The central religious message is ‘This is not about you.’ The great religions that burst on the scene starting around 3,000 BC and that have mutated and evolved since then are unanimous on this point: there is a god or gods that ‘this’ is ‘about’. We are merely God’s creation or His dream or emanate from Him in some other way. This central message makes way for the central spiritual experience of awe and humility in the face of a vast creative power.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the religious experience. To be made suddenly aware of a cosmic truth overwhelms us with feelings of wholeness, awe and well being. Strange as it may seem, Science provides intense religious experiences to those who follow it. Einstein affirmed ‘I assert that the cosmic religious experience is the strongest and the noblest driving force behind scientific research. ‘[i]
Science, because of its deep connection with truth, may well provide a superior religious experience to those exposed to its mysteries. To explore this idea, we will examine three versions of a single religious story offering mystic insight. One of these versions is scientific.
I first encountered this religious story in the form of a Brahmin parable that went something like this: ‘In the beginning there was God and only God and he was a unified entity. He grew bored with being alone and contrived to split himself into an infinite number of separate pieces that would slowly come to know their situation, find their way back together and gradually become aware of their divinity. This process composes the essential history of the universe.’
George Spencer-Brown, the Oxford logician and western mystic, describes another version of this same mystery:
Let us consider, for a moment, the world as described by the physicist. It consists of a number of fundamental particles . . . Now the physicist himself, who describes all this, is, in his own account, himself constructed of it… Thus we cannot escape the fact that the world we know is constructed in order (and thus in such a way as to be able) to see itself… This is indeed amazing. It seems hard to find an acceptable answer to the question of how or why the world conceives a desire, and discovers an ability, to see itself, and appears to suffer the process. That it does so is sometimes called the original mystery.[ii]
This same mystery can be presented in scientific terms: ‘Over billions of years starting from the Big Bang physical processes evolved ever greater complexity eventually producing on earth the complex chemistry necessary for life. With the evolution of living creatures, each generation contained many more variable individuals then could be supported by their environment. Only those individuals with the variations, or adaptations, most suitable to their environment survived and in turn produced offspring. Successful adaptations are knowledge of the environment and how to make a living in it. More powerful adaptations or ways of knowing evolved, including human scientific knowledge. In this manner living things gradually came to know the universe of which they are a part and thus the universe came to know of itself.’
These three presentations of essentially the same mystery can be compared in the impact of the religious experience they induce for those willing to reverently listen. How do they inform us and lead us to a true and awed understanding of the situation in which we find ourselves? First let us consider the Brahmin tale. This parable adequately sums up our situation as stuff of the universe having knowledge of the universe. Confrontation with this awesome fact leaves us with a feeling of marvel and wonder. But it ends there. There are no supporting details. If we insist on details of the processes by which pieces of the universe come to know their wholeness and divinity, we are disappointed. The religious experience is intense but it is not able to sustain any independent probing for details.
Spencer-Brown’s account is presented in more modern terms. In fact the work from which his quote was taken is a breakthrough in mathematical logic. In this work he shows that the mere drawing of a distinction, or the act of splitting apart, provides a sufficient basis from which to derive all mathematical logic. In other words once there is in any sense diversity, all of mathematics is implied. As he notes in this work, mathematics is tool by which we come to know ourselves. His account presents us with the same mystery as the Brahmin parable but has an added richness in the mathematics he explores. Unfortunately if we press awkward question as to the details of the universe coming to know itself, as Spence-Brown says, it is a mystery.
The scientific account presents exactly the same mystery as the other two. If in the Brahmin parable you substitute the words ‘The Universe’ for ‘God’ and ‘It’ for ‘He’, the result will serve as a scientific version of the mystery. We can equally savour with awe the miraculous nature of our situation from this version. We are part of a universe that is coming to know itself. However with science we can probe for more details and be richly rewarded. It provides complete details of adaptations and the knowledge they provide of the world. It provides details of the different forms of self knowledge that the universe has evolved: genetic knowledge, instincts, learned behaviour and higher intellectual knowledge. Truly there are limits to this knowledge. Science is open about its ignorance, but the boundaries separating knowledge from ignorance are not static in science as they are in religion. Science is a rapid expansion of knowledge.
