by Daniel Ranard
3Quarksday.com from 1 January 2018
“I am in the world and at the same time in myself: is there geometry more beautiful?” —Abdelmajid Benjelloun
When someone learns you’re in academia, sometimes they ask questions you’re not qualified to answer. An economist friend was asked once: “Oh, so how long do eggs last in the fridge?” And so it is, perhaps, with asking physicists about consciousness. You may as well ask a philosopher, a neuroscientist, or really anyone else – after all, we all have first-hand knowledge of that spark of life inside our skulls.
But I want to write on what physicists think about consciousness. Not because they deserve special authority, but because they provide an important point of reference.
The physicist’s worldview usually contains some aspect of physicalism (asserting the only “real” things are physical things, governed by physical laws), reductionism (asserting all observable phenomena are explicable in terms of their microscopic parts), and positivism or operationalism (asserting that the only meaningful concepts are empirically testable).
And in recent generations more than any others, it seems, this web of attitudes permeates the zeitgeist. It is our inheritance from the success of 20th-century physics.
This inheritance alters the way we frame questions about the mind and consciousness. While Descartes asked how the physical realm interacts with the realm of the mind and soul (his answer: the pineal gland), today we immediately privilege the physical.
If the world consists only of the physical, how does the conscious mind arise? If your brain is a soup of electrons and protons, how does this soup come to harbor an interior experience? What gives rise to thoughts, feelings, and sense of being?
Philosophers have devised an intricate taxonomy of responses to the question of how consciousness relates to the physical world. Where do modern physicists fall within this taxonomy, especially as a community whose attitudes have historically shaped the framing of the question?
We might as well start Edward Witten, a theoretical physicist who already serves as something of an oracle within the field. In fact, when he speaks among physicists, it’s often accompanied by a hush in the room. So here’s Witten, in a video interview:
I think consciousness will remain a mystery… Understanding the function of the brain is a very exciting problem, in which probably there will be a lot of progress during the next few decades. That’s not out of reach… But what it is we are experiencing when we are experiencing consciousness, I see as remaining a mystery….
In short, Witten subscribes to:
View #1: “It’s a mystery – that’s all I can say.”
Anticlimactic, maybe. But a strength of science is that its wisest practitioners only make scientific claims when they are capable of addressing a question scientifically. Witten is careful to distinguish two different types questions about the mind. One can first ask: what are the inner workings of the brain, physically and biologically, and how do these give rise to behavior?
Like most physicists, he assumes that scientists will eventually answer this question. The brain is a complicated physical system, but it’s governed by the same laws as all other matter. Meanwhile, there’s the second question of how the brain gives rise to conscious experience. What is the nature of your interior world, and how is it related to physical matter? This question Witten is unwilling to answer. Many physicists share his agnosticism.
It may seem Witten hasn’t said very much. But at least he maintains there’s some mystery. Compare that with:
View #2: “There’s no mystery – there’s no mind, only matter.”
The physicists’ legacy of physicalism frames popular questions about consciousness. If you believe the world consists of only the physical, then consciousness will present a puzzle: how do you account for the mental realm we inhabit? We have seen that one response is to claim agnosticism. But another is to stick hard to physicalism.
Such hardline physicists account for the mental realm by simply denying it, or denying the validity of the question. Their view is something like what philosophers call eliminative materialism.
It stems from the long and fruitful scientific tradition of only asking questions that can be empirically verified. You don’t ask, “What’s an electron really like?” or “What is the essence of the quark?”
These questions are dismissed as not only useless but also truly meaningless, questions about nothing. Instead, one asks, “What happens when you measure the electron in the following way?”
Likewise, many physicists reject typical questions about consciousness. If the ineffable interior life of conscious beings is not something we can ask valid questions about, then does it really exist?
To these physicists, you can’t ask, “What is Alice really feeling inside her head?” — a question with no verifiable answer. Instead, you ask questions like, “What will Alice say when I ask her what she’s feeling inside her head?”
The second question does have a verifiable answer, and one that you could hypothetically predict using the laws of physics, assuming you can solve the equations governing the particles that constitute Alice, calculating how her mouth will move in response to the question.
