The significance of consciousness studies and quantum physics for researching spirituality



Joan Walton, 2017

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The purpose of this paper is to argue that researchers interested in studying spirituality may benefit from paying attention to the phenomenon of consciousness. Despite consciousness being integral to human experience, it is largely ignored in research into spirituality. Yet there is evidence to suggest that the study of spirituality, and explorations of consciousness, have much to offer each other. My contention is that the subject of consciousness has not received much attention within mainstream social and educational research, due to the prevailing, often unconscious, influence of Newtonian science, which assumes consciousness to be an epiphenomenon of the brain. However, developments in science, particularly in quantum physics, have shown that the world cannot be explained by Newtonian principles of separation and atomism. At the same time, a growing disillusionment with science has resulted in the emergence of a grassroots spirituality which challenges a materialist scientific paradigm. In science and spirituality, there is a growing realization of the interconnectedness of everything, with the quantum principle of ‘entanglement’ suggesting that differentiation between ‘objectivity’ and ‘subjectivity’ is an artificial one. Instead, there is a meaningful relationship between experiences of consciousness in inner and outer worlds, with neither existing independently of the other. I conclude by presenting a case for developing research methods which reflect a secular spiritual world view that creates harmony between science, spirituality and our experience of consciousness.




Boorstin (1985, xv) contends that it is ‘illusions of knowledge’, not mere ignorance, which have always presented the greatest obstacles to scientific discovery. The claim I make in this paper is that the illusion of knowledge which has traditionally dominated academic research is the ontological assumption that matter is the primary constituent of the universe. I argue that this is due to the legacy of classical Newtonian science, which instilled a materialist worldview into Western culture. This worldview perceives subjective experiences of consciousness to have emerged from matter at a late stage of a physical evolutionary process, and hence is not of ontological significance (Wallace 2010).


However, developments in quantum physics and studies of consciousness challenge this scientific paradigm in ways which may be of interest for those researching spirituality from either an academic or an experiential perspective. Although Tacey (2004, 8) states that ‘spirituality is by no means incompatible with religion, but it is existential rather than creedal’, spirituality and religion have often been conflated; and because the world of scientific rationalism has historically not allowed for the existence of ‘God’ or for any transcendent reality, explanations for both religious and spiritual experiences are often claimed to be explainable through observing neuronal activity in the brain (Dawkins 2008; Dennett 2007; Hitchens 2007).


There is, though, a different worldview emerging from quantum physics (Wheeler 1994), and from a revisiting of spiritual traditions (De Quincey 2005): consciousness, not matter, is the primary ‘stuff’ of the universe. That is, there is a universal Consciousness that is the source of our individual experiences; and, as the radio is the receiver rather than the originator of programmes, so the brain is the receiver of a universal Consciousness (Kelly, Crabtree, and Marshall 2015).


One implication of reclaiming the primacy of consciousness is that it affirms the possibility that our spiritual experiences may be manifestations of a reality whose source exists beyond matter. Studying the nature of this reality, which may be as infinite and timeless as the external cosmos, opens up the need for faculties other than our five senses, such as introspection and intuition, to be accepted as valid and meaningful methods of academic research (Wallace 2010).


In this paper, I explore what an investigation into both consciousness and quantum physics has to offer the study of spirituality; and discuss the development of research methods based on an ontology of a secular spirituality (Walach 2015) which would encourage researchers to explore in greater depth the nature of inner worlds, as a complementary and mutually influencing dimension of their exploration of external worlds.


The enduring influence of Newtonian science on social and educational research


The main purpose of this section is to consider, from the perspective of an academic in a University School of Education, the historical influences on the development of research in the Western world, with specific reference to the shifts in significance accorded to religion and spirituality.


For many centuries, following the life of Christ, the Bible was claimed to be the source of truth in the Western world. During this time, the existence of a transcendent reality was accepted in the form of a divine God, creator of all living beings (Armstrong 1999). However, the advent of science, with its methods of enquiry grounded in that which could be observed and measured, presented a major challenge to the faith-based nature of knowledge asserted by religious institutions. The work of Isaac Newton (1643–1727) in mathematics, optics and physics laid the foundations for what were seen to be appropriate methods for scientific inquiry. This was accompanied by an increasing realization that there was no tangible evidence to prove the existence of a transcendent deity; and considerable evidence to support the view that the universe was made of matter, with every object reducible to elementary particles. Newtonian science viewed the universe to be operating as a machine where, however complex the final structure, its workings were always to be understood in terms of the interaction of its material parts.


Further, classical Newtonian science claimed that there were laws built into the creation of the universe which controlled how these parts related to each other. The ‘initial conditions’, which determined these laws, were present as an integral aspect of the original creation of the universe. The aim of science was to discover what these pre-existing laws were, through objective observation by an independent researcher, so that predictions could be made as to what would happen under any particular set of circumstances.


