By Deepak Chopra, M.D., FACP, Menas C. Kafatos, Ph.D., Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor in Computational Physics, Chapman University, P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, FRCP, Professor of Psychiatry, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina, Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard University, and Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), Neil Theise, MD, Professor, Pathology and Medicine, (Division of Digestive Diseases) Beth Israel Medical Center — Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York
Telling someone that Truth exists with a capital T may seem like a quixotic crusade. We have raised a new absolute – universal consciousness (or pure awareness) – to the level once occupied by God, an all-pervasive, all-powerful agent who is secretly in charge of everything. But reality has led us to this conclusion and, by any definition, science is an activity that must follow wherever reality leads it. The oldest and most sacrosanct assumption of science – that reality exists “out there,” independent of consciousness – has reached the end of its usefulness. The time for a paradigm shift is long overdue. Quantum physics sniffed around the importance of the observer a century ago, and now the tide has come in. Without an observer, so-called physical reality cannot be perceived in any way, either through validation and measurement by experiments or through theoretical, mathematical calculations. Moreover, a reality existing “out there”, devoid of consciousness, is, ultimately, not possible.
Our final task is to show why any of this matters in the real world of everyday experiences. After all, if we are right in saying that consciousness is the absolute upon which everything is based, reality must agree. There is no court of higher opinion than reality itself. Mainstream science has proved wildly successful despite its setting a low priority for pursuing the nature of consciousness as a major force. What kind of success can we point to for this newer paradigm? Subjectivity is anathema to the scientific method. What perversity impels us to suddenly elevate it? We’d like to sketch in plausible answers to both questions.
To begin, the bugaboo of subjectivity has always been a fairy tale. All experience is subjective, including the experience of doing science. The human mind is capable of separating subjectivity into various compartments, one of which is rational thought. You don’t buy a new car because you like how shiny the metal gleams in the sun or how smooth it feels under your touch. You can separate those sensations from rational considerations about price, reliability, style, safety, etc.
Science takes one aspect of reality – that it can be measured in bits of data – and runs with it. But it never runs so far that subjectivity is left behind. In fact, theories, to which all measurements of data must eventually lead and from which they originate, are, in the words of Einstein, “free inventions of the mind”. And beyond theories, all experience happens in consciousness, which means that if you want to get at the source of love, truth, beauty, hope, aspirations, art, insight, intuition, and scientific hypothesizing itself, the proper field to explore is consciousness itself. Consciousness gives you the answers to questions about meaning and purpose, such as “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?” Asking science to answer these questions is pointless.
Despite the proliferating number of brain imaging studies with press releases depicting colorful hotspots, neuroscience is not much closer to discovering why we love one another or where God resides in the brain. While fMRI and EEG studies are helpful to diagnose brain death and map the activation of high level circuits associated with self-awareness or decision making, our current imaging tools still do not, in fact, answer fundamental cause and effect questions about mind or consciousness. When science gets away with confusing data with meaning, philosophers squawk, but philosophy is in the same position as the hapless Bart Simpson confronting the cynical Krusty the Clown:
Krusty: What have you done for me lately?
Bart: I got you that Danish.
Krusty: And I’ll never forget it.
Philosophy can plead for science to acknowledge what great thinkers and wisdom traditions have accomplished, but Science (capital S, the institutional reifications of scientific activities) is currently all-powerful and can choose to ignore it as irrelevant. As a result of this often willful amnesia, we have been saddled with the crude assumptions of materialism. It’s as if someone went to Detroit and said, “You build such fantastic cars. Tell me where I should take my next vacation.” The ability to arrive at incredibly sophisticated technology doesn’t remotely give science the right to speak about meaning and purpose.
In fact most scientists shy away from doing that. They correctly point out that present day science is neutral on such human constructs and values. But the new science of Consciousness will be able to at least put in the right tools, the experiences would be an integral part of what is being observed. Although “metaphysics” remains a term of dismissal among scientists, the hardest problem in metaphysics, the relation between mind and brain, has become a hot topic in recent years, largely because of advances in neuroscience. Here is the one place where consciousness can clearly make a difference to science, since understanding the brain in all its complexity will tell us a great deal about the mind if only the conversation goes both ways and science is willing to see the brain in terms of the mind.
