Einstein's Enlightenment

Chapter 1: Introduction

Grappling with the big questions is a distinctly human preoccupation. Questions such as ‘where did we came from’ and ‘what is the nature of our true situation’ are daunting; they are so big as to seem unapproachable. No approach to answering them seems plausible. This is a new predicament for us humans. About the only thing constant amongst the plethora of human cultures which have existed is that each and every one has contained a religion of sorts. Each human culture that has ever existed has provided religious answers to the big questions. To many moderns religious answers seem somehow shallow and unconvincing. Our culture is so complex it contains scores of religions each with contradictory, unsupported claims of true answers. In the midst of this uncertainty many have sought shelter in religious fundamentalism where certainty is offered in return for closing one’s mind to any alternatives.

In 1882 the philosopher Fredrick Nietzsche shocked the world by announcing what was already for many a ‘dirty secret’: ‘God is dead’. He meant that modern man’s belief in religious answers had died and feared the collapse of this surety would lead to nihilism and despair. Nietzsche, in this famous pronouncement, issued in the year of Charles Darwin’s death, was paying witness to the repercussions of challenges that science had recently issued to religion’s monopoly on the big questions. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, published in 1859, provided a simple and naturalistic explanation for the question ‘where did we come from’, an answer that clearly contradicted all answers provided by religions. The theory of Evolution is supported by an abundance of evidence that any intelligent person can understand while religion, which can muster no evidence, must rely on the faith of its adherents.

Unfortunately finding answers to the big questions has more than just philosophical implications. We embody levels of complexity revolving around psychology and culture unrivalled by anything else in the known universe. This trajectory of complexity manifested in human culture is clearly threatened. Human evolution has reached a critical juncture and a huge step backwards in the complexity of life on earth is a distinct possible outcome. Only a major change in our trajectory can save the planet from unprecedented disaster and it seems clear that such a change must entail coming to grips with our true situation in this world and responding to this reality.

Our best knowledge indicates that the human species spread beyond Africa for the first time as recently as 60,000 years ago. First we filled central Asia, then 30,000 years ago Europe, then 17,000 years ago the Americas and in the past 1,000 years even the most isolated islands such as Easter Island. During this entire period, as we fill the world, our numbers grow exponentially. As unpopulated lands became scarcer we found ways to increase our density via agriculture and industrialization.  This exponential increase in population over such an extended period is a mark of unprecedented biological success. No other species has managed to thrive in as many distinct eco-zones or habitats. In rough terms what we call culture has been a main ingredient to our success. Religion and the stories and teachings provided by it, probably due to their cohesive nature, are undoubtedly instrumental in our success.

Now that the whole earth is peopled and human numbers continue to sky rocket our success is problematic. Already as a result of our activities the planet has entered a period of ‘mass extinction’; one of those rare periods in the earth’s history when the diversity of life is rapidly being reduced. This mass extinction, unlike any before, is not due to a purely physical cause such as an asteroid collision or massive volcanic eruptions but rather it is due to the unleashing of powers by our species upon the ecological infrastructure of the planet. Now, with the power of science in our arsenal, we are poised to precipitate the mother of all mass extinctions. How we will use our power depends very much on how we see our situation in the world; the answers we find to the big questions.

 Coming to grips with understanding our true situation is formidable especially if we are of independent mind and reluctant to accept easy answers. The hard part is that no one has been here before. There are no infallible guides. We are on this crazy ride; no one knows what is going to happen, no one has been here before. It might be pleasant to turn away from this situation, to believe in some calming fairy tale at least for a while, but it might not be wise.

 Society’s main interest in science has been as an aid to increase our resources and propel our numbers. The mass extinction was unplanned. It is just an unintended consequence. There is a neglected side to science. Science does offer answers to the big questions. Could it be that science contains not only the roots of our predicament but also the means of our salvation?

 Science is the set of rational explanations that best fit the available evidence. It has reduced its preconceptions to two guiding principals:  rationality and the validity of sensory evidence. Today science is vastly more detailed than any other system of knowledge, it is true in a sense unrivalled by any other system and it has given us powers vastly more potent than any other system of knowledge.

 For the past twenty-five years I have relied on science as the best guide to meaning in my life. My good friend, Ry Glover, once observed that although the scientific world view has become much more encompassing and powerful during the last century it has only marginally informed the views of our culture. The majority of people continue to see their existence and their meaning in religious or superstitious terms. Science is steadily amassing the details of how we came to exist and our context in the universe. Why haven’t we adopted this knowledge as our own?

