Uniting Consciousness East and West
by Paul Hughes
Science is the Yoga of the West.
I am a product of the West. Like most American’s, I grew up in the public education system, and in a technologically savvy and saturated “MTV” culture. As a college student I went straight to the core of a Western scientific education by getting a degree in physics with two minors in philosophy and psychology. My primary interests at the time were astrophysics, cosmology, quantum physics and the nature of consciousness. I was determined to work at NASA and /or go into space one day. I loved science then and still do now.
When I was a freshman I postulated to one of my professors, that the language of computers (i.e. information) was far better suited describing the universe than current physical constructs. I thought I’d made a compelling and convincing case. He laughed me out of his office. Today, more than 20 years later, Seth Lloyd is making the rounds with the same idea. As he mentions in his wonderful book, Programming the Universe. He credits his recent acceptance and success to the widespread use of computer technology. Apparently, timing is everything.
In other words, acceptance of once radical ideas among scientists often hinges on the cultural, or in this case technological mileu in which they exist. As much as science prides itself on being objective, the actual science done everyday by real scientists is all too human. So is there really such a thing as truly objective science? As RAW once said, it’s not really ‘science’ we’re doing but neuro-science (i.e. science as a product of neurology).
According to Seth Lloyd the entire universe is a giant quantum computer. This is an elegant concept and it appeals to me for many reasons. I love computers and the metaphors they empower us with. But are computer metaphors the best way to look at things, or more accurately the most elegant way so far?
Looking at computers as metaphor, where did computer technology come from that gave these new more powerful ideas? Obviously it emerged out of ongoing historical technological trends. However, all of this progress is the result of scientific minds working on things. Whose minds were they, and what was inspiring them to work on the things they did? I think this is the more important question. When you examine the historical roots of the PC revolution you’ll find that things like PC’s and the World Wide Web came from a very particular group of people. As pointed out in What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer, it was the insights gained from higher states of consciousness, specifically those unique to LSD, that gave rise to the PC revolution. As many people who have taken LSD, you experience your brain has a large set of programs, that you in turn can program, and better still, metaprogram “who” and “what” you want to become. Please read our online book by John Lilly, Programming and Metaprogramming the Human Biocomputer, for a pioneering work in this area. It’s also no secret that the 60’s is often equated with a turn to Eastern mysticism for guidance. There’s was good reason for this embrace, as many very intelligent people felt current Western ideas on the nature of reality were woefully incomplete in describing, let alone assisting in integrating these sometimes powerful and overwhelming transpersonal experiences.
When I was 17 I experienced a profound and spontaneous (non drug) shift in consciousness myself. It lasted all of about 10 seconds. At the time I had no knowledge of eastern thought. I made every attempt to recapture the experience. Having read Gödel, Escher, Bach my sophomore year of high school, I often resorted to using Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem as a launching pad into understanding this transcendent state of consciousness. One night while trying, in a rather ridiculous and humorous way, to describe all of this to one my friends, I somehow “tricked” my brain back into this state. For the next hour I laughed my ass off at the cosmic joke of it all. I’ve tried unsuccessfully many times since to explain this state.
I believe my failure to adequate explain this state is rooted in our language and way of looking at the world, which itself is rooted in the Greek ideas of atomism, reductionism and materialism. This way of perceiving and understanding the universe eventually became what we now call science and forms the bedrock of Western philosophy. Barring the recent emergence of Eastern thought into this dialog, the only other alternative explanation of the universe are the beliefs of religious extremism of various stripes. (be it Christian, Islam or New Age). Scientists, being all too human that they are, seeing the believers at the gates, understandably defend their turf with as much zeal. However, this citadel of science as RAW liked to call it, similar to the Catholic Inquisition before it, believes, just like the religious extremism they oppose, that they, and they alone, have a monopoly on all knowledge. If it can’t be objectively verified scientifically, then it doesn’t really exist. Yet, ironically science has *created* just as many ephemeral concepts as any religion. Energyfor example is a fantastic and highly useful and utilitarian concept, but that’s all it really is. The difference in this case, is western concepts like energy have “real-world” objectively verified effects. Understanding these effects and knowing how to predict and utilize them has tremendous power as evidenced by our current technological civilization.
