Shadows on the Wall: How Would the Course Have Us Regard Modern Physics?

by Greg Mackie

The idea that modern physics proves or at least strongly supports a spiritual worldview is one of the pillars of alternative spirituality. Countless books on this theme have been written, from Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics to Gary Zukav's The Dancing Wu Li Masters to Deepak Chopra's Quantum Healing. A movie exploring the possible connections between physics and spirituality – What the @$%#* Do We Know? or What the Bleep for short – was one of last year's surprise hits. In the minds of many, including Course students, modern physics and mystical spirituality are two peas in a pod, two windows into the same reality. More than one Course student has said to me that modern physics scientifically proves the thought system of A Course in Miracles.

But how would the Course itself have us regard modern physics? While it never discusses physics, does it offer any clues about what stance to take? I think it does. In this article, I will examine some of those clues and offer my answer to the subtitle question. In short, my answer is this: While exploring modern physics is fine if we find it helpful, we should be careful not to mix it into the Course's thought system, because it doesn't lead to the complete reversal of thought the Course is aiming at. The following points sum up my reasons for this answer.

Physics is never mentioned in the Course

The two great theoretical underpinnings of modern physics – relativity and quantum theory – have been around since the early twentieth century, so the Course's author certainly could have referred to them when it was scribed in the 1960s and 70s. Yet he never mentions physics, not once – in fact, he never mentions any physical science. If physics proves the Course's thought system, why doesn't the Course's author use that proof? The complete absence of physics in the Course shows that he doesn't consider it relevant to the Course's thought system – I think for the very reasons I'm presenting in this article.

This refusal to appeal to physical science for evidence or proof is truly remarkable. Physical science has become the ultimate arbiter of truth in our age. For that reason, any idea or movement that wants to be taken seriously today tries to find a way to ally itself with physical science. Religion and spirituality are no exception, as Tom Huston notes in a review of What the Bleep in the magazine What Is Enlightenment?: "Having our spiritual beliefs backed by science lends them some degree of legitimacy, however tenuous the connection."1 But the author of the Course isn't playing this game at all. He displays a shocking independence from the current zeitgeist.

What's also striking is the one science he does include in the Course: not any physical science, but the science of psychology. Sciences that describe how the physical world works are irrelevant, but the science that describes how the mind works is extremely relevant. The mind is what really matters, since in the Course salvation comes from changing the mind.

Physics can only describe the illusory physical world; it cannot reveal the reality beyond

Like all physical sciences, modern physics is necessarily limited to the domain it was designed to describe: the physical world. It cannot go beyond that domain. If, as the Course claims, the physical world is an illusion rooted in the error of separation, then physical science is the study of illusion or error, which will never reveal the reality the Course is trying to show us. The following Course passage actually refers to the structure of "individual consciousness," but I've inserted "the realm explored by physics" because I believe the passage can just as easily be applied to that realm:

The structure of [the realm explored by physics] is essentially irrelevant because it is a concept representing the "original error" or the "original sin." To study the error itself does not lead to correction, if you are indeed to succeed in overlooking the error. And it is just this process of overlooking at which the course aims. (C-In.1:4-6)

The idea that science cannot overlook illusion or reveal reality finds support from an unexpected source: the founders of modern physics themselves. The great scientists of the twentieth century who pioneered relativity and quantum theory – Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, Max Planck, Sir James Jeans, and Sir Arthur Eddington, among others – were in surprising accord on this point. They were virtually unanimous in claiming that their theories did not offer any proof or support for spirituality, and that what physics describes is only, in Eddington's words, "a shadow world of symbols."2 They didn't necessarily believe that the world is an illusion in the sense the Course teaches, but they did believe that physics by its very nature is incapable of coming into direct contact with reality, whatever that might be. Sir James Jeans expressed the prevailing view this way:

Many would hold that, from the broad philosophical standpoint, the outstanding achievement of twentieth-century physics is not the theory of relativity with its welding together of space and time, or the theory of quanta with its present apparent negation of the laws of causation, or the dissection of the atom with the resultant discovery that things are not what they seem; it is the general recognition that we are not yet in contact with ultimate reality. We are still imprisoned in our cave, with our backs to the light, and can only watch the shadows on the wall.3

Ironically, it was for this very reason that virtually all of these theorists ended up becoming spiritual mystics. They became mystics not because physics revealed ultimate reality to them, but because it didn't. They needed something beyond physics to leave the shadows of the cave behind and enter into the light of reality.

