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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Saturday, February 18, 2006

New Age thinking

The weather continues sunny, clear, and crisp. I keyed some notes from The Self-Aware Universe by Amit Goswami, a book I bought in 1996 and was excited about at the time, but which I have not read since. Now my restless philosophical researches have led me back to it, and I am excited again to be reading it.

Goswami, a physicist, was unhappy about aspects of his work. From his preface (compressed):

Objects found in our everyday experience do not seem to behave in the strange ways common to quantum mechanics. Thus it is easy for us to be lulled into thinking that macroscopic matter is different from microscopic particles. Many physicists stop puzzling over the paradoxes of quantum physics and succumb to this solution. They divide the world into quantum and classical objects.

To forge a successful career in physics, you cannot worry too much about such recalcitrant questions as the quantum puzzles. The pragmatic way of doing quantum physics, I was told, is to learn to calculate.

I realized that there must be a joyful way of approaching the subject, but I needed to restore my spirit of inquiry into the meaning of the universe and to abandon the mental compromises I had made for career motives.

Goswami, son of a Brahmin guru in India, argues that the apparent conflicts and paradoxes between so-called classical (Newtonian) physics and quantum physics disappear once one abandons the assumption of material realism--the belief that the ultimate reality is matter moving in empty space, and that this matter is fundamentally separate from the consciousness that perceives it. Instead, he proposes adopting the viewpoint of monistic idealism--the view that consciousness is the ultimate reality, and that what we call matter (and energy) is not separate from consciousness but a derivative or form of it, of one nature with the mind that perceives it. If we see things in this way, the apparent contradictions and paradoxes disappear. Not only that, but the viewpoint of science would then be in accord with the viewpoint of spiritual traditions and mystics since ancient times.

As Goswami points out, the idea that consciousness (mind) is the ultimate reality is not new. This philosophical outlook is held by some schools of Buddhist philosophy, such as the one called Cittamatra (pronounced "chitta-matra"), or the "mind-only" school. The first stage of learning to see things in this way is to experiment with loosening our grip on the conviction that there is a real, solid world out there independent of our experience of it. One of the proofs used in this is to point out that there is no absolute distinction between what we call dream experience and waking experience: if one does not assume in advance that there is a "real" external material world, it is impossible to prove at any time that we are not dreaming, or that there is any fundamental difference between waking and dreaming. What matter are dream-objects made of?

In Goswami's view, the quantum paradoxes (action at a distance, the quantum leap, wave-particle duality, and so on) are symptoms of our disconnection from this more unitary and accurate way of viewing the world. When Descartes created his famous dualism, declaring matter and mind to be of separate orders, matter being the province of science and the mind the province of religion, he was making a statement that (it seems to me) was as much political as it was philosophical, in that he was drawing a border between science and the church, mainly so that science could progress without molestation by priests.

Cartesian dualism is still our everyday philosophical outlook today. Our philosophical materialism, according to Goswami, is responsible for our economic materialism, and all the resultant ills of spiritual ennui and environmental degradation. A return to a more ancient and mystical viewpoint would not imply any repudiation of science, but would on the contrary allow it to progress without being mired in contradiction and in seeming conflict with our inmost values and feelings. Science would be harnessed to the universal human striving to find meaning and fulfillment in life, instead of taking the absence of such meaning for granted as one of its working assumptions.

In short, I would describe The Self-Aware Universe as a New Age book--a topic on which I have much more to say, for increasingly I feel myself becoming identified with the New Age, at least, in the sense in which I understand it. My own definition of New Age would be something like: "the era characterized by an attitude of applying an openminded, objective--that is, scientific--outlook to matters of the spirit".

At least in the West, science no longer needs to worry so much about interference from the Church (whichever church that might be), and so the firewall erected by Descartes is obsolete. My own work, such as this project The Age of Pisces, is really aimed at the New Age, and I am at heart a New Age thinker and writer.


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