Science Facing the Spiritual Traditions

Pier Luigi Luisi, Professore emeritus ETHZ (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich)


I will focus on the question “what is life?”, emphasizing both the autopoiesis theory, as well as the systems view . One first important foundation of established, classic science, is that all what we have in our world, including all forms of life and their expression, are due to natural causes, namely without intervention or help from transcendent forces. This does not mean that all scientists are atheist, but that for them, even if believers, the dominion of science is well separated from the dominion of personal faith.

The main pillar of traditional science is the following: that all what we have in the world is due to particles and their mutual interactions. Two additional foundations in large part eliminates the strong reductionist and mechanistic flavour of this first one. One is systems thinking. Accordingly, the properties and the understanding of any complex system formed by many components (an organism, a family, a social body, a machine…), are given by the totality of the interactions of the components, and not by the properties of the single isolated components. You cannot study and understand life by studying one single isolated component of life, be DNA or a lipid, at a time-or the separate wing of a butterfly. The additional general principle is the notion of emergent properties, according to which in a complex system formed by many parts, novel “emergent” properties arise due to the mutual interactions, novel in the sense that they are not present in the single parts. Thus, it is generally assumed that also qualitative properties, like the feelings or even the thinking in human and other animals, arise from a material basis –for example the brain tissues, or the complex structure of the entire organism. Even consciousness is generally seen as an emergent property of the brain.

Obviously, all this creates a large body of discussion and possible controversy with the religious view, both in the case of monotheistic religions and in the3 case of Hinduism and Buddhism. That reality is based and conditioned by the mutual interaction of the parts is present of course in the old Vedic thinking, and is the very base of Buddhism. But already the notion of emergence-the arising from matter of completely new qualities, like life, mind, the consciousness, creates some problem with the classic science view.

Then I will analyse more in detail the question “what life is” based on Maturana and Varela’ work, chosen also because Francisco Varela’ life has been strongly influenced by the Dalai lama and the Buddhist-Tibetan Mind and Life institute. In particular, then. I will be emphasizing their notion of cognition (all living organism are cognitive, including bacteria); and the concept that the living organism is a system which is thermodynamically open, but operationally closed. Since each organism “sees” the world from within its own closed organization, there are as many worlds as observers. This puts a question mark on the notion of objectivity and highlights the notion of a multiverse of existing realities. All this is still a highly debated subject in modern science, as it also links to the problematic relation between the observer and the object of study.