Yoga, Physics and Consciousness
book chapter in Science, Consciousness & Ultimate Reality
Ravi Ravindra, 2004
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In spite of our wish to reconcile science and spiritual insight, we are very far from even having clear questions to raise about the two approaches to reality. We wish these disciplines to be reconciled because they both appear to us to be significant and profound manifestations of the human psyche, and we imagine that somehow in modern times we have found a reconciliation. Both yoga, which is an expression of spiritual insight, and physics are interested in objective knowledge. However, the two ‘knowledges’ are different from each other. We need to be aware of these differences if we are to avoid settling for an easy integration or a superficial reconciliation. Nothing is more misleading than to imagine that there is peace when there is no peace. The illusion that we have already found what we need will prevent us from seeking further.
Science assumes an abstract and purely rational construct underlying perceived reality. So what is experienced is called ‘appearance, and the mental construct is labeled ‘reality.’ The scientific pursuit speculates about the imagined reality and puts these speculations to experimental tests, which involve only certain limited perceptions. The so-called objective reality of scientific concern is in fact a conjecture—perhaps one of many that are possible. However—and this is where the importance and glory of science lie—these subjective projections of the mind are confirmed or falsified by inter-subjective experimental procedures.
Nevertheless, testing procedures are not wholly independent of the theoretical framework in which the observations are made. As scientific experiments become more and more elaborate, whether an observation is taken to be a confirmation of a given conjecture is increasingly a matter of interpretation. It is not possible to make a scientific observation without a prior theoretical system. In science, any theory is better than no theory. Theorizing is fundamental to scientific activity; what scientists subject to experimental observations is not nature, but their conjectures about nature.
In an argument with Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr said, “It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.”1 The scientific revolution marks a shift not only from experience to experiment,2 but also from seeking certain truth to theorizing about probable truths. In science, reality is theory.
Reality discovered through science is not necessarily something that is given, which we try to perceive more and more clearly and comprehensively by deepening or cleansing our perceptions, as one attempts, for example, in yoga. It is instead something postulated on the basis of data gathered through our ordinary perceptions, or perceptions that have been quantitatively extended through scientific instruments, but not qualitatively transformed.
The scientific assumption about human beings is that they are essentially rational cognizers, and that everything else about them is secondary and capable of explanation in terms of their basic rational nature. This view of a person as primarily a passionless, disembodied mind, which would be recognized as the rigorously intellectual point of view, is shared by all who claim to be scientific in their professional work, from Descartes to the modern analytical philosophers. Other human faculties—feelings and sensations—are not considered capable of either producing or receiving real knowledge. It is no doubt true that, as we are, our ordinary sensory and emotional experiences are limited and subjective. In science, an attempt is made to minimize the dependence on such perceptions by agreeing that the corresponding aspects of reality not be considered as objectively real and by dealing with only those aspects to which rational constructs can be applied.
The task of yoga, and of all spiritual disciplines, is not the same as the task of the scientific inquiry. Whereas science seeks to understand and control processes in the world, using the rational mind as the tool of exploration and explanation, yoga seeks to transform the human being so that the reality behind the world can be experienced.
According to Patañjali, the author of the classical text on yoga, “Yoga is the quieting of the vrittis (projections, turnings, movements, fluctuations) of the mind. Then the true or essential form of the seer is established. Otherwise, there is identification with the projections.”3 Vrittis of the mind, like Plato’s shadows in the cave, are chimeras, taken to be real. For Patañjali, the mind needs to be completely quiet in order to know the truth about anything. The quiet mind is the original state. However, there are obstacles (kleshas) which prevent one from seeing the truth. The Yoga Sutra speaks about what these kleshas are and about how to remove them. Patañjali’s yoga is a teaching to reach the still mind–one’s true nature. Only then can true knowledge about anything be obtained.