Miracles produce the religious experience by confronting us with phenomena purportedly only explicable by employing supernatural agents. The only problem is that these ‘supernatural’ agents whether they are the Holy Ghost, God or Angels are almost by definition incapable of detection and it is therefore impossible to verify that the said agent was indeed responsible for the miracle. For instance if a prayer to God is said over a patient with ‘incurable’ cancer, and that patient recovers how can it possibly be verified that the healing was done by God when God is not detectable and the means by which he conducts the cure unknown. After all a certain number of people with ‘incurable’ diseases do recover without prayer and many die who receive prayers. How can attribution of healing to God be anything more than wishful thinking taken on faith? Indeed the record is replete with documented cases of faith healers conning gullible patients.
It is also a routine, well documented fact that many people with otherwise ‘incurable’ conditions recover after receiving medication or surgery. This, of course, is not a miracle because the cure is not attributed to supernatural agents. In order to be approved for use a new drug or surgical procedure must pass a battery of experimental test to prove that it is effective in treating the condition. The tests must be verifiable by others and produce highly reliable results. Almost always the effectiveness of the medication or surgery is readily explained by pre-existing medical knowledge. In a sense it is no miracle.
That medical knowledge is able to reliably cure so many lethal conditions is a phenomenon truly deserving of awe and is often described as a miracle. We can attribute cures that occur for unknown reasons to supernatural agents but aren’t we only fabricating a fiction to mask our ignorance?
Throughout history, religious or supernatural means have often been invoked in the quest for power. Magical spells have been cast and God has been implored to give us superhuman powers or to destroy enemies. Sometimes he is said to have complied as when the Egyptians were engulfed by the Red Sea. Those occasions on which the supernatural is thought to have lent us their powers are occasions that strike us with awe and cause us to reverently give thanks. They are miracles. And yet this means of invoking power has been highly unreliable. Indeed the evidence suggests that none of these invocations has ever made the slightest difference except perhaps in the psychology of those performing them.
The only reliable method we have ever had for invoking power has been knowledge and by far the most powerful knowledge we posses is science. Using science we can fly further and faster than any bird. In fact we can fly to the moon and there is little doubt that soon we will fly to Mars. Using science we have the power to engulf our enemies in a mini-sun if we lack the wisdom to refrain. But this is not a miracle; there are no supernatural agents involved. These phenomenons are fully explained by our scientific knowledge. And yet they are worthy of awe and of a deep and humble reverence for our situation.
Evolution works through the cumulative building of knowledge. Our genetic and intellectual ‘knowledge’ of the world in which we live provides us with the multitude of adaptations that allow us to survive. Cumulative knowledge has the effect of providing a time warp for the construction of complex entities such as ourselves. This is of great significance for each of us. Starting at conception, each of us has individually grown through the same evolutionary process that life followed during the three and one half billion years taken to achieve the transformation of first life into man. After birth each of us has undergone intellectual growth that is the cumulative result of a hundred thousand years of cultural evolution. Each of us has relived and is the result of the entire expanse of replicator based evolutionary knowledge.
It took evolution many billions of years to gain the knowledge required to construct life from chemistry. The specialized circumstances required to persist complex chemistry are rare in the universe. A defining characteristic for life is its ability to provide and maintain the circumstances required for the existence of specific complex chemical processes.
Our bodies routinely construct life from chemistry in a matter of days. Chemicals, derived from the air and our food, are woven into the complex chemicals required to create new cells. Egg and sperm cells, which are our starting point are created in this manner and can be seen to parallel the evolution of chemistry to life. The knowledge gained by evolution over billions of years is now used to produce new life in days. Once the way through design space is known you can get there quick.
