Name your malady, and there’s someone to tell you that a scientific solution is just around the corner. But isn’t science promising to rescue us from itself? And why is that a promise we should trust?
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War of the Worldviews: Science vs. Spirituality
Ed. Note: As (the short version of) the story goes, Deepak Chopra was speaking at a California Institute of Technology event and afterward was approached by a fellow who “offered to teach him about quantum physics.” The fellow was Leonard Mlodinow, a well-traveled physicist, former professor at Caltech, former Hollywood writer and computer game designer, and now a full-time author. This initial confrontation began an exchange that led to War of the Worldviews, a dialogue of respectful disagreement on a wide range of topics, from whether the universe is conscious to the roots of our humanity and the connection between mind and brain. What follows is an abridged excerpt of their opening comments. (To watch a new series of video Q/As on these topics, go to DeepakChopra.com or Chopra's Global YouTube Channel.)
“Which worldview is right? Does science describe the universe, or do ancient teachings like meditation unravel mysteries that are beyond the worldview of science?” —War of the Worldviews
If it is going to win the struggle for the future, spirituality must first overcome a major disadvantage. In the popular imagination, science long ago discredited religion. Facts replaced faith. Superstition was gradually vanquished. That’s why Darwin’s explanation of man’s descent from lower primates prevails over Genesis and why we look to the big bang as the source of the cosmos rather than to a creation myth populated by one or more gods.
So it’s important to begin by saying that religion isn’t the same as spirituality—far from it. Even God isn’t the same as spirituality. Organized religion may have discredited itself, but spirituality has suffered no such defeat. Thousands of years ago, in cultures across the globe, inspired spiritual teachers such as the Buddha, Jesus, and Lao- Tzu proposed profound views of life. They taught that a transcendent domain resides beyond the everyday world of pain and struggle. Although the eye beholds rocks, mountains, trees, and sky, this is only a veil drawn over a vast, mysterious, unseen reality. Beyond the reach of the five senses lies an invisible realm of infinite possibility, and the key to unfolding its potential is consciousness. Go within, the sages and seers declared, and you will find the true source of everything: your own awareness.
It was this tremendous promise that religion failed to deliver on. [I]f the kingdom of God is within, as Christ declared, if nirvana means freedom from all suffering, as the Buddha taught, and if knowledge of the cosmos is locked inside the human mind, as the ancient rishis, or sages, of India proposed, we cannot look around today and say that those teachings bore fruit. Increasingly few people worship in the old ways around the world, and even as their elders lament this decline, those who have walked away from religion no longer even need an excuse. Science long ago showed us a brave new world that requires no faith in an invisible realm.
Science celebrates its triumphs, which are many, and excuses its catastrophes, which are also numerous—and growing. The atomic bomb delivered us into an age of mass destruction that brings night terrors just to contemplate. The environment has been disastrously disrupted by emissions spewing from the machines that technology gives us to make life better. Yet supporters of science shrug off these threats as either side effects or failures of social policy. Morality, we are told, isn’t the responsibility of science. But if you look deeper, science has run into the same problem as religion. Religion lost sight of humility before God, and science lost its sense of awe, increasingly seeing Nature as a force to be opposed and conquered, its secrets stripped bare for the benefit of humankind. Now we are paying the price. When asked if Homo sapiens is in danger of extinction, some scientists offer hope that within a few hundred years space travel will be advanced enough to let us abandon the planetary nest we are fouling. Off we go to spoil other worlds!
We all know what’s at stake: the foreseeable future looms grimly over us. The standard solution for our present woes is all too familiar. Science will rescue us with new technology—for restoring the environment, replacing fossil fuels, curing AIDS and cancer, and ending the threat of famine. Name your malady, and there’s someone to tell you that a scientific solution is just around the corner. But isn’t science promising to rescue us from itself? And why is that a promise we should trust? The worldview that triumphed over religion and that looks upon life as essentially materialistic has set us on a path that leads to a dead end. Literally.
Religion cannot resolve this dilemma; it had its chances already. But spirituality can. We need to go back to the source of religion. That source isn’t God. It’s consciousness. The great teachers who lived millennia ago offered something more radical than belief in a higher power. They offered a way of viewing reality that begins not with outside facts and a limited physical existence but with inner wisdom and access to unbounded awareness. The irony is that Jesus, the Buddha, and the other enlightened sages were scientists too. They had a way of uncovering knowledge that runs exactly parallel to modern science. First came a hypothesis, an idea that needed testing. Next came experimentation to see if the hypothesis was true. Finally came peer review, offering the new findings to other researchers and asking them to reproduce the same breakthrough.
