Depression and spiritual awakening -- two sides of one door | Lisa Miller | TEDxTeachersCollege
Published on Jul 24, 2014
This talk was given at a local TEDx event, produced independently of the TED Conferences. Is depression, as most of us experience it, meaningless suffering? Dr. Lisa Miller presents research that lends meaning to the experience of depression and to our experience on planet Earth.
Dr. Lisa Miller is perhaps the world’s foremost expert in the relative study of psychology and spirituality. Dr. Miller is Professor and Director of Clinical Psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University, where she founded and currently directs the Spirituality and Mind-Body Institute, to innovate, disseminate, and train healers in foundationally spiritual treatments.
Laozi and Quantum Physics – Shantena Augusto Sabbadini
Theoretical Physicist Sabbadini presents the quandary of Quantum Mechanics, and draws illumination from Tao Te Ching. Ancient and primitive cultures conceived the whole cosmos as alive and sentient. The mainstream current of our culture has moved towards an ever greater separation of matter and mind and today’s dominant scientific world view is based on an essentially materialistic representation of reality, in which consciousness is considered an epiphenomenon of purely material process. Yet it can be argued that the obstinate persistence of the so called measurement problem in quantum physics is a symptom pointing to the need to radically rethink the way in which we represent reality. This talk proposes an understanding of the quantum measurement process in which the embodied nature of the observer plays an essential role. And it will show an amazing congruence between this world view and the cosmology outlined in the first chapter of Laozi’s Daodejing. Dr. Sabbadini spoke at SAND15 Italy - See more at:
MHI in address to the convocation at McMaster University 1987 stated:
"And that takes us to the other side of the coin - and to the reality that will, in the coming decades, define the character of the Aga Khan University and Hospital. The great bulk of the seven million people of Karachi, and the hundred million people of Pakistan, are not ruled by the assumptions of science. Their lives are bounded by family, tradition and belief. These are people who are our patients, who receive our community health services. We most earnestly hope that they are also the people who will provide our young nurses and doctors. To reach them, to have truly effective medical and health care, the Aga Khan University and Hospital must do things the west, and science, probably cannot teach us. Perhaps such joint efforts as those we conduct with McMaster may lead to innovations that we can share with the world. Think of our task on several levels: - the level of the individual, the critically ill, poor Pakistani patient, lying in the antiseptic environment of a ward, where he is tended by instruments and a crisp, educated nurse. But, we increasing ask ourselves, what combination of family members to serve and hearten him, food he recognizes, even music and TV in his Sindi or Urdu tradition will humanize his environment? Most importantly, what attitudes and cultural understandings of the nursing and medical staff will give him heart and hasten his recovery? Can such inputs even provide economies, and bring the cost of modern medical care more easily within his means? How do we build these understandings and attitudes in our systems and training and service?"
Below is an article on how music can help recovery...
In Turkey, Sufi music is used to decrease patient stress
The intensive care unit of Istanbul Memorial Hospital looks like any modern hospital anywhere. But it definitely doesn’t sound like one.
Dr. Bingür Sönmez, a cardiac surgeon for more than 30 years, plays traditional Sufi songs on the ney flute for his patients.
"What we are doing in intensive care, we are playing Sufi music to our patients to calm down, to make them feel much better,” he said.
Sufism is a mystic branch of Islam whose traditional music is popular among Turks. Sönmez said five centuries ago when Europeans were burning people alive for having mental illnesses, healers in the Ottoman Empire had a different approach.
“In this country, in Ottoman Empire times, we used to treat psychiatric patients with music in hospitals, in local hospitals,” Sönmez said. “So what we are doing is the same.”
After a short performance for one patient, anesthesiologist Erol Can said the patient's heart rate decreased by 15 percent. According to Can, musical therapy has scientific backing. He says the hospital conducted a study of 22 patients and measured their stress levels on a scale of one to 10. Their stress went down from an average of seven to three after a 20-minute musical performance.
“We recorded heart rate, systolic and diastolic blood pressure, respiratory rate and oxygen delivery, the oxygen saturation of the blood. Every parameter was better after this 20 minutes,” Can said.
The impact of music on anxiety is well documented by doctors and researchers. Neuroscientist Damir Janigro at Cleveland Clinic conducted a study demonstrating the calming effects of melodic music on patients undergoing brain surgery.
"With the right music," Janigro said, "patients can be more relaxed in the operating room. And that relaxation may mean not only that procedures involve less medication — to control blood pressure, which increases with stress — but perhaps that patients have quicker recovery times and shorter hospital stays."
But while Janigro uses an iPod to provide music to patients in his study, Sönmez and Can play live music to mimic traditional therapy practices.
The doctors use different makams, classical Turkish melodies, to treat specific conditions.
“That makam makes you sleepy, it’s a real meditation music,” Sönmez said. “So it's good to listen to when you go to bed. If you listen to this makam when you are waking up in the morning, you won’t be able to get out of the bed.”
There are makams that can help with other conditions as well. One supposedly increases your appetite, another can help you lose weight. The music has significant health results, the doctors say. But while they sing the praises of music therapy, they stress it’s a compliment — not a replacement — for conventional medicine.
The world is incomprehensible.
We won't ever understand it;
we won't ever unravel its secrets.
Thus we must treat the world as it is:
a sheer mystery.
- Carlos Castaneda
God is not what you imagine,
or what you think you understand.
If you understand you have failed.
- Saint Augustine
Wonder what opportunities you pass, unwittingly,
because your hands are so busy clasping
what you think you have always known.
- Mary Anne Radmacher
Today is a good day to look around at the grandeur of creation.
Whether flower or cactus, butterfly or caterpillar, elk or lizard,
vegetable garden or compost pile.
Our world is magnificent - all of it.
Rejoice and give thanks for all of life.
- Jonathan Lockwood Huie
Notice the Beauty - Daily Inspiration
Life is full of beauty. Notice it.
Notice the bumble bee, the small child,
and the smiling faces.
Smell the rain, and feel the wind.
