It seems easier today than a century ago for man to have a religious outlook on life. In an apparent paradox, it is the scientific revolution of the twentieth century that makes this possible. Not so far back there was a time when it seemed that an iron-bound deterministic science was about to establish complete dominion over man and his environment - when the universe was seen as a cosmic machine functioning according to sets of mathematical equations. The physical world was seen through the lenses of an engineer, and the mind was thought to coincide with the brain. All this is now water under the bridge, and contemporary physicist regards the material world, in Arthur Eddington's words, "in a more mystical, though no less exact and practical way."
Strangely enough, there is also, in what some call the post-Christian world, a profound and rising scepticism regarding the dogmas and theologies of western creeds, although man's religious aspirations are greater now than they were two or three generations ago. This coincidence is explosive, and evidence points to the fact that we are probably standing on a historical watershed - comparable in importance to the birth of Christianity some two thousand years ago. A new spiritual vision is beginning to take shape, under the spur of a most unlikely alliance between the new physics and eastern, rather than western, philosophies.
Few physicists who reach the outer limits of their science can avoid taking a side glance at the "metaphysical" implications of the recent revolution: but the surprising fact is that contemporary science seems to be deliberately turning away from its cultural roots, finding a more compatible atmosphere in the very different metaphysics of the orient. It is the startling parallelism between today's physics and the world-vision of eastern mysticism that becomes an outstanding cultural phenomenon of times.
Furthermore, as Werner Heisenberg remarks, the increasing contribution of eastern scientists from India, China and Japan, among others, reinforces this conjunction. Physical science has now become planetary and draws into its fold an increasing number of non-westerners who find in its new vision of the universe many elements that are quick to note, one cannot always distinguish between statements made by eastern metaphysics based on mystical insight, and the pronouncements of modern physics based on observations, experiments and mathematical calculations.
The new picture of the universe presented to us by contemporary physics is baffling. Contrary to classical science, physics now states that the commonsensical world we live in simply does not exist; all our impressions of ultimate solid substances are deceptive. The scientific revolution has shattered our previous notions of physical reality and natural law. Space, time, energy, matter and causality have all acquired entirely new meanings.
The first item to go was the sharp and absolute separation between space and time. Einstein's Special and General Theories of Relativity have now joined them together into a four-dimension continuum lacking the Newtonian universal flow of time. Different observers will see events occurring in different temporal sequences according to their respective positions and velocities. As the eminent and Nobel Prize-winning Japanese physicist Hideki Yukama states it, "Here time resolves itself into the fourth dimension, on a par with space, where harmony prevails in an eternal state of rest. One may sense something close to the Oriental outlook."
The second item to go was the concept of matter as something substantial, whose building blocks, the atoms, were considered to be the ultimate, indivisible constituents of the physical world. Almost suddenly, the atom was understood to be divisible and made up of nucleus and particles. Stranger still, particles could be interpreted as waves as well as granular elements - it made little difference to the mathematical equations that dealt with them since they are not substantial things in the commonsensical meaning of the word. Wave mechanics assert that electrons can be either waves or corpuscles, giving rise to the Theory of Complementarity, according to which any physical event can be interpreted in two different frames of reference, mutually exclusive, yet also complementary. At that microcosmic level, the objective world of space and time ceases to exist: the mathematical interpretation of this subatomic world no longer refers to actual reality but only to potentialities, "probability waves."
With Heisenberg's Principle of Uncertainty (or Indetermination), we now reach the outer limits of scientific possibilities by doing away with determinism and causality, in view of the impossibility of determining simultaneously the position and velocity of a particle - the greater the precision of the one, the greater the imprecision of the other. The deeper we penetrate into the microcosmic world, the more difficult, if not impossible, is direct observation, along with the fact that the observation itself interferes with the behaviour of the phenomenon. For instance, let us suppose that an imaginary microscope was able to magnify an individual electron a hundred thousand million times so as to make it visible to the human eye. Since an electron is smaller than a light-wave, the scientist could make it visible only by using radiation of a shorter wave-length high-frequency gamma rays of radium that would push it around violently and make an objective study of it impossible.
This amounts to saying that physics can go only so far in its objective study of nature, and no further: and beyond, there remains a whole realm of reality that can never be investigated by scientific observation and experimentation. Physics has to presuppose the existence of a background that shall remain forever outside the scope of its investigation. Physics itself is now reduced to statistical statements and pointer readings; physical laws simply express the "connectivity" of these pointer readings.
To sum up, the world we see and experience in everyday life is simply a mirage, an illusion of our perceptions and our brain. All that is around us, including ourselves, which appears so substantial, is ultimately nothing but networks of particle waves whirling around at lightning speed, colliding, rebounding, disintegration in almost total emptiness. Matter is mostly emptiness, proportionately as void as intergalactic space, void of anything except occasional dots and spots and scattered electric charges. For instance, a single atom is already minute enough: yet, although almost all of its mass is concentrated in the nucleus, this nucleus itself is a hundred thousand times smaller. An atom, therefore, is almost completely empty space in which protons and neutrons whirl around within its confines at speeds up to forty thousand miles per second-enough to make us dizzy when we understand that, in the last resort, that is what we and everything physical are made of.
A Victorian scientist thought that he knew clearly what he was talking about when he mentioned atoms, molecules, matter: he visualised them as concrete and describable elements. Today's physicist knows that this is not exactly the case. Science no longer pretends to have anything to say about the intrinsic nature of the physical world: the atom we attempted to visualise earlier is, in fact, nothing more than a "schedule of pointer readings" attached to some unknown background. Scientific knowledge is all inferential knowledge. Physics presents us with the symbolic skeleton of the universe, not with an accurate picture of the universe itself.
