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The New Copernican Shift: How Science Is Revolutionizing Spirituality

by B. T. Newberg, as originally appearing in: Humanistic Paganism

We are experiencing a new Copernican shift that is revolutionizing our spirituality.  It is undermining our sense of humanity as something privileged in the universe, the sole possessor of “soul”, standing above the beasts and apart from the inert dust of soil.  It is questioning our free will, our magical power to move ourselves amidst the billiard-ball jumble that moves everything else in the universe.  Our spirituality will have to change to embrace this new vision of humanity.

The old Copernican shift

The heliocentric model of Copernicus showed us that the earth is not the center of the universe, that we are not special but a humble, integrated part of a larger whole called the solar system.

Suddenly, the earth had the same status as any of the other planets, and behaved just like them.  This at once undermined both the specialness of the earth as the focal point of the universe, and the specialness of the other planets as exalted, transcendent entities.  Both were of the same stuff, and that required a tumultuous shift in spiritual understanding.

The new shift

In just the same way, we are now beginning to understand that the human mind, the psyche, the “soul” even, is not special either.  Neuroscience, cognitive psychology, evolutionary biology, organic chemistry, and a host of other lines of research are converging on an inevitable conclusion: we operate according to the same physical laws as everything else in the universe.

Consciousness, thought, emotion, meaning, value – all these are emergent properties of a particular arrangement of organic chemistry.

Just as extreme hardness emerges when carbon atoms assemble in a certain manner to form a diamond, so consciousness emerges when carbon assembles in another manner to form life.

Suddenly our dreams, hopes, and aspirations – all that we hold dear – appear as if at the mercy of chance meetings of molecules.  There is a beauty but also a horror to this.

Are we really nothing more than a random coagulation of stuff?  Aren’t we special?

We are no more the center of consciousness than the center of the solar system. All the universe partakes of the same essential process of “knowing.”

The special species?

Just as the earth is not the specially-privileged center of the universe, we are not the specially-privileged center of consciousness.

We may be unique on this planet – so far as we can tell, no other species has achieved our level of intelligence or aptitude for complex manipulation of symbols.  But we are not special in how this came about.  It’s all due to the same fundamental process.

Meaning is not unique to us.  Even amoebae detect the effluents of decaying bacteria, and know this means food is near.  On an even simpler level, atoms are constantly seeking to acquire a complete set of electrons, and they bond with nearby atoms to acquire them.

There is no conscious intention to do so, but somehow the atom “knows” to do it.  This “knowing” is no more than physical laws in operation, yet it is different from human knowing only in the level of complexity and nuance of response.

An atom knows to acquire electrons, an amoeba knows to move in the direction of food, and we know to breathe the precious air that gives us life.  We know to circulate blood in our veins, we know to fire the neurons that bring up a certain memory, we know to respond to the caress of a lover with increased heartbeat and burning desire, and we know to pose one possible course of action against another and call up all the relevant social factors in order to decide what to do.  We know to recognize patterns in previous experiences, and extrapolate what patterns are likely to continue in what we call the future.  We know, finally, that this whole process of acquiring knowledge, ever incomplete, implies that there is and probably always will be more that we don’t know.

In this litany of knowing, there is a clear progression from the simple to the complex, but it is all the same fundamental process.  Consciousness creeps in gradually or all of a sudden, but it does not disrupt the essential process of knowing.

Our knowing, then, our thoughts, our dreams, our very experience of being, is not special.  It is the knowing of animals, the knowing of plants, the knowing of amoebae, the knowing of carbon atoms, the knowing of all things that partake in this marvelous phenomenon called the universe.

We are not the center of the universe.  We are not the center of consciousness.  We are not the center of knowing.

Like people in the days of Copernicus, we may perceive this insight as a threat.  We may react to it with fear and denial.  But if, instead, we can learn to embrace it, we may discover something startling and new.

Toward a new vision

Our spirituality must evolve itself to incorporate this new insight.  We are essentially one with our universe.  Every entity in the universe is unique and different – there’s no denying that – but at the same time, on a fundamental level, they are the same.

I and my world are a single, seamless whole.  Person and place are identical.  The world “out there”, and the experience “in here”, are one.

Atoms are our brothers and sisters.  All things in the universe behave exactly as we do, and we behave like them.  We are at one with all things.  We enjoy communion with each and every thing.

How could there be any deeper mystery than this?


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  1. I'm having a hard time trying to decide if consciousness is something that emerges (emergentist or scientific materialists position) due to the complicated construction of our brain, or if consciousness is inherent to the very matter of which we are made (panpsychism = consciousness or psyche or mind in all). Does anyone have any thoughts on this??

  2. Hi John,

    It's not surprising you're having a hard time trying to decide the cause of consciousness. I'd be more concerned if you had decided on it, as it's considered a great mystery. Perhaps consciousness is an emergent property, but an emergent property in all kinds of complex systems; not just brains. That would make both emergence and panpsychism right in some ways. In any case, I'm not sure we need to 'decide' anything until we know it. Fortunately, not knowing shouldn't impede our spiritual practice, since spirituality isn't about 'knowing stuff' 🙂

  3. I kind of cringed when I read “Consciousness, thought, emotion, meaning, value – all these are emergent properties of a particular arrangement of organic chemistry.”

    Even if I don’t actually know what consciousness “Is” I’m willing to make an assertion; Consciousness precedes physical nature. Consciousness does not “emerge” from some set of arrangements dictated by evolutionary psychology. Whatever consciousness is I’m quite certain it isn’t dependent on operatives like desire for power, or recognition, or survival.

    I’m making assertions here and I understand that. In philosophical discourse it’s always that way with metaphysics. What I never understand is the toying with concepts like non-duality and no-self without a experiential foundation. To enter into these things is not an armchair or TED Talk enterprise. The truth is that an encounter with these truths is devastating.

    The biggest danger we face with our search for meaning and understanding is to make materialist assumptions about matters of consciousness. The conceit of science is that all of this will be quantified and explained in terms of natural processes eventually. But what if consciousness recedes upon approach by these crude tools? What if, like our quantum physics, we will only find ways to measure and calculate probabilities without ever having to say anything about some underlying reality?

    • Thanks for your comments and for reading David 🙂

      We understand that many people envision the nature of consciousness as you have asserted (an underlying reality that does not emerge as a property of physical processes). However, as naturalists we cannot claim to know that or make the same assertion. We simply have not collected evidence sufficient to have such confidence. The unknowns and complexity of the matter call for humility from us all.

      At the same time, I would agree that your assertion is a possibility. Our ignorance makes that necessarily so. However, what we can see and know are the physical correlates to consciousness and we can try to make our way the best we can in the meantime.

      Many of us also agree very much with the necessity of the first-person experiential in exploring consciousness. Our best instrument for exploring consciousness is our own mind, experience, and practice. This is why it is important for researchers to engage in an array of contemplative and meditative practices themselves (which you rightfully point out is sorely lacking at times). One good example of such a researcher is on our Advisory Board: Susan Blackmore. But the place we get into trouble sometimes, is in our interpretation of those experiences and their objective causes. There is a place and a manner in which information from experience and information from third-person experiment each have their own role to play.

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