Live your life to the fullest potential,
and fight for your dreams.
- Ashley Smith
Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.
- Franz Kafka
Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful,
we must carry it with us or we find it not.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Pause to appreciate the beauty around you.
Whether rainbow or butterfly, mountain or tree, painting or poem -
whether crafted by nature or by a human hand -
beauty adds a magical element to life that surpasses logic and science.
- Jonathan Lockwood Huie
"A central element in a truly religious outlook, it seems to me, is the quality of personal humility -- a recognition that strive as we might, we will still fall short of our ideals, that climb as we might, there will still be unexplored and mysterious peaks above us. It means recognising our own creaturehood, and thus our human limitations."
.....Mawlana Hazar Imam
.....Address to the Evora University Symposium, ‘Cosmopolitan Society, Human Safety and Rights in Plural and Peaceful Societies’
.....12 February 2006
"In acknowledging the immensity of The Divine, we will also come to acknowledge our human limitations, the incomplete nature of human understanding.”
.....Mawlana Hazar Imam
.....10th Annual LaFontaine-Baldwin Lecture,
Institute for Canadian Citizenship, ‘Pluralism’, and apres lecture conversation with John Ralston Saul
.....15 October 2010
"I have always shown tremendous attachment to Ibadat. I have maintained their social-economical uplift and given them lots of schools and other things. These worldly things we have done to give good position for Jamat, make their lives easy, also to have top highly qualified people in our Jamat. But most important is that they should have spiritual background. They should be able, to maintain this against high secular education, this is our whole conception. Then, they should realize that Western science is just insignificant. Through Ibadat, they would be able to reconcile their faith with these things. Without this, they would lose faith. With Ibadat, they would be able to stand against the new discoveries by science."(Guidance of Hazar Imam given during the holy audience granted to Prof. Jawad and Hon. Waez Raï Kassamali M.J. on the 4th and 5th of May 1965, Paris).
"The Divine Intellect, Aql-i Kull, both transcends and informs the human intellect. It is this Intellect which enables man to strive towards two aims dictated by the faith: that he should reflect upon the environment Allah has given him and that he should know himself. It is the Light of the Intellect which distinguishes the complete human being from the human animal, and developing that intellect requires free inquiry. The man of faith, who fails to pursue intellectual search is likely to have only a limited comprehension of Allah's creation. Indeed, it is man's intellect that enables him to expand his vision of that creation." - (Aga Khan IV, AKU Convocation Speech, Karachi, Pakistan, November 11, 1985)
“We will show them Our Signs in the universe, and in their own selves, until it becomes manifest to them that this is the truth” [Fussilat 41:53]
aad thakee ek soon nipaayaa
tare soon ma(n)thee shabda neepaayaa
jugesar jog kaa maram koi na jaanne
jog kaa maram jugesar jaanne...........................jogkaa.....1
In the beginning a void(nihilistic) was created, from it the word
(guarded tablet, prophetic light) was created.O true worshipper,
nobody understands the inner mysteries of faith except a true yogi
The above messages are captured in the video presentation below.
A Radical Approach to the Exploration of Consciousness.
For centuries, theologians and philosophers have proposed a wide range of hypotheses concerning the nature of consciousness without reaching any consensus. Over the past 140 years, cognitive scientists have likewise proposed a diverse array of definitions attempting to solve the mind-body problem.
It is very important that the Waezin who are carrying on the big work of the Ashab at the time and immediately after the Holy Prophet's leaving this mortal world to the Companionship on High are doing so under the pressure of the modern world which is more necessary than ever it was in the past and I wish them every success. The young Waezin should each try and find new arguments based on the discoveries in all branches of science for keeping the human soul like the ocean with Divine wisdom and power."(MSMS, Cairo, 6th February, 1956)
Dolce Hayes Mansion in San Jose, CA
Wednesday October 19 – Sunday October 23, 2016
Pre-conference Workshops: October 19-20, 2016
Main Conference: October 20-23, 2016
I do not negate the world; I see it appearing in consciousness, which is the totality of the known in the immensity of the unknown.
- Nisargadatta Maharaj
What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility. This is a genuinely religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism.
- Albert Einstein
Both science and spirituality reflect the human urge to know – that perennial itch to make sense of the world and who we are. This search is an essential part of being human. We live life supported by knowledge. However, the larger our knowledge the larger the shore of the unknown becomes.
We probe reality the best we can with our tools of understanding: structures, models, theories, myths, beliefs, teachings, etc. These tools of understanding also define the limits our knowledge. Is it possible to go beyond the limits of our tools? And what would it take?
This year at SAND we will explore that edge where knowledge meets the unknown and the unknowable. We will navigate that space where something else takes over – call it intuition, deeper knowing, trust, surrender – a place from which new discoveries in science and realizations in spirituality become possible. What is the horizon of our current knowledge, and where are we expanding the edge of the unknown?
What if science and spirituality, while responding to our collective aspiration to grow as a species in a world filled with mystery and wonder, would no longer need to carry the burden of having all the answers? What if our search is considered open-ended, rather then having to arrive at a grand theory of life or at a final state of enlightenment? What if, while we probe deeper into reality and who we are, we realize that the knowledge we gather is just a stepping-stone and not the arrival at a final destination?
"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the Mysterious."
When President Barack Obama nominated the Christian geneticist Francis Collins to head the National Institutes of Health in 2009, some American scientists questioned whether someone who professed a strong belief in God was qualified to lead the largest biomedical research agency in the world.
This argument -- that scientific inquiry is essentially incompatible with religious belief -- has been gaining traction in some circles in recent years. In fact, according to a 2009 Pew Research Center survey, American scientists are about half as likely as the general public to believe in God or a higher, universal power. Still, the survey found that the percentage of scientists that believe in some form of a deity or power was higher than you may think -- 51 percent.
Scientists throughout history have relied on data and observations to make sense of the world. But there are still some really big questions about the universe that science can't easily explain: Where did matter come from? What is consciousness? And what makes us human?