Physicists with View #2 will satisfy themselves with questions of the latter nature, while dismissing questions of the former.
To them, the “mind” is just another sort of abstraction, a useful bit of language. The question of how the mind arises from the brain is no more philosophically troubling for them than the question of how a “cloud” arises from a collection of water molecules hanging in the sky.
View #2 can be hard to stomach. To many of us, it certainly feels like there’s something special going on inside our heads. It feels like our thoughts have a special sort of existence that clouds don’t have. If one accepts that intuition, it leads the physicist to:
View #3: “Consciousness is a mysterious property that emerges in certain physical systems.”
For these physicists, it’s possible to admit that consciousness is a special sort of phenomenon that occurs in certain physical systems. Particles arranged in the shape of a table aren’t conscious, but particles arranged in the shape of a person usually are.
Somehow, a particular motion of particles gives rise to a special interior world, a mind. At the same time, one can maintain that this “mind” has no causal control over the matter that composes it: it’s what philosophers call an epiphenomenon, a phenomenon outside of the causal order. Many physicists are somewhat epiphenomenalists, I think.
If you accept that the mind is real and not some simple abstraction, and you believe it’s a consequence of certain physical arrangements of matter, the question becomes: what arrangements of matter give rise to consciousness?
This question may be difficult, but at least it is (some believe) meaningful. One physicist who’s taken a stab at the question is Max Tegmark from MIT, in his speculative paper “Consciousness as a State of Matter.”
I won’t claim Tegmark is an epiphenomenalist of otherwise classify his philosophy, but he does ask the question: which sort of matter is conscious, and why? For a critical look at some related ideas, I also recommend the analysis of Scott Aaronson, a theoretical computer scientist and part-time physicist.
I suspect that Views 1, 2, and 3 loosely cover the majority of physicists. Then again, maybe you’re better off asking the economist how long you can leave your eggs in the fridge.
Daniel Ranard is a PhD Student at Stanford University at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.
By Robert Ringer
An excerpt from the popular blog, Robertringer.com
“When it comes to transforming the impossible into the possible, I believe the most important human will is the will to connect. Connecting with the Infinite Energy of the universe allows you to transcend secular constraints.
“In other words, when you are connected to Infinite Energy, your life is not at the mercy of luck or coincidences. Infinite Energy allows you to go beyond dreaming the impossible dream and actually live it. Though we may never completely understand it, connecting with Infinite Energy appears to give the atoms of which we are comprised the magnetic ability to attract the things, people, and circumstances we need to transform our impossible dreams into reality.
“Which leaves it up to each individual — be he/she a practicing religionist or an atheist — to customize the best way to connect with the Infinite Energy of the universe. It’s also nice to know that when it comes to this monumental challenge, no one has an advantage over you. On the contrary, you are on an equal footing with the most learned of theologians, so don’t shortchange yourself because of a lack of specific knowledge.
“And remember: The issue isn’t how you connect, but whether or not you do connect.”
Robert Ringer is known as an American icon whose unique insights into life have helped millions of readers worldwide. He is also the author of two New York Times #1 bestselling books, both of which have been listed by The New York Times among the 15 best-selling motivational books of all time.
Any suggestion that mystical realisation of Reality is “within you” would be limiting if true. There was no suggestion in my experiences that the mystical experience of Reality (MER) is limited to coming from “within”.
We are equipped to receive it but not gift it to ourselves, or to anyone else.
If this “within you” description were true the conclusion would be that human existence, probably only human existence, is necessary to experience MER. That isn’t my experience of the mystical experience of Reality (MER). It’s OUT there and it applies to everything known and as yet unknown, including humans.
The bible puts it well when it refers to the veils lifting (2 Corinthians 3.16). Does this mean yes, that our ability to experience spiritual Reality is real, but latent, can only be triggered from outside ourselves? Yes, that’s my experience. It’s not within the gift of any human to achieve MER by their own efforts exclusively. Humans didn’t invent MER.
My experiences suggest that human beings are developing an ability to evolve into an Ultimate Reality that already exists as the foundation of all existence – of which humans as they are now are not necessarily a significant part.
