In an article on the theory of evolution, the biological John Maynard Smith declared, "The individual is simply a device constructed by the genes to ensure the production of more genes like themselves." This statement conveys in a nutshell what modern science has to say about the meaning of human life. It tells us that the individual person is nothing more than a machine composed of material elements. This machine has come into beings only because it and the other machines in its ancestral line happened to be effective at self-duplication in their particular environmental circumstances. All of this machine's attributes including its thoughts and feelings, its abilities, and its hopes and desires - are meaningful only insofar as they contribute to the propagation of the machine's genetic blueprint. And this is meaningless in any ultimate sense, for the genes themselves are nothing but inanimate molecules.
Smith's statement is by no means exaggerated or atypical. It is a straightforward expression of the conclusions of conventional evolutionary theory. Moreover, if we generalize this statement by allowing it to refer not just to genes as we know them but to any possible system of physical self-reproduction, then the statement follows as an unavoidable corollary of the mechanistic world view of modern science.
The term "mechanistic" refers to the theoretical system of modern physics, which is based on measurement and calculation. Loosely speaking, the fundamental premise of physics is that all phenomena are produced by an underlying stuff called matter. Physicists have developed a number of different theoretical descriptions of matter, and they have still to agree on a final theory. Yet all of their theories share the following two features:
(1) Matter can be represented by numbers that correspond directly or indirectly to experimentally measurable properties.
(2) The behavior of matter can be described by mathematical expressions called the "laws of nature".
The world view of modern physics is essentially mathematical, and to a person steeped in this way of seeing things, the mathematical abstraction of physical theories (such as orbitals, waves, and particles) seem more real than the tangible phenomena they are used to describe.
Today, research in nearly every scientific field revolves around the mechanistic premise that all phenomena are due to matter acting in accord with the laws of nature. In biology this premise implies that living organisms are combinations of materials elements, and that they must have arisen from earlier states of matter by purely physical processes. Since the goal of mechanistic theorization in sto explain as much as possible by the natural laws, scientists hypothesize that life developed from matter that existed originally in disorganized, nonliving form. This hypothesis has been systematically elaborated, first in the Darwinian theory of evolution, and then in the theory of molecular evolution. The first of these theories deals with the origin of higher species from single-celled organisms, and the second tries to account for the origin of the first living cells from simple chemical compounds in a "primordial soup".
In psychology the mechanistic premise implies that mind is merely a name for certain pattern of electrochemical interaction in the brain. This means that psychological terms such as "purpose" or "meaning" correspond to nothing more than patterns of behavior that arose as evolutionary adaptations. The mechanistic premise implies that it is pointless to seek an absolute sense for such terms or to apply them on a universal scale, for the universe as a whole consists of nothing but an inexorable flux of physical actions and reaction. Persons are thus reduced to mere subpatterns of an inherently meaningless universal pattern.
Although many scientists assert that the mechanistic approach of modern science is correct, many also admit that it leaves them with a feeling of dissatisfaction. Thus the physicist Steven Weinberg winds up his account of the big bang theory by describing human beings as the "more-or-less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes," and he concludes that only the quest for knowledge by physicists like himself "lifts human life above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy." The bitterness and disappointment in this conclusion can also be seen in Bertrand Russell's declaration that, because the mechanistic world view has become so solidly established, "only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built."
The mechanistic world vision tends to create in sensitive individuals such a sense of existential despair. It denies the very existence of an absolute dimension of higher purpose that seems essential for the satisfaction of the inner self. Of course, some people may argue that if we have no purpose in an absolute sense, we can create our own purpose. Yet this answer, too, is not satisfying, for it we contemplate such manufactures "purpose" from the mechanistic viewpoint, we see it dissolve into nothing but a meaningless juxtaposition of physiochemical events.
The mechanistic world view also exerts a powerful influence on human social relationships. The peaceful conduct of day-to-day affairs depends on people's adherence to certain laws and standards of behavior. These depend on systems of moral and ethical values that ultimately cannot be imposed by force, but must be accepted by inner conviction. Yet mechanistic theories can provide no compelling justification for any system of social values, and they exclude any attempted justification that draws on nonmechanistic concepts.
