Making a case for an underlying unity of science and religion would be pointless were it true that science had already ruled out any basis for the beliefs underlying religion. Unfortunately, many people, not just scientists, believe that it is true. There are strong voices among scientists who fervently proclaim that science has, indeed, proven that all religious beliefs are unfounded—that religion is simply keeping alive baseless superstitions and other nonsense.
At first glance their arguments are compelling. They invoke the scientific method. They tell us that none of religion’s claims have been proven in the laboratory. They assure us that their arguments rest firmly on factual scientific discovery. They speak with utter conviction.
You will no doubt be surprised, therefore, and possibly affronted, when I say that the people who hold such absolute views are themselves simply true believers in their own religion—scientific materialism.
Scientific materialism rests on the belief that everything there is or ever will be springs from the interactions of matter and energy—and from absolutely nothing else. Despite the existence of enduring major scientific mysteries, such as the origin of life and the nature of consciousness, scientific materialists believe that it is only a matter of time before all as yet unexplained phenomena will be explained by—and only by—the interactions of matter and energy.
This expectation is an article of faith among those who embrace scientific materialism. It is their credo. Given science’s undeniable success over the last three centuries, scientific materialism’s matter-and-energy-only hypothesis is very convincing to a lot of people. Science’s means of exploring reality—the scientific method—is the oracle of the age. Using the scientific method, scientists have uncovered myriad laws governing the operation of the physical world. It is no exaggeration to say that the application of those laws over the last two centuries has transformed civilization.
Unfortunately for other religions, the religion of scientific materialism is in the ascendant and very influential. Not just many scientists, but also a huge percentage of people in the world, are unknowingly members of the church of scientific materialism because they have embraced the credo: everything that is, or ever will be, is the result of matter-energy interactions and nothing else.
But make no mistake: the idea that everything that is and ever will be springs from the interactions of matter and energy—and nothing else—is a belief, not a proven fact. Despite the efficacy of the scientific method, it is not the case, as scientific materialists would have us think, that science has applied the scientific method to all possibilities for nonmaterial realities and proven them all false. Rather, science as an official body has become so convinced of the truth of scientific materialism that it simply doesn’t explore alternative possibilities.
The bias toward material explanations for all phenomena is so strong that it nearly eliminates the possibility of funding for any scientific inquiry that attempts to explore realities other than the material. A vocal portion of scientists dismiss out of hand, or, worse yet, hold in disdain, even the suggestion that there may be nonmaterial solutions to unexplained phenomena. Embracing such a suggestion is not, to put it mildly, a path to a successful career in science.
I recently read an article by Sebastian Anthony in the online magazine ExtremeTech. (I picked it almost at random from many similar articles from which I could make the same point.) He cites a recent scientific paper published by Max Tegmark of MIT. In his paper, Tegmark suggests that consciousness might be a quantum state of matter. What I found most interesting in the article was not the explanation of Max Tegmark’s quantum state approach to consciousness but a comment by the article’s author:
“Consciousness has always been a tricky topic to broach scientifically. In most serious scientific circles, merely mentioning consciousness might result in the rescinding of your credentials and immediate exile to the land of quacks and occultists [Italics added].”
Another article, appearing this time in Slate magazine, also recently caught my eye: “Quantum and Consciousness Often Mean Nonsense,” by Matthew Francis. The title itself speaks volumes. The author’s patronizing tone in the article adds more volumes:
“It sounds good at first: We don’t know exactly how some things in quantum physics work, we don’t know exactly how to go from the brain to consciousness, so maybe consciousness is quantum. The problem with this idea? It’s almost certainly wrong.”
My favorite sentence, after Francis magnanimously, but ingenuously, admits that science may not know everything, is his emphatic declaration: “It’s almost certainly wrong.” Why? The answer to “why” isn’t found in the current facts known to science but in Francis’s belief that all phenomena will eventually be explained by scientific materialism. Such belief engenders the attitude that hypotheses of any other kind are simply a waste of time. If you read the article, you can feel his impatience with people who even try to find nonmaterial solutions to still unexplained phenomena. “Don’t they get it?” he seems to ask. “Don’t they know all this nonmaterial stuff is ridiculous!”
Even rigorously conducted scientific studies that experiment with nonmaterial notions such as consciousness—those few that do somehow manage to get funded—are granted no credibility by science’s high priesthood; the scientists who perform peer reviews, the approvers or rejecters of papers submitted to prestigious scientific journals such as the Physical Review Letters, The New England Journal of Medicine, or Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. You would be hard pressed to find in these journals any papers that stray from the orthodox view of scientific materialism.
