Broadening Our Perspective on Science
Who am I? Where do I come from? What am I doing here? Where will I go after? For thousands of years the human being searches for its place and purpose in the cosmos. Religions offer their perspectives. Science adds some answers, and more questions. Whereas we’re far from getting definitive answers, this text offers an introductory view on science, religion and spirituality with the goal to broaden their understanding and relationships. After all, answers to those fundamental questions about our existence and purpose must be integrative and integrative answers cannot be reached through fragmented perspectives.
The word “science” derives from the Latin word Scientia, which means “knowledge”. Science, then, can be simply put as the search for knowledge. Naturally, as the scientific field evolved, new definitions emerged, reflecting more contemporary views of the various fields of human exploration known to us as science. Presently, science can be defined as “the theoretical and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure, processes and laws of nature through observation and experiment”. This definition indicates two basic elements: theory and practice. The theoretical aspect of science is the intellectual search for basic principles that explain the functioning of nature. It is the search for cause and effect relationships and the natural laws that govern them, so that what before was chaos can be turned into order. Theories are an intrinsic part of science since they provide conceptual models for the understanding of real phenomena. Of course, they still need to be verified, but little progress would be made in science if theories were not designed and then shared and tested among scientists. Followed by a theoretical model comes the second aspect of science: that of practice. Practical science consists in the design of experiments with the goal of collecting objective evidence that either supports or disproves a theory. Such experiments must be carried out under controlled and repeatable conditions, for instance, in laboratories. The scientific activity then consists in the constant interaction between theory and practice, constantly improving upon previous scientific heritage. This is how countless minds over the centuries helped us get where no human generation alone could go. Another aspect of science that needs to be highlighted here is that of systematic studies. Scientific knowledge must be cohesive and logical. A new scientific postulate must build upon past knowledge without contradictions, unless it points out to past errors that went unidentified – and this does happen since science is a human creation, as fallible as all of us are!
“All sciences have for their starting-point certain elementary notions which are furnished them by the common experience of mankind. There would be no arithmetic if men had not, as their wants increased, begun by counting and calculating, and if they had not already had some ideas of numbers, unity, fractions, etc.; neither would there be any geometry if they had not also had ideas of the round, the square, the straight line. The same is true of morals. They presuppose a certain number of notions existing among all men, at least to some degree. Good and evil, duty and obligation, conscience, liberty and responsibility, virtue and vice, merit and demerit, sanction, punishment and reward, are notions which the philosopher has not invented, but which he has borrowed from common sense, to return them again cleared and deepened.” (Janet, 1884)
So, now that we understand what science consists of, let me pose a question: where in the definition above is implicit that science must be materialistic? Or, in other words, has it even been proved that physical phenomena are all there is? Has it even been proved that matter as we know it is the only natural possibility in the universe? And, is there evidence that either supports or disproves the metaphysical theory or materialism? The answer is for you, reader, to choose, since, as it turns out, science can also be one’s religion when one chooses to ignore effects that have no apparent cause. Ruling out the possibility of nature to exist in a quantum state different than that we call physical and explain every non-physical phenomena as delusion or hoax simply can’t constitute good reasoning or good science.
“Phenomena that cannot be explained by the known laws of science are occurring across the globe, caused by the action of a free and intelligent will. Reason dictates that an intelligent effect must have an intelligent power as its cause, and facts have proven that this force is able to communicate with humanity using material signs. When questioned as to its nature, this force has declared itself belonging to the world of spiritual beings that have shed the physical envelope of humans. This is how Spiritism has been revealed to us. Communication between the spirit world and the physical world is natural and has no supernatural character. This is why traces of its existence are found across all nations and in every time period. They have become widespread and clear to all.” (Kardec, The Spirits’ Book, 1857)
Phenomena such as psychokinesis, telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance, etc. can and should be studied as a science; they simply require alternative methodologies. But how would those methodologies look like to meet all aspects of science discussed above? How can we carry out metaphysical studies that include repeatable controlled conditions and a theoretical body of knowledge that explains the facts observed, building a systematic science? Allan Kardec (1804-1869), a French professor of languages, physics, anatomy, and mathematics, developed one such method to study spirit communications and employed it to establish the basic elements of the Spiritist Science in the 1800s. The method can be summarized as below, now as for the scientific body of knowledge; that will require you years of careful study and is not possible to be summarized in a short article or even a single book.