A list of higher human qualities might include such items as charity, self-control, nonviolence, truthfulness, freedom from anger, compassion, freedom from greed, modesty, cleanliness, and forgiveness. Such qualities are certainly conducive to the well-being of human society, but on what basis can people be induced to value them? Some evolutionists have tried to use the principle of natural selection, or "survival of the fittest," to explain higher modes of behavior as convoluted Machiavellian tactics designed (in an unconscious, mechanistic sense) to further the Goa of widely disseminating one's genes. Thus far, these arguments have been vague and unconvincing. Yet even if a convincing case could be made, it seems this kind of reasoning would not induce people to cultivate higher qualities and moral principles. Indeed, by creating a sense of cynicism, it might likely have the opposite effect.
Actually, the mechanistic principles cannot support any line of reasoning about how people should behave. The mechanistic philosophy implies that you will simply do whatever your bodily chemistry drives you to do. This philosophy denies the very idea of the self as a responsible agent with free will, and thus it also renders meaningless the idea of moral choice.
In the past, people derived their values and their sense of meaning and purpose in life from traditional, nonmechanistic religious systems. Today this is still going on, but many people have become convinced that religion in inferior to science. Mechanistic science has become widely accepted as the only source of genuine knowledge about the world, and as the domain of science has been extended, the authority of the traditional religions has been steadily eroded. Yet religion remains the only source of values and conceptions of higher purpose. As a result, many people find themselves in a painful situation: It seems that they can acquire rational knowledge only at the price of being cast adrift on a trackless sea of fundamental meaninglessness.
Mechanistic science provides a dynamic method of acquiring more and more verifiable knowledge about the world, and it has been impressive because of its prodigious power to explain and manipulate material phenomena. In contrast, religion seems to depend on the blind acceptance of rigid, unverifiable doctrines, many of which have been discredited by modern scientific theories. The world views of the traditional religions are fundamentally incompatible with the world view of modern science, and as the latter vision has gained widespread acceptance, traditional religious conceptions have come to seem more and more antiquated and unrealistic. For these reasons the credibility of the traditional religions has steadily declined, and this decline has been accelerated by the corruptions, inequity, and insincerity that have been prominent in many religious establishments. It has also been aided by the tendency toward compromise, unbridled speculation, and downright concoction, which has produced a bewildering welter of conflicting religious sects and philosophies.
With the eclipse of religion and its replacement by the mechanistic philosophy of modern science, human society has been precipitated into a moral and spiritual crisis. If the mechanistic world view is indeed valid, then it is hard to see how a satisfactory solution of this crisis can be achieved. In that case all we can do is try to live with the conscious awareness that life has no intrinsic purpose or else plunge willfully into delusion and try to live in a divided house of faith and reason.
Yet there is evidence that the mechanistic world view does not represent the whole truth. In this book I show on the basis of logic and ordinary evidence that the prevailing the theories of physics and biology have serious defects which can be raced to shortcomings in their underlying mechanistic framework. This negative conclusion suggests that the spiritual crisis of modern society might be relieved if we could find a truly scientific system of spiritual knowledge that extends and partly supersedes the current theories of sciences. I try to make a positive contribution by introducing such a nonmechanistic alternative to the mechanistic world view. This system of knowledge must satisfy the following four criteria:
First, since mechanistic theories have nothing to say about purpose and personal values, this system must be nonmechanistic. A scientific theory can be briefly defined as a logically consistent system of statements that can often be verified by objective observations, and that do not conflict with observation. All of the important theories of modern science can be translated, at least in principle, entirely into mechanistic terms. In other worlds, they can be expressed in the form of statements about measurements and calculations. Yet there is no reason to suppose that a valid scientific theory has to be mechanistic. Nonmechanistic scientific theories are possible, and to establish a sound foundation for spiritual knowledge we must seek such a theory.
The second criterion is that our system must attribute some dimension of absolute reality to personality. Unless there is some sense in which personality is built into the nature of things, it is not possible to formulate a satisfactory definition of ultimate purpose. Also, in the absence of some conception of the individual as an actual being endowed with free will, there is no meaning to moral and ethical values.
