The divergence of science and spirituality arises from the point of transcendence from the empirical. While spirituality speaks of the Truth beyond – unchanging, imperishable and eternal, science deals with phenomena that are temporal, spatial and causative. Spirituality and religion have often been defined using anthropomorphism, particularly around ideas and realities in the human mind and spirit. But what if this conception can be taken beyond?
What if the spiritual can be taken to a more fundamental level that applies to our universe even before human beings came to be? In this essay, I present a novel conception and understanding of the spiritual and highlight what I see as possible resonances of this conception with science.
The term spirit refers to the vital principle that animates man and animals. Derived from the Latin word spiritus, meaning soul or vigour, the term highlights the essence of a being or entity. Moving to a higher level of abstraction, the meta-description of a being or entity, particularly that which encapsulates the information within its form and functionality, can be called spiritual. In ancient times, the Vedic civilization brought forth the concept of Purusa (in the Samkhya tradition of philosophy) and Brahman (in Vedanta) – both denoting a universal principle.
In the former, reality and empiricism arose from an interaction of the Purusa with Prakrti (nature), while in the latter, Brahman manifested the universe with its interplay with Maya (a field of illusion). All in all, the demarcation between, and the duality of, the material, empirical nature and a transcendent, animating cosmic principle was highlighted in ancient Indian thought. This was also seen in western civilisations, including as the Divine Natural Law in Orphean Cosmogony and personified concepts such as Ma’at in the Ancient Egyptian religion.
The key question is: is there such a universal principle or law that underlies and transcends the empirical and which can be ascertained using scientific concepts?
Since spirituality talks of that which is beyond the temporal, spatial or causative – the triad that usually characterize empirical phenomena and science, we must look at the frontiers of scientific research to see whether we can obtain an inkling of what may lie beyond. At the moment, the Standard Model of Physics provides a unified description of three fundamental forces of nature: electromagnetic, strong and weak forces, with the fundamental particles being the quarks, leptons, gauge bosons and the Higgs Boson. Gravity, the fourth fundamental force of nature, is not part of this unified description.
There are many candidate theories of everything, which bring together the four forces – from String Theory, Loop Quantum Gravity, Causal Sets and using Non-commutative geometry to Superfluid Vacuum and the E8 proposal. While some of these theories are mathematically elegant but lack empirical backing, others present the consistent description of certain specific regimes in Physics.
Just before the turn of the twentieth century, in 1894 to be precise, Albert Michelson purportedly said that Physics was all but discovered and only needed to be made more precise by certain decimal points. In about a decade, Physics of the age was fundamentally and irrevocably altered, with Albert Einstein publishing four seminal papers on Special Relativity, Brownian Motion, Photoelectric Effect and Mass-Energy Equivalence, in what is regarded as Annus Mirabilis or the Year of Miracles – 1905.
It also marked a major shift on two fronts: physics went from maintaining the concepts of determinism and local realism to a more probabilistic and non-local theory of quantum physics, and gravity was seen as a curvature in space-time and not an inverse-square law force as in the case of Newtonian gravity. When we speak of a Theory of Everything today that formulates a consistent theory of Quantum Gravity, we speak of these two strands being fundamentally reconciled. In the diversity of physical phenomena, we need to see what can be a universal law or principle that is applicable across the myriad forces of nature.
Are the fundamental constants, such as Planck’s constant and Fine Structure constant, really constants? A recent study by Wilczynska et al showed that the Fine Structure constant has variations, both in space and time. Then, are the laws of physics themselves constant? More difficult as this is to answer, with respect to the previous question, the accepted theory of the evolution of the Universe entails the divergence of the forces of nature, all of which are hypothesised to have arisen from a single unified field, thereby proposing the truth in variation of physical laws over eons.
Going by the idea of constancy of the cosmic principle, these variable concepts and constructs may be taken as derivative elements of the Brahman principle.
What strangely has a certain consistency and truth across the Universe is that of the increase of entropy with time in an isolated system, as defined by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which provides a thermodynamic arrow of time. Entropy can be conceived as a measure of microscopic disorder, and by the second law, we can say that as a system advances through time, it becomes more disordered statistically. As per the second law of thermodynamics, for systems reacting at standard conditions for temperature and pressure, there is a tendency of the system to achieve a minimum of the Gibbs free energy.
Irreversibility of the mode of instantiating this law and the increasing dissipation of energy due to this were associated as predictions based on the entropic conception of the second law. In general, dissipation of energy is seen to be the basis of pattern formation in nature. Energy gradients are what make things happen. These gradients are seen to take place between particles and fields through correlations and dynamics, enacting adaptive behaviour.
At a certain level of description, this coordinated activity can be analyzed using concepts like coherence and mutual information, while at another level, these collective patterns of activity can be seen from the more abstract dual of entropy production and energy dissipation. In the biological realm, recently such dissipation-driven adaptive organization was proposed to be the basis for life and evolution, as well as the basis for brain organization.
More fundamentally and specifically, the manner in which this happened not only depends on the energy dissipation but also more microstate-based changes in the system, which is reflected in variations of complexity in the system. Recently, statistical complexity of neural recording data from fruit flies was seen to be correlated with the conscious arousal of the flies. From an evolutionary point of view, the phylogenetic evolution of the human genus is seen to be associated with the increase of the structural and functional brain complexity, and this is due to the necessity to handle internal as well as external information in the most efficient way.
In this regard, it is interesting to note that the crucial point for proper brain information processing, for conscious awareness to emerge, is that there must be fluctuating activity among various possible configurations of the neural network, thereby highlighting that the brain needs metastability and not just strong stability. In fact, the strong stability of brain (states) is usually associated with diseases and coma or unconsciousness. This almost behooves the discussion of the probabilistic, quantum nature of the minuscule, which is not quite deterministic.
Bringing all these ideas together, it seems like nature is fundamentally constituted by a creative principle – a tendency to expand, to dissipate energy across states, in a bid to increase entropy, and adapt accordingly so as to facilitate energy-dissipation. This usually involves the evolution of complexity in the state, which happens with a probabilistic distribution across configurations, and is ‘collapsed’ to a certain point only when a certain system tends to correlate and develop spontaneous entanglement with its environment, as is beautifully portrayed in the concept of decoherence.
The entire process has an inherent feedback mechanism where the state of the system drives its behaviour and the actions and activities of the systems redefine the being of the system, in a self-referential loop where the action is being and being in action. In this picture, the laws of nature and physics very much constitute the meta-level reality of principles, and thereby to my conception of the spiritual.
The element of reflexivity and tendency to self-interact seen in this empirical picture is also characteristic of the description of consciousness in ancient Indic texts. In that regard, the basis of Indic thought and civilization may just be on the most scientific and truly representative aspect of nature and the universe, and this is the spiritual, the meta-description, the realm of the cosmic principle that we have heard of since times of yore. Everything else follows.
This is what I see as ब्रह्मनत्व – the essence of Brahman, the universal cosmic principle.