Physics is neutral in itself; it cannot enable us to see a new meaning in things

Precisely because physics can only describe the play of forms in the physical world, it cannot say anything about the meaning of what we see. "Form is not enough for meaning" (T-14.X.9:3), and meaning is what the Course is all about. Perhaps the most important categories of meaning from the Course's standpoint are those of "sin" and "holiness": it wants to replace our perception of sin in the world with a new vision of the holy Christ in everything we see.

Physical forms are neutral and cannot reveal this new vision; therefore, physics is neutral and cannot reveal this new vision. To illustrate the point, I'll slightly alter a Course passage once again. The following passage actually refers to the body, but I'll replace all the references to "body" with a term from modern physics, the "quantum field":

To see a sinless [quantum field] is impossible, for holiness is positive and the [quantum field] is merely neutral. It is not sinful, but neither is it sinless. As nothing, which it is, the [quantum field] cannot meaningfully be invested with attributes of Christ or of the ego. Either must be an error, for both would place the attributes where they cannot be. And both must be undone for purposes of truth. (T-20.VII.4:4-8)

In short, the quantum field and everything else described by physics is nothing and therefore inherently meaningless. Because this is so, physics cannot bring about the shift in perception from sin to holiness that is the goal of the Course.

Physics, when misused, can lead to ego empowerment instead of egoless extension to others

The very neutrality of physics means that it can be used for either the ego's or the Holy Spirit's purposes. It can produce an atomic bomb that destroys lives or an MRI scanner that saves them. But while physics can go both ways, I think that the way it is often presented in alternative spiritual circles, though sincere and well intentioned, can all too easily lead to empowering the ego.

While there was much that I enjoyed in What the Bleep (the wedding scene was a riot), in my opinion some of the material presented there displays this tendency. A major theme of the film is that the findings of modern science can empower you to "create your own reality" and thus get what you really want. Indeed, the most popular material in the film has turned out to be that of Dr. Joe Dispenza, who says, "I consciously create my day the way I want it to happen" by "infecting the quantum field." The channeled entity Ramtha puts the icing on the cake by proclaiming, "You are God."4

Now, I'm sure that if it is really possible to infect the quantum field, this ability could be used by the Holy Spirit (just as He can use things like psychic abilities—see M-25). But it is not difficult to see how the idea that you are God and you create your own reality can lead to ego empowerment. An emphasis on gratifying your own desires inevitably conflicts with the ego-transcending goal of the Course and mystical paths in general. Tom Huston puts it this way:

Mystical practice is traditionally aimed toward the mind-shattering revelation that there is actually only one reality and one self, and this revelation is said to liberate the individual from his or her attachment to personal desires. So if we're pursuing the manifestation of our desires by consciously manipulating the quantum field, and thereby attempting to re-create reality itself in our own image, how spiritual can that be, really?5

Good question. How can manipulating the quantum field to manifest our personal desires liberate us from our attachment to personal desires?

Oddly enough, though the new physics is often described as a "new paradigm" that will transform our minds if we really get it, this use of physics appears to be just one more version of the old ego paradigm. That paradigm says, "I am an autonomous self in an external world, and the way to happiness is through arranging the external world into a configuration that I prefer." This use of physics leaves that paradigm entirely intact; all it does is promise great new magical powers that will enable me to arrange the external world much more effectively. To illustrate this, here's one more passage with a few word switches. The passage actually refers to a patient's attempt to empower himself through psychotherapy, but it is just as applicable to the quest for empowerment through physics:

The [manipulator of the quantum field] hopes to learn how to get the changes he wants without changing his self-concept to any significant extent. He hopes, in fact, to stabilize it sufficiently to include within it the magical powers he seeks in [physics]. He wants to make the vulnerable invulnerable and the finite limitless. The self he sees is his god, and he seeks only to serve it better. (P-2.In.3:3-6)

The Course offers a refreshing alternative to all this. You yourself are not God; rather, you are a beloved extension of a loving Father Who is God. You don't create your own reality; rather, you are as God created you, and your reality can never change no matter what you do. Happiness does not come from arranging externals into a configuration you prefer; rather, happiness comes from healing your perception that you are an autonomous self that needs to arrange externals.

