By Nandini Murali
A science that is receptive to the spiritual dimension can pave the way to a new civilisation
“I used to believe that we must choose between science and reason on one hand, and spirituality on the other, in how we lead our lives. Now I consider this a false choice. We can recover the sense of sacredness, not just in science, but in perhaps every area of life.”
– Larry Dossey, MD, Reinventing Medicine
As a young girl, my father often pointed out to me how fond I was of asking “Why?” Even today as an adult, I have not outgrown my predisposition. It has taken me a mellow adulthood to realise that life often does not provide the answers right away. Nevertheless, persist we must in asking questions, for the answers are often embedded in them. They are right within you, not ‘out there’. In fact, the world as we perceive it is not ‘out there’ but ‘in here’, right inside our amazing neuronal circuitry that is our nervous system!
One of my serious trysts with the “Why?” conundrum was as a student of psychology. Why is it that psychology seemed so laboratory-based, used animal models and worse, reduced human behaviour to merely a chain of stimulus-response events that were so predictable as to border on the mundane and the monotonous? Where was all the magic and mystery of being a sentient being of nuanced consciousness – of discovering our potential, our capacity for creativity, love, laughter and joy – of reaching upwards in an aspirational quest to merge with the Self in joy and wonder – where was the hunger in the human quest for the unknown? Like the human in Michelangelo’s famous painting in Sistine chapel, I too yearned to reach out for the great unknown – the self offering itself to the Self. However, the incessant voices of mainstream culture and education conspired to entrap me in the quagmire of status quo and thwarted my quest.
Today, however, I realise that the gaps I perceived in psychology, stemmed from the prevailing mechanistic or materialistic scientific paradigm. According to this worldview, which still prevails, science in its relentless pursuit of truth arrogated to itself the right to determine what constituted scientific facts – observable, objective, verifiable, and based on information provided by the senses. Any other kind of knowledge was invalidated and rubbished as ‘unscientific’.
A four-day intensive study programme on the emerging science-spirituality confluence (with special reference to the quantum enigma) held in August 2009 at Navadarshanam, a centre for exploration of spiritual and ecological alternatives to modern living, near Bengaluru, provided refreshing perspectives towards a synthesis of science, spirituality and humanism for a unified worldview.
“A science that accepts the reality of spiritual dimensions has enormous potential for individual and social change. It could usher a new civilisation – of the kind Mahatma Gandhi had recommended in his seminal book, Hind Swaraj. In other words, a way of living that would reverse the most prominent trends we witness today – over urbanisation, centralisation, monetisation, commercialisation, and militarisation. It could end our concerns with issues like pollution and climate change by introducing different kinds of technologies that promote ecology rather than the present kinds that invariably tend to destroy it. More importantly, it could lead to the emergence of the new person, who sees the purpose of life on earth not in terms of accumulation and consumption, but in terms of the opportunity to reach out to the Creator,” says TS Ananthu, co-ordinator of the programme who has extensively researched on science, spirituality and technology-ecology concerns.
Few of us can ignore the impact of science on our everyday lives, and its role as an instrument of social and political change. Such is the prestige and power associated with the field that stimulated by ‘physics envy,’ even Freud believed that psychology had to represent psychical processes as quantitatively determined states of specific material particles. Modern medicine too began to treat the body as a complex machine, often reducing the person to just a set of symptoms! Even disciplines traditionally termed humanities, have today reinvented themselves as social sciences, behavioural sciences, and political science!
Yet if we were to ask others and ourselves ‘What is science?’ we are likely to draw a blank. Or we would get strange and inverted definitions such as “Science refers to all knowledge accumulated by the scientific method!” The scientific method, based on experimentation and personal verification, rests on the twin pillars of rationality (logical thinking) and objectivity (observation uncontaminated by the observer’s personal filters such as attitudes, mindset, and beliefs).
“Yet for all the scientific endeavours that have resulted in accumulation of knowledge about creation, scientists have steered clear of using their methods to find out anything about the Creator – often implying a denial or agnosticism about the existence of God,” says Ananthu. According to him, the only way we can address this pressing concern directly is to discover a way by which spiritual knowledge can be obtained through personal verification. The time is ripe for a paradigm shift in which one generation of scientists abandons the perspectives of the earlier generation.
“Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind,” said Albert Einstein. The New Age challenge therefore is – can science and spirit reconcile, merge and synthesise their perspectives? Can the scientist and the mystic learn to gaze through the same end of the telescope, and zero in on the nature of ultimate reality, seeing past swirling mists of deluded consciousness, categories and labels that divide and keep us apart?
In the seventeenth century, Descartes’ assertion that science and spirit are mutually exclusive (“There is nothing included in the concept of the body that belongs to the mind and nothing in that of the mind that belongs to the body”) created the famous split between science and spirit, which continues to this day. Descartes and his scientific successor, Isaac Newton, believed the human body to be a machine and although both asserted that mind and matter were indeed products of the great Creator, they viewed them as totally different and separate.
