Cutting edge discoveries of science now
point to a spiritual underpinning to reality
Eton College assembly on Science and Spirituality
Science and Spirituality – challenge to
Hawking & Dawkin
What is the nature of reality?
TEDx talk at Loughborough University on Science and Spirituality
Science and Spirituality explored at Oxford University Physics Society
Science and Dharma
Science and Hinduism
Challenging the paradigm of materialism at Warwick university
Links between Science and Spirituality at Watford Grammar School
Transcendent experience of Religion
Deeper vision of Physics
How to define a living thing?
Is it necessary for Religions to evolve and focus on Spirituality
Should we challenge prescriptive religions?
What is the spirit?
Can we believe in God?
All Arguments offered to prove God fails
Is God a good Designer?
Darwin gives better explanation to creation
God Experience is the only way you can relate to God
Challenging the paradigm of materialism
by Jay Lakhani - Eton College
One of the endearing aspects of science is its preparedness to test all its hypotheses to destruction. This sounds easy in theory, but is not so easy to put into practice. Scientists are human and prone to becoming emotionally attached to their paradigms. It has long seemed to me as someone trained in quantum mechanics and relativity theory, that the paradigm which now needs to be challenged is that of materialism, that world view that everything and everyone is essentially just a product of little bits of matter. This form of materialism has, of course, its origin in mankind’s earliest attempts to come to terms with reality using the norm of substance and their attributes. Explaining the universe in terms of sticks and
stones or smaller versions of sticks and stones (elementary particles with mass, charge, and spin etc) has been a tried and tested paradigm that has certainly produced durable results for over two thousand years and has exerted its influence on all branches of scientific thinking. The proclamation of the Vienna Circle that ‘only those statements that can be supported by empirical evidence are meaningful’, perfectly captures this strictly materialistic locus of operation for scientific enquiry. Why should this world view now be challenged? Since the middle of the 1920’s Physics has been struggling to gain a conceptual handle on the phenomenon called the quantum [the counter-intuitive science of the very small]. This discovery is at the heart of the most physical of physical sciences. It is hugely successful in explaining the workings of almost everything from a computer chip to DNA. But although the mathematical formalism is successful, it fails to deliver any conceptual grasp on the actual phenomenon. The quantum simply cannot be captured within the locus of a materialistic paradigm because the quantum that underpins matter is crucially non-material. What is it about the world of quantum which is fundamentally non-material? Consider the following facts:
1. There is a fundamental disjoint between the micro world of quantum that underpins the macro world of matter. If we were to smash two bricks
together we still get two bricks (maybe part as rubble or part as energy) but if we were to smash two quanta together, we can get anything from two quanta to no quanta as a result (without the slightest trace of either of the two quanta or even a ripple of energy to show for them). Something that is essentially non-material manifests or appears as matter!
2. There is the fundamental problem of the observer. Who flips the micro world of quanta into the macro world of matter? This entity cannot be in the realm of matter or in the realm of the quanta, else it cannot flip! So who or what is the entity that straddles both worlds?
3. There is the fundamental problem of place. Material objects occupy a certain location at a particular point in time but the quantum does not do to that.This is technically called the problem of non-locality. If two elementary entities (like photons) that are once linked get separated by billions of light years; when we squeeze one, the other goes, ‘ouch’ instantly! How does it know? They do not seem to be separated by space or time. They are linked with each other for ever and ignore the space, time divide that material objects cannot ignore.
These conceptual anomalies will not go away because physicists continue to dignify matter as primary and demote the quantum as a mere mathematical ploy invoked to handle the unexpected shenanigans of matter. This is not only like putting the cart before the horse but attempting to show how the cart is pulling the horse! Indeed, many physicists have been so fixated on matter that it has been almost impossible for them to think outside a materialistic box. Einstein exhibited his bias through the famous Solvay debates with Neils Bohr. Murray Gell-Man exhibits his bias in the dismissive way he treats the quantum as a ploy rather than a serious conceptual challenge. Penrose seeks to link quantum with
consciousness in matter (in the microtubules of the neuron cells). Hugh Everett’s many- world interpretation is perhaps one of the most bizarre attempts to hang on to the materialistic paradigm. In order to get rid of a conscious observer from the realm of physics, Everett is happy for the whole universe to keep making infinite copies of itself at every quantum event - almost every instant of time! This is divergence with a vengeance. Occam must be turning in his grave!