In this connection I should note that there are some nonmechanistic philosophies including Buddhism and the monistic philosophies of India and China which hold that personality is essentially unreal. Recently there have been some attempts to reconcile these philosophies with the mechanistic theories of modern physics. However, these efforts do not achieve the goal that I have in mind. The problem is that in their treatment of personality, these philosophies are indeed in harmony with the mechanistic world view. They also accept personal existence to be meaningless, and their aim is to relieve the anxieties of personal life by bringing the individual to the realization that he fundamentally does not exist.
The third criterion is that the new system must disagree with the existing theories of modern science to some extent. Some people entertain the hope of finding a system of spiritual knowledge that harmonizes with the existing scientific theories. I propose that this hope is unrealistic. The first two criteria are necessary for an adequate spiritual science, and they cannot be reconciled with a universal mechanistic system. Yet this does not mean that the search for a scientifically valid spiritual system in futile. If we closely examine modern science, we can see that in its pretensions to universality it has deviated seriously from its observational foundations, and has fallen into error.
In this book I will discuss two major areas in which my adequate system of spiritual knowledge must clash with the theories of modern science. Both turn out to be areas in which scientists have made unjustifiable extrapolations of physical theories in an effort to create a universal world picture. Both are also areas in which a careful examination of theory and observational evidence shows that the existing scientific picture is seriously deficient.
Biology is the first of these areas of unjustifiable extrapolation. Modern biology is founded on the premise that life can be understood completely in terms of chemistry and physics. No one would deny that many features of living organisms can be adequately explained by physiochemical models, and it is reasonable to anticipate that our physiochemical understanding of biological processes will be greatly extended in the future. Yet no one thus far has even come close to giving a complete physiochemical analysis of any living organism.
In modern biology the view that life cannot be fully described by physical theory is called vitalism. The attitude of many biologists towards vitalism is illustrated by the remark, written in a standard biology textbook, that "those today who may still be prompted to fill gaps in scientific knowledge with vitalism must be prepared to have red faces tomorrow". It is true that many vitalistic theories of the past have been faulty, and have been dis-proven by later scientific findings. Nevertheless, such negative evidence does not prove that life can be fully explained without recourse to nonphysical principles, and the blustering tone often used by scientists who make such assertions betrays the weakness of their position. In this book I will argue that life cannot, in fact, be understood without the introduction of principles that are not merely nonphysical as we presently understand this term, but are strictly nonmechanistic.
The field of evolutionary theory is the second area of unjustifiable extrapolation that I will consider. During the Darwin centennial celebration Sir Julian Huxley declared, "The evolution of life is no longer a theory; it is a fact and the basis of all our thinking." It is certainly true that a theory of evolution is an essential ingredient in any universal mechanistic system. Yet here again, the aggressive tone with which Huxley and other affirm the present theory of evolution betrays an underlying lack of convincing proof. In this book I will argue that the theory of evolution is not actually supported by the factual evidence of biology and natural history, and I will also show that there are fundamental theoretical impediments confronting any attempt to construct a mechanistic account of the origin of life.
The work of criticizing existing scientific theories is essentially negative, and its purpose is to clear the way for positive alternative to the mechanistic world view. But how can we arrive at such an alternative? This question brings us to the fourth criterion for a scientific system of spiritual knowledge. If such a system is indeed to provide ultimate standards of personal meaning, then it must make reference to information that related to persons and that is built into the very nature of things. In other words, the system must have recourse to some universal source of personal direction.
If such a source exist and is accessible to human beings, it stands to reason that other people may have known about it in the past. Indeed, it makes little sense to suppose that a genuine source of absolute personal guidance would remain unknown to human beings throughout history, only to be revealed at the present time. This consideration greatly simplifies the task of finding a genuine spiritual science. Instead of having to invent such a science from scratch, we should search for it among the many philosophical and religious systems of the past and present. Our problem becomes one of recognition rather than one of creation.
A genuine system of spiritual knowledge should have all the characteristics of a scientific theory. It should provide a logically consistent description of reality, and it should entail procedures which can be used to verify important features of this description. The system should be in agreement with existing mechanistic theories insofar as they are valid, but it may be expected to clash with many elements of the modern scientific world view that rest on unsound speculation and extrapolation. Most importantly, the system should contain practical methods of obtaining absolute information about the ultimate meaning and purpose of life.
