Scientific Justifications for New Age Philosophies

— Finding your own meaning & interpretations
John Smith—08/2007
As long as we try to justify or explain our spiritual experiences with scientific philosophies we only bury ourselves deeper in ignorance by clutching to the illusion of understanding.

IF YOU READ A LOT OF NEW AGE SPIRITUAL books and articles, or if you have watched New Age films like What The Bleep! or The Secret, you will be aware that there is a revolution of new thinking that has been taking place over the last decade in the New Age community, and that much of it is scientifically (some would say pseudo-scientifically) justified. For example, we are told that our thoughts create our reality, and that this is explained by quantum mechanics; or we are assured that we survive death because our very being is rooted in the eternal zero-point field that pervades the space-time continuum.

Nowadays, for any new spiritual theory or assertion to be taken seriously, it seems that it needs to be couched in scientific vernacular and presented as new or cutting-edge science. Whilst this is all very well if it really does have a scientific footing, most spiritual or New Age theories being promoted do not justify this sort of scientific presentation. In fact, such a presentation is exploiting the scientific ignorance of the general population who hold anything remotely scientific-sounding in high esteem. Mention quantum-this or quantum-that and the average person in the street is impressed, despite knowing absolutely nothing about quantum mechanics — which is perhaps why they are so impressed! Science has become a marketing tool for New Age theories.

Exploiting science for marketing purposes is certainly successful. There are many high profile New Age or New Spirituality authors and teachers who have shamelessly exploited science to market their workshops, lectures and books. Most sincerely believe that their use of a scientific presentation is justified because most, like the general public at large, are ignorant of what science actually is and and are themselves in awe over its remarkable successes (modern technology forms the practical application of science).

However, by riding on the back of science's respectability, these teachers are inadvertently promoting science as the gold-standard of legitimacy in the area of new spirituality. But is this really appropriate? Should science's blessing count for much in relation to spiritual experiences and theories? To answer that question we need to define exactly what science is.

Science is the refining process, involving theorising and experimentation, by which we zero-in on consistent mathematical models which can accurately predict observable and repeatable quantifiable events/processes.

There are four key descriptions in the above sentence that define the kind of events/phenomena/processes that science can be used to describe:

  1. Observable: This one is the most obvious — if we can't observe it, we can't mathematically model it. And not only that, but it is the scientific establishment that must be able to observe it for that model to be officially accepted.
  2. Repeatable: If the phenomena does not repeat itself, then the zeroing-in process of refining the mathematical model cannot happen and the model remains a poor fit.
  3. Quantifiable: For us formulate a mathematical model we have to be able to quantify aspects of the phenomena. If we cannot, or if too few aspects are quantifiable, then a mathematical model is inappropriate.
  4. Consistent: As much as possible, the phenomena should be describable with mathematical models that are consistent mathematically AND philosophically with science as a whole.

Why this obsession with mathematical models? Because unless a numerical value can be given to something, a numerical value that others can concur with, then the model is neither accurate nor objective. If our models, by contrast, were merely philosophical and subjective, then they would be of limited predictive value. Science is all about modeling reality so that we can accurately predict objective or collective outcomes. In fact, it is so accurate and detailed in its predictions that it has produced the computer on which you are reading this article. Science works!

But just because science is so remarkably successful at modeling observable, repeatable, consistent and quantifiable phenomena does NOT imply that it should be the gold-standard for the legitimacy of ALL phenomena, or that phenomena that cannot be modeled by it are illusory. Much of human experience can and does fall outside what can be mathematically modeled, and to deny the veracity and reality of that experience on the basis that it is not amenable to scientific analysis is a recipe for psychosis. The assumption that everything can be mathematically modeled is untestable and therefore a statement of faith rather than one of science.

Faith forms the foundation of ALL modeling systems and philosophies because the context which gives direction and meaning in the modeling process is subjective. And science is no exception. Science is "done" by human beings, and human beings are meaning-driven. Scientific and mathematical models rest on the following assumptions, ALL of which are untestable and therefore statements of faith:

1) Every phenomena in the universe can be modeled mathematically, and those mathematical models or theories fit together in a single, consistent super-model or "theory of everything". (Big assumption but certainly the Holy Grail of physics.) The main criteria for choosing these models when several possibilities are available is to choose the simplest — philosophically called Occam's Razor. (However, what is the simplest for one person may not be the simplest for another — so subjectivity again creeps in.)

2) The Scientific Method — the process by which science investigate phenomena — is valid in all situations for ascertaining the "truth" of theoretical models. (Paradoxically, the Scientific Method is not itself amenable to the Scientific Method, so it's veracity is not actually testable.)

3) Complex phenomena or processes can be understood as the sum-behaviour of their components, something called reductionism. The mind, for example, is merely an emergent property arising from the collective activity of our neurons, whose function in turn can be determined by the behaviour of the atoms and molecules from which they are comprised. Causality is therefore believed to originate at the sub-atomic scale — the smallest possible components of any system — which is why modern physics is so obsessed with sub-atomic investigations. (This pecking order of causality from the sub-atomic realms and up is the reason why any evidence for mind over matter is so vehemently rejected.)

4) Scientific theories, when they are accurate, are not just modeling reality but ARE reality. In other words, "God" is a mathematician because the universe obeys mathematical laws.The model becomes the reality, and so everything not described by the model becomes, by definition, non-reality or an illusion.

These four (I am sure there are more) core beliefs give science its context and have a direct effect on its modeling process. But although they are subjective and not objectively testable (except perhaps mind over matter which challenges reductionism), they have determined the course of scientific progress for the last few centuries, turning science into an accurate mathematical modeling system for material properties.