Also significant to note is that this experience only comes to individuals, which is an important point in view of humanity’s current tribal, totalitarian, community and political instincts that work to the contrary.
The Jesus of the Christian bible evidently mistakenly believed MER is about making better humans. Is this why, when this premise failed even in his day (even with his disciples exhibiting complete ignorance of Jesus’ spiritual significance, Luke 9:46), humanity was only left with teachings of morality and ethics for the human spirit, not the Real, spiritual “holy” spirit of MER?
MER, as Jesus said, comes and goes like the wind, from where, and to where, nobody knows … ( JOHN 3:8), the implication being that there’s not much humans can do about it.
Is that why Jesus’ mission failed, because he still misinterpreted his own spiritual experience and thought it could be evangelised, prosyletised from his own MER?
My experience is that the mystical experience of Reality (MER) is caught not taught. If this is generally true, is this why Jesus’ mission was eventually limited to being merely anthropomorphic, no more than the teachings of morality and ethics of the Boy Scouts or social service clubs?
MER is a gateway to an existence more important than being or remaining merely human; in my experience of the phenomena.
The good news is that seeking or even studying this “Holy Spirit”, MER, even if we don’t experience it yet, makes us better human beings – axiomatically, automatically. MER reveals that all is well. We are loved, guarded, guided, helped, directed and protected. We are not abandoned. We are not left to our own devices “within us”.
Q. I would like your blessing.
A. You are blessed beyond imagining. So go away, be silent, ignore humanity, ignore yourself, just listen. That which you listen for will do the rest. It is benign beyond understanding to you now whether you know it or not but you will know real, true love beyond human knowing, you will be guarded, guided, uplifted, and taught and will have all knowledge, humility, kindness and acceptance, now and forever.
This experience is real, not man-made, and eventually is for all creation.There are no failures.
Go alone to this thing and listen. You will be given everything and asked for nothing. This is the painless, enduring path of Ultimate Reality.
By: Lama Lhakpa Yeshe, Tricycle.org
The great Tibetan lama Patrul Rinpoche was a widely revered and much-respected teacher, and people gathered around him to receive his wisdom and insight. His teachings were simple, direct, and profound, and in one way or another the essence of his discourse always led to the practice of compassion.
One day he said to a small group of his students: “The purpose of life is to help all sentient beings to be free from suffering. In order to do this, you need to cultivate unconditional, unlimited, and pure compassion toward all, without any exception.”
Patrul Rinpoche always encouraged discussion, debate, and dialogue, so after making this all-encompassing statement, he asked, “Do you understand?”
“So follow whichever way comes naturally to you. It is not the external form of practice that matters, it is the inner spirit, the pure mind, that we need to pay attention to.”
Well-meaning advice of a seemingly spiritual nature is not available to ordinary humans in practice. It does not succeed because by its nature Reality is caught, not taught. Spirituality is an experience of Reality. Anything else is mere religion or speculation, not spiritual.
The ones who catch Reality are probably born already prepared to experience Reality, to succeed spiritually. They are the ones noted for their “hunger and thirst for righteousness”. This hunger and thirst is a lifelong gift, a passion.
Spiritual awakening, as opposed to the mere human improvement sought by well-meaning “spiritual” advice, is believed to be seminal, an intrinsic part of our evolution.
The experience of Reality comes to everyone eventually though not, apparently, necessarily in one lifetime.
Though spirituality is not for everyone yet, finally there are no failures.
“Any effort dedicated to making humans better humans is not spiritual. Being human IS the problem. Being better at it is a spiritual oxymoron, a dead end.
“My life and my work is just that – to destroy all your misconceptions. Just trying to destroy one concept and giving it another name will not take anybody to reality.”
– Sadhguru, Mystic’s Musings
“As for the human race, it is being taken care of better than it can take care of itself. All is well.”
Q: The ancient Vedantic scripts that attempt to explain human existence say there are two approaches, philosophical, and experiential. Which are you?