In this book I will try to make a positive contribution by describing such a system of spiritual knowledge. This means that I shall introduce a specific system of theory and practice that has been expressed in a particular language and handed down in a particular cultural tradition. Since a practical science must exist in concrete form, it is not possible for me to avoid these details. Nonetheless, my concern is with general principles that are universally applicable. My purpose is to demonstrate the possibility of a scientific system of spiritual knowledge by describing an actual example of such a system. I do not want to pass judgement on other systems or become embroiled in any kind of sectarian controversy.
I shall describe the system of bhakti-yoga that is expounded in the Bhagavad-Gita the Bhagavata Purana, and other Sanskrit literatures of India. Bhakti-yoga is the technical name for the philosophy and practical methodology of a living religious tradition called Vaisnavism. The system of bhakti-yoga has been taught by many prominent Indian spiritual teachers, or acaryas, including Ramanuja (A.D. 1017-1137), Madhva (A.D. 1239-1319), and Caitanya Mahaprabhu (A.D. 1486-1534). I have personally learned about bhakti-yoga from His Divine Grace A.C. Bhakti-vedanta Swami Prabhupada, and my presentation of this system is based on his teachings.
The first eight chapters of this book are devoted to a critique of modern scientific theories and the parallel introduction of basic elements of the theoretical system of bhakti-yoga. In the ninth chapter I show how these elements provide the theoretical framework for a practical process of obtaining absolute personal knowledge. The analysis of current mechanistic theories is intended to reveal some of their deficiencies, and to show the need for some kind of nonmechanistic alternative. This analysis does not prove that the system of bhakti-yoga is the only possible alternative, but it does show that this system is a reasonable candidate. The validity of bhakti-yoga can be demonstrated conclusively only by means of the practical observational process of bhakti-yoga itself, and this is discussed in the ninth chapter.
My discussion of modern scientific theories rests entirely on logic, the evidence of ordinary experience, and evidence reported in technical journals and other conventional sources of scientific information. Under the heading of ordinary experience I include the evidence provided by our normal awareness of subjective consciousness. As I will argue in detail later on, except for our direct experience of consciousness, all of those forms of evidence can be translated into mathematical language, and thus they are all mechanistic. Conscious awareness, however, defies representation in mathematical terms, and thus it is a truly nonmechanistic feature of our normal experience.
It is not possible to base a nonmechanistic theory entirely on mechanistic evidence-that is, on patterns of correlation in numerical data. So if nonmechanistic entities and properties are to play more than a ague speculative role in a theory, some means must be available for directly observing them. It is significant, then, that our consciousness, or our inner power of observation, is of a nonmechanistic character, even thought we normally use it to make observation that can be represented in numerical form.
The nonmechanistic system of bhakti-yoga is, in fact, based on the principle that the scope of our conscious awareness can be greatly extended. According to the philosophy of the Bhagavad-Gita conscious personality is the irreducible basis of reality. There are two principle types of conscious being; the one universal Supreme Person, or purusottama, and the innumerable localized conscious selves, or jivatmas. Just as electrons interact with an electric field according to certain natural laws, so the jivatmas interact in a natural way with the purusottama, the all-pervading conscious being. Bhakti-yoga is concerned primarily with the practical study of this interaction through direct conscious realization, and thus bhakti-yoga can be thought of as a kind of physics of higher consciousness.
In physics the interaction between an electron and an electric field can be studied by certain experimental procedures that take advantage of the principles of electromagnetic theory. Similarly, the interaction between the individual self and the supreme self can be directly studied by exacting procedures that take advantage of the properties of these entities. The ultimate goal of these procedures is to elevate the consciousness of the individual jivatma so that he can reciprocate with the Absolute Person on a direct, personal level. Once this is accomplished, the person attains incontrovertible knowledge of the nature and meaning of his own existence.
In the first part of this book, I discuss the nature of individual consciousness and introduce the concept of the jivatma. There is material on the subject of artificial intelligence, the classical theories of the mind-body relationship, and the mind-body theory of Karl Popper. There is also an imaginary dialogue in the style of Galileo an consciousness and the role of the observer in quantum mechanics. I argue that consciousness is objectively real, that the contents of consciousness can be correlated only in a very indirect way with the physiochemical states of the brain, and that consciousness cannot be explained in mechanistic terms. Some nonmechanistic explanation is required, and I propose that the concept of the jivatma provides a simple explanation that is consistent with known facts.
