Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Anti-Slavery Campaign Interview Series. Dave Pruett (Part 2)

Dave Pruett

Awakening to our Real Identity

Yago: The twentieth century erupted with twin revolutions in physics: quantum mechanics, and then close to its heels, relativity. As you say, relativity established a new physics for the very large: stars, black holes, galaxies, and the universe as a whole. Quantum mechanics established the physics of the minuscule: atoms, nuclei, electrons, protons, and quarks. Interestingly enough, despite its mathematical and conceptual complexity, relativity can be fathomed intellectually. Despite its mathematical and conceptual simplicity, quantum mechanics cannot. You are an applied mathematician and not a physicist, but through your on-going research, what is the main contribution of quantum mechanics towards our self-perception and our understanding of what reality is?

Dave: Quantum mechanics has changed how we perceive “reality” in fundamental ways. Here are just three. First, there is no such thing as an independent observer. Subject and object interact, and there is no getting around that.  Anything I do to observe the universe changes that universe in some way.

Second, quantum mechanics--by introducing probability into the laws of nature--has ended the notion of a completely deterministic future that held sway in the days of Newton and Laplace and was embraced even by Einstein. As Thomas Berry says, we live in a contingent universe, not a deterministic one.

Third, events that seem unrelated may in fact be intimately connected or “entangled,” as well shall explain later.

 Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976)
Yago: You talk about two great pillars in quantum mechanics: the Heisenberg “uncertainty principle” and “quantum entanglement.” Could you provide a short explanation of each? What are these two pillars telling us about the nature of reality?

Dave: Heisenberg derived a mathematical inequality that pertained to measurement uncertainty when trying to simultaneously establish (measure) the position and velocity of a moving object. Surprisingly, greater certainty of one quantity implies greater uncertainty of the other. It is therefore impossible to know a particle’s position and velocity precisely at the same instant.

At first blush, the uncertainty principle appears to encode an epistemological difficulty. Presumably, there exists a well-defined physical reality independent of the observer. Surely, at any moment an electron, to be specific, has definite position and velocity. The difficulty lay, it was then thought, in the limitations of measurementthat is, in the observers inability to accurately tease out these well-defined values. But as physicists agonized over the strange results of quantum-mechanical experiments and the philosophical implications of those results, Heisenberg and others came ultimately to the revelation that the difficulty is ontological: the uncertainty principle should more correctly be branded the indeterminacy principle. We cannot know the electrons position and velocity for the most disquieting of reasons: quantum objects have neither definite position nor definite velocity. Quantum objects exist only in a probabilistic sense until a measurement is made. Subject and object are not distinct. Observation affects “reality.” One might even say that observations precipitate reality from a world of potentia. This brings us back to Kant’s assertion that the “representation” (mind) in some way makes the reality possible.

Quantum entanglement is the modern term for what Einstein termed “spooky action at a distance.” Entanglement refers to subtle interconnections between particles (photons or electrons, for example) that are created during the same quantum process. Regardless of how far separated they become over time, measuring the properties of one particle instantly affects those properties in its remote twin.  By way of analogy, one thinks of the psychic connections commonly reported by identical twins.

Quantum Entanglement

Yago: Talking about non-locality, how does it challenge our western individualistic worldview and expose us to a greater reality where we are all interconnected, emerging from one Universal Being?

Parker Palmer
Dave: Parker Palmer, the Quaker educator, defines spirituality as that impulse within the human breast that makes us want to connect with something larger than our own egos. I love this definition, because it’s universal. Everyone is spiritual by Palmer’s definition, because everyone wants to connect with a lover, with God, with their family, with their countrymen, with the natural world, or with the cosmos as a whole. One could argue that the more spiritual the person, the wider the circle of inclusion.

The problem is that our materialistic and ruggedly individualistic Western worldview tends to isolate us as individuals rather than to connect us. Nonlocality is physics’ way of expressing what spiritual beings and poets have always known: “No man is an island.” Deny it or not, we are “hitched” to everything else in the cosmos.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)
Yago: You quote Sigmund Freud saying, “[Darwinism] was the second, the biological blow to human narcissism,” a statement that succinctly encapsulates five centuries of western intellectual history. You also imply that Freud was staking a claim to a third Copernican revolution. He thought that his theory of the psyche would be the scientific basis for that revolution. You call the third “Copernican” revolution: Psychology/Spirituality. What can you say about that? How are we, human beings, embarking in this new Copernican revolution?