In the past, this quest for understanding has given scientists both past and present plenty of opportunities for experiencing wonder and awe. That's because at their core, both science and religion require some kind of leap of faith -- whether it's belief in multiverses or belief in a personal God.
In chronological order, here's a glimpse into what some of the world's greatest scientists thought about the possibility of a higher power.
1. Galileo Galilei (1564 - 1642)
The astronomer and scientist Galileo Galilei was famously convicted of heresy by the Roman Catholic Church for supporting the theory that the planets revolved around the sun. In private letters, he confirmed that his beliefs hadn't changed.
Writing to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany, Galileo criticized philosophers of his time who blindly valued Biblical authority over scientific evidence.
"I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason and intellect has intended us to forego their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them. He would not require us to deny sense and reason in physical matters which are set before our eyes and minds by direct experience or necessary demonstrations."
2 Sir Francis Bacon (1561 - 1626)
Known as the founder of the scientific method, Sir Francis Bacon believed that gathering and analyzing data in an organized way was essential to scientific progress. An Anglican, Bacon believed in the existence of God.
In an essay on atheism, Bacon wrote:
"God never wrought miracle to convince atheism, because his ordinary works convince it. It is true, that a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion. For while the mind of man looketh upon second causes scattered, it may sometimes rest in them, and go no further; but when it beholdeth the chain of them, confederate and linked together, it must needs fly to Providence and Deity."
3 Charles Darwin (1809 - 1882)
Charles Darwin is best known for his theory of evolution. On the question of God, Darwin admitted in letters to friends that his feelings often fluctuated. He had a hard time believing that an omnipotent God would have created a world filled with so much suffering. But at the same time, he wasn't content to conclude that this "wonderful universe" was the result of "brute force." If he pressed for a label, he wrote that the term "agnostic" would fit him best.
In an 1873 letter to Dutch writer Nicolaas Dirk Doedes, Darwin wrote:
"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. I am aware that if we admit a first cause, the mind still craves to know whence it came and how it arose. Nor can I overlook the difficulty from the immense amount of suffering through the world. I am, also, induced to defer to a certain extent to the judgment of the many able men who have fully believed in God; but here again I see how poor an argument this is. The safest conclusion seems to be that the whole subject is beyond the scope of man's intellect; but man can do his duty."
4 Maria Mitchell (1818 - 1889)
Maria Mitchell was America's first female astronomer and the first woman to be named to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She was born into a Quaker family, but began to question her denomination's teachings in her twenties. She was eventually disowned from membership and for the rest of her life, didn't put much importance on church doctrines or attendance. Instead, she was a religious seeker who pursued a simpler sort of faith.
After hearing a minister preach about the dangers of science, Mitchell wrote:
"Scientific investigations, pushed on and on, will reveal new ways in which God works, and bring us deeper revelations of the wholly unknown."
5 Marie Curie (1867 - 1934)
SCIENCE SOURCE via Getty Images
Marie Curie, a physicist, was brought up in the Catholic faith, but reportedly became agnostic in her teens. She went on to become the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. Both Marie and her husband Pierre Curie did not follow any specific religion.
She is quoted as saying:
"Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less."
6 Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)
Albert Einstein, one of the most well-known physicists of the 20th century, was born into a secular Jewish family. As an adult, he tried to avoid religious labels, rejecting the idea of a "personal God," but at the same time, separating himself from "fanatical atheists" whom he believed were unable to hear "the music of the spheres."
In a 1954 essay for NPR, Einstein wrote:
"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the Mysterious — the knowledge of the existence of something unfathomable to us, the manifestation of the most profound reason coupled with the most brilliant beauty. I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, or who has a will of the kind we experience in ourselves. I am satisfied with the mystery of life's eternity and with the awareness of — and glimpse into — the marvelous construction of the existing world together with the steadfast determination to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature. This is the basics of cosmic religiosity, and it appears to me that the most important function of art and science is to awaken this feeling among the receptive and keep it alive."
7 Rosalind Franklin (1920 - 1958)
UNIVERSAL HISTORY ARCHIVE VIA GETTY IMAGES
Rosalind Franklin, who helped pioneer the use of X-ray diffraction, was born into a Jewish family in London. In letters to her father, Franklin made it clear that she seriously doubted the existence of an all powerful creator, or life after death.
When her father accused her of making science her religion, Franklin told him that she had a different definition of faith:
"In my view, all that is necessary for faith is the belief that by doing our best we shall come nearer to success and that success in our aims (the improvement of the lot of mankind, present and future) is worth attaining. Anyone able to believe in all that religion implies obviously must have such faith, but I maintain that faith in this world is perfectly possible without faith in another world...I see no reason to believe that a creator of protoplasm or primeval matter, if such there be, has any reason to be interested in our insignificant race in a tiny corner of the universe, and still less in us, as still more insignificant individuals."
8 Carl Sagan (1934 - 1996)
Astronomer Carl Sagan is best known for hosting the TV series "Cosmos." He rejected the label of "atheist" because he was open to the possibility that science would perhaps one day find compelling evidence to prove God. Nevertheless, he thought that the likelihood of that happening was very small. Instead, Sagan talked about "spirituality" as something that happens within the realm of material world, when humans encounter nature and are filled with awe.
In his book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Sagan writes:
"Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual."
9 Stephen Hawking (Born 1942)
After years of hinting at it, physicist Stephen Hawking confirmed to the press in 2014 that he was an atheist. Hawkings doesn't believe in a heaven or an afterlife and says that the miracles of religion "aren't compatible" with science.
In an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, Hawking said:
"Before we understood science, it was natural to believe that God created the universe, but now science offers a more convincing explanation."
10 Venkatraman Ramakrishnan (Born 1952)
Venkatraman Ramakrishnan was born in an ancient town in Tamil Nadu, India, that is known for its famous temple dedicated to the Hindu deity Shiva. A physicist and molecular biologist, Ramakrishnan was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his research on ribosomes. While many Hindus consider astrology to be an important Vedic science and schedule life events around the movements of the stars, Ramakrishnan has spoken out against this practice in the past. He believes astrology evolved from humans' desire to search for "patterns, generalize and believe.
