We are not material beings fashioned by
accidents of evolution but spiritual beings
on a material journey
Future of religions
TEDx talk at Loughborough University exploring Spiritual Humanism
God is dead!
Spiritual Humanism will demolish God in heaven
Why Atheists should believe in Spiritual Humanism ?
Move from Materialistic Humanism to Spiritual Humanism
Why promote Spiritual Humanism ?
Spiritual Humanism is better than a God in heaven explored at Eton College
Spiritual Humanism explored at Ernst and Young Office in City of London
Spiritual Humanism explored with Lilou
Spiritual Humanism is an essential element of Hinduism explored at De Montford University
Humanism and Hinduism: an exchange of letters between Jay Lakhani, theoretical physicist and director of
Hindu Academy and Peter Cave, chair of the Humanist Philosophers group and author of Humanism:
a beginner’s guide (Oneworld 2009)
At first glance it would appear that there can be no common ground between Hinduism with its 330 million Gods and Humanism without a God. Let me unpack some of the key features of esoteric Hinduism to reveal a natural resonance in the approach as well as aspirations of both these enterprises.
This may come as a surprise to many (including the Hindus) that when we go to the heart of the matter, Hinduism cannot be classed as a religion. The classical definition of religion is an enterprise that aims to re-align God with Man. The equivalent term in the Indic traditions is: Dharma derived from the Sanskrit root Dhar meaning ‘that which holds everything together’. Dharma simply aims to come to terms with the laws that govern the world we experience (both external as well as internal). One chap who does not appear in this definition is God. If I were to offer this definition to a Physicist or to an Anthropologist, they would both claim that this enterprise belongs firmly in the field of their expertise. By definition Hinduism cannot disagree with the findings of both hard and soft sciences. It can disagree with some of the conclusions of these sciences, but cannot challenge its findings. For example Hinduism is in broad agreement with the theory of evolution and the theory of the big bang.
One may immediately ask 'But then what about all these Gods of the Hindus? How do they come into the system?’ The answer is that Gods come into the picture as an anthropocentric ploy. Vivekananda, a modern proponent of Hinduism commented, 'God does not create man in his image; man creates God in his image. If we were camels we would have conjured up a super camel in the sky. If we examine ancient Greek or Vedic ideas we discover that both these cultures had a habit of personifying forces of nature in order get their minds around subtle principles. The human mind has always used such ploys to get around abstract ideas. This should not be viewed as human failing, but as human innovation. Apart from personifying the forces of external nature, we also personify some of the most endearing human traits. Features such as: Compassion; Thirst for knowledge; Power. We exaggerate these to an infinite degree and project them onto a super-personality called God. The religious enterprise then turns into building a relationship with this super personality, by reflecting more fully the very human attributes we found endearing in the first place. We as human beings can only exhibit limited power, knowledge, and compassion but the God we conjure up must reflect these qualities in a limitless manner. So far so good, but then we come up with the strong philosophic challenge which reveals the limitation of such an anthropocentric exercise. The challenge is simple: If God is all powerful and all loving, why all this suffering? And we are not just talking about human suffering; we are talking about suffering in the whole living kingdom. This simple question reveals the limitation of an anthropocentric approach.
Esoteric Hinduism recognises the philosophical shortcomings of a monotheistic God, hence the search that was classed as searching for that one that holds everything together advocates a non-theistic mode. The non-theistic approach defines that which holds everything together or underpins everything as Brahman ~ a cosmic principle (from Sanskrit root Braha meaning cosmic). This principle underpins everything, including our mental and intellectual realms. Hinduism claims that this Brahman is neither material, nor mental nor intellectual. How did the Hindus discover this? They claim it is through sharp introspection. There is a popular scientific saying: The secrets of the far flung galaxies can be revealed if we probe the heart of an atom. Why should the secrets of the universe not also be revealed through a focused introspection of our mental realm? This claim of esoteric Hinduism is that this Brahman or underpinning becomes manifested as the physical universe we experience, and becomes more visible as living things. The clearest manifestations of Brahman are men and women. This is called Spiritual Humanism. (For the lack of better word in English we are using the word spiritual). Vivekananda offered a differentiation between Materialistic Humanism and Spiritual Humanism. The first claims that we are material beings aspiring to spiritual ideals to improve our material status; the latter claims that we are essentially spiritual beings caught on a material journey.
