Before you read any further, stop and close your eyes for a moment. Then open them and consider the following question: For the moment your eyes were closed, did the world still exist even though you weren't conscious of it? How do you know? If this sounds like the kind of unanswerable brainteaser your Philosophy 101 professor used to employ to stretch your philosophical imagination, you might be surprised to discover that there are actually physicists at reputable universities who believe they have answered this question—and their answer, believe it or not, is no
Now consider something even more intriguing. Imagine the entire history of the universe. According to all the data that scientists have been able to gather, it exploded into existence some fifteen billion years ago, setting the stage for a cosmic dance of energy and light that continues to this day. Now imagine the history of planet earth. An amorphous cloud of dust emerging out of that primordial fireball, it slowly coalesced into a solid orb, found its way into gravitational orbit around the sun, and through a complex interaction of light and gases over billions of years, generated an atmosphere and a biosphere capable of not only giving birth to but sustaining and proliferating life.
Now imagine that none of the above ever happened. Consider instead the possibility that the entire story only existed as an abstract potential—a cosmic dream among countless other cosmic dreams—until, in that dream, life somehow evolved to the point that a conscious, sentient being came into existence. At that moment, solely because of the conscious observation of that individual, the entire universe, including all of the history leading up to that point, suddenly came into being. Until that moment, nothing had actually ever happened. In that moment, fifteen billion years happened. If this sounds like nothing more than a complicated backdrop for a science fiction story or a secular version of one of the world's great creation myths, hold on to your hat. According to physicist Amit Goswami, the above description is a scientifically viable explanation of how the universe came into being.
Goswami is convinced, along with a number of others who subscribe to the same view, that the universe, in order to exist, requires a conscious sentient being to be aware of it. Without an observer, he claims, it only exists as a possibility. And, as they say in the world of science, Goswami has done his math. Marshalling evidence from recent research in cognitive psychology, biology, parapsychology, and quantum physics, and leaning heavily on the ancient mystical traditions of the world, Goswami is building a case for a new paradigm that he calls "monistic idealism," the view that consciousness, not matter, is the foundation of everything that is.
A professor of physics at the University of Oregon and a member of its Institute of Theoretical Science, Dr. Goswami is part of a growing body of renegade scientists who, in recent years, have ventured into the domain of the spiritual in an attempt both to interpret the seemingly inexplicable findings of their experiments and to validate their intuitions about the existence of another dimension of life. The essence of Goswami's theory is presented in his book The Self-Aware Universe: How Consciousness Creates the Material World
(1995). Rooted in an interpretation of the experimental data of quantum physics (the physics of elementary particles), he weaves together myriad theories and findings in fields from artificial intelligence to astronomy to Hindu mysticism in an attempt to show that the discoveries of modern science are in perfect accord with the deepest mystical truths. Quantum physics, as well as a number of other modern sciences, he feels, is demonstrating that the essential unity underlying all of reality is a fact that can be experimentally verified. He asserts that because science is now capable of validating mysticism, much that previously required a leap of faith can now be empirically proven, and hence the materialist paradigm that has dominated scientific and philosophical thought for over two hundred years can finally be called into question. By attempting to bring material realism to its knees and to integrate all fields of knowledge in a single unified paradigm, Goswami hopes to pave the way for a new holistic worldview in which spirit is put first.
Yet for all the important and valuable work Goswami and others are doing to reconcile the long-divorced domains of science and spirituality, thinkers such as Huston Smith and E. F. Schumacher have pointed to what they feel is an arrogance, or at least a kind of naïveté, on the part of scientists who believe that they can expand the reach of their discipline to somehow include or explain the spiritual dimension of life. These critics suggest that the very attempt to scientifically validate the spiritual is itself a product of the same materialistic impulses it intends to uproot. Because of this, they claim, such efforts are ultimately only capable of reducing spirit, God, and the transcendent to mere objects of scientific fascination.
Is science capable of proving the reality of the transcendent dimension of life? Or would science better serve the spiritual potential of the human race by acknowledging the inherent limits of its domain? The following interview confronts us with these questions.