Ask the Big Questions
Deepak Chopra and physicist Leonard Mlodinow debate the divide between science and spirituality in their new book, War of the Worldviews. Here they discuss the origin of life, evolution, and other contentious issues.
1. Where did life come from?
Living systems are defined by biological processes like replication and self-organization. If we apply the same standards, then the whole universe is a living process. Stars and galaxies go through the life cycle of birth, growth, death, and replicate themselves.
Life on Earth is presumed to have started with amino acids coalescing into proteins and peptides, which then self-organize into RNA. RNA went on to self-organize into DNA. It, of course, is the key to reproduction inside cells and making babies.
If we see self-organization as a cosmic principle, we can say that life has always existed. The world’s wisdom traditions are right to declare “I am the universe,” because the life in us is a mirror of the life extending infinitely in all directions.
Evolution explains how complex and intelligent life developed from
simple one-celled organisms. However, we don’t yet know quite how the
first molecules of genetic material developed. Scientists are still
working on that, and making progress. I think it is important to
realize that we are not at the end of the road in understanding the
physical universe, but somewhere in the middle, or even near the
beginning (we won’t know exactly where until it is all worked out, if
that ever happens). As a result, we cannot explain everything, and this
is one of the open questions.
2. Does Darwinism fully explain evolution?
Even Darwinians would say no, since there are many evolutionary theories right now competing to fill in the holes of standard Darwinism. It appears, thanks to “soft inheritance,” that you can pass on behaviors and not just genes. Also, there is proof that mutations in the human genome are not random, which opens the door for evolution with a purpose. Boom, pure Darwinism has been exploded.
But spirituality is more concerned with non-physical evolution. Clearly we can choose to grow in such things as love, compassion, justice, art, and relationships. Attempting to squeeze these things into a materialistic box makes no sense. Human beings long ago learned to cooperate, and we escaped the naked competition for food and breeding rights that spelled doom for those who lost out. We entered a phase of conscious evolution, and spirituality is the highest aspect of our seeking.
Yes. Evolution is among the most well-established theories in the scientific community. To doubt it sounds to biologists as absurd as denying relativity does to physicists.
3. What is consciousness?
Consciousness is awareness, something we all possess. The big question is whether the brain created the mind or vice versa. I believe the vice versa. In wisdom traditions, consciousness is defined as that which cannot be imagined but makes imagination possible, that which cannot be conceptualized but which makes thinking possible.
In a word, consciousness is our source. We aren’t machines that learned to think. We are thoughts that created a machine to express themselves. Spirituality is about consciousness far more than it is about God. If you can find your source, you will locate your soul.
I don’t know. Science has not even progressed far enough on this point that it can offer a definition. But I see no reason to believe that the mind is produced by an outside realm. On the contrary, there is a lot of evidence that it is a manifestation of the brain. Moreover, if some non-physical realm did influence the physical realm, it would interfere with the laws of nature, and we should be able to detect that. But so far none of the 50,000 neuroscientists looking at the brain has ever found any exception to the ordinary laws of nature.
4. You say that human beings are still evolving. Doesn’t present-day politics give you doubt?
Politics right now is unfortunately influenced by very primitive instincts. Fear fueled by unsavory religious types. Class hatred. Ethnic prejudice. But evolution is still going on, because to evolve you must face all the choices, good and bad, and then decide which one is best for the future. That’s conscious evolution, as opposed to the physical, Darwinian kind.
Politics is often a mirror of discontent, but if we look elsewhere—at the Arab Spring, at the emergence of India and China, at economic growth in Africa—one senses a tremendous surge of evolution. Despite the convulsions in these places, populations are beginning to come out from under long historical oppression to envision a higher way of life. Any outreach for freedom is a sign to me of conscious evolution.
Politicians often misuse science for political ends and to pursue their own agenda. Science approaches the issues in a non-biased way and draws conclusions based on observations. Politicians like to ignore that or trumpet the opinions of a few fringe people. Take evolution. The truth is that evolution is not in doubt. Neither is global warming. The attacks on global warming are no different than the attacks the cigarettes companies used to use to say that cigarettes don’t cause cancer. Funny how those same politicians don’t doubt science when it comes to their cellphones, their jets, and the medical technology that keeps them healthy, but they question evolution and global warming. After all, aerodynamics and electrodynamics are just theories, too.