Science and Spirituality by Peter Russell
People sometimes ask me why a physicist is so interested in spiritual things. What I’m interested in is truth: truth about the world, the universe, the cosmos. Science has looked at deep space, deep time and deep structure. It has reached almost the limits in each direction and has very confidently found that there is no place for God, nor any need for God. The mechanical universe seems to function perfectly well without an old man up in the sky needed to control it. Yet it strikes me that no religion ever suggested that God was an old man in the sky looking after things. If God is to be found anywhere, it’s within human consciousness, in the realm of what I call deep mind. But science hasn’t even begun to explore mind seriously yet. Psychology is just beginning to look at mind, but it’s rather as in physics a hundred years ago when people were just beginning to ponder the nature of the atom.
Spirituality, on the other hand, takes the opposite point of view. In any religion consciousness is primary. A lot of the questions in spiritual areas are about how spirit, consciousness, whatever you want to call it, gives rise to the physical universe. How does God create matter? Science asks: “How does matter create consciousness?” And spirituality asks: “How does consciousness create matter?” These are two completely different approaches. Yet I think they are asking, ultimately, the same sort of fundamental questions.
The real problem for the current scientific paradigm is consciousness. Nothing in the contemporary scientific model predicts that living systems will be conscious. And the current scientific paradigm has no way whatsoever of explaining how consciousness arises in the universe. Yet, the one thing of which we’re absolutely certain is that there is consciousness. It’s the one thing none of us can deny in our own lives. We are experiencing beings. By consciousness, I don’t mean a particular form of consciousness, just the fact that we have experience. You are not biological robots, at least I am assuming you’re not. That is an assumption we all make. I know I am having inner subjective experience and I have every reason to believe that you all are too. So that is the one thing that is 100% certain – that consciousness exists. This anomaly has led to what some philosophers today are calling the hard question: “How does something as unconscious as matter give rise to something as immaterial as consciousness?” The two couldn’t be more diametrically opposed.
Until the latter half of this century, where various things have come together to force science to begin to take consciousness seriously, consciousness has been put aside. I think we are now in the second stage of the paradigm shift. The first stage is when you ignore the anomalies. And that is what we have done, we have ignored consciousness. We are now in the second stage, in which we try to explain it in terms of the old model. As a result there are several different schools of thought at the moment where scientists of all disciplines are coming together to try and explain consciousness. Some think it is something to do with quantum phenomena, others are looking at information theory, computer theory, the chaos theory or the complexity of the neuronal networks.
The New Paradigm
What these approaches have in common is that none of them have actually got very far at all. Science isn’t getting anywhere in trying to understand or explain consciousness. I think the reason for this is that we are still stuck in a paradigm which has eventually got to crash. And that is the paradigm that the material reality that we observe is the fundamental reality. I think the new paradigm which will emerge, isn’t here yet. But I think where we are heading is towards a very different point of view, one that says that it’s not space, time, matter and energy which are the fundamental reality; instead it is consciousness which is the fundamental reality, out of which space, time, matter and energy emerge.
Interestingly enough this view is something which you will find in most spiritual traditions. My own particular interest has been in Vedantic philosophy, and there you have the idea that the ultimate nature of the universe is consciousness. At the sub-atomic level we know there is no solidness. The appearance of the solidness of matter is an illusion. You find the same in Eastern philosophy which talks about maya. Maya is often translated as illusion, it is actually better translated as delusion. It means literally ‘things are not as they seem’ – the way we see things is not the way reality is.
If you look at the Eastern traditions you find the idea there that what we call consciousness is also what we call God. In the West that view has been lost. In fact, in medieval times, people who claimed to be God were burnt at the stake. To say that I am God was considered heresy. Yet the realisation that “I”, the deepest essence of consciousness, can be equated with God is a recurring theme in just about every spiritual tradition, particularly in the more mystical aspects. When you start taking this view seriously, and tying it in with what we now know from science, religion begins to take on a different shape, which actually is no longer in conflict with science.
How Light “sees” the universe
The area I’m particularly fascinated by is that of light. The idea that God is Light features often in spiritual traditions. In physics, too, everything in a way comes down to light in the end. Interactions at the sub-atomic level are an exchange of photons, which are an exchange of light particles. In a very real sense, light is fundamental both in spiritual traditions and in physics.
What happens when you look at the universe from the point of view of light? Einstein showed that the speed of light seems to be a universal constant. However fast you move the speed of light is always exactly the same speed relative to you, namely 186,000 miles a second. Even if you’re moving at 185,000 miles a second, light still passes you at 186,000 miles a second. He also showed that the faster you go, the slower time goes and the shorter distance becomes. If you ever were to travel at the speed of light, time would actually stop and distance would have contracted to zero. Therefore, from the point of view of light, light lives in a universe in which there is no time, no distance and no mass.
From our mass-bound perception, when we observe the universe, we create space and time in a certain ratio, we create 186,000 miles of space for every second of time. It’s a law of conscious manifestation which we interpret as the speed of light. It’s not speed at all, it’s the ratio of the creation of space and time in the universe.
How Light “sees” the universe is very much how the mystic sees it. People in very deep meditation states describe their experience as one in which there is no time and no sense of space. More than that, there is a unity, and, in very high states of consciousness, there is the experience not that I am in the universe, but the whole universe is within me. All this is pointing towards a new conceptualisation of reality. We’re not there yet. I think we’re just seeing the pieces. What I’m interested in is how the pieces are beginning to fit together. And it’s not just of academic interest. I think the reason this shift really needs to happen is because the old materialistic paradigm is ruining our world today. I think it is this mode of consciousness that is leading us to destroy our environment, destroy our habitat and also destroy the very quality of our own lives. I also think it’s really important that we begin to make this shift in ourselves. Again, this is what all the spiritual teachings have been saying. The real challenge is to carry out one’s spiritual practice and finally arrive at the awareness that consciousness is fundamental and that everything else is a creation within consciousness.