On July 9, 1595, a twenty-four year old mathematics teacher in Gratz, Austria was drawing a figure on the blackboard
for his class when “an idea suddenly struck him with such force that he felt he was holding the key to the secret of
creation in his hand” (Koestler, 1960, p. 43).
This grand visionary idea, which would eventually lead to the refutation of the
Biblical worldview and the birth of modern cosmology, was that the orbits of the
Earth and other planets around the Sun can be precisely fitted over the five perfect Pythagorean solids.
This momentous inspiration, credited by Johannes Kepler to divine providence,
is a suitable opening metaphor for a discussion of the history of existential psychology.
Four hundred years later, American psychology still vibrates with the intellectual and emotional
aftershocks resulting from the collision of Ptolemaic universe and the modern solar system.
The idée fixe that propelled Kepler throughout his lifetime was that God had constructed the
physical universe according to some hidden, yet perfectly elegant mathematical system of divine mechanics.
Man (sic), as the crowning accomplishment of God’s creation, was endowed with the intellect and
attunement to reconstruct the schemata of the planets and stars.
As a reflection of God’s perfection, the physical arrangement of heavenly
bodies must be in accordance with elegant mathematical laws.
In looking at the image of the two circles and triangle,
Kepler imagined the representatives of planetary orbits and the geometric skeleton that fixed them in place.
The following year, when he published Mysterium Cosmographicum, he proclaimed that
the book was written as if under the dictation of a “heavenly oracle” and represented
“an obvious act of God” (Koestler, 1960, p. 62). According to this oracle,
“God could create only a perfect world, and since only five symmetrical solids exist,
they are obviously placed between the six planetary orbits ‘where they fit in perfectly’” (Koestler, 1960, p. 51).
With that as an introduction, he takes his readers through a detailed proof derived from observational readings and mathematical calculations.
Here he steps beyond the borders of mysticism into the domain of the modern scientist.
“Now we shall proceed to the astronomical determination of the orbits and to geometrical considerations.
If these do not confirm the thesis, then all our previous efforts have doubtless been in vain” (Koestler, 1960, p. 52).
The outcome of these efforts, according the U.S. National Aeronautic and Space Administration
(NASA) was that Kepler became the first person “to correctly explain planetary motion, thereby,
becoming founder of celestial mechanics and the first ‘natural laws’ in the modern sense; being universal,
verifiable, precise” (NASA, 2004, p. 1).
Kepler’s mathematical proof of the heliocentric universe, more so than Copernicus’ reasoned hypothesis,
“can be seen as a fundamental metaphor for the entire modern world view” (Tarnas, 1993, p. 542).
Before Kepler, the Earth stood stationery at the center of all creation.
The consciousness that separated Man (sic) from the beasts was conscious awareness of identity, place and purpose.
The answer to the fundamental pre-existential questions of identity – Who am I? Where am I?
What is the purpose of my life? – were answered by Erasmus who claimed:
"The human is center of creation. The measure of God’s goodness is that God created a
rich world to unfold the nature of the human. Man is a noble animal, for whose sake alone
God fashioned this marvelous contrivance of the world" (Erasmus, quoted in Moss, 2001, p. 10).
Imbedded in Kepler’s calculations were a radical change in the proportionality of distance and scale.
The stars in Ptolemy’s universe were calculated to be 20,000 miles distant from the Earth,
imbedded in the crystalline celestial sphere. To account for stellar parallax, in Kepler’s universe,
they were now calculated to reside billions of miles away.
As Tarnas (1993) observes, this cosmological revolution, “can be seen as constituting the epochal shift of the modern age.
It was a primordial event, world-destroying and world-constituting” (p. 542).
Modern cosmology introduces a new set of answers to the fundamental life questions
which are now asked in an existential spirit.
Though these answers are not definitive by any means, previous to Kepler they were almost inconceivable.
With the introduction of the heliocentric universe plausible answers to the questions - Who am I? Where am I?
What is the purpose of my life? – become – “I am an animated amalgamation of unconscious matter.
I am alone on an infinitesimally small speck of dust set afloat in an infinite void.
My life is without purpose and meaning and neither Heaven nor Hell awaits me after death.”
