The Universe Within: An Exploration of the Human Spirit
Author: Anjam Khursheed
Publisher: Oneworld Publications, Oxford, 2005
Review by: Brad Pokorny
"The reduction of human nature to animal nature is not supported by
the findings of any single scientific theory or set of scientific
-- Anjam Khursheed,
The Universe Within
In his new book, The Universe Within
, Anjam Khursheed opens a
penetrating exploration of the inherent harmonies between science and
religion with a deceptively simple question: what is this thing called
"At birth children are unable to differentiate themselves from the
external world, and as they progress through infancy, childhood and
adolescence their consciousness and will seem to grow steadily stronger,"
writes Dr. Khursheed, a physicist at the University of Singapore.
"Consciousness of ourselves dawns upon us. And like the sun gradually
rising in the morning, the light of consciousness and self-knowledge
shines steadily stronger as our lives progress. Then, like the sun setting
in the western skies, consciousness slips away."
Before the Copernican revolution, Dr. Khursheed writes, the mysterious
phenomenon of consciousness was explained by religion. "Pre-modern human
beings viewed themselves and nature in a way that can broadly be terms as
spiritual. Pre-modern human beings linked their inner and outer universes by pointing to the divine
connection between them."
But today the seemingly precise methodologies and astonishing
discoveries of science appear to have left little room for a connection to
the divine. In the gap, he argues, there has arisen a sense of collective
moral confusion, a fragmentation of the human spirit that contributes to
many of humanity's deepest troubles, from the displacement of traditional
cultures by western materialism to the wholesale exploitation of our
"The ecological crisis is now recognized to be a crisis not about our
environment but about ourselves," he notes. "The characteristic feature of
our age is that the singularly rapid expansion of scientific and
technological power is accompanied by an equally momentous fragmentation
of spiritual values."
Yet, argues Dr. Khursheed, it need not be that way. And this is the
main thesis of his book: although it has become widely accepted that
science and religion are inherently antagonistic, the true nature of both
is such as to make them complimentary means of exploring reality.
In the book's first part, entitled "Modern Myths," Dr. Khursheed
develops this thesis by leading the reader on a discussion of how
scientists and philosophers since Copernicus have sought to deal with the
question about self-awareness.
The empiricists, led by David Hume, argued that only what could be
seen, touched or heard could be counted as real, and that self-awareness
was merely the interplay of sense perceptions in a kind of "theatre" of
the mind, Dr. Khursheed writes. Yet Hume's explanation for self-knowledge,
he says, "is defeated by an infinite chain of perceptions: a set of
perceptions observes another set of perceptions, which themselves are
being observed by yet another set... and so on. If there is no mind
anchoring all these perceptions together, the self becomes an illusion."
He uses similar arguments to evince the failure of other modern
"scientific" explanations for human consciousness. Behaviorism, he writes,
sought to explain human nature as a set of responses to external stimuli.
Yet, he writes, "behaviorism suffers from the same problems as Hume's
empirical philosophy in that it cannot provide any plausible explanation
of self-knowledge and can never achieve objectivity about introspection."
Similar problems arise, Dr. Khursheed says, for those who say that the
mind is a sort of living computer and our thoughts are nothing more than
complex algorithms. "Is self-knowledge the awareness of one's own
computational processes as they are occurring?" asks Dr. Khursheed. "If
so, which background algorithms are being executed to produce the
awareness of these foreground computational processes?
"Our self-knowledge is punctuated by desires, intentions and purposes
for which no amount of background symbol-shuffling can seem to account,"
And he says that those who argue that human nature is merely the sum
total of a series of "survival" experiences, compounded by evolution
through the eons, face similar problems: if we are merely animals whose
reactions and thought processes have been programmed by evolution, where is the explanation for self-consciousness,
Dr. Khursheed asks.
Such "scientific" explanations have been widely accepted by modern
society as proofs that human nature has no spiritual side, Dr. Khursheed
believes. Yet such a conclusion is wrong, he writes. Most of the great
scientific discoveries have stemmed not from methodologies based on pure
logic and rationalism but rather on processes of insight and intuition
that are more akin to the mystical experiences that are described in all
of the world's religions, he writes.
"The reduction of human nature to animal nature is not supported by the
findings of any single scientific theory or set of scientific theories,"
In the book's second part, entitled "Personal Knowledge," Dr. Khursheed
writes that scientific discovery is a process of insight and intuition
that is quite similar to the religious experience. "Science relies on
creative qualities of the mind, as opposed to any methodology based upon
empirical observations and logical rules," he writes. He notes, for
example, that insights gained from highly intuitive "thought experiments"
led Albert Einstein to formulate the theory of relativity.
He goes on to suggest that successful scientific investigations also
require a kind of "faith" -- a faith in the principle of causality and in
the unity of the universe -- and that the really great discoveries, which
almost invariably fly in the face of the conventional wisdom, require a
genuine "leap of faith."
Dr. Khursheed cites Newton's formulation of the first law of motion,
which states that a body in motion tends to remain in motion, unless acted
on by outside forces. Since there are always forces acting on the motion
of an object under observation, such as wind resistance, gravitational
forces and so on, Dr. Khursheed writes, it "would have been an impossible
feat for Newton to observe the motion of an object with no forces acting
upon it. His first law of motion is a statement of faith, an abstraction of the mind."
In the book's final part, entitled "The Inner Vision," Dr. Khursheed
brings his thesis full circle, arguing that for humanity to achieve the
necessary sense of collective self-awareness required for our age, the
essential unity of science and religion must become widely recognized and encouraged.
"All noble enterprises, science, religion, art and ethics, rely on the
spiritual core of human nature prevailing over the influence of other
superficial selves. While Descartes' search for indubitable truths in
effect reached the conclusion that the spiritual self is more fundamental
to human character than any other self, it was not new. All the world's
spiritual traditions reach the same conclusion. All religions, for
instance, are based upon a belief in the primacy of the spiritual over the
material in human nature."
On the scientific side of the equation, he writes, the "success of
science itself is one of the clearest demonstrations of the power of the
mind over the material. The power of thought is still the experience upon
which all our knowledge is founded."
In its totality, The Universe Within is a powerful book,
offering a strong polemic against the materialistic orientation that
resonates through much of modern culture. Its arguments are both subtle
and clear; it deserves to be read not only by scientists and theologians
but also by anyone concerned about the social, cultural and political
choices which lie in our collective future.