The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.
The angel who made it happen looks triumphantly at the skeptical monk who has been visiting. And the monk says “Yeah, but good luck getting it peer-reviewed.”
What I want to think about with you today is whether, in this age of reason and science, there is still room for mystery; whether there are some questions still that Google can’t answer; whether scientific knowledge, with its penchant for breaking things down into smaller and smaller parts, and creating conceptual models for them, is all there is to know.
I don’t come to this question lightly. I have devoted my life to knowledge and learning. Growing up, my favorite Hindu goddess was Saraswati, the Goddess of knowledge, music, arts, wisdom and learning. Not Laxmi, the Goddess of wealth. Not Shakti, the Goddess of Power. Saraswati was my Goddess. And I stand here acknowledging that perhaps my understanding of what knowledge is was limited.
Kind of like a fish acknowledging the limits of water, don’t you think?
The Beginning of Metaphysics
Before we get going, I’d like to draw attention to the double meaning in the title: In the Beginning doesn’t only refer to the past but also to the present moment which is the eternal now, the fundamental principle, the foundation on which everything else is based. The Latin version version of In the Beginning was the Word is “in principio erat verbum.” Meaning The Foundation is the Divine Word. Or I should say The Divine Word is the Foundation.
In every religion the origin of the cosmos and of man is identified as something which is conscious and in fact something that we could describe as absolute consciousness: Consciousness which is transcendent and yet the source of all consciousness in the cosmic realm including our own.
Whether we speak of Allah who commands things to be and they are, or the Tao, or the Word by which all things were made, or Brahman, we are speaking of Consciousness of an ever-living and present. This truth is made especially explicit in Hinduism where the original Reality (with a Capital R) which is the source of all things is described as at once Being, Consciousness and Ecstasy. Actually in the Hindu worldview, the existence of a thing, even a rock, is also a state of consciousness. Even in Buddhism, which does not speak of an objective Supreme Reality, nirvana is the supreme state of consciousness and Buddhahood is also inseparable from consciousness.
In the traditional world there was unanimity concerning the priority of consciousness in relation to what we call “matter” today. Prior to modern science, God had two functions. God was the creator of the universe. But he was first and foremost the redeemer of mankind. With modern science, God’s position as redeemer got shoved into the background. We took over, confident of our engineering prowess and the ability to solve problems and redeem ourselves from any sins we commit on this earth. All of the theological questions became about God the creator.
The Mystery Unravels
Descartes and Galileo, followed by many other men (each of them a high priest of physics, mathematics or philosophy), by taking away all qualitative aspects and reducing corporeal existence to pure quantity created a worldview in which there was such a thing as pure inert matter divorced totally from life and consciousness but somehow mysteriously known by the knowing subject or the mind.
To be fair to Descartes, his “I think, therefore I am” was probably intended not as support of the matter worldview but rather as asserting the supremacy of the mind. Irrespective of which side of the dualism Descartes favored, this dualism has led many to choose the primacy of matter over mind and for the establishment of the view that in the beginning was matter and not consciousness.
Then Darwin came along and stripped God of the creator role too. And if there were any doubts still left, the Big Bang theory nailed the coffin shut.
One of my favorite cartoons arranges the sciences in order of purity or hardness. We already have a colloquial notion of what the hard sciences are. In this cartoon, a psychologist looks at a sociologist and says Sociology is just applied Psychology. And a biologist looks at the psychologist and says Psychology is just applied Biology. And a chemist says Biology is just applied Chemistry. And a physicist says Chemistry is just applied Physics, it’s nice to be on top. And in the distance a mathematician looks at them all and says Oh, Hey, I didn’t see you guys all the way over here.
But if all boils down to matter and energy, if everything is governed by the laws of physics, if our exploration of the mind is just about neurons firing, is choice an illusion? What happened to free will? And if there is no free will, no one can be responsible for their actions! We may as well shut down the police and the courts. They haven’t been working all that well anyway. (Stage whisper)
Problems with the Primacy of Matter
There are other problems with the matter-based conception of the universe.
It’s been known for about a hundred years that light can act as a wave or a particle. It just depends on how the experiment is set up. It’s as if light is schizophrenic about which it is, and will show the aspect we are measuring. So wait, is the light being schizophrenic? Maybe we can agree that light is doing what it has always done. Maybe we can agree that it’s not the light being schizophrenic. So is it our models that are schizophrenic?
