|Unification of Science and Spirit -- Copyright Ben Goertzel © 1996|
If you have opened up this book, you must be interested, for one reason or another, in the relation between science, technology, mind and spirituality.
Let me congratulate you on your intuition. This relationship is indeed of the deepest possible importance.
Whatever your background, I can assure you that what I have to say about science, spirit, mind and reality will not be entirely familiar. After absorbing what I have to say here, you will never look at the world in quite the same way again.
Some of the topics with which I deal -- quantum reality, virtual reality, chaos theory, Buddhist psychology, Indian philosophy, creative inspiration, psychedelic drugs, the psychology of consciousness -- may be familiar ones. But my aim here is not to repeat the well-worn platitudes.
The ideas described here are borne of a decade of scientific research and inner contemplation; and though the book may at first seem like a patchwork of unrelated observations, what it does in the end is to weave its disparate topics into a coherent, integrated whole -- into a theory of the universe that is both computational and spiritual, both new and old.
I do not promise that the ideas presented here will be easy to understand. But I do promise that, once they are fully understood, they will seem incredibly simple. For, in the end, the gap between science and spirituality is a culturally-enforced illusion. Looking at the world and mind as a quantum computer, I will demonstrate, is the same thing as looking at the world and mind with the eyes of a mystic -- and both are the simplest thing in the world.
What strains the mind today will be tomorrow's common sense.
Being ----- | Bliss | Intuition | Mind | Body | World | Quanta ------
Map of the Mind/Universe -- Hierarchical Version
---------------------------| | | Being ------ Intuition | | | | | | | Quanta | Bliss | Mind | | / \ | \ World -------- Body -----
Map of the Mind/Universe -- Interpenetrative Version
The rift between science and spirit is something that plagues all of modern Western culture. It is relevant on a personal level to all of us who live in a world dominated by science and technology --- and then, in quiet moments, withdraw into ourselves, trying to find some kind of deeper meaning beneath the razzle-dazzle and commotion.
In these pages, I will consider the relation between science and spirit on an abstract level, in the context of virtual reality, quantum physics, Eastern Religion, chaos psychology, complexity science, modern literature, psychedelic drugs, and so on. But I will start off, in this Preface, by exploring the origins of this book in my personal thoughts and my professional career. And I will periodically return to these personal considerations throughout the book, explaining the meaning that various concepts have for me, as a particular human being.
Some may find these personal details distracting. But I think this is an error. For in the end, all our abstractions are fundamentally human products -- and have meaning only in particular human situations. The artificial rift between the personal and the conceptual is just another manifestation of the sham rift between science and spirit. To heal ourselves, as a culture, we must bring the different sides of ourselves together, into a multifaceted yet unbroken whole.
My family is full of scientists -- my father is a sociologist, my grandfathers are a physical chemist and a psychologist, and among my more extended family there are a great number of chemists, physicists, mathematicians, computer professionals, and so forth. So it is no big surprise that, as a child, I had an unbounded admiration for science. This business of looking for subtler, subtler and yet subtler patterns in the universe -- it seemed to me wondrous, and far more worthwhile than anything in everyday life. It helped that I was good at science too -- from a very early age I displayed a strong imagination, and an unusual aptitude for learning and reasoning.
I had a particular admiration for astrophysics. Sometimes, at night, my mother would take me outside to look at the stars, showing me the more obvious constellations. Other nights, I would sit alone for hours sometimes, staring at the stars through my bedroom window. Once I could read well enough, I devoured everything I could find about outer space. It wasn't the identification of particular stars and constellations that fascinated me, but more the way scientists had been able to figure out what was going on up there, light years and billions of light years away. We had never been there, it might be billions of years until we got there, but yet we knew what wasthere -- not everything certainly, but something; a significant amount.
I was also intrigued by crystals; by the way something could seemingly emerge out of nothing ... out of the right kind of "nothing." I saw this as analogous to the way my baby sister's personality emerged out of nothing, over her first few years of life. One piece came into place, which led to another, which led to another, and before long there was a whole complex structure.
