Adapted in part from the Introduction to: The End of Materialism by Charles Tart, PhD
Noted science writer Sharon Begley reported how His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the highest-ranking lama in Tibetan Buddhism and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, watched a brain operation while on a visit to an American medical school. He recalled scientists explaining with great conviction that consciousness is nothing more than a manifestation of brain activity. When the brain stops functioning, from injury or death, our mind vanishes—period, end of story.
Further, Begley reports, the Dalai Lama had always been bothered by the seeming certainty of this kind of “explaining away” of consciousness. Even if you accept the theory that our minds are what our brains do, that our emotions and thoughts are expressions of brain activity, isn’t there more? Isn’t some kind of two-way causation possible?
Could it be, as common sense seems to tell us, that mind might have an active reality of its own rather than just being a by-product of brain activity? His Holiness voiced this question to the chief surgeon.
Begley reports that the brain surgeon hardly paused before authoritatively answering no—period. What we call consciousness or mind is nothing but a product of the physical operation of the brain. The Dalai Lama is a very polite person, and he let the matter drop. He was used to hearing such absolute statements from people who consider themselves scientists.
But, as Begley quotes from the Dalai Lama’s 2005 book, The Universe in a Single Atom, “I thought then and still think that there is yet no scientific basis for such a categorical claim…The view that all mental processes are necessarily physical processes is a metaphysical assumption, not a scientific fact”
On Seeking the Spiritual as a Scientist
“Seeking” is a word commonly associated with spiritual pursuits, but “science” and “scientist” are usually associated with a materialistic view of the universe in which there’s nothing real to the “spiritual,” so how could a scientist seek the spiritual? Wouldn’t such seeking lead to intellectual and emotional conflicts that could be confusing and invalidating, as well as a waste of time?
Indeed, that’s how it is for a lot of people today. Something in them seeks, often desperately, something “spiritual” to make their lives authentic and worthwhile, yet no intelligent person can disregard modern science and its understandings without mentally harming themselves in various ways. But modern science, which has given us so much materially, tells “spiritual seekers” that they’re, at best, soft headed folks unwilling to be completely scientific and, at worst, superstitious fools, perhaps having a serious psychopathology that drives them to seek the “spiritual.”
It was probably simpler in the old days: one believed or disbelieved the one belief system available in your village and that was it. There wasn’t much in the way of competing views. Today we live in an environment rich with information! Tart says, here I am, for example, a constantly fluctuating mixture of scientist; father; husband; psychologist; parapsychologist; teacher; writer; carpenter; bulldozer operator; liberal; conservative; skeptic; and serious off-and-on student of Buddhism, Christianity, Sufism, Yoga, the Fourth Way, and Aikido, believing we have the potential of gods, believing we’re usually practically mindless robots, and so on. That’s a lot of information and roles to balance! And besides offering ideas, many of these spiritual paths say it’s not enough to just think about and believe or disbelieve their ideas—you can and should live your life so that you can have direct personal experience of the spiritual.
On Spirituality and Religion
There is an important distinction to make about science and spirituality, not about science and religion.
In reality, spirituality and religion can’t be totally separated because a categorical distinction oversimplifies a complex interaction. Tart and many other writers, however, do make following distinction. Spirituality is used to refer to life-changing, primary experiences that happen to individuals, while religion refers to social organizations based in beliefs that are relatively fixed and dogmatic. Such organizations and belief systems are usually initiated by the spiritual experiences and teachings of a founder. These organizations and belief systems incorporate and develop (with more or less fidelity) those basic experiences into ongoing social structures, relationships, beliefs, needs, and customs.
Tart argues that you can be scientifically oriented and yet seek and value personal spiritual experience and growth without the doubt and conflict generated by regarding yourself as “irrational,” “unscientific,” or “crazy.” Because there are many psychological and social factors, once spirituality becomes religion, the distinction isn’t quite as clear-cut as we might like it to be. We humans are social creatures, and this can affect, to some degree, the very spiritual experiences we have as well as our ongoing interpretation and understanding of them. Most of us need some ongoing social support in our spiritual lives, so I doubt we’ll ever have a “pure” spirituality unaffected by religion. It must also be the case that if a religion is to survive it must still satisfy at least some people’s spiritual needs.
For Tart, the word “religion” connotes the particular church he was raised in (Lutheran), its doctrines, and the effects on his personality or self that he can now recognize from a wiser (he hopes), adult perspective. On the one hand, there were many good effects: a concern for the welfare of others; a basic belief in some kind of wise, loving, and caring intelligence in the universe; and numerous instances of experiencing kindness and care from adults in the church that helped shape him.
Tart also thinks a lot of his neurotic shortcomings stem from or were reinforced by church doctrines, such as feelings of being inherently sinful, a nagging feeling that no matter how good he is it’ll never be enough, and a pervasive shame about his body and sexuality that has taken many years to overcome. In many ways, he thinks he was forcibly brainwashed by being taught religion when he was too young to really understand and make choices. So “religion,” for him, is a complicated category with conscious, semiconscious, and undoubtedly unconscious feelings, positive and negative, that can create conflict and tension. Perhaps, you recognize yourself in this description!
“Spirituality” Tart says has been a matter of a relatively conscious choice on his part as an adult. The aspects of it he’s chosen to make central in his life have given him goals and guidance that have added much meaning and satisfaction.
So the rational distinction between spirituality and religion — primary, life-changing experiences of the spiritual versus institutionalized, socialized doctrines and practices — is important to make. But lurking in the background are all these emotional elements, tending to make spirituality a “good” word and religion a “bad” word for many of us. At both physical and emotional levels, Tart says he tends to get a little tense and defensive when he hears the word religion. On the other hand, he says when he hears “spirituality,” he relaxes and opens up. He says that to the degree that he recognizes these complexities and work on healing the emotional component, he can be more rational and effective in what he does.
Tart doesn’t generalize further, because there are so many varieties of religion, and aside from their formal beliefs and structures, there are enormous variations in the way different individuals absorb and react to particular religions. By the time some of us reach adulthood, our childhood religions are a useful, and perhaps the best, vehicle for promoting and integrating our individual spiritual experiences, which in turn would further enliven our religions. For others of us, our childhood religions are the enemy of our spiritual growth. How it is for you is a matter for you to discover and work with.
The End of Materialism
The balance of Tart’s book provides an overview of the foundations for and the status of research in each of several different research areas of psi (shorthand for the phenomena studied by parapsychologists). Tart offers his opinion, as an experimental psychologist, on how convincing the evidence is for each psi phenomenon. Based on the evidence, he divides psi phenomena into two groups. Group One contains what he calls the “big five” and includes telepathy, clairvoyance, pre-cognition, psychokinesis and psychic healing. Tart concludes that each of these phenomena is supported by hundreds of rigorous scientific experiments. Group Two contains post-cognition, out-of-body experiences, near death experiences, after death communication and reincarnation. These phenomena Tart concludes don’t have the level of support found for phenomena in Group One. However, he thinks the amount of evidence is such that they can’t be dismissed out-of-hand and warrant continued investigation.
In an earlier review of the evidence for psi done by Dean Radin in his 1995 book, The Conscious Universe, Radin came to a similar conclusion. Radin indicates that the evidence spans 130 years of experiments, involves hundreds of experimenters, thousands of experiments and hundreds of replications. Radin goes into considerable detail about the types of experimental evidence, including the methodologies used and the types of data analyses applied. One cannot read Radin’s book with an open mind and not be convinced that the body of experimental evidence for psi phenomena clearly indicates that something worthy of serious consideration is going on. You can see the evidence for yourself by clicking here.
Least you dismiss Tart and Radin as mere advocates for their personal views, let me offer you a quote from Carl Sagan who examined a lot of the evidence for paranormal claims while writing his 1995 book The Demon Haunted World.
“At the time of this writing there are three claims in the ESP field which, in my opinion, deserve serious study: (1) that by thought alone humans can (barely) affect random number generators in computers, (2) that people under mild sensory deprivation can receive thoughts or images “projected” at them; and (3) that young children sometimes report the details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have known about in any other way than reincarnation.”
Science is first and foremost a methodology for examining hypotheses derived from theory. Scientific theory is an explanation that attempts to account for demonstrated facts. Western science is grounded in a theoretical paradigm generally known as scientific materialism. The core assumption of scientific materialism is that matter is primary and all phenomena can be understood by reducing them to their material elements and understanding how those elements interact. The world according to scientific materialism is built of irreducible pieces of matter – a bottom up approach.
Scientific materialism has been the basic paradigm of science since the 17th century and is rooted in a Newtonian worldview. Scientific materialism has, in fact, been highly successful over a long period of time. Unfortunately, this has resulted in it producing scientific dogma and science for many has become scientism or science that ultimately rests upon faith in dogma.
The evidence for psi poses a significant threat to scientific materialism because if the evidence is accepted as factual then scientific theory must account for it but the very nature of the phenomena suggests that it is not and cannot be explained as a product of matter. In short, acceptance of psi phenomena is to accept the real possibility that the core assumptions of scientific materialism are not valid. Thus, the greater one’s faith in the core assumptions of scientific materialism the greater is one’s motivation to be blind to the evidence for and to deny the reality of psi phenomena. In short, to expose oneself as an adherent of scientism.