- Selection of multiple unsuspecting medium collaborators from the standpoints of purity of faculties, spiritual assistance and moral integrity.
- Control of communicating Spirits, through the coherence of their communications and the content of their language.
- A rigorous analysis of the communications, from the logical point of view, as well as their confrontation with demonstrated scientific truths, putting aside all that cannot be logically justified.
- Universal consensus, that is, concordance of the various communications, given by different mediums, at the same time and in several places, on the same subject.
“Until now, the study of the spiritual principle, considered as belonging to metaphysics, has been purely speculative and theoretical; but in Spiritism it is treated as entirely experimental. In mediumship, currently more developed, generalized, and better studied, mankind has found a new observation tool. Mediumship is, with respect to the spiritual world, what a telescope is for the astronomical world, and the microscope for the microscopic world, helping us to explore, study, and— we might say— eyewitness the relationships of the spiritual world with the corporeal world. In the mediumistic phenomena, we can observe the intelligent being separately from the material being.” (Kardec, Genesis, 1866)
As it turns out, it is likely that a science that studies non-physical dimensions could bring unimaginable advancement to our understanding of the universe and ourselves, perhaps even greater health and well-being. After all, health is not just the absence of infirmities, but the integrative state of the individual, considering physical, mental and social states. I’d actually also add emotional into this picture!
“Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” ( World Health Organization, 2018)
Think with me… Matter is made of atoms, which are composed by a large electro-sphere and a nucleus. Most of the mass in every atom is in their nucleus, which occupy a minor portion of the entire atom’s volume. So, everything we interact with in the entire course of our lives, including our own physical bodies, is composed of atoms that are mostly “empty”. But we can go even deeper. What’s inside the nucleus? Protons and neutrons which can be further broken down into even smaller particles, known as quarks. And what’s a quark made of? Well, now we are really getting to the forefront contemporary science, but one of the most prominent theories proposes it is composed of energetic strings vibrating on very particular ways. This is not a matter of conjuring, but very serious and very expensive studies made in the most sophisticated laboratories on Earth and by some of the most qualified scientists of recent times. Now stop and think carefully about this. Everything you see and touch is composed of energy; matter is energy in condensed state. Your physical body is composed of energy in condensed state. It is very tangible to you but, at the same time, it is simply composed of energy which, we can convene, is something quite impalpable. Our materialistic science itself is more and more finding itself in the border of the non-physical. And, if an example from the realm of physics was used, similar examples could be explored from the perspective of other scientific fields, such as medicine or psychology.
“(…) Chemists and physicists, geometers and mathematicians, raised as researchers of the truth, are today, without desiring it, priests of the Spirit. This is because, as a consequence of their dedicated studies, materialism and atheism will be compelled to disappear for lack of matter, the basis that guaranteed their negativistic speculations. The future belongs to the spirit!” (Xavier, 1954)
Religion And Spirituality, Is There Any Difference?
Now that we talked about science, let’s develop the concepts of religion and spirituality in search for parallels and divergences. The word “religion” comes from the Latin Religare, which means “reconnect”. Therefore, simply put, everything that connects us with the divine has a religious element, regardless of rituals, clergy or you name it. In essence, this Religare is a subject experience. So, how come all religions have a specific set of nonnegotiable moral predicates that every follower should endorse and incorporate in its life? This is a complex topic that deserves a more detailed study than that we will develop in this text. However, it is this heteronomous aspect (which I’d argue to be human creations, a reductionism of the original transcendental spiritual knowledge) of religion that distinguishes it from spirituality, which as I see, must be inherently autonomous. It is important that we explore this antagonism between heteronomous morality and autonomous morality if we are interested in differentiating religion from spirituality. But, what is heteronomous morality, or heteronomy?
