The Self-Aware Universe

The Self-Aware UniverseHow Consciousness Creates the Material World, New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1995

What Amit Goswami can express poetically, in The Self-Aware Universe, not many can express it ever in words. But his poetry, to paraphrase Emerson, has an edge to it. The edge is quantum physics.

Goswami’s genius is his ability to express very complex insights and relationships in a simple poetic language that even the lay reader can understand.

When I saw Goswami in The Bleep, I was already impressed by his unconventional yet powerfully convincing appearance, but when I read him line by line, it was an intellectual pleasure for me I seldom had when reading a science book.

While Goswami leaves no doubt that he defends the monistic paradigm in spirituality, which clearly means taking sides when you do this as a scientist, I respect it because he has justified his spiritual paradigm scientifically. I can say that Goswami’s view of the universe sounds very coherent to me, and from his general style and reputation, this man is not a lighthearted spirit—pretty much to the contrary.

Amit Goswami
Amit Goswami

This being said, this book is not an easy read. I had to fight through because mathematics never was my strong point, which is why I was thankful for Goswami’s wistful mix of mathematical and poetic explanations of his vision—and that is something unusual in our mechanistic science tradition—while it was not unusual in the Renaissance. And Goswami got a sense of humor, too:

But we physicists are a stubborn lot, and we fear the proverbial toss of the baby out with the bathwater. We still lather and shave our faces watching carefully as we use Occam’s razor to make sure that we cut away all ‘hairy assumptions.’ What are these clouds that obscure the end of the twentieth century’s abstract art form? They boil down to one sentence: The universe does not seem to exist without a perceiver of that universe./xiv

Many of us would like to boost their scientific understanding without however having to digest volumes of mathematical gibberish, and pages of formulas. Fritjof Capra and Amit Goswami, and a growing number of other scientists today show that it does not need to be that way, and that knowledge, whatever level of complexity it assumes, is transmissible in ordinary language. And for describing the paradoxes of quantum physics, I haven’t found an author who can explain them with similar ease:

Furthermore when it [the electron] is not a single particle it appears to be an undulating wavelike cloud that is capable of moving at speeds in excess of light speed, totally contradicting the Einstein concern that nothing material can move faster than light. But Einstein’s worry is assuaged, for when it moves this way, it is not actually a piece of matter./xv

Goswami summarizes the quantum paradoxes as follows:

  • A quantum object (for example, an electron) can be at more than one place at the same time (the wave property).

  • A quantum object cannot be said to manifest in ordinary spacetime reality until we observe it as a particle (collapse of the wave).

  • A quantum object ceases to exist here and simultaneously appears in existence over there; we cannot say it went through the intervening space (the quantum jump).

  • A manifestation of one quantum object, caused by our observation, simultaneously influences its correlated twin object – no matter how far apart they are (quantum action-at-a-distance)./9

Goswami shows that relativity theory’s speed of the light limitation is none when applied to subatomic physics since we are dealing not with matter, but with waves, contradicting physicists who speak in this case about exceptions from relativity theory. No, the wave behavior of electrons doesn’t represent an exception from relativity theory as relativity applies for matter only, for mass, and not for waves. Goswami explains:

According to quantum physics, even though the two electrons may be vast distances apart, the results of observations carried out upon them indicate that there must be some connection between them that allows communication to move faster than light./xv

Amit Goswami
Amit Goswami

In a similar mood and with the same eloquence, Goswami explains why we need to overcome the Cartesian dualism:

Since René Descartes divided reality into two separate realms—mind and matter—many people have tried to rationalize the causal potency of conscious minds within Cartesian dualism. Science, nevertheless, presents compelling reasons to doubt that a dualistic philosophy is tenable: In order for the worlds of mind and matter to interact, they must exchange energy, yet we know that the energy of the material world remains constant. Surely, then, there is only one reality. Here is the catch 22: If the one reality is material reality, consciousness cannot exist except as an anomalous epiphenomenon./10

With the same lucidity, Goswami discusses and eventually rejects material realism as a foundation for any kind of holistic science of the future:

The negative influence of material realism on the quality of modern human life has been staggering. Material realism poses a universe without any spiritual meaning: mechanical, empty, and lonely. For us inhabitants of the cosmos—this is perhaps the more unsettling because, to a frightening degree, conventional wisdom holds that material realism has prevailed over theologies that propose a spiritual component of reality in addition to the material one./11

What many people ignore, in fact, is that quantum physics did not per se establish a holistic science paradigm. Capra discussed this question in The Turning Point (1987), pointing out that quantum physics is restricted to the subatomic realm, while in conventional physics the Newtonian mechanics is still valid. Goswami explains:

The philosophy of materialism, which dates back to the Greek philosopher Democritus (ca. 460–ca. 370 B.C.) matches the worldview of classical physics which is variously termed material, physical, or scientific realism. Although a new scientific discipline called quantum physics has formally replaced classical physics in this century, the old philosophy of classical physics—that of material realism—is still widely accepted./15

This is why, as Goswami discusses at length, the mere decision pro or con quantum physics does not change much in the landscape of physics. What does this change, Goswami says, is the philosophy behind the screens.

And here he points out with many examples how physics is shaped by the underlying spiritual or non-spiritual paradigm. He forwards a catchy parallel to the brain-mind discussion:

Classical functionalism assumes that the brain is hardware and the mind software. It would be just as unfounded to say that the brain is classical and the mind quantum. Instead, in the idealist model proposed here, the experienced mental states arise from the interaction of both classical and quantum systems./173

It seems that Goswami’s choice of philosophical monism was not just the result of cultural conditioning. As he explains, and as it is well-known, India in the whole of its philosophical tradition adhered to spiritual monism, and idealism.

But the strength of Goswami’s coherent view of modern physics is that he carefully double-checked the results of all the various philosophical constructs, in their effect on scientific observation at the quantum level.

On the other hand, his clear choice of a spiritual direction may interfere in some ways with his scientific objectivity. When a quantum physicist makes such a spiritual choice as a base paradigm also for his research, I must question his objectiveness.

I will stop my comments here in the hope that this information is sufficient to raise your interest in the present book, and take the challenge to read it.

While it is written in a good conversational English and without too much science gibberish, a robust ability to follow convoluted and complex philosophical, and to a lesser extent, mathematical explanations is required.

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