The Mindful Universe

The following is excerpted from Henry Stapp’s Mindful Universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer (2007).

Science has improved our lives in many ways. It has lightened the load of tedious tasks and expanded our physical powers, thereby contributing to a great flowering of human creativity. On the other hand, it has given us also the capacity to ravage the environment on an unprecedented scale and to obliterate our species altogether. Yet along with this fatal power it has provided a further offering which, though subtle in character and still hardly felt in the minds of men, may ultimately be its most valuable contribution to human civilization, and the key to human survival.

Science is not only the enterprise of harnessing nature to serve the practical needs of humankind. It is also part of man’s unending search for knowledge about the universe and his place within it. This quest is motivated not solely by idle curiosity. Each of us, when trying to establish values upon which to base conduct, is inevitably led to the question of one’s place in the greater whole. The linkage of this philosophical inquiry to the practical question of personal values is no mere intellectual abstraction. Martyrs in every age are vivid reminders of the fact that no influence upon human conduct, even the instinct for bodily self-preservation, is stronger than beliefs about one’s relationship to the rest of the universe and to the power that shapes it. Such beliefs form the foundation of a person’s self-image, and hence, ultimately, of personal values.

It is often claimed that science stands mute on questions of values: that science can help us to achieve what we value once our priorities are fixed, but can play no role in fixing these weightings. That claim is certainly incorrect. Science plays a key role in these matters. For what we value depends on what we believe, and what we believe is strongly influenced by science.

A striking example of this influence is the impact of science upon the system of values promulgated by the church during the Middle Ages. That structure rested on a credo about the nature of the universe, its creator, and man’s connection to that creator. Science, by casting doubt upon that belief, undermined the system of values erected upon it. Moreover, it put forth a credo of its own. In that `scientific’ vision we human beings were converted from sparks of divine creative power, endowed with free will, to mechanical automata – to cogs in a giant machine that grinds inexorably along a preordained path in the grip of a blind causal process.
This material picture of human beings erodes not only the religious roots of moral values but the entire notion of personal responsibility. Each of us is asserted to be a mechanical extension of what existed prior to his or her birth. Over that earlier situation one has no control. Hence for what emerges, preordained, from that prior state one can bear no responsibility.

This conception of man undermines the foundation of rational moral philosophy, and science is doubly culpable: It not only erodes the foundations of earlier value systems, but also acts to strip man of any vision of himself and his place in the universe that could be the rational basis for an elevated set of values.

During the twentieth century this morally corrosive mechanical conception of nature was found to be profoundly incorrect. It failed not just in its fine details, but at its fundamental core. A vastly different conceptual framework was erected by the atomic physicists Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, Wolfgang Pauli and their colleagues. Those scientists were forced to a wholesale revision of the entire subject matter of physical theory by the peculiar character of the new mathematical rules, which were invariably validated by reliable empirical data.

The earlier `classical’ physics had emerged from the study of the observed motions of the planets and large terrestrial objects, and the entire physical universe was, correspondingly, conceived to be made, essentially, out of miniaturized versions of these large visible objects.

Called “solid, massy, hard, impenetrable moveable particles” by Newton (1704), these tiny objects were conceived to act upon each other by contact interactions, much like billiard balls, except for the mysterious action at a distance called gravity. Newton himself rejected the idea that gravity could really act at distance without any intervening carrier. Nevertheless, provisional rules were found that were imagined to control the behavior of these tiny entities, and thus also the objects composed of them. These laws were independent of whether or not anyone was observing the physical universe: they took no special cognizance of any acts of observation performed by human beings, or of any knowledge acquired from such observations, or of the conscious thoughts of human beings. All such things were believed, during the reign of classical physics, to be completely determined, insofar as they had any physical consequences, by the physically described properties and laws that acted wholly mechanically at the microscopic scale. But the baffling features of new kinds of data acquired during the twentieth century caused the physicists who were studying these phenomena, and trying to ascertain the laws that governed them, to turn the whole scientific enterprise upside down.

Perhaps I should say that they turned right side up what had been upside down. For the word `science’ comes from the Latin word `scire’, `to know’, and what the founders of the new theory claimed, basically, is that the proper subject matter of science is not what may or may not be `out there’, unobserved and unknown to human beings. It is rather what we human beings can know, and can do in order to know more. Thus they formulated their new theory, called quantum mechanics, or quantum theory, around the knowledge-acquiring actions of human beings, and the knowledge we acquire by performing these actions, rather than around a conjectured causally sufficient mechanical world. The focus of the theory was shifted from one that basically ignored our knowledge to one that is about our knowledge, and about the effects of the actions that we take to acquire more knowledge upon what we are able to know.
This modified conception differs from the old one in many fascinating ways that continue to absorb the interest of physicists. However, it is the revised understanding of the nature of human beings, and of the causal role of human consciousness in the unfolding of reality, that is, I believe, the most exciting thing about the new physics, and probably, in the final analysis, also the most important contribution of science to the well-being of our species.