It took evolution about three and a half billion years from when life first evolved to gain the knowledge required to build human beings. It was a long journey encompassing ancestors of single celled life, fishes and mammals. After sex cells join to form an embryo in the womb it takes only nine months to journey from single celled life to a human being. The embryo’s developmental journey parallel’s the development of our ancestor’s embryos. Their slowly won knowledge is now available to produce a human baby in a cosmic instant. All of us, in embryonic form, underwent this vast journey through design space in only nine months. Once the way through design space is known you can get there quick.
The details of this process reveal that the embryo follows the same evolutionary path as the embryos of our descendents. For instance at one point in their development our embryos had the forbearers of gills. Up to this point our development was very similar to the embryological development of our fish ancestors. Subsequent to this point in development our fish ancestors went on to further develop their gills and other fish characteristics. Subsequent to this point in development our embryos go on to develop the attributes of our more recent air breathing descendents. In this manner our individual development follows the path taken by the evolution of the ancestors of our species. There is only one path known for single celled life to man. This path was discovered and mapped over three and a half billion years as a result of evolution’s relentless search through design space. This knowledge of how to transform singled celled life into man is stored in our genes as a recipe. Every human being is built with this recipe although the ingredients vary slightly with each individual.
It took evolution about one hundred thousand years from first modern man to develop our culture. Cultural attributes, or memes, were at first passed between individuals and generations through mechanisms like imitation and story telling. More recently storage mechanisms like books and computers have speeded up cultural transmissions. The advent of these storage mechanisms has made possible the development of science where the extent of detailed knowledge far exceeds the retention capacity of any single individual.
The evolutionary nature of cultural attributes is discernable in diverse studies. For instance the development of spear heads has been shown to follow an evolutionary pattern amongst all peoples using them. These weapons developed slowly through time, each development clearly a variation on an existing theme. Their persistent patterns have been used to map the diffusion of human groups throughout the world.
It is clear that our current world culture was inherited with variations from previous states. Evolution took one hundred thousand years to find these paths through design space. Each of us as young people, learn a portion of this world culture. We start with some of its earliest accomplishments: speech, writing and how to make fire. Any cultural area that is learned in detail starts with a historical overview of how the current subject matter came to be.
Although it took one hundred thousand years to evolve, we learn the majority of our cultural inheritance during our first twenty odd years. Once the way through design space is known you can get there quick.
Attaining maturity entails a re-enactment of the evolutionary drama. During development we whiz through vast expanses of evolutionary time and receive their benefits in a cosmic instant. At maturity, as adults, we have reached the end of this journey through time and find our self in the present. There is no longer any untapped repository of evolutionary knowledge that can prompt us through eons of progress in an instant. We have caught up to evolution’s production of knowledge, we embody it all, and now the only way forward is to take part in the creation of new knowledge. We are in the present; we are active agents in evolution’s great exploration of design space. We are searching for the good designs, those designs with the ability to endure.
This transition from developmental status to a mature status is fundamental to an accurate understanding of who we are and our place in the universe. Our developmental inheritance endows us with the full range of evolutionary achievements. We are the product of a vast range of knowledge slowly accumulated by evolution over billions of years and a significant proportion of our life is composed of the re-creation of this knowledge in a human form. In our mature state we take our inheritance of evolutionary knowledge and venture out into the present to explore design space and search for knowledge to further supplement our vast inheritance.
Many religions and spiritualists promise the possibility of immortal life. This is a deeply comforting promise as fear of death is perhaps our deepest and most basic fear. The Christian religion decrees that there are two types of afterlife (three if we count purgatory). Whether one goes to hell or heaven depends on whether one is a good Christian as defined by the sect making the rules.
There is of course absolutely no evidence for an afterlife. Every single medium who has subjected themselves to scrutiny has been exposed as a charlatan. No convincing details concerning the inner workings of this afterlife are available.
From the sect’s point of view, promise of an afterlife is a wonderful control mechanism enforcing faithfulness amongst their followers. Given the vast number of strict and mutually exclusive sets of criterion for successfully achieving the afterlife expounded by various sects it is logically impossible for any other than the smallest minority to achieve a pleasant afterlife even if some particular version were to be true. Each sect however believes that they are that minority and will live forever if only they follow their teachings. It is easy to see why sects with this item of faith have a competitive advantage.
