THREE ESSAYS ON THE MEANING OF LIFE
ESSAY 3 :
“There are two mistakes one can make along the road to truth – not going all the way, and not starting.”
Essay 1 examined the House of God and Essay 2 examined the House of Disbelief. Both of these Houses have strong views about the meaning of life (or its absence), but neither was found to be credible. Nor was either House found to be a search for any “T” Truths about the human condition and any special meaning or ultimate purpose there may be to our existence – rather they were found to be homes for comforting, personal “t” truths. This third essay, then, is to be an attempt to search for any Truths there may be about the human condition – and what such may have to say about any ultimate purpose or special meaning to our existence. Again, our working definitions are: “T” Truth – that which is true for everybody all the time; “special” meaning – meaning beyond our personal meanings; “ultimate” purpose – purpose beyond our bodies’ animal purposes.
I am not a Buddhist, but this essay takes inspiration from the above words credited to Buddha – which state that, firstly that there is a “road to truth” and, secondly that it may be possible to go “all the way” along it. These words strike a chord with me; my life experience leads me to believe that Truths exist. Accordingly, I am going to start searching for it – thereby avoiding one of the mistakes identified by Buddha – and hereby resolve to avoid the other by trying to go all the way along it. All who are interested in meaning and purpose are welcome to join me.
Why should we be interested in finding special meaning and ultimate purpose – aren’t our personal meanings and animal purposes enough?
Two reasons: firstly, because the question of any special meaning of life is the most intriguing in philosophy and, secondly, finding some credible meaning applicable to all of us is increasingly becoming the most vital question in philosophy. “Vital” because (as we noted in the Introduction) too many people are drowning in a sea of meaninglessness between two hostile shores – the shores of the lands dominated by the House of God and the House of Disbelief – both, as we saw in Essays 1 & 2, “hostile” to our lives having any credible ultimate purpose which could allow our lives special meaning. And also “vital”, again, because humanity has reached the position in its evolution where our technological evolution has vastly exceeded our spiritual evolution – leaving humanity in the invidious and precarious position of having atomic bombs in the hands of countries with primitive, violent gods and/or who only believe in the survival of the fittest.
But, some would ask: how can belief and disbelief both be wrong?
TWO DIAMETRICALLY OPPOSED POSITIONS CAN BOTH BE WRONG
While two diametrically opposed positions about a subject cannot both be right, they can both be wrong, and the argument between our House of God and our House of Disbelief is a good example of this. They have diametrically opposed positions about the existence of “G” God and the existence of special meaning and ultimate purpose in life – but their mutual mistake is in the “g” god and meaning/purpose they have both accepted to argue about. By agreeing to argue about the existence of the Abrahamic god and about the typical religious meaning of life (a one-off test for eternity in heaven or hell) – they are implying that those are the only rational God and meaning that there could possibly be. While the Abrahamic Houses of God are stuck with the primitive god and meanings in their set-in-cement “B” Books, the House of Disbelief (which dominates academia and should have all the brain power) disingenuously contents itself by killing this ancient and incredible “g” god then claiming “God is dead and we have killed him” (Nietzsche) – thereby not only dancing on the wrong grave – but, scandalously, one they know to be empty.
However, dancing on the wrong and empty grave only serves to establish something about your self – not about God. Over the centuries since the Bible and other similar religious “B” Books were written, the increase in our knowledge of the universe has revealed that any real “G” God and special meaning/purpose is bound to be way more complicated than those the primitive religions of pre-scientific tribes could approach. We need desperately to discuss what any real ultimate purpose, special meaning, and “G” God could be like – rather than fighting over our ancient religions’ incredible purposes/meanings and “g” gods. The outcome of an argument about a human-invented, tribal “g” god does not establish anything about the existence or not of any real and universal “G” God; neither does the outcome of arguments about the veracity of religious meaning/purpose settle the existence (or nature) of any special meaning/purpose there may be.
A REAL GOD, MEANING, PURPOSE?
As above, all Houses of God founded on unalterable primitive “B” Books are stuck with primitive “g” gods, but academic philosophy should be free to walk along Buddha’s “road to truth” in honest search for any real “G” God/higher agency and/or special meaning/ultimate purpose. However, academia has retreated to its comforting House of Disbelief and chosen the more easy sport of slaughtering the slow-moving sacred cows of others – constantly (and speciously) entering an argument about gods and meanings it knows to be false. As a result, the answer to some of the most important existential questions for humanity are still not properly approached – let alone decided in favour of the House of Disbelief (as its residents feel) – and such will never be decided for as long as our two main philosophic positions are engaged in a futile battle over a straw god and incredible meaning/purpose. Essay 3 is to be an attempt to avoid the present futile logjam in the philosophy of meaning by searching without our Houses – into territory that both have either avoided or only viewed through the distorting lenses of their own ideologies.
Many in our modern world, more comfortable and safer than the brutal world in which our main religions arose, would ask: “Why bother?” – preferring to get on with life without examining it – enjoying its more intense and more interesting pleasures to the maximum, before they die. However, such an uncaring attitude may, if life does indeed have an ultimate purpose, lead us to miss its opportunities – whatever such may be. And, as we considered above, an unexamined life is dangerous because our technological evolution has vastly outstripped our spiritual evolution. If you can’t go along with any of that, consider that, to not examine our life may be to miss its best? Discovering “How To Best Live” has been recognised by most philosophers over the centuries as the holy grail of philosophy. Socrates, our most questing and discomforting philosopher, is reported by Plato to have declared that: “An unexamined life is not worth living.” Even if you feel that life is only for living, that our only purpose in life is to enjoy it to the maximum, to succeed in this best maybe you need to accept Socrates’ challenge and live an “examined life”?
DISCOVERING HOW TO BEST LIVE?
While most philosophers may feel that discovering how to maximize our lives is their ultimate goal, very few seem to have made much meaningful progress in that direction. Most philosophic systems that thinkers have come up with in order to best live – like: utilitarianism; utopianism; communism; fascism; socialism; capitalism have failed us, or worse, been captured by individuals and/or groups pursuing personal vested interests and left humanity the worse off – indeed, too often, leaving our history dripping with blood. Various other “isms” like theism, atheism, existentialism, materialism, Darwinism, reductionism – while less bloodthirsty – have left us drowning in the above sea of meaninglessness with increasing depression. If philosophy is to fulfil its often touted role of helping us find out how to truly best live, it needs to avoid the blinkers of ideology, to embark on the road to Truth about the human condition honestly and openly.
WHAT IF THE EXAMINED
But what if we find the “T” Truth and it is disturbing? Consider these words, allegedly from Jesus (quoted from The Gospel of Thomas – one of the many Gospels that didn’t make it into the Bible):
“Those who seek should not stop seeking until they find.
“When they find, they will be disturbed.
“When they are disturbed, they will marvel.”
Gospel of Thomas (2:1-3)
So, three of our wisest: Jesus, Socrates, and Buddha – were reportedly of a mind: basically humanity should not stop seeking.
But, as per Thomas/Jesus, to journey after Truth is to move out of the comfort zone of our own truths and take risk. Along any road into unknown territory there must be dangers – cliffs of fall – even if we do find the Truth, itself, we may be disturbed.
“Disturbed”! Anyone who wishes to join my expedition for “T” Truth should ask themselves whether they are you ready for that?
But, as per the above words supposedly spoken by Jesus, while we risk being disturbed, the potential reward for persistent seeking is to “marvel”. Sounds good to me, I am disturbed daily by the news, and humanity is at the point where if it is to survive much longer we need to stop trying to win an argument over comforting, personal “t” truths and go seek any “T” Truths (again, true for everybody, all the time) that there may be.
So let’s go! Let’s go seek Truth. We have swum through our sea of meaninglessness discussed in the Introduction, beyond sight of the old lands hostile to credible meaning, and come to the shore of a new land, with new horizons to explore. Now we need to find any “road to truth” it may have – and then see how far we can go along it?
ESSAY 3 –
We find we have landed on a peaceful, welcoming shore. We quickly walk inland – away from our sea of meaninglessness and come, so soon to our first challenge: a bridge spanning a river. Not too challenging, but it is signposted: “Blasphemy Bridge”. We hesitate, unsure of committing blasphemy, but take courage from the words of George Bernard Shaw, who observed: “All great truths begin as blasphemies”.
Cautiously we inch over the bridge. There is no bolt of lightning and we quickly step off onto the other side. We huddle together, relieved, congratulating each other on our bravery and consider our next move. We explore around, and find the beginnings of a small track – obviously rarely used because overgrown – which track leads us away from the river and into a looming forest.
Our track doesn’t look very grand – could this possibly be the start of such a royal-sounding passage as the Road to Truth?
There is no other path, we have made our play – we have swum beyond sight of familiar lands, turning our backs on the comforts of the House of Disbelief and the House of God – even committed Blasphemy – so we must take the only path offered. Thus it is we move into the darkling halls of the forest ahead – and are quickly confronted by two pitfalls – one sign-posted: “The Supernatural”; and the other: “The Metaphysical”.
We peek cautiously inside, and see that they are the entries into labyrinths which slope downwards into dark and uncertain worlds – worlds wherein, it is reputed, some have ventured in the past to seek Truth – only to emerge more confused than ever (if they managed to emerge at all). We will avoid these potential traps, but they are intriguing, and if we are seeking to find the “T” Truth nothing should be beyond our exploration. However, a bit too much, and a bit too soon – for our exploration – maybe we will return to peek into these areas, later, if we can find a reliable guide who can cast some suitable illumination?
For now, we dance around these labyrinths of darkness to seek to explore, rather, the unnatural than the supernatural; and the nonphysical rather than the metaphysical.
What do I mean by these terms – “unnatural” and “nonphysical”?
By the unnatural I mean those things which observably exist in our world but do not look as if they can be well described as being just the natural consequences of it.
For example, even if the atoms which comprise our bodies came naturally into existence, then naturally/chemically alive, and then were evolved by natural selection of natural mutations – is it natural that those mechanically evolved aggregations of accidental atoms should compose the 9th symphony, sculpt the Pieta, construct the Sagrada Familia, paint the Giaconda, sing the Messiah, dance Swan Lake, or write Hamlet? And is it natural that other aggregations of purely physical atoms (us) should recognise these creations as “beautiful” – and that some nonphysical part of us (who are allegedly just atoms, remember) should be “moved”, “lifted” by that nonphysical beauty?
No, such is unnatural.
By the “nonphysical” I mean things which observably exist in our world but are not of its physical matter, energy, and forces. Not only “things” like beauty but: humour, virtue, honour, shame, right, wrong. Darwinian materialists would say that these things exist because they award natural selection advantages to the (accidentally existing and chemically enlivened) collection of atoms having them – but how did these nonphysical things come to exist in the first place, in a purely physical Universe – to be so “selected” in the second place?
Were these things, perhaps, not selected by an aggregation of purely physical atoms and energy, but by “us” – our nonphysical, spiritual self?
The self – that arch nonphysical thing about us: our soul, spirit, consciousness (call it what you will; let’s not get lost in the mists of semantics so early in our expedition) – that part of us which we know to exist, but which we also know is not of atoms, nor of our animal physical body with its natural animal instincts, survival needs, and genetic imperatives. The “self” – that part of us which was inspired to write the 9th symphony, that part of us which is “moved” by the hearing of it.
SOME TRACKS, BUT WHICH WAY TO VENTURE?
So, we have arrived at a point where there are a few tracks to explore. But which to follow? Which are most likely to lead us to the Truth of the human condition, and which into the wilderness? Here we need some wisdom, a little knowledge – perhaps both? Let’s try a little philosophy, which, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (2016) is: “The love of knowledge and wisdom”. Just the thing, what could be better as a compass to guide us along our road to Truth – than philosophy?
So, philosophical compass in hand, where does it point us?
Western philosophy evolved from the great golden age of Greek philosophy which had its finest hours around the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. – an era dominated by the thoughts of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Such has been the influence of Plato, in particular, that Western philosophy was often described as a “footnote to Plato”. Following the life and death of Jesus Christ, Christianity gradually came to have a huge influence on Western philosophy – cemented in place when it was established as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Although entrenched in the East at Constantinople, Christianity had to struggle to survive in the West when Europe was swamped by various pagan tribes after the demise of the Roman Empire (Gauls, Goths, Franks, Vikings, Vandals, etc.). Through missionary activity, Christianity survived and dominated most of Europe. Education became one of Christianity’s main activities (mainly to supply its own clerics) and places of higher learning like Universities, were mainly established and controlled by the Church. In many European countries the House of God had State-granted powers of life, death, and torture – and used such to dictate matters philosophic through institutions like the Spanish Inquisition – and dogmatic darkness came to reign in the world of thought (the so-called “Dark Ages”). But during the 16th and 17th centuries thinkers like Bacon introduced the scientific method and the scientific discoveries which flowed (from the likes of Copernicus, Kepler, Brahe, Galileo, and Newton) loosened the grip of the House of God on the minds of humanity. By the 18th century, the ever-increasing discoveries of our physical sciences inspired the rationalist movement known as the Enlightenment, then the 19th century saw the biological discoveries of the likes of Darwin deliver the coup de grace to the House of God’s previous domination of academic philosophy. Into the 20th century and the triumphs of physics (relativity, atomic physics, quantum mechanics) blew away the old Newtonian certainties; the discoveries of chemistry ushered in the increasing wonders of medicine; while the ever-deepening vision of astronomy peered ever deeper and further into our universe – eventually back to the big bang. The evolving knowledge and resulting triumphs of physics, chemistry, medicine, and biology delivered miracle products and cures – and the atom bomb! We are at the point in history now that most physical scientists feel that they know everything – that a physical, Grand United, Theory of Everything is within their grasp.
Where does that leave Philosophy?
For starters, philosophically, the House of God – once previously entirely dominant with the power to burn disbelievers at the stake – has been reduced to a rump of evangelicals (Bible-believers somewhere on the fundamentalist – liberal spectrum). And the neo-Darwinian, materialist, House of Disbelief has become established as the ruling force in academe. Philosophy, once a footnote to Plato, has become the handmaiden to physical science.
A “HANDMAIDEN TO SCIENCE”?
Humanity was dazzled by the successes of physical science and its conga-line of new machines and products. As we successfully used these every day it became obvious to all that science was dealing with facts, not opinions – with the “T” Truth, not personal “t” truths. If science told us that it knew everything – that it was on the verge of uniting the physical sciences into a Grand United Theory of Everything, we were inclined to believe.
And the philosophical implications of a total understanding – a working “Theory of Everything” – by our physical sciences are immense: if everything in our universe(s) can be understood by our physical sciences, then everything must be physical. If everything is physical – just matter and energy, mechanically evolved – then all is basically meaningless and purposeless (save for our own brave, little, personal meanings and obvious animal purposes). Philosophy, in its reduced role of handmaiden to science, can only attend the birth of “isms” – like: materialism, scientism, atheism, nihilism, existentialism, naturalism, relativism, Neo-Darwinism, determinism, reductionism, behaviourism, post-modernism – all of which have meaninglessness and purposelessness as their corollary.
So, here we stand on our road to Truth, modern philosophical compass in hand, all points indicating meaninglessness wherever the needle may settle. Our observably successful sciences stating not only that everything is just matter/energy (mattergy?) but worse – all such mattergy is, not only accidental, but all arisen from nothing. There can be no (potentially Divine) “first cause” to the physical universe, life itself was just a spontaneous chemical event – which was then mechanically evolved by nature selecting from random mutations – into us.
Our universe(s) is an accidental, random, uncaring, machine – as we are: a randomly produced physical machine, in which there can be no “ghost” (like our self/soul/spirit).
So, if there is no “First Cause”, no Divine with a blueprint with us as its focus – humanity is cut adrift from its previously supposed destiny – from its central position in the universe and from any special relationship with a God. Post-modern Philosopher Jacques Monod spells it out for us:
“The ancient covenant is in pieces: man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he has emerged only by chance. Neither his destiny nor his duty have been written down. ”
- (P.167 “Chance and Necessity”, Jacques Monod).
HERE WE STAND, COMPASS IN
So, basically, we are wasting our time on our road to Truth – there can be no “road” because there is no “Truth” – no special meaning, ultimate purpose, duty nor destiny to our existence. We can only create our own personal meanings and purposes – relative, comforting “t” truths. The catchcry of postmodern philosophy is: “Truth – who’s truth?” By searching for “T” Truth, we are necessarily lost – in a purely physical world – often magnificently beautiful, but ultimately bleak.
We had the hubris to think that we might get somewhere along our imagined road to Truth, but we seem to have come, so soon, to the brink of one of those “cliffs of fall” I mentioned earlier – and the ground beneath our feet is less secure that that rickety bridge we just burned behind us.
What to do, where to go?
Let’s do what a lot of us are inclined to do when given a death sentence, let’s get a second opinion. Let’s consider what theoretical physicist and philosopher, Paul Davies, has to say about Monod’s words:
“If the magnificent edifice of life is the consequence of a random and purely incidental quirk of fate, as the French biologist Jacques Monod claimed, we must surely find common cause with his bleak atheism.”
- (P. 3, “The Fifth Miracle”)
“Bleak” may be the word for Monod’s philosophy, but Davies leaves us just a little glimmer – with his use of the word “if”. Do I smell a chance of a way around the precipice of meaninglessness upon whose brink we find ourselves teetering? Let’s examine this little (but potentially giant) word “IF”.
IF WE EXIST ONLY BY CHANCE
If humanity has emerged “only by chance” out of a universe which itself emerged only by chance and if we are: “the consequence of a random and purely incidental quirk of fate” – then meaninglessness and purposelessness must reign and we are indeed lost on our road, with, as Bob Dylan would put it: “no direction home” (and facing a burned bridge, should we find such direction!)
But, what if we are not here merely as a result of a chance accident – what if we are not just a quirk of fate?
IF NOT BY CHANCE?
From the fossil evidence and the field work of Darwin, Wallace, and others, our bodies seem well explained as the end result of gene mutations selected naturally by our relative (good, better, best) universe according to the survival-to-breed advantages they impart – but what if there is more to the human equation than just those bodies; more to our behaviour than can be explained as naturally selected ways of meeting our animal drive to survive and our genetic need to breed? In short, what if we are not our bodies? – these are the key questions which need to be answered.
In sum, what is the Truth of the human condition?
So, let’s quickly make a list of the mysteries of our physical universe and of the human condition. Things that are “mysteries” because they are not well explained by our physical sciences; “mysteries” to the materialists who believe we can be entirely explained in terms of our matter; “mysteries” because they don’t resemble random consequences of fate – emerged “only by chance”.
THE MYSTERIES OF THE UNIVERSE
“The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious…He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind..[the] sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly”
Albert Einstein, “My Credo” (1932)
What sort of mysteries would they be? For me, mysteries like:
· THE INCREDIBLE UNLIKELINESS OF SOMETHING
· THE INCREDIBLE UNLIKELINESS OF BEING
· APPARENT INTELLIGENT DESIGN
· HUMAN MORALITY AND VIRTUES
· THE SELF/SOUL/SPIRIT
· CONSCIENCE, SHAME, ETHICS
· THE MYSTERY THAT IS MATHEMATICS
· SPIRITUAL EVOLUTION
· EMPIRICAL EVIDENCE FOR THE EXISTENCE OF THE SPIRITUAL
· THE PARANORMAL
· ITC – INSTRUMENTAL TRANSCOMMUNICATION
· PAST LIFE AND AFTERLIFE RECALL
· THE PARANORMAL – A SUMMARY
· UFO’s AND EXTRATERRESTRIALS
THE PHYSICAL WORLD AS
There’s our list (including, bravely, a return to the dangerous labyrinths signposted “Paranormal” and “Supernatural” we avoided earlier). We will use it as a map to guide us along our road. We have obeyed Buddha’s first injunction to set out on the road to Truth, now let’s see how well we can meet his other injunction to go all the way?
Emboldened, we skirt the abyss of meaninglessness that we encountered so soon into our journey and, with map in hand, forge ahead to the first place to be explored: the primary mystery of the existence of our physical world – that something should exist at all.
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players…”
- ‘As You Like It’, William Shakespeare (Act 2, sc. 7)
Shakespeare’s observation that life is much like a play – played out on the world stage by us, the players – introduces the two basic existential mysteries of life: that a world/stage should exist; and that there should be life/players on it. We need to consider these two mysteries separately because of the enormity of each. So, first things first, let’s consider the mysterious fact that there is a world stage – a question which is most commonly phrased as: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”
THE MYSTERY OF SOMETHING (RATHER
Our physical sciences’ consensus explanation for the existence of our world goes basically like this: our physical universe is the consequence of an event occurring about 13.7 billion years ago – most scientists are happy to label this event the big bang (or something similar – the big expansion, big inflation etc.) but subscribe to varying theories to explain how what happened, did happen (String Theory, Brane Theory, Inflation Theory etc.). Whatever theory for the “big beginning” is subscribed to, most physical scientists do see a definite creation/beginning point for our physical universe – i.e. it did not always exist but came into existence. And most, but not all, physicists see no mystery in that fact – that there should come into being “something rather than nothing”. Further, most physical scientists feel that our universe (possibly universes?) came into being accidentally – that is to say, it just happened, without the aid of any outside first mover or higher power – without any causal “A” Agency like a God.
But is this an answer to the mystery of the existence of our physical universe, or just another mystery – that an observably cause-and-effect universe can, itself, actually be just an effect without a cause?
Looks like a mystery to me. Why? Well, look at it his way: what exactly went “bang” – in the beginning?
WHAT EXACTLY WENT “BANG!” ?
The initial moment of our world stage was a seemingly chaotic, billions-of-degrees, explosion/expansion caused, we are told, by the emergence of matter.
Emerged from where?
Einstein’s theory of special relativity tells us that matter and energy have a constant equivalence: E = mc2. So, did the original matter convert/emerge from energy – the Big Bang being like the reverse of an atomic explosion – instead of the atomic bomb’s energy being released from matter, we have (the also explosive) matter released/converted from energy? If that was the case, physics has solved nothing – the big bang just replacing the mystery of the existence of original matter with the equally mysterious existence of the original energy – some of which became matter. The existence of energy is “mysterious” because, according to the 1st Law of Thermodynamics, energy cannot be created.
If energy cannot be created, it must have always existed/must always exist – be eternal? Are we talking “E” Energy here – “G” God? Was the original energy God – or of God at the very least?
We are getting a little beyond ourselves, so soon, but an interesting speculation which we may revisit if we get any more evidence to support such? We need to slow down a little and examine physics answer to the above, and a little more of its theory of the universe’s beginning.
THERE CAN BE NO “BEFORE”
In answer to the above, physics would answer that energy cannot have existed before the big bang because one of its precepts is that there can be no “before” – the reasoning being that time, itself, only came into being at the big bang, therefore it makes no sense to talk about “before” the big bang!?
Neat – but, let’s see if we’ve got this straight – physics is describing an eternal (because not creatable), power (energy) – existing outside of time?
Hmmmm. Sounding even more bit like certain religious tenets about God?
And to that we can add the one thing which we can know about before the big bang: relativity did not exist. The big bang was the beginning of relativity – the “appearance” of separate particles of matter allowing: this and that, here and there, now and then (the time it takes to get from here to there) and, eventually – you and me.
So, before the big bang introduced the relative universe, there was the absolute.
Hmmmm. Again, more characteristics that resemble our religions’ notion of the Divine.
But, rather than our ancient “creator” gods (devised before any real scientific understanding of the beginning), maybe we should consider this: an absolute, eternal, energy – existing outside of space and time – became the Universe. Maybe God didn’t create the universe, but became it?
Let’s settle down a little and contemplate what happened after the big bang (or should that be “B” Big Bang?).
Physics is right across this. End of mystery?
In the beginning, an absolute/singularity of energy became/transmuted into matter. After a ridiculously short period (about one second) after the initial inflation from a singularity, some of the (mysteriously-existing) energy which (mysteriously) became matter in the form of sub-atomic particles (quarks) combined to form protons and neutrons. These larger sub-atomic particles then began the process of forming simple atoms through the (mysteriously-existing) strong and weak nuclear forces – which forces were able to hold the sub-atomic protons and neutrons together after the universe became a little cooler than the initial, billion-degree big bang. These nuclei, via the (mysteriously-existing) electromagnetic force were then able to capture electrons and become simple atoms (hydrogen and helium) after the temperature cooled still further (below 4000 Kelvins – about 400,000 years later). These simple atoms were then compressed together by the (mysteriously-existing) force of gravity into giant fusions events called stars. These supermassive stars eventually burnt up their fuel and collapsed under their own weight with such force that they created some larger, more complicated atoms – which larger atoms were then spewed out into the cosmos in a super-nova explosion. These larger atoms, like carbon (necessary for life), were in this way distributed widely throughout the universe. After a few more cycles of star formation, burnout, collapse and super-nova explosion, some less massive stars like our Sun were formed. Some such suns had rock planets (like Earth) orbiting in a “goldilocks zone” (called such because they were just far enough distant from the sun to allow water to form) and eventually, life (mysteriously) came to be.
We look into the mystery of the creation of life at the next place on our map but, for here, we just need to notice that while the secondary processes of atom, sun and planet formation (after the primary mysteries like the existence of energy etc.) are fairly well understood by science, the existence of the crucial forces allowing/forcing this to happen remains a huge mystery. Not only that, but the ratios and tuning between these forces the initial conditions which existed in the first split second to create a physical universe in which we could live were finely tuned to a degree beyond our imagination. Physicists Rosenblum and Kuttner put it this way:
“…if the initial conditions of the universe were chosen randomly…the chance that a livable universe like ours would be created is far less than the chance of randomly picking a particular single atom out of all the atoms in the universe.”
“Quantum Enigma”, P.264. (authors italics underlined).
And the existence of certain fine and crucial constants (like the speed of light), ratios and parameters which allowed (made?) the secondary creative process to happen, and its products to remain in existence, are also necessarily finely tuned – to a degree beyond our imagination. For example, it has been estimated that if the ratio between the strong nuclear force and the electromagnetic force was off by one part in 100,000,000,000,000,000 – then the formation of stars could not have happened. And that is just one parameter, multiply it by the others and the essential fineness governing the continued existence of our universe is beyond our comfortable contemplation.
All up, it seems the mystery just gets bigger the more we learn?
Let’s have a look at what cosmology has to offer by way of understanding.
Cosmologist Larry Krauss describes the creation of our physical universe thus:
“Every time a particle of ordinary matter was created, a deadly twin of antimatter was spawned as well. The birth of every electron, for instance, also saw the creation of an ‘anti-electron’, or positron. The two have exactly opposite properties. If an electron and positron subsequently meet up again, they mutually annihilate in a burst of energy. In the young Universe equally matched battalions of matter and antimatter waged war on each other. The skirmishes produced radiation…Why is there any material – matter or antimatter – left in the Universe today?…every now and then, one out of 10 billion interactions might have produced a particle of matter – one more than a particle of antimatter. In the end, you’d have 10 billion particles of antimatter, and 10 billion and one particles of matter. The 10 billion particles of matter and antimatter would annihilate, leaving just the one particle of matter left over. And that little bit extra is responsible for everything we can see today – it’s kinda remarkable!”
– Cosmologist Larry Krauss (quoted from “Universe”, Couper & Henbest Pp. 25-26).
Kinda! Why not 10 billion and one particles of antimatter instead? Again, more mystery than answer? Let’s read on:
“We really should live in a Universe with just radiation and no matter at all. But we don’t – and one of the most exciting aspects of modern cosmology is trying to understand what monumental accidents happened in the first microsecond of the Universe’s existence.”
(Pp. 25-26 ibid.)
Krauss obviously sees the mystery but, as a physical scientist, does not allow himself to get carried away – still asserting that the existence of the universe is based on random (albeit “monumental”) accidents. There is no answer here, we are just getting a greater compilation of mysteries: “we really should live in a Universe with just radiation and no matter at all” – and that’s how, at odds of billions to one, it should be if all was random. But that’s not how it is – so the odds against our universe existing randomly are similar billions to one against.
Let’s have a closer at some the forces, and some of the fine tuning of ratios and constants which enabled matter to exist and continue into the teeth of entropy.
FORCES, RATIOS, CONSTANTS, LAWS
Physics has been able to discover and measure the laws governing the forces which ruled the physical universe from the beginning and also the constants, ratios/fine tuning between them which allowed the formation of matter and the continued existence of our physical universe. (This, coincidentally, presents a giant mystery of another kind: how can we understand and speak the language the universe was written in – mathematics? More of that later). Here, just for now, let’s look deeper into the fine tuning to get an idea of the extent of it.
UK’s Astronomer Royal – Martin Rees – listed six fundamental numbers which represent ratios, relationships, and proportions between constants which must fall within narrow parameters for our physical universe to come into existence – and to continue existing. We listed them in detail in Essay 2 – summarized they are:
· the ratio of the strength of electromagnetism and gravity;
· the proportion of the mass of a hydrogen atom that is released as energy when it is fused into helium inside a star;
· the ratio of the actual density of matter in the universe to the theoretical critical density;
· the cosmological constant;
· the amount of energy it would take to break up a galactic supercluster;
· the number of spatial dimensions.
A further two dozen fundamental physical constants have been identified by other physicists, including: the speed of light in a vacuum; the gravitational constant; the proton-electron mass ratio. Not only fine in themselves, but all of the above essential constants, ratios etc. need to be finely tuned with each other to result in immaculate and creative order.
So, the universe is hugely “organized”. Surely you’d have to be pretty dull not to be thinking blueprint here? We need to have a little look at some of the organization.
Examples of complexity in our universe’s processes include:
· The process of carbon creation within stars.
· The rate of expansion of the universe since the big bang.
· The essentially right amount of “lumpiness” in the above expansion to allow galaxies not just black holes.
· Gravity obeying the “inverse square law” – crucial to the formation of galaxies and planets.
· The essential and staggeringly fine tuning of dark energy.
Perhaps the most finely tuned of all forces in our complex universe is the last – the strength of dark energy which determines how fast the universe expands (crucial for its continued existence). Dark energy is necessarily very weak and, crucially, tuned to the extent of 122 decimal points. This is mind-blowingly fine!
NO “ORGANISATION” – ALL JUST ACCIDENTAL, MEANINGLESS?
For the philosophical conclusion of meaninglessness to be taken from our physical universe – all of the above must necessarily be established as accidental. So what are the chances of all the apparent “organization” being the result of chance – just random, accidental? Professor of Mathematics, Oxford, Roger Penrose has shown that the chances of our universe naturally, accidentally having the required amount of order to combat the forces of disorder to produce the complexity we observe, is one in 1010 123 – a number so huge that it is unimaginable to us.
Do those who imagine the universe to be accidental, coincidental, even understand what they are trying to imagine?
In his book, “The Goldilocks Enigma”, theoretical physicist, Paul Davies identifies thirty “convenient coincidences” necessary for our universe to exist – twenty from the Standard Model of particle physics and ten from cosmology. All of these parameters are essential and most must be set to within 1% of their actual measure for the universe to exist. Davies offers this about the knife-edge of existence our physical universe (and the life within it) is balancing on:
“The cliché that ‘life is balanced on a knife-edge is a staggering understatement…119 powers of ten, after all – just happened by chance to be what is needed to bring about a universe fit for life. How much chance can we buy in scientific explanation?”
“The Goldilocks Enigma – why is the Universe just right for life?” Paul Davies, P. 170.
That our universe could be a fluke certainly seems “too much to swallow”. The big question for philosophy, then, is: what does the existence of all these crucial – and crucially set – laws, forces, ratios etc. imply? If accidentalness, spontaneity, randomness is so hugely unlikely, what is more likely: a blueprint; higher agency; Intelligent Design?
Our map shows us that we are to examine Intelligent Design down the road a little, but certainly here we could say that all of the fine-tuning of our world and universe that we have noted above, more implies organization – a plan, a blueprint – than it implies an accident.
This leads many to conclude: that the universe was not only designed to exist, but that it was designed for us to exist. This is anthropocentrism – that the universe is all about us.
Anthropocentrism is similar to what is sometimes called the “weak anthropic principle” – basically, the universe has been tailor-made for humanity. Such a huge undertaking for tiny little us, does seems highly unlikely – however, the universe does seem to be all about producing life (we may find out more about that in the next region our map says we are to explore?). Until it can be established that we are the only life in the universe, or the only life with consciousness, then anthropocentrism certainly seems unreasonable. And there is a counter-argument in the form of the “strong anthropic principle” – the other side of the anthropic coin.
STRONG ANTHROPIC PRINCIPLE
The so-called strong anthropic principle argument attempts to explain away the significance of all the fine tuning of our universe by observing that such tuning etc. does not need any explanation because it is entirely possible that the universe just happened to work out this way – if the universe was any other way, we would not be here to see it (and us) as somehow significant and in need of explanation.
For me, however powerful you regard this backwards reasoning, surely the greatest mystery is that we are aware of the fineness of the universe not just because we happen to be here, but because we can speak the language that the universe is written in – i.e. are able to calculate all of the above necessary ratios, forces, etc. and appreciate their fineness – if we are just an accidental product of an accidental mechanical factory, how are we able to understand the process? Our map shows that we are due to explore the mystery that is our understanding of mathematics later on our journey.
The strong anthropic argument also relies for much of its strength on an hypothesized multiverse.
Some say that our particular universe (including us in it) is to be expected if an infinite number of universes came into existence – statistically, one just had to be like ours. We considered the idea of a multiverse as pillar of the House of Disbelief in Essay 2, here we just need to notice that this is very close to making stuff up. Such a multiverse has never been observed, only implied from some observations in quantum mechanics.
As far as philosophy is concerned, we need to consider that even if multiple universes are eventually established, such would only multiply the existential mysteries – an infinity of stable worlds relying on fine tuning/design to exist, with lots of “Goldilocks’ zones” suitable for life just makes the total mystery bigger – even a God (or Gods) would not be demolished by such a discovery. Of course, the god of the Old Testament would look less adequate as an explanation than it does already, but any real God is just made grander than previously imaginable.
But quantum physics has more to offer.
Some physicists argue certain observations in quantum mechanics allow, not only that the universe came about accidentally, but that it came from nothing – as a “quantum fluctuation”. Although physical science may still be short of its Grand Unified Theory, some feel that there has been sufficient evidence flowing from the field of theoretical physics to declare:
“We can also show that the laws of physics are just what they should be if the universe came from nothing.”