Dave: A thesis of Reason and Wonder is that we humans have embarked upon a third great “Copernican” revolution, now in its infancy. (When I first started writing, I thought this idea might be original, only to find that Kant and Freud--and probably others--beat me to the punch!) The first, which originated with Copernicus, has redefined our physical place in the cosmos. Moreover, as mentioned previously, Copernicanism exploded our perceptions of the physical extent of the universe. The second revolution, which originated with Darwin, redefined our biological place in the cosmos and exploded human perceptions of its temporal extent. I believe, as did Freud, that the third “Copernican” revolution will ultimately redefine our psychical (or spiritual) place in the cosmos. Moreover, I believe that, like its predecessors, it will explode our perceptions of the depth and reach of consciousness within the cosmos.

Unlike Copernican Revolutions I & II, however, which originated largely from the efforts of individuals, Revolution III is a river into which flow many, many streams. Contributing to the third Copernican revolution are quantum mechanics, psychology, neurobiology, philosophy, theology and religion, thermodynamics, mathematics, information technology, and many other disciplines.

It’s too soon to know precisely how Revolution III will play out, but I think that both William James, the great psychologist of the late 19th century, and Teilhard de Chardin, the great paleontologist-priest of the 20th, saw around the corner. James believed that after all our scientific investigations, we would come round to the “higher and simpler way of looking at nature” common among aboriginal peoples, that everything has a spiritual quality.

Joseph Campbell (1904-1987)
Yago: You also quote Joseph Campbell as one who could possibly “see around the bend.” Campbell gave us a context for the importance of story. You also quote a Jewish “koan:”  “What is truer than the truth? The answer is the Story, because a story is something that lives.” Could you share with us the role of story in the context of the third Copernican Revolution?

Dave: In Western culture, we don’t pay much attention to mythology. In fact, we use the word “myth” as a pejorative, as in “That’s just a myth.”

In contrast, as Campbell knew, nothing is more vital than mythology. Our mythology defines who we are, guides our relationships, and shapes our future. That future is in jeopardy, because, as Thomas Berry observed, “… we do not [now] have a good story. We are between stories.”

If the universe is evolving, then so must our myths of meaning. A good story is one that can adapt as we grow and adapt. Berry devoted his life to understanding and articulating the new, evolutionary story. He joined with cosmologist Brian Swimme to write The Universe Story. Reason and Wonder is my attempt to tell the same essential story in a different voice.

The basic outline of that story goes as follows. Creation is ongoing. The universe is dynamically unfolding, set on its way by a singular event—the Big Bang—13.7 million years ago. The process of unfolding is not directionless but has an apparent purpose: to create through the mechanism of evolution of beings of ever-higher consciousness. The story is universal and not just about Homo sapiens. We humans join the rest of creation as participants in, rather than bystanders of, that creative process.  Finally, I would add that all manifestations of that creative process have a spiritual essence by default. Spirituality is not the exclusive domain of the religious humans. Indeed, often the most “religious” are the least spiritual, as Jesus’ experience with the Pharisees revealed. In the new story, everything and everyone is sacred, deserving of the utmost respect, bordering on awe.

Yago: Muriel Rukeyser says that the Universe is made of stories, not of atoms. You say that brimming with stories of parallel realities, myth and religion tell of invisible mystical or spiritual worlds closely allied with the physical world of common experience. Could you tell us what do you mean by parallel universes?

Dave: Twentieth-century developments in relativity and quantum mechanics have led very hard-boiled physicists to consider the possibility that there exist parallel universes. For example, see Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos (2011). This is one way to deal with the probabilistic implications of quantum mechanics. In simple terms, the idea is that everything that could possibly have occurred in our universe, but did not, has occurred in some other (“parallel”) universe.

What is new to science, however, is old-hat in other domains of human interest. In the highly acclaimed PBS documentary of the 1980s, The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell describes how the central theme of mythology and religion is that of parallel worlds. The universal myth describes an alternate world, full of potential and power, that lies just “behind” our troubled human world and energizes it. For example, Plato distinguishes the world of formsfrom the world that flows.Jesus contrasts the kingdom of heavenand “the world.Among the oldest references to parallel realities, the Tao Te Ching contrasts the Tao and the Te. Tao is the transcendent reality; Te is the immanent reality. And in the popular Harry Potter tales, J.K. Rowling creates the magical world of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry that exists parallel with the ordinary (“muggle”) world. The notion of parallel worlds is ubiquitous.

Yago: Let’s talk of the mystical world and the physical world. You mention that some of the great gurus would say that we are amphibians, that we live in both worlds. Joseph Campbell says that all mythology is about an invisible world that is just behind and supporting the physical world that we call reality. What do you mean by “portals” in this context? What are their roles?

