The late Christopher Hitchens and his fellow atheist Richard Dawkins and skeptic Michael Sherner would probably feel a bit disappointed these days at seeing how many leading scientists are seriously entertaining the idea that consciousness is much more than just a function of the brain — indeed, consciousness may very well be the cause of the universe says biologist Robert Lanza. Such thoughts certainly do not sit well with any seasoned atheist because such unwittingly suggest the possibility of the existence of God. Unsettling as it may be, that is the current trend in science today.
With consciousness appearing as the next frontier of science the Intelligent Design community breathes a sigh of relief while the meditators, yogis and sages of transcendence are elated to make friends with the new devotees from the physics and biology laboratories.
As it were, science and religion have for decades been at odds, especially since the publication of The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin in 1858. Darwin’s publication shook the very foundation of religious beliefs in Europe and North America, with thousands of prominent minds turning to science for answers about the mysteries of life.
Initially people jumped at Darwin’s theory of evolution as an indisputable fact. So much so that to think otherwise was to be marked among intellectuals as a heretic. Confidence was, and in some cases remains, so high in Darwinian Evolution that people blindly think that Darwin had explained the origin of life — when in fact he had only observed changes in species over time. He had not explained how life began.
From Darwin’s day up to the present, science has encountered many stumbling blocks, little tidbits of discovery that unsettle established theory — and of late science seems to have arrived at a brick wall where just about everything they thought they knew isn’t factually so (Darwin’s Theory of Evolution included).
Now with renewed thinking many scientists are looking outside the paradigms of the past in what will become a struggle for consciousness, the attempt of science to understand and verify a non-physical subjective reality. In this new frontier scientists may soon discover that philosophy is a more useful tool for understanding reality than they have yet imagined.
There will no doubt be debate and the outcome will definitely be worth waiting for.
To date, Christian theologies have been at the forefront of the God debate, representing a Christian creator but such theologises may not have much to contribute as the debate addresses the fundamental concepts of consciousness. At this time a third party is entering the dialogue, a party acquainted with the concepts of consciousness for many a millennium — enters eastern thought.
Eastern thought had made quite an impression on some early 20th century scientists such as Oppenheimer and Einstein but it was The Tao of Physics (extensively exploring the parallels between modern physics and eastern mysticism) published by Fritjof Capra in 1975 that significantly helped to solidify those impressions on-mass. Capra’s book was a best seller in the United States and has since seen 43 editions in 23 languages.
In his book Capra analysed the tenets of Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism to show their striking parallels with the latest discoveries in physics. At the time Victor N. Mansfield, a professor of physics and astronomy at Colgate University wrote the following:
“Fritjof Capra, in The Tao of Physics, seeks…an integration of the mathematical world view of modern physics and the mystical visions of Buddha and Kṛṣṇa. Where others have failed miserably in trying to unite the seemingly different world views, Capra, a high-energy theorist, has succeeded admirably. I strongly recommend the book to both layman and scientist.”
Capra was by no means writing nonsense, he even had the appreciation of renowned theoretical physicist Werner Karl Heisenberg. Capra recalls:
“I had several discussions with Heisenberg. I lived in England then (circa 1972), and I visited him several times in Munich and showed him the whole manuscript (The Tao of Physics) chapter by chapter. He was very interested and very open, and he told me something that I think is not known publicly because he never published it. He said that he was well aware of these parallels. While he was working on quantum theory he went to India to lecture and was a guest of Tagore. He talked a lot with Tagore about Indian philosophy. Heisenberg told me that these talks had helped him a lot with his work in physics, because they showed him that all these new ideas in quantum physics were in fact not all that crazy. He realized there was, in fact, a whole culture that subscribed to very similar ideas. Heisenberg said that this was a great help for him. Niels Bohr (the renowned Danish physicist) had a similar experience when he went to China. (Fritjof Capra, interviewed by Renee Weber in the book The Holographic Paradigm, pages 217–218)
Capra did have his critics and they were merciless, but all in all eastern thought found a toehold in science and that was soon to become a powerful influence if not a revolution in the making.
As eastern ideas became more popular in the west, thoughts of the Buddhist nirvāṇa (nothingness) became a much sought after alternative and gave hope to the wishful thinking of some physicists that the universe could possibly have arisen from nothing. That influence however is now giving way to the more tangible thinking of the Upaniṣads — in which everything has arisen from Brahman, a transcendental plane of consciousness.
The Upaniṣads developed in ancient India during an age of deep thinking and we may very well be seeing the emergence of an Upaniṣadic period in contemporary science. Physicist, Mani Bhaumik certainly seems to think so:
“The Upaniṣads and Quantum Physics both talk about reality. Scriptures tell us that the abstract Brahman is creator and the physical universe is creation, existing in an intertwined, inseparable manner… Consciousness is the window through which we perceive reality and reflect upon emotions and feelings. Because it is both an instrument of perception and a perceived entity itself, consciousness is qualitatively different from anything else we know. So it could be a fundamental feature of the universe.”