There are scientists willing to question the validity of the core assumptions of scientific materialism but they are in a minority and are often treated as heretics. Tart, Radin and Sagan clearly belong to that minority. There are other scientists who challenge scientific materialism on grounds other than psi. Physicist Bernard d’Espagnat writing in Scientific American stated, “The doctrine that the world is made up of objects whose existence is independent of human consciousness turns out to be in conflict with quantum mechanics and with facts established by experiments.”
Another physicist, Victor Mansfield, suggests that mind and matter may be part of “…a radically interconnected and interdependent world, one so essentially connected at a deep level that the interconnections are more fundamental, more real than the independent existence of the parts.”
The esteemed Sir James Jean, after pondering the implications of quantum physics, said as long ago as 1948, “The universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine.”
Within the physics community there is a recognition of what is often referred to as “the problem of consciousness” raised by experimental tests of quantum physics. The majority of physicists prefer to ignore the implications of this “problem” and dismiss it as either an “artifact of measurement” or not a scientific problem but a problem better left to philosophers. The minority who treat the problem as a scientific problem find that the evidence suggests that consciousness not matter may be primary. If consciousness is required to collapse a wave into a particle (i.e. to produce matter) then consciousness is an antecedent of matter and matter therefore cannot be primary. If consciousness is primary, the world is constructed from the top down. This reasoning is a significant challenge to the core assumptions of scientific materialism because this conception can potentially explain psi phenomena whereas they are inexplicable in a primacy of matter model.
One physicist who instead of denying that there is a problem has taken the challenge seriously. David Deutsch is an advocate for the multiverse or many worlds theory as a way of explaining away the apparent role of consciousness in quantum wave collapses. The multiverse theory would seem to provide continued support for the primacy of matter. Deutsch suggests that consciousness only appears to collapse a wave when observing it. He argues that when a wave of possibilities collapses ALL the possibilities manifest but each one in a different universe. The apparent single outcome observed is not the product of the observation but a random collapse associated with many outcomes of which only one is manifest in this universe. Thus, the apparent role of consciousness in wave collapse is an illusion.
It would appear that the primacy of consciousness is a simpler explanation than an infinite number of universes. Could there really be a universe where my wife decided, a few months ago, to buy a blue car and another where she decided to buy a red car? Perhaps, but the infinite possibilities this implies is mind boggling. Finally, as clever as Deutsch’s hypothesis is it seems to me that one could argue that the so called “random” collapse into multiple outcomes in multiple universes can still be attributed to observation since I know of no reported instances when observation isn’t associated with collapse. If the collapse was truly random, wouldn’t there be times when observation wasn’t accompanied by collapse? In any event, Deutsch’s explanation doesn’t seem to provide an accounting for psi phenomena.
There is another conception offered by the late David Bohm who proposed a reformulation of quantum theory. Bohm’s reformulation subsumes both top down causation and bottom up causation. To keep it simple, Bohm proposes an implicate order existing in the quantum field and an explicate order existing in the material world, which is an extension of the quantum field. The implicate order provides formative causation or top down causation by unfolding its forms into the explicate order. The explicate order provides feedback by enfolding information back into the implicate order potentially modifying its subsequent explication; i.e., bottom up causation. Consciousness and matter form an interacting unit or loop. I suppose consciousness is still primary over matter in this model but it offers a causative role for both. It seems clear that under this model an explanation for psi is also a possibility.
Regardless of the view taken, we are left with the mystery of mysteries — the origination of matter or consciousness, which remains unanswered and perhaps is unanswerable. A question before which the human mind stands in awe. To quote the late Albert Einstein, “The most beautiful and most profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical…without it [one] is as good as dead.”
I invite you to take an open-minded look at the evidence for psi for yourself and consider the implications of these phenomena for the assumption of the primacy of matter or of consciousness. I can think of no better places to start than with:
The evolution of consciousness that I’ve referred to in the title of other pieces (here and here) is about a process. It is an ongoing process that in the view of some can spread over many lifetimes. It can never, in any absolute sense, come to a conclusion because the possibilities for spiritual growth may be virtually infinite. By spiritual growth I mean development of one’s consciousness in ways that lead to an experience of connection with a larger reality that yields a more comprehensive understanding of the essence of one’s being and the reality in which we live.
It can be argued that the whole of human motivation and action is predicated upon what one believes. By way of an analogy, think of the brain as the processing chips in a computer and the mind as the software all of which depends upon the operating system. I would suggest that our mind functions according to a belief system, which is similar to an operating system in a computer. If you change the operating system on a computer from Windows to Linux, the computer will perform differently. It will still be a computer and it will still have the limitations inherent in its hardware but it will use some capabilities differently and will have access to some capabilities that were previously unused and may lose access to still other capabilities. If computers aren’t your thing, here is another but weaker analogy. Think about the output from your DVD player (hardware) when your change the DVD disc (software) from one of an older, small screen, black and white movie with monaural sound to a disc containing a modern, widescreen, color movie with stereo sound. The DVD player hasn’t changed but the output has been significantly affected by a change in the software. We all have a belief system. Just as you can change the operating system on your computer, you can change or modify your belief system. Such change is not always easy, nor without difficulties but it can also be quite self-enhancing. In fact, there is little reason to prefer one system of personal beliefs over another, except for how well the system works for you. It can be argued that any system of belief that doesn’t lead to coercion or violence toward others and is self-affirming is a personally valid belief system.
What is a belief system? A belief system is a set of filters through which we process experience and thereby come to an understanding of events. The late psychologist George Kelly called these filters personal constructs. Kelly believed that we have what he calls a core construct with subsidiary constructs that are superordinate and subordinate to one another. A given set of beliefs would then create a pyramid of constructs or filters, not unlike a flow chart for a chain of command. When there is a conflict between beliefs, a superordinate belief will take precedence over a subordinate belief, at least in a functional system. Another psychologist, Robert Hogan, suggests in his socioanalytic theory that most people have one of two constructs that underlie their beliefs about morality, which he characterizes as personal conscience and social responsibility. In the former, the superordinate belief is that people are inherently good and that injustice arises from oppressive social institutions. In the latter, the superordinate belief is that people are inherently bad and that social institutions protect people from injustice.
Once we process an event through our beliefs and think we understand the nature of it, we are better able to formulate a response to it. It does not necessarily follow that the response will be a functional response or even a rational response. For a belief system to take root it need only produce a functional response more often than not. Belief systems that produce a preponderance of non-functional responses and fail to adjust become the basis for various psychological or mental disorders. Sometimes a belief system is dysfunctional because we hold contradictory superordinate beliefs that alone might be functional but when in opposition are dysfunctional. The psychologist and psychotherapist Albert Ellis (see Chapter One, page 19) suggested that the primary task of childhood socialization is to establish a belief system. A noted psychiatrist, Michael Gazzaniga (see Chapter One, page 21), has even argued that human beings are belief-creating machines. Ellis would agree but add that we are also predisposed to creating irrational beliefs, an assertion supported by scientific evidence.
Beliefs are important and powerful. On the positive side, consider the placebo effect in medical experiments. Individuals who are diagnosed with an illness and are unknowingly included in the control group often have as much improvement in their condition from the placebo treatment as do the patients in the experimental group who get the experimental treatment. On the negative side, consider the possibility that your beliefs could just as easily cause you to acquire an illness. Or, consider the role of beliefs in hate crimes or the powerful beliefs that lead some individuals to engage in suicidal attacks on their perceived enemies. In the area of education, research on methods of teaching reading have found that the effectiveness of a method is strongly influenced by whether or not the teacher using it believes it to be effective. Finally, research has shown that teachers’ beliefs about their students’ abilities affect the way they interact with those students, which in turn affects the beliefs of the students about themselves. This research study found that student performance was independent of measured ability. In short, a teacher’s beliefs can lead a student to under- or overachieve relative to measured ability. Beliefs then are potent enough to affect all aspects of our lives.
Ellis offers a model for understanding the role of belief. In its simplest form it is called the ABC model. The A is for an antecedent event. The B is for our belief about the event. The C is for the consequences of our belief about the event. There are two possible consequences. One is an emotional consequence or response, which often motivates a behavioral response. In short, our emotions and behavior follow our beliefs. When we construe an event through our belief system, we may choose to ignore the event on the basis that no further attention or other response is called for. We may interpret the event as bad and have a negative emotional response to it. If the negative emotional response is strong enough, it will motivate a negative behavioral response. We may interpret the event as good and have either a positive emotional response or both a positive emotional and behavioral response to it. Emotions, especially primal emotions like fear arising from the limbic system, are, evolutionarily speaking, older than thought, especially rational thought originating in the neocortex. Thus, in some sense primal emotions and rational thought have an hierarchical relationship. On the one hand, we should attempt to move toward decreased negative functioning by freeing ourselves from irrational negative emotions through the use of rational thought. On the other hand, we should attempt to increase positive functioning by strengthening rational positive emotions through the expansion of empathy. Becoming reflective about our beliefs, emotions and behavior rather than being reactive is an essential task in the evolution of consciousness.