Dave: Pioneering psychologist Lawrence LeShan wrote a wonderful little book that has sold more than one million copies: How to Meditate. In it he distinguishes “physical reality”—that is, ordinary reality--from “mystical reality.” Ordinary reality is constrained by time and space, and in ordinary reality objects and beings are perceived as separate. In mystical reality, time and space cease to have much meaning, and relationships are all important. Indeed, everything is intimately related to everything else. LeShan quotes the Roman mystic Plotinus who likened the human to an amphibian that needs both land and water to fulfill its amphibianhood.As LeShan elaborates, “The meaning and validity of our lives are given by that part of us that relates to the world of the One. The mechanics and techniques by means of which we live our lives are given by that part of us that relates to the Many.” Like the amphibian, the enlightened human must be at home in both realities.

Fans of Harry Potter are familiar with the “portals” that Harry and his friends utilize for transport to and from the “muggle” world (ordinary reality) and the magical world of Hogwarts. The portal most familiar to Potter fans is Platform 9-3/4 at Kings Cross Station, London. A second, more obscure portal leads to Diagon Alley, the snaking medieval passageway that splinters off a bustling London Street via a magical door in a seedy pub, the Leaky Cauldron. Portals are passages between worlds. Certain spiritual practices help keep the portals open between physical and mystical realities, or at least facilitate their opening. These include meditation, prayer, fasting, and compassion. Death too is a portal.

Yago: Speaking about death Spinoza says: “There is nothing over which a free man ponders less than death; his wisdom is, to meditate not on death but on life.”  David, how could you define Life?

Erwin Schroedinger (1987-1961)
Dave: Well, I can’t do better than did quantum physicist Erwin Schroedinger in his classic What is Life? To Schroedinger, life is characterized fundamentally by its ability to temporarily hold at bay the ravages of entropy. This seems at first blush an unsentimental, coldly scientific definition, until you fathom what it means. A living organism is defined as “living” precisely because of its ability to avoid decay, to maintain itself temporarily free from the universe's tendencies toward disorder. So-called inanimate matter does not possess this amazing quality. For all their grandeur, mountains are powerless against the forces of erosion: wind, water, and acids. Each grain of sand on each beach testifies to the powerlessness of rocks and mountains in the face of natural forces.

In Genesis it is written, “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” We come from the substance of the earth, whose origin is itself the cosmic dust, and to the dust of the earth we shall return. But life exists in the interval between periods of dust. While an organism lives, its biological processes take that dust and create something magnificent from it. Life is, in Schroedinger’s words, “an organism’s astonishing gift of concentrating a ‘stream of order’ on itself and thus escaping the decay into atomic chaos—of ‘drinking orderliness’ from a suitable environment.”

Yago: Henri Bergson says that “time is invention, or it is nothing at all.” What is the new perception of time in this new Copernican revolution?

Dave: “In an any attempt to bridge the domains of experience belonging to the spiritual and physical sides of our nature,” noted the eminent astronomer Arthur Eddington, “time occupies the key position.” Understanding the nature of time is the Holy Grail of both philosophy and science. Brilliant people have speculated on this mystery for millennia; yet in regard our perception of time, “we see through the glass only darkly.” Einstein himself thought that time was simply an illusion, an artifact of the constraints of human consciousness.

I’m not wise enough to know how human perceptions of time will change as the third Copernican revolution unfolds. I can speculate, however, that as our perceptions of our spirituality unfold, so will our perceptions of time, because these two concepts are closely intertwined, as Eddington was well aware.

Yago: You say that evolution is all about “becoming.” Your conclusion is that whatever its mysterious mechanisms, evolution seems the labor of love of an invisible gardener whose garden is the whole universe. Further on, you also say that the ability to embrace one’s apparent enemies may lie at the very core of the evolutionary process. How will you describe love from the perspective of evolution?

Dave: Evolution is a counter-entropic process. In lay terms, that means that evolution runs opposite to the general trend of the universe, which is to run downhill, like a stream flowing toward the sea. Entropy is a quantity that scientists (thermodynamicists) use to measure the decay of energy, and thermodynamics tells us that entropy (decay), on the whole, must increase over time. The universe is sliding downhill toward equilibrium.