A case in point is the fate of several scientific papers that emerged from the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) program. PEAR was founded in 1979 by Robert G. Jahn, then dean of the Princeton School of Engineering and Applied Science. Despite the pedigree of Princeton University and of Professor Jahn, and despite the overwhelmingly high quality of the science conducted, not one paper based on PEAR’s successful proof of telekinesis was ever accepted by a respected scientific journal .
PEAR’s methodical practice of science was impeccable. PEAR conducted experiments for twenty-seven years to determine whether individuals could affect material objects without physical contact. Among their experimental approaches, PEAR developed a variety of what they called random events generators (REGs), such as water fountains, cascading steel balls, pendulums, and electronic systems. The REGs were rigorously developed to be impervious to all known outside influences such as vibration, pressure, temperature, and electromagnetism. No REGs were used in their experiments unless they had demonstrated precisely measurable results and maintained rock-solid consistency when left in isolation.
Once a REG was determined to have rock-solid consistency, volunteers were then asked to try to alter its rock-solid consistency by their thoughts alone. For example, volunteers tried, without touching or influencing the devices in any physical way, to make more water flow in one channel of a fountain than the other, or to make more steel balls cascade to one side of a device than the other.
PEAR conducted these experiments for almost three decades, using hundreds of volunteers, in thousands of experiments, accumulating billions of data points. The results of these experiments revealed that nearly every volunteer had successfully altered the baseline distribution of the REG. The change from the baseline was often miniscule—but consistent—to an overwhelming statistically-meaningful degree. The odds against the possibility that PEAR’s experimental findings are merely the result of random events are several trillion to one. In other words, practically speaking, there is no chance at all that their findings could be wrong: The volunteers successfully affected the behavior of physical systems using only their minds.
Yet no prestigious scientific journal ever published their papers. PEAR’s findings, by every objective measure, were based on facts gathered in a stringently scientific manner. But because their findings fell outside scientific orthodoxy they were not given any scientific legitimacy.
There was recently a controversy when TED, the organization which presents talks by many leading-edge scientists and social thinkers, was pressured by a lobby of scientists to remove from its website talks given by Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock. Sheldrake’s talk presented ten areas in which the scientific assumptions of today may be wrong. Graham Hancock presented arguments for the independent existence of consciousness. At the insistence of a TED’s advisory group of scientists, both talks were removed from TED’s website by the organizers. After a storm of protest in favor of Sheldrake and Hancock, TED’s organizers attempted to make peace with both sides by restoring the talks to a little-accessed archive of talks buried deep in TED’s website.
I watched both presentations. Both men made good arguments and offered facts to back up them up. In an ideal world, one in which the free discussion of ideas is allowed, these two talks would have been welcomed; instead they were banished to the margins of the Internet because they championed thoughts that fall outside the orthodox beliefs of scientific materialism.
Not content with merely passively defending scientific orthodoxy, there are a few scientists who believe that the best defense is an active offence. A number of scientists have personally mounted campaigns to position religious belief as ideas for the weak minded, as socially-destructive anachronistic behavior, or outright fraudulent manipulation of the gullible. Just a few examples of their book titles make my point: Richard Dawkins’s, The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchen’s, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, and Victor Stenger’s, God: The Failed Hypothesis; How Science Shows God Does Not Exist.
These men are the self-appointed Grand Inquisitors of science. They try to debunk religion with a vengeance, lest members of their own flock should believe such heresy against science. Their claims have nothing to do with the scientific method and everything to do with the religion of science; their claims say far more about human nature than about science. These men have more in common with TV-evangelism than with cool scientific objectivity.
Obscured by the notoriety of such men is the fact that most scientists are not scientific materialists. A 2009 Pew poll on religion found that only 41 percent of the scientists polled considered themselves to be atheists, while 51 percent believed in God, a universal spirit, or a higher power. Also obscured by such strident and materialistically biased points of view is the fact that science’s own findings—when viewed without material bias—are far from proving that religious beliefs are unfounded, and support the existence of transcendent realities such as consciousness.
In the early twentieth century, physicists witnessed the emergence of numerous paradoxical discoveries which challenged, and still challenge, the core assumption of scientific materialism. Physicists discovered a hole in their understanding of matter—a gaping hole which came to be known as quantum physics—through which they fell to join Alice in Wonderland.
In the 1920s, physicists discovered that light can behave as either a particle or a wave. Later research revealed that not just light exhibits this dual behavior—matter itself can behave as a particle or a wave. And here is what especially makes the “gaping hole” gape: it became increasingly clear that light or matter only behave like particles in the presence of an intelligent observer.
