The Self-Aware Universe (Cont'd)
An Interview with Amit Goswami PH.d
by Craig Hamilton - What is Enlightment?
WIE: To be honest, when I first saw the subtitle of your book I assumed you were speaking metaphorically. But after reading the book, and speaking with you about it now, I am definitely getting the sense that you mean it much more literally than I had thought. One thing in your book that really stopped me in my tracks was your statement that, according to your interpretation, the entire physical universe only existed in a realm of countless evolving possibilities until at one point, the possibility of a conscious, sentient being arose and that, at that point, instantaneously, the entire known universe came into being, including the fifteen billion years of history leading up to that point. Do you really mean that?
AG: I mean that literally. This is what quantum physics demands. In fact, in quantum physics this is called "delayed choice." And I have added to this concept the concept of "self-reference." Actually the concept of delayed choice is very old. It is due to a very famous physicist named John Wheeler, but Wheeler did not see the entire thing correctly, in my opinion. He left out self-reference. The question always arises, "The universe is supposed to have existed for fifteen billion years, so if it takes consciousness to convert possibility into actuality, then how could the universe be around for so long?" Because there was no consciousness, no sentient being, biological being, carbonbased being, in that primordial fireball which is supposed to have created the universe, the big bang.But this other way of looking at things says that the universe remained in possibility until there was self-referential quantum measurement—so that is the new concept. An observer's looking is essential in order to manifest possibility into actuality, and so only when the observer looks, only then does the entire thing become manifest—including time. So all of past time, in that respect, becomes manifest right at that moment when the first sentient being looks.
It turns out that this idea, in a very clever, very subtle way, has been around in cosmology and astronomy under the guise of a principle called the "anthropic principle." That is, the idea has been growing among astronomers—cosmologists anyway—that the universe has a purpose. It is so fine-tuned, there are so many coincidences, that it seems very likely that the universe is doing something purposive, as if the universe is growing in such a way that a sentient being will arise at some point.
WIE: So you feel there's a kind of purposiveness to the way the universe is evolving; that, in a sense, it reaches its fruition in us, in human beings?
AG: Well, human beings may not be the end of it, but certainly they are the first fruition, because here is then the possibility of manifest creativity, creativity in the sentient being itself. The animals are certainly sentient, but they are not creative in the sense that we are. So human beings certainly right now seem to be an epitome, but this may not be the final epitome. I think we have a long way to go and there is a long evolution to occur yet.
WIE: In your book you even go so far as to suggest that the cosmos was created for our sake.
AG: Absolutely. But it means sentient beings, for the sake of all sentient beings. And the universe is us. That's very clear.The universe is self-aware, but it is self-aware through us. We are the meaning of the universe. We are not the geographical center of the universe—Copernicus was right about that—but we are the meaning center of the universe.
WIE: Through us the universe finds its meaning?
AG: Through sentient beings. And that doesn't have to be anthropocentric in the sense of only earthlings. There could be beings, sentient beings on other planets, in other stars—in fact I am convinced that there are—and that's completely consonant with this theory.
WIE: This human-centered—or even sentient-being-centered—stance seems quite radical at a time when so much of modern progressive thought, across disciplines from ecology to feminism to systems theory, is going in the opposite direction. These perspectives point more toward interconnectedness or interrelatedness, in which the significance of any one part of the whole—including one species, such as the human species—is being de-emphasized. Your view seems to hark back to a more traditional, almost biblical kind of idea. How would you respond to proponents of the prevailing "nonhierarchical" paradigm?
AG: It's the difference between the perennial philosophy that we are talking about, monistic idealism, and what is called a kind of pantheism. That is, these views—which I call "ecological worldviews" and which Ken Wilber calls the same thing—are actually denigrating God by seeing God as limited to the immanent reality. On the face of it, this sounds good because everything becomes divine—the rocks, the trees, all the way to human beings, and they are all equal and they are all divinity—it sounds fine, but it certainly does not adhere to what the spiritual teachers knew. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says to Arjuna, "All these things are in me, but I am not in them." What does he mean by that? What he means is that "I am not exclusively in them."
So there is evolution, in other words, in the manifest reality. Evolution happens. That means that the amoeba is, of course, a manifestation of consciousness, and so is the human being. But they are not in the same stage. Evolutionarily, yes, we are ahead of the amoeba. And these theories, these ecological-worldview people, they don't see that. They don't rightly understand what evolution is because they are ignoring the transcendent dimension, they are ignoring the purposiveness of the universe, the creative play. Ken Wilber makes this point very, very well in his book Sex, Ecology, Spirituality.