Finally, there was only ‘one real world’, which could be observed and comprehended by human beings through the five senses, and which was, in essence, physically measurable. This led to the conviction that the experience of consciousness was an emergent property of the brain, and hence was ultimately explainable by the same physical laws.


Because of the undoubted achievements of Newtonian science in generating knowledge about the natural world, the assumptions and beliefs on which it was based contributed to the creation of a positivist research paradigm. The researcher could gain knowledge using empirical methods, and interpret information through reason and logic. Emphasis was placed on the objectivity of the researcher, with outcomes not influenced by the presence of the observer.


A major challenge to the positivist paradigm arose in response to the recognition that the subjective experiences of both the researcher, and the individual being studied, could not be directly observed, measured and quantified. An increasing number of people developed a belief that it was not possible to identify a reality that existed independently of human perception; and that which was perceived as ‘reality’ was in fact socially constructed (Burr 2003). Qualitative research methodologies were created, based on a view that no researcher was able to gain absolute truth due to the relativity of all truth positions.


In summary, then, in the Academy, two distinct ontologies – that of objectivism and social constructivism – currently live together in a somewhat uncomfortable cohabitation, with each of these ontologies providing a foundation for a number of epistemologies and methodologies. It has been argued that the two ontological positions are mutually exclusive: one supports the idea of an objective reality, the other denies that it is possible. The methodologies associated with the first assume a world that can be broken down into component parts, measured and analyzed, with results supported by quantifiable and verifiable evidence. Methodologies associated with the second aim to understand the social and cultural factors that influence individual and social behaviour.


However, there is a major factor that allows these two ontologies to remain in an uneasy truce; and that is their shared view on the role of consciousness in the universe. The pre-supposition that consciousness is a property of the brain assumes that when the brain dies, so does consciousness. The implication is that, if there were no living beings on this planet, there would be no consciousness. This assumption is so powerful that it is not seen to be a necessary focus for discussion in academic research books. It is notable that in textbooks in which different ontologies for different research paradigms are identified and discussed (e.g. Bryman 2015; Denzin and Lincoln 2011), the issue of consciousness is not included. In positivist research paradigms, the consciousness of the individual does not influence the nature of that being researched. In interpretivist research paradigms, the subjective nature of consciousness, and the influence of this subjectivity on perceptions of reality, are assumed. Nevertheless, there is no debate about how consciousness is understood and defined. The implication is that knowledge about consciousness is self-evident, and hence no analysis or discussion is necessary.


Social constructivists, then, appear to have implicitly accepted the positivists’ assumption that consciousness belongs to the brain, and has no wider existence. They take for granted that the material world is ontologically primary, and the only question is whether the secondary phenomenon of consciousness is capable of perceiving reality objectively, or whether each person’s consciousness constructs reality in different and unique ways. The influence of Newtonian science has been so powerful that a complete review of its ontological principles has not been seen as necessary.


In the remainder of this paper, I challenge such a limited view of consciousness, and suggest that the Academy, particularly those interested in spirituality, would benefit from exploring new epistemologies and methodologies based on an alternative ontological perspective: consciousness is not merely a secondary property of the brain; it exists prior to the brain and hence is primary, with matter being an emergent property of consciousness; or alternatively it has equal and complementary significance to matter.


I draw on different sources to justify such an assertion: namely findings from quantum physics; and current developments in the study of consciousness. Having demonstrated that there is a strong case to support the idea that consciousness is a more significant and primary constituent of reality, I argue for the value of developing a research paradigm based on a spiritual worldview.


The rise of spirituality


The success of science resulted in a challenge to beliefs about a transcendent God, whose existence was not provable using scientific criteria to produce valid evidence. Tacey (2004, 154) tells the story of the French scientist Laplace, who, when asked by Napoleon about the place of God in the new scientific universe, replied: ‘I have no need of that hypothesis’.


However, despite the hegemony of science, and its materialist assumptions, there has been a growing interest since the 1970s in researching spirituality. Rousseau (2012, 2) reports that academic engagement with spirituality, which was minimal 40 years ago, has now expanded rapidly across a range of disciplines. For example, PsycInfo, a database for peer-reviewed literature in behavioural science and mental health, recorded 48 articles being published from 1970 to 79, but 7985 publications from 2000 to 2009.


Forman (2004) was provided with a substantial grant by the Fetzer Institute to research and describe the growth of the spirituality movement that was taking place at a grassroots level. As a consequence of speaking to several hundred people who related in some way to the term ‘spiritual’, he was able to identify a wide range of explanations for the growth of this phenomenon.

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