Scientific Reductionism, Spiritual Nondualism and Redefining the Self

— Ditching spacetime is more important than trying to ditch the ego
John Smith—02/2013
What do science and Advaita have in common? They are both spacetime-based philosophical systems that use reductionism as the litmus test for existence. As a consequence of this outlook, both deny the reality of nonlocal phenonenon such as our thinking minds.

LAST YEAR I wrote an essay on Advaita or nondual spirituality called The Religion of Reductionism, showing how the conclusions of Advaita were based on the outdated Newtonian paradigm. Well I had to chuckle when I saw the latest edition of New Scientist (No. 2905 / 23 Feb 2013) which featured an article entitled, The Self — The greatest trick your mind ever played, all about the illusory nature of self. The article showed how the whole concept of self is a delusion, a construction, because when we look closely, there is nothing actually there. In fact, the article reads exactly like modern Neo-Advaita or nondual spiritual teachings.

How can this be? How can hardcore science and a spiritual outlook be so congruent? What does this say about science? What does this say about Advaita?

In both cases, the self is found to be a construct, to have no reality of its own, because both perspectives are using a philosophical process of reductionism to look for the components of a 'thing' called self, a process which is used to dismiss the self because it fails to find any 'thing'. But this implies that what cannot be pinpointed by reductionism does not exist, making reductionism a litmus test for existence.

Reductionism is the view that complex systems can be explained by sum of the behaviour of their components. This suggests that if we take a complex system and find that it has no easily defined components, then it does not exist. From the reductionist perspective, irreducible complex systems are imaginary. This is a basic premise of both scientific and nondual spiritual dogma. With science, the understanding of reductionism is explicit, but with nondual spirituality, the reductionism is implied (those in such spiritual traditions shun conceptualisation, so systems of knowledge used are unacknowledged).

The current global human perspective of reality is a spacetime one. We see the world as a theatre show where things such as people, animals, plants, objects and information processes interact in time on a stage setting called space. This perspective is called a 'local' one because each component of our reality has a particular set of coordinates (positionality) in spacetime, coordinates that separate it from other components. These components only interact with each other by a causal mechanism, where one component needs to 'touch' another in order to 'move it'. This touching is mediated by physical forces, and can happen at a distance. For example, an apple falls to the ground because of a mutual attraction of the apple and the Earth because both are made up of matter which happens to have a mysterious and predictable attraction which we label gravity.

So causality is in built in the spacetime perspective: things that happen are caused by something. A tennis ball, for example, flies through the air because it was hit by a moving tennis racket, which in turn is moving because the muscles in a human being were contracting, which in turn were contracting because the nervous system in the human being triggered the contraction. There is a chain of causality. From a scientific perspective, the original or first cause was the Big Bang, and everything that has subsequently happened is the consequence of that exploding energy. In our tennis example, we trace causality back to the brain of the tennis player, but from a scientific point of view it actually ultimately goes back to the Big Bang: the brain's 'decisions' are caused by its historical interaction with the material world, so causality comes back out from the brain or nervous system into the the larger world again. So from the scientific perspective free will is an illusion, just as it is from an Advaitic perspective.

But what is important to understand here is the term local; it holds the key. The spacetime perspective is a local perspective of separate things interacting with each other in space and time. Our minds are programmed into having a local perspective our whole lives because it is a useful perspective or realitymap to have — it allows us to function and interact in a world of people, animals, planets and objects. Just as scientists generally hold a local perspective, all the leading Advaita masters as well come from limiting spacetime perspectives. (Just because you are awake does not mean that you are free from realitymaps.)

However, like all reality mapping systems, that which cannot be mapped does not necessarily not exist. For example, an underground train (tube) map is not going to be very helpful for locating a particular street. The tube map serves its purpose not only in what it depicts — train lines — but most importantly in what it leaves out. Maps are useful because they exclude practically all of reality, and as such are simple for the limited conscious mind to understand. And of course they can fit in your pocket — a city map that tried to include absolutely everything would hardly be pocket-sized… in fact it might be as big as the whole city!

In the same way, the spacetime realitymap does not include anything that is non-local and acausal. And as our lives are based on the spacetime perspective, we tend to dismiss non-local and acausal phenomena. Examples of non-local and acausal phenomena abound in quantum physics. For example, take Bell's Theorem: if two particles are quantum mechanically entangled, and then are separated to opposite ends of the universe, a measurement of a changing state of one will immediately imply the state of the other, even though no signal has had time to passed between them. The reason this happens is that both particles are actually one particle… the system is a non-local system. The measurement of one particle's state does not 'cause' the other to be in a particular complementary state the system is locally acausal.

The reason that minds struggled with quantum mechanics is precisely because they are conditioned into a spacetime perspective — minds use the spacetime realitymap to make sense of reality. In fact, the more logical the mind, the more it uses this perspective because logic is based on space and time. Present a process that is acausal and nonlocal, and mind just scratches its head in disbelief. If quantum mechanics was not such an accurate theory, it would never have taken off because of the philosophical implications. Indeed, most scientists use it at arm's length to model small-scale systems, avoiding it philosophically!