Professor Victor Stenger – “Godless Cosmology” (in “50 Voices of Disbelief”, Ed Blackford & Schuklenk P. 116)
Neuroscientist, Dr. Kerry Spackman relies on Einstein’s famous E= mc² to prove something can come out of nothing:
“...the equal sign in E=mc² means we can go in either direction. Instead of turning matter into energy we can also create matter out of nothing but pure energy. This is a truly mind-boggling concept. We can take absolutely nothing but pure energy and make solid matter out of it.”
“The Ant and the Ferrari” – Kerry Spackman, p. 35.
But, there remains a little problem, can Spackman’s “pure energy” be regarded as “absolutely nothing”? And, as we have considered, above: whence this original energy? Certainly physics has proven the interchangeability of matter and energy, but it also informs us that energy cannot be created. As we also considered earlier, science says it does not have to answer this question because the big bang was the beginning of everything, including the laws of physics (like the laws of thermodynamics). Neat answer – but I don’t think that: [ “ ” + mysteriously ordered original forces = energy+matter+life) ] is going to stand as one of the great equations of all time?
Gravity is one of the mysterious original forces – it may be a natural property of matter, but it is not a natural property of nothing. Many mysterious things had to exist alongside “ ” for the universe to get all its existential ducks in a row – are these nothing? Did they only become something when “ ” first became something?
Maybe there can be never nothing – but always something?
If something/everything couldn’t “come from” anywhere because there can be no “anywhere” before space/time – must everything always exist? More from physicist, Professor Stenger:
“…let me address probably the most common question theists ask atheists, one they smugly think is the final clincher on the case for God: ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’…The eminent philosopher Adolf Grunbaum has shown that the question is ill-conceived because it assumes that the natural state of affairs is ‘nothing’ and some cause was necessary to bring ‘something’ into existence. That argument can be supplemented with a physics argument that something is more natural than nothing.”
Stenger, ibid. P.116
Why would the eternal existence of something be “the final clincher” in the case against God? Rather, eternal existence is surely one of the necessary tenets of any “G” God. If it can be substantiated that nothing was created because something always existed, such is only an argument against a primitive creationist “g” god rather than an argument against any real “G” God.
Quantum theory also implies there can be no state of emptiness:
“And quantum theory tells us that emptiness would have precisely zero energy – far too exacting a requirement for the uncertain quantum world.”
New Scientist Magazine (23/7/2011 – P. 29)
GOD – THE ALWAYS EXISTING ENERGY?
So if a state of emptiness, zero energy, cannot exist, we are considering an eternal energy – an absolute – from which everything relative came. We are starting to talk in almost religious terms – but with a twist – maybe God became the universe, rather than “created” it? Maybe what we try to approach when we use the word “God” is the original, eternal, absolute energy which became individual, therefore relative, matter “in the beginning”?
This is an idea that both theism and atheism will find disturbing.
Having examined the House of God and the House of Disbelief in the previous two essays – and found them both to be unsound places to dwell – any idea they both must necessarily disagree with is surely worthy of further contemplation? For here, we just need to consider that the story of our amazingly creative universe, does not seem to be one of the random consequences of out-of-control chaos. And if the universe is not out of control but, in fact, tightly controlled – who’s/what’s in control?
So, all the fine tuning, order, and apparently organized complexity and controls of our universe is “kinda remarkable” (to borrow a phrase from one of the scientists quoted). And, while no special meaning, ultimate purpose, and/or any God has been proven, certainly there are many facts which give credibility to the idea of a higher agency than blind physics.
“Are we not entitled to conclude that, on the face of things, something extraordinary – something greater than and separate from the Universe itself – must have caused that process [of creation] to begin?”
Ray Williams, “God, Actually”, P. 37.
Williams has a point, this obviously cause-and-effect universe must have a cause. However, Williams is a theist, and they love to insinuate their ancient god into the apparent controls of our universe. Certainly some eminent physical scientists (e.g. John Polkinghorne, John Lennox, Rodney Holder) have been persuaded to either enter the House of God, or have had their pre-existing faith strengthened, because the odds against a chance existence for such a lawful universe as ours, are towering. But we are seeking “T” Truth, rather than seeking to bolster any comforting “t” truth, and nothing about the mysteries of our universe that we have examined so far, are proof of any primitive god of a “B” Book. While it is not hard to contemplate a “H” Higher “A” Agency, there has been nothing so far to indicate that any such Agency should resemble the primitive, pre-scientific “g” god of any House of God (such as the Abrahamic god).
What can our expedition along the road to Truth conclude at this point? Early days, of course, but if we were to devise one sentence that everybody should agree with, it would be this: It’s extremely unlikely, given the number of necessary settings – and the crucial fineness of and between them – that our physical universe exists by chance. Residents of the House of God would nod knowingly at this and readily agree (with their primitive god, ready up their sleeve to insert at any available moment); while residents of the House of Disbelief, grudgingly having to accept that the numbers indicate chance is an unlikely explanation, could still insist that nothing is proven – perhaps muttering something under their breaths about a multiverse being proven one day, which would mean that even this immaculately functioning universe just had to exist by chance, given the infinite number of universes existing in an hypothesised multiverse (without stopping to consider that even more “something” accidentally appearing from “nothing” just creates an even bigger mystery).
However, there is much more to explore. Our road, a little more distinct now than the vague track we started on, has arrived at a territory containing another great mystery: the mystery of life – and the mystery of us – the “players” who strut Shakespeare’s stage.
“I may say that the impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wondrous universe, with our conscious selves, arose through chance, seems to me the chief argument for the existence of God; but whether this is an argument of real value, I have never been able to decide.”
Charles Darwin, (From a letter he wrote in reply to a question about his religious beliefs.)
As we have just seen, the processes which led to the existence of our physical universe were truly amazing, but what came next was, if possible, even more so – some of the mysteriously-existing and finely-tuned physical universe became alive. Amazingly, mysteriously, some inert molecules (made up of atoms which had proceeded from a sterile, billion-degree maelstrom) became organic.
THE EMERGENCE OF
Life – the enlivening of inert atoms happened on Earth about 3.8 billion
years ago. How? Roughly, this occurred as the end result of chemical action and
reaction when organic monomers (e.g. amino acids), forming from molecules (e.g.
water, methane, carbon dioxide, hydrogen, cyanide), teamed up with other
Professor Paul Davies (an eminent physical scientist and not a resident of any “H” House) ponders over the mystery of the emergence of life from inert matter, and its implications:
“What physical and chemical processes can transform non-living matter into a living organism?…It is currently being tackled by an army of chemists, biologists, astronomers, physicists, and mathematicians … On the basis of their research, many of them fervently conclude that the laws of nature are, to put it bluntly, rigged in favour of life…[but] Many scientists are scornful of such notions, insisting that the origin of life was a freak accident of chemistry, unique to Earth... the chance outcome of a gigantic cosmic lottery.”
“The Fifth Miracle”, Paul Davies, p.xii
So, some researchers conclude that the physical and chemical processes involved in the initial formation of life from the inert universe are so delicate, in themselves, and in their overall relationship to each other – that they seem suspiciously purposeful – even to the point that our universe could be said to have been “rigged in favour of life”. But others, as Davies says, stick to the familiar materialist line – that life, like the universe, just had to be a “freak accident…the chance outcome of a gigantic cosmic lottery” because, for a materialist, (accidentally-existing) matter and energy are all there can possibly be.
So, we find a familiar argument swirling around the explanation for the existence organic universe, as that which swirls around the existence of the non-organic universe: it is either “rigged” or a “freak accident”. The answer, again, has huge philosophical implications in the search for special meaning and ultimate purpose.
SEVERAL LOTTERIES, NOT JUST ONE
The first thing to notice is that those scientists who describe life as “the chance outcome of a gigantic cosmic lottery” – are wrong. Life, if it exists by chance, would be the ultimate result of several giant lotteries, one after the other – before any “freak accidents of chemistry” could just happen to create life, there had to have been several freak accidents of physics already have taken place – to create a physical universe suitable for life. Add the two odds together and you get a figure (against life accidentally happening in an accidental universe) so huge, that it can’t be taken seriously.
Is this an exaggeration?
Let’s have a look at the amazing occurrence of first life. Just how complicated is such an event? More from Paul Davies:
“The living cell is the most complex system of its size known to mankind. …How did something so immensely complicated, so finessed, so exquisitely clever, come into being all on its own? How can mindless molecules, capable only of pushing and pulling their immediate neighbours, cooperate to form and sustain something as ingenious as a living organism?”
(Paul Davies, Op. cit. P.5)
Only capable of “pushing and pulling their immediate neighbours”? Are we talking a miracle, here?
Was life a miracle? Certainly for residents of the House of God it was – a Divine miracle. It even appears a little that way in unguarded moments to the residents of the House of Disbelief – this from Francis Crick, Nobel prize-winning biologist – and staunch resident of the fore mentioned House:
“The origin of life appears…to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have to be satisfied to get it going.”
“Life Itself: Its Nature and Origins”, Francis Crick P. 88
Crick, the discoverer of DNA, only allows that life was so unlikely to exist that it could seem “almost” to be a miracle. Just how “almost”? Let’s consider some of the main initial “conditions which would have to be satisfied to get it going” (resembling miracles in themselves?):
· The existence of water – only possible because 90% of nuclei are hydrogen.
· The existence of carbon – from the fusion of three helium atoms inside stars.
· The just right amounts and proportions of carbon dioxide and ozone.
And that’s just the first simple lifeform. How about more complicated lifeforms. Astrophysicist, Fred Hoyle, in a well-known analogy, likened the accidental emergence of higher lifeforms as being similar in chance to a tornado swirling through a junk yard accidentally assembling a jumbo jet with the material lying around.
Above, we have just mentioned DNA – a molecule essential for the even higher lifeforms we see around us today. Let’s consider the chances of it being accidental?
All life on Earth is based on DNA; an immensely complex substance in amino acids containing Earth-life’s genetic code (combinations of ATG&C). What are the odds against something as complicated as DNA happening accidentally? Hoyle’s above analogy concerning the likelihood of higher lifeforms assembling by random bothers members of the House of Disbelievers because of its graphic appeal to the general public (whose hearts and minds they are wrestling the House of God for) – so let’s just state the odds mathematically:
“It is easy to estimate the odds against random permutations of molecules assembling DNA. It is about 10 40,000 to one against!”
“Are We Alone?”, Paul Davies, P. 19.
What’s such a number like? Totally unimaginable – consider that the total number of protons in the visible universe has been estimated by cosmology as only 1080 !
Who counts these things, and how? But the exact number is irrelevant, we are just dealing in multiples of mind-bogglingness – all we can do is just accept that the odds of DNA/life emerging from random physical permutations are so small that they cannot be imagined. This is not to prove that DNA wasn’t accidental, but it does establish that its accidentality was extremely unlikely to a huge degree. Logically, if the accidental occurrence of DNA is not likely – to such a degree – then it is likely that its occurrence was not accidental, to a similar degree.
And that’s just (!) DNA, the forerunners of DNA are just as mysterious: RNA; nucleotides; amino acids; and smaller still – complex electrochemical micromachines called ribosomes (400 million could fit on this dot . – our bodies have billions of cells but trillions of ribosomes). While some scientists have reported witnessing RNA evolving into DNA, how the key component: ribosomes, came into being remains a great mystery.
“Evolving”? – what can evolutionary theory contribute towards solving the mystery of life?
The usual House of Disbelief plug for gaps in theory – sheer luck.
Evolutionists fob the mystery of life off as just the result of “sheer luck”. This from House of Disbelief resident, Professor Richard Dawkins:
“…the origin of life is not the only major gap in the evolutionary story that is bridged by sheer luck…”
“The God Delusion”, Richard Dawkins, P.140
“Bridged”? What does that mean? Something like “papered-over”, I guess? But the thinness of their explanation does not prevent them from hubris – more from Professor Richard Dawkins:
“This book is written in the conviction that our own existence once presented the greatest of all mysteries, but that it is a mystery no longer because it is solved.”
“The Blind Watchmaker”, Richard Dawkins, P xiii
Is Dawkins suffering from a fit of irrational exuberance? Is his claim “that it is a mystery no longer” just fundamentalist fervor or can evolutionists validly claim that, in their one great understanding (of natural selection) “it is solved”? We have considered some of the gaps in evolutionary theory’s “Theory of Everything” in Essay 2 – to reprise some of it here.
Any evolutionary ideologue who believes that their understanding of natural selection has solved all the mysteries of the occurrence of life has, firstly, to believe three impossible things before breakfast:
1.) That energy/matter (which cannot be created or destroyed) can just appear (out of nothing).
2.) That the highly-ordered and finely-tuned forces, ratios, constants necessary for matter to continue to exist into the teeth of natural entropy are accidental.
3.) That inert atoms should spontaneously become alive.
Their breakfast being even more impossible: swallowing that some of those accidentally-existing and spontaneously-alive atoms should then mechanically evolve into a human body/brain which can understand the whole process – through its understanding of the language the whole universe was written in – mathematics.
The mechanical process of bodily evolution through natural selection of random mutations seems to be fairly likely, even if how these random mutations happen is still not totally understood (cosmic rays being perhaps the most prominent theory), but it takes an ideologue to believe that all the nonphysical mysteries of the human condition are satisfactorily explained by this physical process – like our understanding of mathematics (and all the other mysteries our expedition is set to encounter according to our map) – which, as we have considered, could only happen after a plethora of necessary mysteries/miracles have previously happened.
Undaunted by the biggest mystery of the occurrence of life, leading evolutionary theorist, Stephen Gould offered this:
“Life presumably began in primeval oceans as a result of sequential chemical reactions based on original constituents of atmospheres and oceans, and regulated by principles of physics for self-organising systems.”
“Life’s Grandeur”, Stephen Jay Gould, P.169.
“Presumably”? “Self-organising systems”? In other words, evolutionists haven’t got a clue about how life began. Darwin himself said:
“I have met with no evidence that seems in the least trustworthy, in favour of so-called Spontaneous Generation.”
Quoted from Paul Davies, “The Fifth Miracle”, P. 53.
And there are certain other processes, to whose genesis, evolutionary theory offers no explanation – like photosynthesis and cell-splitting/reproduction. Again, natural selection/evolution can only exert its mechanical influence after such mysteries happened. As well as these mysteries, there is still the mystery of where life on Earth actually started: in the ocean, underground in a volcano, maybe even on Mars – and blasted in our direction by comet impact?
No, we are a long way from being able to accept Dawkins’ fundamentalist statement about evolution being the answer to the mystery that is life: “it is a mystery no longer because it is solved.”
So, what else can we consider? How about this – there have been many attempts by science to create life, what would be the implications for our journey along the road to Truth, should we succeed?
BUT WHAT ARE THE IMPLICATIONS SHOULD WE MANAGE TO REPLICATE LIFE?
Science is powerful – one day, it seems reasonable to consider, science will have solved the “wheres” and “hows” of life – to the point of being able to create it ourselves? What would be the implications of that for us? Would it prove life’s accidentality and meaninglessness?
There was a flurry of such speculation last century (1953) when a young scientist at the University of Chicago (Stanley Miller) combined some likely-to-exist-on-Earth pre-life ingredients (water, ammonia, methane, hydrogen) in a flask and supplied heat and electric sparks, and managed to create some 13, or so, amino acids (life precursors). Science has advanced quite a bit since then, and people keep trying, so it seems a reasonable exercise to consider the implications for our journey towards Truth should we be able to create life – specifically for questions of meaning and purpose. If we achieve the creation of life from inert components, must this necessarily be the end of a rational contemplation of any special meaning/purpose to life (and any God) – by proving life to be just a physical/chemical process? Must it, of necessity, be the end of our journey towards Truth – the “T” Truth being, there is none – only the scientific “t” truth: that life is just a spontaneous chemical reaction which we can make happen in a flask.
LIFE STILL REQUIRES AN INTELLIGENCE TO OCCUR
Not so. Even if we humans can create life from scratch, we have only established that for life to occur an intelligence is needed to make it happen. We have not established that it can “just happen”, spontaneously, chemically, by chance – quite the opposite – a great deal of understanding and control (not to mention decades of research) was needed to make life “happen”. And the giant mystery previously mentioned, that we (if just mechanically evolved physical atoms) should have such an understanding of the process which accidentally created us – through our understanding of mathematics, the language the universe is written in. Our map says we are to explore more of the mystery of our ability to speak mathematics and other mysterious nonphysical things (“mysterious” for a collection physical atoms, like us, to have) further down our road.
Members of the House of Disbelief would answer that no intelligence is needed, the primeval oceans (whether on Earth or Mars) were the equivalent of a huge beaker in a huge scientific laboratory where all possible chemical things which could happen would surely just happen? – including ribosomes, amino acids, nucleotides, RNA, DNA, first life, photosynthesis, cell splitting. This is a bit like a biological equivalent of the multiverse theory we examined in the first region of our journey – where it was argued that if enough universes accidentally come into being, one like ours (with the necessary rules/laws to exist, and endure, and suitable for life) would just have to happen. Here the argument is that Earth’s oceanic beaker is large enough for there to be enough atoms and molecules (remember, only capable of pushing and pulling each other) rubbing together that life just had to happen? Such, just doesn’t ring as a compelling theory.
WHATEVER HAPPENED IS AWESOME
Standing back and contemplating the amazingly creative, complicated process of both universe and life formation – however it happened, leaves one in awe. Most often our increasing scientific understanding increases the awe, and even that certain numinous feeling most of us feel, at some time or other, in contemplation. And our religions are a natural consequence of such. However our religions are anthropocentric.
Some, usually members of a House of God, put humans forward as the purpose of the universe. This doesn’t ring true as a compelling theory, either, and the residents of the House of Disbelief (playing their useful sceptic role) are quick to leap onto such anthropocentric notions. This from philosopher Professor A.C. Grayling:
“The universe’s parameters are not tuned on purpose for us to exist. It is the other way round: we exist because the laws happen to be as they are.”
“The God Argument” – A. C. Grayling, P. 81. (author’s italics underlined).
Most likely, Grayling’s statement is the Truth – we exist “because the laws happen to be as they are”. But what has concerned us along this section of our road to Truth is, how did they happen to be as they are – i.e. delicately set for life to form (which life just happens to include us)? While the massively huge universe is not likely to be “tuned on purpose for us to exist” – it certainly does, as Grayling admits – happen to be “tuned”. Such smacks more of purpose than accident – while at the same time establishing nothing at all about any central importance/purpose in humanity’s existence. The anthropic debate between the House of God and the House of Disbelief clouds the issue entirely (something they often manage) the main point which indicates evidence of “purpose” in the universe – is not the existence of you and me – but that said universe should be so creative. The purpose of anything is what it does – and this universe definitely and immaculately does creation – indicating, strongly, purpose.
This expedition towards Truth concentrates on the mysteries of human existence because we are the most complicated lifeform that we can explore – and the one we know most about what it is to be. And we are also very creative – very much part of what the universe is about. Meaning is a human question, the central question of these essays, while creativity is observably the purpose of this universe, does this creativity have any special meaning – or only personal meaning?
Any special meaning (as opposed to our own individual personal meanings) our existence in this universe has, depends, in the final analysis, on what we create. It’s a bit early for us to conclude on this one – it should take us our whole journey to be able to have a valid and reasonable opinion on that. So, let’s not get ahead of ourselves – let’s just consider where are we up to at this stage of our road to Truth?
Our expedition has explored Shakespeare’s stage (our universe), and its players (life), and at this point we have to conclude that neither are mathematically likely to have been the result of chance – whatever our personal notions. So if is likely to have been the result of a chance accident, is it more likely to be the product of intent – design? At this point I would have to say yes, much of the universe – inert and organic, smacks of design – even of “D” Design.
A faint but smug “I told you so!” can be heard emanating from the House of God.
“Belief that life is written into the laws of nature carries a faint echo of a bygone religious age, of a universe designed for habitation…”
- Paul Davies, P. xii, Op. cit.
Personally, while I am not religious, after examining all the above evidence I’m inclined towards the position that something other than blind physics, acting upon an accident, is going on. For me this is not a faith statement, but a logical conclusion. But to consider something may be “going on” suggests not only Intelligent Design, but a “D” Designer? While this expedition is primarily concerned about the purpose of our existence, and any special meaning such purpose could give our lives, it is determined not to turn a blind eye to anything relevant – and the existence of any God-like designer is certainly that.
But to mention the “design” word is to enter a storm – a storm philosophical, educational, political, and even legal (consider the Scopes trial in the U.S.). While the uncertain track we initially set out on may seem a little more road-like, it now enters this storm surrounding the “I” Intelligent “D” Design debate, and must weather it to continue.
· APPARENT INTELLIGENT DESIGN
Our expedition enters the storm surrounding the Intelligent Design debate looking like a believer because we remarked that the existence of our physical universe, and of the life within it, were extremely unlikely to have been accidental. We likened the odds of our universe being 1.) in existence; 2.) populated with life – should both be accidental, as being the equivalent of winning multiple, unimaginably-giant lotteries in a row. We also got involved because we observed that the physical universe did not seem to be “out of control” – leaving us with the unavoidable next thought: “so who’s in control?” We also nodded at the observations of expert others, that the universe appeared: “rigged in favour of life”; that certain necessary things seemed: “written into the laws of nature” – and noted that these ideas carried: “a faint echo of a bygone religious age”.
Evidence which could support a rational belief in intelligent design must also support a rational belief in a designing agency – which implies a higher agency – “higher” because obviously it would have to be an agency higher than us, one of its products. For many people this means a “H” Higher “A” Agency – a God. Further, because the only God we know is the god of our religion, arguments for intelligent design are also taken as arguments supporting that god. However, is this rational, if “I” Intelligent “D” Design is established, must any religion which proposes it, also be necessarily established?
THE TELEOLOGICAL (DESIGN) ARGUMENT FOR GOD
The intelligent design argument in support of our religions’ gods has been raging in philosophy since the Enlightenment first threatened religious beliefs. In defense of his religion and his god, churchman William Paley put forward a “design” proof of his god known as the “Watchmaker Proof” (Natural Theology, 1802). His argument was basically that, just as finding an intricate thing like a watch must prove the existence of a watchmaker, the discovery of the intricacy of our universe argues there must be a universe-maker. Fair enough, but what muddies the waters is the next step: his conclusion that any Designer must necessarily be his Biblical creator god – the pre-scientific, Abrahamic god of an iron-age tribe.
This association with such a primitive god and likening apparent design with incredible Biblical creationism has given the idea of Intelligent Design (and a Designer) a bad name. Arch-atheist Richard Dawkins (“The Blind Watchmaker”, “Unweaving the Rainbow” and other works) in his campaign to bolster his opposing House of Disbelief, makes much of the House of God’s tendency to try and use our world’s apparent design to “prove” its primitive Biblical creationism. This from Deepak Chopra on that subject:
“Dawkins makes hay by aiming chapter after chapter against religious fundamentalists. As he presents it, if you suggest that nature looks designed, you are in the same leaky boat as someone who believes that the Book of Genesis is literally true.”
“The Future of God”, Deepak Chopra, P. 50
The 6-day creationist “g” god of the Hebrew tribes is so incredible that, today, it is probably the biggest argument against any “G” God/higher agency – just as religion’s incredible purpose and meaning have discredited the credibility of any special meaning and ultimate purpose to our existence. However, even though our religions of a “B” Book are very fallible, human artifacts, affair – and their adoption of the universe’s apparent design is, transparently, a device to drum up numbers – this does not mean that the universe was not intelligently designed by an unknown Higher Agency.
Fine, but is there any evidence for a real “G” God in the apparent design of the universe for life?
The majority of physical scientists would say “no” – they feel that there are very few holes in their understanding of the universe and the life within it as a design-free, purely physical system – and none of these holes (which they believe to be decreasing anyway) are God-shaped.
Is this true?
There are holes remaining in our physical sciences’ inchoate Theory of Everything, and some of them do seem to be, possibly, God-shaped. Science likes to claim these are being closed down by its discoveries, thereby reducing God down to a diminishing god-of-the-gaps – increasingly insignificant with the closing of the gaps. But, in fact, some of the gaps are opening wider the more we learn – for example, quantum physics’ enigma (the role of human consciousness in mattergy’s existence as actually matter or energy).
And there are certain other gaps in our understanding of Everything which our map says we are due to explore ahead on our journey – for example: the self; human happiness; consciousness; our understanding of beauty. But among the, possibly God-shaped holes, in science’s understanding which we have encountered already I would include: the original existence of energy; the inert becoming organic; humanity’s understanding of mathematics (the language the universe was written in).
While these holes indicate that the existence of God is a rational possibility, what do they reveal about the nature of God?
The only thing rational we can deduce about the nature of any higher agency from the observable intelligent design of the universe is that it is intelligent – because the universe’s forces, delicate ratios, essential parameters etc. are written in an intelligent language – mathematics. We know that it is “intelligent” because it can be understood by intelligent creatures – us (at least us – quite possibly others?). Some deny this by insisting that humanity invented mathematics. Our map indicates that we are due to explore maths in more detail further down our road.
Many evangelical (Bible believing) religious theorists see the way clear to argue for their Biblical god from Intelligent Design, via the idea of irreducible complexity – the idea that all animals are so complex that they must have been created entire as they appear now (i.e. total creation of all lifeforms at once – as per the Bible). Less ambitious versions of irreducible complexity don’t attempt to underwrite the whole Genesis story, but maintain that a version of Intelligent Design is proven by the irreducible complexity of certain biological structures or organs – seen as too complex to have evolved through natural selection – the intermediate steps having no survival advantage therefore not likely to be selected naturally (therefore the product of an Intelligent Designer interfering with the process, perhaps – rather than 6-day creation, entire).
The case for irreducible complexity is well put by Michael Behe (Darwin’s Black Box: The biochemical challenge to evolution – 1996.) Behe is a biochemist who presents the immune system, the metabolic system, the blood-clotting system, and the flagellar motor of bacteria as examples of systems which could not have evolved because all their individual parts would need to be in place at once before the system could work at all – any intermediate steps towards the presently functioning structure would be weeded out by natural selection because they could not work separately, beneficially, to advance the genetic cause of the animal having such inchoate systems – further, they would actually be more of a disadvantage while in their incomplete form. In short, all final steps need to be in place before the structure could work and be selected by nature as advantageous to survival.
Behe has been attacked by the House of Disbelief’s zealots with the usual fundamentalist fear and loathing – e.g. Dawkins (“The God Delusion”, 2006). Behe defended and amplified his findings with a second book (“The Edge of Evolution”, 2007). But even if Behe is right, none of it is credible evidence arguing for the Biblical god, 6 day creation, and/or a 6000-year age for our universe.
Some who consider evolution as evident fact, can still derive arguments for a designer/deist God from evidence that the usually mechanical evolution process appears sometimes to have been set in a creative direction/advanced by interference. The argument being that there would have needed to be more time than actually passed, for: 1.) the massive number of random mutations to an organism’s DNA needed before a useful one could just “happen”; 2.) the huge amount of time required for such to be selected for by nature – by the out-propagation by lifeforms having such mutations in succeeding generations. All up, a much longer period of time would be needed than actually passed, to create an animal as complex as a human out of serendipitous random mutations. Maybe a deist, sometimes-interfering “D” Designer, could affect/effect mutations for purpose?
To assess the credibility of this idea properly, we need to understand just how unusual mutations are – about one per hundred million nucleotides of DNA copied in a generation. Of these rare events, there are mutations which have deleterious effect and are selected out, some mutations which have no effect, good or bad, and only a few which are favourable. We still don’t know how mutations actually happen (best guess: cosmic rays) but we do know that mutations are not only rare, but adaptive ones – extremely rare. And here’s the rub (and yet another apparent design feature) – the number of mutations to an organism’s DNA has to be finely tuned to be creative. If mutations were more common, complex life could not exist – reproduction would become too unstable – there needs to be just the right balance between enough mutations and none at all.
“Are mutations good or bad news? If genome replication were completely faithful [i.e. no mutations] life could never adapt to changing circumstances, and extinction would inevitably follow. On the other hand, too many copying errors and the genetic message would get diluted and eventually lost. To succeed, a species needs to strike a balance between too many and too few mutations.”
“The Fifth Miracle” – Paul Davies, P. 30
From all of this, it could be rationally argued that for enough useful mutations to have occurred in the time that passed to evolve an animal as complex as a human from the original single cell of life, some fiddling by an agency higher than blind force seems indicated. For me, the relevant point for our exploration, again, turns around the fine-tuning involved. Darwinian evolution through natural selection seems sufficiently well enough established for it to be called a force, a “law”, even – but it is only yet another (and finely-tuned) one – which only acts after other finely-tuned ones have produced subatomic particles, atoms, molecules, then life – to select the mysterious random mutations happening to it. Evolutionary theory certainly does not address any of the other mysteries on its own, as evolutionary ideologues insist, but is only part of the main mystery we are seeing throughout this essay – the mysterious creativity of our universe – supposedly accidental in the first place, and spontaneous and mechanical in the second. And evolution, as a force, is as finely-tuned and apparently designed as those forces we considered in the previous region we explored – all necessary for the amazing creativity of our universe.
I think that, eventually on our road to Truth, when we seek any ultimate purpose and special meaning to existence we will find purpose in that creativity – and most likely, meaning in what has been created? We’ll see, here we just need to see that we live in a dynamic, changing, relative (the existence of good, better, best) reality which is necessarily creative because of that relativity (unlike the absolute) and selection of mutations for good, better, best – are part of such dynamism.
DESIGN IS ONLY AN EFFECTIVE ARGUMENT AGAINST ACCIDENT
As we have considered, evidence of design in our universe and in the lifeforms within it, is not an argument for any particular god of any particular religion, but it does argue against theories proposing that the universe and the life within it are accidental – and, thereby, against their corollaries of meaninglessness. And the ultimate mysteries about God are untouched – for example, any effective argument for the existence of a Higher Agency from design, only puts the mystery back one step: where did such creating/designing agency come from – i.e. the “Who made God?” question, popularized by Bertrand Russell.
But the House of Disbelief has some answers to the apparently “D” Design mysteries we have considered.
THE DARWINIAN ANSWER TO INTELLIGENT DESIGN
Many Neo-Darwinians still feel that their one great discovery (evolution through natural selection) can explain away apparent intelligent design. This from John R. Shook:
“...a life form’s organisation from cells to tissues to organs to the entire organism can look designed, until scientific accounts of the growth and development of an organism from initial single-celled conception to full adulthood were available.”
“Finally, life itself may seem designed, but Darwinian evolution has provided an alternative account of the development of more and more complex organisms from very simple beginnings.”
“The God Debates” P.97, (John R. Shook – Senior Research Fellow, Amherst.)
As we have already considered at the previous region we explored on our Road to Truth, Darwinian evolution may well have “provided an alternative account of the development of more and more complex organisms from simple beginnings” (certainly an account more credible than those of our ancient religions) but it is these “very simple beginnings” that are the very problem. The miracle of the appearance of the first cell: the original, simple, organic Lego building-blocks out of which every lifeform is created; how it managed to reproduce; form DNA; photo-synthesize; and the way it fits together with other building blocks to form more and more complicated structures – this is the true mystery – not the eventual Lego constructions themselves, however elaborate they may be (e.g. organs like eyes, or even the whole eventual animal). Evolution theory is just a (partial) explanation about what happened next – way down the mysterious track.
MATERIALIST ARGUMENTS AGAINST DESIGN
Some see the immense size of the universe as proof against intelligent design – if there was some intelligent first cause, why so much waste in the design – as illustrated by the huge amounts of space and uninhabitable worlds?
The discoveries of (previously) “dark” energy and matter have answered the question of all the wasted “space”. And it seems the apparently extravagant size of our universe is, in fact, crucial – habitable or not.
SIZE DOES MATTER
For some physical scientists, the huge size and density of the universe is immaculate. This from cosmologist Dr. Rodney Holder:
“...the mean density of matter in the universe at the very beginning has to be within 1 part in 1060 of the so-called ‘critical density’...If the density is smaller than it is by this amount then the universe will expand far too quickly for stars and galaxies to be able to form. If it is greater then the whole universe will recollapse under gravity in just a few months...the universe needs to be the vast size it is in order for man to exist. This is the size it inevitably reaches in the 14,000 million years which it takes to evolve human beings...only if it is so vast could we be here!”
Dr. Rodney Holder, “Think” Philosophy Journal No.12, P.53
Dr. Holder, as well as a scientist, is also a resident of the House of God – and I’m not sure that I adhere to his apparently human-centric vision (“in order for man to exist”) – more like in order for anything to exist? There may be way more than just one planet hosting life – there is nothing in Holder’s theory of crucial size for a universe to continue to exist that implies only one planet can have life. Even if the universe’s size after “14,000 million years” is necessary, if the immaculate forces and order existing in our universe have led to life on this suitable planet, statistically it is most likely elsewhere – given the huge number of planets there are/must be (continually more are being discovered – many in “Goldilocks-zones, i.e. suitable for Earth-like life).
We considered the multiverse idea as an explanation for the existence of our well-ordered universe, above, and some feel that a similar speculation can also be used to explain the existence of life too. Multiverse theory constructs infinite billions of universes (also accidentally out of nothing) – so many that one must have, not only the fine-tuning necessary to exist, but also the necessary conditions for life to spontaneously erupt.
As above, a multiverse has never been observed, and is a theory with unnecessary complexity therefore in danger of being flensed by Okham’s Razor. Also it needs to be considered that if it is possible for infinite billions of universes to continue to exist, then it is also possible that all the universes in a multiverse may also be Intelligently Designed – even by a God (or Gods). If such other universes exist, and continue to exist, they must also have the necessary but mysteriously-existing order, constants, fine-tuning etc., and it is entirely possible that intelligent life may also exist in all/some of them if it can arise, evolve and continue in ours.
Multiverses, then, do not solve the problem of apparent Intelligent Design – only multiply it. Multiverse theory is only a problem for our ancient, pre-scientific theisms – it is not a problem for our expedition looking for any credible special meaning and purpose, which, if multiverses exist, only become potentially grander – not explained away.
MISTAKES IN DESIGNS?
Some evolutionary theorists see evidence for lack of design in the fact that there are many more wrong and wasteful mutations which are disposed of by nature, than good ones which are adaptive (i.e. selected by nature as advantageous). The argument being that a designer-God would not have to make so many mistakes – any “D” Divine Designer should get it right every time – by definition.
But consider the utter meaninglessness of such an Absolute, “perfect” universe for a moment: where nothing is random – a machine – punching out perfect, therefore identical “widgets”. Now consider our actual “imperfect” relative (allowing good, better, best) universe – where everything is possible because randomness does exist. Which universe would be the most creative – of both physical and nonphysical things – to be selected in or out by nature (to create our physical bodies) and selected in or out by that other creator – us (to create our nonphysical selves). Which type of universe would be therefore the most potentially purposeful and meaningful? Again, the strongest evidence for Intelligent Design is the immaculate creativity of our universe – random mutations and all – which universe should have been, more rightly chaotic if accidental.