Simply put, “heteronomy” is a concept of practical morality introduced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau to describe actions influenced by a force outside the individual. In other words, it is the state or condition of being ruled, governed, or under the sway of another. It is the counter/opposite of “autonomy”, which is the capacity to make an informed, uncoerced decision. Now, to achieve at least a basic understanding of the implications of heteronomous and autonomous behavior and their consequences to the topic on hand, it is necessary to go deeper. We’ll do that glancing over the work of Swiss psychologist and pedagogue Jean Piaget, who studied the moral development of the human being from childhood to adulthood.
According to Piaget, the development of moral judgment, as well as that of intelligence, evolves in a continuum that passes through the state of heteronomy to that of autonomy, although both can coexist in the same age group and in the same person.
“If we wish to gain any understanding of child morality, it is obviously with the analysis of such facts as these that we must begin. All morality consists in a system of rules, and the essence of all morality is to be sought for in the respect which the individual acquires for these rules. The reflective analysis of Kant, the sociology of Durkheim, or the individualistic psychology of Bovet all meet on this point. The doctrines begin to diverge only from the moment that it has to be explained how the mind comes to respect these rules. For our part, it will be in the domain of child psychology that we shall undertake the analysis of this how”. (Piaget, The Moral Judgment of the Child, 1997)
The first stage is what he called “anomy”. In such a condition, although the child may demonstrate affection, the low cerebral development still does not allow for a subject-object differentiation (distinguish between self and not-self) nor the perception of norms. As the child matures, it begins to differentiate and assimilate external stimuli.
“From the baby’s first smile, and especially when it utters the first words, it is subjected to a social influence, which is initially only slight, but grows more and more compelling, until it begins to simply carve channels in the mind and model it until it may finally alter it fundamentally.” (Piaget, Psychologie et critique de la connaissance, 1925/5)
“Below the age of 3–4, the solipsistic child plays according to his own wishes and needs, disregarding any rules. Prohibitions would not be understood as moral rules but would simply be regarded as obstacles.” (Kohler, 2008)
However, not yet being able to make value judgement, the rules and moral values of the adults with whom the child have intimacy are absorbed without questioning, as obligations, taboos or dogmas. Only at a later time the child will start asking “why”. In the child’s moral world still in formation, “good” is in not disobeying the rules defined by the adults. Not all adults, however, only those who have authority over the child; such as parents or teachers (after all, who hasn’t heard a child say: “You can’t tell me to do things, you are not my mother!” Deep down she is challenging the authority of an adult who lacks the intimacy bond necessary to impose rules on her.) It may seem that the child has freedom, but at this stage in which the heteronomous morality still reigns in the infantile psyche, the child is under what Piaget called “unilateral” respect. This is because in the environment of social relations, the child is not on par with adults. It does not set rules for the adults, and even if it did, such rules would not be followed (so we hope). Naturally, there can be love, affection and respect between adults and children; but while they are at tender age, relations do not take place on a state of equivalency. Adults seek to care for someone still in development, offering the best conditions for their healthy growth and intellectual/moral formation, yet in a state of superiority. From this relationship results the child’s sense of duty. From this relationship also results the intellectual egocentrism of the child, still unable to analyze contexts and make moral judgments from a neutral and external perspective. This is how, under normal conditions, children view their parents as a faithful representation of all truth and good.
