Many people believe that the powers of science are unlimited. Science is a process of uncovering the mechanisms by which nature works, and eventually, after enough experimentation and investigation, every mystery will be understood. The darkness of ignorance will have been completely illuminated by the light of reason, and we will possess the truth about life and the universe.
Some observers even believe that we’re quite close to reaching this point now. If scientific progress continues at the same rate as the last few decades, so this argument goes, it can only be a matter of a few more decades (or even less) before all the mysteries in the universe are solved. After all, haven’t most of the biggest mysteries already been solved?
As long ago as 1971 the biologist Bentley Glass wrote, ‘We are like the explorers of a great continent, who have penetrated to its margins in most points of the compass and have mapped the major mountain chains and rivers. There are still innumerable details to fill in, but the endless horizons no longer exist.’
We already know how the universe began (with a Big Bang), how life evolved (through genetic mutations and natural selection), and how living beings inherit their parents’ characteristics (through DNA), and we’re surely quite close to answering the remaining ‘big questions’ as well. Neuroscience will soon be able to tell us exactly what causes consciousness, biologists will soon be able to tell us how life originated, and physicists will finally tell us what the fundamental reality of the universe is.
But whether science actually has progressed as far as some scientists like to think is very debatable. There is a powerful scientific orthodoxy which promotes ideas as truths before they are substantiated properly, and even while there’s still doubt about them. Take the Neo-Darwinist theory of evolution, for example, which many people accept as an established truth.
The basic assumption of Neo-Darwinism is that evolution proceeds through random genetic mutations, which are then acted on by natural selection. However, experiments with bacteria suggest that genetic mutations may not be not purely random. When starving bacteria are in the presence of sugar they can’t eat, for example, they ‘mutate’ at levels far higher than chance in order to generate the enzymes they need to digest it.
Similarly, the field of epigenetics appears to contradict the idea that genetic changes occur only through random mutations. Epigenetics shows that, if environmental factors cause changes to our genes during our lives, these changes can be passed down to our children, and to other future generations. This is very close to the Lamarckian view of the ‘inheritability of acquired characteristics’, which was thought to have long been superseded by Neo-Darwinism.
The concept of ‘punctuated equilibrium’ also casts doubt on Neo-Darwinism. Fossil evidence shows that evolution works through stops and starts, with periods of stasis for millions of years and then sudden bursts of change – which can be as short as 1,000 years – which give rise to new species. This doesn’t make sense if mutations are random, since if they were they would occur fairly evenly, and there would be no reason why some periods would see more change than others. (It’s interesting to note that the arch Neo-Darwinist Richard Dawkins vehemently refutes the significance of punctuated equilibrium, which he says is merely ‘an interesting wrinkle on the Neo-Darwinist theory’ – no doubt because he realizes that it throws his own theories into question.)
Other Unanswered Questions
Almost 50 years ago a young graduate student called Stanley Miller managed to synthesize amino acids – the basic building blocks of life – from a chemical simulation of the earth’s atmosphere. After this many scientists believed that the problem of the ‘origin of life’ would soon be solved. But five decades of research of have brought no further advances to Miller’s experiment. The ‘self-replicating molecule’ which biologists have been feverishly searching for has been strangely elusive. In fact some scientists – like Francis Crick – find the odds against life come into being on this planet by accident so overwhelming that they’ve developed the concept of ‘Panspermia’, which suggests that the earth was ‘fertilized’ from interstellar space. However, as other scientists have pointed out, the odds against this are perhaps even greater than the odds against life starting on this planet.
This also applies to the ‘big question’ of developmental biology: how does a single fertilized cell develop into a complex multicellular life form? After their success in ‘breaking the genetic code’ in the 1960s, some of the world’s leading molecular biologists turned their attention to this problem, believing that it would only take them a decade or two to come up with a basic answer. They expected to find that development was somehow ‘encoded’ into DNA, but soon realized that this wasn’t the case, and that other unknown ‘formative’ influences must be at work. But again, after decades of research, biologists have been unable to pinpoint what these are.
In a similar way, many neuroscientists were once confident that the ‘problem of consciousness’ would soon be solved. They believed that brain-scanning technologies would enable us to see how billions of the brain’s neurons work together to produce consciousness. But again, it’s slowly becoming apparent that the reality is much stranger and more complex than this simple mechanistic view suggests. Originally neuroscientists thought that consciousness would be located in a specific area of the brain, then tentatively suggested that in some way it seems to emanate from the brain as a whole. However, as yet no one has come up with any explanation of this. Decades of intensive research have effectively drawn a blank.