In the second part I discuss the origin of complex from. In their attempts to arrive at a universal picture of reality, scientists and philosophers have always been faced with the problem of how to find unity and harmony in a world of variegated complex forms. I explore this problem in Chapters 5 and 6, which deal with chance, the laws of physics, and the origin of higher life forms. Chapter 5 is devoted to an analysis of evolutionary processes by means of information theory. There I argue that in a mechanistic theory of the origin of life, unity can be attained only be the sacrifice of completeness, and therefore no satisfactory theory of this kind is possible. I arrive at similar conclusion in Chapter 6 by using nontechnical arguments about the nature of chance. But I go on to show that a unified theory of the origin of life is possible if we introduce the concept of the all-pervading Superconscious being, as understood in the philosophy of bhakti-yoga.
Chapter 7 and 8 contain a nontechnical discussion of two types of natural forms-the abstract forms of artistic and mathematical ideas, and the physical forms of living organisms. Chapter 7 deals with the origin of ideas and focuses on the phenomenon of inspiration, in which fully developed ideas appear suddenly and unexpectedly in the mind. I use this phenomenon as the starting point for a discussion of the interaction between the jivatma and the Supreme Person.
Chapter 8 deals with the conventional neo-Darwinian theory of evolution, and includes a brief analysis of its historical role as a replacement for the idea of divine creation. I argue that this theory has never been given a substantial scientific foundation, and that the idea of creation by an absolute intelligent being still provides the most reasonable explanation for the origin of biological form. This is in accordance with the philosophy of bhakti-yoga, which holds that all manifestations of form are generated by the Supreme Person.
The concluding chapter contains a brief outline of the practical observational process of bhakti-yoga. This process takes advantage of the fundamental principles introduced in the first two parts of this book, ad it is the only way of giving a tangible demonstration of the validity of these principles. I argue that her process is truly scientific, and that it shares with modern science such features as a theoretical system, necessary and sufficient conditions for the success of experiments, and independent evaluation and confirmation of results by a community experts. The process of bhakti-yoga is also regulated by a theory of knowledge that strictly rules out unjustifiable speculation and extrapolation, and in this respect bhakti-yoga in methodologically superior to modern science. Bhakti-yoga also goes beyond modern science by providing the individual with practical methods of developing higher cognitive power that lie dormant in the conscious self.
I will end this introduction by making a brief observation about the level of technical difficulty of the material in this book. Since the book deals with some highly controversial issues, I have felt it necessary to present certain important arguments on a rigorous technical level. At the same time I have wanted to make the book accessible to the general reader, and so I have tried to present as much of the material as possible in an undemanding style.
As a guide to the reader I have marked the more technical section with asterisks in the table of contents. To fully follow these sections, the reader will need some familiarity with mathematics and physics. Nonetheless, the arguments they contain are essentially simple, and the general reader may find it worthwhile to skim these sections without worrying too much about the technical details.
A genuine system of spiritual knowledge should have all the characteristic of a scientific theory. It should provide a logically consistent description of reality, and it should entail procedures which can be used to verify important features of this description. The system should be in agreement with existing mechanistic theories insofar as they are valid, but it may be expected to clash with many elements of the modern scientific world view that rest on unsound speculation and extrapolation. Most importantly, the system should contain practical methods of obtaining absolute information about the ultimate meaning and purpose of life.
In this book the author tries to make a positive contribution by describing such a system of spiritual knowledge. This means that he introduces a specific system of theory and practice that has been expressed in a particular language and handed down in a particular cultural tradition. Since a practical science must exist in concrete form, it is not possible for me to avoid these details. Nonetheless, his concern is with general principles that are universally applicable. His purpose is to demonstrate the possibility of a scientific system of spiritual knowledge by describing an actual example of ouch a system. The author does not want to pass judgement on the other systems or become embroiled in any kind of sectarian controversy.
Richard L. Thompson was born in Binghamton, New York, in 1947. In 1974 He received his Ph.D. in mathematics from Cornell University, where he specialized in probability theory and statistical mechanics. Dr. Thompson has done research in quantum physics and mathematical biology at the State University New York at Binghamton, Cambridge University in the United Kingdom, and the La Jolla Institute in San Diego.
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