Finally, I think one more thing that is vital to the Course gets lost in the shuffle when we focus on getting what we want through physics: the importance of selfless, loving extension to our brothers. This extension, according to the Course, is the most ego-transcending act of all, but we're not likely to do much of it if we're spending our time "attempting to re-create reality itself in our own image." Where is the love in that? I can't imagine Mother Teresa trying to create the day she wants by infecting the quantum field. In sum, however well meaning we may be, getting caught up in the heady excitement of "creating our own reality" will tend to turn us in the direction of ego empowerment instead of egoless extension to others.

Physics does not lead to a complete reversal of thought

All of the previous points converge on this one, which is a paraphrase of a line in Section 24 of the Manual, "Is Reincarnation So?" (The paragraph and sentence references that follow are all from Section 24.) This section is especially pertinent to our topic because spiritual seekers' current fascination with modern physics is much like the fascination with reincarnation. Reincarnation, like physics, is a belief many people use to support or prove a spiritual worldview. What, then, is this section's counsel regarding reincarnation, and how can we apply that counsel to physics?

One thing this section makes clear is that it is perfectly fine to believe in and discuss reincarnation if you find it helpful. It says that the Holy Spirit will guide us in how to use any concept or belief in a way that leads to spiritual progress (see especially 4:6-5:6). I think this counsel certainly applies to physics. There is nothing inherently wrong with talking about physics and its possible relationship to Course ideas—I'm doing exactly that in this article. And I do think there are ways it can be potentially helpful. I personally am heartened by the contention of the founders of modern physics that it cannot describe ultimate reality; in my mind, this leaves a lot of room for the Course's description of ultimate reality.

However, the section's central teaching is that even though belief in reincarnation may be helpful to some, it is not part of the Course. "The idea cannot…be regarded as essential to the curriculum" (2:6), and therefore the teacher of God should not treat it as if it were an essential part of the curriculum (3:1-2). Along the way to this conclusion, the section makes points about reincarnation that are very similar to the ones I've made about physics:

  • The entire section is an explanation of why reincarnation is not mentioned elsewhere in the Course.
  • It suggests that reincarnation can only describe what happens in the illusory physical world (1:1-3).
  • It suggests that reincarnation is neutral in itself and ultimately meaningless (1:2; 2:5-6; 4:2).
  • It points out that reincarnation can easily be misused in ways that support the ego (1:8-11; 2:7; 5:5).

All of this culminates in the section's counsel about what stance the teacher of God (in particular, a teacher of God who is teaching the Course) should take toward reincarnation and issues like it:

It cannot be too strongly emphasized that this course aims at a complete reversal of thought. When this is finally accomplished, issues such as the validity of reincarnation become meaningless. Until then, they are likely to be merely controversial. The teacher of God is, therefore, wise to step away from all such questions, for he has much to teach and learn apart from them. He should both learn and teach that theoretical issues but waste time, draining it way from its appointed purpose. (4:1-5)

Applying this passage to physics, one of those "issues such as the validity of reincarnation," this is the counsel I hear: Physics deals with meaningless "theoretical issues" about the nature and structure of the illusion. Because of this, mixing physics into the Course's curriculum will likely distract our minds and embroil them in time-wasting controversies about questions that don't lead to a complete reversal of thought. Therefore, instead of placing too much stock in physics, we should step aside from it and focus our minds on what really does lead to a complete reversal of thought: the real "new paradigm," the path of salvation laid out by the Course, the path that leads us out of illusion and into reality.


How, then, would the Course have us regard modern physics? Everything we've covered here leads me to the answer I presented at the beginning: While exploring modern physics is fine if we find it helpful, we should be careful not to mix it into the Course's thought system, because it doesn't lead to the complete reversal of thought the Course is aiming at. Let's not delay ourselves by gazing at the shadows on the wall. Let's resist the temptation to join those who, in Ken Wilber's words, "feel they need to rest their souls on the findings of physics."6 Let's rest our souls on a firmer foundation: the truly mind-changing and ego-transcending spiritual path of A Course in Miracles.

1.Tom Huston, "Taking the Quantum Leap…Too Far?" in What Is Enlightenment? (Issue 27, October-December 2004). Also available on the What is Enlightenment? website at

2. Quoted in Ken Wilber, ed., Quantum Questions: Mystical Writings of the World's Greatest Physicists (Boston: Shambhala, 1984, 2001), p. 6.

3. Quantum Questions, p. 8.

4. The quotations from Dr. Joe Dispenza are from a transcript of his movie interview on the What the @$%#* Do We Know? website at The Ramtha quotation is from my own memory of the movie.

5. "Taking the Quantum Leap…Too Far?"

6. Quantum Questions, p. x.