How then does evolution buck this trend? We’ll say a little more about the “how” later, but for the moment, let’s invoke some analogies. Many familiar experiences are counter-entropic, deriving order from apparent chaos. The restoration of an antique car is but one. Home ownership too is largely a swim upstream against the entropic ravages of the universe. Left alone, paint peels. Exposed to the elements, weather-beaten siding rots and decays. Aged shingles, brittle from years of harsh sunlight, break and expose the underlying roof, which springs leaks. Left forlorn, within a hundred years, a house will degenerate so completely as to be largely recycled by mother earth. Painting, reroofing, cleaning the gutters, and treating the foundation are all energetic, counter-entropic processes designed to temporarily halt and reverse the natural tendency to decay. In the living world, gardening is counter-entropic. A garden is an island universe of order where disorder would prefer to reign. Pulling weeds, mulching, planting flowers, collecting June bugs one by one, and sculpting plots: these are counter-entropic inputs of energy from the gardener. Parenting too is counter-entropic.

In human terms, we call each of these processes a “labor of love,” or simply “love” for short. Love is an investment of energy for the sake of another, whether the “other” is a car, a house, a garden, a child, or even an enemy. It appears that the universe itself is engaged in a labor of love, creating beings of higher complexity and consciousness through the mechanism of evolution.

Yago: Dave, that is a beautiful metaphor. You say that at the heart of the third Copernican revolution lies the problem of consciousness. Teilhard’s friend, the evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley once said, “Man discovers that he is nothing else than evolution becoming conscious of itself.” How would you define consciousness?

Dave: As a mathematician, I understand that some terms cannot be defined. They must simply be accepted in order to get the ball rolling. For example, Euclidean geometry follows from the concepts of points, line, and planes, but these notions remain impervious to rigorous definition.

It may be that consciousness is similar. It takes consciousness to define “consciousness,” and that may render any definition self-referential and suspect. A lot of intelligent people who have tried to define consciousness rigorously come up empty-handed. See, for example, psychologist Larry LeShan’s opus magnum Landscapes of the Mind. LeShan suggests that consciousness is not a thing but the relationship between things.

That said, let’s have a go. Another psychologist friend of mine—Gregg Henriques--defines sentience as basic awareness of one’s environment. Certainly animals, and perhaps plants, have sentience. Consciousness, to Gregg, is higher-level awareness, the ability to reflect upon one’s basic awareness. I think of consciousness as the inner observer who says: this tastes salty, this hurts my feelings, this massage feels wonderful, that makes me feeling joyful, or ashamed. One of the goals of meditation is to still the chatter (often accusatory) of the inner observer so as to experience pure consciousness.

Theologians will split hairs regarding the terms consciousness, spirit, soul, and psyche. However, that’s a level of sophistication beyond me. I think of these as synonyms that can be used interchangeably depending on one’s comfort level with religious vs. non-religious terminology.

Suppose we think of sentience and consciousness as comprising a spectrum of shades of awareness. At issue is “how far down” does rudimentary consciousness/spirit extend? Teilhard de Chardin believed that that spectrum extends all the way down to the most elemental subatomic particle. Contemporary mathematical physicist Freeman Dyson--whom I met while completing Reason and Wonder--also grants a “quantum” of consciousness to matter’s basic constituents. All this suggests to me that William James was probably right. We are slowly coming round to the view of Native Americans, for example, that everything has spirit, even rocks. How that would change our attitude toward Nature!--if everything in creation was considered a “Thou” rather than an “It.”

Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955)
Yago: You have just mentioned Teilhard de Chardin, a world-renowned palaeontologist, Jesuit priest, mystic and intellectual. Coming back to evolution he said: “Evolution is a general condition to which all theories, all hypotheses, all systems must bow.” Evolution shaped him throughout his whole life. The world had gradually been taking on light and fire for him. Could you share with us how Teilhard understood matter and spirit in his life?

Dave: As a young boy, perhaps 9-10 years of age, Teilhard had a mystical experience—not with a field of flowers, like Thomas Berry, or while returning from a dance on a moonlit night, like Wordsworth—with a plow spanner made of iron! Why iron? In Teilhard’s own words, “Because in all my childish experience there was nothing in the world harder, tougher, or more durable than iron.” Thereafter, Teilhard had great affinity for the material world and carried a geology hammer on every outing. Yet, childhood infatuations are easily crushed, as was Teilhard’s when he learned that iron could be scratched and will rust. In a real sense, the remainder of Teilhard’s life was a quest for something as durable as had childishly believed iron to be. Paradoxically, the durability he coveted in matter was to be found in the most insubstantial of all substances. “The felicity that I had sought in iron,” Teilhard recalled, “I can now find only in Spirit.”

