Consciousness and Modern Science

By David Pratt

The book New Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science, published by the Institute of Noetic Sciences (edited by Willis Harman with Jane Clark, 1994) is a significant contribution to the debate on the future of science. It contains essays by scientists and philosophers from a wide range of disciplines who all share the belief that science urgently needs to reexamine its implicit assumptions about the nature of reality, since these have led to important areas of human experience -- especially consciousness-related phenomena being neglected or denied.

The approaches of the fourteen authors are varied, but in his opening and closing chapters, Willis Harman, president of the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), highlights some of the common themes. He states that modern science is based on two main assumptions: a) separateness -- of man from nature, mind from matter, organism from environment, and the separability of the parts of a system or organism to understand how it "really" works; and b) that the scientific picture of reality should be based solely on physical sense data. He calls for an "extended science" or "wholeness science," based on two opposing assumptions: a) that everything is interconnected, that the physical universe and consciousness, mind and matter, form a fundamental oneness or wholeness; and b) that there are two windows for acquiring knowledge of reality: the objective, through the physical senses, and the subjective, through the intuitive and aesthetic faculties. He writes:

Certain aspects of the unity that is the Whole will continue to be quite profitably studied by means of separateness science. That kind of science, however, would, as only part of a more extended science, no longer have the authority to insist that we are here, solely through random causes, in a meaningless universe; nor that our consciousness is "merely" the chemical and physical processes of the brain. -- p. 383

While all our observations depend on our conscious self, the science constructed from these observations seems to contain no place for a self. Scientific materialism has traditionally reduced the mind to a by-product of the brain and denied it any causal role. One of the authors, the late neuroscientist and Nobel laureate, Roger Sperry, believes that science has already largely corrected this error. As a result of the "consciousness revolution" of the 1970s, in which he played an important part, the prevailing view today is that conscious mental states are "emergent properties" of brain processes, and are able to have causal effects, as in acts of free will; there is therefore "downward" causation from consciousness, in addition to "upward" causation described by reductionistic science. Sperry explains these "emergent properties" in purely physical terms; he says that they are associated with "higher domains of brain processing" and "operate as functional wholes in neural network dynamics," though he admits that science has as yet no understanding of how these higher-level processes might work. He calls this approach the "new mentalism," but it would seem to be just a more sophisticated version of the "old physicalism." He states that for a mentalist, phenomena such as telepathy, clairvoyance, channeling, reincarnation, and psychokinesis are "logical impossibilities," and warns against opening the doors of science to "the supernatural, the mystical, the paranormal, the occult, the otherworldly." Harman, on the other hand, says that most people who have taken the trouble to examine the subject have been impressed by the evidence in favor of psychic phenomena, survival after death, and reincarnation.

Another contributor, Richard Dixey, accepts the concept of "emergent properties," but believes that they are more than just the product of interactions between the parts of the system concerned. In his view, the extra ingredient is "information," which he says is "potentially infinite" and "binds itself" to matter, giving rise to the law-like behavior of matter, and the new properties that emerge as matter is arranged in increasingly complex forms. He does not say anything about the nature of this information, where it comes from, or how it influences matter.

While Sperry maintains that consciousness can be understood without bringing in quantum physics, Robert Jahn and Brenda Dunne argue that quantum mechanical concepts such as wave/particle complementarity, barrier penetration, and uncertainty provide "useful analogies" for understanding consciousness-related phenomena, both normal and paranormal. Mae-Wan Ho adopts a similar stance, saying that consciousness can be represented as a quantum wave function. However, quantum physics takes us only one step beyond physical matter and processes to the underlying quantum field, and still leaves us with a picture of the mind as inextricably bound up with the brain. This approach therefore does not seem to allow room for survival after death and reincarnation, since these are possible only if our conscious self is able to exist independently of the brain. Another contributor, physicist Arthur Zajonc, refers to Rudolf Steiner's view that humans have not only a physical body but also three subtler bodies: an etheric body, responsible for form and life; an astral body, which gives rise to sentient consciousness; and a self-conscious ego. However, Zajonc seems to regard these "subtle bodies" as little more than metaphors, rather than as substantial but nonphysical entities.