Claiming that the universe we experience is underpinned by some principle that is crucially invisible may sound like poetry but the greatest ally to this idea is found at the cutting edge discoveries of modern sciences. Let me touch on one of these. The most important discovery in Physics in the last hundred years is called Quantum. In a nutshell it states that: If we thought that we can explain the world in terms of sticks and stones or smaller versions of sticks and stones then we are in for a disappointment. The claim of Quantum is that the primary building block of the universe is non-material. Though I am not claiming that this on its own is enough to suggest that Quantum Mechanics is rediscovering the Brahman of the Hindus, it clearly points in the same direction.*
Esoteric Hinduism has always claimed that what religions were searching for as a super-personality in the highest heaven is very visible here and now. It becomes visible in the eyes of every living thing we come across and becomes most transparent as men and women. The most comprehensive worship of this entity is not tinkling bells in front of deities but seeing and serving God in man. Hindus are very good theoreticians but poor practitioners of this marvellous idea. Modern India, which continues to tolerate the vast difference between the haves and have-not’s, is not the best example of Spiritual Humanism in practice. One place where human dignity is valued and given highest status is in modern Britain. Under the umbrella of a mature democracy, a civic system, this nation is practising what the esoteric Hindus have been preaching ~ Spiritual Humanism.
Jay Lakhani, Hindu Academy
* Quote from Walter Moore on Schrodinger’s (one of the founding fathers of Quantum Mechanics) Life and Thought: The unity and continuity of Vedanta are reflected in the unity and continuity of wave mechanics. In 1925, the world view of physics was a model of a great machine composed of separable interacting material particles. During the next few years, Schrodinger and Heisenberg and their followers created a universe based on super imposed inseparable waves of probability amplitudes. This new view would be entirely consistent with the Vedantic concept of All in One.
Many years ago, a reconciliation occurred between mainland China and Taiwan, courtesy of Dr Kissinger. ‘There is only one China,’ they agreed. Mind you, mainland China meant the China run by Mao – and the American-backed Taiwanese meant the exiled government in Taiwan. Reconciliations can come about through sleights of hands or, at least, of words. So, while I welcome your fascinating project, I wonder what agreement there really is between mainstream Hinduism and Humanism, if we dig into what is meant. Of course, maybe Esoteric Hinduism is a long way from the mainstream.
Let us divide the question into one concerning understanding the workings and nature of the world and another about how we human beings morally ought to deal with one another and the world.
‘Principle’ seems to be the key term, if we are thinking of a Hindu-Humanist bonding concerning the world’s nature. The universe, you say, is underpinned by some cosmic principle. Well, if that means regularities in nature exist – and possibly scientists could discover one day a unity behind those regularities – then humanists agree about the regularities and some, no doubt, anticipate the unity. Yes, scientists successfully understand the world deploying concepts far beyond those of the seventeenth-century understanding of matter; and, doubtless, concepts even more wondrous will be used in the distant future.
None of the above provides any reason to think that an underlying principle or underpinning possesses the features traditionally associated with God or gods – such as purposes, concern for humanity, or being a ‘super personality in the highest heaven’. None of the above suggests there is any sense in talk of building a relationship with a ‘super personality’.
If I am reading you correctly, you do not believe in a super personality. Maybe your position is that many Hindus do believe in such a personality, but it should be understood as a picturesque way of talking about the world (including human beings) that scientists investigate. Perhaps this latter is what makes your Hinduism ‘Esoteric’. If so, then I assume that millions of Hindus would disagree with Esoteric Hinduism – but maybe I am mistaken.
