Sleep of Separateness
Alchemy - When Turmoil and Trauma...
Spirituality - Beyond the Pre/Trans Fallacy
From Sleep - Natural Spirituality
The Merging of Male and
The Speed of Life
Before the Fall
Crossing the River
D.H. Lawrence & the Fall
& the Ego Explosion
Unreal to the Real
Lawrence the Mystic
Elan Vital & Self-Evolution
Energy & Spiritual Experience
Where Is Happiness?
- Spiritual Presence
The Origins of
The Plateau of Time
Power of Silence
The Riddle of Time
of Higher States of Consciousness
MYSTICAL SCIENCE - Beyond the Limits of Science
Ever since modern science began after the Renaissance, there's been a general belief that it's possible to explain absolutely everything about life and the world (and the universe) in scientific terms. Even today many scientists believe that its powers are unlimited. Science is a process of uncovering the mechanisms by which nature works, and eventually, when we've done enough experimentation and investigation, every mystery will be understood. The darkness of ignorance will have been completely illuminated by the light of reason, and we will possess 'The Truth'.
Some observers even believe that we're quite close to reaching this point now. If scientific progress continues at the same rate as the last few decades, so this argument goes, it can only be a matter of a few more decades (or even less) before all the mysteries in the universe are solved. After all, haven't most of the biggest mysteries already been solved? As long ago as 1971 the biologist Bentley Glass wrote, 'We are like the explorers of a great continent, who have penetrated to its margins in most points of the compass and have mapped the major mountain chains and rivers. There are still innumerable details to fill in, but the endless horizons no longer exist.' We already know how the universe began (with a Big Bang), how life evolved (through genetic mutations and natural selection), and how living beings inherit their parents' characteristics (through DNA), and we're surely quite close to answering the remaining 'big questions' as well. Neuroscience will soon be able to tell us exactly what causes consciousness, biologists will soon be able to tells us how life originated, and physicists will finally tell us what the fundamental reality of the universe is.
But whether science actually has progressed as far as some scientists like to think is very debatable. There is a powerful scientific orthodoxy which promotes ideas as truths before they are substantiated properly, and even while there's still doubt about them. Take the neo-Darwinist theory of evolution for example, which most 'thinking' people accept as an established truth.
Recent experiments with bacteria suggest that genetic mutations are not purely random, as the theory suggests. When starving bacteria are in the presence of sugar they can't eat, for example, they 'mutate' at levels far higher than chance in order to generate the enzymes they need to digest it. The concept of 'punctuated equilibrium' also casts doubt on neo-Darwinism too. Fossil evidence shows that evolution works through stops and starts, with periods of stasis for millions of years and then sudden bursts of change - which can be as short as 1,000 years - which give rise to new species. This doesn't make sense if mutations are random, since if they were they would occur fairly evenly, and there would be no reason why some periods would see more change than others. (It's interesting to note that the arch neo-Darwinist Richard Dawkins vehemently refutes the significance of punctuated equilibrium, which he says is merely 'an interesting wrinkle on the neo-Darwinist theory' - no doubt because he realises that it throws his own theories into question.)
The Big Bang is by no means a proven theory either. Even the theory's biggest advocates admit that there are still problems with it and 'large gaps' which have to be filled in. For example, cosmologists haven't been able to determine how stars and galaxies formed after the big bang, and have also admitted that the visible matter at the centre of galaxies isn't massive enough to keep them from flying apart, which has led them to suggest the existence of invisible 'dark matter'. Big Bang theory also tells us that the universe is at least 16 billion years old, which contrasts with estimates deduced from other evidence, which suggest an age of between 7.5. and 11.5 billion years.
It's also very debatable whether science is close to solving the other 'big questions'. Almost 50 years ago a young graduate student called Stanley Miller managed to synthesise amino acids - the basic building blocks of life - from a chemical simulation of the earth's atmosphere. After this many scientists believed that the problem of the 'origin of life' would soon be solved. But five decades of research of have brought no further advances to Miller's experiment. The 'self-replicating molecule' which biologists have been feverishly searching for has been strangely elusive. In fact some scientists - like Francis Crick - find the odds against life come into being on this planet by accident so overwhelming that they've developed the concept of 'Panspermia', which suggests that the earth was 'fertilised' from interstellar space. However, as other scientists have pointed out, the odds against this are perhaps even greater than the odds against life starting on this planet.
