When the ancient Greeks first uttered the dictum “Know thyself,” they had another choice. They could have said “Know lots of other things.” In one direction the investigation goes inward; in the opposite direction the investigation goes outward. “Know thyself” stands for something that, as far as we know, only human beings possess: self-awareness. “Know lots of other things” also points to a unique human capacity: curiosity about the outside world. I think it’s unarguable that the investigation of the outside world, as pursued by science, has gotten much, much further than self-awareness. Scientists have probed Nature in every dimension, while self-awareness hasn’t even stopped humanity from the impulse to destroy itself.
The gap between “Know thyself” and “Know Lots of other things” was sharply drawn by a current post from the back-page editor of Scientific American, Michael Shermer. Reading his piece, “At the Boundary of Knowledge,” one comes away with a sense that science is totally triumphant. Not only has science achieved huge successes in acquiring facts and data that led to the overwhelming dominance of technology in the world. It has done something much more difficult. Quoting a recent book, The Big Picture, by Sean Carroll, a physicist from the California Institute of Technology, Shermer claims that now we can be almost certain about how all knowledge is attained. “All of the things you’ve ever seen or experienced in your life—objects, plants, animals, people—are made of a small number of particles, interacting with one another through a small number of forces.”
From this position, which we can call hardline materialism, Shermer reaches the following conclusion: “Once you understand the fundamental laws of nature, you can scale up to planets and people and even assess the probability that God, the soul, the afterlife and ESP exist, which Carroll concludes is very low.” I haven’t read Prof. Carroll’s book, but you can see Shermer, and many of his readers, dusting off their hands with a satisfied sense of “Well, that’s that.” If they are right, science has eliminated the need for “Know thyself” simply by swallowing up the whole issue of self-awareness and packing it away with particles and forces, having scaled up to planets and peoples, God and the soul.
Or there is another possibility, eloquently expressed by great pioneers of quantum physics around a century ago. Max Planck, who named the quantum, wrote, “All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent Mind. This Mind is the matrix of all matter.” Werner Heisenberg doubled down on that assertion: “The atoms or elementary particles themselves are not real; they form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts.”
These insights about the mind as a primary force in Nature sound either strange, absurd, imaginary, or metaphysical to anyone pursuing the “Know lots of other things” project that gave rise to science. But they make perfect sense to the “Know thyself” project. It’s obvious on the face of it that no matter how finely you break a piano down into molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles, the facts you gain say nothing about how music is composed, nor can you get there by dissecting Mozart’s brain, which is nothing but a conglomerate of ordinary molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles, also.
In fact, there are scientists who understand the distinction and are trying to resolve it. A growing cadre of investigators has opened the door to a once-forbidden subject, consciousness. The gist of Shermer’s article is to debunk the existence of paranormal phenomena, a very large category into which he tosses God, the soul, witchcraft, and all manner of superstitions. But such attacks from the stance of scientific atheism are premature. Until we understand how consciousness comes about, both normal and paranormal events are equally mysterious. Two observers, one claiming to see angels, the other to see nebulae and galaxies, derive their experience from totally unknown processes by which the dark, silent, mushy environment of the brain, using completely ordinary electrochemical activity, produces a three-dimensional world.
Maintaining that physics disproves, or reduces to the vanishing point, the very possibility of paranormal phenomena, Shermer’s once -over-lightly of “the horizon where the known meets the unknown” misses the main chance. Instead of beating the dead horse of scientific atheism Shermer should have considered a far more amazing current trend.
I mean the trend that places so-called supernatural phenomena on the same playing field as natural events. Consciousness is the field of all experience including the knowing of experience. This is the only irrefutable fact anyone has to work with. The inside scoop in physics and biology is that a crisis of knowledge has developed when attempting to account for the fundamental definitions of time, space, matter, energy, and life. In a cosmos ruled by dark matter and energy, where no empirical evidence exists about the origin of time, where the multiverse is pure conjecture and no one has the slightest idea how the constants that emerged from the Big Bang created the perfect scenario for life on Earth, Shermer’s brand of stubborn physicalism is not just wheezy–it’s not true to the current situation in science.
It’s time for Shermer to go back to the future and read these seminal physicists like Planck, Heisenberg, and Schrödinger, so that instead of relying upon a primitive belief that all phenomena come down to the interaction of particles, he gets into the game when it’s finally becoming interesting. “Know thyself” may be at a low point compared to ancient Greece, but it’s getting ready for a comeback that promises to change everything.
Deepak Chopra MD, FACP, founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing, 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 and a member of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists. The World Post and The Huffington Post global internet survey ranked Chopra #17 influential thinker in the world and #1 in Medicine. Chopra is the author of more than 80 books translated into over 43 languages, including numerous New York Times bestsellers. His latest books are Super Genes co-authored with Rudolph Tanzi, PhD and Quantum Healing (Revised and Updated): Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine. www.deepakchopra.com