The Mystery of Consciousness: Can Science and Meditation Solve it Together?

If you’ve been following the science news lately, you will have read that scientists have found God “unnecessary,” declared that “philosophy is dead,” and think they can explain consciousness by taking cross-sections of the brains of worms. For those of us steeped in the contemplative tradition of inner discovery through meditation, this extreme materialism amounts to a full-frontal assault on everything we hold dear. Does this mean we should turn our backs on science, or is there a way for meditation and science to come together in the exploration of consciousness?

The Stark Logic of Extreme Materialism

Perhaps the world’s most preeminent scientist, Stephen Hawking of Cambridge University, has just released yet another ambitious treatise aimed at the popular audience, The Grand Design, in conjunction with Leonard Mlodinow of Caltech. The book posits M-Theory, which is actually an amalgamation of several theories, as the long-sought unifying concept between Einstein’s general relativity (which accurately explains the behavior of large-scale systems) and quantum mechanics (which works very well on a sub-atomic level, despite its bizarre and counter-intuitive predictions). Hawking uses M-Theory as a platform from which to answer some very big questions, like how we can get something (the universe we know) from nothing, why we happen to have the laws of physics we do, and why we exist at all. To cut a long story short, Hawking contends that the universe came into being as a quantum fluctuation. It is just one of countless universes (part of the “multiverse”) similarly created, and it was inevitable that one of those universes would happen to take on the laws and character observed in ours. God had nothing to do with it, and nor did consciousness. There is no place in Hawking’s universe for anything supernatural; everything can be explained by the laws of physics.

Science and Consciousness

Not everyone in the scientific community sees the universe in such starkly mechanistic terms. Roger Penrose, the Oxford mathematician and physicist with whom Hawking collaborated in the past, sees consciousness as a phenomenon that cannot be explained by the laws of physics – at least not the ones we have at the moment. He is famous for contending, much to the ire of artificial intelligence wonks, that no machine could ever match the complex capabilities of the living brain. Penrose’s view of the universe is a much more spiritual one, seeing consciousness as fundamental on a quantum level, inherent in the very building blocks of all that is. Not surprisingly, he is often cited by Deepak Chopra, one of the most well-known advocates of a spiritual approach to science.

Back on the materialistic end of the scale, Dr. Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin sees consciousness as a mere product of neuronal activity in the brain rather than as a fundamental aspect of the whole universe. For him, consciousness is a form of integrated information and can be measured on a scale of integration using a unit called “phi.” With trillions of neuronal connections in the human brain, measuring phi in a human is beyond us. So Dr. Tononi plans to measure it in a simple worm which possesses a mere 302 neuronal connections, and hopes one day to develop a machine which will help anesthesiologists measure consciousness in much the same way as doctors can monitor blood pressure. The “ghost in the machine” could then be graded!

Can Meditation and Science Ever be Compatible?

Deepak Chopra’s critique of Hawking’s book notes an ironic similarity between the physical idea of something coming from nothing and the ancient Vedic tradition, in which the universe is also self-generated from nothingness. But in the Vedic tradition, that mysterious source is not unknowable, for it is the closest thing to our very essence – creative, self-conscious, and intelligent. Chopra goes on to note the further irony that science itself is a product of consciousness, and bemoans Hawking’s short shrift for such concepts as free will, ethics, love, and the appreciation of beauty. A purely mechanical, material universe could never give rise to these qualities of consciousness.

For me, there is a more immediate dilemma here, one which is particularly pressing for those of us who use brainwave entrainment recordings as part of our meditation routine. Clearly, the brain does demonstrate different types of electrical activity that correspond to different states of consciousness. Listening to isochronic tones, monaural beats, or binaural beats helps control our state of mind by “entraining” this electrical activity and is genuinely useful for inner exploration, even if these methods differ radically from traditional eastern teachings. If we use these recordings, are we implicitly endorsing a scientific view of consciousness as a mere by-product of the brain’s neuronal networks? Not necessarily.