In an interview with the Hindustan Times, he said:
"There is no scientific basis for how movement of planets and stars can influence our fate. There is no reason for time of birth to influence events years later. The predictions made are either obvious or shown to be random ... A culture based on superstitions will do worse than one based on scientific knowledge and rational thoughts.”
11 Neil deGrasse Tyson (Born 1958)
Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist and a popular television science expert. He told The Huffington Post thathe isn't convinced by religious arguments about the existence of a "Judeo-Christian" god that is all-powerful and all-good, especially when he observes the death and suffering caused by natural disasters. Still, he told Big Think that while he's often "claimed by atheists," he's actually more of an agnostic.
In Death By Black Hole, a collection of science essays, Tyson writes:
"So you're made of detritus [from exploded stars]. Get over it. Or better yet, celebrate it. After all, what nobler thought can one cherish than that the universe lives within us all?"
12 Francis Collins (Born 1960)
Francis Collins is the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In a 2007 book about the intersection between science and faith, Collins described how he converted from atheism to Christianity and attempts to argue that the idea of a Christian God is compatible with Darwin's theory of evolution.
In an essay for CNN, Collins writes:
"I have found there is a wonderful harmony in the complementary truths of science and faith. The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. God can be found in the cathedral or in the laboratory. By investigating God's majestic and awesome creation, science can actually be a means of worship."
Today in history: Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah’s Platinum Jubilee Address in Cairo
Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah with Mata Salamat and Prince Aly Khan at the Platinum Jubilee commemoration in Cairo (Photo: Ilm, Centenary Issue, November 1977)
“On this unique occasion when you make this wonderful offering of platinum and its equivalent as an unconditional gift, I must immediately tell you that I give it to the Diamond Jubilee Investment Trust as further addition to its capital. You have referred to my seventy years Imamat which, indeed, is unique in the history of the 48 Ismaili Imams by its long duration, but also it began in another world, the world of horse carriages and candle lights, and today we are in the world of nuclear power, physics, jet air-travel and serious discussion amongst the most learned as to how and when we can visit the stars and the moon.
But, as I have explained in my Memoirs for the whole world to understand there are two worlds – the world of material intelligence and the world of spiritual enlightenment. The world of spiritual enlightenment is fundamentally different from the world of material intellectualism and it is the pride of the Ismailis that we firmly believe that the world of spiritual enlightenment has come as a truth from the inception of Islam to this day with the Imamat and carries with it as one of its necessary consequences love, tenderness, kindliness and gentleness towards first, our brother and sister Muslims of all sects and, secondly, to those who live in righteousness, conscience and justice towards their fellow men. These religious principles of Ismailism are well known to you for you have heard them from me and through your fathers and grandfathers and from my father and grandfather until I fear that by long familiarity with these teachings some of you forget the necessity of re-examination of your heart and religious experience.
But, as I started by telling you, there is also the world of matter and intellect which go side by side with reason and deductive and inductive powers. I have never, as you say in your own address, neglected to encourage schools and universities, and by welfare societies for the health of children, maternity, and more and more up to date needs that you may have, as far as it is possible in the areas in which you live, to get both mental and physical training that will make you capable of meeting the more and more difficult conditions of life and competition.”
Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan III
Address at the Platinum Jubilee Ceremony, Cairo, Egypt
February 20, 1955
Harvard MRI Study Proves Meditation Literally Rebuilds Brain’s Gray Matter In 8 Weeks
A study conducted by a Harvard affiliated team out of Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) came across surprising conclusions regarding the tangible effects of meditation on human brain structure. An 8 week program of mindfulness meditation produced MRI scans for the first time showing clear evidence that meditation produces “massive changes” in brain gray matter.
Study senior author Sara Lazar of the MGH Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program (as well as a Harvard Medical School instructor in psychology) stated that meditation practitioners aren’t just feeling better. They are literally undergoing changes in brain structure that create the associated sustained boosts in positive and relaxed feelings.
Fellow MGH researcher Sue McGreevey notes that previous studies by Lazar’s group found structural differences in the brains of meditation practitioners compared to those with no prior experience most notably in the thickening of the cerebral cortex; the area responsible for attention and emotional integration. These prior studies, however could not narrow down the structural differences to meditation specifically until now.
This most recent study found that an average of 27 minutes of a daily practice of mindfulness exercises stimulated a significant boost in gray matter density, specifically in the hippocampus; the area of the brain in which self-awareness, compassion, and introspection are associated. Furthermore, this boost of gray matter density in the hippocampus was also directly correlational to a decreased gray matter density in the amygdala; an area of the brain known to be instrumental in regulating anxiety and stress responses. In stark contrast, the control group did not have any changes occur in either region of the brain thus ruling out merely the passage of time as a factor of influence regarding the drastic change in gray matter density fluctuations.
MGH fellow out of Glessen University in Germany, Britta Hölzel, states that neuroscientists are finding far more plasitidity in brain structure than anticipated and that most importantly we are now aware from a scientific point of view that we can play a very active role in altering our brain structure to improve our overall well-being and quality of life.
When Einstein Met Tagore: A Remarkable Meeting of Minds on the Edge of Science and Spirituality
Collision and convergence in Truth and Beauty.
Albert Einstein in Conversation with Rabindranath Tagore
Rabindranath Tagore visited Einstein’s house in Caputh, near Berlin, on July 14, 1930. The discussion between the two great men was recorded, and was subsequently published in the January, 1931 issue of Modern Review.
TAGORE: You have been busy, hunting down with mathematics, the two ancient entities, time and space, while I have been lecturing in this country on the eternal world of man, the universe of reality.
EINSTEIN: Do you believe in the divine isolated from the world?
TAGORE: Not isolated. The infinite personality of man comprehends the universe. There cannot be anything that cannot be subsumed by the human personality, and this proves that the truth of the universe is human truth.