 As a young man I flirted with religious beliefs and spiritualism. While these were tantalizing and answered my needs for finding answers and belonging to a group of believers they were also some serious drawbacks that in the end made commitment impossible. For me, their root failure was their common requirement for faith, the requirement to believe a particular dogma regardless of the evidence. Wherever one turns within the sphere of religions there are multiple sects each with clearly contradictory beliefs requiring that upon joining you must forgo any independent questioning.

 Clearly, at best, some religious beliefs are false. The beliefs of some sects contradict those of others, they cannot all be true. With no evidence to distinguish between them how can one choose? Usually there is little choice. Often one’s religious beliefs are those we were born into. Even when there is choice it must be subjective; what feels best to me. This is a major attraction of religion; it gives us beliefs that make clear our place and duties in a confusing world and allows us to feel at home. People often adopt the beliefs that make them feel best, those that connect them to feelings of awe and spiritual wholeness.

 What about truth? Is it expendable in return for feeling good? Is this not the definition of ‘a fool’s paradise’? Many claim that the religious experience is a reliable indication of truth. They claim the experience of God speaking to them is something other than a psychological peculiarity. There is no evidence for this claim. Charles Manson had ‘religious’ experiences. The truth or falsity of these experiences is not self evident and must be decided by other criteria.

 The possibility of knowing truth is often doubted and we feel we might as well find the most appealing religious belief and accept it. Still this is a shoddy substitute and we can’t help feeling drawn to discovering truth, to feeling it is nobler to strive after truth than to suspend our quest and accept some appealing piece of fiction that provides shelter from the storm.

 There is good news for modern man. Science delivers both a subjective ‘religious’ experience and a rock solid connection to truth. Science provides a superior framework for living and believing. We will explore the basis for this claim from a number of perspectives:

  1. The ‘religious’ experience is fundamental to science. Opponents often criticize science as ‘cold’ and ‘soulless’. This view is only voiced by those who do not know it. Einstein bore witness to the cosmic religious experience at the basis of all science. He declared that the purpose of science is to awaken this enlightened state in those ‘who are receptive to it’[i]. More recently, Richard Dawkins, in his wonderful book Unweaving the Rainbow[ii], makes clear the wonder and awe inherent in Science. Science’s ‘religious’ experience is even better than religion’s because there are deep reasons for believing it to be true and the experience of truth resonates well with us.

 

  1. The great spiritual sages of all cultures agree that there exists a spiritual reality beyond our day to day existence. Einstein identified this reality as the very one which science explores and describes. He claimed that science opens a door to a higher state of spiritual enlightenment than that offered by religion. Science also explains why we are tied to a non-spiritual day to day existence and the elusive nature of the spiritual realm.

 

  1. Our place in the universe and how we came to be here are known to science in great detail. Although we have been produced by natural processes we enjoy the special distinction of being products of advanced evolutionary process acting only on humans.  Science has revealed the details of processes that designed and produced us from the random soup of elementary particles at the beginning of the universe. Discovering the ‘truth’ has been the central strategy of earthly evolution for the past three and one half billion years. Science and Religion are amongst its latest manifestations and are products of this ancient quest for knowledge. Accumulation of knowledge is evolution’s central strategy as only the truth will make you strong and only the strong survive. Evolution has bestowed on us the distinction of embodying more knowledge than any other entity in the known universe.

 

  1. Scientific evidence provides a rock solid connection amongst scientific explanations, evidence, truth and power. The solidity of this connection is due to the fact that sensory or empirical knowledge is based on ancient ways of knowing developed by evolution over billions of years. This extremely accurate and trustworthy way of knowing decides the fate of scientific explanations. Theories that cannot bear the scrutiny of sensory knowledge are discarded, only those supported by sensory knowledge become part of science.

 

  1. Scientific knowledge is vast an rapidly growing. Science is a body of knowledge that is cumulatively progressing towards the ‘truth’. Einstein’s theories do not contradict Newton’s, they expand upon Newton’s. The discovery of DNA, the major biological breakthrough of the 20th century, informs and expands Darwin’s theory of evolution, the major biological breakthrough of the 19th century.  Scientific knowledge is vast compared to religious knowledge. Choose at random anything able to be detected by the senses. (This rules out things such as souls and spirits that may well be fictitious).  Take for instance a blade of grass. One could spend one’s life examining the scientific literature detailing that particular species of grass, the biological mechanisms shared by that species with other green plants, the ecology in which it lives and hundreds of other avenues of knowledge that illuminate every aspect it. It is probable that no system of religious knowledge even identifies that species of grass let alone supplies any verifiable knowledge concerning it.  Every bit of the immense body of scientific knowledge is supported by experimental evidence that anyone is free to independently question and verify.

