Science has largely ignored the subject of consciousness, and for seemingly sound reasons. First, consciousness cannot be weighed, measured, or observed in the way that material objects can. Second, scientists have sought to arrive at universal objective truths, truths that are not dependent on an observer’s viewpoint or state of mind; they have deliberately avoided subjective considerations. And third, there appears to be no need to explore consciousness; science seems able to explain the functioning of the universe without any need to venture into the perplexing subject of consciousness.
But recent developments in physics, psychology, and neurophysiology are showing that consciousness cannot be quite so easily sidelined, and today a small but growing number of scientists are seeking to account for the existence of consciousness. Some believe that a deeper understanding of brain chemistry will provide the answers. Others look to quantum physics: perhaps the minute microtubules found inside nerve cells create some quantum effects that somehow contribute to consciousness. Some believe that consciousness emerges from the complexity of the processes going on in the brain. Others find sources of hope in chaos theory.
Does Consciousness Come from Matter, or Matter from Consciousness?
Yet whatever idea is put forward, one thorny question remains: How does any activity or process in the brain result in an inner personal experience? Why doesn’t it all go on in the dark, without any awareness? The philosopher David Chalmers has dubbed this the “hard problem” of consciousness. How can something as immaterial as consciousness ever arise from something as unconscious as matter?
The continued failure of these approaches to make any appreciable headway into this problem suggests they all may be on the wrong track. The current scientific worldview holds that the material world — the world of space, time, and matter — is the primary reality. Most scientists therefore assume that awareness emerges from the material world in some way or other. But if this assumption is getting us nowhere, perhaps we should consider the alternative view that awareness — the capacity for inner experience, of whatever kind — is not a product of the material world, but is intrinsic to the cosmos, as fundamental as space, time, and matter.
Consciousness is Present in all Creatures
This suggestion is not new. It is a common theme in Eastern philosophy and is taken seriously by a number of Western philosophers. It also appears in many metaphysical teachings. But Western science has shied away from this idea. It lies too far beyond the current paradigm.
In this alternative view, consciousness does not arise from some particular arrangement of nerve cells or processes going on between them or from any other physical feature; it is always present. All creatures have some form of inner experience. They may not be self-conscious as humans are or have thoughts and emotions, but there is nonetheless some degree of inner awareness, however faint.
Many mystics claim to experience this directly, seeing that the essence of consciousness found within them is the same essence found in all things. Here they find a deep union with all creation.
Discovering the Divine: Mystics are Scientists of the Mind
We can think of mystics as inner scientists — scientists of the mind. Traditional scientists seek to understand a phenomenon through careful observation. They reduce distracting data, or “noise,” to a minimum and control factors that may disturb their observations. Then they make deductions from their observations and share their conclusions with others to see if they agree.
Mystics do the same in the realm of mind. They seek to minimize the noise of mental distractions by withdrawing attention from sensory experience, quieting the mind, and focusing on aspects of consciousness that normally pass unnoticed. And they too have shared their findings, not in scientific journals, but in the numerous spiritual teachings and discourses that abound in every culture.
Awareness - the Feeling of Being Aware - is Shared by All
These inner scientists have observed the arising and passing of thought. They have looked to the source of their experience, to the very essence of mind. There they have discovered a profound connection with the ground of all being. The sense of being an individual self — that feeling of “I-ness” that we all know so well but find so hard to define — turns out to be not so unique after all. It is simply the feeling of being aware and is something we share with everyone else. The light of consciousness that I know as me is the same light that you know as you — the same light shining in a myriad of minds.
Some have expressed this inner union in the statement, “I am God.” To traditional religion, this rings of blasphemy: How can any lowly human being claim that he or she is God, the almighty supreme being? For modern science, such statements are nothing more than self-delusion. Physicists have looked out into deep space to the edges of the universe, back into “deep time” to the beginning of creation, and down into “deep structure” to the fundamental constituents of matter. In each case they found no evidence for God, nor any need for God. The universe seems to work perfectly well without any divine assistance.
The Scientific Search for God Takes Place in the World Within
But when mystics speak of the divine, they are not speaking of some supernatural supreme being who rules the workings of the universe; they are talking of the world within. If we want to find God, we need to look into the realm of “deep mind”— a realm that science has yet to explore.
When science begins to explore the mind as deeply as it has explored matter, it may find it has embarked on a course that will ultimately lead it to discover the divine. To the scientific establishment, rooted in a materialist worldview, this is anathema. But so was the notion of the solar system four centuries ago.
Reprinted with permission of Inner Traditions, Inc.
©2012 by Ervin Laszlo and Kingsley L. Dennis.
All Rights Reserved. www.innertraditions.com
This article was adapted from the book:
The New Science and Spirituality Reader
edited by Ervin Laszlo and Kingsley L. Dennis.
Edited by Nobel Prize nominee Ervin Laszlo and WorldShift International cofounder Kingsley Dennis, this volume brings together 28 leading scientists and spiritual thinkers for a game-changing conversation on bridging the gap between science and religion. With contributions by Michael Beckwith, Deepak Chopra, Larry Dossey, Amit Goswami, Stanislav Grof, Jean Houston, Barbara Marx Hubbard, José Argüelles, Peter Russell, and many other prominent visionaries, this collection reveals higher consciousness as the bridge between science and spirit, passionate curiosity as the common ground among scientists and seekers, and the urgent need for an alliance between science and the great traditions of spiritual wisdom to move our worldview forward and meet today’s global challenges.
About the Author
Peter Russell gained an honors degree in physics and experimental psychology at the University of Cambridge, England and a postgraduate degree in computer science. He studied meditation and Eastern philosophy in India, and on his return conducted research into the neurophysiology of meditation at the University of Bristol. Over the past twenty years, he has been a consultant to IBM, Apple, American Express, Barclays Bank, Swedish Telecom, Nike, Shell, BP, and other major corporations. His previous books include The TM Technique, The Brain Book, The Upanishads, The Global Brain Awakens, and Waking Up in Time. His website is www.peterussell.com.