Rational thought is the best tool available for evaluating our beliefs about events and the emotional responses that those beliefs elicit. Ellis contends that our tendency to think irrationally results in distortions, flaws, and inaccuracies in our belief system. Parents, peers, community institutions, such as schools, churches, political parties, and the media can introduce distortions into our belief system, if we accept their influence uncritically. Not only are distortions possible in commonly held beliefs, but personal aspects of our belief system are prone to distortions that result from our own faulty thinking. Ellis suggests that we must evaluate our beliefs, particularly when they are leading us into dysfunctional behavior, which is usually but not always motivated by negative emotion. Ellis’ full model is ABCDE. The D in his model stands for disputation, which requires that one challenge the validity of a belief and dispute the rationales offered in its defense. If the belief is found wanting, the goal is to find a more self-affirming way of construing (believing and thinking about) events so that they don’t elicit negative emotions and dysfunctional behavior in the future. The E stands for evaluation of the subsequent results produced by the disputation process. Correctly identifying and changing irrational beliefs is not easy and may sometimes require assistance and an investment of time.
If you have any question, as most of us probably should, about the rationality of our belief system, you should undertake an exploration and evaluation of your beliefs. When engaged in such a practice, you should not attempt to suppress emotional responses because you must experience emotions in order to trace them back to the beliefs that produced them. You may want to suppress a direct behavioral response or engage in as neutral a response as possible until you are more certain about what a rational and self-affirming response would be. Exercising careful control over behavior during this practice also ensures that there is a minimal probability of your behavior exacerbating a situation. Even if the belief under examination appears to be valid and the emotion elicited by the belief is appropriate, the behavioral response motivated by the emotion could be dysfunctional either because it is situation inappropriate (you don’t really know what to do) or at an inappropriate intensity level (you over- or under react). One should always attempt to attain an optimal fit between a situation and one’s response to it.
Positive emotions such as love and compassion can also be based on irrational beliefs and lead to dysfunctional behavior, though negative emotions probably result more frequently from irrational beliefs. The critical test is whether or not the emotion leads to behavior that is self-depreciating. Avoiding reactive responses under negative circumstances can be self-enhancing and potentially beneficial both to you and to an antagonist in a situation. Initially, it is more difficult to draw on love or compassion to motivate one’s response in such a situation than to merely be emotionally detached from it. As one progresses in the evolution of consciousness, it should become easier to draw on positive feelings in a negative situation and to act from those feelings. In short, what I am proposing is that there is an emotional/behavioral continuum along which one might select a response in a given situation that runs from negative to detached to positive. For most of us, the bridge between negative and detached is probably rationality. The bridge between detached and positive is probably empathy. You may recall that in a previous presentation I talked about expanding empathy as being the way to crowd out egotism and selfishness, which are rooted in irrational beliefs.
How does one become more empathetic? The primary tool for working on empathy is perspective taking, which depends upon the development of social perception. Perspective taking is the process of trying to identify with another person and see things as you imagine they see them. There is an interesting developmental sequence that one goes through in refining perspective taking. Robert Selman, a psychologist, has found that we first learn to identify with other people on the basis of external physical similarities such as age, sex and race. Second, we learn to identify with other people on the basis of psychological similarities such as mutual interests, beliefs and attitudes. Third, we learn to identify with other people through self-reflection, that is, by recognizing social roles played by others and imagining oneself filling that role. This is the limit of social perception attained by a significant proportion of the population. Fourth, we learn to identify with others through third-person role-taking or being able to take the perspective of an abstract point-of-view. This is a significant refinement of social perspective taking that is achieved by a minority of adults. The final way in which we learn to identify with others is through a generalized perspective based on multiple, abstract social perspectives, such as, political vs. legal vs. religious vs. moral vs. personal vs. professional. In short, acquiring an understanding of another person as a complex, multidimensional social being. This is the most advanced and rarest form of social perception and permits the most sophisticated identification with others and thereby empathetic understanding of them.
The process of developing better social perception and expanding our capacity for empathy requires cultivating relationships, especially with people who we perceive as different from ourselves. Another psychologist, Sidney Jourard, has emphasized the role of what he calls the transparent-self in establishing empathetic relationships with others. What Jourard means by transparent-self is that in order to identify with another it is necessary to have some understanding of that person. The best way to gain understanding of another person is for them to be willing to share their inner self with you. One of the necessary ingredients in making this happen, according to Jourard, is a willingness to reveal yourself to that person. Revealing oneself is often threatening and a block to developing greater social perception. If you cannot reveal what you believe and feel about your own life and circumstances, it is hardly reasonable to expect someone else to do so.
Thus, the first step is to consider how functional your emotional responses are, especially in relation to the behaviors that they motivate. For example, imagine someone walking through a mall who sees their spouse having lunch with a member of the opposite sex. Further, suppose that person’s emotional reactions include anger, jealousy and betrayal. Based on this emotional reaction, the person storms into the restaurant and confronts the spouse and lunch companion with accusations of infidelity. What does this emotional reaction and behavior motivated by it suggest about the person’s beliefs? Clearly, it suggests that the spouse is not believed to be trustworthy and that the spouse is believed to be capable of infidelity. Suppose that in fact it turns out that the lunch companion is actually a legitimate business client and the lunch is purely business related. It seems reasonable to conclude that our imaginary person very likely holds some irrational beliefs and it is not hard to imagine that these beliefs will lead to disaster. On the other hand, suppose there is good reason to think that the beliefs are justified. One can still ask if the emotional and behavioral consequences in this situation are rational and self-affirming. I would argue that they are not. Further, one might ask what other beliefs does this person hold that is keeping them in a relationship in which the other party is known to be untrustworthy? How rational are those beliefs?
When you identify beliefs that are problematic, examine your belief system and deal with any irrational beliefs that lead you to dysfunctional feelings and actions. Second, even if the beliefs you hold are valid one should consider if their consequences are in balance with the situations in which they occur. Third, rational analysis and thoughtful application of what one learns from self-analysis can lead to both more self-affirming beliefs and consequences that better fit circumstances. Following this work one can most effectively begin developing social perspective taking abilities and expanding one’s empathic connection to others. The next step is to allow your improved empathetic understanding to further refine your beliefs and extend your range of positive emotional and behavioral responses, even in situations that appear to call for negative responses. Not only will this be a better response for your own spiritual development, but it will have the greatest potential for moving an antagonist in a more positive direction.
Becoming spiritually whole through the evolution of consciousness is a process. It is the process of sculpting ourselves, especially our beliefs, emotions and behavior. It is a personal journey that few if any of us will ever see completed.
In a previous piece, I advocated a panentheistic conceptualization of reality that entails primacy of consciousness, human consciousness as a specialized manifestation within matter, which arises from the universal field of consciousness, recurring material manifestations as a necessary experience for spiritual development, egotism and selfishness as the antithesis of a spiritual life, and the necessity of free will and personal sovereignty for the perfection of consciousness and enlightenment. The present piece will discuss the role of spiritual practice in the evolution of consciousness.
It almost goes without saying that the goal of developing one’s consciousness will be for most people a task requiring some organized effort, which is generally thought of as a spiritual practice. Edgar Cayce (a.k.a. the Sleeping Prophet) frequently addressed the core and most important step in developing a spiritual practice. That step was setting a personal ideal or a purposeful and positive intent to be used to guide one in interactions with others. Cayce recommended that such an ideal should encompass such qualities as love, service, compassion and understanding. He further suggested that as an aid to focus, an historical or fictional exemplar of one’s personal ideal might be selected.
Simply setting an ideal is not enough because to be useful it must be put into practice. An ideal is applied by using it as a standard against which to evaluate one’s thoughts and actions on a daily basis. Bear in mind that evaluation is not a judgment about good or bad. It is simply a determination of to what degree your thoughts and actions were in harmony with your intentions. Cayce counseled that the evolution of your consciousness is not determined by spiritual knowledge but how well you apply that knowledge in your actions. Cayce emphasized both thought and behavior. Thought because of his repeated admonition that “mind is the builder.” What he means here is that consciousness is primary. Who and what you are ultimately derives from your thoughts and it is these thoughts that motivate behavior, including behaviors that resonate with one’s personal ideal. Behavior then must be motivated by positive intent if it is to contribute to one’s spiritual evolution. “Good” behavior motivated by ego, coerced by social opinion or by law is done for the wrong reason and contributes nothing to spiritual evolution. Setting and following a personal ideal then is spiritual practice in it most basic sense.
The Seth entity that channeled through the writer Jane Roberts also spoke of the importance of ideals and supported Cayce’s view that the primary way in which ideals need to be expressed is through interaction with others within the context of daily life. Seth cautions that we often set very broad and general ideals as a way of avoiding having to act upon them. Such ideals seem beyond the ability of a mere individual to significantly impact, so we fail to act or expect institutions to act on our behalf. Seth also warns that people “…often believe that any means is justified in the pursuit of the ideal.” But, “Each act that is not in keeping with the ideal begins to unravel that ideal at its very core.” Seth, like Cayce, suggests that “…in your job and in your associations, are the places where you intersect with the world.” It is in these very personal and daily relationships where you have the most power to affect the world. Personal ideals can only be realized through acting on them. Seth argues that it is the cumulative effect of this type of action that changes the world. Changing the world is a bottom-up process that begins with oneself.