WIE: So you would say they have part of the picture but that without this other aspect that you are bringing in, their view is very—
AG: It's very limited. And that's why pantheism is very limited. When Westerners started going to India, they thought it was pantheistic because it has many, many gods. Indian philosophy tends to see God in nature, in many things—they worship rocks sometimes, that kind of thing—so they thought it was pantheistic and only somewhat later did they realize that there is a transcendent dimension. In fact, the transcendent dimension is developed extremely well in Indian philosophy, whereas the transcendent dimension in the West is hidden in the cave of a very few esoteric systems such as the Gnostics and a few great masters like Meister Eckhart. In Jesus' teachings you can see it in the Gospel according to Thomas. But you have to really dig deep to find that thread in the West. In India, in the Upanishads and the Vedanta and the Bhagavad Gita, it is very much explicit. Now, pantheism sounds very good. But it's only part of the story. It's a good way to worship, it's a good way to bring spirituality into your daily life, because it is good to acknowledge that there is spirit in everything. But if we just see the diversity, see the God in everything, but don't see the God which is beyond every particular thing, then we are not realizing our potential. We are not realizing our Self. And so, truly, Self-realization involves seeing this pantheistic aspect of reality, but also seeing the transcendent aspect of reality.
WIE: In addition to being a scientist, you are also a spiritual practitioner. Could you talk a little bit about what brought you to spirituality?
AG: Well, I'm afraid that is a pretty usual, almost classic, case. The ideal classic case, of course, is the famous case of the Buddha, who recognized at the age of twenty-nine that all of his pleasure as a prince was really a waste of time because there is suffering in the world. For me it was not that drastic, but when I was about thirty-seven the world started to fall apart on me. I lost my research grant, I had a divorce and I was very lonely. And the professional pleasure that I used to get by writing physics papers stopped being pleasure.
But in that era, around thirty-seven, that particular world—where God didn't exist and where the meaning of life came just from brain-pursuits of glory in a profession—just did not satisfy me and did not bring happiness. In fact it was full of suffering. So I came to meditation. I wanted to see if there was any way of at least finding some solace, if not happiness. And eventually great joy came out of it, but that took time. And also, I must mention that I got married too, and the challenge of love was a very important one. In other words, I very soon discovered after I got married for the second time that love is very different than what I thought it was. So I discovered with my wife the meaning of love, and that was a big contribution also to my own spirituality.
WIE: It's interesting that, while you turned to spirituality because you felt that science wasn't really satisfying your own search for truth, you have nevertheless remained a scientist throughout.
AG: That's true. It's just that my way of doing science changed. What happened to me, the reason that I lost the joy of science, was because I had made it into a professional trip. I lost the ideal way of doing science, which is the spirit of discovery, the curiosity, the spirit of knowing truth. So I was not searching for truth anymore through science, and therefore I had to discover meditation, where I was searching for truth again, truth of reality. What is the nature of reality after all? You see the first tendency was nihilism, nothing exists; I was completely desperate. But meditation very soon told me that no, it's not that desperate. I had an experience. I had a glimpse that reality really does exist. Whatever it was I didn't know, but something exists. So that gave me the prerogative to go back to science and see if I could now do science with new energy and new direction and really investigate truth instead of investigating because of professional glory.
WIE: How then did your newly revived interest in truth, this spiritual core to your life, inform your practice of science?
AG: What happened was that I was not doing science anymore for the purpose of just publishing papers and doing problems which enabled you to publish papers and get grants. Instead, I was doing the really important problems. And the really important problems of today are very paradoxical and very anomalous. Well, I'm not saying that traditional scientists don't have a few important problems. There are a few important problems there too. But one of the problems I discovered very quickly that would lead me, I just intuited, to questions of reality was the quantum measurement problem.
You see, the quantum measurement problem is supposed to be a problem which forever derails people from any professional achievement because it's a very difficult problem. People have tried it for decades and have not been able to solve it. But I thought, "I have nothing to lose and I am going to investigate only truth, so why not see?" Quantum physics was something I knew very well. I had researched quantum physics all my life, so why not do the quantum measurement problem? So that's how I came to ask this question, "What agency converts possibility into actuality?" And it still took me from 1975 to 1985 until, through a mystical breakthrough, I came to recognize this.
WIE: Could you describe that breakthrough?
AG: Yes, I'd love to. It's so vivid in my mind. You see, the wisdom was in those days—and this was in every sort of book, The Tao of Physics, The Dancing Wu Li Masters, Fred Alan Wolf's Taking the Quantum Leap, and some other books too—everywhere the wisdom was that consciousness must be an emergent phenomenon of the brain. And despite the fact that some of these people, to their credit, were giving consciousness causal efficacy, no one could explain how it happened. That was the mystery because, after all, if it's an emergent phenomenon of the brain, then all causal efficacy must ultimately come from the material elementary particles. So this was a puzzle to me. This was a puzzle to everybody. And I just couldn't find any way to solve it. David Bohm talked about hidden variables, so I toyed with his ideas of an explicate order and an implicate order, that kind of thing—but this wasn't satisfactory because in Bohm's theory, again, there is no causal efficacy that is given to consciousness. It is all a realist theory. In other words, it is a theory on which everything can be explained through mathematical equations. There is no freedom of choice, in other words, in reality. So I was just struggling and struggling because I was convinced that there is real freedom of choice.