The above comments are, though, separate from the second question of how we should treat each other. Humanists typically do not believe that the regularities in nature – be they understood in Newtonian or Einsteinian or Quantum terms – tell us how we morally ought to live. They are not the sort of things to be ‘worshipped’ – though we may well feel awe and wonder at sunsets and raging oceans – and, indeed, a good champagne. Once again, I am not clear of your position. At one point, you speak of our needing to come to terms with the ‘laws that govern the world’. I am unsure what that means. At another point, you seem to be endorsing the idea that we should ‘worship’ regularities in nature.
Focusing on the moral question, we humanists turn to our common humanity whereby humans do usually recognize concepts such as justice, benevolence and forgiveness, and we do recognize that we ought to be concerned with people’s welfare and flourishing – and indeed the welfare of other creatures.
This leads many of us to be pretty liberal minded, respecting other individuals to get on with their lives as they choose so long as not harming others. This leads many of us to stress the importance of improved welfare provision for the dispossessed – and so on. This also leads us to wonder what is going on with, for example, the caste system which is favoured, I gather, by many, many Hindus. It certainly does not seem to be a system recognizing, for example, equal rights. Democracy is usually favoured by Humanists – though we should note that democracy is not simply a matter of decisions courtesy of majority votes. The majority may vote to persecute minorities, be they the dispossessed, asylum seekers or wrongly dressed; be they homosexuals or Jews or, for that matter, Hindus – or atheists. Democracy requires vetoes as well as votes – to protect minorities.
You end with support for Spiritual Humanism. If this, in the end, means that some features of the world around us may fill us with wonder, then I can go along with you. If this, in the end, means that we should be concerned about other living creatures, then I can go along with you. But if this means that there is some purpose underpinning the world which, if only we discovered it, all would be well – well, that is where I must leave you to travel alone.
With best wishes for our bonding in humanity,
Before I offer a more detailed response, let me remove some misconceptions thatare visible in your analysis. Despite appearances, Hinduism is not a polytheistenterprise (with many Gods). It has always been a pluralistic enterprise that recognises that there are many ways of relating to spirituality. Pluralism allows theistic, non-theistic and even non-religious modes for invoking spirituality. Pluralism in a theistic mode translates as plural ways to perceive a personalised God. So the pointed question asked of all world religions, “Which of your Gods is for real?” is put to rest by this analysis because it says that there are not many Gods but many ways to perceive personalised spirituality i.e. different ideas about God.
Religious pluralism is a potent idea well suited to address the needs of a modern pluralistic society. It offers a prescription to how many faith communities can co-exist with integrity and in harmony. Pluralism is a broad concept that also recognises spiritual exploration in a non-theistic mode (Buddhism being a classic case) and even in a non-religious mode (as with some Humanists). So what appears as a weirdness of Hinduism – Polytheism – when understood correctly becomes a powerful concept – Pluralism – which offers a synthesis between many world-views. Pluralism is the best prescription for community cohesion in modern society.
The second misconception about Hinduism that I continue to fight against is the issue of hereditary, hierarchical caste system. The idea of Caste appears in the Hindu scriptures of authority only as the division of labour based on age and aptitude. Over time, this sensible concept (which all modern civilised societies use to stream their youngsters), became corrupt, and degenerated into a hereditary, hierarchical stratification of society. Hierarchical caste can best be described as an atrocity committed in the name of Hinduism; it is certainly not Hinduism. I have been fighting the education system in this country for fifteen years to ensure that they stop promoting this divisive system as Hinduism in schools. I have repeatedly challenged the QCA and examination awarding bodies on this issue. Thankfully they are beginning to relent.