Not only is there “something [physical] rather than nothing” but, stranger still, there are nonphysical things like beauty (both natural and human-made) rather than nothing. We are due to explore our world’s creation of things like beauty (and the phenomenon of our appreciation and understanding of it; and of the needs within us that beauty meets) further down our road, here we just need to note that the whole Intelligent Design debate, like most debates in the philosophy of God, is really about the defending or killing of a “t” truth (in this case, the old Abrahamic, Hebrew/Christian/Muslim “g” god) not about searching for any “T Truth there might be (like the existence of a more credible “D” Divine, whatever its nature).
WHY A STORM?
The Intelligent Design argument is a “storm” because it is about winning an argument, not about trying to walk along the road to Truth – an argument which is bound to be vitriolic because the outcome threatens our comforting beliefs – theistic and atheistic (as we have discussed in Essay 2, disbelief can be just as comforting as belief). And nobody has won the argument, so far – theists can only establish that to hold belief in apparent design, and a Designer, is rational because of the exquisite fine-tuning etc. necessary for the existence of both the physical and organic universe – atheists can only establish that any creator-god proffered so far by any religion, is not such a credible Designer (especially not the everything-created-in-6-days Abrahamic god).
Said storm is not resolved, so where does that leave our little expedition? Let’s just say, this lack of resolution indicates that the Truth has not been found – therefore, our journey towards it is still valid. While the creative laws of the universe may well have been “written into nature”, and “God’s laws impressed on nature” (Darwin’s own words representing his initial understandings), but it will be an altogether more magnificent Divine than our ancient ancestors were able to envisage in their pre-scientific times – which god has been concreted in place in our leading (and warring) religions’ unchangeable “B” Books.
THE BIBLE IS NOT SCIENCE
While noticing the mysteries of the existence of the physical and the organic universe allowed a credible contemplation of Design, and allowed “faint echoes of a bygone religious age” to resound, nothing we have discovered on our journey so far leaves us in any doubt that the Bible is of religion, not science. And to attempt to bring our holy Books into school science classrooms under the cover of the fact that Intelligent Design is a credible possibility, leaves any civilization attempting such a maneuver at risk of losing its position of technological pre-eminence through the strictures that pre-scientific religions impose on knowledge and education. As we have considered, the scientifically-advanced Muslim civilisations managed to lose their previous pre-eminence in the fields of mathematics, medicine, engineering, astronomy, and science in general, by letting religion dominate their schools. For fundamentalist Christians, the “tree of knowledge” in the “garden of good and evil” (Eden) housed the serpent which led humanity astray by offering us the forbidden apple (of knowledge).
Knowledge, of course, is neither good nor bad in itself, only what we do with it. Knowledge has delivered us good (helpful technologies and medicines) and bad (more destructive weapons). It would be wonderful if it could advance our spiritual evolution as far and fast as our technological evolution?
MANY MORE MYSTERIES
So, our expedition towards any Truth in life has emerged from the storm surrounding the Intelligent Design debate without being halted in its tracks. While the “T” Truth about the existence, or not, of any special meaning and/or ultimate purpose of our existence is not established by apparent design in our physical and organic universe, I think it fair to say that the existence of such has been hinted at – sufficient to believe that our expedition in search thereof still looks like a rational enterprise.
So, where are we now on our road? We have explored something of the mystery of the existence of our world stage, the mystery of the existence of players upon that stage, and the mystery of apparent design in both. Our map indicates that we are about to explore these human “players” in more depth – specifically the mysteries of the human condition as revealed by our behaviours.
Firstly we will examine our behaviours which flow from our nonphysical values, and to that end we will enter the territory of the human morality and virtues – a territory which has been entered and charted by some of humanity’s wisest – Kant, Confucius and Aristotle among them.
“Two things move the mind with ever-increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within.”
Kant – “Critique of Practical Reason”, Conclusion.
Who has not been moved when looking up at the vast nighttime sky and “the starry heavens above” – the awe not decreasing the more we do so – but “ever-increasing”? For some, our insignificance overwhelms us at such times, even to the point of nihilism, but the deeply-thinking Kant found the fact that such creatures as us (minute to the point of insignificance) had “moral law” within, equally awe-inspiring – and worthy of contemplation. Our virtues, which we are to examine here, emanate from our strange “moral law within”.
Perhaps the strangest thing about our virtues is that we naturally selected animals should have a concept of them at all – that certain behaviour should be seen as good; and that those who exhibit such should be seen as being good (virtuous) – even if such behaviour goes against our bodily survival and genetic imperatives, which the House of Disbelief tells us should determine all our behaviours.
The great Chinese philosopher, Confucius, spoke of the virtues appropriate to our societal roles (son, mother, citizen, ruler etc.) and of the virtues appropriate to being human: altruism, empathy, raised consciousness. Confucius encouraged the Golden Rule, and the “Way” (tao) – a virtuous way of life which would lead you beyond yourself into another dimension – to the ultimate human virtue of ren (hard to translate, but ultimately about being humane – personally demonstrated by our compassion and benevolence).
One of the great philosophers of the golden age of Greek philosophy, Aristotle, also spoke of human virtues:
“Man, when perfected, is the best of animals; but if he be isolated from law and justice he is worst of all…if he be without virtue, he is a most unholy and savage being.”
Aristotle, “Politics” 1.2.15-16
He identified the following classic human virtues:
Courage, Friendliness, Temperance, Truthfulness, Liberality, Wittiness, Magnificence, Shame, Pride, Justice, Good temper, Honour.
Other, generally accepted modern human virtues include: Modesty, Sincerity, Humility, Integrity, Compassion, Tolerance, Honesty, Fidelity, Benevolence, Determination, Reliability, Insightfulness, Commitment, Persistence, Resourcefulness, Creativity, Enthusiasm, Perspicacity, Broadmindedness, Generosity.
Why should virtues be seen as mysterious?
Some think that virtues are not mysterious at all. Materialism holds that the universe (and everything in it) is a purely physical phenomenon – entirely explicable in terms of matter and energy, forces and laws. But, can virtues be explained purely in terms of electrical energy/impulses in meat/matter – brain states?
VIRTUE – JUST A STATE OF MATTER?
Brain states can create blips and flashes on computer screens – that is, they can be shown to exist in matter (the brain) as energy in space and time – but when we think about virtues, our brain states are being caused by, directed at, things which don’t exist in space and time. Tadeusz Zawidzki (Assistant Professor of Philosophy, George Washington Univ.) outlines the problems thus:
“The sciences of human nature, including neuroscience, biology, and cognitive science, assume human behaviour is entirely the product of the nervous system…Nervous systems are composed entirely of physical components: cells and tissues constructed out of proteins, communicating using electrical and chemical signals…Brain states exist in real space and time. They have a definite location and duration. So they can only be related to other events and objects that exist in space and time. For example, they can be triggered by light that reflects off real objects, hits the retina in the eye and is consequently transduced into neural impulses in the brain. But human beings can think about things which do not exist in space and time. Human thoughts can be directed at numbers and other abstract mathematical objects. Humans can think about other abstract ideals like justice and beauty [and virtues]…But how can a state of the nervous system, a pattern of neural activation, existing in space and time, be about or directed at objects that don’t exist in space and time?”
“Dennet”, by Tadeusz Zawidzki – Pp.12-14 (One World Thinkers).
So, if not likely to be characteristics of our meat, maybe the characteristics of us – our “abstract ideals” (which comprise our virtues) – are characteristics of our selves?
Neo-Darwinians consider that their one great idea (natural selection), can be applied (like Dr. Who’s sonic screwdriver) to any and every such “problem” of the human condition – in this case, the existence within us of nonphysical phenomena in a purely physical universe. For them, the nonphysical (like human virtues) will be naturally selected if they have adaptive value. For example, we exhibit “goodness” (virtues) not because we (our “selves”) are good, but because all the virtues describe characteristics that are good for successful group living – and group living is more likely to lead to our bodily (and genetic) survival. This from psychologist Jesse Bering:
“So when you dig deep enough into what are apparently selfless, pure-hearted motives, cynics can still rejoice in knowing that being good is ultimately, as evolutionary biologists point out, a selfish genetic enterprise. There really is no being good for goodness sake...”
“The God Instinct”, Jesse Bering – P. 188.
“Rejoice?” – more evidence of my earlier statements that Disbelief is comforting (in this case, disbelief in the existence of good and goodness).
We have already considered in Essay 2 the neo-Darwinian attempt to explain away the existence of altruism by classifying all altruism as either kin-, group-, and/or reciprocal-altruism – i.e. ultimately beneficial to the survival of the individual and/or group exhibiting such altruism(s) – therefore more adaptive to our world (and thus naturally selected). But to observe that something not of matter and/or energy (like virtues) which exists in the universe may be advantageous to the survival of certain matter/energy (e.g. our genes) does not explain away how that non-material something came to exist in a purely material world of atoms and energy in the first place to be so selected in the second place.
And some human behaviours usually described as virtuous are not likely to lead to human flourishing – to be beneficial to our “selfish genetic enterprise” – they may even be antithetical to the survival of the genes of the body hosting them.
VIRTUES ANTITHETICAL TO GENETIC SURVIVAL
Some altruistic virtues (like compassion) often lead people to assist unrelated individuals (and their unrelated genes) to survive sickness, injuries and dangers – which rescued individuals, then compete genetically with the saviour’s genes into the future. And humans, not uncommonly, help strangers (non-group members) – even wounded enemies on a battlefield (what could be called anti-group members) – to survive, therefore breed; the last example being Darwinian double-jeopardy. And humans also often show compassion towards animals, even to the point of risking our genes to save animals that don’t belong to us. “Animal Rescue” is a very popular, reality-TV program, which, in Darwinian terms is basically about humans risking their genes to save the genes of another species for no other reason than they care for them. These humans were doing this before the TV show was made about them – so they were not pursuing fame by acting thus for the show (and any better potential to spread their genes which may come with fame). Also, one of the most popular human charities is the R.S.P.C.A. – where people give up personal genetic survival resources (money and time) so that another species’ genes may survive for no payback other than meeting our love of (survivally-useless) animals, and meeting our strange need to be happy (in this case by feeling good about our selves). I see we are due to explore both the notion of “self”, and the role our ability to love/respect our self plays in human happiness, further down our road, so here we just need to consider that while some supposed “virtues” are actually driven by (conscious or unconscious) Darwinian expectations of genetic payback, there remains plenty of human virtues and virtuous behaviour well outside the kin, group, and/or payback protocols of the neo-Darwinians.
And a substantial work of research by Neo-Darwinian, evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker (“The Better Angels of Our Nature”, 2011) – which we have also considered in other places – has shown that our behaviour towards each other is becoming more virtuous at a fairly fast rate – we are evolving to be more virtuous, not only towards other humans, but towards animals as well. Pinker resists the temptation to conclude in favour of a “cosmic author” but concludes that a credible position of moral realism may be vindicated by the observable facts:
“...the multiplicity of datasets in which violence meanders downwards is a puzzle worth pondering. What do we make of the impression that human history contains an arrow? Where is this arrow, we are entitled to wonder, and who posted it? And if the alignment of so many historical forces in a beneficial direction does not imply a divine sign painter, might it vindicate some notion of moral realism – that moral truths are out there somewhere for us to discover, just as we discover the truths of science and mathematics”.
“The Better Angels of Our Nature’, P. 694 (also quoted in Essay 2).
The “alignment of so many historical forces in a beneficial direction” is certainly a miracle if accidental – i.e. if all our behaviours are, naturally, amorally selected – mechanically, according to the genetic survival advantages that they impart? This from Neo-Darwinian Robert Wright:
“Given that self-interest was the overriding criterion of our design, we are a reasonably considerate group of organisms. Indeed if you ponder the utter ruthlessness of evolutionary logic long enough, you may start to find our morality, such as it is, nearly miraculous.”
“The Moral Animal”, P. 378 (also quoted in Essay 2)
THE “MORAL LAWS WITHIN”
At the opening to this exploration of the phenomenon of human virtues, I quoted Kant’s awe when he contemplated the mystery of both the existence of the universe (“the starry heavens above”) and the existence of our morality (“our moral laws within”) – which he placed equal in terms of mysteriousness. So where did such “moral laws within”, come from – our sense of what is good and bad, right and wrong – virtuous, when nothing in nature is such? Some would say that, because it is not natural, we have been taught it by religion. But to quote philosopher Stephen Law (a confirmed resident of the House of Disbelief):
“So it seems that humans have an in-built sense of right and wrong that operates anyway, independently of their exposure to religion. …I admit there is a difficulty [as an atheist] about explaining how we come by moral knowledge. But religion does not solve that problem.”
- “Philosophy Gym”, Dr. Stephen Law, P.115
AN IN-BUILT SENSE OF RIGHT
If religion is not the answer, is the explanation of “how we come by moral knowledge” (a nonphysical characteristic of us) to be found, perhaps, in the existence of a nonphysical part of the human equation – our self/soul/spirit? Thoughts may be energy in matter, but virtues are not energy or matter. You can think thoughts, but virtues are something you have, to the point – if habitual – of being something you (your self, not your body) are. Virtues drive thoughts, and when those thoughts are driven habitually, they become something your self is – i.e. virtuous.
This brings us to the next region we are due to explore – our self.
THE HUMAN EQUATION
I have mentioned, just above, the term “human equation”. We also encountered it in Essay 2, and considered evidence that such human equation has both animal and spiritual “self” factors – simply: human = body + self. This is a duality, but different to the Cartesian duality of body + mind – a discredited duality because it has been established that the mind is of the body/brain. The evidence of our bodily factor is strong and obvious to us – we can see our physical body, we can touch it, we can feel its physical senses at work, the pull of its animal needs and the push of its genetic imperatives, and our body has a physical brain which generates our mind – which we can train and improve – like any other part of our physical body. However, the evidence for the existence of our nonphysical, spiritual self is more subtle but just as extensive – comprised, for example, of nonphysical human/humane phenomena like the virtues of our self we examined, above – something we are being, rather than something our body does.
Our expedition now enters the territory of the self.
“Immaterial souls have been popular for millennia – and it’s no surprise, offering as they do a route to life eternal in the paradise promised by many religions.”
“Self”, Barry Dainton, P. 24
Professor Dainton is correct, a belief in the existence of “immaterial souls” is popular because it allows the further belief of life eternal (in paradise – providing you believe in, and support, the right religion). Such beliefs have been essential to our religions’ popularity and key to their power over people. But what does this establish about the existence, or not, of any immaterial self/soul? In the eyes of many residents of the House of Disbelief, the fact that the soul’s existence is an essential ingredient of our religions, it follows that if a religion is demolished then the existence of a soul must necessarily be demolished as well? But is this logical?
The existence, or not, of a nonphysical self/soul/spirit (call it what you will) is important for our exploration towards the Truth of the human condition – and whether our existence has any special meaning or ultimate purpose.
Our running definition of “special” meaning is any that all humanity has (i.e. being beyond our own little personal meanings) and “ultimate” purpose is any beyond our obvious animal/genetic purposes (which end at our death). Is it the human condition to be no more than just a bunch of accidental atoms which are spontaneously alive and mechanically evolved, or is there much more to our existence than that – are there two factors in the human equation – is it the human condition to be an immaterial self/soul/spirit/consciousness (call it what you will) existing with a material/animal body?
Let’s see what we can find out?
DOES OUR SELF EXIST?
The notion of self has been central to the work of some of our greatest philosophers (for example, Descartes and Locke); some of our literary greats (for example, Goethe: the inadvisability of entering Faustian pacts against the soul/self – Shakespeare: “This above all: to thine own self be true.”); and most of our spiritual leaders (Jesus: “What will a man gain by winning the whole world, at the cost of his true self?”). The existence of the human self, and of its importance, has been accepted in various civilisations – various versions of the dictum “Know Thyself” have been seen as ultimate wisdom in many successful societies.
Fine. The existence of self/soul has been widely recognised – and by some of our finest – but does that mean our self actually exist?
We will hunt for it, but first a little semantics.
SEMANTICS – SELF/SPIRIT/SOUL/CONSCIOUSNESS?
I don’t want our expedition down the road to Truth getting lost in the mists of semantics. “Self” is a tricky little shape-shifting word – we all use it regularly but we often mean different things when we do so. It can mean such different things as: personality; soul; ego; character; spirit; psyche; mind; consciousness. Sometimes it can mean the sum of all of – or some of – these things plus body: as in “myself”, “yourself”, “ourselves”.
So what do I mean when we say our expedition is exploring for “self”?
When I use the word separately (e.g. your “self”, rather than “yourself”) I will be referring to that mysterious, immaterial thing which many call our “spirit” or “soul”. I prefer to use “self” rather than “spirit” or “soul” because the latter words are associated with religion – leading some to paint it with religion’s incredible brush (as Dainton does, above) – dismissing self as incredible as religion. As for the word “spiritual”, I try to keep its use to refer to what is commonly called our higher needs and behaviours – that is, “higher” than our basic animal, bodily ones. For me, an example of this would be the feeling we get when we admire/are moved by beauty – of all types: natural (beautiful animals, flowers, landscape etc.) and human (music, art, literature, architecture etc.). For me, the existence of spirituality in people, for example, is evidenced by a decreased interest in material things and/or animal egoistical satisfactions such as the accumulation of power and status – but an increased appreciation of beauty in all its forms – including the recognition and appreciation of beautiful souls in others. The existence of spirituality is also evidenced in people by their compassion and empathy for others; by agape love beyond your gene and/or social/survival pool; by the desire to create beauty – and the extent of our own “spiritual evolution” is indicated by the extent we possess and demonstrate such as above by our actions (our map indicates we are due to explore the phenomenon which is our understanding of and appreciation of beauty, and the idea of our spiritual evolution – a bit further along our road to Truth).
As for the word “numinous”, where I use it, will mean spiritual awe (generated in us by things like beauty) – rather than the older meaning of religious communion with God (although we could, possibly, be on Divine business when we create/appreciate beauty?)
Before we get any further, first let’s consider the materialist argument against the existence of a distinct self factor in the human equation.
If materialist residents of the House of Disbelief are right, we are wasting our time exploring for self – there can be no nonphysical entity of self because everything in this universe(s) is entirely of physical matter-energy – including us. Not only that, but such matter-energy came accidentally into existence; out of nothing; to be alive only by chance; and evolved into our present bodies only by the mechanical selection of random mutations. Even the entirety of our behaviours have been blindly, naturally, selected by the environment. Our nonphysical “self”, to them, is a misnomer – more correctly just our personality, our character, ego – the sum of our atoms’ naturally selected behaviours.
What of such claims?
Well, firstly, at the beginning of this essay we found the odds against just our physical universe appearing by chance with the necessarily forces, fine ratios, constants and parameters (all written in the intelligent language that is mathematics) – to enable it to exist and continue to exist into the teeth of entropy – to be incomprehensibly huge. If we add the odds against life also appearing by chance in this unlikely universe, then the odds against it all happening by chance would take a lifetime to write down. These are the chances that materialists smoothly swallow before breakfast, yet they choke on the greater likelihood of “Higher Agency”. As for our self being just our animal ego – we need to consider what it is to be a human being?
WHAT IS A HUMAN BEING?
Certainly our animal body does seem well-described as an evolved machine. But is our body all that there is to what we call a human “being”? What are we being – just a collection of living cells – or do we have a self as well? Is that self, mechanical or spiritual – is it of atoms or is it a ghost – in the machine which is our body?
A GHOST IN THE MACHINE?
The “ghost in the machine” was a phrase originally coined by philosopher Gilbert Ryle in his critique of Cartesian human dualism – the “ghost” referring to Descartes’ notion of mind as a nonphysical entity different to/distinct from our physical mechanical body – the “machine”. (Ryle, “The Concept of Mind” 1949.)
MIND + BODY DUALITY?
By contemplating the human condition to be a self with a body, we are considering a duality – two disparate parts – whereas monism (we are just of one stuff – matter/energy) is the majority position in modern philosophy. A Cartesian substance duality (a material brain/body and a nonmaterial mind) is out of favour in modern philosophy, dominated as it is by physics, because there are no physical theories to support it – and, as we have seen in Essay 2, modern neuroscience has uncovered evidence that the mind is a physical phenomenon, causally generated out of matter – our brain. Because our brain is observably just meat, our mind could be described as just “meat talking” (as some have poetically described it). As mysterious as this may be (that meat can talk – have thoughts, memories etc.) evidence that our mind is just a product of our brain/body meat lies in the observable fact that our mind can be affected by damage to our brain/meat (caused by physical injury, brain tumours, other disease, or by chemicals like drugs and alcohol etc.). So any mind + body duality is evidentially wrong – the mind is dependent on the state of the body (brain) – but could Descartes be right in contemplating the human condition as a duality, two distinct factors, but wrong about the nature of that duality? Maybe there is a “ghost” in/with our mechanical body, but perhaps that ghost is our self, rather than our mind – the human duality being more truly expressed as: human = body + self?
To explore this let’s consider what the implications of the above mentioned fact of brain damage are for such a “body + self” position? Let’s consider if, when such damage causes changed behaviours, is our self damaged/changed too?
IS THE SELF DAMAGED WITH THE BRAIN?
There are several stories about people whose character, personality, mind/thoughts changed after brain injury or sickness (e.g. cancerous growths) in certain brain regions. An example of this is related by neuroscientist, Kerry Spackman, in his book “The Ant and the Ferrari” (2012) which we previously encountered in Essay 2. Spackman’s story is about a dentist, previously kind and caring, who became violent and intolerant as a result of a tumour which grew in his brain’s frontal lobes. To cut the story short, the dentist had a risky brain operation to remove the tumour – after which, his personality returned his previous pleasant one.
What does this prove? Materialists, Darwinians, and other sundry members of the House of Disbelief see this whole episode as proof that “we” are just our bodies – that there is only an animal factor in the human equation. The reasoning being:
· Our self/soul is really just our animal personality.
· Our personality can change with brain/body changes (e.g. tumours).
· Thus our body and our “soul/self” are the same thing.
But such a conclusion rests on the accuracy of the opening premise – that our personality is the same as our self/soul.
To consider whether this is true or not we need to ask, considering the above example: what part of the dentist chose to risk his body’s survival by having a dangerous operation in order to restore his personality? Was it his body, with its natural survival fears, which decided to have his brain unnaturally and dangerously cut open? Was it his selfish genes that drove him to have the dangerous operation (I can hear them yammering as the dentist lay in his hospital bed waiting for his operation: “you’re going to what! – let them cut open your freekin’ head?”) Was it his new – now intolerant and inconsiderate – personality which decided to risk death to bring his old, considerate personality back? Or was it his self/soul which was unhappy with who he had become – to the point of being prepared to risk his body?
Our map indicates we are due to examine the role of self-regard/love in human happiness, below – for here we just need to note that the above (not uncommon) example of a human electing to have brain surgery to correct behaviour is evidence that humans risk their bodies (with its survival needs and genetic imperatives) for the benefit of their nonphysical self (with its different needs – especially happiness – only truly lastingly available if we can love our self). We are due to examine the evidence for that last assertion, below, when we explore human happiness.
For more evidence of our separate self, let’s consider a little of how our body and self work differently to direct differing behaviours in response to identical situations.
Firstly, our body.
DECISION MAKING DRIVEN BY THE BODY
Consider these common situations – and how our body drives our behaviours in response:
1. The body’s senses detects cold and sends this information through the nervous system to the brain which thinks: “It’s cold”, then its mind decides: “I’ll seek warmth”, and decides how: a jumper, a fire, turn on the air conditioning – according to what’s practical, then makes the body act accordingly to what it decided – e.g. “put on a jumper”.
2. The body experiences low sugar/energy levels and sends signals to the brain which registers hunger and thinks: “I’m hungry”, and decides: “I’ll eat”; then thinks about what’s available; then makes the body act: go to the store, go hunt, pluck a fruit, etc..
3. The eyes see an approaching danger/enemy: the body spikes adrenalin levels because the brain/mind thinks “I’m in danger”; then decides how best to avoid it and makes the body act – usually fight or flight (perhaps choosing which after deciding whether the enemy can be outrun, or not).
4. A sexy human comes into view: the body’s hormones rise to the occasion (so to speak); the brain/mind recognises that “he/she is attractive”; then makes the body act appropriately to meet bodily satisfaction and/or genetic imperatives.
So the human mind/brain/body is a monism and the above are examples of it at work. While there are individual differences, commonly our minds are driven in similar ways to similar thoughts and actions by our similar animal survival needs and genetic imperatives – according to the situation. To determine if the human self/soul/spirit is different to the brain/mind, let’s consider whether the self works differently in the above situations, and whether the outcomes are more varied than those driven by our simple animal bodies.
THE WORKINGS OF OUR SELF/SOUL/SPIRIT
While the above physical stimuli: cold; hunger; fear; sex – trigger similar bodily impulses and result in similar ideas in our minds (seeking warmth; eating; fight or flight; attraction), it’s in how we fulfil these automatic responses/ideas that the self seems to come into play – i.e. decides/chooses how we ultimately behave. And such self-driven behaviour separates us more widely than our bodies’ reactions do. For example, in the same situations as above:
1. After our bodily senses detect it’s cold, and the body/mind has decided it will seek warmth by getting a jumper (rather than light a fire) and remembered which drawer it’s in – the self has a hand in deciding which jumper to select from the drawer: “that blue jumper is more beautiful, I like it best because it makes me feel prettier/better (not warmer) than the other jumpers”. Even if the jumpers in the drawer are much the same thickness and will give the body the same heat, which one is chosen is quite often decided by some such nonphysical process: “I like it best because it is more beautiful”; “it makes me feel better about myself”; “blue goes with my socks” – while the body couldn’t care less, just wanting to be warmed. We here have touched on the non-bodily, spiritual mystery of beauty (which, as we have already noted, we are due to explore later) but suffice it here to notice that after the body/mind has made a “what” decision (a jumper) the self makes a “which” decision (which jumper) and such comes from a totally different place than the body.
2. The body/stomach senses hunger; the brain/mind decides “I’ll eat”. The mind has chosen “what” to do, but the self has considerable input into “how”. Consider a vegetarian who has freely chosen to be vegetarian on spiritual grounds (rather than health grounds) – this is a self, not a body decision – a person who won’t eat meat because of an empathy with other non-human animals choses a salad, perhaps, to assuage hunger. A non-vegetarian self may choose food influenced by its beauty (how it is arranged on the plate, its colour, its taste). The body, however, has no such vegetarian empathy, nor any concern for how the food is “plated”, or its colour – considering only whether the food is rotten or not and/or is edible – and is sufficient to sate the hunger it feels.
3. The body sees the enemy; the mind knows the danger and decides it must react – considering, typically “fight or flight” – but the self may decide which behaviour is carried out: I’ll fight (even though no one is watching) because fleeing is cowardly and makes me feel bad about my self.
4. The body sees the sexual object, the genes/hormones react, sending a message to the mind, which thinks: “Wow – I’d like to mate with him/her”. But, quite often, the self ultimately decides whether sex happens or not – sometimes along the lines of: he/she has “given me the eye” but I won’t mate with him/her because it would make my partner unhappy; I have no partner but I’m afraid I might get rejected and feel bad about my self; I could avoid rejection by raping him/her but would hate my self (as opposed to hating my body) because I have been a bad person. (“Bad”? Now there’s an idea that only the self could have – the animal body does not know any “bad” apart from physical pains and frustrations etc. – we will explore more of the self’s unique notions like good; bad; right; wrong; shame etc. in the next region we are due to explore). Or the decision against rape may be made entirely by the mind/body – perhaps along the lines of: “If I rape this person I may end up in gaol; or her family/tribe will avenge itself on me/my tribe”.
In all of this we just need to notice that some human behaviours and/or how they are carried out, are dictated solely by our bodily needs and genetic imperatives, and some are dictated by our self – and some usually more complex behaviours are driven by both bodily and self/spiritual needs. The important thing for our present exploration for the existence of self, is that the above decision-making is evidence of self as a separate entity – often deciding how a behaviour the body has chosen is carried out (e.g. choosing colour of jumper rather than just closest jumper etc.).
And the self is driven by higher needs and impulses – “higher” than just basic bodily ones. For example: vegetarianism is answering a spiritual impulse/need whereas meat has a higher food and survival value; unnatural moral understandings of right vs. wrong whereas unfaithfulness and rape will spread our genes more widely; happiness with self by courageously fighting although fleeing may have been the wisest option – all examples of behaviours beyond just meeting our basic animal needs and genetic imperatives.
WHAT OUR DIFFERING BEHAVIOURS SAY ABOUT OUR SELVES
Our behaviours tend to differ more widely when the self gets involved. This has something to say, not only about the existence of our self as a separate entity to our bodies, but also that there are wider differences between our individual selves than there are to our individual bodies. Homo sapiens’ bodies are all basically similar in their anatomical structure (nervous system, digestive system, vascular system etc.) – driven by physical evolution over a similar period of time. Our similar levels of bodily evolution is shown by the fact that we all have similar bodily needs (food, drink, warmth, etc.) and meet these needs in the same way (eating, drinking, seeking warmth when cold). However, observably, we have widely differing levels of spiritual need – for example: some need and seek beauty frequently, and some not – and we meet those needs in different ways. For example, some seek human-made beauty and some natural. And these behaviours are not only driven by the self – but are revealing of the level of the self’s spiritual evolution as well. Our map indicates that we are due to explore the idea of self evolution in more depth, below – for here we will just note that behaviours not driven by our animal bodies are actually free choices – not causal/determinist behaviours which are unfree – having been selected for us, by nature, because they allow/drive greater survival and breeding rates. Behaviours driven entirely by our selves’ choices give evidence not only of the existence of our selves, but of free will. We have considered free will in Essay 2, and will examine more evidence of its existence, below.
Here, we will continue our exploration for more evidence of the existence of self, separate to our body, by examining behaviours which just our self initiates – actions which only happen because we have a self/soul.
PLEASURE FROM OUR SELF
For the ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus, there was one sure thing in life – pleasure.
“Epicurus even defined pleasure as the absence of pain…that the one thing all nature seeks to avoid is pain, and the one thing it seeks to gain is pleasure, and men should do the same…”
“The Cave and the Light”, Arthur Herman, P. 82.
But some humans don’t do the same as nature – they are unnatural – they get pleasure out of spiritual things, and put the body/nature through great pains to get such spiritual pleasure.
What sort of behaviours are we talking about? Actions other than ones selected by nature, driven by our bodily survival and genetic imperatives.
BEHAVIOURS CHOSEN/INITIATED BY THE SELF
Such actions other than naturally selected ones driven by our animal imperatives must involve choice made by something other than our bodies. To see evidence supporting this statement let’s consider human behaviours which produce experiences which are commonly found to be “uplifting”. Most humans commonly find the following behaviours uplifting: walking/riding/driving through natural beauty; visiting beautiful art galleries, cathedrals etc.; listening to music; reading poetry or other literature; hearing song; watching dance; witnessing bravery (in humans and/or other animals).
So what part of us is being uplifted by these experiences?
There is nothing intrinsically pleasuring to our body’s sense organs as we engage in these behaviours, nothing which increases our chances of bodily survival or our genetic continuance/dominance – it is only the self/soul which gets pleasure, which calls these activities beautiful, which finds these behaviours uplifting. As we saw in Essay 2, these behaviours, not only do not meet any bodily needs nor genetic imperatives, but the body has to spend Darwinian survival and genetic resources (energy, time, money) to engage in these behaviours. There could be said to be some satisfaction of the mind/bodily needs (the brain has stimulation as a need) in these behaviours, but it is certainly not the body which chooses to initiate these behaviours. While our body/mind/brain may get involved in the execution of them (working out the ways and means to organise these experiences, e.g. buying tickets, when to travel, what to take) – such brain action only happens after the self has decided to have these experiences. And, as for the neo-Darwinian’s idea that our selfish genes dictate our lives, not only are the above behaviours a waste of survival and genetic resources, some of them involve risk to the genes’ very survival: riding in an aircraft; travelling in another country; going on a long bushwalk.
So, if our body is not benefitting (even being risked) which part of the human equation is benefitting?
Most people speak of being “lifted”, spiritually exhilarated, by engaging in most of the above behaviours. Most of them have the experiencing of non-Darwinian beauty as an intrinsic part of them (Darwinian beauty being such things as wide hips, big breasts, strong arms, a fertile valley etc. – i.e. good for breeding or survival). Thus it is a fair conclusion that it is the self/soul/spirit which is uplifted, not the body, by the above experiences – therefore it could be reasonably accepted that it is the self which initiates, motivates, drives most of these behaviours – because the only reward is to the self and its spiritual needs (like the experience of beauty). And the only cost is to our Darwinian survival.
Is this the “T” Truth? Let’s have a closer look at those behaviours which we do because we find them spiritually uplifting – which are, at the same time, risky to our animal and genetic survival.
UPLIFTING ACTIVITIES WHICH ARE DANGEROUS
An example of dangerous behaviours which have no survival or genetic paybacks are activities like: bushwalking, scuba diving, flying, skiing, surfing, riding, recreational travelling. What sort of needs are we meeting when we get pleasure from indulging in such activities in a recreational, non-Darwinian manner – i.e. not in a professional sporting contest (providing money for survival); nor in an ego-driven manner (“showing-off” to promote the genes as good for breeding)? Let’s consider bushwalking, for example.
Bushwalking (“hiking” for Americans, “rambling” for the Brits) is a behaviour that I have been personally involved in for much of my life. Considering that recreational bushwalks are usually undertaken in areas of natural beauty, and bushwalkers commonly talk of being spiritually uplifted by such beauty it is not unreasonable to conclude that such behaviour has been motivated by that part of us which appreciates non-Darwinian beauty, that part of us which benefits most – our self/spirit.
Unconvinced? Let’s all go for a bushwalk.
