Posts Tagged ‘physics’

Among other principles of Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings was the harmony of science and religion. Religion must stand the analysis of reason. It must agree with scientific fact and proof so that science will sanction religion and religion fortify science. Both are indissolubly welded and joined in reality.

( ‘Abdu’l-Bahá   – Promulgation of Universal Peace: page 175)

You may wonder why this post follows so closely on from two very long recent ones on consciousness. Well, beyond the fact that I’m obsessed with the topic anyway, that is. ‘Why now?’ is the issue really, I suppose.

The answer is that, on the Bahá’í New Year 21st March, I had to go to the Birmingham medical school to run a seminar on consciousness and some aspects of the experience stuck with me.

The building was not reassuring. I was already feeling slightly apprehensive as the topic sprawls way outside my area of expertise. Yes, I know I’m a psychologist but that’s less than a tenth of it. Consciousness has a finger in the pie, mathematically speaking, of physics. It has vexed philosophers into paroxysms of confusion and special pleading. Doctors have to grapple with its practical manifestations when coma strikes. And here I was walking into a lion’s den of different kinds of experts to teach my grandmothers to suck eggs. At least that’s how it felt.

And the modernist feel of the building’s interior was quite unsettling in a Kafkaesque sort of way. A massive entrance hall with off-putting security and gleaming surfaces (the picture below is of the library, but it has the same feel) led me up the stairs into a grid of intersecting corridors running in parallels at right angles and all very much the same apart from the identifying codes on doors that read like WAP passwords.

After hanging around stairwells, dithering for what seemed an eternity uncertain which direction to take, I managed to find an Ariadne to guide me through the labyrinth to the seminar room we were due to be in at 5 o’clock.

I was half an hour early and the room was occupied (not by the Minotaur, I hasten to add) so I moved through to a seated area within sight of the library. It was a hot day and the building was warm. I was sweating rather a lot after my walk from the station. Nerves? What makes you think anxiety had anything to do with it?

A psychologist in denial, I sat down in a leather-upholstered chair at a shining table, with an impressive phalanx of academic heavyweights gazing down on me from their imposing portraits, and got out my notes for the umpteenth time, desperately trying to convince myself I had internalised them.

Then the hour of judgement arrived. The seminar room had no outside windows and was uncomfortably warm. No refreshments were allowed to cross its sacred threshold. It was going to be a throat-testing experience, as if mine wasn’t dry enough already.

We were about 16 people – men, women, young, old, atheist, agnostic, religious, culturally diverse. I began to feel more comfortable. People are just people after all. I checked out the audience for experts. Any qualified psychologists? One tentative possible. Relief! Any doctors? Just a small handful. I could cope with that. I’d thought I’d have a roomful. Any ‘real’ scientists? Just one man with a 30-year old physics degree. Things were getting better and better.

My plan was to cover challenging issues such as the improbability of consciousness, caveats about its reality, doubts about the materialist position and aspects of the nature of consciousness as we currently understand its workings.

Not overly ambitious then for a two hour exploration.

It would be too complicated to give a blow-by-blow account of what transpired though it will inform any future attempts I make to explore the topic. I’ll just pick up on a couple of the more intriguing points.

One of the most striking things was the lack of consensus across all shades of opinion about the free will issue. There were those who found the implications of determinism for a just and responsible society too destructive to make that hypothesis acceptable. Other people by contrast were quite comfortable with the idea that what we do is determined in advance by processes of which we are completely unaware and over which we have no control. This last position is bewildering to me, it’s so counterintuitive. ‘But what’s so reliable about intuition?’ you might ask.

Another aspect was that even the agnostics, who felt that theirs was the only rational approach to the issues of free will and determinism and of mind-brain independence, veered towards feeling the reductionist approach was somehow more plausible on both counts.

It’s as though the materialistic dogma of our times biases reason in favour of its assumptions even though they are no more reasonable than spiritual explanations. Materialism is a factoid that doesn’t know it yet. It is as much an act of faith as a belief in God and both creeds should seem equally reasonable or unreasonable, depending on the biases of the observer. And agnostics are supposed to be unbiased.

When the seminar was over the building did not release me easily from its grip. It was even harder to pass through security to get out than it had been to get in. It felt as though the building was finding its own way to express its modernist disapproval of all this flaky spiritual stuff. ‘Only matter matters after all,’ it seemed to say. ‘Agree and I’ll let you out.’ Thanks to a rebel on the inside with a passkey I managed to escape alive to tell this tale.

This clash of values is a serious issue though.

If we place any credibility at all in the eloquently expressed arguments of scholars such as Margaret Donaldson in her book Human Minds, Ken Wilber in The Marriage of Sense and SoulJohn Hick in The Fifth Dimension or Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary, we have to accept the likelihood that, until our society finds a better balance between spirituality and science as pathways to what is fundamentally the same truth, we are in danger of joining previous civilisations in oblivion.

