Which will be more important in shaping your future, science or spirituality? For any number of people this sounds like an empty question. Science has shaped our age; religion is a declining force in the West, as it has been for decades. A clock could be placed behind every pulpit ticking off the thousands of people who leave organized faith behind every hour of the day. But there is a growing movement that is repairing the rift between science and religion. It has nothing to do with the noisy band of atheists who continue to foment discord between faith and reason. Rather, science has reached a point where certain basic mysteries cannot be solved without resorting to the one thing that spirituality has always specialized in: consciousness.
On that basis, groups of scientists have begun to eavesdrop on the future by looking into the worldview that we broadly call spiritual. One such gathering was recently held near San Diego, the second annual Sages and Scientists Symposium sponsored by the Chopra Foundation. Its purpose was to bring together not just the brightest scientific mind but also the perspective of a spirituality that is consciousness-based. It’s hard to speak plainly about such things without stepping on toes. Science is dominated by materialism, a worldview that traces all activity, including our imagination and creativity, to physical processes in the brain, and these processes are either chemically determined or random, depending on which strain of materialism you confront. Spirituality, which is much broader than religion, is based on the assumption that a transcendent reality exists beyond the physical world. This is the domain of higher consciousness, or if you are conventionally minded, the home of the soul and God. It’s hard to credit that either side would find much common ground.
But as the various talks offered here testify, there are enough mysteries to go around. Scientists who are willing to venture into speculative thinking, joined by sages from the world’s wisdom traditions who are willing to look beyond arguments about God, face the same primal questions. Where did the universe come from? What preceded the Big Bang, before there was either “where” or “when”? A century after the quantum revolution in physics, science has to face up to the vanishing act that the physical universe pulled, as matter and energy were both seen to emerge from a timeless state that is either an empty void (which no one accepts) or a field of infinite possibilities, a veritable womb of creation (which almost everyone is beginning to accept, however offended science may be by learning that the world’s ancient sages and spiritual teachers knew about this timeless domain long before physics arrived with its exact measuring devices.)
The reason that your future and mine depends on the settling of these questions isn’t what you might think. Science can proceed perfectly well in everyday affairs without thinking about “metaphysics,” as materialists like to call spirituality. For its part, spirituality can keep appealing to individuals one at a time as they arrive at personal crises, revelations, and awakenings. But what will be shortchanged is reality. Ultimately, worldviews are secondary. If X believes in Buddha and Y in thermodynamics, their two worlds can sit uneasily next to each other or simply not interact. But reality is a shared concern. It’s also a topic we can’t afford to leave to specialists. Where the cosmos came form means a great deal, because the answer will tell you where the human mind came from, and where it’s going.
Is the universe conscious? If so, then our minds are embedded in the cosmic mind. Is the universe evolving? If so, that casts human evolution in a new light, along with the origin of life. These are not specialist questions. They go to the heart of the human condition. In that spirit, take a look at the attached talks by various illustrious, curious, open-minded speakers. Don’t pigeonhole anyone as sage or scientist. Try not to join a camp for ideological reasons. There is a struggle going on between science and spirituality that will shape everyone’s future, and if we each decide to join in, a blending may occur with magical consequences. What could be more fascinating? Together a complete engagement of the human faculties promises a more powerful and realistic basis for humanity’s next evolutionary leap.
This is the first in a series of essays exploring the relationship between religion and science. This series is an outgrowth of the Sages and Scientists Symposium sponsored by the Chopra Foundation.
Published by The Washington Post