“Piaget refined Bovet’s theory by differentiating between two types of respect: the unilateral respect “involves the inevitable constraint, which the superior imposes upon the inferior (…), which we shall call a relationship of constraint” (Piaget 1930/4: 34f.). It leads to a sense of duty, which is symbolized by the sacrosanct, which prevents autonomy. Individuals in a relationship of mutual respect, on the other hand, are ‘morally equal, for instance between two children of the same age’. (…)
Piaget’s study showed that children up to age 7 model their judgment regarding lies, punishment and justice largely on the examples given by adults and on the reactions of adults. This is the first characteristic of moral realism. The second consists in the literal understanding of the rules, and the third regards the objective interpretation of duty (Piaget 1932: 121f.). Young children, for example, considered it to be a graver offence if a child were to accidentally break 15 cups than if a child broke one cup in the course of a forbidden action. Until around the age of 8, children focus mainly on the objective damage and tend to neglect the aspect of intention (Piaget 1932: 143).” (Kohler, 2008)
Before we continue our studies on moral development in children, I would like to draw attention to some factors. Notice how the relationships that ancient human civilizations developed with those they considered gods fit well with the characteristics of heteronomous morality of children described here. Notice how this so-called “unilateral” respect, where there is a superior, divine or nobler entity able to rule over those who are not on those conditions have been established over and over across our past history. Notice also how such characteristics still persist in adults who follow a blind faith or, in other words, a faith that imposes moral conduct with none or little reasoning performed by the individual itself. And, going further, notice how this concept of “unilateral” respect still permeates our everyday lives; in relations among multiple social classes, across the various levels of corporate hierarchies, in our dealing with governmental institutions, etc. It is clear that even in adulthood terrestrial humanity has yet to develop a fuller moral autonomy. This is perhaps why we are still very ineffective in establishing fair and equitable social systems or a truly effective democracy where everyone cooperate to each other’s well-being in a state of voluntary reciprocity.
Piaget agreed with Friedrich Wilhelm Foerster (1869–1966) that children advocate severe punishment, but argued that this was only the case if the child’s social relationships are dominated by heteronomy: ‘Constraint on the part of adults may not be the only source, but it is certainly the major source of the concept of justice through atonement’ (Piaget 1930/4: 39). Constraint increases the child’s spontaneous moral realism, whereas experiences of cooperation and solidarity with peers engender the preference of sanctions based on reciprocity, such as the temporary exclusion from the clique. This is the reason why children from the age of 12 consider lying to their mates to be a worse offence than lying to adults (Piaget 1932: 194f.). Thus they are approaching the internal norm of justice as a logical principle: ‘In contrast to rules (…) imposed from the outside, which the child does not understand, such as the command that one must not tell lies, the command of justice is a kind of immanent condition, or law of equilibrium for social relationships’ (Piaget 1932: 224).” (Kohler, 2008)
From the state of heteronomy, the child can then move towards the development of moral autonomy. By adolescence, when the individual begins to be able to intellectually make moral judgments and analyze circumstances from external points of view, it naturally tries to establish “reciprocity”; in other words, reach the level of mutual respect breaking the pattern of “unilateral” respect previously in place. The perspectives of parents are no longer always good and fair. The child may disagree with its parents on moral matters. It may seem simple, but this moral “reciprocity” comes at a high price. It is the price of a greater responsibility for the choices made, a greater responsibility for the successes and failures in life and the individual’s responsibility to actively form its own autonomous morality. Passivity is easier! To truly attain autonomy, one must leave intellectual and moral crutches behind. And, if we reflect on this crucial moment of the formation of our personality more broadly, there seems to be interesting parallels with the present moment of human history on our planet, where totalitarian governments, policies, institutions and doctrines are starting to be challenged and retired.
“Piaget relied strongly on Kant: Autonomy is the subject’s submission under maxims, which are self-constructed, critically examined (Piaget 1932:72) and universally valid (Piaget 1932: 117). Yet the individual will not succeed in doing so, unless he cooperates with others: “Autonomy only becomes manifest [. . .] in reciprocity, when the mutual respect is strong enough to create, within the individual, an inner desire to treat the other person as he would wish to be treated himself” (Piaget 1932: 238).” (Kohler, 2008)
Thus, to achieve the collective happy state we desire; we must leave some crutches behind and cooperate in building a better world. We must reach the minimum critical mass necessary to establish a collective moral maturity from which order and fraternity would be a logical consequence. Leave victim behavior in the past and actively share the responsibility to interact with all there is and create according to new, cosmo-ethically superior moral grounds. The process of forming an autonomous morality shifts the criterion of goodness from the objective realm to the subjective and from consequence to intention, enhancing the focus on integrity.
