Wednesday, June 15, 2005

A Sense of Wonder: Science and Spirituality without Contradiction

"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious."
-Albert Einstein
"Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known."
-Carl Sagan


Science and religion, so often perceived as locked in eternal opposition to each other, actually and immediately have something in common, something that ultimately lies at the core of each, the fire within, so to speak. That element is epiphany. Websters defines epiphany as 1) a revelatory manifestation of a divine being; 2) A sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something or 3) a comprehension or perception of reality by means of a sudden intuitive realization. Epiphany, in the first sense, has been the starting point of most of the world’s major religions. Epiphany in the second sense often augurs the advance of a personal, inner spiritual journey. The final definition is what has generated paradigm shifts in the world of science – think of Newton’s apocryphal apple, Darwin’s illumination as he studied the Galapagos finches, or, perhaps most famously, the chemist Friedrich August KekulĂ©’s deuction of the ring structure of benzene after he dreamt one night of the Worm Ourobouros - a snake eating its own tail.

My first moment of epiphany occurred when I was around 16 or 17, and it was definitely a moment of that second kind. I was with a friend in the park on a beautiful warm late spring day. We were flying a kite, and had fortuitously found that sweet spot in the air above us where the wind takes over and lifts the paper diamond to heights limited only by the length of string in our hands. We lay in the grass in silence, our thoughts our own. Mine flew, perhaps, with that kite. All of a sudden, I experienced a shift in my own consciousness. I was filled with an impalpable joy, a certainty that this moment was every moment. I felt swept up in a sumptuous, full and unassailable perception of eternity. Everything was in place. Everything was just… now. The blades of grass, the clouds, the birds, the spring green of the maples and oaks glistened with a rich light that I had never before perceived. I must have abruptly leaped to my feet, for my friend had a look of mild alarm as he asked me if anything was wrong. Nothing could have been further from my mind, but I found no words to respond, I was struck dumb by the force of this … epiphany. For weeks after I would wake and wonder if it was still with me or if it had fled like the tantalizing fragments of an effervescent dream that melts from consciousness shortly after we wake. I was never sure if it had, or if instead it became inculcated somehow into my self, my being.

Now science was the furthest thing from mind in late adolescence. I fancied myself a poet, and a journeyman novitiate of some ill-formed but earnest spiritual path. Science was the enemy of poetry; its cold calculation, rationalist and reductionist perspective the anthesis of the ecstatic consciousness I sought in life. It would be a meandering path that would ultimately bring me into the fold of science, but I often think that the putative burst of spiritual fire I felt that day in the park had much to do with the kind of scientist I would become.

I am a biologist, a botanist. I have a particular specialty – a rather arcane one at that – in that I have spent a goodly number of years in detailed study on one plant family in particular.

My knowledge of this family is profoundly deep. I know more trivial scientific details about this family of largely economically unimportant (but very beautiful) plants than probably anyone else on earth. But is there anything spiritual about this? Is there some aspect of this relationship I’ve fostered with a slice of life so unlike that of our own that it might dare to rise towards the heights of epiphany? After all, as the Jefferson Airplane once sang: “Say it plainly/The human name/Doesn't mean shit to a tree.”

I like to sometimes think I am the human representative for this tiny piece of biodiversity, an ambassador from one end of the consciousness spectrum to another, their shaman. I am here to tell their story, to bridge the millions of years of evolution that separate us. For, just as they represent an unfolding flower in the infinite meadow of consciousness, so do we. Go back far enough in the timestream, and the stardust of which both they and I am composed once comingled in the very same celestial moment. Think of it! That is the stuff of epiphany. Perhaps that is what I experienced that day in the park. A slight alignment of consciousness that would prepare me for this shamanic role, as an interpreter or of botanical reality. Did I choose biology or did biology choose me? The study of life is the study of consciousness evolving, consciousness at play with the organs of its own perception of self, the grist of the learning universe.