Some philosophers have suggested that it may not be possible to explain consciousness in terms of the brain at all. How can the ‘soggy grey matter’ of the brain can give rise to conscious experience? As the philosopher Colin McGinn puts it, this would be tantamount to turning water into wine. An alternative view, put forward by another philosopher, David Chalmers, is that consciousness may not be produced by the brain, but is a fundamental force of the universe, like gravity, which permeates everything. (This is close to my own view, that consciousness is everywhere and in everything, and the function of the brain is to ‘pick up’ consciousness, like a radio receiver, and then to ‘channel’ into our individual organism.)
Give David Chalmer’s book ‘The Conscious Mind‘ a read for an in-depth and thought-provoking theory of consciousness.
The Need for Understanding
It’s worth considering for a moment where the need for complete understanding of the universe – as expressed by some scientists – comes from. After all, why should it really be necessary for us to understand everything about the life and the universe? Will our lives really be different – better or happier – in any way just because we happen to know the answers to all questions?
The quest for knowledge is often seen as a noble enterprise. Our ‘reason’ makes us superior to other animals, and through exercising it we can dispel the darkness of ignorance and superstition which our ‘primitive’ ancestors lived in. But, if we look a little deeper, the ‘nobility’ of this quest begins to look very questionable. Three or four centuries ago, exploring and colonizing the world was seen as a noble enterprise too. Europe’s ruling classes were consumed by a desire to explore unknown territories, to bring home treasure from them and to spread their ‘advanced’ civilization and religion to their heathen populations. This enterprise was more or less completed a century or so ago, when European governments ‘ruled’ most of the world’s population, and explorers had covered almost every inch of the earth’s surface.
Of course, now we know that there wasn’t anything ‘noble’ about this at all. What this enterprise really was, of course, was a desire for dominance over the world itself and its peoples. It was rooted in the over-developed egos of European males, and the thirst for power and for material gain which the over-developed ego generates.
And it’s possible to look at science in the same way. Let me say at this point that I have nothing against science in itself – in fact, I love science. I am awed by the discoveries which have been made about the universe, the natural world around us and about the human body. To me, science is a way of uncovering the wonders of reality. And no one can deny that scientific advances have made a massive contribution to the well-being of the human race. Medical advances have eased the suffering and increased the lifespans of billions of people, and modern technology has made the world a smaller and more interconnected place. And there are certainly some scientists who are motivated by a genuine sense of curiosity and wonder, and a desire to bring benefits to mankind.
However, I feel that, for some scientists, the quest to understand the universe has almost supplanted the colonial enterprise. Science has become a new channel for the desire for control and dominance. In this sense, it may be no accident that most scientists are European (or Euro-American) males. Like the ‘colonial’ enterprise, the scientific enterprise is largely rooted in an unhealthy desire for dominion over nature, an egotistical impulse for power and control. And this desire for control and dominion seems to be a characteristically male trait.
In fact, this is implicit in the way some scientists view nature. They see it as something ‘out there’, foreign and apart from the consciousness which is observing it. And when something is ‘other’ to us, it’s often perceived as an enemy to subdue and conquer.
The Limitations of Consciousness
But what’s most debatable of all, in my opinion, is whether this ‘complete explanation for everything’ is at all feasible. In fact, I don’t believe it’s possible for science to answer any of the ‘big questions’ we’ve looked at.
The problem, as I see it, most scientists aren’t aware of the limitations of human consciousness. There’s an underlying assumption that the ordinary human consciousness with which we perceive reality is absolute and objective, and that the world as we see it is the world as it is. Our consciousness is like a perfect spotlight which illuminates the world clearly and truthfully, and which illuminates everything. And this is, of course, why it’s possible for us to understand and explain everything – because we are aware of all the reality there is to be aware of, and there is nothing potentially outside the ‘range’ of our consciousness spotlight.
This assumption is completely unwarranted. One way of looking at evolution is to see it as a process by which living beings become progressively more complex physically, and at the same time, progressively more conscious of reality. From amoebae to invertebrates to insects to birds to animals to apes and to human beings, the ‘consciousness spotlight’ has become more and more powerful.
Whereas amoebae have a tiny flicker of consciousness which enables them to react to changes in their environment, human beings have a powerful ‘consciousness spotlight’ which gives us a wide-ranging and precise awareness of the world around us, a significant degree of ‘conceptual awareness’ (which enables us to be aware of death, and of the future and the past) and also a degree of self-awareness, so that we’re not just conscious but actually aware of ourselves being conscious. It’s true that there are some ‘higher’ animals – like dolphins or chimpanzees – who seem to be aware of death and of themselves to a degree, but this awareness doesn’t seem to be as intense as ours.
But just because our awareness is more intense and wide-ranging than other animals’, it doesn’t mean that we’re conscious to an absolute degree. This would be tantamount to suggesting that present day human beings are the culmination of the whole evolutionary process, which is obviously ridiculous. In fact, assuming evolution continues, it’s inevitable that at some point in the future living beings will come into existence who are more complex and more conscious than us, in the same way that we’re more complex and conscious than sheep or cows. These beings will be more intensely aware of their surroundings than we are, and perhaps be more aware of themselves than we are. They will certainly be aware of phenomena we’re ignorant of because they lie beyond the limits of our awareness.