Inspired (literally) by photos of, say, the natural beauty of Cradle Mountain, Tasmania, we decide to experience it for our self – “self” cf. our body (which is singularly uninterested). But the self is crap at organising anything, and the mind, dwelling in the brain/meat/body (albeit mysteriously) has to organise the expedition: dates, companions, food, clothing, equipment, travel to site, etc.. Eventually the big day comes, and we, the human duality set off on the 5-day walk into the beautiful but dangerous mountains of Tasmania – the self/soul uplifted by the surrounding beauty; the mind watching out for dangers (snakes, precipices, ankle-twisting rocks); the body puffing, chaffing (hurting under the load). After a hard slog, a lookout is approached and the self/soul strives towards the view, dragging the tired body; the mind/body reins it in (“watch the edge”); the animal/body, wincing with the pain of its blisters, wonders where it put the chocolate. But then the beauty overwhelms the human being: the self/soul/spirit soars; the monkey mind stops its chatter; the body feels no pain. After taking it “in” the human duality slogs on – the mind/brain/body worried about getting to the hut by nightfall; the body/muscles wanting to stop; the self looking forward to the beauties in the days ahead.
So what, in the human being, benefits most from such recreational, non-competitive behaviour (and freely chosen – but that’s another issue – concerning the existence of free will)? Conceivably the body may get some payback in return for all the physical danger and genetic risk – in the shape of some increased bodily fitness perhaps, or the buzz of feel-good bodily chemicals released by the exercise – but it could have got both from walking around the block. The mind/body also gets some of its undoubted needs met in the form of mental stimulation from the expedition – but it could have got that from reading a book. No, the self/soul, was the main beneficiary of this behaviour – uplifted by the experience in a way that looking at pictures could never manage – that’s why the self/soul was the initiator of the whole exercise.
But some would say you can make a robot to take a bushwalk.
The conceit of fundamentalist physicists is that they believe they can explain everything because they believe that the universe, contents and all (which of course includes us), is entirely just a physical machine. If everything is physical, nothing is beyond their understanding – and nothing beyond the eventual control and/or replication by physics when the technology is ready. So, robots, which can already do much that we can do, will eventually be able to do every/any thing that humans can do. This position is well expressed by cognitive roboticist Murray Shanahan of Imperial College, London:
“There’s nothing magical about the brain; it doesn’t transcend physics. So of course it is possible to build a physical entity that can do anything we can do.”
Quoted in “New Scientist” Magazine (P. 39 No. 3019, 2 May, 2015.)
Physical scientists in the European Union are working on a 10-year project aimed at a computer which reproduces the human brain. But such a computer could be seen by some as unreal – because even though our brain may be just a physical “entity”/computer, any robotic software running it could not be “real” – i.e. same as human “software”. However, Peter Bentley of University College, London, says:
“We’ve got to get away from the idea that computer software equals unreal. Software is a bunch of electrons – a type of lepton – whizzing about in specific patterns within the electronics of your computer. And what are you? A bunch of quarks and leptons whizzing about in specific patterns.”
Quoted in “New Scientist” Magazine (P. 39, No. 3019, 2 May, 2015.)
So, materialist monism is based on the belief that we can be satisfactorily described as physical hardware and software entirely comprised just of energised particles: “…what are you? A bunch of quarks and leptons whizzing about in specific patterns” (nope – no nonphysical “self” there). Then proceeds to assert that, because this is so “…it is possible build a physical entity that can do anything we can do.” Ergo, we are so understood by physics, that physicists will eventually be able to create us – in our entirety, illusory “self” and all (perhaps with a little help from biology and chemistry – soon to be unified with physics in a Grand Unified Theory). Perhaps a little bit conceited?
DO WE TRANSCEND PHYSICS?
Undoubtedly, nothing physical – like our brains, bodies – can transcend physics. But, as we have seen, the first proposition is not established – that “we”, “us”, our “selves” can entirely be described in terms of our physical brains/bodies. In fact, we can, and do, transcend physics – as evidenced by the behaviours we have considered, above. We our selves, can and do, drive our bodies to unnatural, non-Darwinian behaviours in pursuit of nonphysical things like non-Darwinian beauty which does nothing other than lift our selves. Our “software” is not the quarks and leptons of computer/machine software – but our consciousness – which is a whole lot more complicated than subatomic particles “whizzing about”. We are due to explore consciousness further down our road to Truth.
ARE WE JUST ROBOTS?
I have no doubt that robots will eventually be able to do anything that our bodies can – but until science can learn how to install a spiritual self in such, will robots freely choose of their own account to do some of the things we regularly do that are inspired by our spiritual selves – the ghosts in our machine? For example, our physical sciences and technologies can already build a robot which could take a bushwalk, but would such a machine ever be inspired by the beauty of the bush, mountains and animals therein to ever freely decide to bushwalk on its own? Certainly our own physical machine/body does not choose to do such a thing on its own – such behaviours as bushwalking and other similarly dangerous behaviours (scuba diving, hang gliding, recreational travel, etc.) are initiated by our spiritual selves for the spiritual payback (e.g. being spiritually “lifted” by the experience of natural beauties). These behaviours also always entail some Darwinian expenditure (using up living/breeding resources like money) and sometimes even risk our selfish genes’ survival – so would never be naturally selected by our bodies. And consider this, we already have driverless cars – when one of them is faced with a problem that quite a few human drivers have had to face: choosing whether to hit a soft errant pedestrian or a larger, harder, more-dangerous-for-the-car-and-driver object (wall, tree, another vehicle etc.) – what will the robotic car do without a “ghost” which values other ghosts more highly than walls etc.?
No, such behaviours are unnatural – and mysterious to anyone who believes that the human condition can be totally and accurately described as a collection of meat atoms and quarks – whose behaviours naturally evolved because such behaviours advantaged daily bodily survival and its eventual outbreeding over other atom collections which did not behave so? Beyond reasonable doubt, such behaviours as seeking spiritual rewards would be selected out as wasteful and dangerous – i.e. disadvantageous to bodily survival and gene-spreading.
More evidence that the human equation has a spiritual/self factor separate to the bodily factor can be seen in the fact that the two can sometimes clash.
CONFLICTS BETWEEN OUR SPIRITUAL AND ANIMAL FACTORS
Such conflict can cause trouble for the self. For example, when bodily needs leads to “lower” behaviour – like masturbation, for example. Such behaviour, although common, after the animal hormones have died down, often results in self loathing – but not bodily loathing. A more repellant behaviour for the self/spirit, driven by bodily and genetic needs – like rape – can generate such self loathing after the event, that bodily changes can result. For example: it is recognised that self loathing can lead to bodily sickness, mental illness, even suicide – this last being “us” killing the body because the self is unhappy – very strange if we are just a body (and more evidence that we/us/ourselves are not).
Consider self loathing which flows from the unnatural human notion of cowardice – “unnatural” because other animals are not troubled by such a notion.
A typical example of cowardice is fleeing in the face of danger to save the body. Such is a Darwinian behaviour that should be naturally selected because it preserves the body to fight (and breed) another day. But in humans cowardice makes the self unhappy – commonly leading to self loathing. For example, if a soldier shows cowardice in battle his fellows will shun him (not his body, but his spirit/self) as “weak”, “chicken” etc. – and the soldier will feel unhappy about his self (again, not about his body) – often to the point of bodily death. Consider the fate of the Earl of Portarlington at the battle of Waterloo:
“…commander of the 23rd Light Dragoons…accused by Uxbridge [a cavalry general] of refusing to charge at Genappe, he was taken dangerously ill with spasms and a violent bowel attack and carried to Brussels that evening in a dangerous state. He was forced to retire from the regiment and… ‘took to dissipation, lost a large fortune, and died at a humble lodging in an obscure London slum’ ”
“Waterloo”, Tim Clayton, Pp.439-440
Such is the power of personal shame of the self, and contempt for your self from others. The above is not an example of bodily, physical deficiency, but deficiency of the self/soul/spirit.
But, sometimes, the bodily and spiritual/self factors of the human duality do not clash, but can act together – with grand result. For example, in the human phenomenon of ecstasy.
ECSTASY – SPIRITUAL AND ANIMAL FACTORS IN UNISON
If animal and spiritual agenda can be met together, ecstasy can follow. For example: when making love to someone you love rather than just having sex; in dining rather than feeding; by raising our consciousness to the moment rather than rushing through the moment to “get” somewhere. We are due to explore the peculiarly human phenomena of ecstasy and consciousness further down our track, here we just need to see that their existence represents further evidence for the existence of self and body as separate entities in/of the human condition – but entities which can act together for grand results.
Fine, we have examined quite some evidence from life for the existence of a nonmaterial self, separate from our physical bodies – but is there any scientific evidence?
We need to consider the work of neuro surgeon/scientist, Wilder Penfield.
Penfield is famous for his work with epilepsy patients, whose exposed brains were stimulated while they were conscious. This enabled him to develop accurate maps (still used) of which regions of the brain were responsible for which regions of the body. He found that by stimulating certain brain regions he could make specific areas of the body work. The importance of this for us is that when he asked the patient why they moved a limb, or vocalised, or made any bodily action:
“Invariably his response was: ‘I didn’t do that, you did.’ When I caused him to vocalise, he said: ‘I didn’t make that sound. You pulled it out of me.’ (my emphasis)
“The Mystery of the Mind”, Wilder Penfield, P. 76.
The patient, the “I” above, is fully aware that someone else is running the machine, the body, by making the computer controlling it – the brain/body – work. The brain is still part of the body, but the “I” (as in I didn’t do that) is separate – and fully conscious that the body/machine is being run by another “I”/person. It can be safely concluded that the “I” of the patient must be a non-body/cerebral, but conscious entity. What else is this entity other than a self/soul? Wilder, himself, concluded:
“…there is, in fact, a second fundamental element and a second form of energy.”
ibid., P. 79.
There are implications from this scientific evidence for the existence of free will, as well – Penfield could, in no way, control or activate the patient’s will.
What other evidence is there from the scientific field for the existence of self, soul? Let’s consider the phenomenon of mental disorders and what works on them by way of cure.
This from Dr. Gavin Rowland, medical doctor with a special interest in mental health – whose book develops a:
“… model of mental illness quite different to the standard constructs of contemporary psychiatry. It departs from the current tendency to explain mental illness solely in neurobiological terms. While genetic and neurobiological factors do play a part, our model proposes that mental disorders are primarily problems of the non-material self.”
“MIND BEYOND MATTER: How the Non-Material Self Can Explain the Phenomenon of Consciousness and Complete Our Understanding of Reality”, Gavin Rowland, Pp. 261-2.
As evidence, Rowland puts forward the fact that some mental disorders respond to purely verbal inputs (e.g. cognitive behaviour therapy, psychoanalysis) – i.e. non-neurobiological, nonphysical methods. It needs to be considered that verbal inputs can only work on the self – they cannot make changes to the body:
“…it is well recognised that therapy which relies on verbal information alone…works for mental illness in a way that is unique – mental illness stands alone in its ability to respond to therapy comprised only of mere words. In fact, head-to-head studies in anxiety and depression show that psychological therapy not only works as well as medication, but is better in the long term. What physical illnesses respond like this? Try using psychotherapy on a broken leg or malaria.”
ibid. P. 262
Rowland cites studies by Roshanaei-Moghaddam et al (2011) and Spielmans et al (2011).
LEARNING Vs. BECOMING – BRAIN Vs. SELF
Another example of the difference between the brain/mind and the self is a thing called brain plasticity – changing the brain/mind by physical activity (e.g. learning a new language, doing common tasks with the other hand, etc.). We can expand, improve our brain/mind by reading, learning – but we can’t change our self/soul by physical activity – improve, grow, evolve our self/soul/spirit by reading or learning.
We can only change, improve our self by being – being more loving, less selfish, more caring, more spiritual – by becoming. You can read about self/spiritual growth, you can learn about it – but you can’t achieve it until you be it.
So, we have seen something of the existence of self, what of the nature of self?
THE NATURE OF SELF?
I remember when my father died – when I went to identify his body, the man at the morgue said to me: “Is that your father?” I replied, straight away: “No – but that’s his body.” I was not trying to be smart, it just seemed supremely true. So what would have made that body “my father” again? What was missing?
Obviously the energy to make his physical body work mechanically; his physical brain/mind’s ability to work mentally; but I would also say the presence of his self/soul/spirit – you can have a mechanically and mentally working body, but without his self: values, virtues, sense of humour (the latter also a subject to be explored below) – it would not be “him”.
But am I confusing our self with what should be more truly our psyche?
In psychology, the psyche is seen as the totality of the human mind, conscious and unconscious. In philosophy, the word “psyche” is often defined by bundling the mind and spirit together (“mind, spirit, animating principle” – Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 1996). But the reanimation of my father, the return of his animal mind – with its ability to think, to remember – would not have brought “him” back. What was needed was not only the spark of life to re-animate his brain/body and its abilities, but also the return of his self – by which we knew him as the unique human individual he was. Not only his brain’s thinking ability (largely determined by inherited, physical factors) but his self’s characteristics: his sense of humour; his virtues; his morals; his ethics; his dignity; his opinions; his philosophy; his values; his strengths; his weaknesses; what made him happy and what made him sad; his spiritual needs – what lifted his spirit and what depressed it. All these characteristics of his self defined my father and governed his behaviours – making him uniquely “him”, who he was – rather than what he was. His mind worked in a similar way to any other man’s but his choices made not only his life, but him.
Some feel that what I have been calling our self/soul is more truly our “personality” – totally of our body because many aspects of our personalities are obviously genetic, inherited (he’s got his father’s temper, etc.). The big differentiating point between the two, biologically speaking, is that you can inherit your physical characteristics, but you cannot inherit your self, spirit, soul. While much about our bodies, psyches, and personalities are recognizably inherited, anyone who has had children will be able to tell you that their selves/souls are observably not inherited – even when they have had similar genetics and upbringing (nature and nurture inputs). For example, not even identical twins (whose bodies are identical – basically clones) have identical souls/selves – a case of same machine, different “ghosts”.
Our personality seems to be the sum total of all our needs – both spiritual and animal – and the behaviours we choose to meet those needs. Some of us have more spiritual personalities, some more basic, most somewhere in between. Our personality is observably not just our inherited (nature) and/or learned (nurture) animal behaviours – but includes the extent of our spiritual evolution and how we meet our spiritual needs (do we bushwalk, attend concerts, visit art galleries, go to church – or create beauty ourselves: paint, restore a classic car, play an instrument, garden, build something, sing, etc.) – how do we express our self?
Neo Darwinians would tend to say that the self is actually our animal ego.
The ego is indeed animal – of our animal body – but is not the same as the self. Our animal ego is necessary to promote our body with its animal needs and genetic imperatives in competition with others’ animal bodily needs and imperatives in our world of finite resources – wherein a “healthy ego” would be naturally selected.
A healthy ego is a good animal asset but to differentiate it from self, consider that it does not need, seek – nor is it moved/affected by – the things which move our self. For example, our drive to experience beauty that we considered above (in art, landscape, music, literature, architecture, dance, etc.) is not initiated by our ego – such beauty experiencing behaviour only serves to “feed” our souls’ needs – and “lift” our spirits thereby. Some may try to impress others by attending/doing these behaviours (or boast of it in the right quarters – like in front of potential breeding mates) but such is not showing off his/her body, but showing off his self/soul as desirable. While such “showing off” is only showing off your self/soul, it could be said to also have a Darwinian motive – wanting to mate with a certain other – but such would only impress a person whose soul was similarly inspired by such things. The human equation has both animal and spiritual factors – body and soul: separate but together in the human condition – and likes attract.
BEAUTY IN THE EYE OR SELF OF THE BEHOLDER?
Beauty does not seem to be “just in the eye of the beholder” – because all souls seem to be inspired to some extent by beauty. While the amount and degree of inspiration we find in beauty is observably different between selves, and different people can find different things beautiful (tattoos, restored hot rods, snakes anyone?) – some things are seen as beautiful by everyone. For example, we commonly find the Canadian Rockies, the Great Barrier Reef, the Norwegian fiords to be beautiful – while there would undoubtedly be individual preferences as to “more” or “most” beautiful – all are still seen as beautiful. We are due to examine the phenomenon of humanity’s recognition and appreciation of beauty, and its implications for the Truth of the human condition, below.
For many, Locke was one of our greatest philosophers, and he had plenty to say concerning the necessary nature of any “self”. For him, for an immaterial self to exist there logically had to be a continuation of consciousness separate to and beyond the material body. Hard to argue with that. We search for evidence of this continuation of self, below, when we explore the territory of human consciousness and the supernatural.
While we are talking of the supernatural, what does the self reveal of the possible existence of a “D” Divine?
IS THE “GHOST IN THE MACHINE” THE HOLY GHOST?
We started the exploration of our self by referring to it as “the ghost in the machine”. Have we, perhaps – in observing our self’s needs as being “higher”, its fodder as being “spiritual” things – encountered the “D” Divine in the human condition during our examination of self? The common Nepalese greeting comes to mind: Nemaste – “I see/salute the God in you”. We have previously considered that any “G” God may have been the energy which became the universe – rather than some humanoid-looking being who “created” it. Maybe the role of self is how the Divine experiences the beauties of the universe through our consciousness – our self being an individuation of a universal consciousness? Maybe not just through us, but all animals are the way God experiences “being” on this physical plane? This is not dissimilar to some Asian and certain native religious traditions – which, when followed, often lead into a greater regard for each other (and all animal and vegetable life)? We have a way to go yet and may decide on these ideas later?
We are due to explore consciousness a bit later on our journey along the Road to Truth, and that is bound to lead us into further consideration of the difference between our physical body and spiritual self – but I think that we have discovered enough to rationally contemplate that the self is a separate, immaterial entity from the material animal body – and that the human condition could reasonably be described as a spiritual/self + material/animal duality rather than the Cartesian mind + matter duality as previously considered and rejected by philosophy.
So where have we ended up in our search for the existence of self/soul/spirit – a separate factor in the human equation, or not? I think it fair we leave the summing up to a materialist:
“Whichever way we try to wriggle out of it, in our everyday language or in our scientific and philosophical thinking, we seem to end up with some kind of impossible dualism. Whether it is spirit or matter, or mind and brain…we seem to end up talking about two incompatible kinds of stuff.”
“Consciousness: An Introduction”, Susan Blackmore, P. 8.
I prefer Blackmore’s “spirit or matter” duality, personally seeing “mind and brain” as more of a unity (one closely dependent on the other) than a duality. And, while different, I don’t see spirit and matter as “incompatible” – as we saw, acting together the spiritual self and physical body can produce ecstasy for the human being/condition.
Our path forges on. We are still in the neighbourhood of the “self” but we have now come to a fertile area where some really strange and unnatural characteristics of the human self have taken root – unnatural characteristics of self like: conscience, shame, and ethics – “unnatural” because no other animal has them.
· CONSCIENCE, SHAME, ETHICS
Our conscience is our self’ sense of what is right and/or wrong – our understanding that an action is right or forbidden – our “moral knowledge” (Dr. Stephen Law), flowing from “the moral law within” (Kant). A knowledge which is not of our physical animal body (which is mechanical) but of our self. This moral knowledge is observably part of the human condition and is more evidence to support our growing conviction that the human condition is to be a duality: human = animal + self/spiritual.
IS OUR MORAL KNOWLEDGE A BAROMETER OF OUR SELF’S EVOLUTION?
Our morals, our moral knowledge, is subject, of course, to individual differences – and what exactly our self regards as right and/or wrong could possibly be seen as the barometer of our self’s evolution – our spiritual evolution. If our self regards that nothing can be “wrong”, and/or whatever you can get away with is OK, our spiritual evolution is observably in its early stages. The full implications of spiritual evolution for our search for the Truth of our existence in this reality we will explore later, here we just need to consider what the existence of the human phenomenon of “the moral law within” has to say about the Truth of the human condition – i.e. does it provide more evidence for the argument that humanity is a duality – with both animal and non-animal factors?
BEHAVIOURS WHICH ARE “RIGHT”
As we have seen, we observably do many things which are driven by our body (and its animal bodily needs, instincts, and genetic imperatives) but we just as observably do some things only because our self has decided that they are “right” to do – or that to do otherwise would be “wrong” – for example, behaviours driven by our unnatural sense of right and wrong, good form or bad form, or absolutely good or bad. We have even turned the study of humanity’s unnatural notions of right and wrong into a discipline – ethics – what it is to be human, or what it should be to be human.
So what is it to be human?
TO BE HUMANE
There is broad agreement across humanity on the ethicality of certain actions, on what is good form or poor form in human behaviour, what denotes uniquely “human” – what it is to be humane – as opposed to just another animal doing ordinary animal behaviours. We often call some human behaviours that we vehemently disapprove of: very “ordinary” behaviour, or an “animal” act. What actions, then, are peculiarly “humane” – or inhumane?
To approach this question let’s consider the uniquely human notion of shame. A natural, wild animal does not have guilt or shame when it falls short of an ideal – an ideal of “good” behaviour for its species – a lion has, for example, no notion of the human concept of “brave”. Nor does it have a notion of what it is to be a lion – what is expected in terms of behaviour from the “King of the Beasts”. A pack of lions tearing apart a baby elephant wastes no time debating any “shame” that may be brought upon their leonine selves – whether their actions are “brave” or “cowardly” – beneath the “dignity” of a lion. They have no “shame” at the “unfairness” of the lop-sided match, waste no time on the “ethics” of the “cruel” situation or what is “beneath” them. All of the notions in inverted commas are peculiar to humans and their ethics and ideals – tags like “kings of the jungle” have been imposed on lions by humans. Such a tag has a sense of “noblesse obligé” – the rights and obligations of power and royalty. People said to have “leonine bearing” have a natural nobility and power about their body and presence.
All of these human notions are not natural – totally news to a natural lion.
So, if no other animals have the human notions – like shame, morality, conscience, and dignity – are such notions not natural? And what, then, are we if we have such – unnatural? Is the human condition animal or spiritual (or as we are coming to believe, a bit of both)? Is it as Teilhard de Chardin describes it:
“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
And where then did our unnatural moral notions come from – God? Consider this from liberal, Enlightenment philosopher, Voltaire:
“All sects are different, because they come from man; morality is everywhere the same, because it comes from God.”
Our notions of morality, shame, conscience, and dignity do not come from our Darwinian, animal body but speak only of de Chardin’s human “spiritual being” – the “self”.
“Spiritual beings”, morality “comes from God”? Neo-Darwinians, of course, must reject this, saying our every behaviour must have been naturally selected. But can all that we have considered above be naturally explained by our ancestors venture out of the jungle into the grasslands?
There is something unnatural about morality – no other animal has it (nor shame and conscience). How did we come to have these things back when we were just a normal animal – freshly split from our ape ancestor common with chimpanzees – the first place, for it to be subsequently naturally selected in the second place? Can it all be naturally explained by our venture out of the jungle into the grasslands, over 200,000 generations ago (about 6 million years @ 30 years per generation) – 200,000 random mutations?
Anyone who ascribes morality, ethics, guilt, shame, or conscience to animal behaviours other than human is suffering from anthropomorphism – usually flowing from our observations of the behaviours of our pets (who are not in a natural situation and who we often breed and/or train to behave like us – for example, to be of a “nice” temperament). No wild animals exhibit the unnatural, learned behaviours that some pets have been trained to. And no animal other than humans has a sense of “bad” behaviour and/or any concern, nor idea, of what their behaviour says about their “selves”. For example, no natural animal is embarrassed by copulating and/or defecating in “public” – why should they – it’s a natural behaviour? Only humans have a sense of shame from doing such things in public – and exhibit such shame and/or embarrassment by blushing when we are seen doing it – because we consider that doing such things says something bad about our self.
Our ability to blush of shame is more evidence (and physical evidence) of the existence of something other than the natural animal instincts and imperatives in humans. I have heard Neo-Darwinians counter this by saying that some other animals do blush – giving the hippopotamus as an example. But hippopotami do not blush – they flush with rage (as we animals also do) – which flush is visible because of their hairlessness (as it is with us) and is seen when they fight, not when they defecate etc. in public (and that’s where we differ). While humans’ animal bodies can flush (usually the face) with anger when we argue or fight, only humans blush with shame when we consider that we have let our selves down – that we have disgraced our selves. This sort of blushing is a bodily reaction driven by shame of self – a weird notion if we are, as Darwinians claim, only an animal body.
Neo-Darwinians answer this with the usual argument from natural selection – that shame and pride exists because having such increases our chances of procreating our genes – or, conversely, not having such lessens our chances of reproductive success. If we blot our social copybook by doing something shameful:
“...your public reputation deteriorates, and so also, by deductive logic, does your reproductive success.”
“The God Instinct”, Jesse Bering, P.174
Maybe so, but the deeper mystery for evolutionary theory is always: how
does the nonphysical come to exist in
a purely physical world. How did purely material atoms, chemically alive,
mechanically evolved, come to possess nonphysical properties like shame,
dignity, pride, ethics etc. in the first place – to be selected in the second
place? Consider also our closest
Darwinians answer that human differences from other animals are to do with our ape ancestors’ increase in brain size in the 6.5 million years which passed after we and chimps went separate ways from our common ancestor – about 200,000 generations. However, our differences are of such magnitude (and involve so many nonphysical aspects) that it does not seem explicable in terms of minute, random mutations – all of which would need to be tested over many lives for adaptability to better survival rates – in such few generations.
And there is something else which seems unnatural about human ethics – we are actually changing the natural world for what often seem to be unnatural reasons. “Unnatural” because they are reasons that have nothing to do with increasing the likelihood of our “reproductive success” – which reasons could be described as un-genetic, even anti-genetic.
UNNATURAL ANTI-GENETIC ETHICS
In pre-human times, many animals were driven to extinction in the natural world because they were hunted-out by a more efficient predator – it’s one of the ways natural selection works. But now, many naturally endangered animals still exist because of humanity’s unnatural ethical sense of responsibility that humans feel towards the other “lesser” animals – as a result our zoos protect and breed many animals that would have otherwise gone extinct. When we had no sense of human ethics and were acting more like animals, humans drove other species to extinction (ground-dwelling birds like the moa in New Zealand and the dodo in Mauritius) simply because they were easy to catch and eat – and thought nothing of it. Now we get a sense of shame when species are driven to extinction by us and, conversely, we get a sense of pride and self-respect when we successfully conserve animals. This is another example of our spiritual evolution (and the more evolved spiritually we become the more unnaturally we behave).
The continued existence of whales is another good example of humans’ self/spiritual evolution. Whales have been, unnaturally, brought back from the brink of what was going to be a natural extinction at our hands because they were easily hunted. Not so long ago, we saw them as large, slow-swimming, hunks of meat, useful bone, and oil – but now, after we have managed a little more spiritual evolution, we have sympathy for them – many regarding whales spiritually, not just physically – even recording their “songs” and selling these recordings to other humans to be spiritually moved by them.
Neo-Darwinians would put forward the argument that we protect other animals only because we have come to understand that bio-diversity is in the best interest of our own animal survival – therefore it is a naturally-selected behaviour. This may be a part of the current consideration, but saving animals just because it seemed “right” to us was practiced well before we understood the principles of bio-diversity.
Disgust at our own species is a common reaction to the news of human-caused extinctions of other species – a lessening of our self-respect – again, is this natural? Self-respect and/or self-loathing is another notion peculiar to humans, and pivotal to human happiness. Human happiness is another unnatural human notion (other animals don’t seek to be happy, they just seek to be) and our map shows we are due to explore it further down our Road to Truth. Here, we just need to consider a little more of the peculiarly human notion of self respect.
SHAME, SELF RESPECT AND SUICIDE
Sometimes, and uniquely, what we think of our self, is just as important to us as our animal survival – and sometimes, more so. For example, many have ended their lives (and disposed of their supposedly selfish genes) because of self-loathing. Suicide as a result of self-loathing happens in humans (uniquely again) when some behaviour, some action, makes us feel so badly about our self that the drive for the animal body and genes to survive is outweighed by the self’s sense of shame. There are other motives for suicide, of course (e.g. pain, sickness) but self loathing and self rejection is always right up there as one of the biggest. Self-loathing can also lead to our body becoming physically sick – not uncommon, and more physical evidence of the existence of the spiritual factor in the human equation – even of it sometimes dominating the physical factor.
More unnatural human behaviour, inexplicable by natural selection – which should have selected it out. And “unnatural” because other animals don’t kill their bodies because of failings of the self.
WE SPARE SOME ANIMALS BECAUSE THEY
Our spiritual natures/selves are also evidenced by the fact that our behaviour towards certain animals is influenced by our appreciation of their beauty. For example, we use up resources to encourage the survival of some animals, even to the point of propagating them, just because we have come to see that they are beautiful (e.g. panda bears) – in other words, the value to us of their beauty outweighs their food value – their value to our bodily survival. An example from my own life: I used to be a very keen fisherman – I would fish in a puddle if you told me there were fish in it. Then I did a scuba-diving course. The beauties of the undersea world moved me greatly and now, I find I get no enjoyment from fishing – I would much rather swim amongst them – for me, fishing has become a bit like going to shoot parrots up in the forest. Now there is personal hypocrisy in this, of course, because I still like the taste of fish and I have no trouble buying a fillet of fish to eat – still “beautiful” as food but now “unbeautiful” as an object. What is it about beauty which de-natures us, we humans – supposedly, entirely, just another natural animal that should not waste a moment fretting over eating another animal – beautiful, or not?
All of this illustrating again the human duality – our spiritual consciousness of beauty making it hard for most of us to kill – very few of those who like meat can kill a beautiful lamb or suckling pig themselves. Certainly in our yesteryears we had few compunctions about killing animals and/or witnessing the killing of humans in coliseums or public executions (a form of entertainment for many) – so are we evolving spiritually as a species? Something we will consider more deeply later, but here our road to Truth has now come to a lookout with a beautiful view.
We have arrived at the region along our road that encompasses the mystery that is beauty. Let’s admire the beauty and consider what such admiration has to say about the human condition – the Truth of us?
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
- Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”.
The aim of our expedition is to approach Truth, as close as we are able – and Keats tells us that Truth and beauty are synonymous: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”. So we definitely need to explore this, Keats’ assessment of beauty – and his assertion that it is “… all ye need to know”.
HUMANITY’S UNNATURAL UNDERSTANDING OF, AND APPRECIATION OF BEAUTY?
From whence commeth humanity’s strange and unnatural understanding and appreciation of: beauty? “Strange” and “unnatural” because humans, alone of all the animal species, have a drive to experience beauty: to see beauty; to possess beauty; to create beauty.
And there are many types of beauty. Our exploration of the above region along our road to Truth left us standing on a lookout – what better place to contemplate the human idea of scenic beauty: our perception and appreciation of beauty in a natural landscape.
BEAUTY IN A LANDSCAPE
Humans have often described the scenic landscapes of our planet as being so beautiful that such can “take our breath away”. Jack London, describing the beauty of the Marquesas Islands, was moved to write:
“One caught one’s breath and felt the pang that is almost hurt, so exquisite was the beauty of it.”
Darwin himself writes of being spiritually uplifted by the natural beauty of the world:
“In my journal I wrote that whilst standing in the midst of the grandeur of a Brazilian forest ‘it is not possible to give an adequate idea of the higher feelings of wonder, admiration and devotion which fill and elevate the mind.’ I well remember my conviction that there is more in man than the breath of his body.”
- Charles Darwin, Autobiography
“More to man than the breath of his body”, Charles? If there is any more to man than our bodies is exactly what these essays are trying to find out. Let’s dig further.
What’s going on with humanity’s appreciation of a “view” as beautiful – quite often just a view of mountainous, eroded atoms when all is said and done. Why, when atoms are jumbled together by geological forces then eroded by the blind forces of nature into a certain shape, do we call them “beautiful”? And why is an understanding of their beauty unique to humans – other animals have never been spotted on our lookouts admiring the view – and when cattle or sheep settle for a rest in a paddock they face any-which-way, not towards the view as humans tend to (when they sit down for a picnic, say). Dolphins don’t queue up to look up into a glass-bottomed boat to view the wonders of humanity; bonobo chimps don’t use up their survival resources by journeying miles to find pretty places to gawp at; if you point out a beautiful sunset to a dog he will look at your finger.
And humans, alone of all the animals, not only admire a view – but often going to great lengths to do so – even sometimes to the extent of endangering the survival chances of their genes, (e.g. bushwalking, mountaineering, recreational overseas travelling, and even diving/snorkeling to see the beauties underwater). Why? What do humans get from landscape beauty?
What humans observably “get”, is to be spiritually uplifted – experiencing: “feelings of wonder, admiration and devotion which fill and elevate the mind.” – just as Darwin did.
THE NEO-DARWINIAN EXPLANATION FOR SCENIC BEAUTY
Consider this Neo-Darwinian explanation for our appreciation of scenic beauty from the world of evolutionary psychology:
“Why do we find certain landscapes pleasing? Well, they are the ones that are most promising for hunting and shelter. Hence if we are attracted to them we have a greater chance of survival.”
“The Secret Power of Beauty”, (John Armstrong, P. 105)
Such an explanation may go part of the way towards explaining why we may find the view of an arable valley beautiful, but it is, on the whole, exceedingly uncompelling – being unable to explain why we find the following beautiful: a snow-capped mountain; Antarctica; a desert scene at sunset; a waterfall; a beach; an iceberg; a field of colourful weeds – even an advancing storm? And, for all those who remember the 60’s film Dr. Strangelove, consider the beauty of the closing frames – depicting the explosion of atomic bombs set to classical music! The point here is that all of these examples of beauty are either sterile (offering none of Armstrong’s “greater chance of survival”) or they are inimical to our survival (just as was the jungle that Darwin was admiring, above).
No, the Neo-Darwinian explanation does not cut it – it is unnatural that a useless and/or hostile landscape – purely a physical pile of atoms, combined randomly by natural forces to no particular purpose with no (or even anti-) survival or genetic use to us, should be deemed universally beautiful and have an uplifting, spiritual effect on – what: our atoms, our genes – or our human soul?.
And we need also need to consider more deeply, that which we touched on in our exploration of above region – the fact that we see beauty in other animals.
THE BEAUTY OF ANIMALS?
Why do we see beauty in certain, other, non-human animals? The fact that a fine, meat- or fibre-producing beast appears “beautiful” to us would have a Darwinian explanation, but how about animals that confer no “greater chance of survival” – for example, animals which are not edible: koala bears, platypus, birds of paradise, butterflies etc. And why do we see as beautiful some animals which even threaten our survival: tigers, leopards, sharks, snakes etc.?
Neo-Darwinians see the phenomenon of sexual selection as the answer to human aesthetic appreciation of animals.
This from Professor of Psychiatry, David Castle (Melbourne University):
“…the roots of our aesthetic perception lie in sexual selection, which is an evolutionary thing. Why should we be driven to like nice-looking things? What’s the point, unless there’s some evolutionary selective pressure?”