A: Through no effort on my part, or any qualification I’m aware of, I’ve been given many annual experiences of what I call Reality. I think that puts me in the experiential camp.
Consequently, to me, the word Reality means everything that exists, everything known and unknown, then, now and forever – the utter joy of being, the oneness with all, the dissolving gratitude, humility of being wholly accepted (love), and knowledge – the “veils” removed.
However, though I have experienced this Reality I can’t claim to understand it – rather like someone who can drive a car without having to understand how it works.
Q: So where does philosophy come in?
A. Philosophy is a means by which mankind attempts to use the mind to make known facts meaningful. (Some scientists are saying that without actual experience of Reality Reality cannot be known).
My Experience is that what is known as “enlightenment”, “transcendence”, is spontaneous, is caught not taught. The mind, that the philosophers are using to study Reality in the absence of actual experience of Reality, is an illusion that produces nothing lasting, and is impermanent. Mind shares longevity and death with humans. Mind, with its machinations and ego, is mischief, (but temporary).
Q: So, what is the future of humans? Can we know?
A: Some Sufi schools teach that by the time the Spirit of Reality has brought humans to full maturity, then only Reality, which can be said to be spirit and truth, will still exist. The human race will have dissolved into Reality.
Humans won’t exist. The process is inexorable.
Q: So where do you come in? Do your Experiences give you a mission? Are you a spiritual messenger, a teacher, a guru, or a master?
A: No, I’m none of these things. I do still wonder what I’m supposed to do with my Experiences. I’ve given it serious thought, meditation and experiential study, but have felt not a tremor of personal destiny that I recognise. I’ve wondered if I’m trying hard enough but am somewhat comforted by the spiritual tradition of some Experiencers like me who choose to stay and help the human race understand their destination as spiritual beings. Others, like me, choose to ignore this as a distraction. I am called to go on in the Experience of Reality.
Humans aren’t the be-all and end-all of Reality. There are more important things.
I’m also comforted by the only clear and direct message I got 55 years ago on one of my Experiences on a bridge over the River Thames one evening. The message was: All Is Well. It was clear, strong, persistent and unequivocal. It resonates with me still.
I took that message as a specific reassurance. At the time, the Experiences were ruining my human life. After that, and slowly through the years, I began to think my destiny was to accept the part of me that is human – my responsibilities as a husband and father, earning a living, at the same time as the more important inner work of being what humans call a “mystic” – someone who has Experienced Reality and is caught in an awareness of the process. I can and am to do both.
So to answer your question again, no, I don’t feel any urge to be any more involved with the human race than necessary to my inner work in Reality. I know Reality and am that first and foremost.
As for the human race, it is being taken care of better than it can take care of itself. All is well.
Excerpts from the book OVOID THE VOID by Dr. Peter Steiner
‘The Void is the mysterious source of all there is, and I am part of the Source.’
Everything comes from the Nothing and I am part of the Everything, along with the Nothing. In the dichotomy of extremes the very definition of being Human is to keep challenging the edge of the envelope, be it the mysteriously small and the mysteriously large.
In the world of extremes the human mind cannot help but be an essential component of the Universe. By virtue of being a part of the whole, the human mind is forever blessed and condemned to the realm of extremes. The brilliant are likely to be manic depressive, the dull are likely to be spiritually even keeled.
The Mozart and the Salieri in us are selected by forces greater than ourselves, and have no choice but to emerge from the depth of our soul. They will battle for survival in our hearts, minds and souls, but the winner is never in doubt.
Salieri can curse God till the cows come home, he will never be Mozart. And similarly, Mozart could never live the life of the disciplined, systematic and ordered monotone existence of Salieri, even if he tried. The Oak and the Willow are what they are. Mozart and Salieri cannot trade places, bodies or souls.
“The strong will always break; the weak will bend and survive on the decay of the broken.”
There is a reason for the existence of all, the brilliant and the ordinary, the strong and the weak. The Universe is the way it is because it is the kind of Universe as IS. It will keep on unfolding the way it always had, whether we like it or not, whether we strive and fight the jihad, or surrender in monastic meditation.