Botanist-educators James Wandersee and Elizabeth Schussler coined the term “plant blindness” to describe "the inability to see or notice the plants in one's own environment, leading to the inability to recognize the importance of plants in the biosphere and in human affairs." Plant blindness also results in “ranking of plants as inferior to animals, leading to the erroneous conclusion that they are unworthy of human consideration." While not discounting that we tend to be animal chauvinists, they suggested that that the primary contributor to plant blindness may be the nature of human vision. They cite evidence showing that humans don't see all their surroundings by just opening their eyes. Other researchers have calculated that each second, the eyes generate more than 10 million bits of data for visual processing, but the brain extracts only about 40 bits and fully processes only the 16 bits that reach our conscious attention. How, in confronting this tremendous bottleneck, does the brain decide which 16 bits of visual information to focus on? Put simply, it searches for movement, conspicuous colors and patterns, objects that are known, and objects that are potential threats. Since plants are static, blend in with the background, and don't eat humans, they generally don't get visual attention. "There is a kaleidoscopic array of visual information bombarding our retinas every waking second, and plants are so easy to ignore unless they are in bloom," Wandersee says. "Plant blindness is the human default condition."

As a botanist, wherever I travel, I am hyper-aware of the plants around me. Not at the expense of any other aspect of my surroundings necessarily (though I tend to subsume buildings, cars and other artifacts of human society to the background, much to the chagrin of my kids and sometimes my wife). No, I am no victim of plant blindness. But what do I see when I look at a tree?

When I look at a tree, light reflected from its leaves is focused onto cells in the retina of my eye, where it triggers a cascading chemical reaction releasing a flow of electrons. Neurons connected to the cells convey these electrical impulses to the brain’s visual cortex, where the raw data is processed and integrated. Then—in ways that are still a complete mystery—an image of the tree appears in my consciousness. It may seem that I am directly perceiving the tree in the physical world, but what I am actually experiencing is an image generated in my mind.

This simple fact is very hard to grasp; it goes against all our experience. If there is anything about which we feel sure, it is that the world we experience is real. We can see, touch and hear it. We can lift heavy and solid objects; hurt ourselves with them, if we're not careful. It seems undeniable that out there, around us, independent and apart from us, stands a physical world, utterly real, solid and tangible.

But the world of our experience is no more "out there" than are our dreams. Of course, the reality of waking consciousness is based on sensory data and bears a closer relationship to what is taking place in the real world compared to our dreams. Nevertheless, however real it may seem, it is still an image of that world created in the mind.

The foundation stone of the Copernican Revolution was the realization that the Earth was not motionless, but was spinning about its own axis. From this shift in perception was born a radically new model of the cosmos. That foundation stone is the distinction between the reality generated in the mind, and the underlying reality. Most of the time we are not aware of this distinction. We assume that things are as they appear, and that we are experiencing the world as it is. We think that the tree we see is the tree in itself.

Science historian Thomas Kuhn coined the term "paradigm" to refer to the beliefs and assumptions that underlie a particular science. But beneath all our scientific paradigms lies an even deeper and more pervasive assumption. It is the belief in the primacy of the material world. We think that when we fully understand the world of space, time and matter, we will be able to account for everything in the cosmos. This worldview has the status of a "superparadigm". Eminently successful as this model has been at explaining the world around us, it has very little to say about the non-material world of mind. Its manifestation in the world of biology is perhaps best exemplified by the field of “sociobiology,” most famously championed by entomologist E. O. Wilson and popularized by Richard Dawkins, author of “The Selfish Gene.” In a nutshell, sociobiology states that all behavior is ultimately selfish, that an organism's only goal or purpose is to survive and reproduce, and that it is species survival, not individual survival that is the ultimate goal of life. You exist for one reason only, to make sure that your DNA is transmitted to a descendent.

