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Tam Hunt: Getting Seriously Silly in Examining Science and Nonduality

Each of us lives in two worlds. We live in a world of science-driven technology that is increasingly changing how we do everything. And we live in a world where most people believe in a higher power, that things are meant to be, and where synchronicities may be signs of a higher power. More generally, most of us are prone to some type of “magical thinking,” defined as those types of thinking that seem to contradict the materialist worldview.

These two worlds are, of course, hopelessly conflicted because current science tells us that we live in a deterministic universe of random chance with no creator and no active God. And yet we each of us manage to inhabit, with more or less success, both of these conflicted worlds.

Examining these issues, and possible reconciliation, was the general theme of the Science and Nonduality (SAND) conference held in San Jose this year. This year’s official theme was “the entanglement of life.”

Entanglement is the phenomenon observed in modern physics where particles that were once in proximity, and thus became entangled, seem to retain a connection that far exceeds the speed of light. This means that if the spin of one particle is measured, the spin of the other particle will be determined in the same moment and somehow that spin will be communicated faster than the speed of light to the other particle. This is the phenomenon that Einstein famously called “spooky action at a distance.”

This phenomenon has been used to justify all manner of claims about the true nature of the universe, by physicists, spiritualists and others. At the very least, entanglement does indeed confirm that the universe is far more mysterious — and more interesting — than previous generations dared to believe.

I’ve attended in recent years a number of conferences devoted to the scientific study of the nature of consciousness, including the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness annual meeting in July 2013, the biennial Toward a Science of Consciousness meeting in Tucson, Ariz., earlier this year (my third time attending), and, for the first time, the SAND conference this October. SAND is the most intrepid conference in terms of examining spirituality alongside more scientific topics. And as the conference’s very name suggests, it’s all about this dual examination and, implicitly, about how the domains of science and spirituality may be reconciled.

I enjoyed the conference a great deal and had numerous stimulating conversations with friends both old and new. The fun thing about this kind of conference is that the geek flag can fly high without fear of ridicule. Everyone at these conferences is there to deeply discuss issues of deep interest.

I’ll describe a few highlights. Adyashanti, a Buddhist spiritual teacher based in California, joined Almaas, a Sufi-oriented spiritual teacher, for a spirited discussion on the nature of spiritual practice, the role of philosophy in spirituality, and the need for radical honesty. Adyashanti impressed me with his articulateness, openness and willingness to challenge conventional wisdom. I was inspired enough that I bought a couple of his books (Falling Into Grace and The Path of Liberation) and I may attend one of his meditation retreats that he holds around California.

Cassandra Vieten, president of the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) based in Petaluma, gave a great talk on the nature of scientific revolutions and suggested that we are in the middle of a scientific revolution now. She discussed Thomas Kuhn’s notion of revolutionary science and paradigm shifts, which relies on a steady accumulation of anomalies that resist solutions in the prevailing paradigm. Eventually, the prevailing paradigm comes crashing down and is replaced by a new paradigm. And the textbooks are revised to make it look like the whole process was smooth and seamless, when the reality is generally quite different.

Dean Radin, chief scientist at IONS, gave a great talk on his work studying physical phenomena like the double-slit experiment and the impact of mass attention on the output of random number generators, which current physics says can’t happen! He and his colleagues have published numerous papers now showing various effects that conventional physics says can’t happen. I’ve been involved (the link is to an article after the first year’s experiment) in one of these ongoing experiments for a few years, after meeting Cassi Vieten at Burning Man in 2010. We’ve been studying the effect of a large crowd’s attention on the output of RNGs and we’ve now found, in three back-to-back years of experiments, a significant impact from the crowd’s attention on the burning of the Man or the Temple Burn, which takes place the evening after the Dionysian Man Burn. We plan to publish a paper with all three years’ findings in 2015.

I was surprised at the power and conviction of a young man named Bentinho Massaro, who spoke on our innate oneness and how we miss the abundance inherent in our merely being alive. A feeling of lack is an illusion. He was so smooth and articulate I wanted to ask him how such verbal and personal power might lead to an abuse of that power and how to avoid such abuse. I learned in Googling him that he’s only 28 years old so I’ll attribute his apparent certainty on these complex issues to his youth. Most of us learn the benefits of at least some uncertainty as we get older.

My contribution to the debate was a discussion of the nature of free will, consciousness and cause and effect. I see a lot of potential in a version of the “process philosophy” pioneered by Alfred North Whitehead and others as a bridge between science and spirituality. And as a way to reconcile the obvious facts of our personal experience, such as the flow of time and the feeling of free will, with a scientific worldview.

Puppet-ji, a cloth-based life form and spiritual guru who lives in Los Angeles, closed out the conference for me on Saturday night (the conference went through Monday morning but I had to leave Sunday morning). Puppet-ji had a taste for fart jokes and re-directing questions from the audience about spirituality. We all laughed our behinds off and realized that laughter is perhaps the deepest of spiritualities.

Anyway, the conference was tremendously interesting and a lot of fun. I’m looking forward to future iterations.

— Tam Hunt is a lawyer and philosopher based in Santa Barbara.

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