The book The Spirituality of Imperfection takes as its starting point the recognition that all journeys down a spiritual path begin from a state of imperfection. The authors of this book discuss some of the defining characteristics often associated with spirituality.
The first characteristic that marks the journey down a spiritual path is the experience of release. Release frees one from the burden of doubt. Release is what allows one to have faith in the correctness of the journey begun. Here is a little story about release that you’ve probably heard before:
William has fallen over a cliff and as he fell he managed to grab hold of a bush growing from the side of the cliff. There hanging on for dear life he beseeches God to save him. To his great surprise he hears a voice speaking to him. But, he is panicked by the instructions he hears for the booming voice says, “William, let go, release the bush.” William shrieks in reply, “I can’t! I’m too far up!” Again the voice says, “Put aside your doubt. Release the bush.” William considers the instruction in silence for a few moments and then calls out, “Is there anyone else up there?”
The second characteristic is gratitude. Gratitude is the only possible response to something freely given. A true gift is spontaneous and inspired rather than occasioned. A spiritual person sees the same reality that everyone else sees but recognizes reality in all its aspects as a gift. Here is a story about gratitude:
A blind man begging in a park is approached by a stranger inquiring about how generous people had been. The blind man showed the stranger his collection cup with its meager contents. The stranger asked if he might write something on the blind man’s sign. The blind man agreed. Later the stranger returned and the blind man told him that people had been very generous and asked the stranger what he had written on his sign. The stranger replied that he had written “Today is a wondrous spring day and I am grateful.”
The third characteristic is humility. True humility conveys a mild and noncompetitive manner, modesty, patience and a willingness to remove oneself from the center of the universe. Humility is most of all honesty. It has been observed that those who have humility seldom realize it and those who think they have it seldom do. Here is story about seeking humility:
A man went in search of a sage and upon finding such a man asked the sage to teach him humility. The sage told the man that he could not because humility cannot be taught. It can be learned but is learned through practice. If you cannot practice it, you cannot learn it.
The fourth characteristic is tolerance. Most of us seek out and identify with those with whom we share strengths and enthusiasms. However, it is our shared weaknesses that truly make us alike while our strengths are what make us different. Tolerance arises out of the recognition that we all struggle with flaws, fears and sorrows. True tolerance based on shared weaknesses makes a sense of community possible. Here is story related to tolerance:
An old and religious black man applied for membership in an exclusive, white church. The pastor tried to persuade him that it was not an idea that should be pursued. The old black man said he would pray on it and maybe the Lord would tell him what to do. He returned a few weeks later and the pastor asked if the Lord had responded to his prayers. “Yes,” replied the old black man. “The Lord told me that it wasn’t any use, that He himself had been trying to get into this same church for years.”
The fifth characteristic is forgiveness. Forgiveness is possible only when will is replaced with willingness. It depends not upon effort but openness. It is not explanation nor is it forgetting. Forgiveness is simply letting go of resentment. Resentment is anger that clings to the past and revisits an old wrong, reliving over and over its pain, creating a vision of self as victim. Here is a story about forgiveness:
A former inmate at a Nazi concentration camp was visiting with a friend who had also been an inmate. The visitor asked his friend if he had forgiven the Nazis. The friend said that he had forgiven them. The visitor said that he hadn’t and hated them more than ever. “In that case,” commented the friend, “they still have you in prison.”
The last characteristic is being-at-home. Home is that place where we are comfortable with being ourselves. It requires being able to accept ourselves where we are in all of our imperfection. It means being grounded enough to forgive ourselves and others of imperfections and to be open to forgiveness from others. Here is a story about being-at-home:
A man had been looking for many months for a church to attend. One Sunday he visited a church and heard the congregation reading these lines from a prayer book: “Lord, we have all left undone many things that we ought to have done, and we’ve all done many things that we ought not to have done. The man collapsed into a pew and muttered under his breath, “Thank God, I’ve found my people at last.”
In addition to developing a personal ideal to guide one’s thoughts and behavior, there are recognized and established spiritual practices that have a long history in human culture as methods leading to the evolution of consciousness. The following list from the book How to Know God briefly describes four major yogas or paths for spiritual practice.
Bhakti Yoga: The path of devotion. This is the path followed by most of the world’s major religions and especially Christianity in the West. It is the simplest and easiest path with a focus on ritual worship and prayer. Its characteristics are well known to most people.
Karma Yoga: The path of God-dedicated action. This is a path often followed by those with a vigorous action-oriented temperament who feel a call to duty and service in the world of human affairs. The focus is on good works or seeking always to employ the right means toward the right ends.
Jnana Yoga: The path of intellectual discrimination. This is a difficult and solitary path only for those of considerable will and clarity of mind. Followers of this path attempt to intellectually discern between the transient and the divine in the events around them. It is a path that has produced many saints from people who would not otherwise have embraced religion in any form. The American mystic Franklin Merrill-Wolf is a possible example of someone who followed this path, as was Saint Thomas Aquinas.
Raja Yoga: The path of meditation. This is a path that combines aspects of the previous three paths. It is primarily for those of a contemplative nature. It also includes study of the body as a vehicle for spiritual energy with a focus on the function and nature of the seven psychic centers or centers of consciousness (a.k.a., chakras or lotuses).
According to Raja yoga, the minds of those who are fully attached to the world and not yet set upon a spiritual path are governed entirely by the three lower chakras. These chakras are centered on the organs of elimination, reproduction and digestion. The chakras involved in spiritual evolution are centered on the heart, throat, forehead and top of the head. The psychic Edgar Cayce often spoke about these chakras but reversed the order of the last two, explaining that the entire system conforms roughly to the shape of a cobra posed to strike so that the top of the head corresponds to the arched neck of the cobra and the forehead to the snout. Moving upward through the centers of consciousness is marked by diminishing ego and loosening of attachment to the material world or what the American mystic Franklin Merrill-Wolff called “the high indifference.”
In the practice of Raja yoga, one focuses the mind or the form of one’s chosen ideal in a chakra first by concentration, then by meditation, which is simply prolonged and unbroken concentration. Finally, absorption or direct intuitive knowledge of the chakra is achieved.
In conclusion, the decision to set upon a spiritual path is a decision to undertake a transformation of oneself. The psychologist George Kelly made the following observation about such tipping points:
“It is not so much what a person is that counts as it is what one ventures to make of oneself. To make the leap, one must do more than disclose oneself; one must risk a certain amount of confusion. Then, as soon as one does catch a glimpse of a different kind of life, one needs to find some way of over-coming the paralyzing moment of threat, for this is the instant when one wonders what one really is — whether one is what one just was or is what one’s about to be.” (gender neutered from original)
Addendum: In the end, it matters little if you agree with the panentheistic position. The merit to be found in articulating a statement of one’s personal ideals and then endeavoring to put them into daily practice can benefit anyone and depends upon no single philosophical or religious position.
The earlier piece (Goswami’s Quantum Philosophy I) was an overview of his interpretation of what quantum physics means philosophically. That overview can be briefly summarized using the analogy introduced in Part I. Think of a computer with a huge amount of RAM or working memory. Within this “working memory” there is nestled a small reserved area, which might be thought of as having a shell that partitions it off from the rest of working memory. Within this reserved area there is a self-evolving virtual reality program running. The program has to follow certain rules, which impose limits on what it can produce but still allows a number of degrees of freedom for its operation. From the sheltered perspective of the virtual reality program, the reality created by the program is all there is and the vast field of “working memory” within which it runs goes largely undetected. Think of the huge “working memory” as the unified field of consciousness (UFC), the shell around the reserved area as space/time, the self-evolving virtual reality program as the materialist model of reality and the rules that govern the operation of the program as classical (Newtonian) physics (see first Figure, in P1).
Part II will look at the relationship of quantum waves of possibility in the UFC and the manifestation of human beings as objects in the material world. The following analogy from Part I will provide a brief review of the collapse of quantum waves of possibility (see second Figure, in P1). Imagine that a wave of possibilities is like a rapidly spinning loop of images, where there are 6 images of A, 5 images of B, 4 images of C, 3 images of D, 2 images of E and 1 image of F. The varied number of copies of each image represents the probability for that image. Thus, if one slows down the loop until one image alone comes into focus, you have the collapse of the wave of possibilities. Statistical determinism tells us that the image that becomes the focus is most likely to be image A (p = .30) but could be image F (p = .05). The loop (wave) has taken on the appearance of a single frame (particle) or collapsed possibility wave. However, recall that one has only slowed down the loop, not frozen it. Thus, the loop (wave) is still progressing (spreading) but in very slow motion. Whether you or other observers will ever detect this slow movement depends upon how long and with how much precision you observe the image. Even though one now observes only a single frame, that frame still retains a “hidden” connection to the loop, which means it still retains a connection to the wave of possibilities from which it collapsed.
Every person past, present and future is represented in the UFC as a wave of possibilities, a transcendent consciousness or quantum monad. Each of those consciousnesses will vary depending upon previous entanglements with the material world. In all cases, a transcendent consciousness represents far more aspects than could be manifest in a single collapse. Thus, a given collapse from a transcendent consciousness consists of selected aspects of that consciousness. Recall from the analogy above concerning wave collapse, that even following collapse there remains a connection to the wave of possibilities from which the collapse originated. As a collapse linked to a physical manifestation takes place, it unfolds in graduated stages from the Oversoul or bliss body, which is grounded in transcendent consciousness. The manifestation that begins with the bliss body ends with a material representation or physical body.