It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that quantum is pointing to a non-material underpinning to reality. Matter has to be demoted to being a secondary feature. In Schrodinger’s words: Particles are just appearances (schaumkommen). But materialism has another problem. Just as at the heart of physics sits the quantum phenomenon that defies and challenges a materialistic paradigm; at the heart of neuroscience sits another intriguing phenomenon, consciousness. Can we find a slice of the brain (or a region in the brain) that produces consciousness? How are we going to verify this experimentally? Consciousness is a subjective phenomenon and every tool we come up with is bound to be an object. So how can we possibly carry out an experiment to find the seat of consciousness using material tools? Let us do a thought experiment: Imagine that we have
a highly sensitive probe which we can use to prod any part of the brain. Exactly how are we expecting the probe to detect consciousness? Remember, we are not exploring matter or motion or even a complex process associated with a living cell. We are in search of consciousness. How do we do that? This is the problem. Only consciousness can validate consciousness and neither can be objective by definition. Not that this has stopped a host of thinkers from churning out volumes of literature attempting to explain consciousness away in material or social or psychological or computational terms. Take one classic example from Daniel Dennett who argues that ‘Conscious human minds are more-or- less serial virtual machines implemented inefficiently on the parallel hardware that evolution has provided for us.’ This computer lingo is supposed to lull us into thinking that he has explained consciousness away! So why is it that so many intelligent thinkers are keen to explain consciousness away as a secondary feature of matter rather than acknowledge and dignify it as a primary phenomenon? The answer comes from philosopher John Searle who says: ‘If one had to describe the deepest motivation for materialism, one might say that it is simply a terror of consciousness.’
There is another problem with materialism: the problem of life itself. In life sciences, the definition of life too does not sit well in a reductionist materialistic paradigm. In biological terms, a live entity is defined as complex string of molecules undergoing complex processes like homeostasis, metabolism, growth, adaptation, response to stimulus, reproduction etc. Life makes it appearance when an entity throws up a membrane to separate itself from the rest of the environment. This separation offers it a chance to build a kind of individuality for itself. After separation it exhibits its uniqueness by interacting with its environment in a selective manner! Here the word selective is the crucial term that exhibits the non-material underpinning to life. Consider another definition of life: Life is that which is not in conformity with its environment but in defiance of it! Even the simplest form of life does not roll over and play dead when nature prods it. It does not like being dictated by nature. When we see a bacteria buzzing; it is fighting against natural, physical forces, when it stops its fight; these forces will tear it apart. A biologist offered this
tongue-in- cheek example of how to distinguish between living and non-living things. If you kick a piece of rock you can work out its trajectory to the nearest millimetre but if you kick a dog, its trajectory is the last thing you can work out – though it is likely that it will go for your leg! So when we hear the idyllic saying let us go back to nature, don’t listen. They are asking us to die! Everything humanity stands for has been achieved by standing up against nature and its forces, and not by playing ball with it. Some evolutionary biologists may object to this explanation and suggest that life is just complexified nature (the apex being mankind) that is (for whatever reasons) standing up to less complex nature! But in the process they have slipped in another meta- term, ‘complex’, that reveals the non-material aspect to what life is all about. It is fine to suggest that human beings are a continuation of the animal kingdom but this cannot necessarily be extended to suggest that life is a continuation of the material kingdom. The signature of life is that it does not like being buffeted by material forces; it stands up to them and attempts to harness them. Modern humanity reflects the culmination of this process. Take your pick: Quantum, consciousness, or the unique characteristic of life< None of them sit well within the paradigm of materialism. This does not mean that we have to throw this paradigm out of the window. For example, even though we know that Newton’s theory of gravitation is just an approximation to the more elegant Einstein theory we continue to use Newton’s theory to do our day to day calculations; in the same way the materialistic paradigm can be accommodated as a ploy that gives us useful methodology to relate to the world around us. However, this should not stop us from taking a conceptual leap and look beyond matter. Where should we look? The great theoretical physicist Erwin Schrödinger was aware that the quantum phenomenon resonated well with the insights of eastern metaphysics. It is that metaphysics – an esoteric, non-theistic Hinduism – which I believe offers an interesting insight into the nature of reality. It claims that the underpinning to everything including ourselves is Brahman. The two words that capture the essence of Brahman are: Existence (Asti) & Consciousness (Bhati).