So then one time—and this is where the breakthrough happened—my wife and I were in Ventura, California and a mystic friend, Joel Morwood, came down from Los Angeles, and we all went to hear Krishnamurti. And Krishnamurti, of course, is extremely impressive, a very great mystic. So we heard him and then we came back home. We had dinner and we were talking, and I was giving Joel a spiel about my latest ideas of the quantum theory of consciousness and Joel just challenged me. He said, "Can consciousness be explained?" And I tried to wriggle my way through that but he wouldn't listen. He said, "You are putting on scientific blinders. You don't realize that consciousness is the ground of all being." He didn't use that particular word, but he said something like, "There is nothing but God." And something flipped inside of me which I cannot quite explain. This is the ultimate cognition, that I had at that very moment. There was a complete about-turn in my psyche and I just realized that consciousness is the ground of all being. I remember staying up that night, looking at the sky and having a real mystical feeling about what the world is, and the complete conviction that this is the way the world is, this is the way that reality is, and one can do science. You see, the prevalent notion—even among people like David Bohm—was, "How can you ever do science without assuming that there is reality and material and all this? How can you do science if you let consciousness do things which are ‘arbitrary'?" But I became completely convinced—there has not been a shred of doubt ever since—that one can do science on this basis. Not only that, one can solve the problems of today's science. And that is what is turning out. Of course all the problems did not get solved right on that night. That night was the beginning of a new way of doing science.
WIE: That's interesting. So that night something really did shift for you in your whole approach. And everything was different after that?
AG: Everything was different.
WIE: Did you then find, in working out the details of what it would mean to do science in this context, that you were able to penetrate much more deeply or that your own scientific thinking was transformed in some way by this experience?
AG: Right. Exactly. What happened was very interesting. I was stuck, as I said, I was stuck with this idea before: "How can consciousness have causal efficacy?" And now that I recognized that consciousness was the ground of being, within months all the problems of quantum measurement theory, the measurement paradoxes, just melted away. I wrote my first paper which was published in 1989, but that was just refinement of the ideas and working out details. The net upshot was that the creativity, which got a second wind on that night in 1985, took about another three years before it started fully expressing itself. But ever since I have been just blessed with ideas after ideas, and lots of problems have been solved—the problem of cognition, perception, biological evolution, mind-body healing. My latest book is called Physics of the Soul. This is a theory of reincarnation, all fully worked out. It has been just a wonderful adventure in creativity.
WIE: So it sounds pretty clear that taking an interest in the spiritual, in your case, had a significant effect on your ability to do science. Looking through the opposite end of the lens, how would you say that being a scientist has affected your spiritual evolution?
AG: Well, I stopped seeing them as separate, so this identification, this wholeness, the integration of the spiritual and the scientific, was very important for me. Mystics often warn people, "Look, don't divide your life into this and that." For me it came naturally becauseI discovered the new way of doing science when I discovered spirit. Spirit was the natural basis of my being, so after that, whatever I do, I don't separate them very much.
WIE: You mentioned a shift in your motivation for doing science—how what was driving you started to turn at a certain point. That's one thing that we've been thinking about a lot as we've been looking into this issue: What is it that really motivates science? And how is that different from what motivates spiritual pursuit? Particularly, there have been some people we have discussed—thinkers like E. F. Schumacher or Huston Smith, for example—who feel that ever since the scientific revolution, when Descartes's and Newton's ideas took hold, the whole approach of science has been to try to dominate or control nature or the world. Such critics question whether science could ever be a genuine vehicle for discovering the deepest truths, because they feel that science is rooted in a desire to know for the wrong reasons. Obviously, in your work you have been very immersed in the scientific world—you know a lot of scientists, you go to conferences, you're surrounded by all of that and also, perhaps, you struggle with that motivation in yourself. Could you speak a little more about your experience of that?
AG: Yes, this is a very, very good question; we have to understand it very deeply. The problem is that in this pursuit, this particular pursuit of science, including the books that we mentioned earlier, The Tao of Physics and TheDancing Wu Li Masters, even when spirituality is recognized within the materialist worldview, God is seen only in the immanent aspect of divinity. What that means is: you have said that there is only one reality. By saying that there is only one reality—material reality—even when you imbue matter with spirituality, because you are still dealing with only one level, you are ignoring the transcendent level. And therefore you are only looking at half of the pie; you are ignoring the other half. Ken Wilber makes this point very, very well. So what has to be done of course—and that's when the stigma of science disappears—is to include the other half into science. Now, before my work, I think it was very obscure how this inclusion has to be done. Although people like Teilhard de Chardin, Aurobindo or Madame Blavatsky, the founder of the Theosophy movement, recognized that such a science could have come, very few could actually see it.
So what I have done is to give actual flesh to all these visions that took place early in the century. And when you do that, when you recognize that science can be based on the primacy of consciousness, then this deficiency isn't there anymore. In other words then, the stigma that science is only separateness goes away. The materialist science is a separatist science. The new science, though, says that the material part of the world does exist, the separative movement is part of reality also, but it is not the only part of reality. There is separation, and then there is integration. So in my book The Self-Aware Universe I talk about the hero's journey for the entire scientific endeavor. I said that, well, four hundred years ago, with Galileo, Copernicus, Newton and others, we started the separatist sail and we went on a separate journey of separateness, but that's only the first part of the hero's journey. Then the hero discovers and the hero returns. It is the hero's return that we are now witnessing through this new paradigm.
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