EINSTEIN: There are two different conceptions about the nature of the universe—the world as a unity dependent on humanity, and the world as reality independent of the human factor.
TAGORE: When our universe is in harmony with man, the eternal, we know it as truth, we feel it as beauty.
EINSTEIN: This is a purely human conception of the universe.
TAGORE: The world is a human world — the scientific view of it is also that of the scientific man. Therefore, the world apart from us does not exist; it is a relative world, depending for its reality upon our consciousness. There is some standard of reason and enjoyment which gives it truth, the standard of the eternal man whose experiences are made possible through our experiences.
EINSTEIN: This is a realization of the human entity.
TAGORE: Yes, one eternal entity. We have to realize it through our emotions and activities. We realize the supreme man, who has no individual limitations, through our limitations.
Science is concerned with that which is not confined to individuals; it is the impersonal human world of truths. Religion realizes these truths and links them up with our deeper needs. Our individual consciousness of truth gains universal significance. Religion applies values to truth, and we know truth as good through own harmony with it.
EINSTEIN: Truth, then, or beauty, is not independent of man?
TAGORE: No, I do not say so.
EINSTEIN: If there were no human beings any more, the Apollo Belvedere no longer would be beautiful?
EINSTEIN: I agree with this conception of beauty, but not with regard to truth.
TAGORE: Why not? Truth is realized through men.
EINSTEIN: I cannot prove my conception is right, but that is my religion.
TAGORE: Beauty is in the ideal of perfect harmony, which is in the universal being; truth is the perfect comprehension of the universal mind. We individuals approach it through our own mistakes and blunders, through our accumulated experience, through our illumined consciousness. How otherwise can we know truth?
EINSTEIN: I cannot prove, but I believe in the Pythagorean argument, that the truth is independent of human beings. It is the problem of the logic of continuity.
TAGORE : Truth, which is one with the universal being, must be essentially human; otherwise, whatever we individuals realize as true, never can be called truth. At least, the truth which is described as scientific and which only can be reached through the process of logic—in other words, by an organ of thought which is human. According to the Indian philosophy there is Brahman, the absolute truth, which cannot be conceived by the isolation of the individual mind or described by words, but can be realized only by merging the individual in its infinity. But
such a truth cannot belong to science. The nature of truth which we are discussing is an appearance; that is to say, what appears to be true to the human mind, and therefore is human, and may be called maya, or illusion.
EINSTEIN: It is no illusion of the individual, but of the species.
TAGORE: The species also belongs to a unity, to humanity. Therefore the entire human mind realizes truth; the Indian and the European mind meet in a common realization.
EINSTEIN: The word species is used in German for all human beings; as a matter of fact, even the apes and the frogs would belong to it. The problem is whether truth is independent of our consciousness.
TAGORE: What we call truth lies in the rational harmony between the subjective and objective aspects of reality, both of which belong to the superpersonal man.
EINSTEIN: We do things with our mind, even in our everyday life, for which we are not responsible. The mind acknowledges realities outside of it, independent of it. For instance, nobody may be in this house, yet that table remains where it is.
TAGORE: Yes, it remains outside the individual mind, but not the universal mind. The table is that which is perceptible by some kind of consciousness we possess.
EINSTEIN: If nobody were in the house the table would exist all the same, but this is already illegitimate from your point of view, because we cannot explain what it means, that the table is there, independently of us. Our natural point of view in regard to the existence of truth apart from humanity cannot be explained or proved, but it is a belief which nobody can lack—not even primitive beings. We attribute to truth a superhuman objectivity. It is indispensable for us—this reality which is independent of our existence and our experience and our mind—though we cannot
say what it means.
TAGORE: Science has proved that the table as a solid object is an appearance and therefore that which the human mind perceives as a table would not exist if that mind were naught. At the same time it must be admitted that the fact, that the ultimate physical reality is nothing but a multitude of separate revolving centres of electric force, also belongs to the human mind.
In the apprehension of Truth there is an eternal conflict between the universal human mind and the same mind confined in the individual. The perpetual process of reconciliation is being carried on in our science, philosophy, in our ethics. In any case, if there be any Truth absolutely unrelated to humanity then for us it is absolutely non-existing.
It is not difficult to imagine a mind to which the sequence of things happens not in space but only in time like the sequence of notes in music. For such a mind such conception of reality is akin to the musical reality in which Pythagorean geometry can have no meaning. There is the reality of paper, infinitely different from the reality of literature. For the kind of mind possessed by the moth which eats that paper literature is absolutely non-existent, yet for Man’s mind literature has a greater value of Truth than the paper itself. In a similar manner if there be some Truth which has no sensuous or rational relation to the human mind, it will ever remain as nothing so long as we remain human beings.
EINSTEIN: Then I am more religious than you are!
TAGORE: My religion is in the reconciliation of the superpersonal man, the universal spirit, in my own individual being.
Rovelli portrays the universe as a strange place where space-time, the present, the past and the future are illusions, and his unfolding of the mystery and the beauty of the universe is breathtaking.
In “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics,” Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli talks about modern science in a way we used to call “Physics for Poets.” There’s more to that facetious label than you might think, since Rovelli’s translators, Simon Carnell and Erica Segre, are poets. In lessons that are simple and beautiful, Rovelli explains how we use science to better understand the world and to begin to understand how much we don’t know. We delight when our theories are confirmed. Such a confirmation was the February discovery of the gravitational waves predicted by Einstein, but until now unobserved.
Rovelli gracefully eases us into thinking about our existence in a relatively strange world described by Einstein’s general theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, quantum gravity, the structure of the expanding cosmos, and tiny elementary particles, in ways that are as lucid, elegant and beautiful as the scientific theories themselves. He describes those theories one lesson at a time, giving a brief not-too-technical explanation, and using only a few simple drawings and photographs, often preferring to refer to Shakespeare, God or Homer to make a point. And he gives us but one equation: Rab – ½ R gab = Tab.
But he says it’s unnecessary to master it and compares its “rarefied beauty” to a Beethoven string quartet. In the seventh lesson, he brings the science and the lyricism of physics together when he contemplates how we fit into the universe, quoting several lines from the ancient Roman poet Lucretius.