The one indisputable fact about the universe is human consciousness which is known to us by direct and immediate self-knowledge. Even science and actuality of the physical world is, ultimately, a product of our consciousness. Physics now tends to accept the fact that we have to restore consciousness to the fundamental position in the universe, rather than see it simply as a material phenomenon derived from a particular arrangement of physical molecules, atoms and particles. Physicists such as Eugene Wigner believe that the formal inclusion of consciousness in physics could well become an essential feature of any further advance in our scientific understanding. The mind is the one element of knowledge that is not limited to pointer readings. Therefore, only consciousness can provide the necessary background for all the pointer readings that, in the aggregate, constitute physical science.
This background is mind-stuff and, as Eddington puts it, the "stuff of the world is mind-stuff." This mind -stuff is not spread out in space and time: on the contrary, it is space and time that are spun out of it. Here and there it rises to the level of self-consciousness in human beings and from those tips of icebergs, floating on the surface of the world stuff, springs our two-tier intellectual knowledge - direct knowledge within each thinking individual, and generalised inferential knowledge which includes our knowledge of the physical world. Inferential knowledge, however, is only part of a whole and cannot grasp the whole. Science cannot, regardless of further discoveries, encroach on the background from which it springs; and our own consciousness lies in this background.
Our task now is to deal with that part of consciousness that does not emerge in space and time and is, therefore, not amenable to scientific analysis - a part that is, perhaps, amenable to the insights of the religious approach.
We are now faced with the central problem of the truth of religion. A vast number of churches and denominations scattered throughout the world claim a near-monopoly of spiritual truth with a remarkable lack of metaphysical humility such as characterises contemporary science. It has become difficult for any thoughtful person to subscribe to any such claim. All religions are true and false at the same time, in the sense that they all point toward some ultimate truth; but none of them is literally and absolutely true. All their myth, dogmas, scriptures and theologies are merely symbolic and relative interpretations designed to help the devotee on his spiritual way.
But how did this belief in the possibility of "literal" truth come about when thousands of years ago already, our much wiser cultural ancestors quite rightly understood that every form of expression is purely symbolic? As Origen expressed it in the third century: "Who can be stupid enough to believe that God, like a gardener, tilled the fields of Eden and actually planted a tree named the Tree of Life?" In order to understand it, we must come to grips with the fundamental dichotomy splitting mankind's higher cultures into two distinct groups - East and West, the most famous twins in history: the East comprising Hinduism and Buddhism, along with all the other sects and creeds of the Far East and their offshoots; the West being largely made up of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The East springs mostly from India's culture heritage, the West from Greek philosophy and the prophetic tradition of Judaism.
The first striking difference is that the West often believes in the literal truth of its myths, scriptures, dogmas and ideologies, and often takes their contents as historical facts, very much as the Victorian physicist thought that his scientific world-picture literally described the universe as it is. The East, on the other hand, does nothing of the kind - indeed it has no dogmas at all, sees in all myths merely useful symbolism and does not care at all about historical fact. The roots of the pseudo conflict between science and religion, materialism and spiritualism lies right here and concerns only the West. No such conflict is possible in the East where all mythologies are understood to be simply allegoric and symbolic, implying no literal truth or factual statement whatsoever, and therefore no possibility of collision with any scientific view of the universe.
It does matter a great deal to the West whether Christ rose bodily from the dead, multiplied bread loaves, or even existed at all. It does not matter one whit to the East whether Rama, Shiva or Buddha ever existed; since their importance is not historical but symbolic. The West has always attempted to impose dogmatically its conflicting viewpoints because, imbued with a Biblical, Judaic or Koranic sense of God-given historical mission and the conviction of having the monopoly of literal religious truth, it has always attempted to conquer and shape the world, either by the sword or by scientific knowledge. The apparent paradox is that the western scientific attitude springs precisely from this belief in literalness, inherited from medieval scholasticism, from the intellectual gymnastics of such mental giants as Duns Scotus and Abelard, who raised the word-symbol to an almost mathematical precision, and made possible the total independence of the abstract idea from aesthetic impression. Thought was no longer chained to subjective emotion and could therefore enter into independent and objective relationship with the world of nature. The East also expanded its knowledge but without ever rejecting the mythologies from which it sprang. It never took those myths to be anything but metaphorical formulations of higher truths - as projected contents of an unconscious that was understood and accepted as being closer to ultimate Reality than conscious thought (waking-consciousness).
East and West alike, all religions attempt to provide for their devotees a "way": a path toward some form of holiness. Unlike the West, the East concentrates almost entirely on the Path - the Chinese Tao, the Buddhist "Noble Eightfold Path" - and underplays the merely intellectual interpretations that supposedly go with it. Therefore it does not tread on the secular grounds covered by science. Furthermore, and this is crucial, it has studied the "way" of internal metamorphosis pragmatically and undogmatically, with almost clinical thoroughness; whereas the West, encumbered by dogmas and scriptures, has never developed a methodical "science" of the "way", based on experimentation and observation. The "way", of course, is the way of the mystic, for lack of a better word. Where the mystical impulse, in the West, is presumed to be a free gift of God's grace imparted to the few, in the East it is presumed to arise through a form of knowledge and practice that is, theoretically, at everyone's disposal.