December 2, 1972
Under the auspices of the multidisciplinary program in Science, Technology and Society, Vassar hosted a symposium on "Mysticism vs. Science: A Modern Encounter." Introduced to the college community by Professor of Philosophy Frank Tillman and Professor of Physics Morton Tavel in "Mysticism and Science: a Modern Encounter" and "Mysticism and Science: a Modern Confrontation," two essays in The Miscellany News, the symposium featured physicist David Finkelstein from Yeshiva University; philosopher Jacob Needleman from San Francisco State College and philosopher of religion Huston Smith from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"In the past," Tillman and Tavel said, "western science has clarified or explained many processes and events that were considered mystical. It has often done so at the expense of not only overturning its own firmly held concepts and theories, but of revising the logical structure of its foundations.... We hope we can deal in depth with some of the following questions. The reports of Eastern and Western Mystics appear to be at great variance with ordinary experience and science. They seem to contradict reports of common experience, violate the principles of logic and presuppose a framework of thought radically unlike our ordinary one.... How are these reports to be interpreted? Can they be explained, and not merely explained away? Is there any way of getting rid of the apparent contradiction between the claims of the mystic and those of scientific rationality? Do science and mysticism attempt to explain the same world?... Have any phenomena been absorbed into science which were previously considered mystical?... Is there only one logic?... Are the limiting principles of science the only guide to existing things?"
Reporting on the well-attended sessions, Melissa Nussbaum '75 observed, "Both Smith and Needleman basically agreed that science was aimed at understanding nature, lifting out laws of nature to be used for prediction and control and that this knowledge was public and precise. Finkelstein, however, was hesitant to make any commitment because 'defining things creates the illusion that words have meaning.' 'The only sense we can make of science is that it is a particularly human activity,' he concluded. All three were in agreement with the definition of mysticism as 'a mode of awareness' and a 'struggle to become one's self.'" The Miscellany News