Reality, that most important concept about everything that exists, has gotten out of kilter, and yet very few people have noticed or are paying attention. The problem goes deep into the heart of things, however, so deep that future generations may look back and wonder why this generation didn’t wake up. The reason isn’t mysterious, actually. Modern secular society is based on materialism.
Materialism is a worldview based on physical objects as the stuff of creation. Worldview is a big concept that most people don’t bother to think about. As long as technology keeps progressing on all fronts, materialism seems workable. The only problem is that reality can’t be squeezed into a materialist framework. Materialism, it turns out, is just a plausible story, not a viable way to explain the world around us and certainly not the world “in here” where the mind operates.
Just last week physicists at Fermilab in Illinois announced that an obscure elementary particle, the muon, doesn’t behave the way it was supposed to. As a result, the standard model by which the universe is explained may totter. How can something infinitesimally tiny rock the cosmos? It didn’t. The muon rocked the story about reality we’ve been telling ourselves.
Yet for at least forty years the story has been very shaky despite the public success of modern science. It’s fine to celebrate the successes, but reality meanwhile remains inexplicable. Consider the following difficulties the materialist or physicalist worldview faces.
First come the difficulties over explaining the physical world “out there”:
– No one knows where the Big Bang came from.
– No one knows how life began.
– The origin of time, space, matter, and energy remain totally hidden.
– The two leading theories in physics, General Relativity (which explains how large objects work) and quantum mechanics (which explains how tiny things work) turn out to be seemingly incompatible.
Then there are the difficulties over explaining our subjective world “in here”:
– The relation of mind and brain is as up in the air as it was at the time of Plato and Aristotle.
– The nature of consciousness and how it evolved — if it evolved — cannot be agreed upon.
– The process by which the brain creates a three-dimensional world of sight and sound using only chemical and electrical signals is totally mysterious.
To boil things down to their most basic, if you don’t know where the universe came from and are equally baffled by where thoughts come from, how reliable is your explanation of reality? Intellectual honesty forces an answer: Not reliable at all. Persuasive stories and unexamined assumptions riddle our current worldview. We pride ourselves on advancing beyond myth and superstition, but we are deeply immersed in the myth of materialism.
As much as mainstream science resists any crack in its armor, a host of leading thinkers acknowledges exactly what these problems are. So why doesn’t science self-correct and change course? We don’t need to point fingers. Science is a massive worldwide enterprise that has created, and keeps creating, the modern world. We owe many good things to it while being haunted by some very bad things, like nuclear weapons and excessive greenhouse gas emissions.
Standing back, everyone will concede that ideas drive progress, and ideas spring from a worldview. We owe Chartres Cathedral to the medieval worldview based on faith in God. The worldview was invisible, but we have the physical product to gaze at. The same is true for our story about reality. It is invisible, but its physical products surround us everywhere. The problem is that a worldview cannot create ideas outside its assumptions. The medieval worldview couldn’t deal with the Black Death, because it had no conception of bacteria as the cause of bubonic plague.
No worldview explains everything, so human prioritize the things that need explaining most urgently. God was the most urgent issue in an age of faith. Science and technology are the most urgent things in an age of materialism. When something new becomes more urgent, worldviews change.
That’s where we are now. The four most urgent problems on humanity’s plate are overpopulation, pandemic disease, refugeeism, and climate change. You may hope and pray that science and technology will come to the rescue with climate change and pandemics, but the chances are tenuous without a huge change in how we think. That change, which is also necessary to solve refugeeism and overpopulation, must occur where materialism is helpless, a change in self-awareness.
We have had the luxury of ignoring self-awareness for a long time, and it has given us a chance to deny responsibility for the problems that no self-aware person would tolerate. A self-aware person wouldn’t go to war, stockpile nuclear weapons, harbor racial prejudice, mistreat and abuse women, and foul the environment. The four problems that seem the most urgent, as I’ve just mentioned, are further evidence of ignoring self-awareness.
Yet ironically, every single person possesses self-awareness. The hitch is our willful ability to set it aside in favor of this ongoing story in which life seems okay as long as we get by with food, water, shelter, work, money, and lots of distractions. Meanwhile, reality doesn’t care about our story. Nature is never wrong. It created us and the universe we inhabit. Mysterious as Nature is, something deep in the heart of Nature sustains the human body, for example, in ways that a materialist worldview can never explain. All the accumulated medical knowledge in the world cannot build a functional cell.
Yet if a government agency set out to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to create a functional cell, it would mean nothing in the face of our root problem, the lack of self-awareness that refuses to take responsibility for the human condition. I am not spreading gloom. If we save ourselves, self-awareness will deserve the credit, even though the news stories will focus on science. We already possess the solution to every self-created problem, simply by referring to our own consciousness. I can see no other way forward.
*Founder of The Chopra Foundation, a non-profit entity for research on well-being and humanitarianism, and Chopra Global, a whole health company at the intersection of science and spirituality, is a world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation. Chopra is a Clinical Professor of Family Medicine and Public Health at the University of California, San Diego and serves as a senior scientist with Gallup Organization. He is the author of over 90 books translated into over forty-three languages, including numerous New York Times bestsellers