Is there room for humor in a panel discussion about whether human consciousness is just neural fireworks or part of a transcendent and evolving universe?

Turns out there is, at least when that panel includes a group of scholars serious about their work but willing to consider differing ideas about the nature of the universe and ways of thinking about humanity’s place in it. The audience that filled Folino Theater on Thursday night to attend “The Nature of Reality,”a panel that included spiritual writer Dr. Deepak Chopra and Michael Shermer, Ph.D., founder of Skeptic magazineburst into laughter several times during the evening.

Shermer, prone to head-shaking when Chopra explains his thinking about a motivated energy or force guiding the universe, said: “Baloney. The key word here is baloney.”

Chopra, responding to Shermer’s criticism of his past-lives theories quipped: “I’ve had this argument with him in previous lifetimes.”

The lion’s share of the discussion, though, focused on whether quantum physics and the scientific method’s fundamental ways of studying observable conditions can be applied to questions about unseen or greater forces consciously influencing the universe. That scientific method must be foremost, even if interesting theories are trumped by measurable results, forcing researchers back to the proverbial drawing board, said  William Wright, Ph.D., associate professor, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Schmid College.

“What can I do to test my hypothesis? Making a test of a hypothesis is in a way a more noble enterprise than asking the hypothesis itself,” Dr. Wright said.

Science itself may need to expand to tackle such complex questions, said Menas Kafatos, Ph.D., dean of Schmid College and Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor of Computational Physics. Dean Kafatos suggested that a far deeper study of mathematics as the language of nature might be the next branch of science the world needs.

“We need to think of a science that allows us as observers to be an integral part of what we’re trying to study,” he said. “I believe that ultimately we need to go deeper into the mathematical structure and the language of nature, which is mathematical.”

The Nature of Reality event was organized by the Schmid College of Science in partnership with the Dodge College of Film & Media Arts and the Wilkinson College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Also on the panel were Carmichael Peters, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Religious Studies, Wilkinson College; Stuart Hameroff, M.D., emeritus professor of anesthesiology and psychology at the University of Arizona and well-known expert on consciousness; Leonard Mlodinow, Ph.D., Caltech physicist and co-author with Stephen Hawking of The Grand Design;  Henry Stapp, Ph.D., physicist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and expert on the nature of consciousness as seen through quantum mechanics; and Jim Walsh, founder and chairman of the board of Human Energy System Alliance.

Chapman Chancellor Daniele Struppa moderated.