Over the past century, physics has discovered that what seems to us to be a hard material universe really consists of objects (including humans) made up of swirling particles in mostly empty space. Proponents of what I call New Age Physics (including physicists David Bohm, Fritjof Capra, and Amit Goswami, as well as popularizers like Gary Zhukov, Michael Talbot, and Deepak Chopra) insist that experiments resulting in “quantum weirdness” validate Hindu mysticism.
This is a reference to the teachings of the Indian philosopher Shankara, who lived between 600 and 800 A.D. His interpretation of Hindu scriptures, part of the Advaita Vedanta school, was spread throughout the United States by Indian gurus in the late 19th and early 20th century. In Shankara’s interpretation, Brahman is the One Ground of All Being, the Ultimate Reality, and meditation is the path to realize that we are all just figments of the imagination of this Cosmic Consciousness.
“Maintaining that the material world has no reality, Shankara stated, ‘Brahman is real; the universe is false,’” wrote Satsvarupa dasa Goswami in “Readings in Vedic Literature.” “He said that if the Absolute Truth extended into the universes and all-pervading souls, his original nature would change. Since he must be changeless, he cannot expand.”
One of the best-known proponents in America of Shankara’s theology was Paramahansa Yogananda, who said, “From science then, let man learn the philosophic truth that there is no material universe; its warp and woof is ‘maya,’ illusion.”
There are two types of physics experiments whose results have led advocates of what I call New Age Physics to claim that they align with this most extreme form of Advaita Vedanta:
1) Passing light through a double-slit causes it to manifest on the other side as either a wave or a particle and changes when observed, suggesting that the viewer is influencing the outcome.
2) Impacting a particle with a force causes a reaction, which also affects another particle far away, as if they are the same thing, connected, or communicating in some way; physicists refer to this as “nonlocal behavior.”
In a recent book, The Grand Illusion, Brendan Murphy asserts the claims for the harmony of Eastern mysticism and modern physics: "According to the Perennial Philosophy (and the body of contemporary consciousness research involving altered states of mind), what remains after you subtract state, time, and culture-dependent realities, which are all transient ‘inventions,’ is the unbroken, unified, and eternal consciousness that creates and pervades all. This realization is at the core of all the major religions (behind the exoteric dogmas), and, incidentally, is also the view of various ‘spiritual’ physicists, who see what quantum physics is pointing us towards.”
Talbot, in The Holographc Universe, cited psychiatrist Karl Pribram’s view that “the objective world does not exist…What is ‘out there’ is a vast ocean of waves and frequencies and reality only looks concrete to us because our brains are able to take this holographic blur and convert it into sticks and stones.”
Some proponents believe that everything we think is real is just an illusion projected by Brahman (think of Keanu Reeves hooked up to virtual reality in “The Matrix” films). Other advocates concede that the material world is a real, but only temporary and subjective, with each person experiencing it very differently, just as observation seems to convert a wave into a particle or vice versa. So how did this universe come about if no one was around to observe it?
“Physicist John Wheeler actually toyed with an alternative explanation…which assumed that information is at the root of all existence, and it sprang into being when the universe observed itself,” wrote Murphy. “This he calls the ‘participatory universe.’”
That would fit the concept of Brahman as an eternal being. But why would it do this? Because, according to advocates of this school of thought, the One (aka the Universe) needed to evolve from experiences that we mistakenly think are our own.
The Skeptical Response
One might be led to believe, from the way proponents confidently state the revolutionary implications of these discoveries, that their views are shared by most open-minded physicists. Stephen Hawking could be expected to be one of those, since he is the boldest theorist who has been willing to change his stands many times, as I documented in Extraordinary People: Real Life Lessons on What It Takes to Achieve Success. Hawking, however, is an outspoken atheist and critic of quantum mysticism.
I don’t often side with the so-called skeptics about the paranormal, but New Age Physics requires a quantum leap in logic that creates bigger problems than it solves.
The late Victor Stenger, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii and author of God and the Multiverse, responded to New Age claims with “Quantum Quackery” in The Skeptical Inquirer: "The current fad of mystical physics began in earnest with the publication in 1975 of Capra’s The Tao of Physics. He asserted that quantum theory has confirmed the traditional teaching of Eastern mystics: that human consciousness and the universe form an interconnected, irreducible whole…The conventional interpretation of quantum mechanics promulgated by Niels Bohr and still held by most physicists says nothing about consciousness."
Quantum mechanics is misinterpreted as implying that the human mind controls reality and that the universe is one connected whole that cannot be understood by the usual reduction to parts. However, no compelling argument or evidence requires that quantum mechanics plays a central role in human consciousness or provides instantaneous, holistic connections across the universe.
Here are Stanger’s technical arguments about the experiments and he notes that there have been “hundreds of proposals over the years, none gaining even a simple majority of support among physicists or philosophers”http://www.csicop.org/si/show/quantum_quackery.
The Philosophical Problems of the One
Many fans of Eastern philosophy in the West are unaware that Shankara’s version of Advaita Vedanta is not the religion of most Hindus. I’ve been studying this since I co-founded Vegetarian World in 1973 (Hindus are supposed to be vegetarian) and have participated in many temple ceremonies in the U.S. and India. I have also discussed the issues with experts like Michael Murphy of Esalen Institute and Richard L. Thompson of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.
Anyone making sweeping claims about the harmony of quantum physics with Hinduism is getting both wrong. Other Advaita Vedanta teachers disagreed with Shankara’s insistence that individuality is an illusion. Ramanuja and Madhva, for example, taught that while someone could feel at one with Brahman through mystical experiences, they wouldn’t actually merge with him when they achieved enlightenment.
Yogis in mainstream Hindu traditions have been critical of those who think the feeling of union is the ultimate mystical state, since the yogis claim to reach levels beyond that. The largest sect in India, the Vaishnava theists, believe that the idea that Brahman would dream that he is really many souls would make him imperfect, which he isn’t. Others argue the Shankara focused too much on the impersonal aspect of Brahman and not his Supreme Personality or his Paramatma, the Supersoul that is in each individual jiva or spirit.
Advocates of Shankara’s philosophy seem confused about how to react to the implications of his teachings. On the one hand, if our individuality is imaginary, what’s the point of meditating to realize this? And if everything is an illusion, then there is no point in exerting ourselves to live a moral or spiritual life. That would mean we should just sit back and view everything from war and slavery to germs and climate change as nonsense. Imagine if Gandhi had taken that attitude.
On the other hand, if the One needed to extend itself into the material universe to evolve and this world is real, then it means he is really like the Gnostic Demiurge, an egomaniacal and sadistic Creator who doesn’t care that his whims lead to the Black Death, cancer, torture, genocide, and starvation for so many of the 70 billion people who have lived. And we have to wonder, if he is so powerful, why it took 3.6 billion years for life to evolve.
Physicists in the 20th century learned a painful lesson from their overconfident brethren of the prior century, who had assumed that they were about to tie up some loose ends by verifying the existence of “ether.” Then came Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity. But the quantum world and our experience with Newtonian macro-reality co-exist nicely and we ought to not insist that we need a grand theory of harmony on all points immediately. We should be humble enough to admit that in another century, scientists are likely to know a lot more about the nature of reality and until then it would be prudent to assume that we and the material universe exist and act accordingly.