Long before modern science knew anything about the processes of perception or the structure of matter, the eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant had drawn a clear distinction between our perception of reality and the actual object of perception. He argued that all we ever know is how reality appears to us. This led him to one of his boldest and, at the time, most astonishing, conclusions of all. Time and space, he argued, are not inherent qualities of the physical world; they are a reflection of the way the mind operates. They are part of the perceptual framework within which our experience of the world is constructed. The human mind is so constituted that it is forced to impose the framework of space and time on the raw sensory data in order to make any sense of it all. We cannot see the world any other way.

Kant was a philosopher, and philosophy was a realm steadfastly apart from much of the science of his time. Strange as Kant’s proposal may have seemed then, and strange as it may still seem to many of us today, contemporary science is proving him right.

From Einstein’s theory of relativity, through the dual existence of energy as both wave and particle, from subatomic particles that “sense” and react to each other’s presence regardless of whether they are angstroms or light years apart, through string theory, to the daunting theory that the universe – fundamental reality itself - is a hologram -- the science of physics paints an increasingly bizarre portrait of a universe built upon … nothing. Or at least nothing recognizable. A material universe that that once finally stripped to its most basic elements becomes a collection of gluons, mesons and quarks named “charm”, defined by mathematical properties such as “strangeness.”

Nothing in the physical sciences predicts the phenomenon of consciousness. Yet its reality is apparent to each and every one of us. As far as the current superparadigm of science is concerned consciousness is a great anomaly. When paradigm anomalies first arise they are usually overlooked or rejected. Or, if they cannot be so easily discarded, they are incorporated in some way, often clumsily, into the existing model. Western science has followed a similar pattern in its approach to consciousness. For the most part it ignored consciousness completely. More recently, as developments across a range of disciplines have shown that consciousness cannot be so easily sidelined, science has made various attempts to account for it. All these approaches assume that consciousness somehow arises from, or is dependent upon, the world of space-time-matter.

As Peter Russell tells us in his book “From Science to God:”
“When we speak of ‘the material world,’ we think we are referring to the underlying reality, the object of our perception. In fact we are only describing our image of reality. The materiality we observe, the solidness we feel, the whole of the ‘real world’ that we know, are, like color, sound, smell, and all the other qualities we experience, qualities manifesting in the mind. This is the startling conclusion we are forced to acknowledge; the ‘stuff’ of our world—the world we know and appear to live within—is not matter, but mind.

“When we realize that [reality and our perception of it] are not the same thing at all, but are very different indeed, a revolutionary new model of reality emerges. Space, time and matter fall from their absolute status, to be replaced by light in the physical realm, and by consciousness (the inner light) in the world of experience. Instead of matter being primary, and the source of everything we know, including mind; consciousness becomes primary, and the source of everything, including matter, as we know it. For a second time, the universe has been turned inside out.

“This shift in superparadigm has not happened yet. The existing model runs even deeper than did the geocentric view of the cosmos, and will probably meet even more obstacles than did the Copernican Revolution, (although now, somewhat ironically, it is science not the church that is the establishment, and will be the source of the greatest resistance).

“The emerging new superparadigm accounts for consciousness—an intractable anomaly for the old model, remember. It offers radically new perspectives on some of the most perplexing problems in contemporary physics. And, most significantly, points towards a resolution of one of the oldest challenges of all—the reconciliation of the scientific worldview with the spiritual.”

And so I cast my lot with Albert Einstein, who I think grasped the new superparadigm in total, even as he laid down the first stones of its foundation:
“To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms -- this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong to the rank of devoutly religious men.”

1 comment:

Vedish said...

I am Very pleased to come across someone who thinks deeply about one of the most (supposedly) obscure issues of today. Philosophising about reality is also one of my favourite activities. I believe we should more often stand apart to watch the world from a distance, and from that viewpoint, be able to dissect reality, laugh at the idiosyncrasies of humankind.
Glad that you pointed out the 'religious scientist' in Einstein - spirituality is the mind and science the tool with which the creation was crafted. There should be no friction between the two.