Advaita or nonduality is a 'spiritual' spacetime outlook that denies all separation. The key word here is 'spacetime'. This is what Advaita shares with conventional Newtonian physics, and this is why the two are congruent in their perspectives of self. Present something that is acausal and non-local to a Newtonian physicist or an Advaita practitioner, and both will deny its existence. For non-local phenomena are not on the realitymaps of either of these spacetime-based philosophies.

Consciousness is either an illusion, or it is a non-local phenomena. We will assume it is a non-local phenomena as consciousness is the bedrock of all experience; it is what is most difficult to deny from an experiential point of view. (Conceptually, we can and do deny even the most immediate experiences, but if we are honest, even the most hard-core materialist will grudgingly admit that consciousness is impossible to shake off completely.) Most likely, consciousness is a non-local expression of the zero-point field. (See The Cosmic Computer, Simulated Realities, the Zero-Point Field, and Touching What is Real)

So using a reductionist outlook to dismiss the reality of a non-local self (including one that has free will) is actually invalid. A non-local self has no representation on a spacetime realitymap, and as such, using processes of investigation based on spacetime, whether scientific or philosophical, is like looking for a cloud on an ordnance-survey map: look as hard as you can and you will never find it. But that does not mean it does not exist, unless you have confused your map with reality.

Those involved with Advaita claim to be non-conceptual, and yet the standard nondual perspective is most certainly a system of philosophy. Advaita uses concepts to show the non-reality of concepts, but as we have seen, just because something does not appear on a conceptual map of reality does not necessarily negate its existence. What Advaita or nondualism actually is is a neat trick to get the mind to dismiss itself, and in the process basically give itself permission to function much more quietly. That is its practical application.

But what would a non-local perspective of self actually feel like? Well, it would feel exactly like our deepest awareness feels, it just is; and is not localized in space or time. And despite not being on our everyday realitymap, we intuitively know that self exists, although we cannot pinpoint it in spacetime because it has no positionality. In the same way, we intuitively know that we have free will, but look closely from a spacetime perspective and it is not there. This intuitive knowing is the inspiration of the spacetime-constructed self which we call ego all egos are spacetime dependent. Ego is based on local causality… that is where it gets its importance from… it thinks it can cause things to happen locally in space and time and is therefore as substantial as an object. Egotism is actually scientific reductionism of the psyche, it comes from a Newtonian outlook.

So Advaita is actually steeped in the Newtonian spacetime paradigm, although few will admit to this. What would be the consequences of ditching the spacetime paradigm? Contradiction and paradox would be accepted. The emptiness of self would not be seen to contradict the presence of self. Letting everything be as it is would not contradict free will. Form and emptiness would both be accepted, rather than this ridiculous situation where everything including the self is denied. And we would not have teachers sitting silently in front of us, slowing scanning the audience, demonstrating their lack of self. The ones that have the balance right seem to be the Buddhist lamas like the Dalai Lama… you feel a strong and jovial personality when you are with him, but at the same time there is an extremely lightness of self that does not get stuck in belief or dogma. It is important that we be complete enigmatic people… and stop acting like zombies because we think we don't exist.

The spiritual outlook is full of paradox, just as the quantum outlook in physics is. We must accept this, even though our limited spacetime thinking has issue with it. We must stop using reductionism to back ourselves into corners of non-self and no-free-will, all in the name of non-duality. Just play… have fun… and stop fixating on ego. After all, if there is one thing that is going to grow the ego, it is the constant focus on, denigration of and denial of ego. If we skip lightly through life, the ego diminishes all by itself. It is only when we make a philosophy of things that everything just gets so heavy and problematic. In denying the reality of ego, we are actually affirming the spacetime paradigm, and this underhandedly makes ego more likely to reemerge. Only by becoming less-logical, less stuck in the spacetime perspective, can we naturally let go of ego. In fact, it would be far better for us to swap the term ego for spacetime self, so that we understand that this often problematic self is actually not so much a problem of identity but one of perspective — the spacetime perspective.

We must believe in the impossible if we are to lead sane and balanced lives. If we want to spiritually awaken, we must believe in miracles — happenings that seem to defy the spacetime perspective.

I don't know if anyone else has the same experience, but I find hardcore nondual philosophers have a similar feel to them as hardcore scientific philosophers. There is a hard edge, an uncompromising fanatical outlook in both camps, an outlook that refuses to accept the existence of ephemeral phenomena, because such phenomena evaporate in the reductionist glare.

It is much better to live our lives knowing that many of our experiences are not necessarily mapped on spacetime realitymaps. This takes some real humility, the humility to know that we do not know. If we hold on too tightly to our spacetime worldview, both in relation to ourselves and the world, we are going to allow contradiction and mystery to push us into some stagnant philosophical corners where we will deny the very living presence of self.

Far better to expand our realitymaps to include space for the unknown, perhaps using dragon symbols to to acknowledge our fear of it. The heart is one such place. But eventually, the unknown can become our friend, and life becomes a delicious mystery to savour. This can only really happen if we challenge our addiction to the spacetime perspective, rather than reinforcing it in the denial of self. Only then can we begin to flow in the enigmatic nature of consciousness, giving ourselves permission to let go to cosmic playfulness.