Einstein’s general theory of relativity describes the curvature of space and time, but to Rovelli it’s a jewel whose brilliance he rightly likens to masterpieces such as Homer’s “Odyssey” and Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” Rovelli writes, “the theory describes a colorful and amazing world where universes explode, space collapses into bottomless holes, time sags and slows near a planet, and the unbounded extensions of interstellar space ripple and sway like the surface of the sea….” Those ripples are the same waves that Einstein predicted and whose existence now is confirmed by LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory). Similar to electromagnetic waves, they are ripples of space itself.
The general theory of relativity is one of the pillars of modern science. Quantum mechanics is the other. Instead of depicting large entities like space and time, quantum mechanics looks at the smallest particles. Rovelli simplifies quantum mechanics, “where the most baffling aspect of modern physics lurk,” one aspect being that electrons only exist “when they are interacting with something else.”
After a lesson on the largest and smallest wonders of the universe, Rovelli focuses on the architecture of the cosmos, the “dance of the planets,” and other celestial objects born, like us, “from the same celestial seed,” as Lucretius wrote.
That’s followed by another lesson on microscopic particles. Whereas light is made of particles called photons, the tiny elementary particles that make up atoms consist of electrons, neutrons, proton, quarks and gluons. Along with photons, neutrinos and Higgs bosons, those elementary ingredients “act like bricks in a gigantic Lego set.” An intricate theory based on quantum mechanics called “the Standard Model of particle physics” works well, despite its inelegance, at describing the world around us. It was confirmed in 2013 with the discovery of the Higgs boson. Because of the theory’s ungainliness compared to, say, the beauty of Einstein’s theory, other more elegant but less reliable theories have been proposed but were “not to the good Lord’s liking.”
Although general relativity and quantum mechanics have transformed technology and our lives, the theories contradict each other. So, it falls to quantum gravity to find a unified theory, a set of equations that presents “a coherent vision of the world.”
Ultimately, Rovelli portrays the universe as a strange place where space-time, the present, the past and the future are illusions, and his unfolding of the mystery and the beauty of the universe is breathtaking. -
Everything you need to know about modern physics, the universe and your place in the world in seven enlightening lessons
'Here, on the edge of what we know, in contact with the ocean of the unknown, shines the mystery and the beauty of the world. And it's breathtaking'
These seven short lessons guide us, with simplicity and clarity, through the scientific revolution that shook physics in the twentieth century and still continues to shake us today. In this beautiful and mind-bending introduction to modern physics, Carlo Rovelli explains Einstein's theory of general relativity, quantum mechanics, black holes, the complex architecture of the universe, elementary particles, gravity, and the nature of the mind. In under eighty pages, readers will understand the most transformative scientific discoveries of the twentieth century and what they mean for us. Not since Richard Feynman's celebrated best-seller Six Easy Pieces has physics been so vividly, intelligently and entertainingly revealed.
The De Chardin Project: Searching for the missing link between religion and science
J. KELLY NESTRUCK
The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2014 11:57AM EST
Last updated Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2014 12:08PM EST
The De Chardin Project, a thoughtful new play made exquisite thanks to sensitive, soulful direction by Alan Dilworth, aims to find the missing link between religion and science.
Playwright Adam Seybold digs for it in the life and works of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), a Jesuit priest and paleontologist who was part of the excavation team working on the Peking man site in the 1920s and 1930s making discoveries that shored up the theories of human evolution.
"Stickboy" portrays school bullying and is based on the life of poet Shane Koyczan. Composer Neil Weisensel says the opera's music is just as adventurous as the story.
Upon entry into Theatre Passe Muraille, de Chardin (Cyrus Lane) is found lying face-down on the stage – here transformed into an elevated platform full of secret compartments by designer Lorenzo Savoini.
As de Chardin regains consciousness (and the play begins), a mysterious woman (Maev Beaty) greets him with a series of riddles; he is having a cerebral hemorrhage and she is there to excavate the layers his life before he dies, revisiting key moments in the development of his ideas about the intersection of spirituality and science that would eventually be posthumously published in his bestselling book, The Phenomenon of Man.
These formational events include participating in paleontological digs in Egypt as a young man; his time as a stretcher-bearer during the First World War; and his eventual exile to China after becoming persona non grata in Rome due to his controversial writings about Original Sin.
In Beijing, de Chardin also meets an artist and divorcée named Lucile Swan – and the play develops a brief interest in matters of flesh and blood. But Seybold has a keener ear for the metaphysical than the physical; his script does a fine job of distilling complex ideas down into easily digestible dialogues – even if these do often sound more Socratic than dramatic.
There’s a formal, almost stilted quality to the writing – accentuated by Lane’s distanced portrayal of de Chardin. He may be watching his life flash before his eyes, but he rarely seems emotionally engaged with the process.
Most of the warmth here comes from Beaty’s skilled portrayal of a series of men and women who pop into de Chardin’s life. She has a enjoyably jaunty quality as Canadian paleoanthropologist Davidson Black and is seductive as Swan – even if she never quite manages to pull our hero away from his vow of chastity.
At one point, de Chardin quotes Revelations to explain the uneasy space in which his life’s work sits: “Because thou are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will vomit you out of my mouth.” The De Chardin Project finds its dramatic tension in the serious societal divide between science and religion – with Rome playing the primary villain, even though, at this point, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin is more embraced by Catholic thinkers than scientific ones. The Phenomenon of Man and its musings about humanity’s evolution towards a collective consciousness have been mocked by the likes of Richard Dawkins, while Benedict XVI embraced de Chardin’s work when he was pope.
Pope Francis’s recent comments to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences that God was not “a magician, with a magic wand” were treated as revolutionary by the secular press. For non-Catholics, the treatment of Galileo still casts a long shadow in how they view the church. Few are aware of de Chardin’s writings – or that the Big Bang Theory was first posited by Georges Lemaître, another Jesuit priest.
