By Deepak Chopra, MD
Peacekeepers entering war zones frequently find that both sides are angry and intransigent, to the point that even mentioning peace causes tempers to flare. This has been the situation with the debate—now worn out to the point of exhaustion—between science and religion. There are ways to bring peace, but they are stymied by militant partisans.
The astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson broke out from his warm persona as our national science explainer in 2014 when he stated, in line with previous opinions, that philosophy was useless, telling an interviewer, “My concern here is that the philosophers believe they are actually asking deep questions about nature. And to the scientist it’s, what are you doing? Why are you concerning yourself with the meaning of meaning?”
The reason that more people got upset over his remarks goes beyond the small and dwindling coterie of professional philosophers. DeGrasse Tyson was arguing in broad terms that science is the only avenue to truth and that inner inquiry was an obstruction to uncovering the secrets of reality. He believes, science requires no acts of faith and therefore is the only reliable guide to knowledge.
Millions of people would agree—after all, modern civilization was built upon the foundation of science and technology. But deGrasse Tyson doesn’t realize that his brand of simplistic materialism runs exactly counter to the insights of quantum physics beginning a century ago, when the reliable structure of space, time, matter, and energy was completely undermined. This is no longer the stale, exhausted war between science and religion or between science and philosophy. The nature of reality, unknown to so-called naïve realists, has become increasingly mysterious.
DeGrasse Tyson places himself in the camp of naïve realism, the belief that what the senses report is fact, that raw data, once systematized and explained, establishes the physical universe as the basis of everything real. That is actually an act of faith. The great pioneering physicist Max Planck, who coined the term “quantum,” insisted that “mind is the matrix of matter.” He elaborated on the point speaking to a London reporter in 1931: "I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness."
The fact that the observer affects what he observes, links mind and matter, although precisely how is still debated. DeGrasse Tyson recently dragged my name into his combative attitude, labeling me as a suspicious character who threw around big words to disguise my own ignorance. But having written several books on the nature of consciousness, I feel like a peacekeeper rather than a combatant. One role DeGrasse Tyson has adopted is a kind of “There’s nothing to see here, folks. Just move on.” He represents the happy face of a unified scientific community marching hand-in-hand toward the ultimate explanation of everything.
The problem with such an attitude is its combination of willful ignorance and outdated science. The salient points are these:
1. Physicists find themselves more baffled than ever about the nature of the universe, thanks to the discovery of dark matter and energy, which contradicts many previously held assumptions.
2. The holy grail of science, the sought-after Theory of everything, is farther than ever from being achieved. This has led to a deep rift and much doubt among theorists—see Stephen Hawking’s book, The Grand Design, co-authored with Leonard Mlodinow. In explaining their M-Theory, they use the phrase “model-based reality.”
3. The traditional way for dealing with consciousness has been for science to ignore it, be suspicious of the entire subjective realm, and ridicule anyone who brought up the subject. This attitude, encapsulated in the phrase, “Shut up and calculate,” is a mask for ignorance about the nature of the mind. Like it or not, science is a mode of explanation that rests upon experience, just as other modes of explanation do.
4. Without understanding consciousness, science as pure physicalism may be reaching a dead end. Once you arrive at the quantum vacuum state, the void from which time, space, matter, and energy emerged, there is no more data to harvest. Across an uncrossable horizon lies the “nothing that gave rise to everything.” A new mode of explanation based on consciousness offers a way past this barrier. But about this deGrasse Tyson knows nothing.
5. Pride in being a know-nothing is gradually fading among far-seeing scientists. In an influential Scientific American article in 2014, the prominent British physicist George Ellis knocked the scientific attack on philosophy. Ellis’s central point was that the assumptions behind science are metaphysical to begin with, yet practitioners of science remain woefully ignorant of this fact. Both opposing camps, the one that derives creation from material forces and the one that derives creation from an invisible transcendent agent of mind, are making philosophical statements, not proven statements of fact.
Taken altogether, these points, which are well known in and out of science, are not quackery or suspicious anti-science attitudes promulgated by exponents of woo woo. I can shrug off unfair denigration, but deGrasse Tyson needs to get past his faith-based view of science. Instead of disparaging better thinkers than himself, he should join the peacekeeping mission that might, at long last, repair a division that needs healing, not misplaced antagonisms.
Deepak Chopra MD, FACP, founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing and Jiyo.com, is a world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation, and is Board Certified in Internal Medicine, Endocrinology and Metabolism. He is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians, member of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists and Clinical Professor at UCSD School of Medicine. Chopra is the author of more than 85 books translated into over 43 languages, including numerous New York Times bestsellers along with You Are the Universe (February 2017, Harmony) co-written with leading physicist, Menas Kafatos. Other recent books include Super Genes co-authored with Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D. and Quantum Healing (Revised and Updated): Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine. www.deepakchopra.com