The spiritual hypothesis that was put forward thousands of years ago has three parts:
1. There is an unseen reality that is the source of all visible things.
2. This unseen reality is knowable through our own awareness.
3. Intelligence, creativity, and organizing power are embedded in the cosmos.
This trio of ideas is like the Platonic values in Greek philosophy, which tell us that love, truth, order, and reason shape human existence from a higher reality. The difference is that even more ancient philosophies, with roots going back five thousand years, tell us that higher reality is with us right here and now. Its researchers were brilliant—the very Einsteins of consciousness. Anyone can reproduce and verify their results, as with the principles of science. More important, the future that spirituality promises—one of wisdom, freedom, and fulfillment—hasn’t vanished as the age of faith declined. Reality is reality. There is only one, and it’s permanent. This means that at some point the inner and outer worlds must meet; we won’t have to choose between them. That in itself will be a revolutionary discovery, since the dispute between science and religion has persuaded almost everyone that either you face reality and deal with the tough questions of everyday life (science), or you passively retreat and contemplate a realm beyond everyday life (religion).
This either/or choice was forced on us when religion failed to deliver on its promises. But spirituality, the deeper source of religion, hasn’t failed and is ready to meet science face-to-face, offering answers consistent with the most advanced scientific theories. Human consciousness created science, which ironically is now moving to exclude consciousness, its very creator! Surely this would leave us with worse than an orphaned and shrunken science—we’d inhabit an impoverished world.
It has already arrived. We live in a time of rude atheism, whose proponents deride religion as superstition, illusion, and a hoax. But their real target isn’t religion; it’s the inner journey. I am less concerned with attacks on God than I am with a far more insidious danger: the superstition of materialism. To scientific atheists, reality must be external; otherwise their whole approach falls apart. If the physical world is all that exists, science is right to mine it for data.
But here the superstition of materialism breaks down. Our five senses encourage us to accept that there are objects “out there,” forests and rivers, atoms and quarks. However, at the frontiers of physics, where Nature becomes very small, matter breaks down and then vanishes. Here, the act of measuring changes what we see; every observer turns out to be woven into what he observes. This is the universe already known to spirituality, where passive observation gives way to active participation, and we discover that we are part of the fabric of creation. The result is enormous power and freedom.
Just because religion didn’t succeed doesn’t mean that a new spirituality, based on consciousness, won’t. We need to see the truth, and in the process we will awaken the profound powers that were promised to us thousands of years ago. Time awaits. The future depends on the choice we make today.
Children come into the world believing it all revolves around them, and so did humanity. People have always been anxious to understand their universe, but for most of human history, we hadn’t yet developed the means. Since we are proactive and imaginative animals, we didn’t let the lack of tools stop us. We simply applied our imagination to form compelling pictures. These pictures were not based on reality but were created to serve our needs. We would all like to be immortal. We’d like to believe that good triumphs over evil, that a greater power watches over us, that we are part of something bigger, that we have been put here for a reason. We’d like to believe that our lives have an intrinsic meaning. Ancient concepts of the universe comforted us by affirming these desires. Where did the universe come from? Where did life come from? Where did people come from? The legends and theologies of the past assured us that we were created by God, and that our earth was the center of everything.
Today science can answer many of the most fundamental questions of existence. Science’s answers spring from observation and experiment rather than from human bias or desire. Science offers answers in harmony with nature as it is, rather than nature as we’d like it to be.
The universe is an awe-inspiring place, especially for those who know something about it. The more we learn, the more astonishing it seems. Newton said that if he saw further it was because he stood on the shoulders of giants. Today we can all stand on the shoulders of scientists and see deep and amazing truths about the universe and our place in it. We can understand how we and our earth are natural phenomena that arise from the laws of physics. Our ancestors viewed the night sky with a sense of wonder, but to see stars that explode in seconds and shine with more light than entire galaxies brings a new dimension to the awe. In our day, a scientist can turn her telescope to observe an earthlike planet trillions of miles away or study a spectacular internal universe in which a million million atoms conspire to create a tiny freckle. We know now that our earth is one world among many and that our species arose from other species. Science has revealed a universe that is vast, ancient, violent, strange, and beautiful, a universe of almost infinite variety and possibility, one in which time can end in a black hole and conscious beings can evolve from a soup of minerals. In such a universe it can seem that people are insignificant, but what is significant and profound is that we, ensembles of almost uncountable numbers of unthinking atoms, can become aware and understand our origins and the nature of the cosmos in which we live.
Deepak feels that scientific explanations are sterile and reductive, diminishing humankind to a mere collection of atoms, no different in kind from any other object in the universe. But scientific knowledge does not diminish our humanity any more than the knowledge that our country is one among many diminishes our appreciation of our native culture. In fact, the opposite is closer to the truth. Emotion, intuition, adherence to authority—traits that drive the belief in religious and mystical explanation—are traits that can be found in other primates and even in lower animals. But orangutans cannot reason about the angles in triangles, and macaque monkeys do not look to the heavens and wonder why the planets follow elliptical paths. It is only humans who can engage in the wondrous processes of reason and thought called science, only humans who can understand themselves and how their planet got here, and only humans who could discover the atoms that form us.