This story of how religion and science do not have to be at war – and, indeed, have not always been at war does need to be told. Seybold’s play as moving, in its way, as the Planispheric Astrolabe on display at the Aga Khan Museum of Islamic arts and culture in Toronto – a scientific instrument from the 14th century that startlingly has inscriptions in Arabic, Latin and Hebrew.
The De Chardin Project may have a clichéd structure and creaky moments, but its restrained writing grows on you. This is in no small part thanks to the monastic metaphysical atmosphere conjured by Dilworth along with Savoini and sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne. A single light bulb hanging from the ceiling becomes a symbol of the human spirit – and the revelation of a room full of them at the end is magical. The penultimate scene is the most powerful, however, as de Chardin explains to a woman in pain visiting his New York apartment that his study of the universe’s unlikely path from the Big Bang to human consciousness has led him to believe that: “In spite of everything, we are lucky.” I left Seybold’s play with the same feeling.
It is precisely science that makes the key point shine most brightly: the point that there is a fundamental respect in which ultimate intrinsic nature of the stuff of the universe is unknown to us — except insofar as it is consciousness.
Every day, it seems, some verifiably intelligent person tells us that we don’t know what consciousness is. The nature of consciousness, they say, is an awesome mystery. It’s the ultimate hard problem. The current Wikipedia entry is typical: Consciousness “is the most mysterious aspect of our lives”; philosophers “have struggled to comprehend the nature of consciousness.”
I find this odd because we know exactly what consciousness is — where by “consciousness” I mean what most people mean in this debate: experience of any kind whatever. It’s the most familiar thing there is, whether it’s experience of emotion, pain, understanding what someone is saying, seeing, hearing, touching, tasting or feeling. It is in fact the only thing in the universe whose ultimate intrinsic nature we can claim to know. It is utterly unmysterious.
The nature of physical stuff, by contrast, is deeply mysterious, and physics grows stranger by the hour. (Richard Feynman’s remark about quantum theory — “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics” — seems as true as ever.) Or rather, more carefully: The nature of physical stuff is mysterious except insofar as consciousness is itself a form of physical stuff. This point, which is at first extremely startling, was well put by Bertrand Russell in the 1950s in his essay “Mind and Matter”: “We know nothing about the intrinsic quality of physical events,” he wrote, “except when these are mental events that we directly experience.” In having conscious experience, he claims, we learn something about the intrinsic nature of physical stuff, for conscious experience is itself a form of physical stuff.
I think Russell is right: Human conscious experience is wholly a matter of physical goings-on in the body and in particular the brain. But why does he say that we know nothing about the intrinsic quality of physical events except when these are mental events we directly experience? Isn’t he exaggerating? I don’t think so, and I’ll try to explain. First, though, I need to try to reply to those (they’re probably philosophers) who doubt that we really know what conscious experience is.
The reply is simple. We know what conscious experience is because the having is the knowing: Having conscious experience is knowing what it is. You don’t have to think about it (it’s really much better not to). You just have to have it. It’s true that people can make all sorts of mistakes about what is going on when they have experience, but none of them threaten the fundamental sense in which we know exactly what experience is just in having it.
“Yes, but what is it?” At this point philosophers like to give examples: smelling garlic, experiencing pain, orgasm. Russell mentions “feeling the coldness of a frog” (a live frog), while Locke in 1689 considers the taste of pineapple. If someone continues to ask what it is, one good reply (although Wittgenstein disapproved of it) is “you know what it is like from your own case.” Ned Block replies by adapting the response Louis Armstrong reportedly gave to someone who asked him what jazz was: “If you gotta ask, you ain’t never going to know.”
image saved from complexitygraphics.com
So we all know what consciousness is. Once we’re clear on this we can try to go further, for consciousness does of course raise a hard problem. The problem arises from the fact that we accept that consciousness is wholly a matter of physical goings-on, but can’t see how this can be so. We examine the brain in ever greater detail, using increasingly powerful techniques like fMRI, and we observe extraordinarily complex neuroelectrochemical goings-on, but we can’t even begin to understand how these goings-on can be (or give rise to) conscious experiences.
The German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz made the point vividly in 1714. Perception or consciousness, he wrote, is “inexplicable on mechanical principles, i.e. by shapes and movements. If we imagine a machine whose structure makes it think, sense, and be conscious, we can conceive of it being enlarged in such a way that we can go inside it like a mill” — think of the 1966 movie “Fantastic Voyage,” or imagine the ultimate brain scanner. Leibniz continued, “Suppose we do: visiting its insides, we will never find anything but parts pushing each other — never anything that could explain a conscious state.”
It’s true that modern physics and neurophysiology have greatly complicated our picture of the brain, but Leibniz’s basic point remains untouched.
His mistake is to go further, and conclude that physical goings-on can’t possibly be conscious goings-on. Many make the same mistake today — the Very Large Mistake (as Winnie-the-Pooh might put it) of thinking that we know enough about the nature of physical stuff to know that conscious experience can’t be physical. We don’t. We don’t know the intrinsic nature of physical stuff, except — Russell again — insofar as we know it simply through having a conscious experience.
We find this idea extremely difficult because we’re so very deeply committed to the belief that we know more about the physical than we do, and (in particular) know enough to know that consciousness can’t be physical. We don’t see that the hard problem is not what consciousness is, it’s what matter is — what the physical is.
We may think that physics is sorting this out, and it’s true that physics is magnificent. It tells us a great many facts about the mathematically describable structure of physical reality, facts that it expresses with numbers and equations (e = mc2, the inverse-square law of gravitational attraction, the periodic table and so on) and that we can use to build amazing devices. True, but it doesn’t tell us anything at all about the intrinsic nature of the stuff that fleshes out this structure. Physics is silent — perfectly and forever silent — on this question.
This point was a commonplace one 100 years ago, but it has gotten lost in the recent discussion of consciousness. Stephen Hawking makes it dramatically in his book “A Brief History of Time.” Physics, he says, is “just a set of rules and equations.” The question is what “breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?” What is the fundamental stuff of physical reality, the stuff that is structured in the way physics reveals? The answer, again, is that we don’t know — except insofar as this stuff takes the form of conscious experience.