Biologist and Nobel laureate George Wald argues that mind, rather than being a very late development in the evolution of living things, restricted to organisms with the most complex nervous systems, has always existed, and that the universe is life-breeding because the pervasive presence of mind has guided it to be so. Biologist Brian Goodwin, on the other hand, opposes the idea that vital or spiritual forces play any role in evolution. He also criticizes orthodox biology for trying to explain organisms solely in terms of their "genetic program." He states:

A genetic program can define the molecular composition of the developing organism at any moment in its development, but this is insufficient to explain the processes that lead to a heart, a nervous system, or other morphological features of the organism. -- p. 223

The new biology, he says, needs to recognize that organisms are "self-organizing wholes," generated by "dynamic principles," and intimately connected with their environment. The parts of an organism are ordered by a developmental field or morphogenetic field, which he describes as the "dynamic spatio-temporal organization" of an organism and which he understands in standard physical and chemical terms. Like Sperry's "mentalism," Goodwin's "holistic science of qualities" is still essentially materialistic.

Harman claims that quantum theory has shown that the consciousness of the observer is essential to the existence of the thing being observed because only when an observation is made are the probability functions of quantum mechanics "collapsed" into actualities. Harman is here following a variant of the conventional interpretation of quantum physics, but fails to mention, let alone justify, the assumptions on which it is based, nor does he indicate that there are alternative interpretations.

A quantum system, such as a subatomic particle, is represented mathematically by an equation known as the wave function, which can be used to calculate the probability of finding a particle at any particular point in space. When a measurement is made, the particle is of course found in only one place, but if the wave function is assumed to provide a complete description of a quantum system -- as it is in the conventional interpretation -- it would mean that in between measurements the particle dissolves into a "superposition of probability waves" and is potentially present in different places simultaneously. Then, when the next measurement is made, this wave packet is supposed instantaneously to "collapse," in some random and unexplained manner, into a localized particle again.

Some physicists have gone even further and claim that a measurement alone is not enough; a wave function collapses only when the measurement is registered in the mind of a human observer. This appears to be the view favored by Harman. This position has recently been put forward by physicist Amit Goswami, who states that physical objects, such as the moon, do not exist in space-time unless a conscious observer is looking at them, and that human beings are the center of the universe since they bring it into being and give it meaning. He remarks: "If this sounds as if we are re-establishing an anthropocentric view of the universe, so be it (The Self-Aware Universe, pp. 59-60, 141). One can sympathize with Roger Sperry when he writes:

I take a realist position that assumes a world exists out there regardless of whether I or anyone else happens to perceive it. The laborious excavation of a giant ammonite or a large dinosaur femur from its cretaceous matrix leaves little patience with a philosophy that these and their world did not exist until our observation. -- p. 113

An alternative, more sensible interpretation of quantum theory has been developed by David Bohm and his associates, such as Basil Hiley, John Bell, and J.-P. Vigier. (See "David Bohm and the Implicate Order," SUNRISE, February/March 1993; also D. Bohm & F. D. Peat, Science, Order & Creativity, pp. 88-10l, 172-90). It is referred to briefly, but approvingly, by Arthur Zajonc and Mae-Wan Ho, though they also endorse elements of the conventional interpretation which are incompatible with it. Bohm takes the view that quantum theory in its present form is incomplete; the wave function does not provide a complete description of quantum systems, and there is therefore no need to introduce the ill-defined notion of "wave-function collapse" (and all the paradoxes that go with it). Instead he proposes that, although we cannot measure their exact motion, particles nevertheless follow causal trajectories, determined not only by conventional physical forces but also by a subtler force, the quantum potential, which operates from a deeper, implicate, more mindlike level of reality. Although he believes that human consciousness does not bring quantum systems into existence, and does not significantly affect the outcome of a measurement (except in the case of genuine psychokinesis), he argues that consciousness is not simply a by-product of matter but is rooted deep in the implicate order, and is therefore present to some degree in all material forms. He suggests that there may be an infinite series of implicate orders, each having both a matter aspect and a consciousness aspect. In Bohm's words, "everything material is also mental and everything mental is also material, but there are many more infinitely subtle levels of matter than we are aware of" (quoted in Norman Friedman, Bridging Science and Spirit: Common Elements in David Bohm's Physics, The Perennial Philosophy and Seth, p. 171).