Over the course of his lifetime, the matter that Teilhard so loved seemed to dissolve before his studious gaze to reveal an inner essence—a “diaphany of the divine”--that was yet more precious than matter’s outer qualities. Like two sides of a coin, or the two faces of the moon, matter has two faces. For centuries, astronomers saw but one face of the moon. Similarly, scientists normally deal only with the exterior face of matter, its Without.But matter, like the moon, has a hidden face. Co-extensive with the Without, there is a Within to things. We have recognized the existence of a conscious inner face that everywhere duplicates the materialexternal face, which alone is commonly considered by science.” 

Ultimately, Teilhard became convinced, “There is neither spirit nor matter in the world. The stuff of the universe is spirit-matter; no other substance but this could have produced the human molecule.”

Sir Arthur Eddington talking with Albert Einstein
Yago: One modern physicist has quipped that “whatever matter is,it  is not made of matter.” Sir Arthur Eddington contributes saying that “one of the greatest discoveries of modern sciences is that we are dealing with a world of shadows. What we thought was solid is a kind of a shadow world.” Could you elaborate Eddington’s insight?

Dave: Since Democritus, it was hypothesized that the material world was comprised of tiny building blocks, which we call atoms. Ernest Rutherford’s experiments of the early 1900s used radioactivity—newly discovered—to probe the structure of the atom. Rutherford’s results confirmed the existence of atoms, but they also revealed something totally unexpected: atoms are mostly empty space, more than 99.9% to be exact.

Almost simultaneously Einstein made the discovery that matter and energy are equivalent, and shortly thereafter, quantum mechanics revealed that all matter can manifest in two mutually exclusive ways: as particle and as wave. Matter’s wavelike nature expresses its mere tendency to exist. So the deeper we probe into matter, the more gossamer it becomes.

Yago: Teilhard intuited the meaning of the cosmos. We can paraphrase him saying that “consciousness (spirit) is not a byproduct of evolution; it is the purpose of evolution.” To express this epiphany in language, Teilhard coined a wholly new term: noosphere. Could you explain to us his vision behind this term?

Dave: In 1875, when the Austrian geologist Edward Suess coined the term “biosphere,” it was a new concept, one that extended the notion of the geosphere. By definition, the geosphere is the material earth.  Life has no quarter and plays no role in the geosphere. By pushing outward by a few miles the boundaries of the geosphere, Suess also expanded his awareness. Now a universally acknowledged concept, the biosphere envelops the geosphere, incubating life. Within its air, topsoil, and water life breathes, blossoms, and flourishes. Outside it, life withers and dies. By radial extension, the geosphere grew to encompass the material world and the biological world, the worlds of Newton and of Darwin.

Similarly, Teilhard de Chardin pushed the envelope of human awareness outward yet further. He coined the term “noosphere” (i.e., sphere of knowing) to represent a region that envelops the biosphere and incorporates all the consciousness of the earth and her inhabitants. Each sphere contains yet supersedes its antecedents.

Yago: In Teilhard’s Phenomenon of Man is the outline of a generalized theory of evolution for which he coined the term cosmogenesis. The term evokes a restless cosmos, ever creative and continually unfolding. Could you expand on this?

Dave: As a scientist who studied both geology and human origins, Teilhard wholehearted embraced the theory of evolution. Moreover, he was keenly aware of 20th-Century developments in cosmology, among them that the universe is expanding, having originated in a “primeval atom” (to use the original term for the Big Bang). Teilhard saw a common thread: evolution applies not only to biological processes but to the universe as a whole. From this recognition emerged the notion of cosmogenesis, which signifies a universe in continual creation. When is the moment of creation? Now! And we participate in that unfolding. Needless to say this bold view of evolution put him in conflict with the keepers of Church orthodoxy, who “banished” him to China and the US and forbid him to publish his theological thought.  His great works were all published posthumously.

Yago: Teilhard said: “The labor of seaweed as it concentrates in its tissues the substances scattered, in infinitesimal quantities, throughout the vast layers of the ocean; the industry of the bees as they make honey from the juices broadcast in so many flowers, these are but pale images of the ceaseless working-over that all the forces of the universe undergo in us in order to reach the level of the spirit.” You consider this passage as the favourite one from all Teilhard’s works. Why?