This also applies to the 'big question' of developmental biology : how does a single fertilised cell develop into a complex multi-cellular lifeform? As Rupert Sheldrake writes in The Rebirth of Nature, after their success in 'breaking the genetic code' in the 1960s, some of the world's leading molecular biologists turned their attention to this problem, believing that it would only take them a decade or two to come up with a basic answer. They expected to find that development was somehow 'encoded' into DNA, but soon realised that this wasn't the case, and that other unknown 'formative' influences must be at work. But again, after decades of research, biologists have been unable to pinpoint what these are.
In a similar way, at the moment many neuroscientists are confident that the 'problem of consciousness' will soon be solved. They believe that new technologies which allow us to examine how the brain works will enable us to see how its billions of neurons work together to produce consciousness. But again, it's slowly becoming apparent that the reality is much stranger and more complex than this simple mechanistic view suggests. Originally neuroscientists thought that consciousness would be located in a specific area of the brain, but have now concluded that in some way it seems to emanate from the brain as a whole. It also seems that to a degree consciousness is independent of the physical structure of the brain. If consciousness was only an epiphenomenon produced by the brain, then we'd assume that damage to the brain would always impair consciousness (especially if consciousness is spread around the brain rather than located in a specific area ; if the latter was true we could always say perhaps the area which produces consciousness escaped damage). It's true that this often does happen, but there are also cases of people who've had very severe structural damage to the brain but lived as completely normal adults with a normally functioning consciousness. The psychologist Julian Jaynes, for example, cites the case of a 35 year old man who died of an abdominal malignancy, and whose autopsy revealed that he'd been born with parts of his brain missing and other parts abnormally small. But in spite of this, Jaynes says, 'the patient had always displayed an 'easygoing' personality and had even led his class in school!'
Because of problems like these some more open-minded scientists are beginning to doubt whether it's possible to explain consciousness in terms of 'neuronal networks' or 'connectivist pathways' at all. In an essay called 'The Puzzle of Conscious Experience' (which caused a sensation when it was published in Scientific American in 1995), the scientist David Chalmers suggests heretically that consciousness is not produced by the brain but 'should be considered a fundamental feature, irreducible to anything more basic.'
The Need for Understanding
It's worth considering for a moment where this need for complete understanding of the universe comes from. After all, why should it really be necessary for us to understand everything about the life and the universe? Will our lives really be different - better or happier - in any way just because we happen to know the answers to all questions?
Since the Enlightenment, the Quest for Knowledge has always been as something noble which should be supported in every possible way. Even in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or Goethe's Faust, which were written to illustrate the dangers of man's thirst for knowledge and control over nature, there's the assumption that the enterprise is noble in itself, and it's just that it can be dangerous when taken to extremes. It's our 'reason' which makes us superior to other animals, and through exercising it we can dispel the darkness of ignorance and superstition which our 'primitive' ancestors lived in. Scientists often say that this Quest for Truth is what makes us truly human and that life would be meaningless without it.
But, if we look a little deeper, the 'nobility' of the scientific enterprise begins to look very questionable. Three or four centuries ago, exploring and colonising the world was thought of as noble enterprise too. Europe's ruling classes were consumed by a desire to explore unknown territories, to bring home treasure from them and to spread their 'advanced' civilisation and religion to their heathen populations. This enterprise was more or less completed a century or so ago, when European governments 'ruled' most of the world's population, and explorers had covered almost every inch of the earth's surface.
Of course, now we know that there wasn't anything 'noble' about this at all. What this enterprise really was, of course, was a desire for dominance over the world itself and its peoples. It was rooted in the over-developed egos of European males, and the thirst for power and for material gain which the over-developed ego generates.
And it's possible to look at science in the same way. In a sense the scientific enterprise 'took over' from the colonial enterprise, and became a new channel for the European male's desire for dominance. After all, science itself is really a form of colonisation, as the above quote from Bentley Glass implies - a colonisation of nature, which human beings can then use for their own devices. Atomic physics 'colonised' the structure of atoms, for instance, so that we could use them to create nuclear bombs and energy, and now the 'genome project' is attempting to colonise (or map out) our genetic structure, so that we can control and manipulate it.