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3 Responses to The Mindful Universe

  1. When Stapp says that classical Newtonian physics ignored our knowledge, he means it ignored consciousness. He is saying that quantum mechanics validates the religious idea that we are agents of will, and he is further clarifying that we are acting on an objective world of potentialities rather than hard substances. The orthodox Copenhagen understanding of quantum theory he subscribes to is dualistic. Consciousness and matter are not reducible to one another. There is an after life.

    He speaks of Heisenberg and his colleagues. Stapp was one of his colleagues. Humility helps. I read his book that this excerpt is taken from and I must say it is scientifically rigorous and profound in its implications.

    Mysticism—direct experience of the implications of consciousness—is the future of both science and religion. That is my opinion. And Stapp’s is a scientifically, forward thinking book.

    • bijaya kumara das Brian D Grover

      I agree with your premiss “Mysticism—direct experience of the implications of consciousness—is the future of both science and religion” for it is proven by the Dr from Japan that did experiments on sound (produced by a conscious being) effecting water molecules which is somewhat explained in the verse: from sound comes ether and from ether comes fire and from fire comes water and from water comes earth.
      There is also plenty of evidence to support this in the healing arts using consciousness (prayer) or what some would call divine intervention.

  2. Giving the excerpt a quick read-through, Stapp’s assertions seem somewhat illusive. But he is saying that there is more going on than a series of mechanical action and reaction events. He is saying that our awareness can focus an influence on how things play out in the creation.

    I have to go back to Srila Bhaktisiddhanta’s statement that “People are so much apt to indulge in transitory speculations even when they are (trying)to educate themselves on a situation beyond their empiric area or experiencing jurisdiction.”

    In the above statement, The Thakkur points out that the material mind and senses simply cannot encompass, or, even enter into, an understanding of the nature of the causal background, behind those aspects of the cosmic manifestation that we can observe. In other words spiritual reality is not available to the material mind and senses.

    He explains that rather than accepting transcendental authority, those who are thoughtful, or scientifically inclined, tend to have an ingroup or estoteric discussion among themselves. He refers to this tendancy as “the esoteric aspect” of their mode of inquiry. So he says that “The esoteric aspect” inclines them, or in his words, “knocks them to trace out immanence (God) in (through) their outward inspection of transitory and transformable things.” In other words, such scientifically inclined men make their observations of the workings of the cosmos, and in so doing try to understand what is making the whole thing tick.

    The Thakkur goes on to say that this “impulse” to understand in this way “moves them” to conceive of “the immanent” as “an indeterminate impersonal entity, no clue of which could be discerned by moving earth and heaven through their organic senses.”

    Bottom line? Forget it boys. If you really want to know about the Cause of All Causes, the real nature of God – then just read the verses of Chapter 5 of the Brahma Samhita. It’s all there.

    Having a really good mind, from the mundane point of view can be an impediment. Janma-aishvarya-suta-shri. Good birth in society (janma), being wealthy or powerful (aishvarya), being highly educated (suta), and shri (bodily beauty) – all the results of good karma, can really be non-productive in terms of bringing one to the point of akinchina gochara, being materially exhausted in terms of having faith in one’s personal resources for finding the ultimate reality, the ultimate good. Those who are wealthy, beautiful, highly educated, and born in aristocratic families, they are not our best candidates for accepting authoritative spiritual guidance. Jesus said the same thing. More difficult to put a camel through the eye of a needle than to get a wealthy man into the spiritual realm. Very difficult to manifest the essential humility required when things seem to be going so well, materially speaking.

    So it can be with those large-brained scientists. It doesn’t have to be that way. Maharaja Parikshit was a great king, but he could hear from Sukadev Goswami. But personalities like Bharat Maharaj and our Gaur Kishore das Babaji tenaciously clung to the lowest social positions in society in order to persue their devotional lives.

    We who are able to embrace these parampara teachings of Krishna Consciousness are so very fortunate. Now let us practice what we have heard with all the determination at our command.

    Hare Krishna! Ishan das

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