Taking It Lightly

comments 20
Course Ideas / Reflections / Science

Over time I’ve come to respect the fact that linking my wonder at scientific discoveries to the knowledge of my heart is risky business. It’s tantalizing, for instance, to imagine that some marvel of the natural world is related to, or evidence for, a proposition about the ultimate nature of being—but taken seriously it never quite works.

To “take it seriously” is to imagine that some stunning natural phenomena is the (ultimate) reality described in various wisdom traditions, and the problem is that this is a false equivalence. It misleads us: Not only is the ultimate reality of our wisdom traditions desiccated by its reduction to transient form, but the fact that a beguiling natural phenomenon reminds us of a principal claim about the nature of ultimate reality doesn’t mean the whole kit and kaboodle of a particular cultural or religious tradition goes with it. Experiments with entangled particles can be framed as evidence for the existence of a profound, underlying web of connections at the heart of reality, but does this vouch for the existence of the Hindu god Ganesh?

No, it doesn’t. And this is one problem with attempts at a working syncretism of scientific modalities with religious or spiritual traditions. Another is that interpretations of scientific findings in terms of what they suggest about the fundamental nature of reality can be confusing and paradoxical. Depending on the eye of the beholder, scientific facts can be used to support many arguments. I remember when nearly thirty years ago I read The Dancing Wu Li Masters, and was amazed at parallels drawn between experiments in quantum mechanics and ideas about reality in various Eastern traditions. I could be mistaken, because it’s been a while, but I remember a central theme being the idea that the quantum mechanics experiments pointed directly to a much deeper, underlying order or connection at the heart of nature. Entangled systems, for instance, were indissoluble wholes that transcended space and time.

But paradoxically, quantum mechanics also suggests that nature is random at her heart. We cannot predict the outcome of any particular quantum event because if the prevalent interpretations of quantum mechanics are correct, the outcomes of individual events are not specifically determined by their histories. We can know the outcome must be one of four states (let’s say), and even know the likelihood of a particular result as compared to another, but the actual outcome (if there is one) is the product of chance alone (again, depending on your interpretation, with this one being prevalent).

To add to this confusion, quantum mechanics is a theory of parts. We can study an entangled system and marvel at its apparent transcendence of time and space, but to do that we must split the universe into the system we are studying . . . and everything else. And because quantum mechanics always requires this split to be applied, we could argue it’s not in fact a theory of wholeness! It’s a theory of perception, perhaps. Further, it’s based ultimately on the notion the universe is made of myriad discrete units. The universe is not a smooth continuum—not one thing at all—but a composite of tiny pieces whose quasi-random movements construct the illusion of our classical world: the good old reliable realm we inhabit of courtside seats, tomahawk jams, and personal fouls.

So what does quantum mechanics really say about things? That they are deeply interconnected as the mystics and sages throughout history would tell us? Or that they are in essence random, discontinuous, and discrete?

The thing is, we don’t have to “take seriously” the idea that scientific discovery and ultimate reality are peers. We shouldn’t, in fact. There’s a much better way to do this, and that is to consider that phenomenal reality is a work of art that cannot help but contain patterns, artifacts, traces, and whispers of what truly is. When we open the page of the universe before us, we discover aspects of what is so—often aspects that paradoxically seem contradictory to one another—but we never encounter the fullness of reality itself. With this mindset, we can marvel at what our ability to interact with the natural world reveals. It’s a bit like sneaking into the house of someone famous when they’re not there, and encountering the myriad revelations encoded into the physical records of their existence.

This can free us from the need to determine if phenomenal reality is truly one thing or another. It may very well be both, without contradiction even, because it’s probably (in the ultimate sense) something more—something capable of subsuming and embodying all of it. The interpretations of quantum mechanics embrace a pretty interesting ensemble of conclusions about reality: that it is inherently random, that it is perfectly pre-determined, that every possible outcome happens somewhere, that only one thing ever truly happens but we can’t know it in advance, even that what one person observes in a given instance need not be what another does. Right now, all of these stand on firm scientific footing. They form, ironically, an intellectual superposition of possible truths that is delightfully similar to the physics itself.