Einstein, Gandhi, a miscarried foetus and I will never understand one another, for we were born and have died or will die for different purposes. Our uniqueness is the purpose, and the Universe made sure of that by mixing up slightly different combinations of base pairs on our DNA strands.
The less than 0.1 per cent difference in the DNA of Einstein, Gandhi, the miscarried foetus and I made us all different with differing paths, goals, and purposes in life. The 99.9 per cent of DNA that is the same in the four of us makes us human.
“The 1.0 per cent of DNA that is uniquely human differentiates us from our evolutionary cousins, the chimpanzees.”
Yes, 99 per cent of our DNA is common between humans and other primates.
Our essential purpose is both the same and unique. This is the dilemma and dichotomy that drives humans to madness and visions of clarity. Our individual purpose is different. The Theories of Relativity (both) could not have been written by Gandhi or I. Einstein or I would have made a very inferior Mahatma.
And a miscarried foetus may have been the change in the life of Einstein’s, Gandhi’s or Peter’s mothers’ lives that allowed for the three of us to be born and grow old. Part of the legacy of the unborn is to allow the rest of us to leave more visible signs of Inuksuk on the planet.
Inuksuk. I was here. Along with Einstein, Gandhi, and millions of the unborn. We have all participated in weaving a tapestry of humanity. Without any one of us the tapestry will survive, but it will not be the same. The way my essence permeated the Universe in an albeit temporary manner caused the Universe to never again be the same.
“I have come from the Void, the Source and found both of them inside me. I no longer feel the need to satisfy the existential hunger to find meaning in Life.
“The meaning is Life itself. The Life I live is the meaning. No one else has to prove it or approve of me. The meaning of life simply IS. Those of us who recognize the significance of the insignificant will never self destruct. Life seems to like the extreme along with the average, the multitudes. Those of us who hover on the edges between feelings of insignificance and folie de grandeur will always be at risk of self destruction.”
As denizens of the edge of insanity, the catatonic and Bonaparte of the asylum are two sides of the same coin. The sinner and the saint are the mirror images of each other, just exchanging cards in passing in the course of their lives. The mindless toil of the jihad, however always has the echoes of Zen in the background.
Chop wood, carry water – I reach enlightenment – so now I chop wood and carry water. And if I spout enlightenment, I have probably lost it. Observation affects the outcome – if I know that I am enlightened, I am probably not. If I know for sure that something is right, I am probably wrong.
“I will never see the whole picture. I can never see the world with your eyes or walk in your shoes. I am me and you are you.”
Do we have the power to change? We can tweak our existence by a small amount, but we cannot change our DNA (yet). I will not be Einstein, Gandhi or the unborn foetus. What I do with my mind is up to me – to a degree. So Steinbeck I shall not be. Neither do I want to be. This work was about what it means to be human, what it means to be a man. Not Mice and Men. Just Man. And Hemmingway can write To Have and not Have. I know that I have.
“I accept the Void as the Source of the Everything, and I also accept the Void in me as a natural consequence of being a part of the Universe.”
I do, however keep on being its partner in the ongoing process to create my personal reality. I wont try to eliminate the Void from inside me by trying to fill it with stuff – but I will not ignore it either. My awareness of the Void inside me allows the creative spark to burn inside me without endangering my sanity in the process.
I will continue to tweak this relationship with my inner Void and allow it to provide the space so that creativity can arise in me. This is an act of will that neither ignores the circle of emptiness inside me, nor tries to fill it with addictive stuff and processes.
I gently tweak the empty circle of Void in me in an ongoing manner, and thus keep on changing the circular Void into an ever shifting Ovoid shape. This Ovoid Void in me will keep on changing, without losing its predetermined locus and curvature. I Ovoid the Void. I will neither Avoid it, Denying it nor Fight it.
“This becomes a cooperative venture between the Source (God or the Universe) and the Vehicle of change (Me).”
The Void and I form the Bow and Arrow of Khalil Gibran, working together in creating a process that keeps altering Reality in an ongoing and unfolding mystery. The Universe is the mystery, and I am an active part of it. The mystery is both outside and inside of me. Outer Reality and my Inner Life are inseparable and interactive. I will never understand the Universe completely and neither will I understand my mind and my soul.
