Now that I am a bit more familiar with just what was going on in the 13th century, I can hazard a comparison to today. The comparison will allude to a much broader theme, but use Thomas Aquinas and Deepak Chopra by way of example.
Thomas Aquinas was a Catholic monk, in the Dominican order. The Franciscan monks were more into the whole “born to suffer” thing while Dominicans saw creation as something ongoing. Deepak Chopra is a doctor of medicine and holds titles such as “senior scientist”. He doesn’t practice medicine but he is considered a leader in the field of mind-body medicine. Both of these men have experienced controversy in their lifetime. Both of them were born into a time of change, when new ideas about how the world is ordered were causing rapid change. Aquinas had to fit his ideas into a strict system that could banish or condemn someone who disagreed with it. Chopra lives in a much freer time. Aquinas had to learn the strict doctrine of Christianity and a few writings attributed to Aristotle and Plato. Chopra has many traditions to draw from and more science than one person can possibly know.
In the time of Aquinas, Catholics were in charge. They were the school, the hospital and they were tied to the ruling class. The rediscovery of ancient Greek texts and the early stirrings of science were just starting to put a crack in that power structure. Power is much more diversified today. Although we still have a ruling class, those rulers are expected to make their case with some amount of reason. Aquinas was attempting to reconcile reason with faith and find a way to his God using an exploratory method. Today, most scientists don’t examine the question of God at all. A reputable scientist will say that relying on a supernatural cause is not science. There still are some who are attempting to reconcile science and religion, some in more traditional terms and some like Chopra who use modern ideas of consciousness and quantum mechanics.
Aquinas could not see what the future would hold. The whole world had not been mapped and empires unabashedly held the goal of world domination. Franciscan monks, as many before them, felt that their religion would “win” at some point, both over the idea of “philosophy” and over the real world of Kings and Kingdoms. For them, having the soul tied to the individual and having it be something that would survive to eternity was critical to their vision of heaven of hell. Heaven and hell were critical to how they could win converts. Any rationalizing of these concepts, as Aquinas was dabbling with, threatened that.
Chopra lives in a pluralistic world. Europeans kept going west until they met themselves in the East. The culture of capitalism is “winning”, although not quite how it was envisioned. People are at least studying other religions and sometimes converting. Penalties for apostasy are frowned upon in most of the world and sanctioned most of the time. Chopra only has to sell his ideas to the people, not make them fit with the rulers. He does not have to conform to a traditional vision. He can make his vision broad enough to attract a large number of followers.
Aquinas believed there was a God, but that we don’t fully know him. This was the theology of his time. He said we could find God through reason. He didn’t know for sure, but he was reading about reason and the beginnings of science and trying to bring the two together. This was his great contribution. For a short time he was banned for saying it. It is not clear what he said that offended the church. It may have simply been that they didn’t understand him well enough and needed some time to read it over before deciding if what he said was acceptable. Part of the problem was that he did not come to a conclusion. By suggesting the route of reason, he opened the possibility reason might find that God doesn’t exist. He may have been sure of finding God eventually, but the risk of not finding Him no doubt troubled the Pope. The idea that God could be reached through reason has an inherent risk. If Aquinas was allowed to attempt it, and failed, then they would have had a reasonable argument against God that came from one of their own.
It is sometimes hard to say exactly what Chopra believes. He is more willing to say that we don’t know everything, and in fact capitalizes on that fact. He definitely starts with the premise that consciousness existed before matter, at least the matter that we know about. Instead of taking an existing tradition or a synthesis of all of them and applying science to them to determine their truth, Chopra works backwards. He looks at what science is discovering now, then back at what traditions said and claims the traditions knew it all along.
Chopra says physics is now discovering what mystics have known for centuries. Mysticism is about accepting things as they are. When you do that, he says, your mind is opened to greater knowledge, knowledge comes to you. He then claims to have used this method to gain greater knowledge and writes books telling what he has figured out. However since he acquired it mystically, no one has any way of confirming it. To me, this makes it worthless.
In fact, I think Chopra misses the mark on mysticism. Mysticism is a realization that there is one universe and it is what it is. We can’t affect it or change it. In that sense, science and some traditions agree. Chopra thinks we can affect the universe with our thoughts. Chopra’s idea about quantum physics is that we can manipulate our chemistry by applying our consciousness to it. Exactly how he thinks this is done is hard to really say. For him, consciousness comes first. Things can’t exist if some consciousness is not experiencing it.
In the heat of a debate he once said that even the moon is only there because we are observing it. He later recanted, but has not changed his premise. This is a bastardization of the observer affect in quantum physics. The idea that we can manipulate matter with thought via quantum physics was seriously considered in the 1970’s but there is a dissolution affect of quantum reactions as they pass up through the synapses. It was science for a few years, then it was disproven. This is how science works, when a theory has no evidence, nothing to build on, it is discarded. Unfortunately, stuff like this gets picked up by people like Chopra and propagated ad nauseam.
It is somewhat unclear if Aquinas was supporting the Catholic church or trying to change it. He wrote against the more pantheistic arguments of Averroes but made attempts to use the reasoning skills of Aristotle to discover more about God. He said the soul is something that exists outside of the individual but integrates with us during our life then continues on as part of a larger whole afterwards. He said that God is always creating. God causes events, but those events can cause other events. This means we can act on and affect the world too. He died unsure of how well his ideas were accepted. 50 years later, he was canonized as a saint.
Both were wrong about science. Aquinas can be excused because modern science had not yet developed. His survival was tied to the Christian church and alternatives were not readily available. His study of Aristotle was a great contribution to mankind. His works questioned long held traditions that were holding back progress of Europe. This forced others to consider those questions too. He no doubt hoped people would continue his work, but made no claims to future fame. Chopra could simply google some of his works and could probably afford to test many of them empirically. Or he could just listen to his critics or debate opponents. He depends on people believing that his ideas will be shown to be true in the future, a classic sign of a crackpot. He questions the very system of progress, muddles it and confuses it. This forces others to revisit questions that have already been answered.
In any era, people feel that there is more to life than our short years in our bodies. The mind senses that it is not limited to its cranial home with imaginations far beyond its borders and feelings of other creatures’ pains and joys. There is a fear of anyone or anything that would claim limits on the mind or posit that those feelings are illusions. Aquinas was trying to understand those feelings, Chopra just seems to be capitalizing on them.
Aquinas thought he knew God was the answer and that natural or supernatural means were paths to the same truth. He had some freedom to explore but had narrow boundaries. Chopra can pick and choose easily from either mysticism or science and twists definitions to fit his desires. Aquinas wanted everyone to be at ease with God and used whatever means he had at his disposal. Chopra knows the spiritual need is there and wants to bend science so it is acceptable to those who are uncomfortable with it and so it seems to support his theories. Rather than try to make a religion fit science as Aquinas had to do, Chopra can claim that science is now pointing to what he says religion is. There is no inquisition to correct his errors on either side of the equation.
Aquinas was never ex-communicated, you could say he always did right by his religion. He prayed and studied the Bible and always believed. Chopra, when talking about mysticism or science, gets it wrong. Chopra says we can heal ourselves by meditating and reciting ancient sayings. He says there is a “Law of Attraction” that can be learned and will help you achieve harmony with the universe and maybe make you will live longer. He is very careful to use words like “maybe”. Mystics, the ones we remember like the Buddha, never made such claims. Mystics just wanted to figure how to get through this life. Trying to sell people on the idea that they would be happier if they followed their teaching would have reduced their credibility. Science too, when it was young had its snake oil salesmen who tried to sell their cures for everything, but hopefully we are growing out of that.