Saturday, October 01, 2005

New Agers Just Don't Get Physics No Matter How Hard They Try

I want to like Deepak Chopra, I really do. He tries hard, and his heart is in the right place. I had even hoped that his exposure to integral theory, through his association with the Integral Institute, would add depth to his work. Maybe it has, but his new book, The Spontaneous Fulfillment of Desire, makes all the classic mistakes that New Age leaders have always made when trying to use physics to demonstrate spiritual principles.

From the book:

Because observation is the key to defining the wave-particle as a single entity, Niels Bohr and other physicists believed that consciousness alone was responsible for the collapse of the wave-particle. It might be said, then, that without consciousness, everything would exist only as undefined, potential packets of energy, or pure potential.

This is one of the key points of this book. Let me repeat it because it is so important: Without consciousness acting as an observer and interpreter, everything would exist only as pure potential. That pure potential is the virtual domain, the third level of existence. It is nonlocal and can't be depleted; it is unending all-encompassing. Tapping into that potential is what allows us to make miracles.

Chopra is relying on the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and the Schrodinger's Cat experiment to support his theory that reality is a construct of human consciousness. To be fair, Buddhists (of which I am one) hold this view as well, although they don't quite mean it in the same empirical way. While Buddhists contend that reality is illusion (the mind creates a false reality based on attachment and fear), Chopra contends that we can shape reality through the act bringing our consciousness to bear on it.

This is an oft-cited interpretation of physics that the original physicists would likely have found quiet troubling. Let's make this more explicit. The wave-particle exists as both a wave and a particle until the moment it is measured (observed). Some people have assumed that only human consciousness is capable of the act of observing, which means that the material universe only ceases to be potential and becomes fact through the act of human beings making it so.

This brings up a very ridiculous problem: the universe existed for about 14.9 billion years (assuming it had a beginning point and isn't eternal, which isn't a given) before human beings were around to observe it. To quote Ken Wilber on this subject: "This view -- that mind generates matter by the effect of the 'participator-observer' -- is like saying the chicken (mind) sees the egg (matter) and thereby creates it" (Eye to Eye, 143). Yet everything we know about the history of consciousness says that it developed out of matter, which existed long before consciousness.

Many mystical traditions believe that matter is created out of mind (prana), "through an act of precipitation and crystallization, not perception and measurement" (Wilber, 144), which is quite different from saying that mind must observe matter to make it solid. What Wilber is talking about here is involution, the belief that higher-order consciousness filters down into lower levels (mind creates prana, or bioenergy, which then creates matter).

Evolution moves from matter to prana to mind to soul to spirit to nondual consciousness. Mystics from a variety of traditions posit involution, which moves in the opposite direction. The belief is that Spirit (nondual consciousness) becomes manifest through the process of involution, with each step toward matter creating an archetypal pattern that matter then can move through as it struggles to return to its source. Involution is a transrational intuiting of the nature of the universe; evolution is a rational understanding of the universe.

The mistake that Chopra and so many others make is trying to conflate transrational insight with rational understanding. It's a classic example of the pre/trans fallacy that so often permeates the New Age movement. Chopra has his heart in the right place, but he fails to fully comprehend the depth of the situation. Another way of looking at it is that he and the others have merged the upper right quadrant (exterior individual) of Wilber's integral map with the upper left quadrant (interior individual). This is what Wilber calls flatland -- reducing depth (vertical hierarchy) to span (horizontal expansion).

Until scientists and spiritual teachers quit making this mistake, we will be burdened with a world that denies Spirit or reduces it to something physical.
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