In response to the criticism: “To what extent are some of these ideas mainstream? The answer is: They are as mainstream as they can possibly be. The Upanishads, the scriptures of authority of Hinduism, hardly mention Gods, they develop concepts like: Atman (spiritual underpinning of everyone) and Brahman (spiritual underpinning of everything). This is non-theistic Hinduism. At the same time, let me clarify that this is not an attempt to undermine theism or ignore its role and relevance for mankind. The majority of mankind ne eds this personified approach in spirituality to relate to this highly abstract and crucially invisible dimension we class as spirit. A lot of science can be done using Newton’s laws of gravitation, even though Newton’s gravity is just an approximation of a more majestic theory expressed as General Relativity. In the same manner theistic religions should be viewed as a workable ploy used by majority of mankind to get a handle on an abstract spiritual underpinning to
Hinduism does not define the term spirit or spirituality merely as a novel way of saying: A sense of wonder or as worshipping the laws of nature but as something that is profound and comes into focus when we try and grapple with the nature of reality through the findings of modern science. The three areas where a spiritual underpinning is very visible are:-
* Quantum Mechanics in Physics: This discovery affirms that the underpinning to the material world is essentially non-material. Matter has to be viewed as an epiphenomenon of Quantum. Werner Heisenberg, the father of QM says, ‘Quantum is reality while matter is a paradox.’ Atoms as the material building blocks of the universe are a ploy that works for all practical purposes but is not reality. For quantum to become a material reality there arises a need for something that has to be essentially non-material. For the material world to come into being one requires a conscious observer. The only way to avoid consciousness appearing in Physics is to adopt a multi-verse scenario which requires the universe to break into infinite copies of itself every infinitesimal moment of time! Occam must be turning in his grave because this is the most uneconomical model of the universe and yet mainstream physics is happy to accommodate this rather than allow consciousness to become an essential ingredient for the material world to come into being.
* The puzzle of consciousness in Neuroscience: No slice of the brain produces consciousness and yet it seems to be everywhere and no where in the brain. All attempts to come to terms with it like: Equating consciousness to ‘awareness + short-term memory’ are ploys replacing one unclassified concept with another. Hinduism offers an interesting insight into consciousness suggesting that it is neither a material nor a mental phenomenon – but reflects our essential spiritual dimension.
* The definition of a living thing: Though Hindu philosophy has no problem with the theory of evolution or the theory of Big Bang it has a different take on how to classify living things. Living things are not seen as the extension of the material world. Life is defined as something that is in defiance of nature rather than in compliance with it.
The cutting edge discoveries of science are suggesting what Thomas Kuhn would classify as a paradigm shift in the making. A strictly materialistic world-view is beginning to crack up. As Schrodinger puts it: What we observe as material bodies and forces are nothing but shapes and variations in the structure of space. Particles are just schaumkommen (appearances).
Despite appearances, matter is not the building block of the universe, nor does it help explain the source of consciousness, nor does it give us a clear handle on how to define life.
Morality as a commercial transaction between two material beings has limited appeal. However, morality based on the recognition of a deeper spiritual unity binding the living kingdom is far more appealing.
Humanism is no doubt highly attractive but whether it should be Materialistic Humanism or the Spiritual Humanism promoted in esoteric Hinduism is something I have tried to explore through this interaction. Reconciliation may be possible if we recognise that Spirituality is not confined to Religious institutions or pursuits, nor is Humanism an exclusively Materialistic discipline.
Many thanks for your response to my reply. Maybe, for the sake of clarity, it is best for me to run through your key comments in the order presented. You seem to believe that I hold a misunderstanding of Hinduism through believing the religion to be committed to many gods. I make one reference to gods, namely, in my use of the expression ‘God or gods’; hence, I was leaving that matter open. I have no knowledge of the exact rendering of Hinduism; I happily confess to ignorance. However, you do write that your Hinduism is committed to the thought that there are many ways to perceive personalized spirituality. That may well be so; but before I can comment, I need to know what you mean by a ‘personalized spirituality’.
If ‘personalized spirituality’ is a way of expressing the fact that human beings can feel awe and wonder at the world, at sunsets and roaring oceans and the kaleidoscopic experiences of love, of fellow feeling, then, yes, humanists are with you, even if we find the terminology a little odd. Thus, humanists are not materialists in the sense of being concerned only about material prosperity. If, though, ‘personalized spirituality’ is meant to point to some transcendent personal being, then humanists ask: why ever believe there is such? Whatever value could it have? And why would it require worship? – as some religions require of such a transcendent personal being. From what you write later, it seems that your ‘personalized spirituality’ is not my first suggestion, but also not my second. I shall turn to what you say about spirituality in due course. I’ll continue to follow the order of your comments.
