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.
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