This isn't to say that there isn't anything healthy about science - nobody can deny that medical advances have made life easier, and that modern technology has made the world a smaller and more interconnected place. And there are certainly some scientists who are motivated by a genuine sense of curiosity and wonder, and a desire to bring benefits to mankind. But it's certainly no accident that most scientists are European males. Like the 'colonial' enterprise, the scientific enterprise is largely rooted in an unhealthy desire for dominion over nature, an egotistical impulse for power and control.
In fact this is implicit in the way that science works. It sees nature as something which is always 'out there', foreign and apart from the consciousness which is observing it. And when something is 'other' to us it's always an enemy which we feel the need to subdue and conquer.
The Limitations of Consciousness
But what's most debatable of all, in my opinion, is whether this 'complete explanation for everything' is at all feasible, and whether, in fact, it's possible for science to answer any of the 'big questions' we've looked at.
The problem, as I see it, is that most scientists aren't aware of the limitations of human consciousness. There's an underlying assumption that the ordinary human consciousness with which we perceive reality is absolute and objective, and that the world as we see it is the world as it is. Our consciousness is like a perfect spotlight which illuminates the world clearly and truthfully, and which illuminates everything. And this is, of course, why it's possible for us to understand and explain everything - because we are aware of all reality there is to be aware of, and there is nothing potentially outside the 'range' of our consciousness spotlight.
This is why scientists are usually hostile towards paranormal phenomena. Phenomena like telepathy, clairvoyance and pre-cognition can't be genuine because they have no place in the mechanistic Newtonian world which our ordinary consciousness tell us is 'reality'. The same goes for 'spiritual' or mystical experiences. The different reality which people perceive in these moments obviously isn't objectively real - it can't be, because we 'know' that the reality we perceive with our normal consciousness is the Truth. Mystical experiences are therefore really only a delusory effect which the brain produces in certain situations. One current theory of mystical experience, for example, suggests that it's caused when the 'emergency response' mechanism in our brains (which makes us see things as significant when they threaten our well-being) is accidentally triggered by emotional or physical disturbance, which is why we have the sense that everything around us is full of significance.
But the assumption that our ordinary consciousness tells us the absolute truth is completely unwarranted. One way of looking at evolution is to see it as a process by which living beings become progressively more conscious of reality. From amoebae to invertebrates to insects to birds to animals to apes and to human beings, the 'consciousness spotlight' has become more and more powerful. Whereas amoebae only have a tiny flicker of consciousness which enables them to react to changes in their environment (if you can react to changes in your environment then, it might be argued, you must have an awareness of that environment), human beings have a powerful 'consciousness spotlight' which gives us a very intense and precise awareness of the world around us, a degree of 'conceptual awareness', so that we're aware of the future, the past and death, and also a degree of self-awareness, so that we're not just conscious but also actually aware of ourselves being conscious. It's true that there are some 'higher' animals - like dolphins or chimpanzees - who seem to be aware of death and of themselves to a degree, but this awareness doesn't seem to be as intense as human beings' is.
But just because we're more conscious than any other animal, it doesn't mean that we're completely conscious. This is the same as suggesting that human beings as we exist now are the culmination of the whole evolutionary process, that now evolution is complete and has ended, which is obviously ridiculous. In fact, assuming evolution continues, it's inevitable that at some point in the future living beings will come into existence who are more complex and more conscious than us in the same way that we're more complex and conscious than sheep or cows. These beings will be more intensely aware of their surroundings than we are, perhaps be more aware of themselves than we are, and they will certainly be aware of phenomena which we're ignorant of because they lie beyond the limits of our awareness.
And if our consciousness is limited, there's no reason why we should expect to understand and explain everything. In the same way that a sheep or a cow can't be aware of the future or the past or of themselves, or of the presence of the moon and stars above them, there must be some realities which are beyond the limits of our consciousness. Perhaps we might see some of the effects of these phenomena (in the same way that the inhabitants of Flatland can see the effects of a three-dimensional reality) and we might puzzle over them and try to understand them, but we'll never be able to explain them properly, because we're not aware of the phenomena themselves.