Dave: Teilhard’s poetic words expose a great secret of the universe about the relationship between two overarching megatrends. On the one hand there is the megatrend of the physical universe toward decay. On the other hand, there is the trend of the biological universe (or at least our part of it) to produce beings of greater biological complexity and higher consciousness. Teilhard termed the latter trend complexification. The trends run in exactly opposite directions: toward decay and against decay. That begs the question. Are these opposite trends somehow related? Yes, and in the last 50 years—since Teilhard’s death--have we been able to explicate how. The running down of the physical cosmos propels the running up of the biological cosmos. Complexification requires a physical universe in decay!

Yago: As humans, who apparently occupy the pinnacle of the tree of life, we have a sacred obligation to participate responsibly in evolution. How then does humanity participate responsibly in the evolutionary story?

Dave: The impact of humans upon the planet is now so great that cultural evolution has replaced Darwinian evolution as the principal agent of change. Simply put, humans are changing the face of the earth at a rate far faster than biological processes. Greenhouse gases have produced a climate that is warmer than at any time in the past 600,000 years. Climate change, deforestation, industrial farming, and habitat destruction—all by human hands--are bringing about the 6th great extinction of species to occur in the past 500 million years.

Part of the problem is a misinterpretation of the biblical injunction to “have dominion over the earth.” Does this mean to do with the earth what we please, or to be stewards of the earth? Science too has contributed to the “desacralization of nature” by its materialistic worldview, which renders the earth just a “thing.”

However, the evolutionary “new story” suggests that as participants in creation rather than the focus of creation (the religious story) or random byproducts of creation (the scientific story), we have a sacred duty to act responsibly, not only for the sake our own species but to protect the entire web of life.

Yago: As you say we are called to protect the entire web of life. We are all deeply interconnected. This is the mystical union described in the “perennial philosophy” of the ancients, in which self merges with Self.  You say that the Internet could be seen as the physical manifestation of Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere. Could you expand on this?

Dave: As I was nearing completion of Reason and Wonder, I had the great fortune to visit pioneering psychologist Lawrence LeShan at his home in Manhattan. On his wall, in Sanskrit I believe, were the three most seminal words of the Upanishads: “That Art Thou,” the bedrock awareness of the “perennial philosophy” that separation is illusion.

The third Copernican revolution is about the nature of consciousness (or psyche or spirit if you prefer).  I believe that the indicators all point in the direction of some type of universal consciousness, as envisioned by Teilhard and others. If so, then the consciousness of the individual merges at some level with collective consciousness, which Teilhard termed the “noosphere.” If consciousness has a collective component, then separation is indeed an illusion.

And if all of this seems a bit far-fetched, then all one has to do is logon to the Internet, which is in many ways a cyber manifestation of Teilhard’s noosphere.

Compassion in the Animal World
Yago: It looks to me that this illusion of separation applies also to the animal world. You say that the more closely we study the higher animals, the more our categorical superiority evaporates. How does this call to extend our circle of compassion affect the animal world? What can we learn from the Native-American indigenous traditions in this regard?

Dave: I’ve enjoyed reading in recent popular literature—National Geographic for example—about the amazing things we are learning about our next of kin. Crows are canny problem solvers, capable of fashioning simple “tools” on the spot. Dogs and bonobos are far more adept at language than we had imagined. Even our claims to unique spirituality fall flat in the face of new observations that elephants, foxes, and even magpies grieve for fallen companions.

In Judeo-Christian mythology, animals are either sacrificial or subservient to the human. Not so in Native American mythology, which speaks with virtually equal reverence of “the (human) people,” “the ant people,” “the buffalo people,” etc. Even mosquitoes have a role to play in some native creation stories. Indigenous peoples tend to seem themselves as an integral part of the web of life rather than as having dominion over the world, and it breaks the hearts of the indigenous to watch the devastation that we non-natives leave in our wake. Westerners have a lot to learn from native peoples.

Yago: We are talking of bowing to the mystery of Creation. Another outstanding discovery during the last decades is that reality is holographic in nature. The whole is contained in every part. Could you explain to us the amazing insight of being in a Holographic universe? Again, what are the potential implications to our sense of identity?

Dave: “Bowing to the mystery”—I like that!

Regarding the holographic universe, to call this a “discovery” may be stretching a bit too far. Perhaps it is safer to say that there are indications the universe may be holographic in construction. The term comes from holograms, three-dimensional images constructed by laser interference and stored on two-dimensional film. Unlike conventional photographic negatives, however, each tiny piece of holographic film encodes the entire three-dimensional image!