One aspect of a material manifestation is referred to by Goswami as the supramental intellect or theme body. This subtle (non-material) body imposes the broad outlines for the manifestation. These themes are similar to what Jung called archetypes. Another aspect of a manifestation is the mental body. The mental body is a suble body somewhat like a dictionary of meanings necessary for thought and feeling. The vital body is the last of the subtle bodies. The vital body contains the necessary forms for the manifestation. The biologist Rupert Sheldrake has proposed a similar function in biology that is carried out by what he refers to as morphogenic fields. Finally, as the collapse is completed the physical body is articulated by its connections to the subtle bodies (see Figure below). Thus, the structure of the physical body is controlled by the “blueprints” in the vital body being mapped onto the physical body. The mental body “writes” or maps its program onto the brain, making possible the meaningful processing of experience. The theme body provides broad parameters within which experiences are understood and related. The theme body, however, is not mapped onto the brain. Running throughout is the original thread of consciousness that began in and is still tethered to the bliss body. Only the physical body is a temporary abode for consciousness. The theme, mental and vital bodies comprise what Goswami calls a quantum monad, which is a permanent feature of the bliss body (a.k.a. Oversoul).
Using a different frame of reference, the quantum monad could be thought of as essentially equivalent to the religious concept of soul. There are important differences, however, between a quantum monad and a soul. Generally, the term soul is used to refer to an individual spiritual entity that has an existence independent of God as well as of matter. A quantum monad on the other hand is an integral part of a unified whole. The unified whole in which a quantum monad resides is in religious terms God. Thus, the traditional view of the soul is a dualistic conception that has each and every soul standing alone and separate from God and from the material world. The quantum view of the soul is a monistic conception in which each soul is merely an aspect of God as is the material world. In the quantum view the soul’s separateness or independence from God is merely an illusion. A persistent illusion but an illusion nevertheless.
What then might we learn of the soul by examining the probable characteristics of the quantum monad? In part one, ego identity and the idea of conditioning was discussed. Classical memory is the basis for conditioning and is an essential component in the process whereby one comes to have strong response predispositions. These response predispositions limit our choices from the broad range of possibilities that are always before us. At any given time we are free to make any of the choices available in the flow of consciousness. However, conditioning makes habitual choices the most likely. One outcome of conditioning of choices is that in the aggregate they come to form patterns. What we often call character in a person is related to the patterns that have come to dominate his or her thoughts, feelings and actions. Such general patterns are impressed upon the quantum monad through what Goswami calls quantum memory. The particulars of classical memory are not preserved in the quantum monad but the general patterns derived from experience are preserved by quantum memory within the monad.
For any individual consciousness an essential goal is to learn through experience that it is an integral component of the UFC or an extension of God, that is, to achieve enlightenment. Once that goal is met the individual consciousness is enfolded into the UFC and returns to a state of unity with God, enriching the whole in the process. Accepting unification of an enlightened consciousness with the UFC as a goal, it is clear that achieving such a goal is unlikely in a single lifetime. Goswami argues that this would necessitate what is known in religious terms as reincarnation. What is reincarnated is a quantum monad while the experiences and knowledge of each incarnated quantum monad is accumulated in the Oversoul.
Goswami’s proposed quantum monad is capable of quantum memory and thereby will retain memories of prior incarnations. These will not be memories in the classical sense, such as recalling how to tie a shoe or speak French. Access to classical memories from previous incarnations is possible through the principle of non-locality, which operates outside of space and time. However, access to classical memories from previous incarnation through non-local connections is relatively rare. Usually, the operative memories will be quantum memories of general patterns such as character traits like generosity or jealousy, of talents such as music or mathematics or of behavioral tendencies such as risk taking or phobias. Many such patterns are acquired through the experiences made possible by physical manifestations or incarnations. It is from these quantum memories that consciousness chooses what to make manifest through the quantum monad when a new incarnation is undertaken. The patterns held in quantum memory are in religious terms known as karma.
Unless an Oversoul has liberated itself from the need for physical manifestations, it will repeatedly incarnate quantum monads until it achieves liberation through enlightenment, which requires an awareness, through direct experience, of one’s unity with God. In the non-liberated, Consciousness identifies opportunities for physical incarnation that have a strong correlation with associated karmic patterns comprising a thread of karmic need within a given Oversoul. In other words, a developing physical form that has the biological foundations (for example gender and temperament) and the situational circumstances (for example ethnicity and nationality) to support in whole or large part the karmic thread identified. The incarnated quantum monad subsequently comes to articulate the selected physical form. Some aspects of the collapse associated with the vital body can begin quite early. However, there can be no mapping of the mental body, which in traditional religious terms is most closely associated with the idea of a soul, until the brain has formed. Thus, the mental body begins mapping onto the brain after about six months of development.
Karma or quantum memory influences current incarnations by biasing the probability that certain choices will be made within a given context. In short, the conditioned response biases acquired in one incarnation can be carried across into a new incarnation. For example, if one had developed a pattern of responses that might be called jealously in one incarnation, Consciousness may choose to manifest that pattern through the quantum monad in the next incarnation. Therefore, an individual on to whom a bias toward jealousy has been mapped will in suitable contexts be predisposed to make habitual responses associated with jealousy. The purpose is to provide the individual with opportunities to rise above this obstacle to enlightenment. The converse would be true for a more positive pattern such as a musical talent. Having such a talent mapped onto the physical manifestation will increase the probability that one will make choices that create appropriate contexts for further developing the talent. The purpose is to exercise the ability and make positive use of the creative energies available through Consciousness. Thus, unless a consciousness has no previous incarnation, each incarnation brings with it a collection of patterns or karma accumulated during prior incarnations. In other words, an opportunity has been created for one to overcome negative patterns and to creatively enhance positive patterns.
Karmic patterns impressed onto a correlated physical form in a selected situation do not impose outcomes. They set the conditions that are likely to lead to certain types of learning opportunities. Habitual response patterns predispose one to respond in a certain way to those situations. Because of free will, there is always the possibility that one will choose a less probable response that is a more positive response to a given circumstance. This entails being creative in the face of a challenge rather than habitual or reactive. Repeated success in exercising free will to make better choices will result in a change in the conditioned pattern and thus in one’s karma.
Free will is possible because of a brief grace period between the eliciting of a conditioned response and the actual response. Studies have shown that when a stimulus is presented, it is processed in the unconscious (i.e., outside of conscious awareness). The habitual pattern of response will predispose one to make the most probable response, which is to follow the path of least resistance. However, between the unconscious response and the physical implementation of this response there is a very brief delay. It is this delay that opens the door to free will. Through this brief window there is an opportunity to deliberately choose an alternative response from the possibilities that exist within consciousness. Of course, one might choose a worse or an equally bad response but one can also choose a better response. Better in the sense that it weakens rather than reinforces the negative pattern.
Free will and creativity are the tools available for working on one’s character or karmic patterns. Neutralizing negative karma and building positive karma opens the possibility for enlightenment. Ego is the persona that embodies our habitual patterns of thinking, feeling and acting. It is a mask behind which we hide and with which we identify so closely that we are blind to our true nature. The single biggest obstacle to liberation is ego. Stripping away this mask is an essential step in changing our character.
Birth and death are complimentary aspects of the karmic cycle. Death is the end of one wave in the cycle and usually the antecedent for the next wave in the cycle. Death is simply withdrawal of consciousness from a degraded physical form, a form that has served its purpose as a temporary vehicle for experience in the material world. Death is a phenomenon of the material world and therefore an illusion. The UFC and the Oversouls within it are immortal and eternal as are the quantum monads or souls within it. Death is also an exceptional window of opportunity. It says in the Tibetan Book of the Dead that a conscious death is a process that can lead to liberation (see also The American Book of the Dead). As consciousness withdraws from the physical body, it is possible through non-locality to become fully aware of all of one’s past incarnations and the obstacles that need to be overcome. In this moment of total clarity and spiritual joy, enlightenment is possible. Conscious dying requires preparation and intent for which guidelines exist.
*This interpretation of Goswami’s thinking is based solely upon my understanding of Goswami’s writing and is largely based upon his book titled Physics of the Soul, which I recommend to anyone who wants to pursue his reasoning more deeply.
Traditionally science and the educated public have held a Newtonian view of the world, which is in most respects a common sense view rooted philosophically in materialism. The materialist model is reductionist and holds that all macro phenomena can be reduced to the basic building blocks of matter, i.e. atoms. The quantum model superseded this model nearly a century ago. However, the materialist model was not supplanted but subsumed. One can think of the materialist model as a special case subsumed within the quantum model, which works well enough for many purposes but has been shown to be capable of only inaccurate approximations when tasked with describing the reality underlying the world and indeed the universe. To see an outline comparing scientific materialism with Goswami’s alternative paradigm click here.