Melbourne Age newspaper (14/4/2004)
There is no doubt that sexual selection exists among animals of the same species – certain physical attributes in another of the opposite sex would be seen as “beautiful” just because they would be useful for the survival of yourself and/or your genes. In humans, for example: a human female tends to find a man with broad shoulders, athletic buttocks, and strong muscular arms sexually attractive because these features in a mate indicate that he is more likely to be able to protect her and her children (and, of course, her genes in them). Men, similarly for gene-breeding purposes, go for wide hips and big breasts – more likely to be able to easily deliver his children and to better feed them. In modern (less subsistence) human societies other factors come into play – for example, women tend to value rich men just as highly (or more) as well-muscled men – but this is still sexual selection.
However, none of the above answers why we find beauty in a tiger, a leopard, a lion, a snake, a shark – “what’s the point” in neo-Darwinian ideology terms – these are extremely dangerous things to find beauty in, and any “evolutionary pressure” here exceedingly unselective.
And there are some other mysteries in sexual selection as well. For example, in the avian world, the sexual selection argument says that a male bird of paradise has evolved to be beautiful because colour and elaborate form has been selected for, over the millennia, by the female birds. Now, we humans tend to accept this argument because the male bird-of-paradise appears beautiful to us, and we blindly suppose that it is therefore, ipso facto, beautiful to a female bird. But why should the female bird see a male with bright, elaborate plumage as “beautiful”? – such gaudy, bright feathers offering no survival advantages but will only make his (and her) offspring brightly-coloured in turn – and more likely to be noticed by a predator. His fancy feathers (that we humans find beautiful because of their elaborate form) are actually bulky and un-aerodynamic, and will only serve to make her offspring more ungainly and less able to fly fast and/or twist and turn to avoid a predator. So the males’ colourful and elaborate beauty present evolutionary double jeopardy to its offspring. If beauty in the animal kingdom is all about sexual selection – how does such an in-your-face display that would lessen the chances of offspring surviving get naturally chosen above other displays that are more discrete and/or more aerodynamic?
And the greater puzzle is – if beauty can be explained by natural selection why do we humans see a decorative bird as beautiful? It gives us no survival advantages – we are not planning to mate with it, its more beautiful colour and form does not indicate to us that this animal has more meat for us to eat, or has better flavour – we just see it as beautiful for some unknown reason to do with our mysterious appreciation of colour and form. An ironic twist is that because humans find birds of paradise beautiful, some of the more decorative types of such birds are being driven to extinction – their feathers used in costumes by the men of local tribes to attract women – the irony being that beauty is actually leading some animal, unnaturally, to extinction rather than being naturally selected for. The deeper mystery here is that, while the behaviour of humans adorning themselves with things they see as beautiful is Darwinian (trying to make themselves more beautiful to attract mates) – why should human women see the elaborate and colourful feathers of another animal species as beautiful?
There are other mysteries – consider the human recognition of facial beauty.
HUMAN FACIAL BEAUTY
We have seen that in sexual selection, big breasts and wide hips are attractive characteristics for a female to have, and wide shoulders, muscular torso, strong legs in a male – but what about facial beauty – a type of bodily beauty which humans also recognise and seek? What instructions are there in the human mind which recognises a face as beautiful when the beauty of a face of a potential partner carries no breeding advantage to a selector – maybe, even, carrying disadvantages to the selectors genes?
DARWINIAN EXPLANATIONS OF FACIAL BEAUTY
One Darwinian explanation for how we see a face as beautiful is that good skin, healthy glow and shiny hair which makes a face beautiful also implies good health – therefore a mate good for breeding etc. etc. However, some people radiate good health but are still indisputably ugly (naming names is delicate here, but I’m sure we can all think of examples among the well-known faces of the acting fraternity). Similarly some people are wan, porcelain, seemingly in delicate health, but still beautiful-looking. Good health can make a person seem more attractive, but it cannot create beauty on its own.
Another neo-Darwinian explanation for human facial beauty is that men see certain female characteristics as beautiful because they are associated with youthfulness (therefore good, young breeding stock) – e.g., large eyes, small nose, full lips and small chin etc. Quite plausible, but young people are also very definite about the difference between beauty and ugliness amongst the faces of their peers – apparent youthfulness of features has no influence on perception of beauty because they are all equally young. And, how does a young person recognise beauty in an older person? I well remember my father, when he was re-marrying, asking me (as a pre-pubescent eleven-year-old) what I thought of his bride-to-be – my reply was that I thought she was beautiful. She was three times my age – so what facial information was I going on? Certainly not youthful appearance.
Also consider that heterosexuals have no trouble recognising what is beautiful/handsome in members of their same sex – with whom they can’t breed.
FACIAL BEAUTY IN A MATE IS ACTUALLY A GENETIC RISK
In fact, facial beauty can blind us to beauty’s actual Darwinian disadvantages – for example, a beautiful-faced partner is more likely to be wooed away from you by others. If you are a woman this could leave you and your offspring without a protector/provider after your facially-beautiful husband has been lured away – or, if you are a man and your partner has a beautiful visage, she is more likely to be impregnated by another male and leave you bringing up someone else’s genes (as Shakespeare said: “It is a wise man who knows his own father”). If facial beauty is just Darwinian: a result of sexual selection – then we should more rightly be wooing partners with ugly faces – to ensure our genes’ survival by ensuring that our partner is not stolen away, or that the child we are bringing up is actually ours.
No, our idea of what is human facial beauty is a mystery – even more so because it only, unnaturally, applies to humans.
FACIAL BEAUTY ONLY A HUMAN PERCEPTION
Unnaturally, facial beauty is only recognised by humans. “Unnaturally” because you don’t see other male animals fighting over the “beautiful” females in a herd – whereas it is not uncommon in humans. More natural male animals spread their genes over every available female they can cover, not just those with beautiful faces – watch a ram working a flock of ewes, or a bull a herd of cows, or a stag some hinds – the face is the last thing they look at! The important natural cues for attractiveness is just the colour, sight and smell of the genitals indicating readiness to mate – just the natural, blind, Darwinian spreading of genes for genetic survival and dominance that, we are assured by Darwinian ideologists, should explain all human behaviour as well.
Strangely, humans can find animals of other species beautiful in form (even face) – ditto trees, flowers. Are we entering the realm of Plato’s archetypical forms here?
Some would say beauty is not universal, absolute – but is just relative – “in the eye of the beholder”.
IS BEAUTY IN THE
This world is a relative reality and beauty falls on a relative scale but all people find certain things beautiful. The beauty of the Australian Great Barrier Reef; a Norwegian fjord; the French Alps; the English Cotswolds; America’s Yellowstone Park is not in the eye of the beholder – all being universally recognized as beautiful. Again, there is such a thing as nationalistic prejudices – for example, if asked to judge beauty in landscape a Norwegian might consider Fjords most beautiful; an Englishman, the Cotswolds; an Australian, the Great Barrier Reef; an American, the Rocky Mountains etc., etc. – but all will judge all the scenes to be beautiful.
There are also individual differences as well as nationalistic differences – for example, while most humans find flowers beautiful, some would prefer roses to tulips etc., etc.
Some would try to dismiss the mystery of beauty by saying that it is just cultural.
But consider facial beauty – the fact of it has no cultural explanation (there is agreement across cultures about human facial beauty, although relative beauty would have cultural input – similar to what we considered, above, concerning landscapes). For example, give Europeans photos of the faces of ten Asian people as chosen by Asians – five from either end of the beautiful/ugly spectrum and the beautiful and/or ugly ones will be easily sorted as such by the Europeans (and vice versa for Asians recognising beauty in European faces) – although cultural differences would come into play when placing the beautiful or ugly ones in order. There are observable relativities driven by cultural and nationalistic factors also in beauty pageants, for example – say the Miss Universe competitions (do they still exist?) – even though people may think the entrant from their own country is the most beautiful entrant, everybody would agree that the one chosen as “Miss Universe” is beautiful.
THE RECOGNITION OF HUMAN ARTISTIC BEAUTY
And how about our own, human artistic creations of beauty? Why do we find beauty in our own artistic creations – paintings, sculpture, words? Oxford Professor, Roger Penrose has this to say:
“It is a feeling not uncommon amongst artists, that in their greatest works they are revealing eternal truths which have some kind of prior ethereal existence””
“The Emperor’s New Mind” p. 97
This is in line with our opening quote from Keats: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”, and Plato’s ideas of ideal forms. Plato had the notion of ideal forms as being the basis of beauty – a tree was beautiful, for example, because it approaches the form of an ideal – which actually exists in another, ideal place.
But Neo-Darwinian ideologists see it differently.
NEO-DARWINIAN EXPLANATION FOR ARTISTIC BEAUTY
This from Professor Nicholas Humphrey (employing neo-Darwinian sexual selection theory):
“When we are excited by beauty – whether in painting, music, sculpture, words or ideas – what is happening at a deeper level is that we are responding to features in the beautiful object that reveal the hand of an artist…A person with such skills is likely to be a person with highly desired traits as a progenitor or parent or companion…we are in the presence of a potentially good mate.”
Nicholas Humphrey – quoted in Australian Financial Review (26/11/2010), P. 6.
The “hand of an artist” will be certainly revealed in human art, but most of us are aware that genuine artists are often difficult, as people, and are generally known to be rather dodgy “progenitors, parents, or companions”. Take the average pop star musician for example, or perhaps poor, mad Vincent Van Gogh, or the drunkard poet Dylan Thomas, the eccentric Mozart, the ghastly Jackson Pollock – there are any number of mad, bad, and dangerous to know, artists – such that it is a bit of a stretch to say that a person with “such skills is likely to be a person with highly desired traits as a progenitor or parent or companion”. And, if history is any guide, most artists are not much good at economics either, having an alarming tendency to die broke. If, in recognising human art as beautiful we are only “responding” to the potential of artists to be “a potentially good mate”, how can we find the work of long-dead artists beautiful? To compound the problem for Darwinian ideology further, some great artists were not recognised as “a person with such [artistic] skills” in their lifetime – again, Van Gogh a good example – and again, the Darwinian answer is not compelling.
THE BEAUTY OF COLOUR
And why is colour beautiful to us?
Sometimes colour transforms an ordinary scene (or even one useless for survival) into beauty – a field of Australian, purple “Patterson’s Curse” weed, for example, while useless for survival, is still a beautiful thing to behold. The huge rock monolith, Uluru, in the Australian desert, is a plain, brown, useless, rock during the day but becomes beautiful at sunset when it turns orange, then red, then purple – it is a spiritual place for Australian Aboriginals and people come from all over the world into the desert (at great trouble, expense, and risk to their genes) to see Uluru – and are moved by it. So, what is “moved” in them – their animal bodies? No, it’s their selves/souls/spirits (again, call the nonphysical factor in the human equation what you will) which are rewarded, uplifted by the experience of beauty in colour – there is no animal-body survival factor in this particular recognition of beauty which could support a Darwinian argument that it was naturally selected.
THE BEAUTY OF SMELLS
Being repelled by bad smells has natural selection advantages because excrescence and rotting things have germs which could endanger our survival – but why are we attracted to “nice” smells which have no survival advantage? The perfume of flowers for example – we can’t eat flowers yet we have grown useless flowering plants in vast, decorative gardens (which take up arable land which is good for food and survival) because we like their smell (and their colour, as above). It can be easily understood why bees are attracted to flowers, of course – the symbiotic relationship between flowers and bees has survival benefits for both – but why are we attracted to the scent of flowers, declaring their smell beautiful?
THE BEAUTY OF FORM
We also find beauty in form. Consider flowers again, why we should find the form of flowers beautiful – when they play no role in our survival – indeed, as we saw above, they take up resources which could be used for our survival (e.g. money and arable land). We construct expensive public gardens, and visit them because they are planted with flowers whose form we find beautiful (just as we do their colour and scent) – which experience of beauty we find “uplifting”. What is being uplifted – our bodies? Often we travel great distances into other countries to admire famous flower gardens – at great expense and even at some bodily danger – simply because we find their beauty spiritually uplifting. All of this although flowers are worse than useless for our animal bodies’ survival. “Worse than useless” because flowers take up soil, labour, energy, money – all resources we could better spend feeding and protecting our genetic kin (or giving birth to more of them) which we should rightly be doing if our life is purely about bodily survival and genetic imperatives – as evolutionary ideologues assure us it is.
I live in a rural, semi-forested area of Australia with many trees. In our valley there are a few trees which stand out, regarded as beautiful by all. All trees are useful and good for our survival (fuel, building material, oxygen producing) so, in a Darwinian sense, all trees are beautiful – why then do we see certain trees among thousands of good trees as beautiful? They are just archetypal – perfect in form of their type. Shades of Plato.
BEAUTY THROUGH OTHER SENSES
We also detect beauty through other senses than just sight, for example: touch; taste; hearing (the mystery of music we will examine in the next region to be explored) – much of it having no animal survival values either. Some such beautiful experiences could even be fatal (the beautiful feel of a tiger’s fur, the beautiful taste of a Japanese puffer fish).
WHAT’S GOING ON?
So what’s going on with the phenomenon that is humanity’s unique understanding and appreciation of beauty? What do others think? This from that well-known judge of all things beautiful – Tink R. Bell:
“ ‘Beauty’ is a non-natural property. It is non-natural in the sense that the philosopher Robert Adams discusses: it ‘cannot be stated entirely in the language of physics, chemistry, biology, and human or animal psychology.’ But let me tell you, beauty is real a thing in the world. Who among you is so cold-hearted as to deny that there is beauty in a piece of music, a poem, a painting, the face of a lover, an artful bed of tulips? You might well start pontificating that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, or some other such cynical nonsense. Are you going to start saying the same thing about the non-natural property of morality? That it too is in the eye of the beholder? Of course not. No, you may dispute about the degree to which something is beautiful or ugly, lovely or unlovely, but that is merely to debate the measurement of those aesthetic properties. To engage in such a debate is already to concede that there are aesthetic properties. The aesthetic qualities themselves are there, real, and not some physical things that one might pick apart on a lab bench.”
Tink R. Bell (otherwise known as Professor Steven D. Hales, Bloomsburg Univ., Penn) – “Think” # 16 (Periodical philosophy magazine, 2008, P. 46)
From what we have considered, it seems that Tink R. Bell is right – beauty/“aesthetic qualities” are real, and that beauty is a “non-natural” property for the most part – and not “in the eye of the beholder”. Beauty can be natural some times (as in sexual selection – e.g. big bottoms in the Kalahari desert, big breasts in women, wide shoulders in men etc.) but, as Robert Adams was quoted above: it “cannot be stated entirely in the language of physics, chemistry, biology, and human or animal psychology.”
IS BEAUTY AN ABSOLUTE?
We have already considered Plato’s idea of ideal forms existing in another place, and we have already discovered that it is not in the eye of the beholder – i.e. it’s not relative. We have also noted that beauty moves our selves, not our bodies, and that we are – unnaturally – the only animal to be so moved. So what’s going on within this strange, unnatural, spiritual, human, behaviour? If, in the words of Hales: “Beauty is a non-natural property” maybe we need to peek into the supernatural, and/or: if it “cannot be stated entirely in the language of physics…” maybe we need to peek into metaphysics?
A LITTLE PEEK INTO THE METAPHYSICAL
For Plato, humanity had an a priori knowledge and appreciation of beauty – a recollection of the acquaintance we had with the forms before our immortal souls became imprisoned within our bodies. Consider this also from Professor David Fontana – about human art, poetry, and music:
“Are our thoughts, our creative endeavours, our art, our poetry, our philosophy, our music no more than the by-products of electro-chemical energy in a brain that would live out its earthly life just as well without them? Or are these creative masterpieces hints and whispers of a grander and finer reality of which we are all a part?”
- “Is There An Afterlife?” P. 468, David Fontana (visiting fellow at Cardiff University and professor of Transpersonal Psychology at Liverpool John Moores University)
Fontana sounds quite interesting: “a grander and finer reality of which we are all a part”? At the beginning of our journey along the road to Truth we avoided the labyrinths leading into the supernatural and metaphysical – for the want of a guide – maybe we’ll retrace our steps a little later and have a peep inside to these daunting labyrinths with Fontana’s aid? Here we just need to consider whether we can confirm Keats’ belief – voiced at the beginning of this section of our road to truth – that: “beauty is truth, truth beauty”?
IS TRUTH BEAUTY?
So, what’s the Truth of beauty? Is something only “beautiful” because we say so, does beauty only exist because we have an understanding and relative appreciation of it, or is it as Plato et al would have it – beauty is recognised in this world when an Earthly object’s form approaches an otherworldly ideal? Maybe the archetypes of beauty are located in a reality beyond Earth that Fontana describes as “grander and finer” – carried in what Jung called our collective unconscious?
Certainly, while the very existence of a nonphysical thing like the human recognition of non-Darwinian beauty (like a flower) in a supposedly entirely physical and mechanical universe remains a mystery, humanity’s appreciation of it does evidence something about the human condition – i.e. it is further confirmation that there are factors to the human equation beyond the purely physical – a spiritual factor in us which is evidenced when it is “lifted” by an encounter with non-Darwinian beauty?
Some feel that the existence of beauty speaks of “createdness” – i.e. of the feeling that the universe has been created by a “H” Higher “A” Agency – usually their “g” god (Cornwell, “Darwin’s Angel” 2007). Some art certainly seems to invoke the Divine – often great beauty was originally inspired by a sense of the Divine: Bach’s Christmas Oratorio; Michelangelo’s Pieta; numerous cathedrals and paintings – all certainly prompt feelings of sublimity and raise the human spirit. But, as for such being proof of a God, Richard Dawkins has this to say:
“If there is a logical argument linking the existence of great art to the existence of God, it is not spelled out by its proponents. It is simply assumed to be self-evident, which it most certainly is not.”
“The God Delusion”, Richard Dawkins, P. 87.
Certainly, this relative reality we call the universe is very creative of beauty – much of which does not seem to be relative (i.e. in the eye of the beholder) – but absolute. However, the truly mysterious thing, and perhaps evidence for a Higher Agency, is the very “existence of great art” – the fact that humanity (according to Dawkins just the product of an accidental physics, spontaneous chemistry, and selfish genes) recognizes beauty when its sees it, even seeks to create beauty – and a nonphysical part of us is lifted by the experience of it.
The mysteries just get deeper. Our map tells us we have come to a territory which contains more non-Darwinian beauty – recognized by, created by, and enjoyed by humans – in the form of music and poetry. Beauty that we often call “spiritual” – that is: emanating from and speaking to, our souls. Let’s explore.
Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without.
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils.
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus.
Let no such man be trusted.
- Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice.
Why is music “a kind of pleasure”? Why are we moved by the “concord of sweet sounds”? Why are “the motions of our spirit” attuned to music – to the point that we “cannot do without”? Residents of the House of Disbelief would say Shakespeare is wrong – we can’t talk of the motions of our spirits because we don’t have any spirit/soul/self – everything must be down to the motions of our atoms. We need to look deeper.
First the Neo Darwinian explanation.
MUSIC – NATURALLY SELECTED?
Music is not some rare phenomenon, but pretty much universal in human societies – and, from the evidence of ancient flutes made from ivory and bird bones, judged to have existed for more than thirty thousand years. Evolutionists feel that this proves that music must have been naturally selected. This from Professor Edward O. Wilson:
“Because music began in Paleolithic times…and because it remains universal in hunter-gatherer societies around the world, it is reasonable to conclude that our loving devotion to it has been hardwired by evolution in the human brain.”
“The Meaning of Human Existence”, P. 147.
The usual Neo Darwinian explanation that everything about us (all our behaviours) can only exist today, if such had been naturally selected in the past (even the notion of spirit/self has been naturally selected because it bolsters our ego thereby giving a genetic advantage over those who didn’t have such a notion). But some scientists deny that music is adaptive – i.e. has a natural selection explanation. This from neuroscience:
“Given its omnipresence in human culture, why is there no clear-cut adaptive function? …The origins and adaptive significance of music thus remain deeply mysterious.”
- Hauser& McDermott, nature neuroscience, July 2003.
Physically, music is just the vibration of molecules – why is this necessary to our survival – early human music served no territorial, mating or warning function (cf. bird “song”). Charles Darwin wrote in 1871:
“As neither the enjoyment nor the capacity of producing musical notes are faculties of the least use to man in reference to his daily habits of life, they must be ranked among the most mysterious with which he is endowed.”
– “The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex”, P.878.
So, if “neither the enjoyment nor the capacity of producing musical notes are faculties of the least use to man”, music adds no advantage to the execution of our “daily habits of life”, and “its omnipresence in human culture” (from Hauser & McDermott) is a mystery – even to Darwin.
We will consider, below, that some modern human music can be reasonably argued to have certain animal functions (while some seems to have only a spiritual function) – but why did the first musical notes appeal to us – and to what part of us? If every part of us is just of accidental atoms, accidentally/chemically alive – how did we appreciate the first musical note such that we were moved to repeat it – then, further, to elaborate it into a mathematical system which, in the words of Shakespeare: “moved” us with its “concord of sweet sounds”?
The mystery is, how does one consciousness (the creator of the music) convey nonphysical, spiritual states to the consciousness of others (the listeners) through the physical act of making air molecules vibrate at different pitch, beat and timbre? Why did only humans develop the capacity to enjoy and perform music based on mathematical scales?
EXPRESSING THE INEXPRESSIBLE?
Aldous Huxley described music as an attempt to express the inexpressible: “After silence, that which comes closest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” Is music “expressing the inexpressible”? It’s certainly expressing something – music is a form of expression – but what exactly is it?
Music allows us to express something that is uniquely human – our consciousness of life: of being alive and experiencing all of life’s beauties and joys, dangers and dramas, passions and longings and loves – the consciousness of our soul relating to that of others. Music is the product of our consciousness – another nonphysical phenomenon which is part of the mysterious human condition – consciousness is something we have on our map to explore, below.
Residents in the House of Disbelief would prescribe a cold shower – music is just a physical phenomenon – we do it because music releases dopamine in the brain.
Neurobiologists have noticed that certain types of music release dopamine in the brain – as does food and sex. Neo-Darwinians conclude that this somehow explains music away: the “lifting of our spirits”, the “moving” deeply of us, sometimes to tears – is just a physical effect on our brain atoms? But the real question is why does music, just the vibration of air molecules, cause our atoms to release dopamine which give us a nice feeling? Food and sex are Darwinian – essential to our survival – you can see why they might release dopamine, but music is not essential to our survival – why does it release dopamine?
Certainly some human music has the effect of releasing animal hormones useful for survival – thereby having an evolutionary/animal function and explanation. For example, martial music (to spur the adrenalin of soldiers), rock and roll music (to spur the hormones), relaxing background music (similar to the vibrations of our mother’s voice we were soothed by in the womb). Just as the “music” of other animals – for example, bird and whale songs, also seems to have an evolutionary explanation – being noises for territorial and/or mating purposes. But all animal music (human or other animals) may have a Darwinian explanation – some music spirits us away from our animal cares and desires to move only the soul – Beethoven’s 9th, Handel’s “Messiah”, Bach cantatas come quickly to mind as well-known examples.
A FREAK ACCIDENT OF NATURE?
Residents of the House of Disbelief see music as just another freak accident of nature which has no particular truth to convey, or significance. Others deny that music can be a freak accident, observing that music is related to mathematics and, like mathematics, it is an inherent part of the language of the universe. This from a resident of the House of God:
“How likely is it that music is but another freak accident of Nature? Music works because of the laws of mathematics, and those laws are wired into the Universe from the beginning.”
“God, Actually.” – Roy Williams, p. 92
We are due to explore the mystery that is humanity’s ability to speak mathematics (the intelligent language the universe was written in) later, here we just need to consider that while writing and/or playing music definitely has mathematics in it, sometimes both can transcend this often mechanical world. Consider, for instance, what Einstein said of Mozart’s music:
“...was so pure that it seemed to have been ever-present in the universe, waiting to be discovered by the master.”
(New York Times, Arthur I. Miller, 31/1/2006)
A bit like Plato’s always existing ideal forms? Einstein also believed that, beyond the observations and theory of Physics:
“...lay the music of the spheres [revealing] pre-established harmony. “ (ibid.)
The bottom line is this, while neurobiology can show listening to music physically lights up certain areas of the brain and releases certain physical chemicals, some music definitely has a component which speaks to another part of us – this is the music which speaks of the mystery of the human condition. For example, it is mysterious that some music of other animals can move us.
THE MUSIC OF OTHER ANIMALS CAN ALSO MOVE US
Just as we can be “moved” spiritually when we admire the beauty of particular animals which, for some mysterious non-Darwinian reason, we find beautiful (e.g. a tiger, a shark, a bird-of-paradise) we can also be moved by their raw music (e.g. bird song). Neither appreciation of such beauty confers any survival advantage to our bodies so that such recognition of beauty in animal song should be selected for – so why do we, universally, recognise some animal sounds (the song of a nightingale, for example) as beautiful, and be spiritually (not bodily) moved by them? Consider this about birdsong from Keats:
“Now more than ever it seems rich to die,
To cease upon the with no pain,
While thou are pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!”
- John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale” (1819)
Which brings us neatly to poetry.
Not only music can move our souls – our souls can be transported on the wings of beautiful words – as above. According to Neo-Darwinian ideologues, human language arose because it was naturally selected because of its survival advantages. So, how can words be beautiful and spiritually moving if they are just animal communication?
Yet more from Keats:
“Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Thou the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne…”
Consider also Gerard Manley Hopkins – spiritually moved by the beauty of a falcon in motion, and able to move us, in turn, by bringing the musical sound and meaning of words magically together:
“I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon,
in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! Then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
– “The Windhover”.
And Dylan Thomas – in his raging against the mortality of the bodily factor in the human equation, illustrates (and moves) the other apparent factor in our equation – the spiritual:
“And you, my father, there on the sad height
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
– “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”
“STIRRED FOR A BIRD”?
The beauty of the poems above is exquisite – Keats’ soul rides “on the viewless wings of poesy”; Hopkins’ spirit is “stirred for a bird”; Thomas’ self rages “against the dying of the light”. I don’t think that there is any debate that poetry, like music, moves us. Us – not our bodies, but “us” – our self, soul, spirit (call it what you will).
There is no Darwinian beauty in words themselves – although sensed by our body’s organs, poetry and music (like the previously considered unnatural beauty of an inedible bird) is received by some other, non-bodily part of us – the spiritual factor in the human equation.
Beauty in whatever form it takes evokes a complicated reaction in humans. Human-made beauty, natural beauty – even excellence/virtuosity in the spirit of other humans or any animal (e.g. a brave person, a gallant racehorse, a faithful dog, a brave bird battling the elements) raises our spirits in turn, and can result in a feeling of exhilaration. Often the experience of beauty is so intense that we can be moved to tears. What’s going on with this strange animal called a human? Is any part of the phenomenon of being moved by music, poetry, and beauty – Darwinian? Does it meet a bodily need – or a spiritual need? Does it give any advantage to our genes such that it has been naturally selected – or does it just serve to raise our consciousness to the beauty that is in our world?
MORE EVIDENCE OF A SPIRITUAL FACTOR IN THE HUMAN EQUATION
Whatever your answer to that, we have discovered, again, more empirical evidence that a spiritual factor exists in us – with needs and responses independent of our bodies. Our minds can recognise falcons through our eyes, and recognise nightingales songs with our ears, but our souls are recognising and being moved by something else – the beauty of their song, the beauty of their form, the poetry of their movement and/or the bravery of their endeavour. Such recognition of beauty is not naturally selected – other animals do not have it, and it gives us no advantage amongst other animals or our fellows – indeed, admiring the beauty of a leopard, a bear, a shark is not a good thing for the survival of our genes.
DO ANY “HATH NO MUSIC”?
The Shakespearian quote at the beginning of our exploration of music and poetry implies that there are people who “hath no music” – people of whom it could be said: “the motions of his spirit are dull as night.” Is this true, or is it just some Shakespearian hyperbole?
Like all the relative qualities of humans, the extent of our spirituality – our spiritual evolution? – does seem to be subject to individual differences but, while the nature of some of us, at some times, seems to be “as dark as Erebus” – we all seem to be capable of being moved to some extent by spiritual things. All is relative in a relative world and the extent to which we are moved, and what exactly “moves” us may be relatively more or less “sophisticated” (the beauty of high art, or a beautifully restored car), or more or less Darwinian (your own child – or children in general), but there do not seem to be any who cannot be moved, at least to some extent, by spiritual experiences. Programs introducing music, pet animals, and other experiences of beauty have been found to be beneficial to the spirits of those in gaol – and, in hospitals, those who have brain injuries or mental problems have had their spirits lifted, similarly.
So where are we now on our journey towards Truth? We move away from exploring the various territories of beauty to enter another interesting region – the strangeness of our understanding of mathematics (wherein some have also found beauty).
· THE MYSTERY THAT IS MATHEMATICS
“The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.”
– Albert Einstein
As we saw earlier in our journey, that a supposedly accidental universe should have underlying order is a mystery. There is another mystery, such order that exists is the result of forces which have fine tuning, ratios and constants – all written in an intelligent language:
“The book of nature is written in mathematical language.”
“...the underlying order of the world can be expressed in mathematical form…Why this should be so is one of the great mysteries of the universe.”
“The Mind of God”, Paul Davies. P.148.
But there is a deeper mystery: the human mind, supposedly mechanically evolved from a spontaneous chemical event (life) in an accidental universe, can understand the language all of the above is written in. More from Davies:
“…no feature of this uncanny ‘tuning’ of the human mind to the workings of nature is more striking than mathematics, the product of the human mind that is somehow linked into the secrets of the universe.”
(ibid. p. 160).
Davies uses the word “uncanny”, and uncanny it is: that our minds, supposedly a product of nature, are tuned to how nature works; we, just a page in Galileo’s “book of nature”, can read that book. Further, not only can we read the book of nature but, with our mastery of the language it is written in, we are beginning to write some of the book ourselves (through genetic engineering etc.). And, if mathematics, the language this observably cause-and-effect universe was written in, is “the product of the human mind”, as Davies says, are we (our minds and/or consciousness) just an effect of the universe or part of its cause?
But there is a lot of debate about whether mathematics is “the product of the human mind” – or did we just discover it?
DID WE INVENT OR DISCOVER MATHEMATICS?
On this subject, scientists have formed two basic camps. The camp which feels that mathematics is just a human invention is called the “formalist” school of thought – holding basically that mathematics is just an invention of the human mind which has no meaning beyond that attributed to it by mathematicians. The contrary view is called “Platonist” (from Plato’s dualistic vision of reality) – holding that humans did not invent mathematics, but discovered it. Leading Oxford mathematician Roger Penrose was inspired to the Platonist view partly by a study of the Mandelbrot set:
“The complete details of the complication of the structure of Mandelbrot’s set cannot really be fully comprehended by any one of us, nor can it be fully revealed by any computer. It would seem that this structure is not just part of our minds, but it has a reality of its own … The Mandelbrot set is not an invention of the human mind: it was a discovery. Like Mount Everest, the Mandelbrot set is just there.”
– Roger Penrose, “The Emperor’s New Mind”, p. 95
Paul Davies, has this to say about the Mandelbrot set:
“This set has such an extraordinarily complicated structure that it is impossible to convey in words its awesome beauty.”
– Op. Cit. p.151.
There’s that word “beauty” again – this time in the arcane realm of pure mathematics. (British mathematician G.H. Hardy also wrote that he “practiced mathematics for its beauty, not its practical value”).
Penrose has no doubt mathematicians are dealing with “eternal truths” and, in this way, sees an analogy between mathematics and inspired works of art:
“It is a feeling not uncommon amongst artists, that in their greatest works they are revealing eternal truths which have some kind of prior ethereal existence … I cannot help feeling that, with mathematics, the case for believing in some kind of ethereal, eternal existence … is a good deal stronger.”
– Op. Cit., p. 97
“Eternal truths…prior eternal existence”? – shades of Keats’ “beauty is truth”.
Paul Davies in his examination of the uncanny in mathematics quotes physicist Heinrich Hertz:
“One cannot escape the feeling that these mathematical formulas have an independent existence of their own, and they are wiser than even their discoverers, that we get more out of them than was originally put into them.”
– Op. Cit. p. 154, (from M. Kline, Mathematics p. 338.)
And Richard Feynman contributes this:
“When you discover these things, you get the feeling that they were true before you found them. So you get the idea that somehow they existed somewhere, but there’s nowhere for such things … in the case of physics we have double trouble. We come upon these mathematical interrelationships but they apply to the universe, so the problem of where they are is doubly confusing.”
– Quoted from: “Superstrings: A Theory of Everything?” (P.C.W. Davies and J.R. Brown pp. 207-8)
Shades of Plato: “… true before you found them…somehow they existed somewhere”.
A WORDLESS CONNECTION WITH NATURE?
And, through mathematics we seem to have a wordless connection with, not only other humans, but nature:
“…consciousness and our ability to do mathematics is no mere accident, no trivial detail, no insignificant by-product of evolution that is piggy-backing on some other mundane property. It points to what I like to call the cosmic connection, the existence of a really deep relationship between the minds that can do mathematics and the underlying laws of nature that produce them.”
“Are We Alone?”, Paul Davies – p. 84
The mystery of consciousness we are due to explore below, but for here, we just need to consider that whether humans “created” or “discovered” mathematics, the most important point is that it is unnatural that the human mind has this capacity to understand and relate to the workings of our universe through mathematics beyond what is explicable by the Darwinian need to survive. Other animals survive perfectly well without having an understanding of mathematics. Why did we move on to mathematics when such was not needed – we were already, well and truly, on top of the food chain when we discovered or produced it? More from Paul Davies:
“There seems to be no particular reason why we should need to be able to achieve this sort of deep [mathematical] knowledge in order to make a living in the world. In fact, many communities for many thousands of years, have made a perfectly satisfactory living on this planet without having such an underlying theoretical knowledge.”
(Op. cit. p. 82)
All up, in our ability to speak mathematics we have discovered yet another mystery that is not well explained by materialist, naturalist, Darwinist, determinist ideologies. And we have uncovered another mystery which needs a bit more exploration if we are to approach the Truth of the human condition – that we unnaturally have a theoretical knowledge of the universe “deeper” than we need to ensure our animal body’s survival in this world.
This from scientist John Barrow:
“But how strange this is. Our minds are the products of the laws of Nature; yet they are in a position to reflect upon them … A more interesting problem is the extent to which the brain is qualitatively adapted to understand the Universe. Why should its categories of thought and understanding be able to cope with the scope and nature of the real world? Why should the Theory of Everything be written in a ‘language’ that our minds can decode? Why has the process of natural selection so over-endowed us with mental faculties that we can understand the whole fabric of the Universe far beyond anything required for our past and present survival?… None of the sophisticated ideas involved appear to offer any selective advantage to be exploited during the pre-conscious period of our evolution…Why should it be us?”