Mathematics played a central role here, I intuited. Numbers had all these strange patterns: you could multiply backwards and forwards and get the same answer, but dividing backwards and forwards gave you different answers. A negative times a negative gives a positive! The strange patterns of mathematics underlay our ability to tease out subtle patterns from the world. Astrophysics was full of mathematics I didn't understand. Crystals were mathematical in a way I could understand; they were tilings of space.
As entranced as I was with science and mathematics, however, I was also aware of a certain limitation on their part. There was something inside me, I felt, that they did not touch. This something inside me had no name, but it was right in the center, more central even than my name, my appearance, my family. If I had not been so rabidly anti-religious, I might have called it my "soul." As it was, influenced by my mother's books on Oriental philosophy, I was more likely to think of it as my Nothing -- as a kind of black hole within me, but not susceptible to the ordinary laws of black hole physics. Things swooped down near it, and spun out away from it, but it was never fundamentally touched. This was the part of me that would survive after death, because it was not a part of the material world anyway. It was still there when I went to sleep, even as my waking consciousness curled up in a ball.
It worried me sometimes that science, which was the most wonderful thing in the world, could never touch this inner feeling. Somehow, I felt, there must be a connection. This inner Nothing was, in some obscure way, the source of all the patterns scientists detected. Perhaps the answer lay in some new kind of mathematics, some new kind of number I didn't yet know about.
As I grew older, I noticed with surprise that not everyone shared these two contradictory feelings of mine. Most people seemed to have neither an enthusiasm for the pattern-eliciting power of science, nor a rich awareness of the inner Nothing at the center of the mind. And most people who had one of the two feelings, lacked the other. In my teens I lapped up literature written by people who seemed to share my twin feelings: books like Capra's The Tao of Physics, Zukav's The Dancing Wu-Li Masters, Spencer-Brown's Laws of Form; the works of such men as Gregory Bateson, Francisco Varela, Karl Pribram and Benjamin Whorf. I began to accept that what I felt as my inner Nothing actually had something to do with religion, that it was a form of spiritual feeling. Though I still cringed at the symbols andrituals of orthodox Christianity, I began to feel some affinity with Taoism and Zen Buddhism. I even started to see some value in Judaism, the religion of my heredity. I was filled with wonder at the concrete correspondences between spiritual reality and scientific reality that others had discovered -- mainly in the area of quantum physics, but also, as in the work of Spencer-Brown, in the area of logic, the behavior of the mind.
Eventually, however, this science-meets-spirituality literature began to grow repetitive. People had pointed out numerous correspondences and harmonies between spiritual reality and scientific reality, but no one had really given me a unified world-view in which science and spirituality could both take their place. There was still a big gap. And this big gap had a deep personal meaning for me. Filled to the brim as I was with science, I could not give myself over to any spiritual tradition that seemed to contradict the scientific philosophy. But yet, I could not devote myself fully to science, nagged as I was by the sense that it left something essential out.
In my late teens and early twenties, as I plowed on through college and graduate school, I produced hundreds of pages of philosophical notes, spilling out my intuitions on quantum physics, mind, spirituality, society, and everything else. I called these my Transnihilistic Visions -- meaning, inspired attempts to go beyond Nothing, to explain the emergence of the detailed, structured scientific universe out of the inner void. Of course, they were totally unpublishable. They contained my deepest intuitions, but I was unable to shape these intuitions into a form that others would be able to understand.
In the end, despite recurrent doubts and ambiguities, I put aside my youthful plans to run away and wander the earth like an Indian sadhu, or join a Zen monastery. I proceeded steadily through school, getting my BA at 18 and my Ph.D. at 22, both in mathematics. I embarked on a career of scientific research. I produced many straightforward scientific papers, in areas from pure mathematics to evolutionary biology, theoretical psychology, computer graphics and algorithm theory. But, predictably enough, I found myself gradually drifting back in the direction of the "cosmic questions."