Einstein said about quantum physics: I can’t believe God is playing dice with the universe. General relativity and quantum physics have each been experimentally proven to be true to 20 decimal places in their respective domains — relativity for big things like galaxies and black holes, quantum physics for atomic and sub-atomic particles. And yet they are at odds with each other. Again, maybe we can agree that the universe is doing just fine. Maybe it’s our models that need work.
Every religion is driving at our capacity to grow and change and shape and reshape how we deals with ourselves, with each other, with the planet and with the wider world around us. Are we really ready to let the laws of physics run the world? Our world?
Our world is more than particles and waves, energy and matter. In our world, pain is real, suffering is real, happiness is real, emotionality is real, love is real. We can’t glibly hand wave them as “exercises for the reader”.
I’d like to discuss two questions a bit further. The first being, What’s the Matter with China?
What’s the Matter with China?
A few months ago, you may have seen an article in the media talking about the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. It struck me as very funny in so many respects. Whether to believe in reincarnation — yours or the Dalai Lama’s — is not where I’m going. The Dalai Lama has been speculating recently that he might end his spiritual lineage and not reincarnate. That would confound the Chinese government’s plans to engineer a succession that would produce a putative 15th Dalai Lama who accepts China’s presence and policies in Tibet. Their anger welled up. A Communist Party official who has long dealt with Tibetan issues told reporters in Beijing that the Dalai Lama had, essentially, no say over whether he was reincarnated. He accused the Dalai Lama of trampling on sacred traditions. That was ultimately for the Chinese government to decide.
First, I hadn’t known that the Chinese government, with its atheistic or maybe a-religious creed, even cares about a topic such as reincarnation. If there is anything to the material-spiritual duality, we know reincarnation does not fall on the material side.
Second, the prospect of the Chinese Communist Party making decisions about the Dalai Lama’s afterlife seems so utterly absurd. While we’re still debating whether or not we believe in reincarnation, they have learned to master it and make policy on who gets reincarnated and who makes that decision!
Third, the speculation that he might not reincarnate is a brilliant rhetorical move in the Monty Python sense of the phrase.
Seriously though, the Dalai Lama said in an interview with the BBC in December. “Whether the institution of the Dalai Lama should continue or not is up to the Tibetan people, There is no guarantee that some stupid Dalai Lama won’t come next, who will disgrace himself or herself. That would be very sad. So, much better that a centuries-old tradition should cease at the time of a quite popular Dalai Lama.”. He turned 80 on July 6th.
Personally, I would be deeply saddened by this despite the fact that the Dalai Lama would have ascended into Buddhahood. Call me selfish but what about us? Where would we get our guidance? Who would implore us to raise our consciousness, be good to the planet and to practice compassion towards all beings?
Perhaps Nietzsche was right, we’d have to become gods ourselves.
What’s the Matter with Kansas?
About 10 years ago, Thomas Frank wrote a book titled What’s the Matter with Kansas?. (In Australia, the same book was titled What’s the Matter with America? I guess it’s a matter of perspective.)
In a nutshell, his claim is that the political discourse of recent decades has dramatically shifted from social and economic equality to the use of “explosive” cultural issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, which are used to redirect anger toward “liberal elites.” and gets conservative Kansas Republicans to favor economic policies that do not benefit most of them.
Why does this work? The popular answer in the mainstream media is to suggest that the folks in Kansas are stupid or bigoted or somehow conned into supporting these policies. Stupidity of the other side is not a satisfying explanation for me. I mean, it is satisfying, because it strokes the ego, but perhaps we shouldn’t be lulled by that little dose of dopamine. Perhaps something else is going on?
Living in the shadow of Harvard and MIT and Princeton and Stanford and Berkeley and and … is it possible that we have leaned too far towards the observable and peer-reviewable? Just as we accuse Kansans of being stupid and anti-science, they could accuse us of being stupid and anti-religion? The only thing common is the word stupid!
We don’t control how Kansans think but we do control how we think. Perhaps we should make room for miracles in our own life? Perhaps a vision in a dream is just neurons firing but perhaps it really is a new path for us to follow in our life.
What’s the Matter with the Left Brain?
The left brain is the seat of reason. In our time, that’s considered a good thing, the ultimate virtue. That’s why Bertrand Russell and Alfred Whiteheads’s Principia Mathematica took over 300 pages to prove that 1+1=2. In its time, it became a bestseller that no one read, except Godel. Who dismissed it with a swift turn of logic.
Some of you may have seen the TED Talk by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor: “My stroke of insight”. It’s been watched about 18 million times, maybe even by some in this room. She’s a neurologist at MGH. One day, she had a stroke which wiped out a part of her left brain. And in the process, she discovered that the left brain is the seat of linear thinking — what others have referred to as “slow thinking”.