In addition to physically reconstituting the universe, Kepler’s achievement sunk the foundations of
Renaissance epistemology. What is lost in the sifting of historical narrative is the grand scale of the
failure of Kepler’s mental processes. Reason, faith and empiricism began the quest to uncover the secret
key of creation in lockstep. What emerged afterwards was that Kepler’s faith in the divine oracle and
his perfectly reasoned conceptualization of five planetary intervals nested into five perfect solids
was utterly and completely in error. All that was left standing was scientific methodology:
observation, calculation and replication.
As Tasnar (1993) puts it, after the debacle of the five perfect solids:
Human knowledge of reality had to be forever incommensurate with its goal,
for there was no guarantee that the human mind could ever accurately mirror a world with
which its connection was so indirect and mediated. Instead, everything that this mind could
perceive and judge would be to some undefined extent determined by its own character, its own subjective structures.
The mind could experience only phenomena, not things-in-themselves; appearances, not an independent reality.
In the modern universe, the human mind was on its own (p. 542).
The battle between religion and science was on. Much of Western philosophy over the next four centuries
can be seen as a continuous struggle to reconcile the concepts of consciousness, of reason and faith,
in light of the discoveries of science. Within the emerging science of psychology considerable energy went
into answering a new question that crystallized in Kepler’s experience: If the insight and logic that
manifested itself as inspired brilliance was not, in fact, the prophetic word of God purposely laid in
the mind of a genius by the Creator, then what, instead, was it?
Descartes was the first to tackle the new philosophy of the heliocentric age.
If the most obvious empirical fact of the natural world, that the sun moves across the sky,
can be scientifically proven to be no more than an optical illusion, if God and his prophets
got that one wrong, on what basis can sincere Christians maintain their faith in the creed?
His response was self-awareness. “The self, God, and the dimension of space, time and motion
are all innate to the soul…they are derived from the essential rationality of the mind” (Brennan, 1998, p. 86).
If Descartes threw down the gauntlet to defend faith and reason, and with them Christianity,
from the unfortunate omission of heavenly thrones and bands of angels in the new star maps,
then it was Hobbes who picked up a cudgel in response. Hobbes’ first principle of psychology was that
“nothing exists, internal or external to us, except matter and motion” (Brennan, 1998, p. 109).
To Hobbes, Kepler had proven beyond doubt that divine oracles were completely untrustworthy.
Only materialism, grounded in the sound scientific methodology, could serve as a reliable basis
for advancing social knowledge and order.
Spinoza, writing a half century after Kepler’s death, articulated a de-personalized image of
God that could co-exist with astronomy. To Spinoza, God was not the patriarch who guides the world
from on high, but the underlying principle of unity. “Spinoza sought to reconcile the conflict between
science and religion by redefining the deity in terms of the universe…Spinoza viewed the mind and
body as different aspects of the same substance” (Brennan, 1998, p. 84).
These ideas were unpopular in their day, but re-emerged centuries later in transcendental
philosophy and transpersonal psychology.
Beyond Descartes and Hobbes, psychology emerged as the secular study of the mental activity that
had previously been under the domain of theology and philosophy. The facts that Kepler presented were
embraced, while the meanings he ascribed to those facts were discarded.
This pattern persisted as scientific facts on all aspects of the material world accumulated during the
By the time of emergence of psychology as a recognized, independent scientific discipline in the late nineteenth century,
the Ptolemaic worldview was in full retreat. Between Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud the heavens above had been
nearly emptied of their deities. In Freudian terms, Kepler’s belief that his hand was an instrument of God’s
will might be seen as a neurotic obsession resulting from his ghastly childhood amongst a family of “mostly
degenerates and psychopaths” (Koestler, 1960, p. 19).
The emergence of existentialism and phenomenology in the nineteenth century represented a structured
effort to recontextualize the meaning of human life in an infinite universe.
If planets traveling in elliptical orbits did not mean that God had lovingly constructed a perfected
natural environment for His most favored creatures, what did they mean?
If St. Peter’s pearly gates of heaven were not in evidence, nor the heavenly throne where Jesus has ascended to
wait for the faithful, what awaited the individual after death?
If the answer was nothing but total, eternal extinguishment, then why should anyone suffer virtuously, Job-like,
in obedience to God’s commandments?
There were two broad responses to these questions within psychology.
One, the mechanist, positivist, reductionist, atomist stream, came from those who saw all mental
activity as purely physical responses to stimulus of the brain.
This lineage traced from the early empiricists through Hume and Comte to the behaviorists of the early
twentieth century, such as Watson, who proclaimed that, “given the opportunity, he could condition any
human infant to become either a criminal or a scientist by consistently applying the principles of modern
behavioral theory” (Watson, quoted in Moss, 2001, p. 5).