If our consciousness is limited, there’s no reason why we should expect to understand and explain everything. In the same way that a sheep or a cow probably aren’t aware of the future or the past, or of their own mortality, there must be some realities which are beyond the limits of our consciousness. In the same way that the inhabitants of a two-dimensional Flatland will be able see the effects of a three-dimensional reality (without understand the concept of three dimensions), we might very well perceive some of the effects of these phenomena. We might puzzle over them and try to understand them, but won’t be able to explain them properly, because we’re not aware of the phenomena themselves.
And as I see it, this is the position of modern science. Scientists will never be able to solve the ‘big questions’ because the answers to them – if there are any – lie beyond the limits of our normal consciousness. Trying to understand how the universe started, how life began, how an embryo develops or how consciousness is produced can only lead (as they are doing) to cul-de-sacs and confusion, because these questions can’t be explained in terms of the restricted view of the world which our normal consciousness gives us. They obviously involve factors or phenomena which our limited consciousness doesn’t allow us to be aware of.
In fact we can almost grasp this when we ask ourselves some of the ‘Big Questions’. Questions like ‘Does the universe have an end? If it does, what comes after it?’ or ‘What was before the Big Bang?’ These questions defy common sense, like the koans of Zen Buddhism.
In fact there is one field of science, Quantum Physics, which seems to consist solely of koan-like riddles which can’t be answered. How can a photon of light be a particle and a wave at the same time? How do electrons seem to ‘know’ what other electrons are doing? Why are experiments always affected by the expectations of the person who is doing the experiment? It’s obvious that the answers to these ‘koans’ – if there are any – must be beyond the normal range of our ‘consciousness spotlight’.
Expanding the Range of Consciousness
But this doesn’t necessarily mean that, as Goethe’s Faust concluded, ‘we can know nothing’, and that the ‘Quest for Truth’ is a futile exercise. In fact the idea that our knowledge is limited by our consciousness suggests a different way of increasing our knowledge: by extending the range of our consciousness.
This is the approach which Eastern philosophy has always taken. Whereas Western science and philosophy has always assumed that truth is here, and can be found if we look and think hard enough, Eastern philosophy has always known that there are vistas of reality beyond our normal consciousness. We can gain access to these by following spiritual practices which refine and intensify our consciousness. After all, the whole point of the Zen koans is that they can be solved, but not by using reason alone. The purpose of them is confuse and ‘paralyse’ the intellect, and so help to engender a fuller or higher state of consciousness – at which the solution to the koan suddenly becomes clear.
Many western scientists and philosophers are like people who live in a room and are sure that there is nothing outside it – in fact the idea that there might be something outside it doesn’t even occur to them. They think they can find ‘truth’ by examining the room, by finding out what it’s made of and how everything in it works, and cataloguing all the details they find. The only problem is that they keep coming upon strange things which don’t seem to be explainable in terms of the room itself. There might be strange air movements, for example, or light whose source they can’t find.
From a Hindu, Buddhist or Taoist perspective, however, it’s taken for granted that the room is not all there is, that there is a wider and truer reality outside it. The philosopher-mystic realizes that absolute truth can’t be found in the room at all, and that there’s no point looking for it there. It can only be found outside it – and so he spends his time trying to find a way out of the room, or trying to dismantle its walls, so that he can gain access to the wider reality beyond them.
This is what we could call ‘mystical science’ – a quest for truth which is based on expanding consciousness. And if we really want to answer to ‘big questions’ this is the approach that we should take too. We need a different kind of science – one which isn’t based on the supposed objective vision of an observer, but which focuses on expanding the vision of the observer, so that he or she can see more. Instead of new technologies which allow us to examine the shadow reality of samsara more and more deeply, we need spiritual ‘technologies’ which intensify our consciousness and so give us access to more ‘truth’.
These ‘technologies’ have already been developed, of course – for example, the transformational paths of Buddhism, Tantra, Vedanta or Sufism. There have also been many great ‘mystical scientists’ throughout history, like Meister Eckhart, Ramakrishna or Ramana Maharishi. Their intensified consciousness meant that they were aware of realities which are hidden to us – including many of the answers to the ‘big questions’. The Ananda Sutram, for example, by one of the most remarkable Indian mystic-philosophers of 20th century, P.R. Sarkar, provides a complete explanation of ‘life, the universe and everything’ from the standpoint of expanded consciousness.
From the standpoint of normal consciousness, these explanations may seem meaningless and even ridiculous. They’re bound to, since we’re like sheep trying to comprehend a new theory of ‘the future and the past and death’ which a sheep philosopher-mystic has put forward. The only way we can understand is to use spiritual technologies to expand our consciousness and become mystical scientists ourselves.