I spent most of my time working on something I called a "mathematical model of mind." And the longer I worked on my mathematical model of mind, the broader in focus it became. Ultimately, it became something more than a model of mind in the narrow sense of modern scientific psychology -- it became a model of the universe. I called it the "psynet model" -- psy-net for mind-network.
I also spent a lot of time thinking about virtual reality, and its psychological and physical implications. I concluded that virtual reality technology, once it came into its own, would bring about a tremendous shift in the way humans being perceive themselves and others. It would, I reasoned, bring about a new world-view of a very specific nature, but different from the realist, dogmatist and nihilist attitudes that dominate the worldtoday. I called this new, VR-based world-view hyperrealism.
The basis of the psynet model is the idea that everything is pattern; that the universe consists of a system of pattern/processes continually producing and transforming one another. Using modern scientific ideas -- chaos theory and complexity science -- one can show how the illusion of a universe of persistent objects emerges from an underlying universe of fluctuating pattern dynamics. In this way one can explain a wide variety of psychological structures: thought, emotion, intuition, consciousness, and so forth.
And the step from the psynet model to hyperrealism is a simple one. If the mind does not see the world as an objective entity, but rather re-constructs the world using a variety of creative processes, then in the end the supposed "reality" of the external world is of no psychological value. We necessarily live in a world that is "virtual," whether or not we realize it.
I remember sitting up late nights in my dorm room, in my college years, ignoring my homework and instead reading armfuls of books on psychology, artificial intelligence, quantum physics, metaphysics, logic, and philosophy of mind. I was trying to find the scientific discipline that got at the essence of the mind. But no matter how much I read, I was definitively underwhelmed. No one seemed to have gotten at the underlying core of mind -- at that strange inner twist that makes mind what it is. Instead they harped on particular phenomena, in impressive but ultimately hollow detail. In frustration, I turned to the texts of various spiritual traditions.
First, inspired by Douglas Hofstadter's book Godel, Escher, Bach, as well as by my mother's numerous books on Chinese history and philosophy, I became interested in Zen Buddhism. Later, inspired by the novels of Philip K. Dick, I was intrigued by Gnostic Christianity, particularly the Valentinian school. Experiences with psychedelic drugs got me interested in the shamanic practices of primitive cultures; along these lines, I absorbed the writings of Carlos Castaneda and Terence McKenna. All these spiritual traditions stressed personal experience of the divine. Through meditation, psychedelic drugs, and other similar experiences, I realized, one could get in closer and closer touch with the core of the mind -- the inner essence, which scientific treatments omitted.
But what I found was that, when one saw the core of the mind in this spiritual way, one had an awfully hard time expressing what one had seen in any comprehensible manner. One of my original goals in studying the mind had been designing an artificially intelligent computer program. But there was no simple way of taking my spiritual insights into the mind, which were tangible and deep, and translating them into precise scientific sentences, let alone mathematical formulas. I began to gain more respect for psychologists, artificial intelligence researchers and philosophers of mind. Perhaps they did dance around the center, never daring to enter into it, but at leastthey were saying something concrete about the mind, which, I now realized, was a difficult feat in itself.
After getting my Ph.D. and embarking on a research career, I arrived at a sort of ideosyncratic investigative method for my study of the mind. I was supposed to be a mathematician, but mathematical research in the traditional sense did not interest me. Instead, I would do a sort of "instant meditation" while sitting at the computer -- close my eyes and sink into the core of myself, then return and see what I had dredged up. Or I would walk around outside, or lie on the grass by a tree, and empty my mind, trying to put the inessentials aside and grasp the core of my inner process.
Perhaps I would have a specific goal in mind: understanding how new ideas arose out of old, or understanding how good and bad feelings related to each other. Or perhaps there would be no particular goal; I would just focus on that peculiar inner twist by which the mind reflects on itself and thus produces itself anew. I would reflect and reflect, losing myself in reflection. And eventually something would pop into my head: an image or structure, fully formed and multisensorial. Part visual, part tactile, part aural, part mathematical, these structures were really none of the above -- they were archetypal mental forms which came down to me from somewhere.