But I think they’re all correct when we understand them as perceptual patterns—unique section cuts of the whole. They are views through different-colored glasses. Creation, quite simply, contains all of this. Can there be the appearance of truly profound interconnectedness in a universe incapable of portraying the truly random? I think not. Is the precious experiential cargo of the present undermined by the notion of infinite possibility? Negative. I think these opposing poles work hand-in-hand to anchor the spectrums of possibility in which we roam.

To “take it lightly” is to recognize that our questions determine our answers, and that within the fields of reality in which we roam, there are paths we’ve yet to try. There’s even one where we remember the possibility of new life—the life of genuine unity. This is the one (and the many) in which we become conduits of the ultimate reality that is reflected all around us. It is the life of reason and wonder interwoven, the life of possibility made real.

It is the life we’ve been so seriously working to attain.

20 Comments

  1. Hey Mike, firstly, bad news, that WordPress Reader bug turned your post into a single paragraph when viewed in the WP Reader. Sometimes an edit and update will fix it, but if not, my post explains what happened and how to fix it for sure.

    More importantly, interesting post. I can connect with a lot of what you say. A key mission in my life has been the notion that there is a Yin-Yang of science and what you term wisdom (and what I’ve termed spirit). And I think a whole view entails both. One thing I observe is that science converges on a specific external reality. There is much we don’t know, much we can’t know, but our understanding still converges on repeatable physical reality, the Yin of life. (And if you know anything about Yin-Yang, my assigning Yin to science is deliberate and intended.)

    The Yang, however, is expansive. I like the phrase, “There are many ways up the same mountain.” And in many respects, it’s a mountain whose peak we can never reach. The climb is the point. A journey, not a destination. One can even move about the mountain exploring different ascending paths.

    So I’ve never seen these as exclusive or that one is right and the other wrong. Both are valid. Both teach us truths. I believe life without both is incomplete. Without the ineffable mysteries, we spiral in on concrete facts, but without those concrete facts, our expansion risks getting us lost in space.

    I just read Michael Pollan’s book about psychedelics, and there is something of this exact thing there. There is a great deal of mysticism and trappings involved, but there is also a pharmacology in how these drugs affect the human brain. A characteristic of them is what’s called “hyper-suggestibility” — what you expect, you get; what you think, you see. The human mechanism underlying the placebo effect — our ability to heal and control ourselves — is never more manifest than under the influence of these drugs. Which show some amazing potential for dealing with addiction and depression. But the medical community is caught in a tension between the apparent need for mysticism in science and science’s long rejection of that very thing. Yet researches who’ve embraced both have found astonishing results.

    The Dancing Wu Li Masters, along with The Tao of Physics, were two of the first pop-science books about quantum mechanics that I read. (I still have both, although they’re severely outdated now. Both predate the discovery of quarks, for instance.) The thing about QM is that we can’t possibly take it too seriously — it’s acknowledged, I think, by all parties as incomplete. I think a key question is whether it’s completely wrong, and we should start fresh, or if it just needs tweaking. The stall in particle physics makes me wonder about a fresh start.

    But it’s hard to get away from the sense communicated by Wheeler’s 20 Questions game where the people giving answers do not have a specific object in mind. The first question asked gets a random answer, but every answer thereafter must involve a possible object consistent with all answers so far. (Which means the answers come more slowly over time as people go through the previous ones seeking an object that satisfies all.) Wheeler’s notion here, as you said in the post, is that, to some extent, reality depends on what questions we ask it and is not “real” (in some sense) until we do.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for the heads up on the post. I think I fixed it by deleting all my paragraph breaks and re-adding them in. It worked in the reader on my phone at any rate, as compared to how it appeared before…

      And thanks for the note. I’ve never read much on psychedelics, but I know various researchers have studied them and of course many indigenous communities have incorporated them into their shamanic or ceremonial modalities. Might be intriguing to put that on the list for the New Year! To your point about science’s need for incorporating expanded considerations (mysticism) into its domain, it’s an interesting point. I personally feel this would be interesting in all sorts of ways, but it’s the kind of thing that can’t be done without genuine intent… which makes it difficult… because how do you measure intention!?