And as I see it, this is the position of modern science. Scientists will never be able to solve the 'big questions' because the answers to them - if there are any - lie beyond the limits of our normal consciousness. Trying to understand how the universe started, how life began, how an embryo develops or how consciousness is produced can only lead (as they are doing) to cul-de-sacs and confusion, because these questions can't be explained in terms of the restricted view of the world which our normal consciousness gives us. They obviously involve factors or phenomena which our limited consciousness doesn't allow us to be aware of.
In fact we can almost grasp this when we ask ourselves some of the 'Big Questions'. Questions like 'Does the universe have an end? If it does, what comes after it?' or 'What was before the Big Bang?' These questions defy common sense, like the koans of Zen Buddhism. In fact there is one field of science, Quantum Physics, which seems to consist solely of koan-like riddles which can't be answered. How can a photon of light be a particle and a wave at the same time? How do electrons seem to 'know' what other electrons are doing? Why are experiments always affected by the expectations of the person who is doing the experiment? It's obvious that the answers to these 'koans' - if there are any - must be beyond the normal range of our 'consciousness spotlight'.
Expanding the Range of Consciousness
But this doesn't necessarily mean that, as Goethe's Faust concluded, 'we can know nothing', and that the 'Quest for Truth' is a futile exercise. In fact the idea that our knowledge is limited by our consciousness suggests a different way of increasing our knowledge : by extending the range of our consciousness. And this is, of course, exactly the approach which Eastern philosophy has always taken.
Whereas Western science and philosophy has always assumed that truth is here, and can be found if we look and think hard enough, Eastern philosophy has always known that truth is beyond our normal consciousness, and can only be found by following spiritual practices which refine and intensify our consciousness. After all, the whole point of the Zen koans is that they can be solved, but not by using reason. The purpose of them is confuse and 'paralyse' the intellect, and so help to engender a fuller or higher state of consciousness - at which the solution to the koan suddenly becomes clear.
Western scientists and philosophers are like someone who lives in a room and is sure that there is nothing outside it - in fact the idea that there might be something outside it doesn't even occur to them. They think they can find 'truth' by examining the room, by finding out what it's made of and how everything in it works, and cataloguing all the details they find. The only problem is that they keep coming upon strange things which don't seem to be explainable in terms of the room itself - there might be a strange air movement, for example, or light whose source they can't find.
The eastern philosopher, on the other hand, realises that the room is not all there is, that there is a wider and truer reality outside it. He or she realises that truth can't be found in the room at all, and that there's no point looking for it there. It can only be found outside it - and so he spends his time trying to find a way out of the room, or trying to dismantle its walls, so that he can gain access to the wider reality beyond them.
This is what we could call 'mystical science' - a quest for truth which is based on expanding consciousness. And if we really want to answer to 'big questions' this is the approach that we should take too. We need a different kind of science - one which isn't based on the supposed objective vision of an observer, but which focuses on expanding the vision of the observer, so that he or she can see more. Instead of new technologies which allow us to examine the shadow reality of samsara more and more deeply, we need spiritual 'technologies' which intensify our consciousness and so give us access to more 'truth'.
And these 'technologies' have already been developed, of course - the transformational paths of Buddhism, for instance, of Tantra or Vedanta Yoga, of Sufism, or the Integral Transformative Practice recently developed by Michael Murphy, Ken Wilber and others. And there have also, of course, been many 'mystical scientists' throughout history, like Meister Eckhart, Jakob Boehme, Ramakrishna or Ramana Maharishi. Their intensified consciousness meant that they were aware of realities which are hidden to us - including many of the answers to the 'big questions'. The Ananda Sutram, for example, by one of the greatest Indian mystic-philosophers of recent times, P.R. Sarkar (also known as Anandamurti), provides a complete explanation of 'life, the universe and everything' from the standpoint of expanded consciousness.
The only problem with this explanations is that, seen from the standpoint of our limited ordinary consciousness, they seem meaningless and even ridiculous. They're bound to, since we're like sheep trying to comprehend a new theory of 'the future and the past and death' which a sheep philosopher-mystic has put forward. The only way we can understand is to use spiritual technologies to expand our consciousness and become mystical scientists ourselves.