The triumph of humanity is our capacity to understand. It is our comprehension of the cosmos, our insight into where we came from, our vision of the place we occupy in the universe, that sets us apart. A by-product of this scientific understanding is the power to harness nature for our benefit or, it is true, to employ it to our detriment. The particular ethical and moral choices people make depend on human nature and human culture. People dropped boulders on their enemies long before they understood the law of gravity. And they spewed filth into the skies long before they understood the thermodynamics of burning coal.
Promoting good and avoiding evil is the charge of organized religion and spirituality. It is those enterprises—not science—that have often failed to deliver on their promise. Eastern religions did not prevent a history of brutal warfare in Asia, nor did Western religions pacify Europe. In fact, more people have been slaughtered in the name of religion than by all the atomic weapons made possible by modern physics. From the Crusades to the Holocaust, in addition to being a tool of goodness and love, religion has been employed as a tool of hatred. Deepak’s universalist and peaceful approach to spirituality is therefore a welcome alternative. But Deepak’s metaphysics goes beyond spiritual guidance to offer views on the nature of the universe. Deepak’s belief that the universe is purposeful and imbued with love may be attractive, but is it correct?
He contrasts the visible, or detectable, universe studied by science with an implicitly superior but invisible “realm of infinite possibility” that lies beyond our senses, a “transcendent domain” that is the source of all visible things. Deepak argues passionately that only by accepting this realm can science grow beyond its limits and help save the world. But arguing that such a realm can expand the limits of science, that it can help humanity, or that ancient sages taught about it doesn’t make it true.
I do not suggest that science is perfect. Deepak says that science has never achieved pure objectivity, and he is right. For one, the concepts employed in science are concepts conceived by the human brain. Aliens with different brain structures, thought processes, and sense organs might view matter in completely different but equally valid ways. And if there is a certain kind of subjectivity to our concepts and our theories, there is also subjectivity in our experiments. In fact, experiments that have been done on experimenters show that there is a tendency for scientists to see what they want to see and to be convinced by data they wish to find convincing. Yes, scientists and science are fallible. Yet all these are reasons not to doubt the scientific method, but to follow it as scrupulously as possible.
One can’t expect science to answer all the questions of the universe. There may well be secrets of nature that will remain forever beyond the outer limits of human intelligence. Other questions, such as those regarding human aspirations and the meaning of our lives, are best viewed from multiple perspectives, both scientific and spiritual. These approaches can coexist and respect each other. The trouble arises when religious and spiritual doctrine makes pronouncements about the physical universe that contradict what we actually observe to be true.
To Deepak, the key to everything is the understanding of consciousness. It is true that science has only begun to address that question. How do those unthinking atoms we are made of conspire to create love, pain, and joy? How does the brain create thought and conscious experience? The brain contains more than a hundred billion neurons, roughly the number of stars in a galaxy, but the stars hardly interact, while the average neuron is plugged into thousands of others. That makes the human brain far more complex and difficult to fathom than the universe of galaxies and stars and is one reason we have made great leaps in our understanding of the cosmos, while knowledge of ourselves proceeds at a relative crawl. Is that a sign that our minds cannot be explained?
It is shortsighted to believe that because science today cannot explain consciousness, consciousness must lie beyond science’s reach. But even if the origin of consciousness is too complex to be fully grasped by the human mind, that is not evidence that consciousness resides in a supernatural realm. In fact, though the question of how consciousness arises remains a puzzle, we have plenty of evidence that consciousness functions according to physical law. For example, in neuroscience experiments, thoughts, feelings, and sensations in subjects’ minds—the desire to move an arm, the thought of a specific person like Jennifer Aniston or Mother Teresa, and the craving for a Snickers bar—have all been traced to specific areas and activities in the physical brain. Scientists have even uncovered what they call “concept cells,” which fire whenever a subject recognizes a concept, such as a specific person, place, or object. These neurons are the cellular substrate of an idea. They will fire, say, each time a person recognizes Mother Teresa in a photo, no matter what her dress or pose. They will even fire if the subject merely sees her name spelled out in text.
Science can answer the seemingly intractable question of how the universe came into being, and there is reason to believe that science will eventually be able to explain the origins of consciousness too. Science is an ever-advancing process, and the end is not in sight. If at some future date we are able to explain the mind in terms of the activity of a universe of neurons, if all our mental processes do prove to have their source in the flow of charged ions within nerve cells, that would not mean that science denies the worth of “love, trust, faith, beauty, awe, wonder, compassion, truth, the arts, morality, and the mind itself.” To explain something is not to diminish or deny its worth. It is also important to recognize that even if we consider a scientific explanation of our thought processes (or anything else) aesthetically or spiritually unsatisfying or unpalatable, that does not make it false. Our explanations must be guided by truth; truth cannot be adjusted to conform to what we want to hear.
Excerpted from War of the Worldviews: Science vs. Spirituality, © 2011 by Deepak Chopra & Leonard Mlodinow. Reprinted by Permission of Harmony, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.