Having arrived at such an archetypal mental form, I would turn to the mathematical part of my mind, and grasp a mathematical tool which matched up to my inner insight. And I would have an equation, a mathematical structure modelling some mental process. Then I would turn to the library, and see if anything relating to my mathematical structure could be found. Sometimes I found nothing, sometimes I found a great deal. Sometimes my inner insights corresponded to known aspects of brain function, or known experimental psychological data. Sometimes they pertained to phenomena that were yet untouched by science.
In carrying out this process, I found that certain types of mathematics were far more useful to me than others. In particular, I found myself turning again and again to mathematical forms from the area of "complexity science." Chaos theory, general systems theory, and aspects of cognitive science popped up again and again, arising to me as exactly the "right" form to match some aspect of my inner intuition. I was also greatly inspired by my study of modern physics -- general relativity and quantum theory. Although the mathematics of these physics theories was not directly useful to me, they, like chaos, complexity, cognitive science and systems theory, are part of the general trend in science toward holism.
Over a period of six years, I wrote five books on the nature of mind, as well as a number of research papers. At the same time, I basically dropped off my non-work-related spiritual practices. I left off meditating, and halted my occasional use of psychedelic drugs. Also, fortunately, I was free of chronic pain, which at one point had been a source of altered states of consciousness and deep transpersonal experiences. In large part, I ceased to think of myself as a spiritual explorer, and began to think of myself as more of a mathematical psychologist, a cognitive scientist.
I knew that I was different from other cognitive scientists, in that I derived my models from deep introspection, rather than from analysis of data. In many cases, I did compare my models to data, but only after they had come into my head during a bout of intense meditative concentration. However, I was trying to build a career as an academic, and the exploration of inner reality has very little prestige in the modern university system. So I minimized this aspect of my work -- both in my books and papers, and in my own mind. In my publications, I presented my ideas more or less according to the standard scientific conventions, explaining them as if they had come out of data, or out of the ideas of others.
Of course, it occurred to me now and then that there might be many other scientists who also derived their psychological models from inner experience, but who, like me, felt compelled by the norms of academia to present their ideas in a more "scientific," empiricist way. But I never dwelt on these issues. I just went on, working the way I had to work, and presenting my ideas the way I had to in order to get them published.
It was in 1993 that I arrived at an abstract form which I felt captured the essence of mental process. The inner vision in question had been in my mind for years, but it took five years before, in a blinding flash, I finally understood how to formulate it mathematically, using ideas from chaos theory and general systems theory. I called the new mathematical form I had created the cognitive equation. The cognitive equation, I realized, was as close to the core as I was going to get. The task now was to elaborate it, solve it, apply it, prove it -- relate it to other things. I saw my cognitive equation as the focal point of a new philosophy of mind and universe.
The first draft of this book came into being in 1992. The tentative title was Hyperrealism. What I had written, at that point, was as an attempt to outline an entirely new world-view, based on my diverse explorations in the mathematical modelling of mind and reality, in particular my "cognitive equation."
However, the more I wrote about hyperrealism and the cognitive equation, the more I came to recognize their connections with other ways of looking at the world. I has known all along there were connections with Western philosophy: Nietzsche, Peirce, Leibniz, Gnosticism, Benjamin Whorf. But these connections were fairly scanty and indirect. It took me a surprisingly long time to catch on to the much more vivid connections between hyperrealism and Eastern philosophy. Ultimately, as I wrote and thought about hyperrealism, I realized that what I had discovered was not a new world-view at all, but just a new, more scientific way of talking about an ancient, spiritually-inspired picture of the universe. My models of the mind did have a great many original aspects, but their underlying philosophical essence was also quite similar to spiritual views of the mind.