From the believer’s point of view, this is the usual trade off required by faith: give up any doubts and independent thought in return for a comforting story, give up any attempt to make real sense of our situation in return for anaesthetic.
When we ponder what a believer might construe to be the details of their afterlife we quickly encounter problems. Are we the same person in the afterlife that we are in this one? Do we have the same interests, the same imperfections? Are we prone to boredom, anxiety, or irrational fears? If we are vastly different in the afterlife can we remember who we were in this one, is there any continuity of our egos?
My father is 88 years old and a devout Christian. Before he became afflicted with Alzheimer’s he expected to have an afterlife where he would be reunited with his deceased daughter and other departed loved ones. He doesn’t talk of this now and would not be able to comprehend the question if asked. He is now almost totally unaware of who he is or what his life was. I sometimes tell him the story of his life, details of what he did in his working life, stories of his friends, the adventures he undertook. Sometimes these accounts stir distant memories. I have recently come to understand that there is more of ‘him’ alive in me then there is in him. When he dies and were he to enter the afterlife in his present state and be reunited with my sister he would not recognize or remember her. Would he be restored to some state earlier in his life? Would he be the same person at all?
It soon becomes clear that it is pointless to ponder the details. You are free to make up any story you want, any story that feels right, all are equally unsupported by evidence.
Scientific explanations can illuminate our situation regarding mortality. Evolution is after all, in essence, a mechanism that develops complex designs capable of persistence. Many of these designs have survived for billions of years and we are composed of a host of these immortal mechanisms.
Mortality enters our picture because we are a product of evolution’s replicator-based strategy for persistence: make copies faster then they are destroyed and it will last. Unfortunately, the success of this strategy does not rely on copies necessarily persisting for long.
Clearly there are aspects of us that are immortal. As discussed in the previous section, the evolutionary knowledge, of which we are a manifestation, is immortal at least compared to an individual human life. A significant portion of our life is devoted to re-traversing this evolutionary journey. What is mortal is our mature self, which upon leaving the immortal evolutionary realm, emerges into the present where each life is an experimental search for designs that can endure, for further evolutionary knowledge. All lives are unique and are composed of a multitude of unique events. Each of these events is a probe of design space, a part of the search for the future. Extremely few paths in design space reach designs sufficiently robust to become part of the future’s inheritance. A very small number are Einsteins or Mozarts who happen upon enduring design and gain a type of immortality.
If you desire immortality, science can offer some suggestions.
First examine carefully your concept of self. Who exactly is it that is striving for immortality? If we conceive of our self as the mature agent engaged in an almost certainly futile search, we are indeed mortal. The self, fully identified with the day-to-day struggles and challenges, with transient desires and fears, will not live on. These struggle, challenges, desires and fears are ‘one time only’ events. There will be little future evidence that this individual ever existed and less chance that he will be a significant part of the future. On the other hand, if we conceive of our self as manifestations of the timeless evolutionary process and our mature life as but one attempt by this amazing process to create the future, we have secured a true basis for immortality.
Extending our sense of self may be a path that can move us forward for the problem may really only be that we see ourselves too narrowly. The self by focusing on ‘one time only’ issues defines itself to be mortal. Extending our concept of self to include our immortal aspects may be all that is required for us to truly gain immortality.
Each hair on our head contains a living cell with our complete biological knowledge contained within the cell and its genetics. If we are to pluck a hair from our head, it will die. In a sense because the hair contains a copy of our unique biology it is valid to say, we have died. Certainly from the hair’s point of view, from the point of view that is totally consumed with the day to day ‘one time only’ issues of the particular cell, it is true to say ‘I have died’. But of course the hair is only one of thousands of hair cells and only one of hundred of trillions of other body cells, all containing our complete instructions. From this larger being’s point of view, from the point of view of the complete organism, it is true that ‘I am still alive’. This is the point of view of our self. Our selfplex takes the point of view of the entire organism. If we are plucked from life then from our self’s point of view it is true to say ‘I have died’. But we are part of a family lineage, we share virtually all of our genetics and cultural inheritance with billions of other humans, we share 98% of our genetics with other primates. There is a point of view from which it is true to say ‘I have not died’ and this point of view may be reachable through extending our sense of self.