At this point, it must be self-evident that all religions, if understood as human creations where a particular interpretation of moral conduct and metaphysical context are defined unquestionably, are heteronomous by nature. Spirituality, however, is an internal experience, similar to that of the original meaning or religion as religare, or re-connect. Spirituality is autonomous by nature as it incorporates an honest search for self-identity and transcendence. Spiritual individuals must think more independently and question everything… similar to a scientist. (Perhaps it is fair to say that spiritualists are scientists of the spirit, although honest scientists are too, but don’t know it!) True spiritualists employ mind and heart in search for wisdom and truth, in search of self-actualization and transcendence. It doesn’t follow, however, that spiritualists won’t follow in mysticism, dogmatism, etc. fitting better in the description of religion provided in this text that that of spiritualism. This is why the topic is so confusing; the terminology isn’t commonly understood by everyone; similar to concepts such as love or beauty, people have their own definition of what religion and spirituality means to them. Defining a cohesive common ground is truly challenging although it is precisely what is done in this text for the purpose of presenting a point of view on the topic. In the end, and according to my personal perspective, what truly matters is whether a person’s quest for integrity, freedom, fraternity and happiness takes place within the heart or following an external recipe. To some degree, the crisis we live in the world today is a moral crisis and the emergence of a cooperative autonomous society out of the old, decaying heteronomous one. What do you embrace? We must be the change we want to see in the world!
“(…) the crisis [economic meltdown of 2018] was evidence that the entire industrial economy and many of its institutions had come to the end of their useful reign—from governments that can’t get things done and our outmoded education system to failing newspapers and old models of financial services to our energy grid, transportation systems, and institutions for global cooperation and problem solving.” (Tapscott & Williams, 2010)
I should say, however, that there are other definitions of spirituality, such as anyone who believes there is something more than what can be perceived with physical senses (materialism) is a spiritualist, regardless of what this “else” is. It is obvious, however, that under this definition, one can be a spiritualist and still follow heteronomous moral values; resulting in little practical difference between spirituality and religion. This is why I prefer the alternative concept shared earlier.
Final Considerations & Conclusion
We saw that science have a theoretical and practical aspect. We saw that morality can be heteronomous or autonomous. We saw that religions, if understood as sets of moral behaviors guiding code, are by default heteronomous in nature. We defined spirituality under autonomous grounds and made it clear that it could function more like a religion if the individual doesn’t develop its own moral sense and follow it with integrity. So, we now just need to make some final considerations and explore the relationships among those concepts we have developed. For instance, can science and religion go together?
My perspective is that if religious codes of moral behavior are perceived as perfected and irrevocable, then religion, like a child that do not accept orders from an adult other than its parents or adults that cannot dialog with peers or see life circumstances from multiple perspectives, cannot go hand on hand with science. In addition, if religion is unable to provide practical evidence of its theoretical postulates, then it does not fit the requirements of science. Note, however, that scientific dogmas can place science closer to heteronomous grounds and functioning very similarly to a religion as defined here. This is the case of scientist that venture on explaining more than they actually know or that have been proved without reasonable doubt. Take as an example how certain individuals in the turn of the millennia expected that the medical sciences would unveil all answers about the human being after fully decoding the human genome. We’ve done that the results have surprised us for both, the little answers it provided and the mountain of new questions it brought up. So, if the idea of scientific dogmas is strange to you, take some time to watch Rupert Sheldrake’s Ted Talk, “The Science Delusion” (https://youtu.be/JKHUaNAxsTg) or read either of his books: “The Science Delusion” or “Science Set Free”.
Now, what about spirituality and science; can they go together? Well, both follow a spirit of inquire. Both could be rational, logical and practical (we’d hope!!) So, there seems to be possible for spirituality and science to walk hand on hand. But are those requirements always met?
Hinging more towards the sciences, the excerpt below from a very influential Brazilian contemporary philosopher, Olavo de Carvalho, remarkably synthesizes the possibility of intellectual heteronomy and the impossibility of attaining autonomy without integrity. We see clearly then that intellect and morality are mutually complimentarily human potentialities.
