"Fearlessness is the first requirement of spirituality. Cowards can never be moral." -- Mahatma Gandhi

Friday, June 17, 2011

Consciousness: The Intersection of Science, Metaphysics and Religion

"We have inherited from our forefathers the keen longing for unified, all-embracing knowledge."
-- Erwin Schrodinger --
In the true spirit of 'philosophy' - that is, the love of knowledge - the polymath English philosopher, Herbert Spencer, once famously observed: "There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance - that principle is contempt prior to investigation." And perhaps nowhere in our modern culture are the bars thicker than between the seemingly exclusive fields of science and religion.

One of the foremost contemporary critics of religion, neuroscientist and author ("Letter to a Christian Nation"), Sam Harris, continually makes the case for an epistemological 'Chinese wall' between science and religion, physics and metaphysics, faith and reason, etc. Yet, in a recent article on the Huffington Post, he not unwittingly (perhaps) highlights the particular area - consciousness studies - in which the seemingly antithetical disciplines of physics and metaphysics seem to intersect.

"There is something degraded and degrading about many of our habits of attention," Harris observes. Speaking only for himself, he observes that he spends much of his waking life "in a neurotic trance." Yet, speaking of his experiences in meditation, he suggests that there is an "alternative" to his state of consciousness and being. "It is possible," he concedes, "to stand free of the juggernaut of self, if only for a moment."

Such a concession, wittingly or unwittingly made, points to the reality of religious experience as opposed to religious faith. In each of our inner realities, there is the potential for a greater, unitive state of consciousness, a point made by pioneering psychologist, William James in his classic work, "The Varieties of Religious Experience."
"(I)f we look on man's whole mental life as it exists," James notes, "on the life of men that lies in them apart from their learning and science, and they inwardly and privately follow, we have to confess that the part of it of which rationalism can give an account is relatively superficial."

"If you have intuitions at all," he points out, "they come from a deeper level of your nature than the loquacious level which rationalism inhabits. Your whole subconscious life, your impulses, your faiths, your needs, your divinations, have prepared the premises, of which your consciousness now feels the weight of the result; and something in you absolutely knows that that result must be truer than any logic-chopping rational talk, however clever, that may contradict it."
[Wm. James, "The Varieties of Religious Experience," p. 73.]
This knowing - the same standing "free of the juggernaut of self" that Harris speaks of - lies at the heart of all the world's great religions and wisdom traditions. The miracles, origin mythologies, rites and rituals of organized religion - most of them thousands of years old - are all superfluous to this essential truism: we are far more than the individual self/ego. Religious practice - most particularly, meditation - serves only as an aid for us to experience the wider, selfless state of pure consciousness which exist within us all.

In railing against 'religion' most of the new breed of evangelical atheists (like Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, et al.) lose sight of the 'tree' of higher consciousness amid the 'forest' of religious superfluities. If we are to move toward the "unitive, all-embracing knowledge" which Schrodinger sets out as our birthright, it will require open-minded investigation into what consciousness is, and how it manifests individually and collectively. For this, it seems, there may be no better starting place than the experiential insights based on millennia of inner investigation practiced by religionists.

"A little philosophy inclineth man's mind to atheism," Sir Francis Bacon observed, "but depth in philosophy bringeth men's minds about to religion." Or, as Einstein remarked: "Science without religion is lame, (while) religion without science is blind."

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