on 14 November 2011
This is a great book which I believe to be very important. It is interesting and readable, and I highly recommend it. It is a discussion from two contrary viewpoints about some of the basic questions of existence, as how the universe and life as we know it came about and what we are as living beings. It gives an overview of the current scientific view on these questions, and at the same time presents an alternative spiritual view. The two participants of the debate are Deepak Chopra, whose viewpoint is considered spiritual, and Leonard Mlodinow, whose position is that of common objective science. Their disagreements and different approaches to the basic questions of existence really made me think deeply on them, and that is what I believe is the real value of the book.
In earlier history, mans view of life was very much dominated by religion. In the latter decades, a more materialistic and atheistic scientific position has gained ground. It is based on actual observations and measurements of animate and inanimate physical objects, such as cells and structures of living organisms. Contrary to religion, it is considered by its proponents to be a purely rational approach to reality, as it is based on observable facts and not on religious dogmas.
The question is, however, if the materialistic science that Leonard and many other prominent scientists represent actually is as rational as they claim it to be. For instance, if I interpret Leonard correctly, it is a common view among scientists that creation could have sprung from a state of nothingness, and thus that life could have sprung from non-life, that intelligence, purpose and the laws of nature could have sprung from non-intelligence and that consciousness could have sprung from non-consciousness? But is this really logical?
Chopra argues that consciousness is the basis of creation. That it constitutes an eternal transcendental reality that is imbued with an organizing, creative intelligence that manifests, sustains and coordinates the innumerable factors that coincide to make our life possible. Leonard, however, refutes this on the grounds that it is not proven. Though, he seems less particular about offering evidence for some of his own views. He argues keenly for the viewpoint that mind and consciousness only are products of the physical brain, and that the brain is only created and governed by physical laws. Yet, he admits that the science he represents doesn't know what consciousness is, doesn't know what the actual connection between the physical brain and the mind is and doesn't know where the physical laws come from. So how can one believe such a theory to be based on anything more than speculation and guesswork? Yet, it is a view that seems to have become dominant in our modern society and in academia.
Modern science has a very strong authority in our western society. When you ask people why, they will probably point to all the achievements of modern technology, like cars, telephones, space rockets etc. But I think it is a very different thing to understand parts of nature, and to utilize some of its laws, than to understand the wholeness of it.
If one should accept the view that the inner being of man is only a product of a physical brain, it has quite dramatic implications. First of all, there would be no room for any free will. Secondly, all the people of the past that have been considered truly wise, like Jesus, Buddha, Socrates, Plato etc. must all be reconsidered to have been totally deluded. Thirdly, life would not have any deeper meaning or higher purpose, and what we do in this life and how we behave would have no consequence for ourselves as soon as our soulless physical body ceases to function. However, if Chopra's view of consciousness being the fundamental reality should be right, would it at all be possible to prove it? And how can we possibly understand and describe it?
The problem with pure consciousness from a scientific point of view is that it is not an observable object, as it by nature is totally abstract. It doesn't have a form or a color. It can't be observed in a microscope or by the help of an x-ray. It can't be measured or weighed and can't be dissected. So how shall a science that is based on observation and measurement of physical objects relate to such a concept? Well, as it seems obvious from the discourse in the book, it doesn't relate to it at all. Rather, they strive to exclude all elements of subjectivity and achieve some kind of pure objectivity. But is this really possible? For how can we escape the reality of consciousness?
Everything we experience, we experience in consciousness. Everything we observe, we observe in consciousness. Everything we think and understand, takes place in consciousness. How can we even possibly confirm if there exists a reality outside or independent of consciousness? Accordingly, the idea of pure objectivity seems illusory. One person measures gravity in China, another in California. By the common language of mathematics, they are able to give the same description of their observations - the same mathematical equation. This is what modern science call objectivity, but it is still based on subjectivity.
Furthermore, how can we take for granted that the senses deliver the truth of reality? When we go to a cinema, we can see people walking about, people riding on horses, trees and mountains etc. For an ignorant person, it would all be considered real - real people and real sceneries - for a knowable person, however, it is just shadows on a silver screen. How is it possible to know if something like this is not applicable to the physical reality of the universe? That the physical reality that we think is out there, that we think exists independently from an observer, only exists in consciousness?
Because of the abstract nature of consciousness, I believe Chopra's task to explain his position is much more difficult than what it is for Leonard. It is probably more difficult to understand the abstract nature of consciousness than to relate to and understand observable physical objects, even if they can be very complex and minute. Leonard insists that serious science can only be based on what can be proven. But what if it simply is not possible to prove an independent transcendental reality of consciousness the way he demands it to be done, even if it should be the truth? This is one of the great dilemmas raised by the book, and which poses one of the important, delightful and meaningful intellectual challenges it gives to the reader.