It is not easy. Evolution has burdened us with history from our biological past that encourages us to be supremely focused on immediate ‘one time only’ events like sex, food and resources. This strategy was the primary strategy employed by our evolutionary ancestors to achieve survival. Fortunately for us they were not distracted with strivings for immortality and they managed to succeed in surviving at least long enough to reproduce.
Cultural evolution has produced systems of knowledge able to co-exist with the instincts and knowledge inherited from our biological past. In many cases these systems can successfully compete with our biological imperatives and become dominant in our conception of self. Indeed a widely made claim of religion is that it tempers our base nature and can save us from it.
This may be even more possible with a scientific world view. A revolutionary point made in Susan Blackmore’s fascinating Meme Machines[iii] is the assertion that our conception of self is no more than the meme that has come to dominate our brain. She sees the brain as hardware for which an unlimited variety of memetic software competes for the opportunity to be run. When we think a certain thought it is an instance of a meme playing itself on our hardware. We have the thoughts we have for no other reason then they have competed successfully in securing runtime on our brain. Our concept of self has come to be our brain’s dominant meme and the one largely responsible for assigning runtime to itself and other memes. Blackmore proposes two methods that can assist us in wrestling control of our ‘self’ from the unconscious competitive processes weighed heavily towards ‘one-time-only’ concerns. These are science and meditation. Science because:
‘of its ideals of truth and seeking evidence. It doesn’t always live up to these ideals, but in principle it is capable of destroying any untruthful meme-complex by putting it to the test, by demanding evidence, or by devising an experiment.’ [iv]
Meditation discourages the insistence of the self and encourages other memes to come forward and present themselves for consideration. Lessening the grip of the self may allow less mortal conceptions of ourselves to arise.
Individual death has always been a dominant concern. Human graves and other artefacts of burial ceremonies provide some of the most ancient evidence of human culture. Our need to honour our dead and mark their passing was a cultural constant long before the rise of the great modern religions and will continue long after they have gone. We have a cosmic relationship with our relatives. Each of our fathers and mothers manufactured chemicals into the sex cells that joined to become our single celled biological beginnings. We were prompted through evolutionary time in our mother’s womb and instructed and shaped by our parents and the larger human community after our birth. We share the details of this mystical cosmic journey with our kin and are confronted by it with their passing. Each passing of a loved one provides us with the opportunity to consider the miracle that has fashioned us from the stuff of the universe to strut and fret our hour on the stage and then be gone.
My father has prepared detailed instructions for a Christian funeral. At the time, I will of course honour these, but it is an event that I will have to steel myself for. Listening to a cleric recounting yet again the story of Jesus being raised from the dead and providing all men with eternal salvation is humiliating. Do we as individuals and as a culture exist in such poverty of understanding that we must paper over this great mystery with a fairy tale? Can we not take a little time to honestly confront the cosmic epic of which we and our loved ones are a fleeting expression?
Acceptance of the central religious message that ‘this is not about you’ leads to religious experiences in a number of forms. Once we acknowledge there are greater powers and a wider agenda then our day to day concerns we have laid the groundwork for feelings of awe, humility and belonging in a more fundamental reality. This acknowledgement is a mainstay of religious teaching but it is also fundamental to science. Amongst the scientists who study consciousness there is a growing consensus that the existence of the self is an illusion.[v] The entire content of science describes a miraculous reality more fundamental than that wrapped up in our personal strivings and concerns. Contrary to the religious view of fundamental reality, the one describe by science is true in an unrivalled sense.
[ii] Spencer-Brown G. (1979). The Laws of Form. E.P. Dutton, New York
[iii] Blackmore S. (1999). The Meme Machine. Oxford University Press
[iv] Blackmore S. (1999). The Meme Machine. Oxford University Press
[v] Blackmore S. (2002). The Grand Illusion: Why consciousness only exists when you look for it. New Scientist, June 22, 2002, p 26-29