– Theories of Everything: The Quest for Ultimate Explanation, Pp. 172&173 (author’s italics underlined)
Indeed “how strange” that we, supposedly just mechanically evolved products of physical forces and chemical life, can understand all of these forces and processes – “the fabric of the universe”. And why, if natural selection is meant to be able to explain everything about us, did: “natural selection so over-endowed us with mental faculties…beyond anything required for our past and present survival?”
Beyond strange – again more like downright unnatural. Paul Davies has more in the same vein:
“What is remarkable is that human beings are actually able to carry out this code-breaking operation, that the human mind has the necessary intellectual equipment for us to unlock the secrets of nature…we find a situation in which the difficulty of the cosmic code seems almost to be attuned to human capabilities…The challenge is just hard enough to attract some of the best brains available, but not so hard as to defeat their combined efforts and deflect them onto easier tasks…The mystery in all this is that human intellectual powers are presumably determined by biological evolution, and have absolutely no connection with doing science. Our brains have evolved in response to environmental pressures, such as the ability to hunt, avoid predators, dodge falling objects etc. What has this got to do with discovering the laws of electromagnetism or the structure of the atom?”
– (Mind of God, Pp. 158-159).
The unnatural here is obvious: the minds of all animals other than humans developed just as Darwinian evolutionary theory says they should – just as far as they needed to survive against genetic competition and environmental survival pressures. Once they had achieved that there was no need and/or selection pressure for them to ever develop their brain to the point of understanding the universe(s) – a lion, is a lion, is a lion – humanity evolves its intellectual capacities on and on and on ... Why if we are natural?
A UNIQUE AND UNNECESSARY UNDERSTANDING?
According to the ideological “isms” flowing from our physical sciences: Materialism, Naturalism, Scientism, and the like – humans are just like all other animals – naturally created by physical forces and chemical combinations, then mechanically evolved by biological natural selection. But here we stand, with a unique understanding of the process which led to us and a unique knowledge of the language it was written in. As we have considered a little before, this unique knowledge has meant that our understanding of the universe has grown such that we can alter nature. For example, we can alter plants, our own animal bodies, the bodies of other animals (all for better or worse) – to suit ourselves – using our over-evolved knowledge of sciences like genetic engineering. We humans have gone beyond being “star-stuff” strangely able to observe the stars (as Sagan remarked), to the point of being star stuff that is able to understand our universe so well that we can now create it – we are creatures and creators of the universe at one and the same time. This makes us not only unique among the animals – but, again, unnatural.
To determine the unnatural, let’s consider what is natural.
The chimps are our nearest neighbours in the animal world (just 1.5%
I’m not suggesting that we and the chimps did not evolve from a common ancestor, but just noticing the mysterious fact that in our case selection of random mutations enabled an enlargement of our brain far beyond what was necessary to survive – how was this natural? Except for the gap between us and chimpanzees, the gaps in evolutionary development between contiguous species on the vast animal spectrum is small – and pretty much what you would expect to see as a result of mechanical natural evolution at work in our world (e.g. there is no difference between the cognitive abilities and understanding of the universe, or even the basic lifestyle, of all the other primates – whether apes, monkeys, marmosets, lemurs).
BEYOND THIS MYSTERY LIES AN EVEN GREATER ONE
Beyond the unnecessary-for-survival qualitative adaption of our brains through the over-development of our intellectual capacities needed for survival (which allowed us to unlock the fabric of the natural world) there dwells an even greater mystery – the equally unnecessary evolution of human consciousness.
Our road to Truth now approaches a difficult peak – the phenomenon that is human consciousness. Let’s see if we can manage to scale at least a little way up its difficult slopes – slopes with such a degree of difficulty that a complete conquest of Mt. Consciousness has never been achieved.
“We are the cosmos made conscious, and life is the means by which the universe understands itself.”
- Brian Cox
The phenomenon of human consciousness is a curious one, and a mystery that has bedeviled humanity for some time. The mystery is, from the above quote, how did we, just atoms made by the universe, come to understand the universe – “come to be the means by which the universe understands itself” – how did the universe become conscious of itself – through us? That matter could become conscious is mysterious; that it should have consciousness (be conscious that it’s conscious) needs a stronger adjective.
It’s certainly a mystery to our physical sciences – for whom we are just accidental physical matter, made chemically alive, then mechanically evolved into us creatures. Creatures entirely physical, but which have nonphysical properties like consciousness – a physical hunk of the universe which “understands itself” because it has consciousness.
Whilst consciousness poses deep mysteries to our sciences, any expedition like ours, claiming to be on the road to Truth of the human condition must consider it, because consciousness is very much a part of what it is to be human.
WHAT IS IT LIKE TO HAVE CONSCIOUSNESS?
For sentient animals (having the power of sense perception), to be conscious is to be awake, aware. Humans are sentient animals, but once we are conscious we seem to have an extra awareness above that of other animals. Such extra awareness we call existential consciousness: to be not only awake, but aware that we are awake, aware that we exist – further, aware that we are not only alive but that we are mortal and must die. We also have consciousness of the fabric of the universe, even of its beginning. While nonhuman animals do have what some would call consciousness, we will dodge the problem of trying to determine the exact extent of nonhuman consciousness (is it the same as ours – do nonhuman animals have consciousness of their mortality; can their consciousness be raised to spiritual things like beauty; etc. etc.?). Rather it is the fact of the existence of any consciousness in what should be an otherwise entirely physical universe, which is the main mystery and we will stick with human consciousness in our examination because it is the one we are most familiar with and can therefore know most about.
So, what exactly is consciousness? This from the discipline of Psychology:
“Consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomena; it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does or why it evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written about it.”
International Dictionary of Psychology (Stuart Sutherland, 1989):
And this from philosophy:
“Possibly the most challenging and pervasive problem in the whole of philosophy. Our own consciousness seems to be the most basic fact confronting us, yet it is almost impossible to say what consciousness is.”
The “Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy”, 1996.
These quotes are a bit old – surely we have made some progress on the problem of consciousness since that time? How about our physical sciences which, many scientists feel, are on the brink of a natural Theory of Everything? This from Professor Thomas Nagel (2012):
“Consciousness is the most conspicuous obstacle to a comprehensive naturalism that relies only on the resources of physical science.”
“Mind and Cosmos”, P. 35.
What sort of an “obstacle” does consciousness form to comprehensive naturalism (the belief that nothing is outside the explanatory power of the natural sciences: physics, chemistry, biology)?
PROBLEMS FOR NATURALISM/MATERIALISM
Consciousness presents physical science with significant problems – the central one being: how can physical matter have any nonphysical property – like consciousness?
Nobody has the slightest idea how anything material could be conscious. Nobody even knows what it would be like to have the slightest idea about how anything material could be conscious.
“The Big Idea: Can There Be a Science of Mind?” Jerry Fodor – Times Literary Supplement 3, (July 1992):5.
This is what Australian philosopher, David Chalmers called the “hard problem” of consciousness – explaining how the biological brain, made of objective matter, generates a subjective world of experience – often of nonphysical things (like beauty, for example).
In the above definitions, Psychology says the problem of understanding consciousness is “impossible”, whereas philosophy only labels it “almost impossible”. I like the sound of “almost” – so we’ll slog on and see just how far we can clamber up the mount – every little bit of elevation we achieve should help us to see a little further ahead along our road to Truth? After all, every human (maybe other animals as well?) has consciousness – therefore we are at least qualified to say what it feels like – so, let’s go have a crack at it.
WE PROCEED, USING OUR UNIQUE HUMAN CONSCIOUSNESS
So, we humans have a mysterious thing we call consciousness and, through using our consciousness of life, we undertake philosophical expeditions like this one – in an attempt to become conscious of a whole lot more – of any Truths there might be to our existence above those of our physical body and the physical world. We are, then, trying to raise our consciousness to discover and consider any things above the base physical – which is why it is called “metaphysical philosophy” (literally, above/beyond the physical).
Why? Why should we try to raise our consciousness of life?
Maybe, if we can successfully raise our consciousness beyond the obvious physical Truths of our animal bodies we may be able to find some metaphysical Truths and determine what they have to say about how we should behave to get the most out of our existence in this reality – how to best live – the ultimate fruit of metaphysical philosophy.
Raising our consciousness is heightening our awareness – of existence – becoming more aware of the things which comprise it, especially those things above/beyond the physical. For example, beauty.
Most animals are conscious of certain physical things that exist which they need be aware of, and to cope with, to continue existing. But our exploration along the road to Truth of the human condition has discovered certain nonphysical things which humans are conscious of – elements that we do not need to be aware of to continue to exist, but the awareness of which make our life more enjoyable – and to best live. Things like the existence of beauty – our consciousness of it could be seen as higher – “higher” because our understanding and appreciation of it is above our necessary physical animal needs and genetic imperatives to continue existing. We do not need beauty to continue living – it only serves to move, feed, elevate our soul/self. As we saw in our previous exploration of the region that is beauty, Darwin, himself, wrote (in his autobiography) of being spiritually uplifted by the natural beauty of the world – which gave him: “higher feelings of wonder, admiration and devotion which fill and elevate the mind” – a pretty good description of consciousness raising.
TO BEST LIVE?
And Darwin also wrote in his autobiography, on contemplating the fact that humans are moved by beauty, of his “conviction that there is more to man than the breath of his body”. This “more to man” than our urge to breath, can only be our self/soul, our spiritual understandings and needs. To best live then is to experience “higher feelings” than just animal survival. To evolve our spirituality, to be able to raise our consciousness to life more often – seems to be moving us towards an answer to metaphysical philosophy’s holy grail, of determining “how to best live?
To consider this further, let’s examine the effect of the opposite.
While raising our consciousness of life to the spiritual may allow us to en-joy life more, lowering our consciousness to just the physical elements of life does the opposite. Consider the existential angst which became a big part of the 20th century human experience when metaphysical philosophy became dominated by the physical sciences. During this period various “isms” flourished (and their philosophical corollaries): existentialism (life is absurd and purposeless); scepticism (denial that knowledge is possible – even knowledge of whether we exist); post-modern relativism (everything is relative, there are no “T” Truths – only this!?); materialism (everything is matter and energy, accidentally arisen from nothing, spontaneously alive – necessarily meaningless); reductionism (“The explanatory arrows always point downward” – Steven Weinberg); neo-Darwinism (all behaviours are explicable in terms of natural selection); scientism (“There is physics, and then there is stamp-collecting” – physicist E. Rutherford); determinism (there is no free will); libertinism (if it feels good, do it – there can be no right nor wrong, nor any good or bad).
With our consciousness lowered by materialism to just that of our material, animal bodies – our spirituality withered and we attempted to manage the resulting existential angst with drink, drugs, TV, food, sex, sugar, sport, work, money, caffeine, computers, capitalism and consumerism. Is this to best live? But, towards the end of the 20th century, the dawning of the new millennia promised a new hope – a marked raising of our consciousness – combatting our almost century-long lowering of consciousness. New Age religions and spiritual self-help gurus and books (of varying quality) blossomed in the new millennia (for better or worse?).
THE NEO-DARWINIAN EXPLANATION
For the neo-Darwinians fundamentalists there is no “mystery” in the fact of human consciousness – like all things, it can be explained away in terms of natural selection. This from philosopher and evolutionary psychologist Nicholas Humphrey :
“The more mysterious and unworldly the qualities of consciousness, the more seriously significant the Self. And the more significant the Self, the greater the boost to human self-confidence and self-importance – and the greater the value that individuals place on their own and others’ lives.
In which case it is easy to see how the very qualities of consciousness that seem to render it so mysterious and magical would have been the occasion for consciousness’s becoming a runaway evolutionary success. In fact these qualities would soon have been designed in.”
“Seeing Red”, Nicholas Humphrey (P. 132)
So, according to this explanation, humans like to see our unique consciousness as “mysterious and unworldly” because that allows us greater self-importance – and taking ourselves more seriously was bound to be a “runaway evolutionary success”? For me, this is seriously uncompelling, Darwinian fundamentalism. Humphrey sees consciousness as a “thing” which (when somehow magically materialized in matter) will be selected for because it leads to the greater survival and out-breeding of its possessors. Like all such natural selection ideology, it does not explain how anything non-material (consciousness) emerged in the first place from a purely material world of atoms and energy to be available for selection in the second place. In the words of Thomas Nagel, “natural selection…doesn’t explain possibilities at all, but only selection among them.”
THE MATERIALIST EXPLANATION
Can materialists ride to the rescue of their Darwinian cousins? This from prominent Neuroscientist Francis Crick (co-discoverer of DNA), who feels we can reduce everything about us, including the non-physical, to physical molecules:
“… ‘you’, your joys and sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”
“The Astonishing Hypothesis”, Francis Crick, P. 3.
However, philosopher David Chalmers has a view diametrically opposed to Crick – for him, explaining consciousness purely in terms of its neural correlates is impossible – such explanations can show the physical role of consciousness but don’t explain how consciousness arises:
“For any physical process we specify there will be an unanswered question: Why should this process give rise to [conscious] experience?...no mere account of physical process will tell us why experience arises. The emergence of experience goes beyond what can be derived from physical theory.”
Quoted from “Quantum Enigma”, Bruce Rosenblum & Fred Kuttner, P. 232.
Again, the “hard problem of consciousness” – basically, how the physical (brain) generates the subjective (experience).
MECHANICAL CONSCIOUSNESS – BIOLOGISM?
Materialists, like Crick, feel that with the increasing sophistication of computers, we may be on the verge of being able to generate consciousness in a machine – that a robot with consciousness is not only possible, but imminent. We have already considered what it would take before we could say that a robot had a “self”, above, here let’s consider what Dr. Raymond Tallis (fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences) has to say about trying to explain away consciousness as no more than electrical signals in the brain/body – an approach he calls “biologism”:
“The master assumption underpinning biologism is that humans are essentially organisms rather than people...not conscious agents but pieces of living matter subject to the laws of the biosphere...Biologism has two strands, which I call neuromania and Darwinitis. Neuromania rests on the belief that human consciousness is identical with activity in the brain...Yes, there are correlations between activity in the brain and aspects of consciousness. These may be demonstrated by looking at which parts of the brain ‘light up’ when subjects report certain experiences. It does not, however, follow, that neural activity is a sufficient cause of those aspects of consciousness: that events seen in the orbifrontal cortex when we look at a beautiful object are the entire cause of our experience of beauty, even less that they are our experience of beauty.”
Article from “The Australian Financial Review” 29/7/2011, P.9 (syndicated from New York Times – Prospect magazine.)
It has been my observation in the writing of these essays that both religion and philosophy have failed humanity. Tallis (“Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity”, 2011 – Acumen) also speaks of the “atrophy of theology and philosophy” and is critical of trying to fill the hole left by such with brain science. Our physical sciences can show the physical reactions in our brains caused by any stimuli, including nonphysical and/or spiritual ones, does this somehow explain them away – somehow reduce them to the entirely physical world of atoms and energy?
We need to consider, can consciousness exist separately to our physical matter?
CONSCIOUSNESS INDEPENDENT OF OUR PHYSICAL SUBSTRATE?
What part of us is actually receiving/generating consciousness? The atoms of our body are in a constant state of flux, there is no such thing as “our” atoms (nor even of a human atom). None of the atoms which happen to be comprising our body for the time being, it has been calculated, will be with us in 7-10 years’ time. If consciousness is just a physical product (electrical energy) of a physical part of the body (brain atoms) how can it recall, i.e. have consciousness, of considerably earlier thoughts it had (say 10 years ago) – when not one atom of it remains from that time?
It must be something else which has consciousness.
IS OUR CONSIOUSNESS OUR SELF?
Consider this from Steve Grand. (“Creation: Life and How to Make It” – 2000, Weidenfeld & Nicolson) – who asks us to remember a certain something/anything from our past lives:
“...something you can see, feel, maybe even smell, as if you were really there. After all, you really were there at the time, weren’t you? How else would you remember it? But here is the bombshell: you weren’t there. Not a single atom that is your body today was there when that event took place....Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made. If that doesn’t make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, read it again until it does, because it is important.”
(Quoted from “The God Delusion”, Richard Dawkins – P.371)
As Grand says: “read it again…because it is important” – “Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made.” (my emphasis). “You” – we, me – are not of matter. Our stuff comes and goes, while the self remains – we continue to be the same self (albeit, hopefully, with some self-growth/spiritual evolution in the course of a life) – whereas the material, physical stuff of the body changes constantly as our atoms and energy interchange with the physical universe.
There are no “you” or “me” atoms – there are no atoms which give you these type of behaviours or those types of values. There is not even such things as human atoms, just atoms which we swap constantly with the environment: vegetable, mineral, and animal (including each other) – but there is only one particular self – not even identical twins (identical genes – basically clones) have the same self. You, your self, was there some years ago in your past life because you can remember it – but your atoms/body was not and cannot.
For further proof that consciousness is not a product of matter, but of our self, consider the role our consciousness plays in human artistic creativity. We can communicate with, have consciousness of, each other’s selves (cf. their bodies) through our arts – spiritually. “Spiritually” because it is a consciousness of the state of others’ selves, above the day-to-day awareness of others’ animal motives and of our environment’s state (which awareness/consciousness we must have to survive physically). The state/condition of our selves and our consciousness of beauty are the great creative drivers of behaviours like music, poetry, dance, painting, sculpture, architecture, literature – all creative activities which speak, often without words, between the consciousness of separate selves, and across ages.
Now, we need to step into the weird quantum world and consider its discoveries about the pivotal role of consciousness in it.
Quantum mechanics has discovered the pivotal importance of consciousness in the existence of matter. Such has emerged from the discovery of the quantum enigma – that experimentally it has been shown that an atomic particle can exist as a probability (matter or an energy wave/“field”) in two places at once (superposition) – which superposition can be resolved into a particle, actually existing, and in only one position – but only if we choose to directly, consciously observe it. Such implies our physically “real” world depends on our observation/consciousness of it to exist. This from quantum physicists Rosenblum and Kuttner:
“Our own concern with the hard problem of consciousness arises, of course, because physics has encountered consciousness in the quantum enigma, which physicists call the ‘measurement problem’. Here, aspects of physical observation come close to those of conscious experience. In both cases, something beyond the normal treatment, of physics, or of psychology, appears to be needed for a solution.”
“Quantum Enigma”, Bruce Rosenblum & Fred Kuttner, Pp. 233-4.
And this from psychiatrist Dr. Karl Jansen – from an internet article titled “Ketamine and Quantum Psychiatry”:
“In the old Newtonian universe, the mechanical view declared that all possible forms of energy and fields had already been discovered; that ordinary, everyday perception of space, time and matter and energy was the only scientifically correct reality; that all people were separate from each other and the rest of the universe; and that consciousness could not exist without a living brain. Some of these declarations can be reassessed in the light of new discoveries in physics. ... It was observed that there are similarities between quantum processes and human thought processes. Leading physicists suggested that consciousness may involve quantum events.” (from website “Words of Truth”)
Quantum events like non-locality? Or maybe the brain is a transceiver converting energy fields beyond the brain into features of the mind? More from Dr. Jansen:
“Advances in quantum physics suggest that certain drugs, and the
conditions which produce
Above, quantum physicists Rosenblum and Kuttner speak of: “something beyond the normal treatment, of physics, or of psychology, appears to be needed for a solution” – to that end, consider that many people who have had near-death experiences report the phenomenon of their consciousness continuing after bodily death. So-called NDE’s are a very controversial area, mainly because the term “Near Death Experience” has been frequently used to describe vastly differing mental experiences, many of which are actually drug-induced hallucinations, epileptic fits, or other mental disturbances – rather than what happens to our consciousness after actual bodily death. It is a fascinating area, into which we will have a peek, later. I mention it here to consider the idea that maybe consciousness and brain/body function are not one and the same thing – maybe consciousness continues after the death of the brain because it exists outside of the body?
Jansen, above introduces an analogy between consciousness and TV broadcasts. To examine a television set is to understand very little about the phenomenon that is a television program (with an author, a director, a producer etc.). Similarly, looking at the brain and its electronic impulses it is to understand very little about the “program” (consciousness) it is receiving. Like the message in TV – or the sending/receiving of a transceiver – can our consciousness/message be in another place, another parallel reality, without the body itself going anywhere? Consider this from psychologist David Fontana – who also uses a television analogy:
“Note also the views of these neuroscientists [Fenwick and Parnia: 1995 & 2005, Van Lommel: 2001] to the effect that in spite of modern advances in brain research we still have not been able to find consciousness – the mind – inside the brain, and that it may indeed be independent of it and work through it…An analogy, though it must not be pressed too far, would be with the way in which a television signal works through a television set. The set is the physical mechanism that is able to convert the signal into pictures and sounds, but these pictures and sounds do not originate with the set.”
David Fontana, (ITC Journal December, 2010 – Pp. 78-79)
Professor Fontana also sees some problems for materialists who equate consciousness with brain meat and the electrical impulses within it:
“We know that certain parts of the brain are more involved in the storage of memory than others, yet we also know that even if these parts are damaged, memory may slowly return after a period of amnesia. Does this mean that memory is also stored elsewhere in the brain, even perhaps throughout the brain? Or does it suggest that, if mind works through brain rather than being generated by it, memory may be stored not only in the brain?”
David Fontana, “Is There An Afterlife?” P.461.
And refers to incidents where people had knowledge of events which occurred when they were unconscious:
“...it may also be that a person rendered unconscious by brain damage is conscious at a level outside the brain, although unable to communicate this consciousness to us (rather as the television signal cannot communicate through a set that has broken down). In an effort to research this possibility I have interviewed nurses who work with unconscious patients and have been assured by them that on recovery such patients have sometimes related details of incidents that took place around the bed while they were profoundly unresponsive to any of the medical procedures designed to establish if consciousness was present. Where was the consciousness that enabled them to register and remember these details even though they were deaf and blind to the outside world? Was it outside the brain?”
Ibid. P. 461
Again, “outside the brain”? Maybe Jung was onto something with his universal unconscious – however, perhaps it should rather be “universal consciousness”? And Fontana, above, has touched on the phenomenon of Near Death Experiences – where our consciousness continues on beyond the death of our material bodies. We are due to consider the human experience of NDE’s in depth, later on our journey – but we will have a little peek here because it is relevant to what Fontana mentions above – this from Dr. Sam Parnia whose research indicates that consciousness can continue after bodily death:
“That entity that we define as consciousness, the soul, or the self – that which makes me who I am – does not stop existing just because someone has entered the period beyond death…”
“Erasing Death: The science that is rewriting the boundaries between life and death”, P. 292.
It is interesting to note that Dr. Parnia to a separate “soul, or the self” (relevant to our exploration of self, above) and that he equates it with our consciousness.
CONSCIOUSNESS: A PROGRAM FOR A QUANTUM COMPUTER?
Professor Stuart Hameroff, psychologist and anesthesiologist, has advanced a theory that consciousness is a program for a quantum computer in the brain. In conjunction with physicist Sir Roger Penrose, he has proposed that the soul’s essence is contained in our brains’ microtubules, and that consciousness is the result of quantum gravity effects involving quantum phenomena like entanglement and non-locality. Professor Hameroff has concluded that the soul is constructed from the very fabric of the universe, and that in an NDE the microtubules lose their quantum state and the soul returns to the cosmos without their information being destroyed.
CONSCIOUSNESS: JUST “SOMETHING WE DO WITH OUR BRAINS”?
I will leave materialism’s answer to the above notions of the separateness of consciousness and body to evolutionary psychologist, Professor Humphrey:
“You ask whether I think consciousness can survive the death of the brain. It’s the most natural of all questions to ask. I think we humans are made to ask it. I even think that in asking it we become better people. But my straight answer, as a scientist, is: not a chance. Consciousness is something we do with our brains.”
“Seeing Red”, P. 133 Nicolas Humphrey.
But is consciousness just “something we do with our brains”, or is it something we receive and/or transmit with our brains (to and from a universal consciousness perhaps?) This from scientist Dr. Bernardo Kastrup:
“Today, there is no scientific basis to decide between the ‘many world’s’, ‘Wigner’s’, and even a few other interpretations of quantum mechanics. So we have a choice. My own choice is Wigner’s interpretation that consciousness causes real wave function collapse...wave function collapse needed a causal agency from outside known material reality...we postulated consciousness as a natural candidate for that. This implies that consciousness somehow “emanates’ from as-of-yet undetected aspects of reality, which are not entirely governed by the known laws of quantum mechanics. This would indeed be contradictory with the orthodox materialistic position that a physical brain generates consciousness, but not with the postulate that a physical brain is necessary simply for the manifestation of consciousness in material reality. More specifically: a physical brain is a necessary condition for the interaction of consciousness with the known, material aspects of reality; consciousness itself being a natural property that emanates from as-of-yet unknown, non-material aspects of reality.”
“Rationalist Spirituality” (2009), Pp. 20 & 22-3 [Kastrup’s italics underlined].
The sentience of all animal bodies must come to an end with their deaths (and/or severe brain injury) – and this is necessarily the end of our sense-perception. But if our consciousness is not of our brain atoms (as we saw when we considered that our memories and consciousness are independent of our brain atoms, which atoms change regularly) maybe its locality is elsewhere – our atoms/energy just receiving from it and transmitting to it? – “…consciousness itself being a natural property that emanates from as-of-yet unknown, non-material aspects of reality.”
As Professor Fontana reports, above, many nurses who work with profoundly comatose (even brain-dead) patients become extremely sensitive to their patients, and insist that such patients, apparently without consciousness, do respond to words and people they know. We will examine more of consciousness being separate to brain function when we examine NDE’s, below.
QUANTUM PHYSICS Vs. CLASSICAL PHYSICS
In the years of classical, Newtonian physics, physicists were perfectly happy to leave nonphysical consciousness to philosophy and psychology, but when the crucial role of consciousness to the existence of matter was discovered by quantum physics in the early 20th century, consciousness was lobbed back into the arena of physics. Many physicists have tried to ignore consciousness and its pivotal role in the so-called “quantum enigma” [the role of consciousness in the creation of matter] because the contemplation of consciousness was not necessary for all practical purposes i.e. quantum physics still worked. Some tried a reductionist approach – reducing the nonphysical to the physical:
“The reductionist perspective seeks to reduce the explanation of a complex system to its underlying science. For example, one can seek explanations of psychological phenomena in biological terms. Biological phenomena can be seen as ultimately chemical. And no chemist doubts that chemical phenomena are fundamentally the interactions of atoms obeying quantum physics. Physics, itself, can supposedly rest firmly on primitive empirical ground…That view of the primitive empirical ground on which physics rests is challenged by quantum mechanics, where physics ultimately rests on observation. Observation somehow involves consciousness, whatever that is.
Op. cit., Bruce Rosenblum & Fred Kuttner, Pp. 241-2. (authors’ italics underlined)
A GOD-SHAPED HOLE?
There is no doubt that human consciousness presents us with a mystery. As we have seen, various answers from fundamentalisms like evolutionary theory have been put forward to explain it, but none of them are compelling. Religious fundamentalists see the mystery that is consciousness as presenting them with a potentially God-shaped hole into which they can shoehorn their primitive god. Perhaps we should be studying the hole a bit closer to see what it implies about God’s actual shape/nature – rather than trying to cram a set-in-cement god (from a set-in-cement “B” Book) into that hole? But what sort of “G” God seems more like a true fit to the hole in our understanding of the phenomenon that is human consciousness?
One possibility is the god found in Neale Walsch’s “Conversations With God” series of books – a Higher Agency which experiences the universe through everything that has consciousness. This from Walsch’s God:
“... what I am seeking is to know Myself experientially. I am doing this through you, and through everything else that exists.”
“Conversations With God”, Neale Donald Walsch – Book 3, P.11
There is something to this answer of consciousness that is worthy of further consideration. Maybe every being with consciousness is how God experiences physical existence on this plane? As already discussed in other parts of these essays, maybe the original energy which became matter was God becoming the universe, rather than “creating” it? We are verging on pantheism here – and why not.
As above, Jung talked of a “universal unconscious” – maybe there is a universal consciousness – or a human “group consciousness”? Maybe God is immanent – in both an adjectival and theological sense? This from Dr. Gavin Rowland, expanding on his idea of a non-material mind:
“In our model of the non-material mind, the universe is permeated with consciousness, and that consciousness is, in most places of a benevolent, constructive form which transcends space and time…The concept of God presented to us here is, by virtue of its non-locality, a unified consciousness, and one that exists throughout the universe. The entire material universe is in God…Life, and particularly highly developed conscious life such as ourselves, can be seen as microcosms of the universe as a whole…our theory can be seen as a variation of pantheism, the view that God exists independently of, yet interpenetrates, every living thing and every part of nature, as well as extending timelessly beyond it.”
“MIND BEYOND MATTER: How the Non-material Self Can Explain the Phenomenon of Consciousness and Complete our Understanding of Reality”, Gavin Rowland, P. 281.
For Rowland, the bio-friendliness of this universe’s laws and constants (such as we examined at the beginning of our journey) speaks of “foresight” aimed at allowing complex lifeforms.
Maybe there are many Gods, many universes? Whatever the ultimate “T” Truth of our universe(s) and/or any God(s), it is bound to be more amazing than physics (whose understanding is necessarily limited to this physical world) can know – and much more amazing than our ancient religions can ever approach – for while the metaphysical is the domain of our religions, they are hog-tied by their ancient Books whose understandings of the world and the Divine are primitive.
THE MYSTERY THAT IS CONSCIOUSNESS?
Did we scale the peak of Mt. Consciousness on our road to truth?
We certainly did not make it to the summit, but all we have examined here about the phenomenon that is human consciousness indicates that a purely materialist explanation of it is deficient. And for as long as there are things in the human condition which are not purely physical, then we humans (or any other animal that has consciousness) are beyond physics’ complete understanding – and consciousness is surely one such nonphysical “thing”. This from Professor Thomas Nagel:
“The existence of consciousness is both one of the most familiar and one of the most astounding things about the world. No conception of the natural order that does not reveal it as something to be expected can aspire even to the outline of completeness. And if physical science, whatever it may have to say about the origin of life, leaves us necessarily in the dark about consciousness, that shows that it cannot provide the basic form of intelligibility for this world. There must be a very different way in which things as they are make sense, and that includes the way the physical world is, since the problem cannot be quarantined in the mind.”
“Mind and Cosmos”, p. 53.
What we have achieved by our attempt at Mt. Consciousness is the discovery of yet more evidence to support our firming hypothesis that humans cannot be well described in purely physical terms. More and more the human condition looks to be best described as the duality we have previously contemplated on our journey: human = body + self. And while we may not have managed to scale Mt. Consciousness we did manage to get far enough up to catch the glimmer of something shining brightly in the distance – is it the “T” Truth? We remain too far away yet to see, but from our vantage we can see deeper into the territory of the spiritual. We have briefly sallied into this territory on several previous occasions during our journey, now it is time that we explored it a bit more thoroughly.
Relativity (the existence of relatively good, better, best) is by nature creative, because it forces selection for best in a world which is finite. Such selection for best is, of course, the basis of the physical evolution of our bodies – nature selecting for those random mutations which are best adapted for survival. However, we have also discovered that the human condition contains spiritual factors as well as physical, does this relative reality we call our world also allow spiritual creativity/evolution just as well – and how would it do that?
Our road to Truth has now come to the territory of the spiritual. We will explore the idea of spiritual evolution first, and then we will explore how any such evolution may come about.
“Man may be excused for feeling some pride at having risen, though not through his own exertion, to the very summit of the organic scale; and the fact of his having risen, instead of being placed there aboriginally, may give him hope for a still higher destiny in the distant future.”
(Charles Darwin, “The Descent of Man”)
What “still higher destiny” could there be for an animal species already at “the very summit of the organic scale”? Neo Darwinians would say humanity has no destiny “in the distant future” (other than, perhaps, the destruction of our physical world?) because the physical world is all there is.
It’s hard to know what Darwin exactly meant by his allusion to a higher destiny but, for me, any evidence that humanity has not only evolved organically, but spiritually – and “through his own exertion” – would indicate some hope that our higher destiny may involve our spiritual evolution (and, if we manage enough of that, we may also manage the preservation of our physical world/universe?).
We can see ready evidence all around us for the evolution of our animal, physical bodies, but what is the evidence for the existence of spiritual evolution? Does it exist and/or have we evolved spiritually?
What exactly is “spiritual evolution”? Perhaps we should first determine what we mean by “spiritual”? Consider this definition from Professor John Armstrong:
“The word ‘spiritual’ needs some clarification. It is intended to refer to the whole of a person’s inner life… it is about their way of being, their soul.”
“In Search of Civilization.” (P. 164)
That’ll do us as a good working definition of spiritual – it’s about our inner being/life, our “soul”. We have discussed the semantics before on our journey where we explored the territory of self/soul/spirit and I have tried to predominately use the word “self”, rather than soul (to avoid religious connotations) but “spirit”, “soul”, “self” means much the same thing – our “inner life”, our “way of being”, our human being – rather than our human animal body. To “be spiritual” means to be more inclined to our being than our body – more inclined to empathy, compassion, beauty, love for all lifeforms – than to material things, egoistic motives, status, appearance etc.. And, by extension, spiritual evolution will mean: the growth, development, evolution of our inner being – our self (cf. the evolution of our bodies).
WHAT DO MATERIALUTIONISTS THINK?
Just made that word up (in case you didn’t notice) but I am referring to those fundamentalists who consider that human beings and all their behaviours can be totally explained in fundamental materialist and evolutionary terms – by the combined explanatory power of physics, chemistry and evolutionary biology – viz. we are just physical matter/energy, chemically alive, whose every behaviour has evolved/been naturally selected. And, as we have seen above, it’s stricter than that for some materialutionists: our matter is not only all there is to us but such matter was accidentally arisen (from nothing), the chemistry that created life was spontaneous (i.e. accidental), and natural selection was mechanical (of random mutations). In short, there can be no “inner being” driving “spiritual” behaviours because we are not only entirely physical, but accidental, spontaneous, random, and mechanical – necessarily meaningless – and to imagine otherwise is just human hubris (which, itself, has been naturally selected).
So are the materialutionists right, can there be no such thing as spiritual evolution because there is no such thing as “spiritual”?