The other response came through the related lineages of transcendentalism, existentialism and phenomenology.
Each of these disciplines was concerned with restoring meaning to human existence in light of the discoveries of science.
The American transcendentalists, led by Emerson and Thoreau among others, acknowledged that the shape and magnitude
of the universe was outside of Biblical proportions, but that the Harmoncie Mundi that stirred the soul was a
legitimate expression of awe towards the natural world. They sought to restore the validity of imagination and
creativity as vehicles for advancing knowledge. “The function of reason, they claimed, was not the discovery
of truth, but that of arranging, methodizing, and harmonizing verbal propositions in regard to it” (Taylor, 1999, p. 64).
Similar to the transcendentalist concept of understanding, existentialism and phenomenology sought
to restore meaning to a human landscape that had been denuded under an avalanche of discovered scientific facts.
Common to all three traditions was a rejection of the notion that “humans are merely biological objects whose
every thought, feeling, and action can be said to be determined by a complex network of causes”
(von Eckartsberg, 1998, p. 4).
Both phenomenology and existentialism were concerned with abstracting meaning to human life absent
a theism that imposed a system of laws and commandments. The consciousness that could conceptualize an
icosahedron and inscribe it between the orbits of Venus and Earth may not be a dependable indicator of
physical reality, but its dreams, desires, fears, obsessions and impulses give shape to behavior
patterns that defy the mapping techniques of the most skillful behaviorists. Unlike the orbits of planets,
where the whole can be accurately determined from a limited number of data points, phenomenology and
existentialism propose that the totality of human experience will not yield its secrets to such techniques of extrapolation.
Instead, they seek meaning in the panorama of human experience taken in as a whole.
As the novelist Shirley Hazzard poetically observed, “The calculations were hopelessly out.
Calculations about Venus often are” (Hazzard, 1980, p. 16).
Three hundred years after Kepler’s momentous stroke of inspiration led to the deconstruction of Ptolemy’s celestial sphere,
Albert Einstein, from Ulm, the city where Kepler had spent his last years, had a similar
flash of inspiration that upended mechanical physics. Einstein, and the other progenitors of quantum and
nuclear physics (Planck, Bohr, Heisenberg, et al.), blew-up Hobbes’ conception of matter and motion to take away
“from space and time the last remnant of physical objectivity” (Einstein, quoted in McFarlane, 1997, p.1).
Within quantum physics, the modern solar system can be seen as a more accurate model for charting
the movements of the planets than the Zodiac it replaced, but not as an objectively true depiction of
the physical reality. Within this new system, “measurements of time, energy and mass lose their
strict objective significance, and can not be considered to exist in any absolute sense independent of
the point of view from which they are observed” (McFarlane, 1997, p.1).
Within this ontology, it becomes possible to reconcile the centuries old rift between science and religion,
not necessarily on Erasmus’ terms, but more in keeping with the views of Spinoza.
Einstein spoke directly to this. When asked if he believed in God, Einstein replied,
“I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists,
not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings” (Einstein, Quote in Clark, 1999, p. 502).
The scientific method does not demand an elucidation of meaning to accompany its discoveries.
That is left for others and often involves a lag time of generations or even centuries.
In past times, the ultimate fate of humanity was revealed by revelation or influenced by faith and ritual.
Newtonian science sought to replace the mythology of grace, obedience and sacrifice, with a new system based
on observation, experimentation and replication. Quantum physics postulated that neither the movements of
the soul nor the planets can be fixed with absolute certainty.
The perspectives of Judeo-Christian and modern scientific cosmology appear to be mutually exclusive.
Yet there are countless faithful Jews and Christians who accept the principals of heliocentrism and
countless skeptical scientists who accept the sacrament of prayer.
Despite the apparent impossibility of the Earth being both the Center of the Universe and a grain of sand,
western culture seems to hold both views in its aggregate consciousness.
In the field of Systemic Constellations each view shares an acknowledgement that humans are
moved by larger forces that permit infinite variation and simultaneously abide by certain rules and principals.
The Constellation process reveals these influences in a way that empowers clients to align
themselves with the demands of existence and the system to which they belong.
The image of the two cosmologies is a fitting metaphor for this work.
We act as enchanted agnostics: open to the totality of mysterious experience and
simultaneously skeptical of all explanations.