The Scientists’ Aversion to the Spiritual Implications of their Own Science
I have written a few posts so far about modern science. I have explored some of the tenets of quantum mechanics, astrophysics and brain neurology looking for connections to spiritual issues and practices. One question is very important within spirituality and it comes up repeatedly in the face of some of the most cutting edge science today. That question is “who am I?” A corollary to that question is “What is the nature of “reality?” since that question is so dependent on the answer to the first question, “who am I?”
I have found that most contemporary scientists I have studied come face to face with these questions quite quickly when explaining their latest discoveries. Even though they often just as quickly dismiss such questions in order to proceed with their experiements or explanations of their experiments, these questions remain for the discerning spiritual practitioner. I have found that these scientific treatises can be very helpful, in fact, for going deeper into these questions.
TOUCHING A NERVE by Patricia Churchland is a new book about brain neurology that I have found interesting for these reasons. In it Patricia admits right away that the new discoveries in brain science are making a lot of people uneasy because they are forcing us to introspect in very spiritual ways. Brain science is leading a lot of scientists to ask that pesky question, “Who am I?” Patricia, of course, isn’t writing a book with that intention. She deflects the question in an interesting way, as I will go into in a bit, but that she is forced to acknowledge the issue is significant.
At first she writes,
“You may wonder: how can have control over a domain of the brain I am not even aware of? Do I have control over brain activity I am aware of? And who is ‘I’ here if the self is just one of those many things my brain builds, with a lot of help, as it turns out, from the brain’s unconscious activities?”
Even Arjuna, in The Bhagavad Gita, asks Krishna “can I really control my brain?” If Arjuna, a great warrior/yogi, can ask that question we certainly can’t blame Patricia for doing the same. Both Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra and Krishna’s Bhagavad Gita answer unequivocably yes but I am not interested in that right now. What interests me is not Patricia’s denial that “I” can control my brain but her deduction that the “I” is a creation of the brain.
The mistake that Patricia makes, from a spiritual point of view, is mistaking the package for the contents. Put another way, the details of “I;” that is, my memories, my opinions, my aspirations, etc.; are not what makes me “me.” Patricia writes as if there would be nothing left of her without all of these “trappings” of the ego. She expresses that unwillingness to consider the existence of a soul or some “essence” of life within her again here:
“In death brain cells quickly degenerate with massive loss of information. Without the living neurons that embody information, memories perish, personalities change, skills vanish, motives dissipate. Is there anything left of me to exist in an after life? What would such a thing be? Something without memories or personality, without motives and feelings? That is no kind of me? And maybe that is really okay after all.” (page 12, emphasis hers)
Patricia doesn’t recognize anything that she would call “me” if it doesn’t have the details of her ego connected with it. In other words, Patricia doesn’t recognize a true self that is indistinguishable from the true self located within every other person and thing. For her, a “me” has to set her apart from everything else. That is the ego in a nutshell. Thank you Patricia for helping us to see it so clearly.
Going further, Patricia explains that the possible absence of an essential “me” that will survive death is okay with her: “And maybe that is really okay after all.” She goes on to explain that she is able to accept these nihilistic conclusions of brain science because she feels that she is still connected to everything. She reveals however the source of this happy feeling of acceptance on page 23: “How fine a thing is an indoor toilet on a winter morning when it is -10 degrees Fahrenheit and there are 2 feet of fresh snow.” In other words, she can accept the anti-soul nihilistic implications of modern science because it allows her to be comfortable. If it gives me my food, my clothing and my shelter I am okay with it, says the slave to her master.
Patricia pretends that her “feeling” of being okay with the conclusions of modern brain science are grounded in logic. She writes “The background logic has three main points and essentially goes like this: First, reality does not conform to what we want it to be. The facts are the facts. . . . By working with reality, we can sometimes change it by finding a new vaccine or a new machine to harness electricity. Science–testing, being guided by facts, revising, testing again–is the best deal we have for getting a bead on reality. . . . Second, . . . fighting the truth about reality does not work in the long run. . . . And third, we can regulate how we use science.” (page 23)
She has to ignore a very real aspect of her own science in order to argue this way. Even though, earlier on, Patricia explained that the “self” that speaks, thinks, asks questions is entirely a construct of the much larger encompassing brain, she still insists she can trust this mechanism to find truth, or “reality,” within its parameters. She already stated that the truth is bigger than the questioning, talking or thinking mind but then insists that we can blindly follow this thinking mind’s lead in order to discover that “reality.” Even the most conservative of scientists would admit there is a problem with the logic there. Modern neurology is upending the assumption that the thinking mind is dependable to pursue the question “what is real.” Patricia admits the game-changing nature of the most recent discoveries but refuses to be shaken by them.
The fact is that brain science, along with quantum mechanics, along with modern astrophysics, along with other cutting edges of modern science, are giving good reason for the scientist to question the scientist himself. In other words, the forefront of science is exposing holes in the ego’s logic. They are threatening the castle of the ego and it is mainly the discoverers themselves, like Patricia Churchland, that are denying this or trying to discount it. Although I haven’t finished reading “TOUCHING A NERVE: Our Brains, Our Bodies” it is so far appears to be another book of science written by a scientist who has figured out a way to avoid the most poignant and important questions that their experiments are really raising.