      Also agreed the yin-yang is important: we need the sky to unground us even as we need the ground to keep us from flying away. It certainly is a balance and important in my mind to enroll both perspectives in our collective work as a society.

      As to QM, and this post in general, I was hoping to suggest the natural world presents us with all sorts of dynamics and types of order to discover, and that we have arrived at the places we’ve asked to behold. Perhaps this is what you were getting at with the Twenty Questions

      Have a great New Year’s, Wyrd!
      Michael

      Liked by 1 person

      • Happy New Year to you and yours, Michael! May the coming year bring peace, safety, and joy!

        I’m sorry, but the paragraph problem still appears. As isn’t uncommon, if I look at the post in the Reader but by first picking your feed, then the post renders correctly. If I use the main feed, it doesn’t. That was true when it happened to me, too. How WP accomplishes such a bizarre bug is beyond me. And, of course, it’s fine viewed outside the WP Reader. Weird.

        In Wheeler’s 20 Questions game I was speaking more of the QM world than to a notion that the classical world is equally malleable or subject to interpretation. I’m a pretty hard core philosophical realist, and I view the external world as something we progressively learn more and more about (as demonstrated by our ever-improving technology). Science, I feel, continually converges on a more and more accurate understanding of the physical world. I’m afraid I tend to view most mysticism as our personal connection with that world, not a universal truth. The difference is perhaps reflected in the difference between a science book and a fiction book. The former delivers concrete universal repeatable truth, the latter delivers more personal individual truth. As I said, I think both are vital to a whole view.

        Back in high school I used to have a view that included a type of philosophical idealism. I was very struck by the story about how Friedrich Kekulé came up with the benzene ring (the dream of a snake eating its tail). I began to think, “What if that wasn’t true until Kekulé dreamed it?” No mind on Earth had a notion of the structure of benzene, so what if it had no structure until someone dreamed of one it must have. And reality responded with, “Okay, sure, I wasn’t doing anything else there, so benzene ring it is.” Likewise, for another example, the Higgs Boson. What if it didn’t exist until someone decided it had to. Reality becomes more fixed as more and more minds believe the same thing. As more and more accepted Kekulé’s idea, the benzene ring became more and more fixed.

        It’s a fun idea, but it doesn’t work. Idealism as a theory of existence is, I feel, a non-starter because it can’t account for the incredible lawful consistency we find in nature (or for discovery of that). Everything seems to work according to a fairly small set of consistent related laws. In many regards it seems there could be a single Theory Of Everything underlying the whole wax ball. A very large lawful physical reality in which we’re just tiny observers and participants seems more likely.

        A striking thing to me about mystical experiences, including those with drugs, fasting, pain, sensory deprivation, illness, or whatever means, is how consistently they’re framed in terms the subject knows. No supposed OBE has ever included sights the subject couldn’t possibly have seen otherwise. No mystical or drug experience ever results in new information (“just” new insights — nothing to sneeze at!). So, I am skeptical these experiences are other than personal. But that’s still a huge big deal.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thanks for checking on the revised post. I’m not going to worry too much about how it appears in the Reader to be honest. I think most people are able to click through to the actual page if interested. It is a very strange bug though, as you say, because when I checked it, it was (I can’t remember why, maybe purely accidental) after clicking first on the feed, then the post, as you noted.

          Okay, so with regards to the “classical world” and your discussion of idealism–which I believe must have been kicked off by my saying, . . . and that we have arrived at the places we’ve asked to behold–I probably should clarify. I don’t subscribe to an idealism that would suggest all of us can simply imagine levitation, and then do it. Or imagine benzene rings, and add them into the known universe. But I should qualify this by noting that as so often occurs, the very context in which such an idealism is evaluated defaults to the universe as we know it–a universe that, in toto, is a reflection of fundamental choices that I do think establish experiential parameters.

