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Science Needs to Ask: 'What Is Consciousness?'

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Anyone who equates myth with superstition would claim that we live in a world that has gone beyond mythology. Science is proud of vanquishing superstition, and a certain vocal contingent of atheists use science to bolster their belief that God is pure superstition. However, mythology is harder to vanquish that that. It crops up in new guises, because myths aren't superstitions. They are mental templates, operating assumptions, the beliefs that bolster a world view and, above all, a way to explain nature. In any infinite universe, the human mind finds ways to tell a story that will bring the infinite within reach, and myths serve that function. Sometimes myths are so strong that they pen reality in, building a fence around it and forcing every natural event to stay inside the fence. When God or the gods were the cause of earthly events, the fence was tight and inescapable. But the rise of quantum theory a century ago revealed that even stronger fences were hemming in our sense of reality. We explained the universe through matter and energy governed by physical laws. In the pre-quantum world this scheme wasn't theory; it was reality, pure and simple. Everything inside this fence acted the same way. It operated by cause and effect. It never went faster than the speed of light. It conformed to mathematical formulations. It excluded the mushy emotions and shifting moods of subjectivity. Science claimed to have found a model for nature that was based on reason alone. How strange, then, that reason was actually the seed of a new mythology, and even stranger, that this rock-solid system is crumbling all around us. In previous posts I've given the simplest indications of the cracks in the pre-quantum scientific mythology. It turns out that matter has no real existence but is a pattern of waves entangled in the quantum field. It turns out that events are not localized in time and space but have ramifications that go beyond spacetime and travel faster than the speed of light. And in the end, the entire universe, including space and time, emerged from a state of potentiality that transcends visible creation. None of this is disputable, yet we all lead our lives as if the old boundaries hem us in. In fact, these boundaries were self-created. They are part of our accepted mythology. Seeing what the next stage might be, after the old mythology totally crumbles, falls to a handful of speculative thinkers, many of them physicists, since they are the direct heirs of the quantum evolution. The key ideas that are catching hold, at various stages of acceptance, include the following:
  • The universe is evolving.
  • The universe is conscious.
  • The universe is a living organism.
  • The way that the cosmos presents itself depends on how you look at it.
  • Reality conforms to the explanation we impose upon it.
  • The human mind may be creating what we call reality, which mirrors us but contains infinite possibilities unreachable by the human mind.
  • Creation may be eternal and infinite, with countless Big Bangs and multiple universes.
Not all of these ideas are compatible with one another, and all are evolving. But the promising thing is that they are coming out into the open, acquiring respectability and therefore leading to dialogue without anyone being ostracized. Which isn't to say that materialism, the basis of science itself, has been toppled or even lost its firm grip. Speculative thinking is the basis of all original discoveries, not to mention awe and wonder. But on an everyday basis, scientists perform experiments and seek mathematical rigor. Thus the common expression, "Shut up and calculate." Or, an equally arrogant dismissal that one young physicist received form an elder colleague, "I remember when you did good science." Mythology, as was pointed out in the beginning, isn't superstition -- it's the way we convince ourselves that we have the right explanation. It's a conceptual fence in which we hope to corral nature. Science will continue to be science, of course, yet the next phase of its evolution needs somebody to look outside the fence. That will surely happen; it's beginning to now. Even more intriguing is how science and religion are approaching the same obstacle. Science has come to the point where even quantum theory cannot venture. We want to know what gave rise to the universe, what preceded time and space, how randomness is related to design, why the laws of nature mesh so precisely and other ultimate questions. They imply a pre-created state that gave rise to creation, and yet we may never be able to venture there, not even with mathematics. Time and space are tough boundaries to cross when the human brain is a product of processes in time and space. To go where science wants to go, it needs to become more complete, and for me, it can benefit hugely by expanding into the realm long governed by spirituality. The avenue unexplored by science, even dismissed and denied, is our inner world. "Subjectivity" is a dirty word in science, and yet it can't be denied that all experience is ultimately subjective. Even science takes place in consciousness. Where else could it take place? Having conceded this obvious point, science needs to ask, "What is consciousness?" The answer to that enormous question is suddenly more urgent. It can no longer be reconciled to the fringes or shrugged off as metaphysics. Unless we know the actual range of human awareness, its source and its capabilities, we will never understand reality. That understanding is the common goal of science and spirituality both, and both are needed to get there.

Deepak Chopra on Intent.com
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