Esoteric Hinduism maintains that ‘When Brahman shudders, the world of appearance comes into being.’ The subject / object divide, too is part of this appearance. Such stuff would be written off as poetry if it were not so incredibly close to what quantum and consciousness are revealing. If we were to ask a physicist to give a physical interpretation to the quantum function, he will immediately say, ‘It is the probability of existence’ – in other words it is a shudder in existence! For me as a scientist and a Hindu the resonance I discover between science and esoteric Hinduism is thrilling because this points the way to convergence, economy and elegance. Trying to explain quantum in terms of matter fails because it attempts to capture reality through the prism of appearance. The reason why neuroscience struggles to capture the essence of consciousness is because it ends up by focussing on what we are conscious about i.e. matter, rather than on what consciousness is all about. In life sciences, the driving force behind evolution has never been fully explored or understood because it is assumed that there is none. Evolution is explained as an outcome of random mutations in the genes that sit well with the changing environment. This is a strictly materialistic interpretation of evolution. Though statistical analysis clearly suggests that there is something else at play for the single cell to evolve so quickly into the complex human form; the paradigm of materialism does not allow the evolutionary biologists to think outside the material box. I am not attempting to revive the outdated concept of Elan Vital; I wish to draw on my earlier comments about consciousness and life to see if we can gain a novel insight on evolution. I am suggesting that life and evolution are nothing but the struggle of consciousness to find greater and better expression in the material realm. In a single living cell this shows up as rudimentary cognition; in the human frame consciousness finds its greatest expression. This is why we have evolved so rapidly from a single cell to this complex being. Evolution is not random but directed; directed, by the quest of consciousness to find greater expression. A question still remains: why does consciousness seek expression in the material realm? Shelley, the poet provides an eloquent answer: “I am the eye with which the universe beholds itself and knows itself as divine.”
Science and Spirituality
In the last century the term spirituality was used in such a casual manner that it lost almost all its dignity and potency. It was seen as a floaty term suited for the new age movement and received no acceptance by rational thinkers. Atheists in the West often ridicule the term as utterly meaningless.
It is my proposal that in the 21st Century we will see this term re-emerge and not only regain its dignity but occupy the centre ground in the realms of both religious and scientific thinking. I maintain that Spirituality holds the key to reconciling a multitude of religious world-views as well as religious and science oriented world-views.
In order to see this reconciliation it is necessary to recognise the role of language(s) and its inherent limitations.
Language is not only a tool we use to communicate with each other, it is the tool we require to gain a handle on reality. Without a string of words appearing in our minds we cannot make sense of the world we live in. Without this linguistic tool that we seem to possess naturally; the world will appear as a blur to us. Weigstenstien caught on to this idea and became a renowned philosopher in the last century. This concept is not new in Hinduism. Since ancient times we have used the terminology: 'Nam/Rupa' (or name and form) as being the handles we require to capture reality. The interface between our mind and reality is name and/or form. Unfortunately the use of language has become second nature to us, and we sometimes forget its role and its limitation in making sense of the world we live in. Use of language comes with a serious down side which we fail to recognise. Though languages allow us to get a grasp of reality they also have serious limitations that block our ability to see the deeper workings of the world. The locus of our linguistic capacity also becomes the limiting factor in our ability to grasp everything whether it is religious or scientific.
Role of language in Religions:
The fountain-head of every religion or mystic tradition is the firsthand encounter of the spirit by some individual. These individuals seem to gain a deeper insight into the nature of reality and turn into prophets of mankind. They report experiences that are far more intense than the intensity with which we experience the empirical world. The lives and teachings of these seers and sages, both ancient and modern become the basis of religion or a sectarian movement within a religion. I am suggesting that the reason why we have such vastly varying religions is not because these prophets had different experiences, but because they came up with different interpretations to their experiences. Christ proclaims that he encountered the father in heaven; while Buddha claims he gained enlightenment and Sri Ramakrishna talks about the vision of the Mother Divine. Their experiences are essentially transcendental (they defy all articulations) and yet every prophet goes ahead and offers a verbal expression to his or her experience. The mind-set of these sages colour and their experiences. It cannot be otherwise. This becomes the source of variations in religious world-views. This feature is unavoidable. The only way anyone (including the prophets) can give expression to their experience is using the mental framework they possess. What they experience may be termed as absolute, but the expression they offer is always relative. The variations we see as religious outputs are nothing but variations of the mind-sets of these sages reporting their encounter of the Spirit. This marvellous insight was encapsulated by Sri Ramakrishna who said, ‘The love of the devotee freezes this formless God (Spirit) into the form of his or her desire!’ Here lies the genuine reconciliation between a multitude of religious world-views. What Sri Ramakrishna has suggested offers solid ground for genuine inter-faith and intra-faith understanding. Plural ways to God or plural ways for making spiritual progress is a potent idea all world religions need to embrace. In Swami Vivekananda’s words at the parliament of religions: ‘We do not show tolerance of other religions but accept them to be true.’