 

  1. Ethics and morality, often held to be the province of religion, are shown by science to be required features of human culture and fundamental to leading a ‘successful’ life. Scientific models of evolution reveal that ethics and morality are winning strategies in many situations. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ has been shown to prevail over all other strategies in ruthless Darwinian competition.

 

  1. The use we have made of the powers of Science have unanticipated consequences that threaten our survival as a species. Science has allowed us to exponentially increase both our numbers and our per capita resource usage resulting in a strain on natural systems reflected in the current mass extinction of species; the worst natural disaster in over 60 million years. This crisis and our attempts to deal with it will constitute the theme of human history for at least the next hundred years. The great religions promote ideals of unfettered reproduction and resource usage and are singularly unequipped to guide us through this crisis. The scientific community has been leaders in raising the alarm and outlining solutions. In which of these camps we place our trust, concentrate our efforts and look for guidance will determine the outcome of this crisis. To weather this crisis while imposing a minimum of damage to the planet will require spiritual strength of a kind not available through religion. As Einstein proclaimed, Science is our most promising source for this spiritual strength.

 With all these advantages, why has science been so slow to penetrate our world view? Why do we harness it for material prosperity but ignore it as a source of meaning in our lives? I believe there at least two reasons for this:

  1. We think science is difficult to understand. We fear it to be alien and incomprehensible and do not embrace it as a pillar from which we can gain meaning and comfort. Given the vast expanse of scientific knowledge and its depth of detail, it is impossible for anyone to know it all. Fortunately science is in some ways becoming simpler even as it explains more.
  2. We are impatient with our ignorance even though ignorance is an honest and noble state. We are all hugely ignorant. Many subjects are not understood, at least in detail, by anyone.  The truth of the matter is that the areas of our ignorance are immeasurable. What matters is our response to this state. We can adopt some easy pseudo knowledge and convince ourselves that it is real knowledge, that it in fact reduces our ignorance.  But this is the start of a slippery slope. To maintain such a belief system we must either adopt unquestioning faith or construct ever more encompassing details of pseudo knowledge to answer inevitable curiosity. How much more noble to squarely face our ignorance, acknowledge that there are many things beyond our knowledge, and resolve to reduce our ignorance as much as possible by learning real knowledge supported by real evidence.

 Fabric of Reality by David Deutsche[iii] provides a step forward in our ability to see science as a means of comprehending our situation. A central tenet of this work is that the entirety of human knowledge is becoming easier to understand because fundamental scientific theories are becoming fewer even as they encompass a wider range of subject matter. He argues we are on the verge of a single scientific theory that will provide the framework for explaining everything. To this end he discusses four schools of knowledge he sees as central and that will be integrated into the one theory of everything. These four strands are: Evolution, Computation, Epistemology and Quantum Physics. He believes that each of these theories is a window to the ‘theory of everything’.  This work focuses on the window provided by the theory of Evolution as I believe it is the one closest to us and is most applicable in explaining the meaning of human beings.

 Knowledge is at the heart of the theory of evolution. Evolution is the only known source of knowledge in the universe. In other words no known form of knowledge has been produced by any other process. Each human being is created using the knowledge developed and stored by evolutionary processes. All cultural progress represents advancements in knowledge achieved through an evolutionary process. In the following discussion I will enlarge the scope usually included in the subject of evolution to include this broader subject matter of Universal Darwinism.

 This work is an invitation to evaluate Universal Darwinism as a doorway to state of enlightenment most clearly described by Albert Einstein. Einstein; widely acclaimed as ‘the person’ of the 19th century, claims there exists a state of enlightenment composed of the scientific worldview and that the purpose of science is to ‘awaken this feeling and keep it alive in those who are receptive to it.’[iv]

 

For those receptive to it he promises a deep spiritual reward:

The individual feels the futility of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. Individual existence impresses him as a sort of prison and he wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole.[v]


 

[i] Einstein Albert, (November 9, 1930), Science and Religion, New York Times Magazine

[ii] Dawkins R. (1998). Unweaving the Rainbow. Houghton Mifflin

[iii] Deutsch D. (1997). The Fabric of Reality. Penguin Books, London

[iv] Einstein Albert, (November 9, 1930), Science and Religion, New York Times Magazine

[v] Einstein Albert, (November 9, 1930), Science and Religion, New York Times Magazine