A flurry of controversy surrounded the astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson two weeks ago when he took a jab at religion in the name of science. It began Christmas day with a mischievous tweet: “On this day long ago, a child was born who, by age 30, would transform the world. Happy Birthday Isaac Newton b. Dec 25, 1642.” Then deGrasse Tyson felt that he needed to be more pointed in a follow-up tweet: “QUESTION: This year, what do all the world’s Muslims and Jews call December 25th? ANSWER: Thursday.”
Angry responses came his way, and in a follow-up blog entry deGrasse Tyson offered this reflection: “Imagine a world in which we are all enlightened by objective truths rather than offended by them.” Since he also has a history of declaring that philosophy is useless and an obstacle to progress, this champion of materialism, objectivity, and reason underlined a familiar stance.
Ninety percent of educated people would probably agree with this stance without looking much deeper. But it’s a shopworn canard that science is superior to religion. Beneath the surface, every term that deGrasse Tyson invoked is problematic. He is stuck in a mindset where “enlightened” applies only to science. How enlightened are the atom bomb, mustard gas, and biological weapons? His reliance on “objective truths” is a creaky relic of pre-quantum science and ignores the mystery of the observer effect as posited by the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. Scolding his critics for being “offended” by his tweets is hypocritical, since he obviously relished giving offense and did it on purpose.
In reality science and religion—or more broadly speaking, spirituality—have arrived at core issues about the nature of reality. These issues center on the unsolved problem of what is ultimately real and how the human mind works. Most working scientists like deGrasse Tyson remain unaware that their version of naïve realism, which accepts that the five senses give us a true picture of reality, has no actual scientific validation. The three-dimensional world is actually an artifact of the human nervous system, and nobody can explain how this artifact is created. The Jolly Green Giant obviously can’t fit inside the human brain, which in addition has no color inside. So when you visualize a green giant in your mind (or any other product of the five senses), a mysterious process is taking place that can’t be explained as happening in the brain.
Physics has arrived at the point where all processes actually occur in the infinite expanse of a field that has no boundaries in time and space. If the cosmos originated in such a field—and if everyday perception is also taking place there—we find ourselves in a realm of explanation that verges on notions of an infinite creative source labeled as God. But here religion stumbles when it remains anchored to a personal God with human traits sitting above the clouds in Heaven.
Because science cannot explain ultimate reality through the collection of data and a reliance on naïve realism, while religion cannot explain God by resorting to outdated cultural myths, the time has come for the two to join forces. This isn’t because it’s good to be friends but because two models of reality, one entirely objective, the other entirely subjective, are inadequate to the task. There is no such thing as perfect objectivity or completely valid subjectivity. The only way beyond this impasse is to transcend duality, no longer seeing objectivity and subjectivity as opposites but as perspectives streaming from a common source.
The best candidate for such a source is consciousness, and outside the little dust-up that deGrasse Tyson caused, many scientists are venturing into the study of consciousness as it applies to the cosmos, speculating that the source of the universe may be a conscious field that organizes and governs physical phenomena. At the same time, spirituality in its non-religious guise has been exploring quantum physics for several decades, finding parallels with attributes associated with God, such as timelessness and existence beyond the envelope of space-time. It’s fascinating to be a part of this dialogue, which has a good chance of causing the next great revolution in human thought. At the very least, it’s time to stop stoking disagreements over outdated notions that do no good for devout believers or inquisitive scientists.
Deepak Chopra, MD is the author of more than 80 books with twenty-two New York Times bestsellers. He serves as the founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing. His latest book is The Future of God