Modern Mystics: Toward a Gnostic Science

  • Joel S. Kahn


In 2008, the New York Times published an op-ed piece by David Brooks, a well-known commentator from the conservative wing of American politics. As the provocative title “The Neural Buddhists” suggests, the article made what was on the face of it the fairly extraordinary claim that the “cognitive revolution” in the biological sciences was leading to a coming together of science and Buddhism, and that the resulting synthesis would serve to transcend the apparently unbreachable divide between religious scripturalism and theism on the one hand and secularism and atheism on the other.


Brain State Quantum World Cognitive Revolution Austrian Physicist Eastern Religion 
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  1. 4.
    “It would be simplistic to suggest that there is a direct causal link between his religious beliefs and his discoveries in theoretical physics, yet the unity and continuity of Vedanta are reflected in the unity and continuity of wave mechanics” (Walter Moore. 1989. Schrödinger: Life and Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 173). In a similar vein, Gimbel has revisited the question of the relationship between Einstein’s physics and his own religious (Jewish) background (Steven Gimbel. 2012. Einstein’s Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 7.
    And, just as in the 1920s, and in the more recent critique of David Brooks, there were also plenty of sceptics. Capra’s book, for example, has been widely criticised both by fellow scientists for its mysticism and by comparative religionists for misinterpreting “Asian religions and cultures on almost every page” (Andrea Grace Diem and James R. Lewis, cited in David Kaiser. 2011. How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival. New York and London: W. W. Norton, 304n). Capra himself backed away from the main argument of the earlier book when he wrote that there could be no synthesis between science and mysticism, that the two approaches were “entirely different,” and that the relationship between them was, to be thought of as at best “complementary” (Fritjof Capra. 1996. The Web of Life: A New Synthesis of Mind and Matter. New York: Doubleday).Google Scholar
  3. 9.
    Less influential were his thoughts on the relationship between thermodynamics and biology, although at least one biologist has suggested that they might become so in the future (see Manfred Eigen. 1995. “What Will Endure of 20th Century Biology?” In Michael P. Murphy and Luke A. J. O’Neill (eds.), What is Life? The Next Fifty Years: Speculations on the Future of Biology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 5–24). Although Watson, Crick, and others were inspired by Schrödinger’s text, there is clearly a difference of opinion among biologists as to the significance of What Is Life?—a debate which, as a nonbiologist, I am not qualified to assess. See various contributors to Michael P. Murphy and Luke A. J. O’Neill, eds. 1995. What Is Life? The Next Fifty Years: Speculations on the Future of Biology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 10.
    For a qualified defense of dualism, see David J. Chalmers. 1996. The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  5. 12.
    For a version of this critique, see Anthony B. Cohen and Nigel Rapport. 1995. “Introduction: Consciousness in Anthropology,” in Anthony P. Cohen (ed.), Questions of Consciousness. Florence, KY: Routledge, 1–18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Joel S. Kahn 2016

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  • Joel S. Kahn

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