Sometimes it feels as though we are well on the way already, but that’s in my darker moments. Most of the time I believe that the tipping point can be reached where a critical mass of humanity gets the right idea in time. If Sheldrake’s idea of morphic resonance has any truth in it, the more people change their minds the easier it will become for the rest of us. Can we have more Blondins to balance on this tightrope please?

Charles Blondin


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The title Bible’s Buried Secrets drew me to watch the first programme in the series on BBC2 in the middle of last month. Initially, in spite of the youth and charm of Francesca Stavrakopoulou, I found myself waiting on a bland platform of only mild interest until I found myself boarding a train of thought that carried me through intriguing terrain to a fascinating destination.

Her argument, in brief, was that the archaeological evidence for the existence of the biblical King David, Goliath notwithstanding, was so sparse as to call into question his reality. Bells in a distant steeple of my memory began pealing as though an invasion or a coronation was imminent. I recalled reading David Rohl‘s book A Test of Time many years earlier (1995 judging by the publication date). It was turned into a television series on Channel 4 which I never saw. He argued, in a way that seemed quite plausible, that this lack of corroboration for the Bible from the historical and archaeological record is a common problem and stems from the fact that the conventionally accepted Egyptian chronology is displaced in time.

For complex reasons that it would take too long to rehearse here, Rohl feels that (page 135):

There are . . . no safe fixed points in the chronology of Egypt earlier than 664 BC.

Caravaggio, David and Goliath 1599

David & Goliath: Caravaggio

He develops a new chronology which he summarises on page 143:

The New Chronology has determined that Ramesses II should be dated to the tenth century BC – some three hundred and fifty years later than the date which had been assigned to him in the orthodox chronology. As a consequence, the archaeology of Palestine associated with the late 18th and early 19th Dynasties – Late Bronze II – now represents the historical period known as the Early Israelite Monarchy, the era of David and Solomon.

It would be hard to find a blogger in the world with less knowledge of archaeology than me (I haven’t even seen all the episodes of Time Team), so I’m not going to claim I have the faintest idea who is really right here. What intrigues me is the divergence of view on a complex issue where the evidence appears not to be conclusive.

We’ve been here before, of course, on this blog with the issue of climate change and Peter Taylor’s detailed doubts about the theory of man-made global warming.

I love these examples of maverick experts challenging the prevailing orthodoxy. It has the same appeal as the tale of David and Goliath, in fact. Both Taylor and Rohl quote meticulously from a wide range of complex data, so wide in fact that they make the supporters of the mainstream consensus look as though the orthodox are the ones who are cherry picking data to use in evidence to support their case.

In these debates reality comes to seem as ambiguous as a Gestalt picture – you know the ones I mean. Is it Francesca Stavrakopoulou or Mother Teresa? It’s probably not a permanent state of affairs like the wave- particle situation with light, but it led me to wondering whether some other complex and ambiguous issues are eternally irresolvable.

Gazing through this window of my train of thought I had no desire to alight yet.

One perennial problem has become more acute since the rise of scientific empiricism. Religious people have sought to claim that myth is literally true, as though that will shift the debate in their favour, and the scientifically minded have been moved to dismiss anything that smacks of myth as utter fantasy. We either find the account in Genesis of the creation of the world implausibly defended as a realistic rendering of exactly what happened, or mystic experience, grounded in decades of disciplined practice, dismissed as irrational drivel.

Because I accept John Hick‘s position that the universe is such that there is just enough evidence to convince the predisposed that the spiritual realm is real while there is simply not enough to persuade the sceptical, it seems to me that the polarised debate described above is utterly fruitless. Reitan’s position is far more constructive: it is just as reasonable to believe in God as it is to doubt His existence.

If we could enact these mutually respectful positions, what would the world of ideas look like?

Not the bombed out war zone it resembles at the moment, that’s for sure. Can we find a picture of the likely scenario anywhere? Is a ‘marriage of sense and soul‘ of this kind really possible? I believe the green shoots of a different kind of landscape are pushing through the rubble of the battlefield and what was originally only the faint possibility of this marriage is already in the process of becoming a reality.

For example, Margaret Donaldson‘s brilliant book, Human Minds: an exploration, addresses a closely related question (page 264 – my emphasis):

The very possibility of emotional development that is genuinely on a par with – as high as, level with – the development of reason is only seldom entertained. So long as this possibility is neglected, then if reason by itself is sensed as inadequate where else can one go but back? Thus there arises a regressive tendency, a desire to reject reason and all that was best in the Enlightenment, a yearning for some return to the mythic, the magical, the marvellous in old senses of these terms. This is very dangerous; but it has the advantage that it is altogether easier than trying to move forward into something genuinely new.

