Science vs. Spirituality

Book review on

War of the worldviews

by Deepak Chopra and Leonard Mlodinow (2011)

Reviewed by David Lorimer, 2011 published in Network Review No 106

Fifteen years ago Mark Woodhouse wrote an extensive study called Paradigm Wars in which he characterised the tensions between materialistic scientism and a more holistic view. I myself covered some of this same territory in my book Radical Prince by way of explaining the background to the Prince of Wales' ideas. This book originated in an event at Caltech where Deepak was championing a spiritual worldview and met Leonard, who offered to teach him quantum physics. As they discussed topics arising, it became apparent that their worldviews diverged considerably and that it would be worth exploring this in more detail in a series of exchanges. These are structured around the four main themes of Cosmos, Life, Mind and Brain, and God, with an introduction to the war from the scientific and spiritual perspectives.

As pointed out early on, the fundamental issue is knowledge and how to attain it. The spiritual hypothesis advanced by Deepak proposes that there is an unseen reality that is the source of all visible things, that this reality is knowable through our own awareness and that intelligence, creativity and organising power are embedded in the cosmos. This puts the nature of consciousness at the centre of the debate. The viewpoint defended by Deepak is not religious per se and insists on the distinction between religion and spirituality, which Leonard also recognises. However, he feels that this is a form of wish fulfilment or a comforting illusion that cannot be supported by scientific evidence. The scientist looks for data to support the theory and rejects theories that clash with observational evidence. Leonard fully expects consciousness to be explained by means of current scientific methods.

A great deal depends on whether one gives primacy to the inner or outer. Since the 17th century, science has focused on observing and measuring the external world in ways that can be quantified and replicated. Underlying this is a mechanistic philosophy and a tendency to equate science with scientism without examining the presuppositions associated with this outlook. Mysticism, on the other hand, takes consciousness as its starting point and reports finding the ground of being in the depths of experience. As Ken Wilber points out, these states of consciousness can in fact be replicated and compared between practitioners, showing that there is also an empirical basis to spiritual practice.

The next question is whether all this experience is in fact the by-product of the brain in the sense that it is caused by rather than correlated with neural processes. Leonard goes for causation, insisting that 'the origin of mind lies in the physical substance of the brain as repeatedly demonstrated in biology.' He also argues that there is a physical basis to OBEs and regards the possibility of post-mortem existence as wish-fulfilment. Like Russell, he feels that it takes special courage to believe in science and the extinction of consciousness.

Many questions are covered, such as whether the universe is conscious, whether it has design, whether the brain dictates behaviour and whether God is an illusion. Each writer contributes a short essay responding to the other - sometimes Deepak goes first, sometimes Leonard. This allows considered discussion of each other's views, but the format lacks the penetration that a debate would have given it so that each speaker could put the other on the spot. The reader is sometimes left with questions, but one learns a great deal about the relative positions of the authors and where they are incompatible. Needless to say, most readers will take one side or the other, but the probing process is a useful one in refining one's own views.

Towards the end of the book, there is a discussion on the future of belief, which Deepak sees as a shift away from God as an external force to God as an inner experience, in other words a shift from religion to spirituality. This creates a new openness in the debate, which frees people from religious dogma while not necessarily committing them to materialism. Both men feel a kinship with other lifeforms, but one regards it as unthinking but wonderful and the other as conscious. Each sees the other as relatively unwilling to question and alter their beliefs. Leonard's higher authority is 'the way Nature actually works', a phrase full of implications and reflecting a slightly naive realism. The vision that beckons is one of an expanded science open to both experiment and experience. The detail of the debate leaves the reader enriched with a more complex understanding of the ways in which science and spirituality view the world.

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