#5148 – On using pseudoscience as a faulty means to discuss nonduality

#5148 – Sunday, January 26, 2014 – Editor: Dustin LindenSmith

In my last issue, I posted excerpts from a short conversation between the actor and comedian Russell Brand and Harvard physicist John Hagelin at a conference on Transcendental Meditation. One of our most longstanding readers, who himself holds a Ph.D. in Physics, wrote to me an impassioned letter of objection about some of the scientific points made in that interview. I’d like to share parts of that letter with you today.

In his response to this piece, our reader (whom I affectionately refer to as Dr. Q for Quantum) points out how unfortunately common it is for well-meaning laypeople to attempt to use quantum mechanics to somehow ‘prove’ nonduality. “There are aspects of QM which make for lovely metaphors,” writes our Dr. Q. “But the majority of non-science-trained folks who make these arguments mistake the map for the territory and usually mangle the science as well. I can only assume that Dr. Hagelin is being deliberately apocryphal with this statement:”

Quantum physics has basically revealed the fundamental unity of life. Surface diversity, but deeper levels (at the molecular level, atomic, sub-atomic, sub-nuclear, electroweak unified, etc.) culminates in the discovery of what’s called the Unified Field, fulfilling Einstein’s dream of revealing the fundamental unity at the basis of the universe.

Dr. Q continues: “Indeed, while it is the goal of many folks in physics to create a theory of the Unified Field, no one has done so.” To wit:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unified_field_theory
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/614522/unified-field-theory

Dr. Q. expanded further on how ill-conceived comparisons between QM and nonduality mistake the map for the territory:

When I’m speaking of a unified field theory, I’m literally speaking of a bunch of squiggles written on a piece of paper. This is the map. In fact, it’s not even a map of GOD, the territory. It’s a map of the physical manifestation, which is has been likened to the image in a mirror.  So to use quantum mechanics to “prove” nonduality is backwards.  One doesn’t use a map to prove that in hitherto unexplored places “there be monsters here;” one goes to those places and brings back monsters to prove what’s written on the map.

After reading part of the Wikipedia entry on this topic, I discovered that indeed, despite the discovery of the Higgs boson, physicists have yet to agree on the details of the so-called “Theory of Everything” which Hagelin appears to be referring to. Convenient though it may be for our purposes of furthering an understanding and scientific appreciation of nonduality, it is shoddy science for us to pretend that the Unified Field Theory as mentioned by Hagelin is a true, agreed-upon finding that somehow supports a nondual world view.

One of the greatest illustrations I’ve ever seen of a failed use of “woo-woo” scientific terms to describe nondual reality is in this debate between neurophysicist, philosopher and rational humanist Sam Harris, with physicist Michael Sherman and Deepak Chopra. Chopra is raked over the coals by the rhetorically balletic Harris during the full-length debate from Nightline:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0E99BdOfxAE

Harris and Sherman spare no effort at bringing Chopra back to the facts, over and over again. Of course, I found myself initially rooting for Chopra and Team Spirituality, but by the end of the debate I was much more impressed by how pragmatic, rational and objective Harris and Sherman could be. This is an interesting 5-minute excerpt if you don’t have time or inclination to watch the whole thing:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CLwnqDvlXqI

Of course in the end, this is all just prattle. There’s nothing inherently meaningful in anyone winning a debate about nonduality and science or about nonduality in general. Of course, if the debaters are highly skilled (or if one of them is a narcissist or humourously ill-informed), it can be entertaining to watch. But I find myself more moved to reflect on ways that nondual insight can reduce suffering in the world. In upcoming issues of the Nonduality Highlights, I’d like to look for more stories in that particular realm. Unless I find something really funny to share with you instead.

Dustin

2 thoughts on “#5148 – On using pseudoscience as a faulty means to discuss nonduality

  1. atelierartisanal

    Hi Dustin,
    Interesting post. It could be interesting to get a response from John Hagelin on this. (If possible.) I heard him speak at SAND Europe last spring. He seemed to be far more educated about quantum physics than it may (or may not) have appeared to Dr. Q. I do think a superficial presentation of non-duality can easily overstep the bounds of science, while a profound understanding at least recognizes the nature of inquiry in both fields and so has more to say on the matter. It is the rare scientist who can combine both – or not – and if not, be able to explain in layman’s terms why not.

  2. Tbony Llandry

    Hi Dustin,’
    Really liked the map/territory analogy.
    Jim Baggott in “Farewell to Science” expands in this in his criticism of string theory as a betrayal of science because (to paraphrase) string theory either mistakes or conflates the map with the territory.

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