It is inevitable that when science progresses in the manner of Upaniṣadic thought that they will first come to the conception of impersonal Brahman. After which we may begin to hear quotations in scientific papers from Vedānta and from Śaṅkarācārya’s commentary on the Vedānta-sūtras. In time however science will face its greatest challenge and that will be to understand the supreme conscious source of everything — that everything exists within and emanates from a transcendental, omni-conscious personality, the Absolute. But whether or not modern science makes it that far remains to be seen.
The first understanding should be that consciousness is not a product or by-product of matter and therefore attempts to understand the actual nature of consciousness through laboratory research or mental speculation will be severely hampered. The reason is simple. The scientific method of acquiring knowledge is to depend on the senses and the instruments of the senses through direct evidence, experiment, hypothesis and speculation. This process is called aroha-panthā, (the ascending process), but it has inherent limitations.
The mind, intelligence and senses are material and are always subject to the four material defects of bhrama, pramāda, vipralipsā and karaṇāpāṭava (mistakes, illusion, cheating and false perception). The instruments of research found in the laboratory are also limited and defective because they are nothing more than extensions of our limited senses. Therefore, the aroha-panthā process greatly limits one who wishes to understand consciousness.
One should realize that perfect knowledge must itself originate in an Absolute plane of existence, one that transcends the material defects of mistakes, illusion, cheating and false perception. In other words perfect knowledge is descending (avaroha-panthā), an extension of the Absolute into the relativity of the mundane world. This system of knowledge among transcendentalists is known as revealed truth and descends through the paramparā, the guru-disciple succession and its literature.
To take knowledge from the descending process in paramparā is the sure and effective way to acquire perfect knowledge of consciousness and what lies beyond. It is there for the taking and science has but to step forward and accept it.
nigama-kalpa-taror galitaṁ phalaṁ
pibata bhāgavataṁ rasam ālayam
muhur aho rasikā bhuvi bhāvukāḥ
“O expert and thoughtful men, relish Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, the mature fruit of the desire tree of Vedic literatures. It emanated from the lips of Śrī Śukadeva Gosvāmī. Therefore this fruit has become even more tasteful, although its nectarine juice was already relishable for all, including liberated persons.” (Bhāg. 1.1.3)
sarva-vedānta-sāraṁ hi śrīmad-bhāgavatam iṣyate
tad-rasāmṛta-tṛptasya nānyatra syād ratiḥ kvacit
“Śrīmad Bhāgavatam is declared to be the essence of all Vedānta philosophy. One who has felt satisfaction from its nectarine mellow will never be attracted to any other literature.” (Bhāg. 12. 13.15)
Śrīmad Bhāgavatam culminates in accepting and worshiping Śrī Kṛṣṇa as the Absolute Truth.
nāma-saṅkīrtanaṁ yasya sarva-pāpa praṇāśanam
praṇāmo duḥkha-śamanas taṁ namāmi hariṁ param
“Let us bow down unto the Absolute Truth, Śrī Kṛṣṇa, the congregational chanting of whose holy names destroys all karmic reactions, and the offering of obeisances unto whom relieves all material suffering.”
Statements in Bhagavad-gītā and Brahma-saṁhitā also support that the Absolute Truth is a person and that person is Kṛṣṇa, the source of consciousness, the impersonal Brahman and the cause of all causes (sarva-kāraṇa-kāraṇam).
brahmaṇo hi pratiṣṭhāham amṛtasyāvyayasya ca
śāśvatasya ca dharmasya sukhasyaikāntikasya ca
“I (Śrī Kṛṣṇa) am the foundation of the immortal, imperishable Brahman, who is the basis of eternal dharma and supreme bliss.” (Gītā 14:27)
īśvaraḥ paramaḥ kṛṣṇaḥ sac-cid-ānanda-vigrahaḥ
anādir ādir govindaḥ sarva-kāraṇa-kāraṇam
“Ultimately Śrī Kṛṣṇa is the Supreme Controller. His form is made of bliss, knowledge and eternity (sat-cid-ānanda). He is the origin of all. He is the Master of the cows and the senses. He has no other origin and He is he primeval cause of all causes.” (Brahma-saṁhitā 5.1)
Though Richard Dawkins and others may shake their heads in dismay at the way science is headed, some of the greatest minds in modern history such as Heisenberg, Bohr, Oppenheimer, Einstein and Nikola Tesla would certainly nod in approval (all of whom had a rich appreciation for the knowledge and wisdom of the Upaniṣads, Bhagavad-gītā and Indian philosophy in general).