If you are unfamiliar with quantum physics, what I just stated probably makes no sense to you at all; nor did it to the physicists of the 1920s. The discovery left physicists feeling they had joined the Mad Hatter’s tea party. The best way I know to explain the discovery is to walk you through an oft-repeated series of experiments. The counterintuitive results of these experiments never fail to leave people bemusedly shaking their heads—the experimental equivalent of talking to the Cheshire Cat.
These experiments are commonly known as double-slit experiments. Light’s wave-like nature can be demonstrated by shining a single beam of light through two side-by-side vertical slits in a barrier (see figure 1), thus creating two new side-by-side beams of light. The two new beams of light will then fan out and interfere with each other like water waves in a pond. When water-wave troughs meet, they form a deeper trough. When water-wave crests meet, they form a higher crest. When troughs meet crests, they cancel each other out in proportion to their respective depths and heights.
Figure 1: Light shows its wavelike nature when it passes through the double slits and forms two new beams of light, which then interfere with each other in the same way as water waves. The image on the far right shows the characteristic interference pattern that forms on a detector. The brighter bands show where two wave crests meet and create a higher crest or two troughs meet and form a deeper trough. The darker bands show where crests meet troughs and partially or fully cancel each other out.
Physicists, trying to understand the nature of light more fully, devised another double-slit experiment. Instead of shining a light continuously through the two slits, they developed a way to send one photon of light at a time through the slits. Since photons are the particle form of light, physicists expected to see a pattern form on the detector like the pattern bullets would make when fired from a gun into a target (figure 2).
Figure 2: What physicists expected to see on the detector—two bands of photon impacts comparable to bullets hitting a target.
Imagine the experimenters’ astonishment when, even though only one photon was released at a time, each photon still behaved as if it were part of a wave interfering with another wave (figure 3). Such behavior doesn’t seem possible, yet it has been confirmed in experiments again and again.
Figure 3: What was actually seen in the experiments, even though the photons were sent one at a time through the slits, was the same interference pattern as one sees in figure 1—a little rougher than the interference pattern created by a continuous light source, but unmistakably the same pattern.
Begin playing Twilight Zone theme. . . .
Collectively scratching their heads, physicists tried to understand how this paradoxical result could occur. Eventually they conducted another experiment: a measuring device was placed by the slits to detect which slit an individual photon actually traveled through. (The measuring device does not interfere in any way with the passage of the photons through the slits.) Now try to imagine the experimenters’ even deeper astonishment: once the measuring device was added to the experiment, the photons passed through the slits and hit the detector like bullets fired from a gun (figure 4).
Figure 4: Once the experiment was set up to measure which slit individual photons were passing through, the photons behaved like particles and created the pattern on the detector one would expect of little bits of matter.
Why?! Why did the photons behave differently? Nothing had changed! The only difference in the two experimental setups was that the passage of the photons through the slits had been measured by an intelligent observer.
Feel free to shake your head some more—and you can turn off the Twilight Zone music if it’s bothering you.
Physicists have subsequently performed this same experiment, always with the same result, using atoms and molecules, objects trillions of times larger than photons. Physicists have gone on to prove, thousands of times, that until measured by an intelligent observer, everything—whether energy such as light or matter such as atoms—behaves in a wavelike manner until measured by an intelligent observer. The inescapable conclusion: an intelligent observer plays an essential role in the formation of matter.
“There is no object in space-time without a conscious subject looking at it.”—Amit Goswami, quantum physicist
This discovery punched a huge hole in scientific materialism and sent shock waves through the scientific community. Niels Bohr (1885—1962), considered the father of quantum physics and a scientist whose reputation is only slightly less lofty than Einstein’s (1879—1955), was among the first to conclude that physical objects do not have an independent, objective reality. He stated categorically that physical objects only appear when we observe them—and his assertion has never been disproven.
Welcome to Wonderland.
As a result of these discoveries, science went through an existential crisis. If matter has no fixed form until observed, if it exists in some insubstantial state until observed, then where does that leave science? As Albert Einstein said, likely speaking for most scientists, “I like to believe that the moon is there even if I am not looking at it.” But according to the double-slit experiments, the moon isn’t there unless one is looking at it. The old puzzler, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there does it make a sound?” had a new answer: If no one is there, there is no sound, there is no tree, there is no forest, there is no earth, there is no thing.