We definitely have an animal body and it definitely has an animal ego. To survive and breed, our body needs a “healthy” ego – necessary to promote its animal survival and genetic interests in a competitive world. A healthy ego would be naturally selected in our competitive environment (an “unhealthy” ego: too weak or too strong, is likely to be selected out). But, while we observably have animal bodies with naturally selected egos, are “we” just those bodies?
We definitely enjoy the physical sensations of life through our physical bodies, but, as we have seen throughout this essay, there are many nonphysical experiences (like the enjoyment of artistic beauty) in life as well – and these we also enjoy. When we enjoy such, we report that we have been lifted; moved. Observably our chemically-enlivened, mechanically-evolved, accidentally-existing matter has not been “lifted” nor “moved”? So what’s going on?
Let’s consider what part of the human being seeks to engage in behaviours like the enjoyment of artistic beauty.
As we have previously considered, is it “we”, our selves, not our bodies, that seeks out beauty – certain nonphysical phenomena that exist in life (like music, art, poetry, and natural beauty). And we are moved to have such spiritual experiences to the extent that we actually spend animal survival resources to have them – even, at times, risking the survival of our animal bodies with their cargoes of selfish genes. It is not our matter and energy – the meat and electricity of our physical bodies – that wants to take a bushwalk, go to an art gallery, attend a symphony orchestra, go to a poetry reading etc. etc.
Another way to consider the difference between our bodies and our selves is that the matter which is our bodies constantly swaps into other bodies (animal and human) and our environment (organic and inorganic) – but “we”, our selves do not.
OUR BODIES CHANGE
As we discovered in our exploration of human consciousness, the atoms which make up the matter of our animal bodies are constantly changing – moving into and out of our body all the time. If we are adults, our bodies are highly unlikely to have any atoms remaining from those we were born with, and any that may have found their way back to our body are most likely to be now making up other organs or parts of our body; a hydrogen atom in our brain may have been in one of our muscles before – there is no such thing as a brain atom, or a leg atom – or even a human atom. The majority of our present atoms previously made up other animals, plants, and/or made up our planet. An atom is an atom, is an atom – there is no difference between a carbon atom in a rabbit, radish or rock; animal, vegetable or mineral. And the same goes for the energy which enlivens our animal body – energy is energy. All up, there is no such thing as a unique, distinct collection of atoms and energy that is “us”. We are not our atoms and energy – our bodies are atoms and energy – therefore we are not our bodies.
BUT OUR SELF STAYS THE SAME
However, while there is no such thing as a Tom atom, a Dick atom, or a Harriet atom – there is such a thing as distinctly “us”: a Tom, Dick, or Harriet – a unique human being with a unique self/soul/spirit – a distinct “way of being”. There are no two people whose selves are identical – as we have considered, even identical twins (basically clones – the same bodies) have distinct selves – you can clone a body, but not a self. While our bodies are not the same matter we began with, our being, our self, remains the original entity. Our atoms are only on temporary loan from our physical world – but our self is always us – obviously not on loan from our physical planet.
But our selves can change, grow, evolve – in the course of a life.
Our bodies cannot evolve physically over the course of a life – they just age. Physical evolution takes generation upon generation of random mutation selection but “we”, our selves, can change, grow, develop – evolve – over the course of a life. And that change to our selves is spiritual evolution. This from T.H. Huxley, a man known as Darwin’s “bulldog” – likening the opportunity that is life, to a ladder:
“The rung of a ladder was never meant to rest upon, but only to hold a man’s foot long enough to enable him to put the other somewhat higher.”
– T. H. Huxley
It was observable to Huxley, just as it is to many others, that some people manage to climb “somewhat higher” in the course of a life. So, what is it about us – which part of us – is climbing/growing? As above, our bodies certainly don’t manage to go “somewhat higher” over the course of a life – they just grow up physically, age, then die – no going somewhat higher there. It can only be the self – self evolution in other words.
So how does self evolution work?
HOW DOES SELF EVOLUTION
Huxley’s conclusion that life was like a ladder enabling us to climb, grow “higher”, came from his experience and observation of life. From my experience and observation of life, self evolution is happening to many people, but it is not mandatory, and some try but fail. While not everybody manages it, those who do achieve some self growth through the living of a life, observably take three steps:
STEP ONE: Be your self.
People who fall at the first hurdle of life, that of being their true self, are effectively handing life back. People who live an “inauthentic” life are usually false to themselves through fear – usually fear of a religious, vengeful god. However, life in this dangerous but thrilling, frightening but beautiful, challenging but rewarding, neutral and uncaring universe – usually forces us to be our selves from time to time. Life, whether we wish it to, or not, peels us layer by layer, like an onion, to reveal our core – our self. Even denying life’s primary opportunity to be our selves (by, for example, hiding our true selves away in a House of God) reveals much about our true selves.
However, if we achieve being true to the self, the next step up Huxley’s ladder becomes available.
STEP TWO: Know thyself.
If you have managed to be your self, you can – “Know Thyself”. Such an injunction to self knowledge has been accredited to Socrates, but has been received as wisdom in many similar terms in many successful civilisations over the centuries. Such universal recognition as wisdom is based on sharp observation: that before we can climb the highest we are capable of – up Huxley’s ladder of life – we need to truly know our selves, who we really are. Are we, in truth: good or bad; kind or uncaring; loving or hateful; are we who other people think we are – do we deserve our public reputation and/or status – good or bad, high or low?
We can only be truly known through our actions, not our intentions, and we are the only ones who truly know all our actions – others know some of our actions according to their role in our life: friends, business colleagues, team mates, wife/husband/partner, children, siblings, parents – and it is not uncommon for others to have widely varying opinions about us/our selves. Thus we are the only ones who can truly know us. But self knowledge is not easy, it takes honesty, wisdom and courage. If honest, we tend to be our own harshest judges and the truth of our selves when we eventually confront it will make us happy or sad with our selves. And that could be dangerous (self loathing is not uncommon) – so why is it “wisdom”?
Knowing the self is wisdom because it allows the next step – which seems to be the ultimate opportunity that comes with our existence in a relativity (as opposed to an absolute?) – self growth/evolution.
STEP THREE: Grow thyself.
If you have truly been your self, and have come to truly know your self – and find you are not happy with who you are – life allows you its ultimate opportunity: to grow/evolve your self. Robert Louis Stevenson had it nailed:
“To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming is the only end of life.”
But how/why is becoming what we are capable of “the only end of life”?
Firstly, we are getting hints that there may be some grand spiritual reasons (which we will consider more closely, below) but, for here, and more prosaically, consider: growing the self/becoming what we are capable of will have a greater and more lasting effect on the enjoyment of our lives than any amount of money, power, fame etc. – not what we have, but rather the person we are/have become. The number of times such a statement appears in happiness literature is legion. If we can love the self, truly known through our actions, then we will be happy (as opposed to feel necessarily passing happiness through the sensations of our bodies and/or the temporary pleasing of our egos).
Of course, we can fool ourselves – but not our selves, for long. It is impossible for a sane person to fool the self for long because, at bottom, we are our own harshest judge. And if we are not happy with the truly known self we will descend into unhappiness – even self-loathing. But, strangely, it is unhappiness which is most often the catalyst for change/evolution. Most people can’t stand self-loathing (it is the driver for many drink and drug problems – even suicide is not an uncommon reaction) but, thankfully, most people opt for change, choosing to change in order to be able to “live with the self” – maybe to come even to love the self – and such is self-evolution.
We will examine the ability to love the self in more detail when we explore human happiness next on our Road to Truth – here we need to consider the Sceptic response to the above.
THE “PROBLEM OF EVIL” ARGUMENT
To the above observation (that life allows us to be, know, and grow the self) the House of Disbelief usually responds with a “Problem of Evil” argument. It goes something like this: because we have only one life, early death (babies, children) means that their selves/souls have no such opportunity to “be, know, grow” their selves; and the same goes, to varying extents, for lives that are severely blighted by sickness or accident. So, if the ultimate purpose of life is that it’s an opportunity to evolve the self, then it should be such for all – if some have no opportunity for self growth/evolution, then it cannot be the purpose of life.
Some would go further and argue: even if we do have a life of normal length and opportunity to evolve the self – what’s the point of self evolution if then you’re dead!?
However, all “Problem of Evil” arguments are based on an assumption – a speculation: that we must only have one life.
THE SPECULATION THAT WE MUST HAVE ONLY ONE LIFE
That we must have only one life is a “speculation” because, as we saw in Essay2, there is no substantial evidence to support the idea – and quite some evidence against it – evidence, even that we may in fact have many lives. This is an idea which moves us into the apparently anomalous territory of the paranormal, metaphysical, supernatural – call it what you will – an area that a glance at our map tells us we are also to explore further down our road. Here, just let it be said, while it is obvious that our bodies only have one life, it is equally obvious from what we have already explored above that we are not our bodies.
The residents of the House of Disbelief also have another doctrine which they feel successfully contradicts any notion of life being about “choosing” to know the self – and growing the self, thereby. The House of Disbelief doctrine to which I refer is, of course, the doctrine of causality – whose corollary is that free choice cannot exist.
Sceptics dwelling in the House of Disbelief also deny the above process of spiritual evolution because they hold that we have no free choice. Their problem is, that to accept free choice exists in us is to imply that there also exists in humans something other than matter and energy – something which is not totally explicable in terms of mechanics – something otherworldly and non-phenomenological in what physical science tells us must be an entirely physical, mechanical, causal universe.
We examined the existence of free choice during Essay 2, and found plenty of existence that such existed. We mention it again here because the phenomenon of self/spiritual evolution we are exploring now is, itself, more evidence for the existence of free choice – in that some people observably have chosen to know the true self, and some have not – and freely, because to “know thyself” is not an animal/genetic imperative, only an opportunity that our self is presented with through its existence in this relative reality. Self knowledge is not just a random “decision” some people mechanically make; not a random, unasked-for mutation – which is then naturally selected.
Further, even those who have chosen to truly know the self may then freely chose not to take the next available step to grow their self.
It is the totality of these free choices (or free non-choices) which lead to “us” as we are now – we (not our bodies) become our choices – our actions.
But what evidence is there that spiritual evolution exists/is happening?
WHAT EVIDENCE IS THERE OF HUMANITY’S SPIRITUAL EVOLUTION?
Consider this from Charles Darwin:
“By degrees it will become intolerable to him to obey his sensuous passions rather than his higher impulses, which rendered habitual may be almost called instincts.” (Darwin, Autobiography, P. 94)
“By degrees” is slowly, evolvingly. “Higher impulses” are impulses higher than our base, animal “sensuous passions”. “Rendered habitual” is to choose a behaviour habitually – in this case, to choose higher impulses as our usual habit/behaviour. “By degrees … higher impulses … rendered habitual” – is spiritual evolution – the self freely taking higher choices habitually, and the self becoming “higher”, spiritually evolved, thereby.
Some days humanity’s spiritual evolution is a bit hard to see, but a very short tour back through history will show you that spiritual evolution is happening – our choices and values are becoming what Darwin himself described as “higher”. Even only 100 years ago spiritually-evolved attitudes were few and far-between; 200 years ago they were close to non-existent. I tender the following as an example of our unenlightened, unevolved attitudes as existing not much over 100 years ago (1871) – from a person known in his time as an enlightened liberal (and as “Darwin’s bulldog” – i.e. his staunchest supporter):
“No rational man, cognizant of the facts, believes that the average negro is the equal, still less the superior, of the white man. And if this be true, it is simply incredible that, when all his disabilities are removed, and our prognathous relative has a fair field and no favour, as well as no oppressor, he will be able to compete successfully with his bigger-brained and smaller-jawed rival, in a contest which is to be carried on by thoughts and not by bites. The highest places in the hierarchy of civilizations will be assuredly not be within the reach of our dusky cousins.”
Thomas Huxley – (Quoted from The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins. P.266).
So much for educated, secular enlightenment and the spiritual evolution of supposedly one of the best of us not so long ago – ironic to read it now, after Barak Obama’s election to President of the United States!
Only a few years before Huxley displayed his ignorance, people were still being broken on the wheel, burned alive at the stake, or being hung, drawn and quartered in judicial killings by the State in “civilized” countries like England. And such killings were being attended by the general population as entertainment. If we go further back it gets grislier – 400 years ago one of the entertainments of the English “royal” family and their hangers-on was to feed glass to animals housed in a zoo in the Tower of London and watch them die in agony. In Paris, on the other hand, cat-burning – on a stage and in front of an appreciative audience – was all the rage. This scene is quoted by Steven Pinker (from the research of historian Norman Davies):
“The spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted and finally carbonised.”
– Steven Pinker, TED Conference, Monterey, California 2007.
Further back, but less than 2000 years ago (still a blink in terms of the time humans have been around), people were killed by wild animals, and by each other, for amusement in Roman sports stadiums; 2000-3000 years ago slavery, animal sacrifice and ethnic cleansing were even approved by our “god” according to the Bible, and brutal death by stoning was righteous punishment for a long list of minor “offences” including blasphemy, working on the Sabbath, adultery, homosexuality, and disrespecting one’s parents!
While religious stoning still occurs in a few unevolved pockets of humanity, considered as a species, we have demonstrably become less violent, more compassionate – more spiritually evolved. But some dislike to hear we are spiritually evolving – it upsets their comforting theories of meaninglessness – it has even become politically correct to state humanity is becoming less evolved. This from journalist and Darfur activist, Pamela Bone:
“Some people do not like to hear that the world may not, after all, be getting worse in every way. But those of us who believe in the possibility of the improvement in the human condition are not necessarily foolish or naïve. In the past century there has been a revolution in health, longevity, education, human rights. The proportion of the world’s population living in absolute poverty has dropped from about 80% in 1820 to about 20% today. You’d never think it by watching the nightly news, but since the early 1990’s the number of armed conflicts in the world has fallen by 40%. The percentage of men estimated to have died in violence in hunter-gatherer societies is approximately 30%. The percentage of men who die in violence in the twentieth century, despite two world wars, is approximately 1%. The trends for violent deaths so far in the twenty-first century are still falling, despite wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s a story the media has missed.”
- Pamela Bone, Bad Hair Days, Pp. 208-209.
And more from the above TED address by Steven Pinker:
“In the decade of Darfur and Iraq, and shortly after the century of Stalin, Hitler and Mao, the claim that violence has been diminishing may seem somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene. Yet recent studies that seek to quantify the historical ebb and flow of violence point to exactly that conclusion.
Some of the evidence has been under our noses all along. Conventional history has long shown that, in many ways, we have been getting kinder and gentler. Cruelty as entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labour-saving device, conquest as the mission statement of government, genocide as a means of acquiring real estate, torture and mutilation as routine punishment, the death penalty for misdemeanours and differences of opinion, assassination as the mechanism of political succession, rape as the spoils of war, pogroms as outlets for frustration, homicide as the major form of conflict resolution – all were unexceptionable features of life for most of human history. But, today, they are rare to non-existent in the West, far less common elsewhere than they used to be, concealed when they do occur and widely condemned when they are brought to light.”
- Pinker, Op. Cit. (2007).
Pinker expounds further on this subject in his more recent book: “The Better Angels of our Nature (2011).
IS THIS SECULAR EVOLUTION – NOT SPIRITUAL EVOLUTION?
But does this improvement represent spiritual evolution or secular advancement? Are we still the same “underneath”, in our selves/spirits, and now just more constrained by secular laws and orders?
Our laws may be more “evolved” but who made those laws? Were they, perhaps, imposed on us from outer space? No – our evolving laws are demonstrable signs of our spiritual evolution. Also, consider our attitude to war. Wars do still happen, but our attitudes to them have changed remarkably, now an ever-growing percentage of us demonstrate vehemently in the streets against them – consider the recent marches and demonstrations in the West against the war in Iraq – and compare that attitude to the one prevailing at the time of the First World War: when people who declined to participate (in surely one of the most senseless wars) were handed white feathers by women, even branded as morally corrupt by them and scorned in the streets. Now it’s the other way around – conscientious objectors are respected and soldiers scorned (the experiences of veterans of the Vietnam War is a good example of this).
As well as against wars, we now also have massive protests against despoiling the natural beauty of our planet, we march for whales and for animal rights, against economic policies perceived as unfair to foreign third-world countries (as shown by the World Economic Forum demonstrations at Davos and elsewhere). And we demonstrate against racist and sexist ideas. Political assassinations now only occur with any regularity in parts of Africa and the Middle East, slavery is rare and despised when revealed. A short time ago executions drew large crowds who watched as entertainment, but now executions draw large crowds in the West who protest against capital punishment. Less than 200 years ago brutal public floggings, often of 100 lashes and more, were also common (especially in convict settlements like Australia) but are now rare – being mainly limited to countries under ancient Sharia law.
Our growing compassion and sense of responsibility for mentally and physically disadvantaged members of our society – previously often made fun of – is another example of our growing spiritual evolution. As is our growing sense of responsibility for other animals – for example the R.S.P.C.A. and voluntary wildlife rescue services. These are spiritually evolutionary behaviours, steps forward – representative of spiritual evolution because they have nothing to do with our bodily and genetic survival – such behaviours even taking energy and resources from our genes’ survival and proliferation. All up, humanity is at a more advanced level of spiritual evolution than we were less than just a half century ago – behaviour that is not the result of our physical bodies evolving.
DOES SPIRITUAL EVOLUTION HAVE A CAUSAL, DARWINIAN EXPLANATION?
Some would say that what I am calling “spiritual evolution” is, more truly, just Darwinian “group selection”. But, this is just trying to incorporate the mysteries we have considered above into evolutionary theory by changing the name of the phenomenon.
Consider, free choice is very much a part of the phenomenon, and that no
random physical mutations have taken place to our bodies to be mechanically and
naturally selected. Consider also, that no other animals shown any signs of
such spiritual evolution, unnaturally, humanity alone is taking these
spiritually evolutionary steps. I am open about the idea whether other animals
have spirits, but in the last 100, 250, 5,000 years in which humans have
evolved their behaviour mightily – a chimpanzee (98.5%
And, as we will see in the next section on human happiness, the things which make us feel happy with our self are those things which we see as human virtues – and the majority of these virtues are unnatural (i.e. not possessed, or valued, by all the other animal species which are behaving as Neo-Darwinians say they should if driven solely by natural animal needs, instincts and genetic imperatives).
Humanity’s spiritual evolution is a mystery, even neo-Darwinians find it so – Pinker again from the above quoted lecture:
“The other challenge posed by the decline of violence is how to explain it. A force that pushes in the same direction across many epochs, continents and scales of social organisation mocks our standard tools of causal explanation. … Nor could it possibly be explained by evolution in the biologist’s sense. Even if the meek could inherit the earth, natural selection could not favour the genes for meekness quickly enough ... Whatever its causes, the decline of violence has profound implications … Why is there peace? From the likelihood that states will commit genocide to the way people treat cats, we must have been doing something right. And it would be nice to know what, exactly, it is.”
So our spiritual evolution, our evolving human virtues, are a mystery that “mocks our standard tools of causal explanation” …“Nor could it possibly be explained by evolution in the biologist’s sense.” Maybe to understand the “decline of violence”, our increasing “meekness”, and how “we must have been doing something right”, we need to move away from the Neo-Darwinian theory of everything – the theory that all our behaviours can be understood and explained solely in terms of the physical evolution of our animal bodies – maybe our improving behaviours can best be explained in terms of the spiritual evolution of our selves? The relativity (existence of good, better, best) of our universe observably has an evolutionary effect on physical bodies through the natural selection for best – maybe relativity is also the answer to our seeming spiritual evolution – through our selection of behaviours which best enable happiness?
A DANCE, NOT AN ADVANCE
One thing is for sure – our spiritual evolution has not been a straight-line advance – more like a dance: some steps forward, some to the side and some back, and this applies both individually and nationally. Some nations regress for a time – reverting to the animal usually in response to threats to their animal security – like the USA reintroducing torture for terrorists after 9/11; and Russia pushing back with violence against the West by invading Georgia and Ukraine. But there tends to be an international human outcry against such human backward steps when they occur (torture has again been abandoned as a policy by the USA).
BODILY SURVIVAL NECESSARY BEFORE SPIRITUAL EVOLUTION POSSIBLE
Why are some of us more spiritually evolved than others? Why are some still advocating stoning people to death, chopping heads off, killing others in the name of God?
Human spiritual evolution seems in many ways to be a luxury – only those who have basic animal security have the time/safety to pursue it. We must not forget the human physical + spiritual duality – at the end of the day, spiritual evolution is only available to those whose day-to-day, animal survival is secure. Potentially violent, fundamentalist religious beliefs are widespread in USA and Israel, but suicide bombers are rare because day-to-day living is more secure, less wretched – than in the areas of the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Africa where religious terrorists find rich pickings. If the USA, and the West in general, are concerned about religious terrorism, maybe the best (and cheapest) way to combat it is not by force of arms – but by making the daily lives of the people more secure and less wretched? For too many people in this world, the only thing that they have to look forward to is the next life – an ideal environment for the recruitment of suicide-bombers.
WHY SPIRITUAL EVOLUTION IN THE WEST?
So, animal/bodily life/survival is secure in the West, what then drives our spiritual/self evolution?
In a word – happiness.
For the majority in the West, happiness from bodily pleasures (alcohol, drugs, sugar, random sex, fast food); distractions (TV, movies, and magazines) and animal ego (fame, money, power, stuff) have become less and less substantial, and are proving harder and harder to sustain – in terms of the health of our bodies, in environmental terms, and in terms of our economies. Neither have our materialist philosophies (if it feels good – do it) led to lasting happiness – satisfaction has become elusive, and ecstasy (which requires a spiritual input) a stranger.
It is becoming increasingly clear to the majority, that if we are to be happy, if we are to best live – we need to raise our consciousness to the spiritual aspects of life – we need to spiritually evolve.
TO BE HAPPY?
Our journey along the road to Truth has now arrived at the sylvan glades of human happiness. Time to enter and explore.
“What is the highest good in all matters of action? To the name, there is almost complete agreement; for uneducated and educated alike call it happiness and make happiness identical with good life and successful living.”
Aristotle, (Nicomachean Ethics 1.4)
“How to gain, how to keep, how to recover happiness, is in fact for most men at all times the secret motive of all they do, and all they are willing to endure.”
William James (“The Varieties of Religious Experience”).
“Whether one believes in religion or not, whether ones believes in this religion or that religion, the very purpose of our life is happiness, the very motion of our life is toward happiness.”
Alone in the animal kingdom we are the only ones who strive to be happy, all other animals just strive to be. We humans have not only made happiness “identical with good life and successful living” – but even “the very purpose of our life”.
However, what exactly makes us happy (and/or unhappy) – and why?
WHAT MAKES US HAPPY AND WHY?
I suspect that if we can approach answers to these two questions we will also approach more nearly the Truth of the human condition. I say this because what makes us happy must speak volumes about who we are – both individually as people and collectively as a species. And, speaking of volumes, many millions of them have been written about the subject of happiness
Let’s have an explore.
SOME COMMON CONCLUSIONS
Human happiness is a huge territory. Consider this large and disparate, but nowhere near exhaustive list of some of the commonly recurring conclusions of our physical sciences, evolutionary theory, the New Age movement, and the Positive Thinking industry – about happiness and the achieving of it.
Human happiness can be achieved by:
· Meeting animal needs like food and drink.
· Enjoying the body by having pleasant bodily stimuli/sensations (touch, smell, taste, etc.)
· Ingesting chemicals like alcohol, caffeine, nicotine.
· The release of our own, bodily, feel-good bodily chemicals (through exercise, sex, chocolate etc.)
· Being/feeling healthy.
· Having the right genes (e.g. being an extrovert rather than an introvert).
· Being bodily safe/secure.
· Meeting genetic imperatives by having children/grandchildren.
· Having religion (feeling of control over life and freedom from the fear of death).
· Achieving a state of mental “flow” (enjoyable absorption).
· Meeting the needs of the mind (e.g. mental stimulation and activity).
· Having psychological needs met (e.g. purpose, authenticity, variety, curiosity).
· Positive community engagement.
· Acceptance of who you are.
· Doing something meaningful.
· Achieving a difficult task.
· Feeling part of, and contributing to – something larger.
· Experiencing beauty.
· Creating beauty.
· Reaching competency, mastery in a discipline.
· Having effectivity, making things happen.
· Vital engagement (at work or hobbies).
· Autonomy (power over your life, some control over your fate)
· Having freedom over your choices.
· Having a life which allows “flourishing” (of our capacities).
· Having hope, possibility in your life.
· Doing good (something of use to others).
· Having someone to care for.
· The company of kindred spirits.
· Compassion – towards one’s self and others.
· Taking joy in the happiness of others.
· Love – of others and from others.
For some, happiness is about avoiding unhappiness, by:
· Avoiding thinking about how to get happiness and/or avoiding striving for it.
· Avoiding misery and wretchedness caused by famine, disease, injustice, poverty, oppression.
· Avoiding and/or stamping out negative thoughts.
· Avoiding pain.
· Avoiding miserable and/or negative people.
No list about such a topic as happiness can hope to be exhaustive, but I think it fair to say that while the relative importance of the above items would be subject to individual differences, we all have experienced happiness of varying intensity and duration from quite a lot of these things.
The first thing to notice is that the above methods of achieving happiness involve:
1.) the physical body (e.g. having pleasant bodily sensations; feeling secure);
2.) the nonphysical spirit (e.g. by being spiritually “lifted” by experiencing beauty);
3.) the nonphysical self (e.g. by feeling good about the self through achieving mastery of a skill).
Sometimes the body + spirit/soul can work together (e.g. positive community engagement/belonging to a community allows both bodily survival as well as feelings of self worth from being accepted into a community). And sometimes they can work together to produce a deeper happiness – ecstasy, even (e.g. someone you love making love to you.)
The other thing to notice about the above list is that it provides yet more evidence that the human condition is to be a body + spiritual/self duality – the things which can lead us to happiness having bodily or spiritual/self causes – or both.
Let’s look at the idea of the human condition being a duality, more closely – because it is quite controversial – materialist monism is the default academic picture of the human condition. To examine more closely what our unique drive to be happy can tell us about humanity, let’s look at bodily and spiritual causes separately. Firstly the happiness we can achieve through our animal bodily senses and needs.
HAPPINESS THROUGH OUR ANIMAL BODILY SENSES
Human animals can achieve pleasure and contentment, even a degree of necessarily passing happiness, just through our animal senses. For example, we can experience a degree of happiness when we are caressed, when we feel warmth or cool, when we taste pleasant food, when we hear sweet sounds, even apparently (from one of the many studies into human happiness) when we smell baking bread. These pleasant external stimuli produce sensations via our senses of touch, taste, hearing, smell – leading to passing feel-good/happiness by releasing internal animal chemicals (like dopamine).
Many confuse feeling such sensations and the resulting contentment with being happy, however any happiness flowing from such pleasure must be necessarily passing because continual pleasant stimulation to the body’s senses will eventually be no pleasure at all – all tickle is no tickle; constant caressing turns eventually to pain; we need to be cold to get contentment from warmth (or hot to get pleasure from cool); sweet sounds repeated over and over will drive us mad; we will lose the chemical, pleasure stimuli if we have to smell bread cooking all the time. There is nothing intrinsic about our sensual pleasures which can make us lastingly happy people – pleasuring of the animal body can only make us contentedly happy people for a necessarily passing time.
HAPPINESS THROUGH MEETING ANIMAL NEEDS
We can also experience passing happiness when we meet our animal needs – for example, when we feed or when we drink. But, again, there is nothing intrinsically happiness-making in these things either – you have to be thirsty to get a contentment level of happiness from a drink; hungry to get some happiness from food. If you are “stuffed” the thought of more food can actually make you sad.
HAPPINESS THROUGH MEETING ANIMAL IMPERATIVES TO BREED
We can also get some happiness from obeying our genetic imperatives – by having offspring (observe the happiness of new parents and/or grandparents). But happiness from being a parent or grandparent will not, necessarily, last as long as being a parent or grandparent does – there are many unhappy parents and/or grandparents.
HAPPINESS THROUGH HEALTH
To have a healthy body is a good feeling. If we feel bodily healthy we feel as though we are “bursting with life”, we feel as though we are “ready for anything” – we feel a happiness. But again, there is nothing intrinsic about bodily health – there are many unhappy healthy people – and happy unhealthy people. And happiness depending on good health only lasts as long as that health – sooner or later most people will lose their good health through sickness and/or age. Even if your health is maintained into old age, the knowledge of your mortality (inevitable with age) will wipe the smile off your face. In short, if your happiness is founded just upon how well your body feels, it is on fragile ground.
HAPPINESS THROUGH GENETICS
Many studies have concluded that happiness is down to genetics – introverts being unhappy and extroverts happy. But this is not an immaculate connection either, we all know of tragically unhappy but extroverted stand-up comedians (the suicide of Tony Hancock comes to mind) and many introverts who are happy in their own company (or happy if they are able to control the amount of the company of others).
HAPPINESS THROUGH BODILY SECURITY
People who feel they have animal security can feel happy because of such. To feel “safe and secure” is a warm, fuzzy, happy feeling – safe from stormy weather, financially secure, a permanent job, plenty of food in the larder. However, it is not axiomatic – consider all the unhappy people in government jobs, the unhappy rich (not unusual), all the sad faces in the streets of prosperous and secure Western cities and the happy faces in less prosperous places (is it just me, or are their more smiles in India and Africa than New York?). Regardless, any happiness based on animal security will only last as long as that security – and at the end of the day, we have can have no lasting animal security because we are mortal – which brings us neatly to religion.
HAPPINESS THROUGH SECURITY FROM DEATH
The ultimate human animal security is to feel secure from death – this is why religion is so popular – particularly fundamentalist religions whose rigid beliefs allow no doubt (consider their “happy-clapping” fundamentalist church services, complete with ecstatic swoonings). At the back of the minds of every human is the knowledge of our mortality – however healthy and physically secure we may feel there is always the dampening knowledge of our ultimate death. The religious are, overtly, happy because they feel they have found the secret to eternal bodily survival – the ultimate animal security. For many this is worth sacrificing your animal pleasures (nuns, priests, religious aesthetes), your rationality (fundamentalists), even your present life (suicide bombers).
But there is always that nagging little doubt – and any animal security/happiness achieved through your religion can only be as strong as your faith. That is why humans fight to the death to protect their religious faith.
At the beginning of this exploration of the phenomenon known as happness, we expected that what makes us happy and/or unhappy would speak volumes about the human condition – about who we are – individually and as a species. So, because levels of happiness (albeit passing) can be derived from our animal bodies, it can be safely considered as established, once again, that it is an aspect of the human condition to be an animal/have an animal body. Pretty obvious to most, but now we need to consider – what do the non-bodily, nonphysical things which make us happy have to say about the human condition?
NON-ANIMAL FACTORS WHICH CAN MAKE US HAPPY
Most humans have had what is commonly called: a “moving” experience – have had our spirits “uplifted”. Such usually happens when we manage to raise our consciousness to the nonphysical in life – for example: when we appreciate a beautiful view; listen to beautiful music; smell a beautifully perfumed flower; taste beautifully-cooked food; are hugged by another. These are sensed through our various animal senses, so can probably be registered as observable blips on a computer screen when neurologists wire our brain/body to such – but why can something nonphysical as beauty do this (especially the beauty of something dangerous to our bodily survival – like we saw earlier in Darwin being moved by the beauty of the Brazilian jungle).And what exactly is “moved”, what is “uplifted” – our animal bodies or our spiritual self?
The above “things” are not driven by our bodies – which don’t have to see a beautiful view, hear music, smell flowers, have food beautifully prepared, be hugged – to survive. These things just make us happy by lifting our spirits, making our selves happy – and we freely choose them (“freely” – again, because they are not necessary to survive). It can’t be argued successfully that such choices – as to what is beautiful, and what to choose to have/experience – are just mechanical, natural selection at work (similar to choosing big breasts, broad hips, wide shoulders, strong arms etc. – naturally selected because such better nurture/protect our genes) such nonphysical things can make us happy – more truly as the result of unnatural selection. “Unnatural” because all other animals do not evidence such behaviour – in fact the pursuit of the above spiritual experiences often use up animal/bodily survival resources and/or can even be dangerous to our selfish genes’ survival (e.g. going on a long and dangerous bushwalk to see a beautiful view – hardly likely to be adaptive, naturally selected behaviour.
As well as the nonphysical things listed above which can make us feel happiness, there are other nonphysical things which make us happy by inspiring us – for example: a gratuitous act of kindness; experiencing virtuosity of endeavor in another human (in any field, e.g. music, art, sport, dance); witnessing a brave act (in humans and other animals); encountering a beautiful soul. And, just as the reverse of certain bodily enjoyments can make us unhappy (e.g. sensory pain rather sensory pleasure), so the reverse of certain spiritual enjoyments can also make us unhappy – e.g. witnessing brutality rather than kindness; witnessing an ugly view (factories, smog, a rubbish tip); hearing out-of-tune music; etc.
IF SPIRITUAL THINGS MAKE US HAPPY/UNHAPPY, WE HAVE A SPIRITUAL FACTOR
So, using the same logic as above (i.e. if animal things can make us happy/unhappy, then it is the human condition to be animal/have an animal body) then we must conclude that if there are nonphysical/spiritual things which make us happy/unhappy, then the human condition is also to be spiritual/have a self/soul. Yet more proof that the human condition is to be a duality of animal and spiritual factors.
What else is there in the territory of human happiness that can reveal more about the human condition? How about lasting happiness – is it possible – if so, what factors are necessary to enable it. And what do those necessary factors say about us?
So, can we be happy people – rather than just people who can feel happy?
BEING HAPPY cf. FEELING HAPPY
We have already established that happiness from our body must necessarily be passing – maybe being happy, as compared to feeling happy, can only come from our self/soul/spirit. Let’s see?
There is an obvious difference between a human feeling happy and being happy. We all know/have met some people who are not chronically extroverted but are always happy people – not ecstatically happy, but have a, seemingly “background radiation” of happiness. So what are they on – what does it take to be a happy being – to have lasting happiness?
We have seen earlier, above, that our animal body can only offer necessarily passing contentment through the pleasuring of its senses and the meeting of its needs. We also saw above that we can experience happiness when spiritually uplifted and/or moved. And when we explored the territory of spiritual evolution, immediately preceding this territory of human happiness, we saw that we can also be happy when we are happy with our self – even that the human drive to be happy with/able to love the self – is the driver of our spiritual evolution.
Maybe, because the self is the only thing that is totally within our own control, it is the only path to lasting happiness? Let’s have a closer look at that idea.
THE STEPS TO LASTING HAPPINESS?
