The following are not my notes, but those of Robert Wallace, reprinted with permission. Visit his blog!
Science and Nonduality: The Many and the “One”
by Robert Wallace
Last weekend (Oct. 22-25, 2009), my wife Kathy and I participated in the first international Science and Nonduality Conference, in San Rafael, California. “Nonduality” is an English word deriving from the Sanskrit “advaita,” which is the distinctive concept of the most influential school of spiritual thought and practice in India, Advaita Vedanta. Originating with Shankara and others around 800AD, Advaita’s central doctrine is that Brahman (or “God”) and Atman (“Soul”) are not, as we might think, two things, but one. This idea has been generalized to apply to numerous prevalent dualities in present-day thinking, such as mind/body, matter/energy, and so forth. So the conference sought to bridge also the duality of science and spirituality, bringing together prominent writers and researchers from both “sides.”
The conference was organized by Maurizio Benazzo, of Neti Neti Media, and (on the science side) Prof. Stuart Hameroff of U. of Arizona (Tucson). Prof. Hameroff is also the organizer of an ongoing biannual series of conferences at U. of Arizona on “Consciousness,” which attracts leading neuroscience researchers, philosophers, etc. Hameroff’s two talks at this conference were probably its most ambitious attempts to synthesize nonduality and science, the latter extending down to the quantum level. Hameroff collaborates with Roger Penrose, an Oxford University physicist whose The Emperor’s New Mind and other books have drawn connections between consciousness and quantum phenomena.
Penrose and Hameroff suggest that the quantum level may be where “Platonic Forms,” both mathematical and ethical, most directly affect the physical universe. As an admirer of Plato, I’m naturally quite interested in this proposal. I’ll have to learn a good deal more about quantum physics and physiology before I’ll be in a position to evaluate it.
I feel better equipped to assess some of the philosophical or religious ideas that were laid out at the conference. There was a good deal of inspirational invocation of the idea that “we are all one,” through the non-dual Brahman/Atman. As I’ve indicated in this blog and other writings, I have a lot of sympathy with this idea. I’m glad to see it being taken seriously in public venues like this conference. However, I want to emphasize that it’s an idea that needs to be handled carefully. If we assert it as a blanket truth that simply has to be “accepted,” rather than understood, we may erase crucial differences that I think should be respected and preserved, and are respected and preserved within the true “One.”
More than one person at the conference reported having heard people say that they sometimes feel guilty about insisting on their personal needs, in negotiating with others—in view of the supposed fact that the difference between them and the others is really just an illusion!
The difference between you and me is not, I think, a mere illusion. On one level it’s perfectly real, so that I shouldn’t suppose (for example) that your experiencing pleasure or convenience compensates for my experiencing pain or inconvenience. In this sort of context, it’s perfectly appropriate to raise issues about justice and fairness.
The metaphysical truth (as I think I’ve learned from Plato and Hegel) isn’t that the boundaries between us are simply unreal, illusory, but that they aren’t features of the fullest reality, what’s “most real.” Because the One is completely self-determining, it’s real as itself; whereas we, who are only partially self-determining, aren’t fully real as ourselves. But whatever degree of self-determination we do have, contributes to or derives from the complete self-determination of the One, and thus it’s preserved, rather than erased, in the One’s fullest reality.
So it’s important for us to preserve our sense of how “the world” of distinct people and things functions and ought to function, at the same time that we love and orient ourselves towards the ultimate, most real One. If distinct things were insignificant, why would the saints and mystics report that the One loves everything? In my own life, my newfound (in recent years) consciousness of the One, powerful as it is, doesn’t erase my consciousness of my individual past and future, and my particular responsibilities and decisions. If anything, it intensifies and deepens that consciousness—and makes it manageable, by putting it within a universal context of love and forgiveness.
As Rumi says, “there’s no need to go outside.” The Atman/Brahman, the Soul/God, is in every one of us, insofar as each of us has some capacity for self-determination. Since my finite self-determination is infinitely far from infinite self-determination, my awareness of infinite self-determination, or the One, does reduce the finite me to nothing, in comparison. (This is what the Sufis call “fana,” annihilation in God.) But at the same time, the fact that I have this awareness, that I have some self-determination, gives me infinite importance, as it gives infinite importance to all of us. (This is what the Sufis call “baqa,” dwelling in God.) So we nothings must love and nurture ourselves and each other, as the One loves and nurtures all of us. But in order to love and nurture each of us effectively, we must preserve a sense of how each of us is a “something,” distinct from the others. Even though, unlike the One, these “somethings” aren’t fully real.
I think this sort of “down-to-earth” recognition of our partial distinctness is found in every spiritual tradition that endures. Sufi sheikhs have families and jobs. Hinduism makes provision for love and raising a family, as well as for monastic life. Taoism makes fun of exalted pretensions. Christian monks pay their bills by making and selling wine. Plato and Hegel, both of them mystics, develop complex theories of love, ethics, and society. A person doesn’t pass directly from childhood and youth to spiritual maturity—there are intervening stages to pass through, having to do with learning the ways of the world, learning to think for oneself, and developing one’s capacities for love and for nurturing (and thus resolving any inherited “issues” one may have). If a metaphysics or a religious world-view neglects any of these stages on the way, it won’t really satisfy its followers. (Nor, probably, will it integrate well with the sciences.)