The urgency of solving the mind-brain problem (or the mind-body problem, as it was stated in philosophy for many centuries) is greater than ever. Two partial answers exist, each with its own partisans. One camp holds that brain is the creator of mind. To have any thought or sensation, there must be a corresponding brain process that “lights up” with fMRI. These processes are fascinating in their complexity, but this is a mechanistic metaphor and does not actually answer the question of whether the mind creates brain. In our prior metaphor of music and the radio, showing the structural and functional behaviors of the radio’s individual antennas, circuitry, and speakers, does not reveal how it “made the music”, because it didn’t make the music – such analysis only reveals how the radio detected radio waves and transformed them into something a human ear could comprehend as music. Beethoven, the Beatles and Beyoncé still made the music. Will an fMRI ever reveal how Shakespeare wrote, how Leonardo invented, or how Michelangelo painted? We think not. So the other partial answer is that the brain transduces forms of communication between humans – like plays, music, technology, and art – from their creative source in an all pervasive, pre-existing consciousness.
The events in consciousness include all experiences, including the experience of having a brain. When the word “hippopotamus” pops into your head, that’s an experience. When you isolate the exact set of neurons that triggered the word, that too is an experience. One didn’t cause the other; they arose together. Does this defy the Newtonian world view in which every effect must have a cause? Yes, but that demolition job was done a hundred years ago when the pioneers of quantum physics dealt with the behavior of subatomic particles, which obey “quantum indeterminacy,” a probabilistic way of looking at reality, wherein two events are linked by probability not by certainty. Yet this probabilistic view of reality is incredibly accurate. Quantum mechanics predicts parameters to one part over one followed by 16 zeroes! This quantum reality of indeterminacy has to be taken seriously, if we are to be self-consistent in our own science.
To salvage cause and effect, the “brain first” camp usually resorts to the notion that indeterminacy occurs at the quantum level but not in the world of everyday events. This sort of sequestration has no basis in truth. Whatever the brain is doing, its roots are in the quantum realm. In fact, the brain’s ability to express new ideas, new works of art, and imaginative thinking in general is proof positive that indeterminacy is fundamental to life, not a quirk of quark behavior. If Hamlet were lost for a hundred years and suddenly rediscovered, a crowd would gather to see the legendary play. Imagine that the actor playing Hamlet arrives at the line, “To be or not to be, that is the question.” Does anyone suppose that a neuroscientist, even with total knowledge of every firing of every neuron, could finish the soliloquy? No matter how closely you examine the brain – including Shakespeare’s brain – the rest of “to be or not to be’ is undetermined until creative inspiration finishes it.
A solution to this either/or dilemma is to say that neither brain nor mind, “came first.” Michael Pollan, in “The Botany of Desire”, describes how apples, tulips, marijuana and potatoes did not appear as the seductively pleasing plants we see before us to day – nor were we humans, a priori, the perfect propagators of these species – we shaped each other, intimately, simultaneously, mutually. These plants seduced us (with their sweetness, beauty, intoxication and nourishment) into nurturing, feeding and propagating them. Likewise how humans came to depend upon and their dogs, as dogs (previously wolves!) came to depend upon and love their humans. These are examples of co-arising or co-evolution.
Likewise, Hamlet is a perfect example of brain and mind co-arising. The words and the brain activity that brings the words into the physical world can’t be separated. But neither can any word you think now or have ever thought. One can argue that the brain and mind comprise a self-organizing system within consciousness. As brain activity modifies mind, the activity of the mind physically reshapes the neural networks of the brain. A universal consciousness, beyond our own, individual minds and brains, is the only thing that can unite our concepts of mind and brain. Consciousness is at the universal level existing everywhere, and it gives rise to countless beings, some of them with higher thinking abilities and rational experiences, giving rise to “minds”. But it also gives rise to countless physical bodies and corresponding brains, primitive or more advanced as the case may be. Once this truth is accepted, our worldview must change forever.
Here are some statements that directly follow from taking consciousness to be the absolute ground of existence.
- Your body and the world you inhabit are projections of your perception. They are not “out there” but exist within consciousness.
- Your true self is the potential for creating a body, brain, and the world around it.
- Naming and describing something – a plant, animal, person, or even an inanimate object – camouflages the great mystery and majesty of existence. Reality cannot be named, described, or measured; these are only ever approximations. Reality lies beyond words or mathematical descriptions.
- Your true self is not the fictional character you play on the stage of time and space. Your true self is the timeless awareness from which fictional characters spring, as Hamlet and King Lear sprang from Shakespeare’s awareness.
- The fictional character you are playing does not belong to you. It is the recycling of unreliable wisps of memory and flimsy threads of desire.
- Truth cannot be known or experienced by a system of thought, be it scientific or philosophical. Specific thoughts tied to experience of space and time are tied to the mechanics of the brain, which are enmeshed in space and time, not beyond them. But thought can also contemplate the end of space and time, the beginning of space and time. This is the paradox of reality, demonstrated by quantum mechanics already 100 years ago. Consciousness pervades the cosmos but cannot be contained there, because it is the source, the womb from which all things arise.