By way of analogy, think of a computer with a huge amount of RAM or working memory. Within this “working memory” there is nestled a small reserved area, which might be thought of as having a shell that that partitions it off from the rest of working memory. Within this reserved area there is a self-evolving virtual reality program running. The program has to follow certain rules, which impose limits on what it can produce but still allows a number of degrees of freedom for its operation. From the sheltered perspective of the virtual reality program, the reality created by the program is all there is and the vast field of “working memory” within which it runs goes undetected. Think of the huge “working memory” as the unified field of consciousness, the shell around the reserved area as space/time, the self-evolving virtual reality program as the material model of reality and the rules that govern the operation of the program as classical (Newtonian) physics (see Figure below). With the advent of quantum physics, cracks have been opened in the shell. Through these cracks in the shell, the inhabitants of this world are beginning to get glimpses of a broader and deeper perspective on reality.
To appreciate the quantum perspective one needs to look at its impact on the defining aspects of the materialist model. The first aspect is causal determinism or the hypothesis that the world is a machine like a mechanical clock. Events proceed in a linear fashion, where A is the antecedent for B and B is the antecedent for C and so on. In other words classical determinism requires the identification of the originating cause and the end result. Experimental studies in quantum physics demonstrate that the exact position and velocity of an electron cannot both be known. In the Newtonian model, classical determinism depends upon being able to predict exactly both initial position and initial velocity. If things cannot be predicted with precision, classical determinism is out the window because the beginning point for the causal chain can never be known. Thus, all one can do is create probability distributions (bell curves) for both variables and identify probable values for the variables. The two distributions of values together represent a wave of possibilities. Heisenberg, one of the co-founders of quantum mechanics, expressed this finding in his now famous uncertainty principle. What is left is statistical determinism.
Why don’t we experience the effects of statistical determinism in everyday life? Planck’s constant h fixes the scale at which quantum effects are large. Fortunately, h is small, which means that quantum effects are only “large” and easily observed effects at the micro level. The small value for h hides quantum effects at the macro level. However, even macro objects have been demonstrated to retain some aspect of the wave of possibilities from which they collapsed. The wave aspect of a collapsed possibility continues to spread out over its probability distribution extremely slowly. Collapsed waves or objects (comprised of particles) are still governed by statistical determinism but the collapsed wave spreads so slowly that its inherent uncertainty can be ignored for all practical purposes. However, even though it is hardly detectable with the most sophisticated instrumentation, the continuing spread of the collapsed wave implies that there remains some connection to the wave of possibilities existing prior to collapse and material manifestation.
One way to think of this process might be to imagine that a wave of possibilities is like a continuous loop of images, where there are 6 images of A, 5 images of B, 4 images of C, 3 images of D, 2 images of E and 1 image of F. Thus, if one slows down the loop until one image becomes the focus, you have the collapse of the wave of possibilities. Statistical determinism tells us that the image that becomes the focus is most likely to be image A (p = .30) but could be image F (p = .05). The loop (wave) has taken on the appearance of a single frame (particle) or collapsed possibility wave (see Figure below). However, recall that one has only slowed down the loop, not frozen it. Thus, the loop is still progressing but in very slow motion. Whether you or other observers will ever detect this slow movement depends upon how long and with how much precision you observe the image. Even though one now observes only a single frame, that frame still retains a “hidden” connection to the loop. This analogy also illustrates the difficulty of identifying a linear chain of causation within a loop (wave of possibilities).
The second aspect of the materialist model is continuity or the hypothesis that all change is continuous. Experimental studies confirm that atomic energies exist at discontinuous energy levels, which are fixed. Thus, an electron cannot exist at intermediate energy levels residing between fixed levels. When an electron changes orbits, which are at fixed distances from the nucleus, it goes from one discrete energy level (orbit) to another in a single quantum leap. The electron’s change in orbit provides evidence for spatial discontinuity. This is further illustrated by the phenomenon known as quantum tunneling. This can be observed in transistors in which an electron disappears from one side of a barrier and reappears on the other side without passing through the barrier. More concretely, think about standing with your back to the wall of an empty room. You look to your left and there is your mother standing against the wall to your left. You look to your right and your mother is now standing against the wall to your right. You had a clear view of the entire room and you never detected your mother’s transit from the wall on the left to the wall on the right. The move was not a progressive transit of space over time but instantaneous. Your mother simply disappeared from one location and reappeared at a different location.
The third aspect is locality or the hypothesis that all effects and their causes occur in space with a finite velocity over a finite amount of time. Before quantum mechanics, all influences were assumed to be local, i.e., taking a certain amount time to travel through a certain amount of space. Think about your mother walking from one side of the room described above to the other side. However, in quantum mechanics the discontinuous collapse of a sprawling possibility wave is instantaneous and therefore nonlocal. Think of your mother as a wave of possibilities and one of those possibilities is that she will manifest on the right side of the room. When that possibility is collapsed, your mother instantly materializes on the right side of the room. A possibility wave exists in transcendent potentia, that is, outside of space and time, which is why when it collapses and becomes manifest within space-time, the effect is instantaneous. Nonlocal correlation (Einstein’s spooky action at a distance) between quantum objects has been experimentally verified and confirms that a transcendent domain is part of reality, which contradicts the locality assumptions of the materialist model and affirms non-locality.
The fourth aspect is strong objectivity or the hypothesis that the material world is independent of observers (consciousness). However, as we’ve seen, the wave is transcendent and the particle is manifest. What then causes the transition from wave to particle? It is widely accepted that observation or measurement produces the collapse. Mathematician John von Neumann suggested that the operative property in observation or measurement is consciousness since an instrument cannot observe anything. Think of a telescope pointed at the moon. Is the telescope observing the moon? Or is it the astronomer looking at the moon through the telescope that is observing the moon. While not conclusively demonstrated, it appears that consciousness chooses where a wave will manifest as a particle in a particular event. Thus, how can there be strong objectivity in physics if consciousness has the power to choose material reality? If consciousness causes wave collapse, the material world (collapsed waves) cannot be independent of observers.
The fifth aspect is reductionism or the hypothesis that every material phenomenon can be reduced to its essential components. If reductionism is correct, then all of physical reality can be reduced to elementary material particles. In other words, everything arises from the bottom up as aggregates of material particles coalesce into ever-larger objects, including us. However, if consciousness is needed to collapse waves of possibility into material actuality (particles), which is top down causation, one has mutually exclusive causal mechanisms. In such a case, reductionism ultimately fails.
In the materialist model, phenomena such as consciousness are considered as epiphenomena or secondary properties arising from matter. Thus, all non-material phenomena such as mind, thought and consciousness can ultimately be reduced to matter by considering them epiphenomena of the brain. From this view arises a dualism such that mind and body are from different classes of phenomena, i.e., a difference in kind. However, if consciousness has the causal power to determine material reality, how can it be a derivative of matter? The long, progressive build up to a material brain capable of producing consciousness could never take place, if consciousness is required for the collapse of a possibility wave into a particle of matter to begin with. Thus, while reductionism and bottom up causation may be a useful way of looking at phenomena within the context of the classical worldview, its utility is limited when it comes to understanding the ultimate nature of reality.
Thus, quantum physics has demonstrated empirically that the principles of causal determinism, continuity and locality do not in the final analysis hold up. Quantum physics has also raised serious doubts about but not yet empirically demonstrated that strong objectivity and reductionism are likewise ultimately invalid. These principles do work reasonably well in that subset of quantum reality that we think of as Newtonian or classical physics, which underlies the material model of reality. They just aren’t suitable for grasping the underlying nature of reality.
Given the above, what are the implications for how we view the nature of reality? Amit Goswami, emeritus professor of physics at the University of Oregon, offers some thoughts on this question. The implications that he draws are radical and generally considered to be extreme by many physicists because they turn the world upside down. According to the interpretation of Goswami, Consciousness is the ground of all being and matter exists only as a possibility within consciousness. Thus, there is nothing but consciousness or as some might say, God is all that is. You and I are material manifestations of God as are plants, bacteria, insects, fish, animals, chairs, shirts, houses shovels, pistols, water, earth, planets and stars, ad infinitum. From this one might jump to the conclusion that all things are interconnected. However, Goswami argues that this is an over interpretation and that any two things are only potentially interconnected. They do, however, always have in common their origins in the unified field of consciousness.
Goswami says that dualism is an illusion. The belief that the mind is distinct from the brain or that spirit is distinct from matter or that man is distinct from God is all an illusion. There is only the unified field of consciousness. Everything is a manifestation of consciousness. Consciousness permeates and fills our being, and our brain is a conduit for waves of possibility. When self focuses upon a possibility, wave collapse takes place and there is awareness of the object of the choice. The presence of awareness implies a subject-object split between the subject and the object. One might ask: if we can affect reality by our choices, why isn’t there constant conflict and chaos? For example, everyone who buys a lottery ticket would choose to have the winning number but obviously everyone’s choice can’t prevail. Goswami suggests that the reality that is commonly perceived is created by what might be thought of as a consensus of consciousness. We have the freedom to make choices that affect us but not consensus reality. We can’t personally change consensus reality.