To use the term introduced by Leibniz, and popularized byAldous Huxley, the "hyperrealist" world-view that I had discovered was just a new version of the Perennial Philosophy. Having abandoned Eastern philosophy for scientific philosophy years before, I had now inadvertently returned to my previous interest.
The big realization came in late 1995, when I read a book by my good friend Allan Combs, called Radiance of Being. Allan was writing about Oriental spiritual traditions, and connecting them up with chaos theory and complexity science -- using, among other tools, my own mathematical models of mind.
At this same time, I was engaged in an e-mail dialogue with Kent Palmer, a radical philosopher who is also a software engineering researcher at Rockwell International. Kent had read one of my books on the mathematics of the mind (Chaotic Logic), and he said he was "continually amazed at how closely the mathematical models correspond to philosophical and spiritual views of reality."
Kent kept asking me to tell him about the philosophical grounding of my mathematical models of mind, but I had nothing to offer him besides some vague connections to Nietzsche and Charles S. Peirce. Finally, I explained to him that my models of mind did not come from any school of philosophy or religion, but came, rather, from direct introspection and intuition -- from looking into my own mind. He pointed out that my intuitive, concentrated introspection was not that different from some Oriental meditative techniques. What I had done, he suggested, was not to come up with a new view of the mind, but rather to come up with a scientific formulation of ancient and universal ideas from spiritual philosophy.
Also at the same time, I was engaged in a dialogue with Christopher Moore, an editor at Floris books, who was reading an earlier version of this book. Among other insightful comments, he noted that parts of the book were like "Ben Goertzel reinventing the wheel." He also noted my tendency to take commonplace terms from spiritual philosophy and replace them with complex, hard-to-understand, scientific terms.
From all directions, it seemed, I was being pointed out a certain contradiction between what I had been trying to do with hyperrealism, and what I had actually done. Although hyperrealism was intended as a brand-new philosophy, in fact it was just a new version of something very old, and something with which I had already had more than a passing acquaintance. The ideas I had come up, using my meditative-concentrative method of introspective theorizing, were quite similar to ideas others had come up with by similar methods. What I had done was to give these "universals" a new twist -- a peculiarly mathematical/ scientific twist.
There is nothing remarkable about different people arriving at the same world-view by different means. This is why theessence of spiritual philosophy has been called the "Perennial Philosophy" -- it keeps on rising again, with minor variations, in different languages and cultures. It has been said many times: there is only one truth, but everyone must find their own way to it.
However, there is something unusual in arriving at variations on the same old perennial spiritual philosophy from considerations of science and philosophy of science -- from such things as quantum physics, mathematical psychology, and the theory of computation, which at first blush have nothing whatsoever to do with spiritual views of the world. By getting spiritual philosophy out of science, one is bringing science and spirit together. One is unifying the two disparate hemispheres of the modern mind.
Science and spirituality have often been perceived as contradictory or incompatible. Specific parallels have been suggested, as in Maslow's meditation-inspired psychology, and the quantum philosophy of physicists like David Bohm and Fritjof Capra. But what I offer here is more than a few specific parallels. I offer a scientifically plausible view of the mind and world which is compatible, in every respect, with the Perennial Philosophy.
To return to the metaphor of "reinventing the wheel," I have indeed reinvented the wheel. What I have done, I believe, is to show a way of constructing the wheel out of materials at hand. If one is living on an island where the most common building materials are coconuts and fish bones, then it is useful to figure out ways of redesigning the wheel in terms of coconuts and fish bones. And if one is living in a culture dominated by science and rationality, then it is useful to figure out ways of deriving eternal, spiritual truths from scientific, mathematical ideas.
In the end, if one adopts a sufficiently broad historical perspective, all religions and philosophies can be viewed as "redesignng the wheel out of materials at hand." Oriental philosophies build spiritual insight out of Oriental culture, just as shamanism builds spiritual insight out of tribal culture. The underlying nature of the universe is not changing as culture advances; what changes are the cultural forms and technologies used to access the universe.