If we return to Penrose’s harmonious unification of consciousness and physics, there is no reason for meditators to feel in any way guilty about using scientifically verified tools. Science and meditation can both help us explore the human condition to the fullest. If both disciplines are essentially trying to answer the same questions in different ways, they should ideally be able to help one another. Those scientists who question the validity of meditative experiences – since inner, subjective experiences cannot be duplicated in the lab – are free to deny the deeper levels of their own existence if they wish.

If you would like to learn more about the most effective ways to explore your own consciousness, visit our guide to states of consciousness. The new audio technology of brainwave entrainment is the easiest and fastest way to begin this journey, and we review the best producers here: Meditation MP3 Reviews.

8 Responses to “The Mystery of Consciousness: Can Science and Meditation Solve it Together?”

  1. Ron Krumpos Says:

    In “The Grand Design” Stephen Hawking postulates that M-theory may be the Holy Grail of physics…the Grand Unified Theory which Einstein had tried to formulate, but never completed. It expands on quantum mechanics and string theories.

    In my e-book on comparative mysticism is a quote by Albert Einstein: “…most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and most radiant beauty – which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive form – this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of all religion.”

    E=mc², Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, is probably the best known scientific equation. I revised it to help better understand the relationship between divine Essence (Spirit), matter (mass/energy: visible/dark) and consciousness (f(x) raised to its greatest power). Unlike the speed of light, which is a constant, there are no exact measurements for consciousness. In this hypothetical formula, basic consciousness may be of insects, to the second power of animals and to the third power the rational mind of humans. The fourth power is suprarational consciousness of mystics, when they intuit the divine essence in perceived matter. This was a convenient analogy, but there cannot be a divine formula.

  2. Lisa Tandarts Says:

    Hi this post is nice and interesting. Can you tell me any related articles?

  3. HigherPlane Says:


    Thanks for visiting.

    You can read the full text of Deepak Chopra’s review of The Grand Design over at the Huffington Post.

  4. Starchild Says:

    Ironic, Scientist approach life’s questions with the same self righteousness as religous extremist.
    Both unable to identify -the truth- “because it exsist” consciousness makes it so. -the false- uncomprehensible,
    and never was imagined or experienced. I got scathing comments over on Daryl Dawkins facebook discussion board
    this weekend because i said- I “believe” that we are not entities that inherited the earth but rather we are it’s consciousness..
    A lot of “intellectuals” but no one speaking truth.. everything is relevant.. We don’t exsist to create answers, we exsist because of the role we play.. Even if that role means we feel we need to create answers.

  5. HigherPlane Says:


    Thank you for your comment.

    You are absolutely right about the similarity between what we might call “scientific fundamentalists” and religious fundamentalists. Anything that doesn’t fit into their worldview is held up for scorn and regarded as dangerous. Though they pride themselves on their logic, they often fall prey to the typical human tendency of emotional attachment. This, as you know, becomes all too apparent from the vehemence of their self-defense responses.

    I am certainly not hostile to the scientific method per se, but as long as the scientists refuse to acknowledge the fundamental nature of consciousness I will see science as nothing more than a useful tool for the manipulation of physical reality, not a complete system of understanding. Consciousness cannot be studied in a test tube, and your experiences with your own consciousness are not susceptible of peer review.

  6. Emely Campell Says:

    Magnificent This really is one of the best websites I’ve ever read on this subject.

  7. Guest Says:

    Celebrated cosmologist Stephen Hawking firmly states in a recent interview that there’s no Heaven, and while I’m partly in agreement with him I bear in mind also the words of Sir John Milton; “The mind is its own place, and of itself may make a Hell of Heaven, or a Heaven of Hell”. Hawking himself could be described as a living example of the philosophy of life’s being what you make it so it’s a strangely negative statement coming from him. Perhaps death will be what we make it as well. Who knows? LOL!

  8. Johnathan Nguen Says:

    Good read. Man, I so wish I could have articles nearly as good on my site. Your stuff is nicely written. Anyways, just wanted to chime in. Thanks

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