall receive, Seek and ye shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you”.

As Agent Mulder says, “The truth is out there.”

  1. Why get science and religion back together when we already have philosophy? Philosophers can discuss “supernatural” entities in the most plausible ways possible. What exactly is the role that religion will play that we can’t do on our own?

    • I agree with your basic premise that philosophy can effectively bridge the gap. However, there is really no definable confllict between philosophy and science, at least not one that has engendered the animosity and ridicule as experienced by opposing sides of the science/religion debate. Also, the one fundamental difference between philosophy and religion (speaking generally and not of specific religious denominations) is the matter of revelation and revealed truths. Allowing for believers to accept claimed revelations in the scriptures as coming from God or one of his messengers, then one would have to allow religion to trump philosophy as a source of exoteric truth.
      I am not aware of any method, other than through mutual aprobation, for determining the veracity of any philosophical argument. Science has its empirical evidences, religion has its revealed or faith based confirmations of the Spirit, but philosophy has little more that persuasion and acceptance for support. How does one refute or acknowledge Nietzsche’s “God is dead” hypothesis? Men such as Kierkagaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre were capable thinkers who could make compelling cases for their brands of existentialism but there is just no way, either emperical or experimental to prove or disprove their claims.

  2. Philosophy is all about evidence. Science is a restricted kind of philosophy to empirical evidence, but philosophy is not.

    How do you test the “veracity of a philosophical argument?” Consider Descartes’s argument “I think therefore I am.” You can decide if this is plausible through your own experience. Even Nietzsche agrees that this is a pretty solid argument.

    “God is dead” was an observation and was not meant to have been “proven.” Nietzsche observed that many philosophers no longer wanted to take God’s existence as given. Mill, for example, wanted to give us ethics without a requirement of God’s existence.

    I don’t know much about Sartre, but either a philosopher can justify his/her argument, or can’t. If you think most of them don’t, that is their fault. If you take the time to read contemporary ethical debates I hope that you will see that a lot of justification is introduced.

    Some justification might be something like “common sense.” We can take certain premises as true because those premises are so essential to being a human being. Then we can deduce conclusions from those premises.

  3. I believe that philosophical observations and arguements are essential to human understanding and progression. Philosophers have the wonderful ability to codify or cement the human experience into terms that most of us can understand and accept.
    Of course, some philosophy is highly subjective such as whether one chooses to be Democrat or Republican. This is not a matter of right or wrong, true or false, it is simply a choice or a preference as to the role of government in one’s personal life.
    Common sense is generally good but can also lead down a slippery slope. Regardless, philosophy is a valuable component to life and I support the philosopher’s effort to explain the world.
    It must then be the ‘God” issue, or better still the attempt of men to manipulate other men through the invocation of God, that generates the disgust of Scientists towards religion, both organized and personally held (Although, aren’t scientists just as guilty sometimes of manipulating people with science? I cite the new religion of Global Warming” and all of the social enginering going on as we speak). My comments have been generated to explore that riftbetween the two camps. Were there an equally vitriolic rift between scientists and philosophers I think you would be fully capable of taking on that issue and I would be anxious to read your work.
    Ultimately, the principal difference between philosophers and theologians (forgive me if I oversimplify) is the source of trust. To trust in an unseen (but sensed by many) God or to trust in the wisdom of man seems to be the poit of determination between whether one is a philosopher or a theologian. There is probably a very lively discussion that could be generated on that subject.
    I believe philosophers are important in this world. The first term for men of science was “natural philosophers’ or ‘lover of knowledge'(or more correctly, ‘wisdom’) and the first term for science itself was natural philosophy or ‘love of natural knowledge’. I believe philosophers are lovers of knowledge and express their curiosity of their surroundings by their teachings. luckily, for the philosophers, scientists, or rather, the scientific community has left them alone and in fact, in some instances has drawn inspiration from their work. An example would be Walter Heisenberg who gave us the ‘Uncertainty principle’ one of the absolute bedrock assumptions the supports Quantum Mechanics. Upon first readings of his work one is forced to ask, “is this science or philosophy?” The truth is it is probably both. Well done Walter! I salute, therefore I am done.

  4. Very nice article. Now, if science and religion(s) are to be brought together, wouldn’t Self-knowledge or spirituality, the path of the inner esoteric, have to be the light that makes this reality the path?

    In other words, the whole cannot manifest itself to/through us if we don’t have faith in the individual to manifest the whole through Self — from presence and mindfulness to understanding.

    Note: I capitalized “Self” to note the need to actively transcend the self, the ego(s) that so many are taught to identify as themselves.

  5. Thank you.

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