“Cosmos” used to mean God, or the gods, sitting in Heaven looking down on Earth; now it means billions of galaxies expanding into a unknown void. As explanations go, there seems to be no contest. Because science dominates our lives and religion is a waning force, most people see a future that will have much more technology and a lot less God. The scientific worldview is triumphant, no doubt. The campaign of some noisy atheists like Richard Dawkins, who know a great deal about science but much less about spirituality, has reinforced the illusion that a single worldview is our only choice.
It’s not. In fact, if science was the only choice that faced us in the 21st century, the outcome would be terrifyingly bleak. On all the great questions that face us, including the survival of a healthy planet, the future depends on another worldview, spirituality, to expand upon science and give us alternatives that are often better.
I’ve taken this somewhat startling position in a “war of the worldviews” that anyone can follow over the next month. There will be live debates around the country and on various media with Leonard Mlodinow, noted physics professor at Caltech and co-author with Stephen Hawking about the grandest questions facing quantum physics and cosmology. We’ve also stated our full positions, with a good deal of passion but mutual respect, in a new book by the title of War of the Worldviews.
This isn’t a rehash of religion versus science. Anyone who tried to defend the God of organized religion against the towering insights of modern science would be easily and soundly defeated. Something more fascinating is going on. Those insights that gave us the Big Bang and the expanding universe have arrived at mysteries that science alone isn’t equipped to answer. For almost a century quantum physics has known some disturbing things that threaten to topple everyday science and our common-sense notions of who we are and where we come from. It was possible to sidestep this threat, which is what physics decided to do. “Shut up and calculate” is a mantra among scientists who prefer not to look at ultimate issues.
One day soon those ultimate issues are going to surface with glaring urgency. There is a coming struggle for the future, and how that struggle turns out will depend on answering some tough issues:
• Do we live in a universe with purpose and meaning or a universe that is random and without meaning?
• What lies beyond the horizon of the stars and galaxies we can see and measure?
• If the cosmos emerged from a void before time and space emerged, is that invisible source also our own?
• Could the cosmos be a living entity?
• Are we conscious beings because the entire universe is conscious?
Leonard takes the side of the triumphant march of science that has built the modern world, based on a method of investigation that is objective and materialistic. No one can argue against this way of gaining knowledge until science oversteps and claims to be the only way of gaining knowledge. I take the position that other kinds of knowledge tells us just as much as science. There is valuable knowledge gained from emotions, intuition, inspiration, insight, creativity, and wisdom. These things cannot be reduced to data. How do you measure how inspired a painting is or how much love a child needs?
Beside overstepping its legitimate boundaries – as scientific atheists do with their futile attempts to prove that the world’s spiritual traditions are all delusional – science has led us into weapons of mechanized death, industrial pollution, the atomic age, of environmental carcinogens, all byproducts of a kind of diabolical creativity. Our debate gets into such heated topics, with Leonard denying that science can be held to moral responsibility and me arguing that an amoral science distorts our very purpose for being here, which is far larger than research and technology.
That larger purpose brings us directly to the cosmos. As far away as cosmology may seem to ordinary life, there are basic truths that cannot be denied:
• Material objects and everything in the physical world emerges from a void that is neither material nor visible.
• Unless we know how the universe emerged from the void, we won’t know our own source.
• That source must contain the potential for everything that exists.
• There is no explanation for why the laws of nature exist.
• There is enormous evidence to support the notion that this is a participatory universe.
• As observers of the cosmos, we also influence the events that constitute basic reality.
It’s commonplace to say that the rise of Darwinian evolution toppled religion. But the rise of quantum physics gave an opening for a new spirituality based on a living, conscious universe where intelligence and creativity were present as invisible potentials from the very beginning. If reality ultimately is rooted in consciousness, then participating in the universe, building reality, following the flow of evolution, laying the basis for future events – holds enormous promise.
Most people aren’t aware that the spiritual worldview has been resurrected in such a powerful way. In my side of the debate, I make much of a simple fact: all experience takes place in consciousness, including science itself. If there is a reality outside our consciousness, we cannot know it. On the other hand, the hidden power of consciousness has yet to be fully explored. Leonard has different views, sometimes a direct ‘no’ to what I say, sometimes merging with it. The hard line that separates science and spirituality, we both agree, needs to soften. Shrieking at one another does no good, and the future depends on incorporating as much human creativity and resourcefulness as possible. The most powerful globalism is globalism of the mind.
Published by SF Chronicle