The advent of quantum physics and physicists’ engagement with the quantum enigma (the dual nature of light and material phenomena to behave both as a wave and as a particle) turned long-held notions of classical or Newtonian science upside down. Its central tenet was that the conscious act of observation creates reality. Newtonian physics could account for behaviour of objects in the macroscopic world, but when it came to sub-atomic phenomena, it came to a dead end. Thus, science was forced to grapple with the paradoxical notion that we are involved in creating reality. In other words, consciousness creates reality and there is no objective reality ‘out there’ separate from the observer. “The crucial feature of quantum theory is that the observer is not only necessary to observe the properties of an atomic phenomenon, but is necessary even to bring about the properties. The electron does not have objective properties independent of my mind,” says noted physicist Fritjof Capra. All this serves to blur and obliterate the once clearly demarcated boundaries between the objective world out there and the subjective observer, who now seem to merge seamlessly in co-creating reality.
Yet spiritual traditions emphasise that the true goal of all spiritual processes is objectivity. They exhort us to rise above identification with a narrow sense of self – the ‘I’ness factor. The scientific method is unable to achieve its laudable goal of objectivity because of the inability of the individual to transcend ‘I’ness. Although demanding but not impossible, transcending ‘I’ness results in enhancement of an individual’s ability to perceive the ultimate or infinite reality. The Buddha summed up the relationship between true objectivity and real knowledge: “There is truth and there is self. Where truth is, self is not. When self appears, truth is not.” Mahatma Gandhi used the phrase, ‘reducing oneself to a zero,’ to transcend the narrow notions of the self that is so vital in the journey towards enlightenment.
“The most beautiful experience in the world we can have is the mystical. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and science,” said Albert Einstein. Einstein, in fact, is reported to have intuited the theory of relativity through what he termed as a ‘cosmic religious experience’. According to Einstein, there are two prerequisites for this – the person must realise the futility of desires and aims, and he must have a craving to break free from the fetters of the narrow self that prevent an expansive view of the Self or ultimate reality. It is no secret that several of the pioneering quantum physicists such as Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger, were students of Vedanta and had a mystic sensibility.
In order to relate the wave-particle duality of quantum physics to the mystical worldview, we could divide reality into two parts – the known (visible) and the unknown (invisible). “As long as our consciousness is confined to the physical body, our vision (direct perception) is confined to material bodies – the particle aspect of reality,” explains Ananthu. Yet we know (through indirect perception) that there are phenomena beyond the visible world. The Newtonian worldview seeks to explain the invisible through the visible and falls short. Mystics have developed the ability to see the invisible. Hence, they are known as seers. For them, the invisible gives rise to the visible and not the other way around. To the mystical worldview, the quantum paradox was not anomalous because they recognised that the real Self was not the body, mind, thoughts, or emotions, but a life force that permeates and binds all existence.
Erwin Schrödinger refers to this fundamental truth when he says, “Consciousness is never experienced in the plural, only in singular. Consciousness is a singular of which the plural is unknown. There is only one thing and that, which seems to be plurality, is merely a series of different aspects of this one thing, produced by a deception (the Indian Maya).”
The Sufi poet and mystic Rumi summed this eloquently in his lines, “The lamps are different, but the light is the same. It comes from beyond. If you keep looking at the lamp, thou art lost – for thence arises number and plurality. Fix your gaze upon the light.”
Yet consciousness is not a new-fangled discovery of contemporary science. Nor is it fuzzy New Ageism. Mystics of all traditions had intuited it centuries back when they acknowledged the existence of several levels of reality or truth, which could be experienced not through the limited worldview of the senses, but through an extraordinary experience, which transcends the senses, intellect, rationality, and the limitations of time and space. What is a simple definition of consciousness? “You know it is the most difficult thing to define,” says Fred Alan Wolf, physicist and writer. All of us are conscious, aware beings. Consciousness refers to an organism’s ability to be self-aware. It refers to the world of inner experience. All living beings, which are sentient, have consciousness. Physicist and philosopher Peter Russell distinguishes between this faculty of consciousness and the content of consciousness (thoughts, dreams, sensations, images, memories and feelings). According to him, the faculty of consciousness is like a movie projector that shines light on the contents of consciousness (images, sensations, thoughts, memories, dreams, and emotions). Yet for all its fundamentality in our lives, consciousness remains a skeleton in the scientific cupboard, “an intellectual black hole”. Most scientists who still hold on to the Newtonian worldview dismiss it as a product of brain functioning. A primary reason for such dismissive attitudes towards consciousness is that it does not fit the Newtonian worldview. It is not measurable and objectively verifiable. And modern science has consistently chosen to overlook or reject anything that is intangible and belonging to the spiritual realm. Most spiritual traditions, in fact, maintain that consciousness is not a fundamental component; it is the fundamental component, the wellspring of all of life and being.
It is therefore obvious that what modern science lacks is a framework that is comprehensive and broad in scope to include a holistic and organismic view of existence – a framework that is an interface between science and spirituality. Biologist Rupert Sheldrake has extended the principles of quantum physics such as interrelatedness and non-locality to biology. According to him, the behaviour of living organisms is shaped by morphogenetic fields similar to electrical fields. Just as electrical fields and subatomic particles mutually influence each other, the behaviour of members of the same species has an effect on all members and extends across space and time like ripples created by a stone thrown into a river. “Rather than assuming that consciousness somehow arises from the material world, as most scientists do, we need to consider the alternative worldview put forth by metaphysical and spiritual traditions in which consciousness is held to be a fundamental component of reality – as fundamental as space, time, and matter, perhaps even more so,” says Peter Russell. Such a validation of spiritual enquiry would affirm the invisible truth that both science and spirit are engaged in a quest, and prove that science and spirit are one.
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