The apparent split responsible for dualism is the product of the dependent co-arising of the subject that chooses and the objects of awareness. Herein objects refer to anything that is perceived as “not me” and can include ideas or thoughts as well as material objects. The consciousness from which both the subject and the object arise identifies with the subject pole of the dyad. This gives rise to the mistaken perception that there is a subject independent of objects. This mistake or illusion is necessary in order for experience, as we know it, to occur. The basis for this mistaken perception or illusion is self-reference, which is not unlike the circular meaning in the statement “I am a liar.” In this sentence the predicate defines the subject and the subject redefines the predicate, the predicate then redefines the subject, setting up an endless oscillation. This is called a tangled hierarchy. The meaning in this statement seemingly forever eludes us, as does the recognition that I (ego) and it (object) arise from the same source.
For Goswami the subject-object split is an epiphenomenon. If we don’t identify with the subject in the subject-object dyad we can escape the illusion. This state of consciousness is what the American mystic Franklin Merrell-Wolff called introception, which denotes consciousness without an object (and thus also without a subject). To experience a state of pure consciousness is to achieve enlightenment or bliss consciousness. The illusion of self develops as choices are made, memories are formed and habitual responses are established and reinforced. As this process unfolds, the range of free choice constricts and consciousness repeatedly collapses conditioned outcomes from among the myriad possibilities actually available. Thus, personal identity or what we call ego is created through a conditioned pattern of perception and response. Habitually adhering to this conditioned pattern in making choices is what the psychic Edgar Cayce referred to as following the path of least resistance or collapsing for oneself what is the most probable outcome or possibility. The freedom to make creative choices is always present but seldom exercised. Understanding that we have this freedom and the exercise of it allows us to step beyond ignorance and discover our true nature.
*This interpretation of Goswami’s thinking is based solely upon my understanding of Goswami’s writing and is largely based upon his book titled The Visionary Window, which I recommend to anyone who wants to pursue his reasoning more deeply.
Commentary on an essay by Richard S. Gilbert on UUA Principle Two: We affirm and promote justice, equity and compassion in human relations. Printed in With Purpose and Principle by Edward S. Frost (ed.).
In opening, Reverend Gilbert offers us a bit of history for his discussion of Principle Two, including the focus on practical application of religious principles to daily life promoted by Faustus Socinus in the 16th century Minor Church of Poland; Ralph Emerson’s emphasis on deed over creed in the 19th century; and the contemporary appeal by Eugene Pickett “…to create heaven on earth.”
Rev. Gilbert follows up on this introduction with a discussion of several concepts associated with Principle Two:
The essay defines compassion as shared suffering, which leads to empathy and finally to action. He goes on to ask, “How can we presume to understand our society without deep feelings of moral outrage at the pervasiveness of suffering and injustice?”
As I discussed in an earlier piece, I think the development of social perspective taking leads to an expansion of empathy, which in turn engenders compassion. Compassion motivates an ego-free response, if any response is possible, toward the person for whom one feels compassion. I think that “moral outrage” is an emotionally motivated egotistic state that is incompatible with both empathy and compassion.
Personally, I don’t pretend to understand our society, which is the reflection of very complex, dynamic and organic processes. I suspect that Rev. Gilbert doesn’t understand it either. I think that he has certain beliefs about society through which he filters and construes his observations. While he doesn’t elaborate on what those beliefs are, they are no doubt the source for his emotional state of “moral outrage.”
The essay also offers us the position of David Williams that states, “We are joined together by a mystic oneness whose source we may never know, but whose reality we can never doubt…We are our neighbor’s keeper, because that neighbor is but our larger self…”
David Williams seems to be offering us a vision of a transcendent self that is merged in the unity of All That Is, which is similar to the unified field of consciousness that I have mentioned in previous talks. I would suggest that Williams’ perspective on caring for our neighbors grounded in the understanding that our neighbors and we are joined through the unity of transcendent consciousness is a firmer basis for compassionate action than “moral outrage.” Thus, I find it hard to reconcile “moral outrage” with “mystic oneness” and personally would find true compassion to be more likely to arise from the latter than the former.
It seems to me that “moral outrage” must be against the alleged perpetrators of perceived injustice, which creates a dualism that is incompatible with the non-dualistic “mystic oneness” of David Williams. The “victim versus the perpetrator” struggle in Rev. Gilbert’s dualistic conception merges into transcendent unity in Williams’ non-dualistic conception. The former seeks victory of one over the other and the latter seeks reconciliation of differences. I would argue that the implications for actions arising from these two views are very different and makes this section of the essay a study in contradiction. Personally, compassion flowing from “mystic oneness” resonates better with me than “moral outrage.”
The essay states that equity is not equality but fairness. Rev. Gilbert then asserts that equity is the measuring rod for social justice and that social justice demands that society improve the conditions of its impoverished and call into question the corruption of its affluent. He asks, “How does one allocate resources and by what criteria in a free society?”
I think it is important to understand the term “fair” since this is the core meaning of equity in Rev. Gilbert’s definition of the term. According to the dictionary, the primary meaning of “fair” is “free of bias or dishonesty;” and the secondary meaning is “proper according to the rules.” Of course rules can be or not be biased or dishonest so I’ll focus on the primary meaning. Bias in a negative sense implies that a rule is constructed in such a way that it arbitrarily favors one person over another person.
For example, a law prohibiting someone from using a public water fountain because of their skin color is not fair or equitable because it is based on an arbitrary characteristic of the person. On the other hand, prohibiting someone from using a public water fountain because they have a communicable disease that can reasonably be expected to be transmitted through use of the water fountain would be fair and not an arbitrary bias. Thus, the issue is not bias per se but arbitrary bias or arbitrary discrimination. I would suggest that “dishonesty” is simply another way of saying “arbitrary bias.”
We can conclude then that justice requires that the rules or laws in a community, state or nation should be equitable, that is, free of arbitrary bias. Indeed, one of the primary meanings of justice is the quality of being equitable and one of the secondary meanings is that of lawfulness; that is, justice requires laws free of arbitrary bias both in wording and in enforcement.
The notion of “social justice” is peculiar given the understanding of justice just arrived at. Justice could of necessity only be reflected within society either at the community, state or national level and is thereby inherently social. Thus, those who use the term obviously mean something different from the meaning of justice just discussed. The term social justice was initially used in 1840 by a Sicilian priest and was, a few years later, taken up by the utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill. The initial use of the term was a call for virtuous behavior by parishioners in their personal dealings with others. Mill’s use of the term implied that society should behave virtuously.
The idea that an abstract entity, “society,” could take on virtue in the sense that an individual can be virtuous seems to me to be a case of fallaciously attributing human characteristics to an abstraction. Thus, what I take Rev. Gilbert to be suggesting is that some “agent” acting on behalf of society should impose his or her notion of virtue on the aggregate of individuals comprising society. This was precisely what Benito Mussolini did in his national socialist state in fascist Italy, which he proudly proclaimed to be a totalitarian state. At the time, totalitarian meant that the agent acting for the state, for example Mussolini, imposed his notion of virtue on all aspects of society or the total. Interestingly, emulation of Mussolini and his totalitarian state was suggested to Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s as the way to overcome the economic depression. Fortunately, Roosevelt declined to fully embrace the idea.
Rev. Gilbert asked the question, “How does one allocate resources and by what criteria in a free society?” I think the answer is that you don’t, because the question contains inherently contradictory elements. You can’t have an agent (or agents) acting on his or her notion of virtuous behavior decide how to allocate resources and have a free society at the same time. They are mutually exclusive. Having a so-called virtuous society would require an agent that can impose decisions about what is correct and incorrect behavior on the total population. In short, a totalitarian order imposed by dictatorial powers.
The essay goes on to address justice, which I have already given considerable attention to earlier, separately from social justice. Justice according to Rev. Gilbert requires more than can be achieved by mere compassion. He states that justice requires a systemic approach that addresses underlying problems. A systemic approach he says must address government policy, taxation, welfare programs and income redistribution among others. It requires transcendent values or virtues that, according to Rev. Gilbert, cannot be determined by democratic processes or market forces. Thus, by implication he is arguing that a systemic approach must rely on values or virtues derived from and imposed by an authority.
It seems to me that it matters little who that authority is. It is a call for an authoritarian or totalitarian approach to governing society so that it might be recast in the image of an individual or group of individuals believed by some to be virtuous. Clearly, this goes well beyond the definition of justice derived earlier as requiring that the rules or laws in a community, state or nation should be equitable, that is, free of arbitrary bias. Personally, I can embrace a definition of justice based on “equitable law” as previously discussed but find Rev. Gilbert’s notion of justice alien to my notions of equity and fairness.
The essay continues beyond the three basic elements of the second principle to talk about the Beloved Community and the Prophetic Imperative. Rev Gilbert states that the concept of a beloved community best characterizes a liberal religious concern for justice, equity and compassion, which he finds to be in step with the UU tradition of attempting to build “heaven on earth.” I am immediately reminded of a quote from the philosopher Karl Popper, “The attempt to make heaven on earth invariably produces hell.”
The reason I think that Popper draws this conclusion is that there has never been a successful utopian community over the long term. Such communities invariably fail because they ultimately require a totalitarian order formulated according to the beliefs of some authoritarian leader. Since no one is infallible, there is always a flaw in the vision of such “leaders” and ultimately “heaven” sinks back into the mundane world in which real and ordinary people live.