          I will try to explain. But first I should say it should probably be done as a series of posts–(which maybe would be fun to do)–and that in a comment the result may be rushed and terms unclear and etc., etc.

          Two things I should say at the outset: first, human minds occupying the conditions that emerge as a consequence of a fundamental decision or choice to “experience what separateness might be like” are minds with limited creative extension. So when I suggest in my various posts that it is quite possible for us to experience the classical world quite differently, there is an implied knowledge that such a transformative event would occur in a mind or mind(s), in unity. It’s hard to explain this unity because it’s the state we don’t know as our own. (But do remember, perhaps. And imitate, in ways that don’t work, while the root allegiance to separateness remains in place, etc., etc.) I guess I’d just say imagine a flow state with Creation itself in which thought isn’t simply a personal mentation, but a larger river in which one is present, and within which one is differentiated, but with which there is no gap. There is no gap between oneself and this whole. The whole is living in and as and through you.

          So, minds collectively one elected, wondered, imagined an experience of separation, and we got it. The power in that choice is what we cannot imagine really, or comprehend, as it is so unlike the power of the fragmentary-experiential eddies of mind that resulted. So, when we say idealism is kind of silly, and a person cannot just add something new to the universe, well… true. A fragment of the whole cannot do this very well. But the Whole can. And the choice to return to Wholeness would open up new possibilities as well.

          To keep this at least quasi-sane, I’m not necessarily suggesting the outcome of a choice for unity is a world in which everything is willy-nilly. A world where everyone imagines and receives a castle in the clouds. But it would be a world in which the same laws of physics we know now would not be lost, though perhaps added unto by new discoveries. A world not much different than our own could express the true content of Creation in novel and beautiful ways that support and sustain life in ways we currently do not. But it cannot come into being without the choice for unity.

          The choice for separation is like the introduction of a misfiring into the process that brings the imaginal into form. The misfire is perfectly faithful to the request: it is the perfect consequence of the cause. With a different choice, there can be new and seemingly miraculous chains of event and of knowing that come to be. They don’t require a new physics. It’s just like turning Murphy’s Law inside out…

          More on the personal later. I’ve got to run for a while for some errands. Very interesting topics, Wyrd!

          Liked by 1 person

          • I checked your post again, and, dude, you got paragraphs! I don’t know if you did something or if WP somehow catches up with itself. Maybe that editing you did finally took effect.

            You’re correct in why I mentioned my high school notion of idealism. As an aside for clarity, I’ll mention that in that notion, none of us could imagine levitation because the current gestalt is that such things aren’t possible. Modern culture rejects the notion utterly. But ancient or non-technological cultures wouldn’t be so constrained. (At the time, I was, in part, thinking this notion of idealism might explain biblical miracles. There was no gestalt saying these things are impossible.)

            On a more pedestrian level, I’d also by then observed that people who refuse to believe in limits, or who have an abiding faith in their ability to succeed, often do far better in the world than those whose who do limit their thinking or doubt their ability. The placebo effect is so powerful on so many levels. To the point I’ve wondered to what extent belief affects reality. Certainly it does psychologically.

            I’m afraid I’m lost when it comes to talk about separateness and unity. It’s a belief structure that I can’t seem to wrap my mind around. I don’t understand it enough to even have an opinion. My mind seems to have no way to parse, “The choice for separation is like the introduction of a misfiring into the process that brings the imaginal into form.”

            I find that I’m connecting this discussion on your blog with our discussion of fiction on my blog. Just as authors write stories for different reasons, and readers read for different reasons, our metaphysical outlooks vary, perhaps even more than our literary tastes! I suspect our spiritual outlooks are as diverse as our taste in literature!

            Very interesting, indeed!

            Liked by 1 person

            • I may try and develop a series of posts to go into this separation and unity business in more detail. It will perhaps take a little time to get going. Our outlooks are likely diverse, but that’s what makes a conversation interesting!

              Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s long seemed to me that trying to equate traditions about ultimate reality to anything in science is a perilous undertaking. Scientific findings, or the gaps between them, can change without notice. All scientific truths are contingent on new evidence. Something that resonates with a particular metaphysics today might turn out to be ephemeral in the light of new evidence.

    I think it also predisposes us to prefer theories that flatter our metaphysical preferences. Rather than scouts for truth, we become soldiers for a particular viewpoint, which can lead to discounting new evidence that’s not beneficial to our “team”, or not being sufficiently skeptical of evidence that seems to bolster that team. It’s already hard enough to avoid that kind of thinking before traditions about ultimate reality get mixed in; it seems much harder once they are.

    So it seems much better to keep them separate. Of course, if some aspect of your tradition is flat out contradicted by science, that’s admittedly harder to do.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, agreed. Your comment about being predisposed to prefer certain theories is right on I think. Part of what I’m getting at here is that theories are themselves subject to interpretation, and in the end I’ve arrived at the notion none of the theories should be taken as a referendum on the characteristics of ultimate reality. I suspect we’ll make new discoveries for the foreseeable future, possibly indefinitely. I also think these theories give us profound insights into the nature of ultimate reality though.

      One of my favorite wisdom texts, A Course of Love describes the phenomenal world as an “imitation” of ultimate reality, and this is what, in part, I was speaking to.

      The trick as you say is to keep an open mind about when and where an idea one holds is, in fact, contradicted by well-established empirical work. I think most of the big picture items remain, and may remain for some time if not indefinitely, quite difficult to definitively pin down. But to take a common one: the belief the Earth is 6,000 years old, or flat… well… this is exactly the sort of thing it makes little sense to me to pin one’s larger picture of reality upon.

      Thanks for dropping by, Mike! and Happy New Year!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree there will certainly be new discoveries for the foreseeable future. But I do sometimes wonder if in the centuries to come humanity might reach a situation where all the low hanging fruit of scientific discovery has happened, and discovering anything new requires an escalating higher commitment in resources. We already see it in some fields, such as particle physics needing ever larger accelerators.

        Eventually most societies might decide it’s not worth it anymore. At that point, assuming human society is anything we’d recognize anymore, scientific knowledge becomes a tradition itself, with some interesting possible dynamics with other traditions.

        But for now, we remain in the upslope part of that S-curve and the trick is to stay open minded.

        My pleasure Michael! Happy New Year to you as well!

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Lee Roetcisoender says

    Feeling is the “essence” of experience, but that essence is not sterile or benign, it is transcendent, ubiquitous, dynamic and alive. And I think sentience is the bridge that connects the wonders of our own universe with the substrate of a fundamental reality. Because life, any life without feeling at its core is not life at all; and our universe is full of life at every level. What a mystery my friend…..

    Peace for the new year

    Liked by 2 people

    • Beautifully said, Lee! I think I should let that stand as the lovely reflection it is…

      Peace to you in the year ahead as well!
      Michael

      Like

  4. Such an interesting post Michael. It looks okay in my iPhone! Happy New Year to you. May you continue to ask the questions and seek the answers that open our eyes, minds and hearts 🙏

    Liked by 2 people

    • Happy New Year, Val! Hope it is a fruitful and peace-filled one for you. Thank you for the kind words and I extend the same to you. What a ride we are on!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Hedy! I really appreciate it, wish you a blessed and fruitful 2022, and many joyful encounters with our beautiful world through your insightful vision (and lenses)!

      Like

  5. Wow. It’s all too much for me. Your intellect blows me away, and yet I know it serves you. What serves me is that reading it I don’t really understand a word of it, nor try to, nor need to, because what it does, every time, is pull me into such a lovely presence that there are no longer any questions, just being. Thank you.
    Happy New Year Michael. May it be all you could wish for.
    Alison 💕🙏

    Liked by 1 person

    • Alison! I do think who we are serves us each, and we are each unique! And your lovely reply means a lot because… if the feelings can ride along with the conceptual musings, then I feel I’ve succeeded on multiple fronts. With much gratitude and a Happy New Year to you and Don as well! Michael

      Liked by 1 person

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