You stress the value of pluralism. Yes, indeed, humanists are very keen on a society being organized in a secular or neutral way, so that individuals are free to live their lives as they wish, be they committed to certain ways of understanding God or gods, be they committed to certain religious rituals – or be they atheists or agnostics. That pluralism is fine: it allows people to create meaning for their lives. That pluralism, though, demands the strong caveat that individuals should not force their religious beliefs, or non-beliefs, on others. That pluralism requires space for people to disagree, without certain believers prohibiting disagreement on the grounds of their religion. I hasten to say that I am not suggesting that your Hinduism would seek to silence those who disagree with you. The point being made is simply that ‘pluralism’ does require some restrictions, namely, on those who seek to harm others because they challenge their beliefs.
With regard to the caste system, well, I welcome the fact that you understand the practice of it, in recent centuries, as being an atrocity. I have no idea whether your understanding is the one accepted by most Hindus or at least most Hindus who write
on such matters. Still, we are in agreement in that, in as far as so-called Hindus do promote the caste system and do promote many gods, then we should reject such promotions.
Returning to personalized spirituality, I remain pretty baffled. Some humanists are defenders of scientism; they believe that consciousness in some way is reducible to those features of the world investigated by physics – be it at the level of quantum
mechanics or not. By the way, very few humanists, with knowledge of philosophy, would these days talk of ‘matter’ as casually as you imply; they would speak of ‘physicalism’, seeking to understand the world via the concepts of physics, concepts which, of course, do evolve. Scientism, of course, does not deny that we have fellow feeling, can feel awe at the world and possess a sense of morality. It is an ‘ism’ about the correct analysis of such; it is not a denial of them.
In contrast to scientism, some of us, as humanists, are inclined to think that however much scientists may learn about the brain or, indeed, about quantum mechanics, they will still miss out on grasping what consciousness is. Perhaps your claim that
consciousness is an essential spiritual dimension is just a way of saying that it is irreducible to entities that science investigates; but I suspect that is not your position. I remain baffled, by the way, when you say that consciousness is not a mental
At heart, possibly you are wanting to see an underlying unity between individuals, a unity that grounds morality, that grounds how we should treat each other, presumably a treatment requiring compassion, fairness and an interest in people flourishing. We humanists probably can secure a grip on that, as a way of making the point that human beings do typically possess fellow feeling, are concerned for each other – and indeed for animals and the environment. That is, of course, a good feeling to have – and it is not a commercial transaction. Fellow feeling is not grounded in selfishness. Perhaps you are seeking to make the point that morality is in contrast to selfishness by your talk of spiritual unity.
With regard to talk of spiritual unity though, I doubt whether encouraging concern for others is helped by saying that behind human beings exists such a spiritual unity. I doubt whether it is helped if only because, for many people, that will be read as
meaning that some sort of supernatural spirit exists. That can quickly lead to religious dogma and blind obedience to authorities who claim to know what that spirit demands of us. And, as we know, that generates the danger of some horrendous
demands, when in the mouths of some religious authorities – demands backed by a so-called supernatural spiritual agency. So, instead of taking that risk, why not focus on the fellow feeling within humanity, a feeling not needing reference to some
spiritual underpinning? Why not simply announce oneself as a humanist?
With feelings of humanity
Thank you for your response because this allows me a further opportunity to bring to light deeper insights offered by esoteric Hinduism and its concept of spiritual Humanism.
By Personalised spirituality Hindus do not mean a feeling of awe and wonder – such a definition would suit the needs of new-agers. In Hinduism this term denotes recognition of an anthropocentric framework through which we are forced to operate. We cannot jump out of ourselves to relate to anything including concepts of spirituality. Hindus claim that God did not create us in his image; we humans make him in our image. We create an exaggerated human, incorporating endearing human aspects such as compassion, the thirst for knowledge, and empowerment. These we exaggerate to an infinite degree and ascribe it to an invisible being that has to be allloving, all-powerful and all-knowing. It is hoped that in the process of building up a relationship with this infinite being mankind invoke these features more fully in their lives. Esoteric Hinduism confirms that a super personality (God) with exaggerated endearing human features is a ploy to make us better human beings! Ploys are not necessarily bad if they fulfil a utilitarian role. Thus non-theistic Hinduism plays along with theistic Hinduism.