The prophetic imperative is, for Rev. Gilbert, the requirement that we all work to make the beloved community or heaven on earth a reality. He argues that we should attempt to repair the world, for in doing so we will repair ourselves. I’m not sure what prophecy his prophetic imperative is grounded in, but whatever it is, I am certain that it is flawed as have been all such idealistic notions.
The need to repair something implies that at one time it was in good working order. What specifically does this repair intend to restore and when and where did it exist? I believe life is too “messy” for it to ever exhibit perfection. Can a community, state, nation or indeed the world be improved? I believe it can through a spiritual practice. I also believe that it can only be done by starting with oneself, not some abstraction such as society.
In an earlier piece I offered some thoughts on employing a personal ideal or standard to guide one’s own behavior in interacting with others. Setting and following a personal ideal is a spiritual practice in its most basic sense and probably the best way to “repair” oneself. The primary way in which a personal ideal needs to be expressed is through interaction with others within the context of family, work and associations. It is in these very personal and daily relationships where you have the most power to affect the world. It is the cumulative effect of this type of action that changes the world. Change is a bottom-up process that begins with oneself, not with an abstraction. This I think was the intent behind the original use, by the Sicilian priest, of the term “social justice.”
Spiritually speaking, free will or the ability to make meaningful choices is a critical concept for the evolution of consciousness or refinement of consciousness (see also here and here). The panentheistic principle of the primacy of Consciousness and its expression through the quantum monad, which was discussed in an earlier piece (Goswami’s Quantum Philosophy, Part II), is assumed. Implicit in this view is acceptance of the panentheistic conception of reality, which requires the ability to make meaningful choices or free will. How then might the requirement for free will be construed in a manner that meets the necessary conditions for the evolution of consciousness?
Simple determinism asserts that everything we do is predetermined and therefore our apparent choices are really an illusion. From that point of view, we have only what appear to be choices and all the outcomes that follow from such imaginary choices are predetermined and beyond our ability to influence. In short, the chain of causality that began in the distant past, perhaps with the origin of the material universe, set in motion a chain of cause and effects that still continues and will continue into the future. That chain of causality passes through us and determines what we think, feel and do. Clearly, there are no real choices that might allow for the operation of free will in such a dismal conception of life. Further, such a conception renders impossible any meaningful conception of moral responsibility. If one’s behavior is wholly determined and outside of one’s ability to influence, how can an individual be held accountable for his or her actions? Finally, if simple determinism governs everything then a spiritual vision that entails the evolution of consciousness (or the soul if you prefer) cannot be valid.
Indeterminism (a.k.a. absolute free will) is the opposite of simple determinism. Absolute free will means one can by choice affect an outcome that is not predictable from its antecedents. In short, one can do things that violate the principle of causality as it is commonly understood (a.k.a. magic). For example, someone walking on water would both violate the principle of causality and demonstrate a choice outcome that is not predictable from its antecedents. Interestingly, the principle of causality or simple determinism has, at the quantum level, been experimentally demonstrated to be untenable. This suggests that reality almost certainly does not rest upon simple determinism. The quantum world appears, however, to be governed by statistical determinism, which includes all possible outcomes and even some that might be considered “magic.” However, “magical” outcomes, while possible, are extremely improbable. It is clear that no mere mortal is likely to ever observe or experience one of these highly improbable outcomes. Thus, indeterminism is not suitable for our purposes because meaningful choices leading to systematic consequences are not possible and such choices along with their feedback are necessary for the evolution of consciousness.
The libertarian philosopher Richard Taylor proposed an alternative to simple determinism that he calls complex determinism, which recognizes that human agency is a primary factor in causation. That is, human agency or in the case of an individual self-agency can alter a chain of causality and initiate a new branch in an unfolding sequence. This brings us back to free will. In this view, free will is no longer absolute but rather is probabilistic, which is similar to the statistical determinism of quantum physics. Free will then, for me, is equivalent to complex determinism. Complex determinism suggests that in any given situation there are usually multiple possible outcomes, none of which require magic; i.e., they have a basis in antecedent events. Each of these possible outcomes is more or less probable than another. The most common outcome is the one with the highest probability. This is what is sometimes described by the phrase “the path of least resistance.” Recall the example about the collapse of a wave of possibilities discussed in an earlier piece (Goswami’s Quantum Philosophy, Part I).
When one arrives at a meaningful decision point in life, the complex and tangled web of antecedents that have led to the decision point generally allow for more than one possible consequence or outcome. Suppose that the decision point contains five possible outcomes or choices. Each has a probability of expression. If the path of least resistance is followed, the choice made will be the one most closely associated with one’s habitual and conditioned pattern of behavior. This default choice, in fact, is not really a choice so much as it is an acquiescence. Default responses that follow the path of least resistance are very common and give the appearance of following from simple determinism.
Research has provided evidence that suggests decisions are made at a subconscious level before one is consciously aware of them. This it is argued is evidence for simple determinism. An alternative interpretation is that this research is evidence that habitual or high probability responses are virtually automatic. Fortunately, the research also shows that there is a small delay between the subconscious decision, awareness and action. This delay is the window of opportunity that provides room for free will. Self-agency effected through intention and deliberate choice, based on forethought and anticipation of consequences, can influence and change the probability functions of potential outcomes. Thus, the first step is to prevent the default or habitual response from occurring. The second step is to undertake a deliberate effort to make manifest a possible alternate response. In short, if one is willing to be attentive and make the effort, it is possible to exert self-agency and become a causal force in your own chain of causation. I have a web page and ebook devoted to this endeavor.
In this conception of complex determinism, there are three principle contributors to human action: biological factors, environmental factors and self-agency. It is important to recognize that all three influences operate through predisposition, not predestination. Consider two identical twins with virtually identical biological inheritance who are predisposed to diabetes. Further, suppose that the twins live in an environment that has varied dietary choices but one that includes an abundance of readily available, tasty, refined carbohydrate foods. Such high glycemic environments predispose one to the development of diabetes. The interaction of the biological and environmental predispositions (what’s known as an epigenetic factor) make avoiding diabetes unlikely, especially given the predisposition to follow the path of least resistance. Eventually, one twin develops diabetes and the other does not. Clearly, this would never happen if biological and environmental causation were predestination. We can ask why did these different outcomes occur?
Very likely part of the answer is that the twins created different environments from the choices they made. Suppose that they took a class on nutrition while they were in high school or college in which they learned of the hazards of overeating a high glycemic diet. This was not welcome news since both had become accustomed to eating a high glycemic diet. Let’s assume that one chose to continue eating a diet rich in refined carbohydrates. This twin followed the habitual pattern and took the path of least resistance. The other chose a diet that emphasized complex carbohydrates. This choice was clearly available to both but only the second twin exercised self-agency and took the more difficult path of resisting habitual patterns and making healthier choices. Thus, these different choices in lifestyle differently influenced the possibility of developing diabetes in the twins.
In my view, we do have the ability to make real choices. We can, at least, make choices from among those potential outcomes that are possible given the antecedents. Our choices, reflected in our intentions and actions, influence (but do not control) the probable outcomes available in situations in which we are actors. Self-agency has the potential to carry us to a tipping point that can set in motion a new causal chain. Most of us, most of the time, fail to exercise self-agency and simply follow the path of least resistance and thereby give the impression of being controlled by simple determinism.
Complex determinism construed as self-agency then appears to meet the need for the meaningful choices necessary for evolving consciousness. Accepting self-agency as essential for evolving consciousness leads to recognition of personal sovereignty as a natural right. A sovereign individual is a free agent engaged in self-determination. Free agents set their own goals and choose the means to those goals. Further, a community of sovereign individuals represents a diversity of goals and methods for achieving those goals. Evolution of consciousness can only be achieved by freely taken choices. This means that it is incumbent upon anyone who accepts the primacy of Consciousness, implicit in panentheism, to avoid interfering with other people’s choices to the greatest extent possible. This is important because it is the intent behind choices, not the acts in and of themselves that is important for the evolution of consciousness.
There are several ways in which one individual might attempt to affect the choices of another individual. First, one can use force to impose choices on another person. Second, one can use threat or intimidation to impose choices on someone else. Third, one can use contrived incentives to influence another person’s choices. Fourth, one can use deception as a means of influence. Finally, one can use persuasion to influence the choices of another person. Clearly, the first two options are coercive and inconsistent with self-determination. However, the third and fourth methods are also coercive but in a more subtle way. The use of contrived incentives or deception to influence someone’s choices is an effort to manipulate them and therefore represents a soft form of coercion. The final method may be the only method that is consistent with self-determination and the evolution of consciousness. Persuasion, properly conducted, appeals to the reason of another person. Successful persuasion convinces a person of the correctness of a particular choice and is thereby most likely to affect intention as well as action. Persuasion is not coercive but educational and is the only ethically acceptable method of influencing others in a society of sovereign individuals. Thus, sovereign individuals in their exercise of self-agency must accept some limitations on personal behavior. Specifically, they must accept a prohibition on the use of force or coercion directly or indirectly against others in the pursuit of their goals, except when necessary for self-defense or protecting others from harm.
See also: “What does quantum physics have to do with behavior disorders?” for more about self-agency.
For a related case history see: “Big Jim: A case history”