Such statements are logical conclusions based on taking consciousness seriously. If they seem preposterous to many orthodox scientists, this reflects the limitation of present-day science, not the ridiculousness of the statements. Science exists for the purpose of making sense of the universe, to understand the components that comprise the universe through quantitative means, and to produce self-consistent theories that can be tested and, potentially, disproven. Here we are making qualitative statements, which means one of two things: either science must concede that it is helpless to measure meaning or meaning must give rise to a new, expanded science. In both cases, crude materialism plays no role.
We believe that a science of consciousness is possible, as called for in an astute and intelligent TED talk by the eminent philosopher John Searle (it can be viewed on YouTube). Searle makes all the salient points:
A science of consciousness has been long ignored but is not crucial.
Consciousness is irreducible; it cannot be described as the outcome of physical processes.
The world “out there” is the product of our perception.
Consciousness is a field, akin to but not the same as the quantum field. It pervades everything. Subjective events can be objectively studied (as the sensation of pain, which is subjective, can be linked to inflammation and the activity of nerves).
In fifteen minutes, you can see for yourself how thoroughly the superstition of materialism can be demolished.
What remains is to demolish subtle materialism, which claims, among other things, that a finer and finer exploration of the human nervous system will one day reveal where consciousness comes from. Searle himself is a subtle materialist, since he says that consciousness is a “low-level neuro-biological activity.” But that’s like saying that music can be understood if you get to the molecular level of a piano or clarinet or that radio. In reality, you can’t get there from here.
This leads to our final point. There are only two paths to follow if you want to understand reality. One is relative, the other absolute. The relative path – currently taken by Searle and almost every neuroscientist – is to study brain phenomena until you arrive at such a fine level that you observe the birth of awareness. This is like salmon following a river until it leads to the sea. The absolute path begins with the ocean of consciousness as all-embracing. Relative things (all the salmon and all the rivers they swim in) arise from this source; they display its characteristics. The advantage of the absolute path is that the hardest things to explain – mind, love, truth, intelligence, creativity, evolution – are a given. We can take for granted that the universe is the play of consciousness as it unfolds in space and time. What we are left to explore is the depth and richness of these qualities (indeed, whether they admit it or not, even crude materialists are exploring their own creativity and intelligence).
Even though reality is inconceivable, born somewhere beyond space and time, the beauty and paradox of existence is that we are participating in the mystery. As we participate, we co-evolve unceasingly. We can’t predict where human evolution will go, but we are confident that it will happen in Consciousness. The process of awakening is inherit is self-awareness; therefore, it cannot be stopped. The universe, as viewed from consciousness, is not a place in which we live, it is not an empty box or a cold void shot through with random events. We don’t live in the universe, we are the universe, arising from its fundamental nature with every other element, co-arising together. Then true self-knowledge will flourish, not instead of current science, but containing it and further transcending its limits, because no description of reality is ever the actual reality, just as the map is never the landscape. With such understanding we will take for granted the following, because we will directly experience them, not merely think them:
Peace is not a state of mind. Peace is our very being.
Joy, equanimity, and freedom are not things you work towards; they are qualities you already possess right now, in this present moment.
The point of arrival is now. The end of struggling is now. Being is now.
The only truth is existence itself, in the ever unfurling, co-evolving now. This is Truth with a capital T.
Deepak Chopra, MD is the author of more than 70 books with twenty-one New York Times bestsellers, including co-author with Sanjiv Chopra, MD of Brotherhood: Dharma, Destiny, and The American Dream, and co-author with Rudolph Tanzi of Super Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-being (Harmony). Chopra serves as Founder of The Chopra Foundation and host of Sages and Scientists Symposium – August 16-18, 2013 at La Costa Resort and Spa.
Menas Kafatos, Ph.D., Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor in Computational Physics, Director of the Center of Excellence at Chapman University, co-author with Deepak Chopra of the forthcoming book, Who Made God and Other Cosmic Riddles. (Harmony)
P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, FRCP, Professor of Psychiatry, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina and a leading physician scientist in the area of mental health, cognitive neuroscience and mind-body medicine.
Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard University, and Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), co-author with Deepak Chopra of http://www.amazon.com/Super-Brain-Unleashing-Explosive-Well-Being/dp/0307956822/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1346974862&sr=1-1&keywords=super+brain+unleashing+the+explosive+power+of+your+mind+to+maximize+health/deepakchcom07-20Super Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-being. (Harmony)
Neil Theise, MD, Professor, Pathology and Medicine, (Division of Digestive Diseases) and Director of the Liver and Stem Cell Research Laboratory, Beth Israel Medical Center — Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York. www.neiltheise.com