"Flower in a Crannied Wall" (Alfred Lord Tennyson)

Holography is a fitting metaphor for what poets and mystics have intuited: separation is illusion. Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Flower in a Crannied Wall” suggests that the whole universe is contained in a single flower: all is one.  Physics, I believe, is slowly being drawn toward the same conclusion. We’re not there yet, but what an exciting possibility! And I just read yesterday, by the way, that Leibniz, the German contemporary of Newton, who independently developed the calculus, also envisioned a universe in which the whole is contained in each part!

Yago: Dave, during the last months you have been posting in The Huffington Post. A series of your articles is called “Science’s sacred cows.” What do you mean by that term?

Dave: By the term “sacred cows,” I refer to assumptions that science once held dearly, only to later relinquish. These include absolute time, absolute space, materialism, dualism, reductionism, causality, determinism, and locality. Curiously, “modern” developments—particularly in relativity and quantum mechanics—have undermined most of these cherished assumptions. One might naively think that science would collapse with its “bedrock” washed away.  Not so. Science remains alive and well. The reason is that the true foundation of science lies in its protocol—physical experimentation, the development and testing of theories, and enough back and forth to build consensus—not in its assumptions.

The series in The Huffington Post was written as a cautionary tale that science should be cognizant of its own “dogma” and should avoid straying into scientism (scientific fundamentalism). The incursions of religion into the domain of science are numerous and egregious, but scientists are not always aware of their own overreach. Science maintains highest integrity and remains of greatest service to humanity when it makes as few assumptions as possible. The most intransigent (and damaging, I believe) assumption, albeit tacit rather than explicit, is materialismthe presumption that all attributes of the cosmos, including human consciousness, derive from the properties of matter. To put it bluntly: matter is all there is. The assumption is an unnecessary blinder.

Rupert Scheldrake at TED Talk
Yago: Your last article is titled “Science vs. Pseudoscience.” You say that a conflict between “science” and “pseudoscience” is now playing out on the States. You speak of the recent flap surrounding two TED lectures on the nature of consciousness, by Rupert Scheldrake and Graham Hancock, that were initially removed from YouTube because TED’s scientific curators deemed them “pseudoscience.” Sheldrake’s and Graham’s offense is to propose the unorthodox view that consciousness is nonlocal.  What can you tell us about this debate within the scientific world?

Dave: At issue is the “problem of consciousness,” a problem that science never anticipated addressing, given Descartes’ partition of philosophy into separate domains in inquiry: mind and matter.  Philosophy took the former and science the latter. But quantum mechanics has brought the two domains back together.

The problem of consciousness can be encapsulated by considering the relationship between “brain” and “mind.” Brains are easy to locate. The human brain is the wet, convoluted organ of about three pounds that resides in the cranial cavity of the skull. It is a clearinghouse for sensory stimuli, the seat of the emotions, the control center for complex movement, the processor of language, and presumably, the originator of thought. Mind, on the other hand, is the faculty of conscious, subjective experience: the “ghost in the machine.” If free will exists, mind is the seat of free will. “Brains are automatic, but people are free,” asserts at least one neuroscientist. The chief attribute of the brain is its extraordinary complexity. The chief attribute of mind is its inexplicable unity. Mind and brain are related, but how remains enigma.

Many scientists, being steeped in materialism, view mind as an epiphenomenon of neural activity. In particular, this seems the stance of Eric Kandel, 2000 Nobel laureate in physiology, as articulated in In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind. Study the brain long enough it is presumed, and we will eventually understand mind. But a lot of evidence--anecdotal and scientific-- suggests otherwise. The mind may be localized to the brain. Then again, it may not. By way of analogy, does the brain generate consciousness, or is it a receptor for consciousness, something like a TV set, where the consciousness itself is nonlocal, distributed throughout space like a TV signal?

The orthodox view favors local consciousness. Sheldrake and Hancock, however, espouse the unorthodox view: nonlocal consciousness. Although still “unorthodox,” the latter view was/is held by many seminal thinkers, among them Jung and Teilhard.

Morphic Field and Resonance
Yago: English biologist and author Rupert Sheldrake has coined the term “morphic field” in the scientific world. He says that the fields are fundamental in nature, matter arises from fields, and that matter is made of fields. Through modern physics materialism has transcended itself. Matter is less fundamental than fields or energy. Could you tell us how important it is to incorporate the theory of  fields in our understanding of reality? What does he mean by “morphic field”?

Dave: We are all familiar with fields—for example, gravitational and electromagnetic fields--but they are difficult to define. When a compass needle mysteriously aligns so as to point toward true north, it is responding to the earth’s gravitational field, an entity presumed to exist because of its influence but despite its invisibility.  A field is a quantity that varies in strength according its coordinates in space and time. Thus, by definition, fields are nonlocal—that is, distributed in spacetime—in contrast to particles, which are localized in spacetime.

