I wonder if it is possible to unite these two vast ways of understanding our world, our consciousness and reality itself. To explore this question I will look at the views of mind from the western scientific and the eastern spiritual perspectives. After reviewing philosophers and scientists working in this intersection, I’ll share my own thoughts on the unity of spirit and science.
The general scientific view on consciousness is that it is a product of billions of years of evolution resulting in us—homo sapiens—the pinnacle of higher thought on this planet. Our bodies and brains have been shaped by millions of years of environmental factors; beginning with single celled amoebas that are attracted to food and escape danger and ending with all of nature’s beautiful complexity, including our unique frontal lobes.
In the field of neuroscience, the theory of consciousness generally put forward is that consciousness as we experience it arises from the complex interactions of neurons (and now other cells) in the brain: the brain is a computer. This view of consciousness is a materialistic bottom up approach where this simple equation might suffice:
energy <-> particles <-> molecules <-> cells <-> brain <-> consciousness
The view that consciousness is a product of the brain seems to be accepted by most other branches of science as well. For example, I did not find one major school of modern physics that included consciousness in its model. Why should it, consciousness is obviously not a fundamental building block of reality… or is it?
World religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism, as well as some aboriginal societies regard our very consciousness itself as the fundamental aspect of reality. They arrived at this view through an in-depth study of their internal experience. Through meditation and contemplation they test the hypothesis of enlightenment and then experience the results as increased freedom, happiness and compassion.
These two ways of viewing reality are both equally valid and equally shared by the planet’s inhabitants (we would be wrong to assume that everyone shares our scientific materialistic point of view.) So is it possible to come to an understanding of reality that encompasses both points of view? Can we have a view that includes the full dynamic of evolution, biology, neuroscience, and particle physics with the view that consciousness is the fundamental ground aspect of reality, and that subtle body energies (Qi) exist, and mind to mind communication is common?
A few modern scientists and philosophers are attempting to address this potentially massive paradigm shift. Ken Wilber, an integral philosopher has created a four quadrant model of reality where the internal personal experience of the meditator shares an aspect of reality with external knowledge of science. (Also in the quadrants are the shared internal experience of culture and external data of societies.)
William Tiller, Professor Emeritus at Stanford University, is conducting detailed experiments on how human intention effects physical reality. For example, using only human intention he is measuring a large increase in the ph of water over time. The success of his experiments (which have been replicated in other labs) points towards a ‘Copernican scale revolution in science’ as he likes to call it—and I have to agree.
A British scientist, Rupert Sheldrake, has a theory that at a basic level of reality there exists a field of information—a morphogenetic field. His theory is that this field influences how an animal fetus or plant seed develops into a complex final form. The presence of this morphogenetic field would help explain the sometimes miraculous instances of evolution (often used by creationists as proof of God.) As distance is not relevant in this field, it might also explain the origin of life: the morphogenetic field of life in other galaxies or other dimensions may have helped life get started here.
There are myriad other researchers and scientists and theorists working at this ‘fringe’ of science, to name of few: Dean Radin, Charles Tart, Peter Russell, Ralph Metzner, Erwin Laszlo and Jeffrey Mishlove. Perhaps surprisingly, the founders of modern science held similar spiritual views. Newton, Galileo, Darwin, Heidegger, and others would probably find it impossible to get published in today’s respected science journals.
Hopefully popular culture is not souring the taste of these explorations with movies like The Secret, that point to the similarities between quantum physics and eastern spirituality and then commercialize it in a perverted way. The original What the Bleep do we Know? movie sometimes had this problem in stating that ‘all we need to do is collapse the quantum wave and create our own reality’ luckily the second Down the Rabbit Hole release provides new, more refined material.
So is it possible to combine the wisdom and knowledge inherent in each tradition? Perhaps we can modify the simple equation above and come to new view of reality that is more inclusive:
consciousness <-> information <-> energy <-> particles <-> molecules <-> cells <-> brain <-> conscious awareness
This provisional equation includes the full knowledge of modern science and extends ‘downward’ into the unknown area theoretical physics is exploring—which is perhaps the realm of information fields and deeper down the ground unity of consciousness itself as the base of all reality. While this may seem quite radical, is it any more radical than the 11 dimensional models of reality of current string theory?
While I am aware that my attempts at exploring this unity may be criticized as lacking evidence, being imprecise, and sophomoric, what the hell, I’m just having fun.