Taking into account the limited types of phenomena that science can model, and the subjective biases listed above, OF COURSE SCIENCE DOES NOT RECOGNIZE PSYCHIC OR SPIRITUAL PHENOMENA. These sorts of phenomena do not repeat in predictable manners, fly in the face of reductionism and often are not amenable to mathematical analysis. The very process of science, as it is currently practiced by the majority of the scientific community, rejects these phenomena because they fail at the very first hurdle of the type of phenomena that science is willing to model. And because the majority of scientists are epistemologically ignorant, confusing their models with reality, rather than take the stance that these type of unusual events are just not amenable to mathematical modeling, they reject their very reality, reasoning that if it can't be modeled it can't be real.

Given these limitations of science, New Age or new consciousness teachers are generally (not always) acting out of ignorance when they use scientific terminology to lend legitimacy to their beliefs by linking them philosophically with current scientific models. They do this because they do not understand the limits of science. And by pushing science into places where it is not (yet) able to go, they only further bolster its reputation in the mind of the public, so society becomes even more influenced by the ignorance of scientific establishment.

Take for example quantum mechanics. This successful theory of modern physics, developed in the early 20th Century, has become THE justification for us creating our realities. Read any new age material and you will come across "quantum-this" and "quantum-that". But the term quanta is used merely to describe the fine lumpy texture of energy, called quanta, that is observed at microscopic levels, and the theory itself mathematically models the counter-intuitive behaviour of these minuscule lumps. That is quantum theory in a nutshell. And the reason that science developed this model, even though it was so much more complex and difficult to understand than the earlierĀ  smooth-energy models, is because it fits so much better at the sub-atomic scale (and in a few places at larger dimensions).

But what about the fact that consciousness collapses the wave function and that therefore quantum mechanics is scientific validation for the power of our minds in creating reality? Two points need to be made here: firstly, models of reality, although they predict reality, are not reality. Interpretations of what the wave-function collapsing actually means is not actually a scientific question but a philosophical one and so can be open to many different interpretations. Quantum mechanics just so happens to be the best-fit mathematical model at the moment for small-scale physics, and this does not imply that it is correct or represents "truth", in the same way that an accurate road map which can successfully predict a city-street location is not the city itself but merely a 2-dimensional representation that, by necessity, focuses on one tiny aspect of that reality. (If it were the city itself, you would find it difficult to fit in your pocket — its very usefulness is precisely the fact that it is not the reality itself but a concise version of one aspect of it.)

And the second reason that quantum mechanics cannot be used to justify mind-over matter, even if you do confuse maps with reality, is that within the quantum model itself the collapsing of the wave-function only needs some sort of recording device (a recording devise assures that the model is time-consistent). Even an inert recording device like a calculator memory would be enough: the consciousness factor is just one meaningful philosophical interpretation of this mathematical model, but not one that can be proved scientifically in any way.

Of course, this does not mean that consciousness does not influence reality. It does, and in a fundamental manner. However, the scientific model called quantum mechanics cannot be used as justification or scientific ratification for this position, although it does offer a convincing scientific metaphor for reality-creation.

Whether our minds create reality or not is actually an untestable hypothesis because any experiment, by definition, would be part of the reality being created so could not be used as an objective measure for that reality. The statement that we create reality is just too all-encompassing to have any scientific meaning. (The less ambitious hypothesis that our minds can influence matter is, however, testable and has passed that test many times. The evidence is substantial if you are open-minded enough to examine it.) But total mind reality creation does have huge psychological and philosophical meaning, for it places consciousness firmly back into the centre of reality, delivering a death-blow to the philosophy of scientific reductionism that has tried to squeezed all higher meaning from modern society, reducing it to a mechanism — albeit a quantum one!

What most of us think of as the profound implications of science — such as the implications of quantum mechanics — are actually the non-science philosophical part. This is the human part that insists on placing some sort of meaning or context on mathematical models. This is just another form of reality creation — manufacturing a reality which psychologically fits the mathematical model. And scientists do not have the monopoly on this sort of reality creation. So why use scientists' reality creations to try to "explain" psychic or spiritual or new consciousness phenomena as if that particular reality-creation somehow has more validity than your own? It does not have any more validity because there the meaning aspect of scientific theories is not testable. Your meaning as as relevant to your life as a scientist's meaning is to his.

So it is time to stop parading scientists before the camera so that we can hear them expound on their personal philosophies. They are no more right than you. The bottom line is that "unusual" (usual for some) experiences mean whatever the experiencer decide that they mean. So widen the search. Don't just look to scientists to inject their meaning on your experience but play with different meanings and see which one "feels" right for you. That is real psychological and spiritual growth.

Modeling is something that we do with our heads; and life throws up many experiences that do not fit into the models we have available. If we are a very model-focused person — more intellectual or "heady" — then we will dismiss experiences as illusory that are not mapped by the models we predominantly live by. If, on the other hand, we are less model-focused — more open-minded — then we have four choices: we can modify our current model; we can leave our current model as it is and just add another model for use in different circumstances; we can throw everything out and begin again with a new model that encompasses more of our experience; or we can get out of our heads altogether and stop trying to model/interpret everything.

But one thing is certain: as long as we try to justify or explain our spiritual experiences with scientific philosophies we only bury ourselves deeper in ignorance by clutching to the illusion of understanding, confusing scientific mathematical models with reality itself, and ignoring the fact that scientific theories always eventually become outdated, and their philosophical interpretations are always changing too because they are actually largely cultural. So science and the philosophy of science is not itself stable enough to be held up as the arbiter of all things — especially not your personal experience of reality!

If you experience life in a meaningful, spiritual and consciousness-centered way, my advice to you is not to meekly kneel at the altar of scientific legitimacy and accept your own experiences and interpretations of those experiences whole-heartedly. Don't wait for permission from a New Age scientist to inject meaning and purpose into your life — do it with the authority of your own being.