“I was once asked, in a debate, to define intellectual honesty. Without hesitation, I replied: it is not to pretend that you know what you do not know, or that you do not know what you know perfectly well. If I know, I know I do. If I do not know, I know I do not know. This is all. Knowing that you know is knowledge; knowing that you do not know is also knowledge. Intelligence, deep down, is nothing else than the commitment of the whole person to the exercise of knowing, through a free decision of moral responsibility. Hence, it is also the basis of personal integrity, both in the ethical sense and in the psychological sense. All the neuroses, all the psychoses, all the mutilations of the human psyche are, basically, a refusal of knowledge. They are a revolt against intelligence. Revolts against intelligence – psychoses, therefore, in their own way – are also ideologies and philosophies that artificially deny or limit the power of human knowledge, subordinating it to authority, to social conditioning, to the consent of academic consensus, to the political ends of a party, or, worse still, subjugating intelligence as such to one of its operations or aspects, whether reason, sentiment, practical interest or anything else.” (Carvalho, 2017)
Now, hinging towards spirituality, it is important to mention that, in fact, I have encountered many people who consider themselves awakened or awakening but cannot provide good arguments to support their certainty. Rational verification is a process that does not yet resonate with them and so they carry a lot more certainties than questions. What is the origin of such certainties? (and as I said, this can happen in science too – and, of course, religions). Any spiritual practice not followed by a deep transformative effect of ethical nature is simply a psychological mask, a “spiritual bypass” as coined by Dr. John Welwood in the excerpt below:
“Spiritual bypassing is a term I coined to describe a process I saw happening in the Buddhist community I was in, and also in myself. Although most of us were sincerely trying to work on ourselves, I noticed a widespread tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.
When we are spiritually bypassing, we often use the goal of awakening or liberation to rationalize what I call premature transcendence: trying to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with it. And then we tend to use absolute truth to disparage or dismiss relative human needs, feelings, psychological problems, relational difficulties, and developmental deficits. I see this as an ‘occupational hazard’ of the spiritual path, in that spirituality does involve a vision of going beyond our current karmic situation.” (RAM DASS, 2018)
Progress in the path of spirituality requires arduous work. It is not sufficient to light incense and attend a center of choice on the weekends. It is not sufficient to attend a week-long spa or meditate up in the mountains. Science and spirituality can and should advance together, but it is only possible if theory and practice are both feeding the edifice of knowledge and heart and reason do not get on the way of each other. This is what Spiritism as a philosophical science intends to achieve.
“Spiritism proclaims freedom of thought as a natural law; calls it to his followers, in the same way for everyone. It respects all sincere faiths and requests reciprocity. From freedom of thought derives the right to self-examination in matters of faith. Spiritism rejects any form of blind faith, because they require men to surrender their own reason; it considers rootless all faiths imposed: Unshakable faith is only one which can confront reason face to face in all epochs of humanity”. (Kardec, Posthumous Works, 1890)
If there is a conclusion from all we have covered in this chapter, it is that considerations regarding science, religion and spirituality cannot be generalized, but must observe the inner disposition of each individual. None is safe from dogmas as all depend on the human mind (and why not to say, heart and integrity). Between the individuals’ convictions (on science, religion and/or spirituality) and its own inner disposition, there is a world of possibilities; but only its inner state of being; all of that which is innate to its soul or essence, matters to determine its social action. We must ask then how free are we, how coherent are we, how sincere are we with our own thoughts and feelings. How open to the possibility of being incorrect are we, searching for alternative paradigms. Are we autonomous and cooperative or selfish and competitive? Are we fraternal, seeking to understand each other’s needs and treating each other with due respect? Are we in dialogue with each other or simply seeking to impose our own truth?
We must seek the spirituality of religions; that is, the natural moral law present in every human being connecting it with the intelligent principle of the cosmos. In this elevated state of being, we must exercise free and rational scientific exploration, seeking knowledge and self-discovery in a pragmatic and genuinely curious perspective. This is the only way we will ever answer questions such as what is the human being, its origin, purpose and destination. This is the only and inevitable way to make progress in the path of truth as one or the other realm of human knowledge alone will inescapably reach a dead end.
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