A Scientific World-view:
The second greatest divide spirituality can bridge is the gulf between a science-oriented world-view with multitude of religious worldviews. In the Science versus Religion dialogue, Science clearly wins out. Vast majority of youngsters I interact with in schools and colleges relate better Richard Dawkins 'God Delusion' than a God in the heaven. Science seems to have answered almost all the questions about reality including some startling discoveries as the Big Bang theory and the theory of evolution through natural selection. The latest progress in understanding the elementary particles and the forces that operate on them are prime examples of how science feels confident in sorting everything out. Inventions such as the internet and social media wins the hearts and minds of the thinking youngsters. They feel that science has all the answers while religions are outdated human enterprises. In my humble opinion this is not true.
Many of the senior scientists are quite aware that at the heart of both physical and life sciences sits serious anomalies that are difficult to explain away. These anomalies are termed as the hard problems of science – they sit at the heart of these disciplines and have yet to be addressed. It is my proposal that the only way these issues can be resolved is by incorporating the term spirituality in the scientific enterprise.
The hard problem in Physics is the issue of Quantum
At the heart of physics sits a phenomenon called Quantum discovered in the 1920s and till today no Physicist has a conceptual grasp of what they have encountered! The reason why quantum is difficult to grasp conceptually is because it robustly affirms (in the Copenhagen interpretation) that the underpinning to this reality is non-material. Unfortunately all physical sciences are built on the concept of explaining everything in terms of matter and its epi-phenomenon (attributes). Elementary particle physics is nothing but an extrapolation of this methodology to the smaller than the smallest (still seen as smaller than the smallest point particles of matter with attributes like mass, charge, spin etc.). The quantum discovery demolishes this paradigm in a spectacular manner. According to the Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum - the underpinning to this reality is non-material. This issue is non-negotiable! Matter, which science is so fixated on, is just an appearance – it is a paradox! No physicist has ventured to say what this underpinning is. This is the hard problem at the heart of the most physical of physical sciences. I have offered talks at various universities saying the reason why the progress of theoretical physics has come to a halt since the 1920’s is because it is not prepared to embrace that Spirit as the underpinning to reality. This is not an easy thing for Physicists to swallow because for the past two thousand years they have successfully explained everything in terms of matter and its attributes; and now suddenly the ground (literally) under their feet is disappearing! The real problem is the narrative or language used in science. Science has used the linguistic ploy (narrative) of matter – to understand and explain everything. This narrative is now showing its limitations. Quantum has shown that the narrative of matter is not adequate and a new narrative that looks beyond matter is needed.
If we were to ask the physicists to go beyond the narrative of matter and give us the nearest physical description of what quantum is all about – the answer that we get is highly unusual; almost poetic – The nearest physical way to describe reality now says quantum physics is that it is merely probability of existence. Or to put it in simple English, the material world we experience is just a wiggle in existence.
The second hard problem in life science: Consciousness:
The hard problem of life sciences sits at the heart of neuroscience. It is: What is consciousness? Many top neuroscientists admit that they have no clue as to which slice of the brain produces consciousness or exactly what it actually is! Though it gives us access to reality we have no clue as to where it springs from and what it is all about! At one meeting I was challenged by a biologist who insisted that consciousness is just a brain phenomenon produced by the chemical and electrical activities of the brain. He insisted that if we interfere with the brain say through injecting anaesthetic, consciousness disappears – hence he concludes that consciousness is just the output of the physical brain. I had to correct him saying that just as a light switch - a conduit of electricity does not produce electricity - the brain too is just a conduit of consciousness and does not produce consciousness! Just as we can interfere with the light switch to stop the flow of electricity; we can interfere with the physical brain to stop the flow of consciousness but that does not prove that the brain produces consciousness. It is a phenomenon that cannot be explained away in material terms! Just as in physical science Quantum defies material explanation in life science consciousness defies physical explanation.
The reconciliation of both these hard problems of science lies in the field of spirituality. If we were to ask ancient and modern prophets of Hinduism – say Adi Shankara or Swami Vivekananda to give us a handle on the nature of reality (Brahman) they use terms: Asti (it is of the nature of existence); Bhati (it is of the nature of consciousness) and Priya (it is of the nature of bliss). Mankind is now rediscovering these spiritual truths through the integrity of modern science. Here lies the reconciliation between the science and spiritual worldviews. The integrity of science has produced a marvellous discovery that is now pointing to a deeper dimension to ourselves and the world we inhabit – the exciting dimension of the Spirit. It is not the prophets of the past but the discoveries at the cutting edge of science that will lead mankind to rediscover the spirit in this century.