And this is all right with me, I am content with understanding 99 per cent of the Universe and 99 per cent of myself, and I am grateful for the ability to have reached so far. The symbolic one per cent of my mind and soul remains a mystery forever for me. When I understand the last 1 per cent, a part of the known will shift and offer a new and different 1 per cent to discover.
“I will never ever understand it all. Neither can you, nor anyone else.”
Excerpted from the ebook, OVOID THE VOID by Dr.Peter Steiner BSc., DDS.
From the perspective of Reality, you don’t need any human criteria to achieve the purpose of your life.
Those who have experienced Reality are no longer bound by faith, hope, or belief, morality or ethics, or any other second hand human notion of their individual purpose. To those who have experienced Reality these are all automatic “givens”, the personal fruits, attributes you are granted individually by knowing Reality.
Reality is enough, in my experience, though it seems to be a spontaneous event in human lives and comes unbidden and apparently even undeserved by human standards.
“The Cloud of Unknowing” suggests the only thing Seekers can do is to meditate, contemplate, pray and read … Christians are told to “wait and watch”. Others say you can be given the experience by teachers but I think the jury is still definitely out on that.
Maybe the physicists will eventually come up with an understanding of the phenomena from studies currently being made in universities around the world. Of all the scientists, academics and serious students of the phenomena of Reality, the physicists seem to be the nearest to a primary definition of Reality but even then they are only uncovering what Reality -experiencers and others have been reporting for thousands of years BC.
Bernadette Roberts says the unitive, egoless state is as far as one can progress in this life.*
In the meantime, as those who have experienced Reality might agree: All is Well.
“In general, our contemplative maps of the journey come to an end with the discovery of the true self and it’s oneness with the divine.” *Bernadette Roberts, ‘WHAT IS SELF? A Study of the Spiritual Journey in Terms of Consciousness’, pub. Www.sentientpublications.com
*Bernadette Roberts, a former nun of 10 years seclusion, has been called one of the most significant contemplatives of our time.
|This question came in an email from a Seeker.
One answer from someone who has experienced MER (Mystical Experience of Reality) is :
What you seek, seeks you … You can’t earn it, you can’t demand it, you can’t qualify for it or get it because you want it or think you need it or because you’re ‘good’ or hugely charitable, even well educated, live simply, or are an enthusiastic member of a religion or a political “ism”.
The only way you can get it is through experiencing MER. Anything else is mind stuff, culture, emotion, ego and need.
But surely, you might ask, morality and ethics are important? To humans perhaps, but not to Reality. It is axiomatic, automatic, however, that you will be legal, decent and honest, moral and ethical when you have experienced MER, without even asking or trying … On top of which, humans have all they need. Their wants deform their being.
It’s unlikely anyone can pass MER on. It comes from who-knows where and smites seemingly at random. Even being human doesn’t qualify you. But if you’re not a Seeker anyway, haven’t got that “hunger and thirst”, don’t worry, no-one’s left behind, there are no failures, Reality’s in charge, humans haven’t been given stewardship of existence. Humans are nowhere near being wired enough to take in the whole of Reality, yet.
But of all humans, the physicists are the nearest, and they are only in process of being born and will only ever be able to reveal what already exists within the common grasp of humans, even at the height of their future powers, whereas Reality will show us everything …
Reality is; then, now and forever and we are that. All is well.
Can spiritual wholeness be achieved while still wholly human? The enlightenment that is at the heart of Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism, for instance, would say NO.
Without the transformative experience of Reality there is no wholeness. Reality is the only wholeness. We are that. That is all there is.
Does this NO explain why humans exhibit such neuroticism – why their mere human reach is exceeded by Reality, so leaving them uneasy, unfulfilled, disatisfied, frustrated, prone to the comforts of mythomanias and false ‘spirituality’ that only work on a mental, emotional level and deliver nothing real and lasting?
The spiritual life is not about being a good human. Being a good human is a by-product of the experience of Reality. But being a good human being is not the wholeness of Reality. Reality is not limited.