Harman places great emphasis on Bell's theorem of nonlocality, which was confirmed by experiments performed by Alain Aspect in 1982. These experiments demonstrated that if two particles interact and then move apart, their behavior is correlated in a way that cannot be explained in terms of signals traveling between them at or slower than the speed of light. These connections are described as "nonlocal," but there is no consensus on how to interpret them. Harman believes that they are an example of instantaneous "action at a distance" and do not involve the transmission of any sort of signals. He writes: "with the 'oneness' assumption, action at a distance does not pose a particular problem; there is no necessity to hypothesize fields or particle exchanges to account for it" (p. 382).

An alternative view is that while all things are one in essence, they nevertheless interact through an interplay of forces of many different kinds, nonphysical as well as physical. Bohm and Hiley have pointed out that future technology might make it possible to demonstrate experimentally that quantum nonlocal connections are not propagated instantaneously (infinitely fast) but merely faster than light, through a "quantum ether" (The Undivided Universe: An Ontological Interpretation of Quantum Theory, pp. 293-4, 347) Theories which suggest that signals which travel faster than light would travel backwards in time obviously need some adjustment! It might be objected that if the ether also consists of particles, the transmission of forces between them would still involve action at a distance. And even if we posit an infinite series of finer and finer ethers, since infinity is never actually reached, no particles ever come into contact and we are still left with the puzzle of action at a distance. In this respect, Harman is right to say: "In the broadest sense, there is no cause and effect; only a whole system evolving" (p. 377). But while causation is ultimately unfathomable, there is no reason to jump to the conclusion that, beyond the physical structures and causal factors currently measurable by science, there are no further levels of structure and causal agents, but only absolute oneness and instantaneous connectedness.

A more concrete framework for understanding mind-matter interaction, reincarnation, paranormal phenomena, and the purposeful nature of evolution is provided by the ancient wisdom, which teaches that the physical world is only one octave of an infinite spectrum of consciousness-substance, and is interpenetrated by innumerable other worlds, some denser and some more ethereal than our own, which are imperceptible to our physical senses. And just as the physical world is organized and coordinated by inner worlds -- astral, mental, and spiritual -- so the physical body is animated and organized by inner energy-fields or souls. In this view, "self-organization" mainly operates from within outwards, and "holistic" or "emergent" properties arise from the fact that the more complex an organism's outer structure, the greater its ability to receive and express influences ("information") from the inner levels of its constitution.

The aim of New Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science is to open up a dialogue on the changing scientific worldview both within the scientific community and among the public at large. Due to the academic style and rather technical nature of many of the essays, the general reader will find the book heavy going in places, but it provides interesting glimpses of the direction in which some scientists are moving. We are clearly witnessing a shift away from a fragmented, mechanical, non-purposive conception of the world toward a more holistic, organic, and purposive conception. However, the assumptions of the "new emergent science" naturally need to be scrutinized just as carefully as those of the old science. The future direction of science is of great concern to us all for, as Willis Harman says, "the modern scientific worldview is inherently flawed and misleading in ways vital to the well-being of individuals and societies, and inimical to the future viability of human civilization" (p. 392).

(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine February/March 1996. Copyright © 1996 by Theosophical University Press)

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