Now we have clearly seen that the cultivation of the advanced value-sensing mode [e.g. in meditation] is not of itself new. It has ancient roots. What would be new would be a culture where both kinds of enlightenment were respected and cultivated together. Is there any prospect that a new age of this kind might be dawning?

For Baha’is, believing as we do that religion and science are both wings to the bird of true human understanding and progress, this is a crucial and exciting question, a long way further down the tracks of this particular train of thought than whether David did or did not really exist, but distantly related nonetheless.

Why do I think that this kind of mutual respect is possible, apart from a blind faith in my own particular spiritual tradition?


My sense that we are moving in that direction derives from my reading, in the main. McGilchrist, a psychiatrist steeped in the literature of his tradition, pleads eloquently, and on the back of a mountain of evidence, for the need to achieve a better balance between the two halves of our brain, between analytic reason and holistic intuition. On the religious side you have books such as Eric Reitan’s Is God a Delusion?. I have referred to his carefully balanced and utterly non-dogmatic position already in this post with a link to my review. On the scientific side, even if we ignore quasi-mystic physicists such as Amit Goswami, whose quantum spirituality is fascinating but some way beyond the reach of my full understanding, you have evolutionary thinkers such as Robert Wright, whose writing I’ve quoted more fully elsewhere in this blog. He states, for example, with a respect that echoes Reitan’s (The Evolution of God: pages 458-459):

. . . . natural selection’s invention of love . . . . was a prerequisite for the moral imagination whose expansion, here and now, could help keep the world on track . . . . . .

Though we can no more conceive of God than we can conceive of an electron, believers can ascribe properties to God, somewhat as physicists ascribe properties to electrons.

This idea of God as being beyond our understanding, though we can grasp some of His properties, resonates with the Bahá’í position:

As to the attributes and perfections such as will, knowledge, power and other ancient attributes that we ascribe to that Divine Reality, these are the signs that reflect the existence of beings in the visible plane and not the absolute perfections of the Divine Essence that cannot be comprehended.

(Bahá’í World Faith: page 342)

Wright continues (page 459):

One of the more plausible properties [of God] is love. And maybe, in this light, the argument for God is strengthened by love’s organic association with truth – by the fact, indeed, that at times these two properties almost blend into one. You might say that love and truth are the two primary manifestations of divinity in which we can partake, and that by partaking in them we become truer manifestations of the divine. Then again, you might not say that. The point is just that you wouldn’t have to be crazy to say it.

For those who want to get a feel for quantum spirituality, and for just how closely related scientific language and ineffable spirituality can become, have a look at the video below. If you can cope with the video you’ll almost certainly enjoy having a look at a challenging article on biocentrism (see link). Mystics are not mad it seems nor science untouched by hints of the divine.

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Earlier this year I spotted a review of this book and said I would probably do a review of my own later. I’ve been pipped to the post. I’m barely past the end of the first chapter still and, in any case, a review from me would be superfluous now. Jason had already produced a review in August which I have only just spotted. It’s well worth a look.

Jason quotes these passages as a key ones from the book:

Given the constraints of human nature, believers in God are interacting with the moral order as productively as possible by conceiving its source in a particular way, however imperfect that way is. Isn’t that kind of like physicists who interact with the physical order as productively as possible by conceiving of its subatomic sources in a particular way, however imperfect that way is . . .

Maybe the most defensible view – of electrons and of God – is to place them somewhere between illusion and imperfect conception. Yes, there is a source of the patterns we attribute to the electron, and the electron as conceived is a useful enough proxy for that source that we shouldn’t denigrate it by calling it an “illusion; still, our image of an electron is very, very different from what this source would look like were the human cognitive apparatus capable of apprehending it adroitly. So too with God; yes, there is a source of the moral order, and many people have a conception of God that is a useful proxy for that source; still that conception is very, very different from what the source of the moral order would look like were human cognition able to grasp it . . .

So you might say that the evolution of the human moral equipment by natural selection was the Logos at work during a particular phase of organic aggregation; it was what allowed our distant ancestors to work together in small groups, and it set the stage for them to work together in much larger groups, including, eventually, transcontinental ones.

If you accept this argument – if you buy into this particular theology of the Logos – then feeling the presence of a personal god has a kind of ironic validity. On the one hand, you’re imagining things; the divine being you sense “out there” is actually something inside you. On the other hand, this something inside you is an expression of forces “out there”; it’s an incarnation of a non-zero-sum logic that predates and transcends individual people, a kind of logic that – in this theology of the Logos, at least – can be called divine. The feeling of contact with a transcendent divinity is in that sense solid.

(Pages 452-455)

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