Science was saved from its existential crisis by the mathematics of probability. In the late 1920s and early 30s, many brilliant physicists working across the world managed to build a mathematical bridge over the gaping hole created by the intelligent observer paradox and other “quantum weirdness”—a bridge that allowed them, for all practical purposes, to get a free pass out of Wonderland and ignore the intelligent observer conundrum.
They built the mathematical bridge by adding the mathematics of probability to a nascent mathematical system known as quantum mechanics, begun in 1900 by Max Planck (1858–1957). Despite its blending with the inexact-sounding world of probability theory, quantum mechanics is extremely accurate; it became, and remains, one of the most important scientific tools of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It has been essential to the development of many marvels, including the advanced communications and computer science that enable so much of our civilization.
But don’t misunderstand: Despite its undeniable success, the development of the equations of quantum mechanics only made it unnecessary to answer the deeper questions about the nature of reality raised by quantum physics, it didn’t answer them. The vast majority of physicists—with a sigh of relief—moved on to the business of inventing things and quite happily left behind the mysteries surrounding the nature of reality raised by quantum physics. But deep mysteries regarding the ultimate nature of reality remain unsolved. As Berkeley physicist Nick Herbert wryly sums it up: “One of the best-kept secrets of science is that physicists have lost their grip on reality.”
In 1997, a poll was conducted among quantum physicists regarding what quantum physics actually means. The findings were written up in an article entitled “A Snapshot of Foundational Attitudes toward Quantum Mechanics.” The authors conclude:
“Quantum [physics] is based on a clear mathematical apparatus, has enormous significance for the natural sciences, enjoys phenomenal predictive success…. Yet, nearly 90 years after the theory’s development, there is still no consensus in the scientific community regarding the interpretation of the theory’s foundational building blocks.”
The need for an intelligent observer is not the only hole in the argument for scientific materialism. When we look to the findings of the disciplines that deal most directly with life and consciousness, such as medicine and neurobiology, we find many more such holes.
In 1976, a randomized, controlled study of a potential chemotherapy treatment for gastric cancer was conducted by the British stomach cancer group. The results of the study were published in the May 1983 World Journal of Surgery. Four hundred and eleven patients participated in a double-blind study that involved the use of placebos. Neither the patients—nor the clinicians—knew who received a placebo/saline drip treatment and who received the trial drug-drip treatment. During the course of the study, which lasted for several months, thirty percent of the patients who were given the placebo/saline drip treatment lost all their hair.
More dramatic examples of mind affecting body can be found in studies of people suffering dissociative identity disorder (DID), more commonly known as multiple-personality disorder (MPD). Sufferers of multiple personalities have been closely studied. These individuals can change from one personality to another in minutes, even in seconds; they may change personalities as many as ten times in a single hour. While multiple-personality disorder is well-known, what is less well-known is that the rapid personality changes are often accompanied by rapid physiological changes.
In his 1988 paper, Psychophysiologic Aspects of Multiple Personality Disorder, Dr. Philip M. Coons reviews over fifty studies that identify physiological changes occurring when an individual with multiple personalities changes from one personality to another. The studies have shown that one personality can be allergic to specific allergens, such as bee-sting toxin, and other personalities within the same individual are not allergic. One personality can be left-handed while other personalities are right-handed. One personality can have moles or scars that another does not. One personality can need glasses while others do not. In a 1985 study conducted by Shepard and Braun, the eyesight of one multiple-personality sufferer was thoroughly measured—refraction, visual acuity, ocular tension, keratometry, color vision, and visual fields—after each of ten personality changes that took place in the course of one hour. Each personality’s eyes were uniquely different—including, in one case, the color of the iris.
One might argue that the placebo effect takes place over time periods sufficiently long to be explained by our thoughts or feelings having triggered known biochemical processes. In multiple-personality cases, however, no known biochemical processes can explain the rapidity of the physiological changes, much less changes that would normally be considered genetically impossible, such as a change in the color of the iris.
Yet another hole in scientific materialism’s belief system is evidence that information can be exchanged from one mind to another. Oddly enough, some of the evidence comes from the CIA. During the 1970s and continuing until 1995, the CIA conducted a secret program called Stargate. The program’s creation was motivated by Cold War fears. In the 1970s, the CIA believed that the Russians were training people to gather secret information remotely by means of psychic observations. If this “remote viewing” psychic ability could be developed, the CIA did not want to be at a disadvantage, and thus it started its own program. Eventually, the CIA had twenty-two different labs set up around the United States to test and develop this ability.