Your positive comments on the role and relevance of pluralism are music to my ears. I have been pushing this term so robustly in the religious education system that I am called an evangelical pluralist. You may feel uncomfortable to see the term evangelical linked with the idea of pluralism. Let me come clean; as long as there are evangelists pushing exclusivist agendas there is a need for an evangelist pushing an inclusivist agenda.
On the caste issue, I am ensuring that the Hindus as well as non-Hindus are made aware that this is an atrocity committed in the name of Hinduism and not Hinduism. As said earlier I had to fight the religious education system in this country tooth and
nail to make sure they stop teaching caste as Hinduism.
Dr Ambedkar born of an outcaste family rose to the position of being one of the key architects of Indian constitution recognised this anomaly and affirmed that hereditary hierarchical caste system was not preached by religion, so it cannot be preached out
by religion! Only the changing socio-economic landscape of India will finally demolish this atrocious stratification of society. The divide between the first and the third world is an example of a hereditary, hierarchical caste system operating on an international
scale. A child born in the first world has everything laid out for him while a child born in the third world cannot expect to get clean water to drink. By birth, he is enslaved to work for the benefit of the first world for a pittance. This is hereditary, hierarchical
caste system on an international scale.
I agree with your analysis of all -isms. It is one thing to appreciate the scope of all - isms but it is equally crucial that we recognise their limitations, or we stop progressing. At the moment theoretical physics is struggling because some of its practitioners do not recognise this aspect to all -isms including physicalism or materialism. Let me offer a concrete example, Sir Roger Penrose, who in my opinion, is the best physicist in the country, has been hitting his head on a brick wall trying to produce consciousness in the microtubules of the neurons! This fixation on matter does not allow him to think beyond matter. Einstein, one of the greatest
minds, too struggled with quantum mechanics. He, like Penrose, could only relate to a world of substance and its attributes and could not think beyond. Consciousness remains a hard problem in quantum mechanics as well as neuroscience. It is not just
that it is irreducible; it forms a crucial link between physical and life sciences. Recognising and dignifying consciousness as something different from matter or mind (which nowadays is defined as a process in the brain) or their by-product is essential if sciences want to converge, else they become divergent in the most explosive manner. The two best examples of this explosive divergence are: The universe breaking up into infinite copies of itself every infinitesimal moment of time and super-strings dancing in an 11 dimension space-time where infinite versions of universes are available. This would no doubt include a Harry Potter version of the universe!
Why am I so fixated on Consciousness? Not just because Hinduism defines it as an expression of the Spiritual, non-material foundation to everything including ourselves, but because it offers convergence in our world-view: not only convergence between branches of science; but convergence between religious and non-religious world-views. Wittgenstein’s legacy of allowing different world-views to sit side by side with their own self-consistent truth claims is no longer satisfactory because it results in a schizophrenic world. We require a world-view that is both coherent as well as complete. For this to happen we need a deeper understanding and appreciation of both science and religion. Esoteric, non-theistic Hinduism claims that religions are expressions of a dynamic spiritual experience that allowed the practitioner a deeper glimpse into the nature of reality. What they experienced is not that different from what science is discovering at its cutting edge. The science of today is affirming that the material world we experience is not reality but an appearance and that consciousness is crucial for this appearance to come into being. This brings me back to the initial claim of the Hindus. We are not material beings conjuring up ideas of spirituality to improve our material status but essentially spiritual beings on a material journey. This idea is encapsulated in the term Spiritual Humanism. This term offers highest dignity to humanity. It affirms that we are neither sinners to be saved by a super personality nor are we the extension of the material kingdom.
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.