I want to challenge the notion that the left brain is the be all and end all of thinking. That our creative side, the irrational side, the I’ll-believe-in-miracles-if-I-want-to side, the parallel processing right brain is something we ought to curb and control. Or just plain ignore. That right brain is there for a reason. Millions of years of evolution has kept it in place rather than have it go the way of our vestigial tail. To actively suppress it is to suppress half of ourselves, dare I say maybe the better half of ourselves.
Someone noticed a horseshoe above the door of Niels Bohr’s house. Niels was a philosopher and Nobel-winning physicist. They asked him, “I thought you didn’t believe in such things.” “I don’t”, he said, “but I understand it works whether you believe in it or not.”
The non-material Worlds
So what does this non-material, mystical world we’ve been talking about look like? Honestly, I don’t know but increasingly I feel that we have ventured too far in following The Gospel of Physics.
And I have a few hints.
The most accessible is the world of dreams and inner thought. I don’t mean the ones about being late for an exam or showing up naked for a job interview. I mean dreams about what we could be doing with the remainder of our life. I mean dreams of being compassionate, of serving people, animals, the planet. Dreams of following one’s inner calling. Dreams of courage, dreams of love.
Yoga in the Bhagavad Gita refers to the skill of union with the ultimate reality or the Absolute. In the Gita, Yoga is a lot more than downward dog. The eighteen chapters of the Bhagavad Gita have a progressive order, by which Krishna leads “Arjuna up the ladder of Yoga from one rung to another.” The Gita’s eighteen chapters can be divided into three sections of six chapters each. It’s characterized as a successive approach in which Karma yoga leads to Bhakti yoga, which in turn leads to Gyaana yoga:
- Chapters 1–6 = Karma yoga, the means to the final goal
- Chapters 7–12 = Bhakti yoga or devotion
- Chapters 13–18 = Gyaana yoga or knowledge, the goal itself
In an echo of Niels Bohr’s comment, someone once told me I didn’t need to understand the 18 chapters of the Gita point by point. Just take in the recitation, he said. If it has been recited with love and reverence, it will bring you closer to God. It is traditional to recite the Bhagwad Gita when a loved one dies, as if they could hear it, as if they could understand it recited in the original Sanskrit. Because it works whether you believe in it or not.
From a different religious tradition we have Dante’s Divine Comedy. On the surface, the poem describes Dante’s travels through Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso but at a deeper level, it represents, allegorically, the soul’s journey towards God. At this deeper level, Dante draws on medieval Christian theology and philosophy.
At the end of The Divine Comedy, Dante pierces the skin of the universe and comes face to face with the love that moves the sun and the other stars. What a glorious journey, what a glorious finale!
When Newtonian cosmology came into being, our conception of space became purely physical not allegorical as it had been in the 16th century. The result of this embrace has been that We can no longer describe the psychological or spiritual aspects of our being. We have moved away from the mystery of the natural world. We believe Facebook can help us form communities.
And as we think and describe the world in terms of matter, we assert dominion over it. Matter becomes just an object, just a resource. A rock is just a rock, a stream is just a source of water, a plant is just food, a hillside is just a coal deposit. They used to be evidence of the miracle of God. What happened?
I’d like to close with a reading from Barbara Kingsolver, from her book Small Wonder.
— Barbara Kingsolver, Small Wonder
The writing has been on the wall for some years now, but we are a nation illiterate in the language of the wall. The writing just gets bigger. Something will eventually bring down the charming, infuriating naivete that allows us our blithe consumption and cheerful ignorance of the secret uglinesses that bring us whatever we want. I am not saying I’m in favor of the fall; it terrifies me. I’m saying something’s going to crash. Nostalgia for an earlier ignorance is not the domain of this discussion. Sitting here eating as fast as we can, while glancing around for the instruments of our demise, isn’t it either. Would that the instrument might be a reconstruction guided by our own foresight and discipline, rather than someone else’s hatred …
What I can find is this, and so it has to be: conquering my own despair by doing what little I can. Stealing thunder, tucking it in my pocket to save for the long drought. Dreaming in the color green, tasting the end of anger. Don’t ask me for the evidence. The possibility of a kinder future, the existence of God — these are just two of many things that fall into the category I would label ‘impossible to prove, and proof is not the point.’
Faith has a life of its own.
Order of Service
This talk fits into the order of service posted here.