The CIA’s Stargate program ran for over twenty years. Eventually, in 1995, the program was abandoned because the data gathered by its remote viewers was not consistently reliable enough to make it useful as an intelligence-gathering method—yet it was inconsistently valid. From the conclusion of The American Institutes for Research’s blue ribbon panel report we read:
“The foregoing observations provide a compelling argument against continuation of the program within the intelligence community. Even though a statistically significant effect has been observed in the laboratory [italics added].”
Many people have interpreted the program’s closure as proof that such psychic abilities do not exist at all, when, in fact, the program established that some remote viewers could properly identify images with a significant degree of accuracy. The problem for the CIA was that the degree of accuracy wasn’t close enough to 100 percent to be trustworthy or useful. But the results were accurate to a degree that was far, far beyond chance, thus plausibly indicating that, in some scientifically unexplained way, the mind can directly receive information from outside the body.
Numerous such discoveries—the role of the intelligent observer in the formation of matter, instantaneous physiological changes among multiple-personality sufferers, PEAR’s proof of telekinetic effects, the CIA’s remote-viewing successes—collectively cast significant doubt on scientific materialism’s belief that everything there is and ever will be is the result of matter-energy interactions, and have led many scientists to hold more thoughtful views as to the potential truth behind nonmaterial religious beliefs.
There are many highly regarded scientists who do not share the narrow view of scientific materialism’s true believers. Nobel Prize winner, Werner Heisenberg (1901–1976), a titan of early twentieth-century physics, suggested that underlying all matter is an indivisible and unseen realm, for which he coined the term Potentia, and from which objects spring into existence when observed by an intelligent observer. Fellow of the Royal Society, David Bohm (1917–1992), another well-regarded and highly influential physicist who was a scientist on the Manhattan Project and a pioneer in the study of quantum physics, came to believe that all reality is inseparably interconnected. In his book, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, Bohm convincingly—and mathematically—proves that no object can exist separately from any other.
John von Neumann (1903–1957), who is considered to be one of the greatest mathematicians of the twentieth century and who also was a scientist on the Manhattan Project, asserts that consciousness doesn’t merely affect reality; consciousness creates reality. And, as counterintuitive as it may seem, von Neumann’s views also rest on rigorous mathematics.
Pioneering British astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington (1882–1944) wrote in The Nature of the Physical World, “The stuff of the world is mind-stuff.” He goes on:
“It is necessary to keep reminding ourselves that all knowledge of our environment from which the world of physics is constructed, has entered in the form of messages transmitted along the nerves to the seat of consciousness. . . . It is difficult for the matter-of-fact physicist to accept the view that the substratum of everything is of mental character. But no one can deny that mind is the first and most direct thing in our experience, and all else is remote inference.”
Professors of physics Fritjof Capra, author of the Tao of Physics, and Amit Goswami, author of The Self-Aware Universe, represent some of the thinking of the newer generation of physicists who have been exposed to Eastern spiritual philosophies.
“An increasing number of scientists are aware that mystical thought provides a consistent and relevant philosophical background to the theories of contemporary science, a conception of the world in which the scientific discoveries of men and women can be in perfect harmony with their spiritual aims and religious beliefs.”—Fritjof Capra
“Instead of positing that everything (including consciousness) is made of matter, this philosophy posits that everything (including matter) exists in and is manipulated from consciousness.”— Amit Goswami
“You will hardly find one among the profounder sort of scientific minds without a peculiar religious feeling of his own. But it is different from the religion of the naive man. His religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection.”—Albert Einstein
These scientists quoted above are hardly “quacks and occultists.” Among them are Nobel Prize winners and luminaries of physics whose numerous discoveries and mathematical formulations remain fundamental to modern science. For these scientists even to attempt to answer the deeper questions raised by their discoveries required them to grapple with concepts dealing with consciousness, thought, and perception—the traditional realm of philosophy and religion. Although their speculations are grounded in scientific logic and were arrived at methodically, rationally, and even mathematically, the concepts that emerge—interconnectedness, consciousness, higher intelligence—are decidedly nonmaterial.
Unlike true believers in scientific materialism such as Dawkins and Stenger, other more open-minded and expansive scientists go wherever the facts of science lead them. If the facts of science suggest there is more to reality than matter-energy interactions alone can explain, then so be it.
The material bias of science that leads many nonscientists, especially, to conclude that the beliefs underlying religion have been disproven, is just that: a bias extolled by a minority of scientists who believe in the religion of scientific materialism. But the fact is, not one of religion’s core beliefs—miracles, life after death, heaven, God, or the possibility of personal transcendent experience—has been ruled out by science. Rather, it is the widespread acceptance of scientific materialism’s (unproven) beliefs that has made many people think so.