Birds moved by a Morphic Field
Rupert Sheldrake has hypothesized the existence of biological fields, termed “morphic fields,” which influence the morphology (structure) of living organisms. It’s a very intriguing idea and somewhat analogous to the idea of field consciousness by which, say, the collective instincts of a species are imparted to all members of the species by some sort of shared consciousness. Such theories, however, are exceeding difficult to substantiate at the current time, especially with science still trapped in the materialistic paradigm. Thus, Sheldrake’s idea is viewed with suspicion (or derision) by mainstream biologists/geneticists. I suspect that time will prove him right, but that could be many decades away.

But your basic point is well taken. The more we learn about matter, the less material it seems. One well-respected physicists has quipped, “What ever matter is, it isn’t made of matter.” It’s time for science to relax the assumption of materialism.

Yago: Diarmuid O’Murchu ends his last book “In the beginning was the Spirit,” quoting Teilhard de Chardin saying that “humanity is being taken to the place where it will have to chose between suicide and adoration” What is your contribution to this insight?

Dave: Well, I have to agree with both Teilhard and O’Murchu. On the one hand I see deepening crises on multiple, interrelated fronts: ecological, economic, moral, and political. As a species, we are in trouble, and we are taking a lot of other species down with us. Our problems are deeply rooted in habits and belief systems related to old stories that are no longer viable. (For example, the common belief among mainstream economists and politicians that a healthy economy must always “grow” even though the earth’s resources are finite.) On the other hand, there is an awakening in human consciousness—the fruit of the third Copernican revolution, a new spirituality if you will—that can potentially divert catastrophe. Will sufficient numbers awaken in time? I don’t know. But it is our responsibility to try, in the faith that if we fail, the universe will still thrive.

Thomas Merton (1915-1968)
and Thich Nhat Hanh
Yago: Your invitation to exercise our responsibility goes together with Thomas Merton’s words to Thich Nhat Hanh when saying that “a new mentality is needed, and this implies above all a recovery of ancient and original wisdom. And a real contact with what is right under our noses.”  You are inviting us to take a first conscious choice in order to survive: to transmute rather than to stagnate. Finally, you conclude your book saying that we are called to become Homo sapiens spiritus. How did you come with this name?

Dave: Homo sapiens sapiens literally means “doubly-wise” hominid. We have both reason and intuition to guide us. But we have not yet learned to integrate those two modes of navigating the world; too many of us make Prigogine’s “tragic choice” of one over the other. When finally we make peace between head and heart, between reason and intuition, between matter and spirit, and between science and religion, humanity will have turned a corner in consciousness to become deserving of a new name. Homo sapiens spiritus was the name John Yungblut, my beloved mentor, coined for the next evolutionary step.

John Paul II (1920-2005)
Yago: Dave, we are ending this very inspiring interview. You have helped us to understand how the three Copernican revolutions are deconstructing the illusionary masks of human narcissism. In this journey towards the real, science and religion have gone through different stages: separation, divorce and on-going reconciliation. Regarding the relationship between science and religion John Paul II pronounced:  “The Church is convinced that there can be no real contradiction between science and faith… It is certain that science and faith represent two different orders of knowledge, autonomous in their processes, but finally converging upon the discovery of reality in all its aspects….. The Church is always interested in research concerning the knowledge of the universe, whether physical, biological, or psychological.” How would you describe the Catholic Church's evolution in relationship to science?

Dave: The Church was severely tarnished by the Galileo Affair and learned the valuable lesson that the great “Book of Nature” cannot be banned. To its credit, the Church has largely made peace with evolution and Big Bang cosmology, thanks in part to scientist-priests like Teilhard de Chardin and Georges Lemaitre, and the work of contemporary Catholic thinkers such as Thomas Berry, Richard Rohr, Barbara Fiand, and Diarmuid O’Murchu, to mention a few. Unfortunately, much of the rest of Christendom has not learned these lessons, although there are signs of hope in such movements as the Clergy Letter Project and Evolutionary Christianity. For as my mentor knew, in an evolutionary universe, Christianity itself must evolve if it is to remain viable.

Yago: Dave, thanks a lot for your wonderful contribution to this blog. Indeed, your critical mind has helped us to deconstruct what keeps fuelling modern slavery, meaning, human narcissism.

Dave: Thank you Yago. I feel so honored to be included among the wonderful interviews at your site.  What a joy it has been to meet you and work with you on this project.