Often times you’ll hear scientists using Occams Razor as a way of defending their beliefs. Yet, when comparing Newton and Einstein’s view of gravity, whose is simpler? Obviously, Occams Razor is not as sharp as they’d like you to think. What does this tell us about science? As many have pointed out, “look how much progress and good has come from science!”. Although many would have good reason to argue with some of that, I of all people agree with them. This is not about questioning what science is able to do, but about what it isnot able to do. Science has yet to explain consciousness in any meaningful and satisfactory way. I believe the reason for this is the very nature of reality and consciousness itself. Although scientists have yet to admit the truth of this fundamental problem, Nasrudin, the famous Sufi Mystic understood it perfectly.
Nasrudin was rushing about town on his donkey, riding too and fro and in some desperation clearly looking for something he had lost. All of the towns people, who adored the wise Nasrudin, and wanting to help him in some way, asked if they could help, “Nasrudin, what are you looking for, maybe we can help you find it?”. As he continued to ride around on his donkey he said, “I’m looking for my donkey, have you seen it?”.
I’ve tried many times myself to explain this “eastern” concept of the self and nature of consciousness with little success. Objectivists insists that reality still exists when we are not there looking at it. But just what kind of reality is there when there is no observer? Everything that we know, everything that we have ever experienced are constructs of our mind. Can you dear reader think of anything that is not in your mind right now??
We travel to the moon, see clouds, you name it. But all of these things are constructs in our minds. What in actuality is “out there”? We might say there are things like electrical fields, waveforms, light, energy, dense matter, etc. But all of these are in turn constructs of human minds coming to grips in their minds with what they are perceiving. And why do we perceive what we do? Even with the best instruments we have expanding our perceptual field, are still constructs of human minds. The embodied experience of even being human at all and making things with our hands is a construct of consciousness.
Consciousness is everywhere and in everything. Everything is consciousness. And as much as we might want to objectify so-called “reality”, all of reality is a construct of the human mind. Of course, then savvy thinkers will point out that there are commonalities between human minds. There is scientific and repeatable consensus. This might be true until we realize that so far everything we have called a law or physics turns out to be mutable. In other words the more WE examine things the more they change. The more we examine so-called hard-core “limits” we realize there are loopholes. Just to be clear I’m not saying nothing is real. No, all of this stuff is as real as the next. Obvious so-called “reality” is not a noun, but a verb. When you examine the present moment (i.e. reality) you realize everything is changing. There is no permanence of any kind. The conscious experience of realizing the impermanence of reality (i.e. maya or illusion) is part of the process of how the Buddha achieved enlightenment. Buddhists use words like Nirvana and Dharmakaya, describing this state as timeless, permanent, devoid of characteristics and free from duality.
Two of my favorite thinkers who have succeeding in explaining it better than I do are Peter Russell and Amit Goswami. Peter Russell’s Reality and Consciousness: Turning the Superparadigm Inside Out does a good job of showing how the problem of consciousness is intrinsically unsolvable with objective science. Like a dog chasing its own tail, or Gödel’s proving that math will never come full circle, or Von Neumann’s Catostrophe of the infinite regress of studying the thing that is doing the studying (consciousness) will never be complete. And before the materialists trash me to pieces, I am not saying we can’t study the nature of consciousness. Of course we can! We can tweak neurotransmitters, probe brain chemistry, augment, analyze and dissect brain structures and come to a much fuller understanding of how the human mind works, solves problems and perceives problems. All of these things are worth of objective scientific study. These though are all problems are within the purview of the Easy Problem of Consciousness. Actually understanding why there is a conscious experience in the first place is an entirely different beast.
This is where Eastern philosophies take an entirely different approach. They already understand that consciousness is the primary nature of reality. Amit Goswami’s monistic idealism version of quantum mechanics is completely refreshing in this regard. Goswami has simply restated quantum mechanics with the supposition that consciousness is the primary component of reality rather than matter. And why not? It seems completely arbitrary that we should choose “out there” using the Greek ideas of atomism and reductionism as the one true way of knowing truth, rather than “in here”. I think that in the end is the primary difference between East and West. West places the primacy of outer experience as absolute, and the East tends to favor inner experience as more true. But as Buddha said even this duality is transcended when one achieves Nirvana. There is no “out there” or “in here”, no object or subject, objective or subjective, just transjective – the experience of the oneness of all things.