We have already discovered when we explored the territory of spiritual evolution, directly above on our journey along the road to Truth, that if we are going to achieve any spiritual evolution, the importance of following the ancient dictum to “Know Thyself”. We also found that choosing to Know Thyself is an essential step towards happiness – if we come to know our self, truly, then we can know if we are happy with/able to love our self – forcing us to grow/evolve our self if we are not happy with the true self we have come to know. Knowing the “true” self is crucial here because any happiness based on a lie about our self will last only as long as that lie. If we imagine our selves to be other than we truly are – through wishful thinking; conceit; a large animal ego; mistaking our beautiful and/or talented body for a beautiful self; being misled by the blandishments of others who are out to get something from said physical beauty and/or physical talents – we will never know the real self and lasting happiness will not be available. Indeed, unhappiness often results when the truth of self is revealed.
THE DANGER OF CONFUSING SELF
It is important to understand the difference between learning about the true self, and becoming deluded, conceited – indeed, even “selfish”. Understanding the difference between the animal ego and the spiritual self is the key here. As we have seen in the preceding region we explored, the ego is not the soul/spirit/self, but a part of the animal body – a naturally-selected animal ingredient essential for bodily survival in a competitive environment, and the promotion of our genes over others. More and more studies have shown that criminals who are given to random violence actually have a high ego, rather than having low self esteem. A high, but false, sense of self-esteem and pride in the self – of personal superiority even – can lead to anger and violence when the world does not agree with your own inflated opinion of self. You have not come to know the true self, but have come to believe that your self is how you wish it to be.
So how to know the true self? First it is important to be your self – if you spend your life locked away in a monastery/religion through fear of a judgmental, punishing god you will never be your true self – nor be able truly known. Our true self is revealed by our actions in the sturm und drang of life – actions driven by our choices – at the end of the day our actions represent us; we are/become our choices/actions. So, through our choices and actions we create our selves, not through our wishes, or our dreams, nor by our intentions (they say the road to hell is paved with good ones unacted upon). We explored free will in Essay 2 – but the fact that we are free to Know Thyself, or not (evidenced by the fact that some people do and some don’t) is more evidence that free will exists. Of course, some of our actions are not free but involuntary – these are more truly reactions and usually about animal bodily survival – but we also choose to do many actions which we have contemplated, premeditated for some time (and we also freely choose not to do many behaviours, as well). To own our actions is to own/know our true self.
UNHAPPINESS THROUGH TRULY KNOWING THE SELF
Of course, just knowing our true selves is not enough to be happy – as we have seen in the above exploration of spiritual evolution, knowing the self can lead to unhappiness. If we cannot love the self we have come to truly know – even to the point of self-loathing – then we will be unhappy, depressed. To loathe the self leads invariably to human unhappiness, depression of spirit – sometimes physical sickness, even death (when we are “sick to death” of the revealed self). As well as physical changes to our body, self loathing can lead to suicide – which if you think about it, is an example of the self killing the body – a very unlikely act if all is about our selfish genes (also unnatural because no other animal does it). The animal body being physically altered by the spiritual self is more empirical evidence for the existence of the spiritual as a separate entity to the body (we are due to explore more of this territory, next on our road.)
But, as we also found in our exploration of the territory of spiritual evolution, self-loathing can also be the start of the path to self-growth – and this self growth to being able to be happy with/able to love the self – and lasting happiness.
So, if human happiness depends on love of self, what then is the best way to attain such self love?
THE GETTING OF LOVE OF SELF?
A good way to start is to know the difference between what is your self and what is your body. We have already considered the existence of a human self/soul/spirit separate from our physical body, above, but many mistake their body for their selves and strive to feel happier by being more beautiful, more muscular, better dressed, etc. Some seek to feel happy about their selves through their animal egos – and/or by becoming a “success” in the eyes of others – quite often through acquiring money, power, and fame.
Does this work?
We have seen so far on our journey that humans are complicated things, behaviours/actions can have clear, single motives or they can have dual (animal and spiritual) motives – or multiple, evolving motives (i.e. starting out as one thing and ending up as another). For example, the accumulation of money may start out as the animal need to be wealthy/secure enough for survival, but can end up about trying to be richer than others because you find that being more wealthy allows you to feel relatively good about your self – most often because the attitudes of others towards you changes if you become rich: people will appear to respect you, to like you, even to love you – allowing you to (falsely) think that your self is lovable. But usually only “appear” because such “liking” and/or “loving” are usually blandishments to get their hands on some of your wealth, and/or some of your prestige by associating with you. Studies have found that, while money enough to ensure our animal survival can make us bodily secure thus happy, money above the average won’t make you more happy. This from studies conducted by Professor Mirko Bagaric, Deakin University, Australia:
“…money makes a negligible difference to our well-being once we are beyond average wealth [while] extracting ourselves from poverty gives a significant boost to our happiness barometer.”
Quoted from Age newspaper – 27th May, 2009.
But if your “happiness barometer” is based solely upon your possession of money (whether enough to extract us from poverty or beyond average wealth) it is the most fragile happiness – money having a particular tendency to go more easily than it came.
Power, another popular way to get self-love, may also start out with animal survival motives but, again, when achieved, the possession of power beyond enough to survive changes people’s behaviour towards you – and, through that, your own feeling about your self is enhanced. You mistake their behaviour as respect, even love, and you adjust your own feeling about self higher. But power is mostly fear: people don’t love or respect your self, but fear you – or envy you (wanting your power, cf. wanting to be your self).
Dictators are/were good examples of this – consider all the false fawning admiration expressed in the statues (and the number of them) in various communist regimes, and all the false public mourning at their death (the recent death of Kim Jong-Il being a good example). There are even tears still to be frequently seen in the eyes of those visiting the tomb of that bloody murderer, Lenin. This phenomenon is not love, but Stockholm Syndrome – a recognised psychological syndrome (naturally selected behavior because often a good survival tactic) – wherein people apparently come to “love” their captors who have the power of life and death over them (in an effort to soften their captor’s hearts and improve the captives’ chances of survival). As discussed in Essay 1 – claiming to love the brutal Old Testament god is another good example of Stockholm Syndrome.
Fame also brings many people to you who profess friendship, love and respect. But ask any ex-star how genuine this is – once their fame had gone. “Love” from people based on fame, like love based on beauty, power, and/or money, disappears as quickly as that fame, beauty, power or money. Any self-love you may have, based on such is built on quicksand. To observe their antics, sadness, suicides, and self-abuse is to know that the famous, and/or beautiful are often the unhappiest (or at least, the not-happiest) of all people.
All of the above methods bring some recognition of us from others – and sometimes approval. We like recognition and approval, and such make us happy – while they last. As for allowing us to be happy about our selves mostly they are counter-productive – the getting of significant money, power etc. frequently involving us in Faustian pacts against the self/soul – “selling our soul to the devil”, as the saying has it.
If we are not able to achieve individual “success” through methods like money, power, fame we often turn to joining groups – and taking their successes, power etc. unto our selves.
SELF LOVE THROUGH GROUPS
Most of us lack individual brilliance but can get, or get a share of success, fame etc. by joining a fan club – i.e. being associated with the brilliance of a chosen “hero” (a football star, a pop star, etc.). Or we can get some power and/or success through our membership of a nation, football club, gang, or a religion – we rejoice in our nations’ Olympic medals, our team’s premierships, the fear our gang is held in, the power of our religion. But self-love by association is fraught (ask any supporter of the Melbourne Football Club!).
SELF LOVE THROUGH TALL-POPPY LOPPING
In this relative world we most often measure our own achievements with the yardstick of others’ achievements. Some of us, frustrated in this method of feeling good about the self, find it is most often easier to drag others down than build our selves up – and thus engage in that all-too-human pastime of tall-poppy lopping. Bringing others down to our own perceived level (or preferably below) brings some grim satisfaction, but no lasting happiness to the self – there will always others who appear relatively good/better/best.
SO HOW TO
Real self respect can come from real achievements – being top of your profession, completing a degree, creating beautiful art, building a wonderful building, dancing in the Royal Ballet, winning a gold medal – and the recognition which comes from achieving something grand. However, while most of us are not going to distinguish our selves by truly great achievements in commonly admired fields, there are some things which we all have the ability to do. We all have the ability to love others, to forgive them, and do the sort of good things for them that we would like them to do for us – love, forgive, do (where have I heard that before?)
If that’s a bit too religious for you, consider this:
“If he acts for the good of others, he will receive the approbation of his fellow men and gain the love of those with whom he lives; and the latter gain undoubtedly is the highest pleasure on this earth.”
– Charles Darwin, (Autobiography, P. 94.)
So, from both Jesus and Darwin we have the “T” Truth – that the path to happiness is paved with good deeds (cf. intentions) – flowing from loving one another. If we love others and act for their good, they will surely love us – we will “receive the approbation of [our] fellow men” and “the love of those with whom we live” – the surest way of achieving “the highest pleasure on this earth” – self respect, self worth, self love (whatever you want to call it) – and the happiness which flows inevitably from such. And because the self is the only source of happiness which is totally within our own control – the happiness which flows from being happy with our self is as lasting as we want it to be.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE LOVE
The father of Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman (Professor at University of Pennsylvania) in his latest book “Flourish” identifies the importance of other people to our happiness – “…other people are the best antidote to the downs of life and the single most reliable up.” But why is the approbation of our fellow men so important?
It is because we allow the opinion of others as the best evidence that we are right to love our self – evidence of our own self-worth. This from Alain de Botton:
“The attentions of others might be said to matter to us principally because we are affected by a congenital uncertainty as to our own value – as a result of which what others think of us comes to play a determining role in how we are able to view ourselves.”
Alain de Botton, “Status Anxiety” – P. 15
And self-worth is often more important to us than bodily survival.
“For the dueller [who is risking his body to save face/honour], what other people think of him will be the only factor in settling what he may think of himself.”
Alain de Botton, ibid – P. 116
ACADEMIC STUDIES ON HAPPINESS
As we saw at the beginning of this exploration of happiness, multiple studies have found that if we have friends, a partner, good connections with our community, have a job, have purpose in our life, are allowed/welcomed into groups of other people, have the respect and love of our fellow men, we will be happy. Why do these things make us genuinely happy? Again, for the reasons we have discussed, above – they allow us to feel good about our selves, our beings. They are a mark of the worth of our selves – not of our bodies, or of the amount of our power or temporal possessions. This from 16th century philosopher Michel de Montaigne:
“A man may have a great suite of attendants, a beautiful palace, great influence and a large income. All that may surround him, but it is not him…Measure his height with his stilts off: let him lay aside his wealth and his decorations and show himself to us naked…What sort of soul does he have? Is his soul a beautiful one, able, happily endowed with all her functions? Are her riches her own or are they borrowed? Has luck had nothing to do with it? ... That is what we need to know; that is what the immense distances between us men should be judged by.”
SELF REVELATION – LIFE’S IMMACULATE FUNCTION?
Many, in the course of a life, “show himself to us naked”, but many others also get away without being truly known by others. But even if we should succeed in hiding our real self from others, a full life invariably peels us layer at a time, like an onion – to remain truly known to our self – however much success we may have had at fooling others. Because this process is so unavoidable, it seems part of an immaculate function – to know our self, then to grow/evolve our self until we are happy with our self – an opportunity to evolve de Montaigne’s “beautiful soul”.
And in all of this, we have yet more evidence of free will, free choice.
MORE EVIDENCE FOR FREE CHOICE
As we saw in Essay 2, residents of the House of Disbelief (Neo-Darwinians, materialists, and the such like) cannot allow the existence of free choice because it does not fit their, necessarily, causal and mechanistic model of the universe. But nowhere is there greater evidence for the existence of free will/choice than in our creation of self – we are free to embark on such a voyage of self growth in search of happiness, or not – and we are free to choose how far we go. If we manage to be our true selves, then take the free choice of truly knowing our self, we are then still free to choose what we do next – we can choose to wallow in self-loathing or choose self-growth. Even if we choose self growth, we are free to choose how we go about any such growth (improve our skills, look after others, create beauty, all of the above). That we, our resultant selves at the end of any chosen growth process, are different and unpredictable is due to the fact that our choices are free. Compare the process which created our bodies: driven by choice-less, natural, mechanical selection – resulting in the same animal.
In the background I can hear the neo-Darwinians ideologists singing their usual refrain: happiness can’t come from spiritual growth – about evolving a self that we can be happy with – because we are just matter. Every behaviour we exhibit must be naturally selected animal behaviours – any so called “happiness” is just the feeling that we are winning the genetic game (which is all life is) – by achieving status, prestige, and animal ego gratification. This from evolutionary psychologist, Jonathan Haidt (who uses an elephant as an analogy for the human body):
“The elephant [human body] was shaped by natural selection to win at the game of life, and part of its strategy is to impress others, gain their admiration, and rise in relative rank. The elephant cares about prestige, not happiness and it looks eternally to others to figure out what is prestigious.”
- P. 101 “The Happiness Hypothesis” (Haidt’s italics underlined).
So, seen through the lens of neo-Darwinian ideology, gaining the admiration of others is not about our need to be happy, but about the gathering of prestige – to “rise in relative rank” – just another purely animal act, an egotistical strategy to breed more successfully than other animals of our species. For Haidt, in this “game of life” all animals are the same – i.e. humans are not differentiated from the other animals by any uniquely human need to be happy about our self, we care “about prestige – not happiness”.
Is this what truly drives the human need for the admiration of our fellows, is this what makes such admiration, if achieved – in the words of Darwin: “undoubtedly the highest pleasure on this earth”?
Let’s look more closely at Haidt’s argument.
Haidt uses an elephant with a rider as his analogy for the human condition – the elephant being our animal body with its unconscious animal instincts and genetic imperatives – and the rider as our mind/brain. This is the usual monism of our present time: we are just animal body/matter. But we have seen in our exploration of the human condition that the human condition is to be a duality – not the Cartesian body + mind duality (discredited because the mind is of the brain/body and can be altered with physical change to the brain) – but, as we saw above, we are a spiritual being with an animal body duality: human = body + self/soul/spirit/consciousness (call it what you will).
To couch this latter duality idea in terms of Haidt’s elephant analogy I would describe the body (mind/brain included) as the elephant – and the self as the rider. In other words, the mind is not the rider of the animal body, as per Haidt, but an integral part of it – the actual rider is detachable, has different needs to the ridden animal, which has a mind of its own. In my analogy, as in all animal-and-rider arrangements, sometimes the elephant/animal is in control (having its needs met) and sometimes the rider/self – and sometimes both are in accord. Sometimes the rider and elephant seek food, sometimes shelter from a storm – but sometimes the rider is moved by things not important to the elephant (like experiencing beauty) and steers the elephant to experience such – sometimes mortally risking the elephant/body (e.g. as we have considered already in other regions of our journey – the self/soul leading our animal body to take it bushwalking, travelling, etc.). The animal/self conflict is a part of (and peculiar to) human life, and the resolution of it determines how well we take what seems to be our life’s grand opportunity – the evolution of our self (“grand” because our existence in this relative universe also offers plenty of baser opportunities too) – and the taking of that grander opportunity for self evolution determines how happy we are with our self, how much we enjoy life/best live.
At the beginning of this exploration of happiness we asked: “what exactly makes us happy (and/or unhappy) – and why?”
We conclude that what makes us happy, is when we are happy with our self (and the unhappiest we will ever be is if we experience self loathing). As for “why?” – it is because our self is all we have – everything else is on loan from the universe: our bodies; our money, power, fame; even our physical talents – will all pass. Our self is forever (more of that when we explore the paranormal, below) – however, as we discovered above, we can grow, evolve our self – and this is the path to lasting happiness. “Lasting” because the self is the only source of happiness totally within our control – no one else can change your self for the worse.
If we mistake our body, money, power, fame, for our self – we will be merely conceited/smug with our “success” – rather than happy with our self. While success can bring an animal contentment, the only path to true and lasting happiness is when other people love our self (not our body, money etc.) – because this is the strongest evidence we allow that we are worthy of our own love. If we can love our self, we will be happy.
As for the other question we considered at the beginning – what happiness says about the human condition: because love is the only thing which works invariably to make us lastingly happy it says we, our self – not our body, are about love. Lest that sounds to you like a sentimental-sounding, New Age generalisation, consider what George Vaillant had to say in summarising a 70 year-long study on human development and happiness (Vaillant is professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School and director of the study for its last 40 years):
“The only thing that really matters in life are your relations with other people…happiness equals love – full stop.”
Quoted from an article written by Vaillant, Australian Financial Review, 21st August, 2009. Study available at: http://adultdev.bwh.harvard.edu
All up, if people love you, you will be happy because it allows self love (cf. self loathing).
But how to get the love of others?
Simple – if you love them, they will love you for it. We all want to be loved.
LOVE AND BE LOVED (AND BE HAPPY)
The ultimate will in the human condition, then, is not Nietzsche’s “will for power”, but our will to be happy – our will to be loved. While the animal will for survival must come first – after all our body is our self’s vehicle in this passing reality (“passing”? more of that below, too) – but once that is achieved, our ultimate will is to be happy/able to love our self. Our will to be happy creates many things, but its greatest creation is our self – self evolution – life allows us the opportunity to be, to know, and to grow our self until we are happy with our self. And it takes most of us a lifetime to discover that only love can make us lastingly happy.
Here on our Road to Truth, it is obvious that the idea of the importance of Self is recurring, and becoming pivotal to our evolving philosophy. We have seen plenty of intellectual evidence for the existence of self, but is there also some physical, empirical evidence for the existence of the spiritual? Time now on our journey to hunt for any such empirical evidence.
· EMPIRICAL EVIDENCE FOR THE EXISTENCE OF THE SPIRITUAL
As we have already touched on in our above explorations of self/spiritual evolution and of happiness, it has long been recognized that self-loathing can produce physical changes to our bodies – people can get bodily sick (even to the point of death) from loathing the self. It has also been shown that feeling good about the self, loving the self, can result in positive physical changes to our bodies. And various studies of patients in hospitals have shown that sick people who have had their spirits lifted by music, pets, and/or humour – have consequentially had more positive physical health benefits. Such studies are empirical evidence that nonphysical changes (to our spirits and/or self image) can make physical changes to our bodies – i.e. represents physical evidence for the existence of the spiritual.
And not only is there empirical evidence that people can physically recover through spiritual means, conversely, there is evidence that people can become sick through nonphysical, spiritual means – through guilt.
People, observably, can get physically sick from guilt (and, as we have already discussed, from loathing the self). Guilt can be very destructive, physically, to the human body. “Badness” (which idea does not occur in nature) towards others does not sit well with the human condition – and/or not for long. And just what makes us feel guilty – what we see as “bad” – is interesting too. For example, consider rape – if we are just genetic machines then raping someone is natural (as it is in the animal kingdom) – it should even be seen as “good” because it obeys our genetic imperatives by furthering the domination of our genes. But for humans, rape is a crime – which most often leads the perpetrator into guilt and self-loathing. (And victims often report feeling “defiled” although their body has not been injured – so what exactly has been “defiled”? Their self.)
There is not one recorded case of someone from getting sick from being good to others or from being loved by others. In fact the very idea is ludicrous – more evidence that love is a Truth of human nature. Being good suits us, being loved makes us happy, whereas being bad or “evil”, being hated (concepts not available to other animals) can make us physically sick.
We have considered beauty above, but we need to examine more of our response to non-Darwinian beauty here because it also provides evidence for the existence of the spiritual – more evidence that there are both animal and spiritual factors in the human equation. This from Professor John Armstrong:
“One of the strangest features of the experience of beauty is its power, occasionally, to move us to tears…because there is something in grace and loveliness that can be, for a moment, heartbreaking. It might be the face of the Madonna in a little thirteenth-century ivory statue from the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris; it might be a Bach cantata…What is happening to us at these special times of intense responsiveness to beauty?”
“The Secret Power of Beauty”, P. 70, John Armstrong.
So beauty can also produce physical changes to our body – make us cry. But being moved to tears by beauty is a different thing to being moved to tears by an animal emotion – like fear. Such beauty as Armstrong describes is a non-Darwinian, nonphysical thing – bringing us strangely to physical tears, but by moving/meeting what in us exactly – our bodily fears and/or hungers; our selfish genes; our atoms; our energy? No, it generated joy (ecstasy even) in us – by moving/appealing to our spiritual factor in the human equation – our self/soul.
“Us”, “we” – are not our bodies. Our bodies are a collection of atoms, mysteriously alive, mechanically evolved – they are nothing but matter without “us”.
“I am not my body. My body is nothing without me.”
Tom Stoppard – Quoted from “New Philosopher” #7, P. 35
Ecstasy? We have explored the phenomenon of human ecstasy above, but it has some relevance here too – our success in achieving it forms more empirical evidence for existence of the spiritual.
Many people look for ecstasy in sex. However, our chances of achieving it depend on whether we bring the spiritual to bear or not. Human sexuality covers a broad spectrum of behaviours – from base, animal levels; for example, the achievement of bodily, physical orgasm by masturbation or by animal sexploitation of others (prostitution, rape) – to sublime, spiritual levels (for example, Tantric sex). While humans can get animal, physical satisfaction and hormonal relief from base sex, such offers absolutely no self/spiritual satisfaction – or it can even leave us with self loathing. “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” was one of the most successful pop/sex songs ever – for a good reason – true human satisfaction requires the spiritual needs to be met. While non-human animals can achieve the maximum pleasure they are capable of through their bodily senses and/or answering their genetic imperatives humans, while capable of such simple pleasures, can raise to a higher level of consciousness and incorporate the spiritual into their physical pleasures – thereby enabling a higher level of satisfaction, even ecstasy. For example, by making love to someone you love. Tantric sex, often called spiritual sex, raises consciousness of the sex act by incorporating spiritual love – it is an intimate, physical manifestation of a spiritual bond – the physical realisation of the love of a soul mate, pleasing/satisfying the two factors of the human equation at once.
The difference the spiritual makes to a physical, animal act is more empirical physical evidence for the existence of the spiritual.
OTHER AVENUES TO ECSTASY
There is more evidence for the existence of the spiritual in other examples of ecstasy which also require spiritual input. Consider, for example, eating – whereas feeding meets animal needs, dining can be spiritually lifting/ecstatic. By “dining” I mean good ingredients cooked with artistry and, as many great chefs describe it, with love (often said to be both for the ingredients and for the diner). Dining can lift the spirits, enabling heights of enjoyment beyond just meeting hunger/survival needs – and we can even “dine” on a beautiful piece of fruit – if we raise our consciousness to take in its physical perfection: shape, colour, ripeness, smell, taste, texture. The Japanese, for instance, often spend great amounts of time, trouble, and money on preparing and presenting just one perfect piece of fruit – and it is a gift of great significance. It is not just about the food, but about the spiritual aspects of giving, receiving, and consuming such perfection – lifting our spirits, if we manage to lift our consciousness sufficiently to appreciate it all.
Maybe to raise our consciousness to our world is the answer to philosophy’s grand search – to discover “how to best live?”
TO BEST LIVE?
We have already discussed the opportunity life presents to be happy, to enjoy, by allowing spiritual/self evolution. But from the above brief discussion of the necessary conditions of ecstasy, spiritual evolution is what allows us to raise our consciousness – enables us greater enjoyment of life – “to best live”.
But how to raise our consciousness?
There are many ways we can raise our consciousness of life. We can raise our consciousness alone: by meditating; by appreciating beauty when we take a walk through natural beauty (a garden, the bush, along a beach); when we swim in the sea; ride a horse; pedal a bike. Or we can raise our consciousness of life in the company of others: while singing in a choir; playing in a band; working as a team; chatting as a group.
We humans, uniquely among the animals, may have to put up with existential suffering because of our higher consciousness of life (knowledge of our mortality, for example) but we can also consciously seek and enjoy the benefits that higher consciousness can provide as well. Consciousness raising, spiritual evolution, allows us to bring the spiritual factors of the human equation to bear on day-to-day life for our greater enjoyment of it – to best live. Materialists who feel that they can describe the human condition solely in terms of our body are missing the opportunity to best live – doing the equivalent of trying to describe a book only in terms of its paper – you can do it, but you get a very shallow, inadequate description.
Our journey along the Road to Truth has brought us to the point where we have uncovered enough evidence to be able to say that our conclusion about the human equation: Human = Spiritual Self + Body, is credibly established – in a nutshell, to be human is to be a spiritual being with an animal body. But while our sciences have given us a pretty good understanding of humanity’s physical factors, our understanding of the spiritual factor in the human equation is lagging. Such lack of understanding is due in equal measure to the primitiveness of both our religions and our materialist/Darwinian philosophies. Science has also evolved our technologies, leaving us in the dangerous situation we have already remarked on – where our technological evolution is way in advance of our spiritual evolution – we have atom bombs but primitive theisms (many of which feel that Armageddon is their god’s wish) and, equally primitive atheisms (that are, more truly, reactionary anti-theisms).
Both theism and atheism tend to fundamentalism and seem mainly interested in comfort – in winning the argument for their comforting “t” truth, rather than walking along any, potentially unsettling, road to “T” Truth.
TIME FOR A STEP TO THE LEFT?
If theism and atheism are locked in a reactionary scrum which is blocking our path, it is time for a step to the left to get around them. In an effort to obey Buddha’s injunction to go all the way along the road to Truth, we are going to retrace our steps and peer into the labyrinths we encountered but skirted at the beginning of our journey – I refer to the labyrinths that were signposted “Metaphysical” and “Supernatural”.
So far on our expedition we have discovered phenomena that we have called “nonphysical” and “unnatural”, but there are some even more mysterious phenomena – various anomalous things that people tend to lump into a category called “the paranormal”. We are now going to have a peek into that world, which can be a dangerous thing to do – “dangerous” because it is a region which often deals with our deepest fears and our fondest wishes and, as a consequence, tends to attract fraudsters attempting to exploit said fears and wishes for monetary gain and/or their own fame and renown. If we want to emerge from these labyrinths to resume our journey with our rationality intact, we need to be careful – we will attempt to find and stick with reliable guides into the paranormal for our own safety.
· THE PARANORMAL – AN OVERVIEW
Before we enter into the paranormal region to explore it is my impression, to this point of my life, that it is populated by more than its fair share of fraudsters – who attempt to exploit the sadness of the recently bereaved with techniques like “cold calling”, crystal ball “readings”, and rigged séances. It also seems to contain some fraudulent authors writing books cynically designed to sell to needy others. There are also plenty of practitioners in what is more truly the “New Age” movement, rather than the paranormal – usually overly sensitive and emotional people rather than spiritualists. The New Age books, articles, etc. that I have read tend to be full of assertions and fuzzy logic rather than any credible evidence.
I am also aware that psychologists have warned that flirting with the paranormal (for example, with Ouija boards) can be “dangerous” – presumably to your mental health? However, while an open mind is essential, I will try to be led by my wits rather than by my emotions and will always seek the services of good guides – in the shape of experienced and qualified researchers into the paranormal, rather than by exploiters.
Some would ask, given the potential for pitfalls in the paranormal labyrinths, why risk our expedition by doing so?
Basically, if we are going to obey Buddha’s injunction to go all the way along the road to Truth (of the human condition), we have to – because it has become apparent to me that paranormal phenomena are very much a part of the human experience. And if certain claims issuing from paranormal research (like the survival of our nonphysical self/soul/consciousness after bodily death, and/or that the self has many lives with a physical body) are the Truth, then such are potentially of the utmost importance to our philosophical quest for meaning and purpose. Consider this from E.W. MacBride (Professor Imperial College London, 1913-34):
“Unquestionably the truth or fallacy of the theory of the survival of the soul is by far the most tremendous question that can exercise the human mind. The more you think of it, the more all other questions sink into utter significance, for if only survival be true, can the Universe be rationalized at all, because only in this way, and in this alone, can we confront the problem of evil. If survival be not true, then the only possible philosophy is blank pessimism, and the Ruler of the Universe cannot be acquitted of cruelty that would shock any normal man.”
Professor E.W. MacBride FRS
NO PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
I have had no personal experience of the paranormal myself, nor do I have any intention of gaining any – in an effort to keep this exploration neutral and impartial. However, during a long car trip with a friend of mine, we had a conversation about the meaning of life (as you do). He had some very definite ideas that life did have special meaning and, when challenged about how he could be so definite, out poured his amazing story – to do with a past life experience. The story was fantastic, but it was the person telling it that made me take it seriously. I knew him well and he is definitely one of the least excitable, sensitive, emotional people I know – just your typical Aussie “bloke”: bog-standard normal to the point of being boring; a bloke who would rather have chewed his left arm off than make up such a story (or any story). In short he was a plain and genuine person of absolute credibility. All of this, plus the visible effect that telling his story had on him: the deep embarrassment of owning up to such an experience; the extent to which he was moved in the telling of it; the fact that his story (about an encounter with a ghost/spirit from a previous life) left him in a very poor light (his previous incarnation was not a model of rectitude, shall we say) – left me mouth-open, astounded. It was he, not his story, which led me to do some reading into past lives – written by those who had personally experienced evidence of such, by academic researchers, and by sceptics.
I was previously aware of the usual sceptic arguments against the authenticity of paranormal phenomena (past lives being New Age tosh – usually had by actresses who discovered they were princesses in past lives; NDE’s actually being just mental events caused by anesthetics; séances all being clever fakery; etc.) but was amazed by the amount of serious research done in the field of past lives and other paranormal phenomena by medicos, scientists, psychologists, and philosophers – with orthodox academic qualifications. I resolved to stick with such credible and qualified people as my guides into the controversial field paranormal field. What follows is largely based on their work.
But first we will consider the objections against entering the paranormal arena at all. These are mainly from religious and materialist fundamentalists – residents of the House of God and the House of Disbelief – the paranormal being injurious to the comforts of both.
OBJECTIONS BY RELIGIONS
Many religions strongly attack the paranormal as being dodgy, and prohibit their members from entering therein. However, religions that object to the paranormal being explored should consider that their House of God is founded upon paranormal phenomena. For example, the Christian House of God only exists today because of three paranormal events: the reappearance of Jesus after his death; the epiphany of Paul; Constantine’s vision before the battle of Milvian Bridge. Similarly, the Jewish religion has foundational paranormal events in Moses’ parting of the Red Sea; a talking burning bush; clay tablets appearing out of thin air inscribed with the Commandments. The Muslim religion begins with the Angel Gabriel inscribing the will of God on Muhammad’s heart – which he recited as the Qur’an.
Generally, the objections from our Houses of God are based on the fear that their doctrines may be shaken – and their power lessened. We need to see if that is the case – who knows, maybe some religious beliefs might be strengthened – like the existence of a God, a heaven, survival of the soul?
OBJECTIONS BY SCEPTICS
As well as many well-qualified supporters of the authenticity of paranormal phenomena, there are also many well-qualified Sceptics of the paranormal. Such usually argue that the paranormal shouldn’t be taken seriously because it just about folks seeking comfort from the fear of death and meaninglessness. But, as we considered in Essay 2 which examined the House of Disbelief, it must be remembered that disbelief in any afterlife or special meaning to life also meets the fears and wishes of many people. Also fundamentalist “S” Sceptics regard anyone successfully publishing in the paranormal field as automatically discredited because they have made money and gathered fame – although professional “S” Sceptics/paranormal “debunkers” also make money and gather renown through their publications. Further, as we also saw in Essay 2, academic philosophy has become the handmaiden of scientism – anything which cannot be proven by our physical sciences using the scientific method cannot be seriously considered – thus any paranormal evidence is confronted by closed minds.
That said, while a closed academic mind is a waste of time (and a good brain), a healthy scepticism must be maintained when exploring paranormal realms – to go in wide-eyed, rather than open-eyed, is to risk being made a fool of because there are plenty of fraudsters. So, before we plunge in, let’s recognise some of the potential risks the paranormal poses to the credibility of our expedition.
RISKS AND DANGERS TO OUR JOURNEY OF ENTERING THE PARANORMAL?
Mainly we have to be careful of the many fraudsters who tend to populate the paranormal. Such often prey on the many needy, therefore vulnerable, people who go into paranormal areas for answers to life’s problems and/or for comfort (especially after a bereavement). I’m sure we have all seen those shows where supposed mediums expertly work audiences with “cold reading” techniques which rely on general statements guaranteed to always hit a mark somewhere in an audience comprised largely of the bereaved: “I’m hearing from someone who has recently departed – I feel chest pains, and am aware of someone trying to communicate whose name starts with “B” …etc., etc.”. However Sceptics imply that, in revealing some supposedly psychic mediums as being actually fraudulent, such is sufficient evidence to declare all mediums to be fraudulent. This is similar logic to denying the possibility of any God and all special meaning when religions’ gods and special meanings are shown to be incredible.
And we also have to be careful of ourselves – we have to be careful that our expedition towards Truth is not sidetracked by confirmation bias – seeing the Truth in any thing which confirms our personal biases (our comforting personal “t” truths) and/or meets our personal needs (comfort from our deepest fears of death, judgement, hell, nonexistence etc.) and/or meets our fondest wishes (eternal life, reuniting with loved ones, paradise, etc.). That said, we also need to recognise that while “s” scepticism is necessary, “S” Scepticism is also comforting and can equally lead us into confirmation bias (or should that be disconfirmation bias?).
So, keeping the above in mind – bravely onwards we forge along our road to Truth – in search for our first “white crow”!?
A WHITE CROW?
While there is no doubt there are many fraudulent operators in the paranormal, this proves nothing more than caution should be taken. Even if it can be established that the majority of “psychic” operators are fraudulent (probably quite likely?) must this prove that the whole area is necessarily fraudulent – and establish that we must not go there in search of Truth? William James (1842-1910) was, as the founder of the Pragmatic School of psychology and thereby the father of psychology as a science, certainly no hysteric. He gave the paranormal some credibility by studying it and – while recognising that there was fraudulence in the field – if one single medium could be established as delivering Truth by paranormal means, then not all paranormal operators are frauds and the field needs to be taken seriously. James used the following analogy:
“...a universal proposition can be made untrue by a particular instance. If you wish to upset the law that all crows are black...it is enough if you prove one single crow to be white.”
“The Will To Believe”, (Dover, 1956) P. 319
So, can any paranormal claims be established as the Truth? That’s what we will examine, below, when we consider the research.
INCREASINGLY OBJECTIVE RESEARCH BY GENUINE RESEARCHERS
Since James’ era, and especially over the last 50 years, several academic, objective and scientific researchers have entered the paranormal field (some preferring the term “parapsychology” in an effort to keep their jobs in an academia largely dominated by religious or materialist fundamentalisms). Many of these researchers are of established credibility a