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green man

nimoloth in interacademia

Consciousness & Quantum Physics

There's a new book out by scientist and former Buddhist monk B. Alan Wallace, called Contemplative Science, regarding science and the Buddhist ideas of consciousness and individuality. It discusses a scientific case for reincarnation amongst other things. There is an interesting interview here with the author, taking about his ideas, theories and beliefs.

He posits that Buddhist beliefs can interact with science and indeed be explained by science. For example, reincarnation. He believes that the human consciousness is a continuous stream, with the upper level the psyche, that neuroscientists and psychologists study, a second level that is part of the ongoing stream of consciousness that forms in the womb and fades back into the whole on death, and a third, deepest, layer than underlies everything. But what is this omnipresent stream of consciousness? Is it matter, energy?

According to quantum field theory, string theory and quantum cosmology -- cutting-edge fields of 21st century physics -- matter itself is not reducible to matter. And Richard Feynman, the great Nobel laureate in physics, commented very emphatically, "We don't know what energy is." He said it's not stuff out there that has a specific location. It's more like a mathematical abstraction. So matter has been reduced to formations of space. Energy is configurations of space. Space itself is rather mysterious. And so when I introduce this theme of a substrate consciousness, it's not something ethereal that's opposed to matter. Matter is about as ethereal as anything gets. But could there be this continuum of substrate consciousness that's not contingent upon molecules? From the Buddhist perspective, yes. But again, this frankly sounds like one more system of belief.

I have to say, you could put a religious spin on all of this. What you're describing as substrate consciousness sounds a lot like how people talk about God. There is some kind of divine presence that's outside the material world but somehow intervenes in our material lives.

I think we're jumping the gun there. In the Buddhist perspective, the substrate consciousness is individual. It's not some great collective unconscious like Jung talked about. In the Buddhist view, it's an individual continuum of consciousness that carries on from lifetime to lifetime. That's not God. Beyond that is this whole third dimension, the deepest dimension, called "primordial consciousness." This has certain commonalities with Christian mystical notions of God beyond the trinity. It has a thoroughly and deeply transcendent quality to it. And that's way beyond the pale of scientific inquiry. But when I speak of substrate consciousness, I think it would simply be a mistake to say that's God. If you want to relate this to something in Western religions, you might say it's the immortal soul. Christianity really has nothing to say about the existence of your continuum of consciousness prior to your conception. There's nothing in the Bible that says, where was Steve Paulson 70 years ago? Where did your stream of consciousness, your identity, your soul, come from? But Buddhism has a lot to say about this.

This is a very interesting theory - that there is a further level to existence beyond the obvious space-time, one that string and brane theory delve into. If we consider brane (or string) theory, it postulates that everything we observe to exist is a vibrational mode of an underlying "membrane" outwith the regular four space and time dimensions, meaning that everything is interconnected on a far deeper level than we can comprehend. This could be considered, as Mr Wallace believes, to be the underlying nature of consciousness. It could also be seen as divinity, although not in the sentient, singular Christian sense, more in a pantheistic sense.

Furthermore, if everything is interconnected in this way, could this be a mechanism through which prayer/magic/meditation could have an external effect on an unconnected object or occurence in the real world? Or is any observed effect simply down to coincidence and subconscious suggestion?

[Incidentally, if any of you have read the Mythago Wood series of books by Robert Holdstock, you may notice that the idea of a continuous primeval subconscious is very much what the premise of his books is based on, with archetypes and myths lodged in the primitive and collective unconscious of humankind.]