We can say that it is energy that breathes fire into the equations, using the word “energy” as Heisenberg does when he says, for example, that “all particles are made of the same substance: energy,” but the fundamental question arises again — “What is the intrinsic nature of this energy, this energy-stuff?” And the answer, again, is that we don’t know, and that physics can’t tell us; that’s just not its business. This point about the limits on what physics can tell us is rock solid, and it arises before we begin to consider any of the deep problems of understanding that arise within physics — problems with “dark matter” or “dark energy,” for example — or with reconciling quantum mechanics and general relativity theory.
Those who make the Very Large Mistake (of thinking they know enough about the nature of the physical to know that consciousness can’t be physical) tend to split into two groups. Members of the first group remain unshaken in their belief that consciousness exists, and conclude that there must be some sort of nonphysical stuff: They tend to become “dualists.” Members of the second group, passionately committed to the idea that everything is physical, make the most extraordinary move that has ever been made in the history of human thought. They deny the existence of consciousness: They become “eliminativists.”
This amazing phenomenon (the denial of the existence of consciousness) is a subject for another time. The present point — it’s worth repeating many times — is that no one has to react in either of these ways. All they have to do is grasp the fundamental respect in which we don’t know the intrinsic nature of physical stuff in spite of all that physics tells us. In particular, we don’t know anything about the physical that gives us good reason to think that consciousness can’t be wholly physical. It’s worth adding that one can fully accept this even if one is unwilling to agree with Russell that in having conscious experience we thereby know something about the intrinsic nature of physical reality.
So the hard problem is the problem of matter (physical stuff in general). If physics made any claim that couldn’t be squared with the fact that our conscious experience is brain activity, then I believe that claim would be false. But physics doesn’t do any such thing. It’s not the physics picture of matter that’s the problem; it’s the ordinary everyday picture of matter. It’s ironic that the people who are most likely to doubt or deny the existence of consciousness (on the ground that everything is physical, and that consciousness can’t possibly be physical) are also those who are most insistent on the primacy of science, because it is precisely science that makes the key point shine most brightly: the point that there is a fundamental respect in which ultimate intrinsic nature of the stuff of the universe is unknown to us — except insofar as it is consciousness.
The Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum Mechanics asks us to believe that particle don’t have locations until we measure them. There is, however, an alternative view, pioneered by Louis de Broglie in 1927 and developed by David Bohm in 1952 which came to be known as Bohmian Mechanics or pilot-wave theory. It reconciles particles with our usual classical understanding. The catch: everything in the cosmos influences everything else. The universe is essentially non-local.
This theory had fallen out of favor after a 1992 paper known as ESSW claimed to deliver it a fatal blow. Now, a team of seven scientists lead by Aephraim Steinberg actually carried out the experiment proposed in ESSW and showed that the apparent contradiction disappeared when nonlocality was fully taken into account. The full story was published in Wired and Quanta Magazine.
If their results hold up to independent scrutiny, Bohm’s theory might be poised for a comeback. Perhaps it is time to read again the words of this fascinating scientist, who had to flee the US because of his communist sympathies:
I would say that my scientific and philosophical work, my main concern has been with understanding the nature of reality in general and consciousness in particular as a coherent whole, which is never static or complete, but which is in an unending process of movement and unfoldment. Thus, when I look back, I see that even as a child I was fascinated by the puzzle, indeed the mystery, of what is the nature of movement. Whenever one thinks of anything, it seems to be apprehended either as static or as a series of static images. Yet, in the actual experience of movement, one senses an unbroken, undivided process of flow, to which the series of static images in thought is related as a series of ‘still’ photographs might be related to the actuality of a speeding car.
Then there is the further question of what is the relationship of thinking to reality. As careful attention shows, thought itself is in an actual process of movement. That is to say, one can feel a sense of flow in the ‘stream of consciousness’ not dissimilar to the sense of flow in the movement of matter in general. May not thought itself thus be part of reality as a whole? But then, what could it mean for one part of reality to know another, and to what extent would this be possible? Does the content of thought merely give us abstract and simplified ‘snapshots’ of reality, or can it go further, somehow to grasp the very essence of the living movement that we sense in actual experience?
.. one who is similar to Einstein in creativity is not the one who imitates Einstein’s ideas, nor even the one who applies these ideas in new ways, rather, it is the one who learns from Einstein and then goes on to do something original, which is able to assimilate what is valid in Einstein’s work and yet goes beyond this work in qualitatively new ways. So what we have to do with regard to the great wisdom from the whole of the past, both in the East and in the West, is to assimilate it and to go on to new and original perception relevant to our present condition of life.
.. man’s general way of thinking of the totality, i.e. his general world view, is crucial for overall order of the human mind itself. If he thinks of the totality as constituted as independent fragments, then that is how his mind will tend to operate, but if he can include everything coherently and harmoniously in an overall whole that is undivided, unbroken and without border (for every border is a division or break) then his mind will tend to move in a similar way, and from this will flow an orderly action within the whole.
Indeed, man has always been seeking wholeness – mental, physical, social and individual. .. It is instructive to consider the word ‘health’ in English is based on an Anglo-Saxon word ‘hale’ meaning ‘whole’: that is, to be healthy is to be whole. Likewise the English ‘holy’ is based on the same root as ‘whole’. All of this indicates that man has sensed always that wholeness or integrity is an absolute necessity to make life worth living. Yet, over the ages, he has generally lived in fragmentation.
In the prevailing philosophy of the Orient, the immeasurable (i.e. that which cannot be named, described, or understood through any form of reason) is regarded as the primary reality.
If we supposed that theories gave true knowledge, corresponding to ‘reality as it is’, then we would have to conclude that Newtonian Mechanics was true until around 1900, after which it suddenly became false, while relativity and quantum theory suddenly became the truth. Such an absurd conclusion does not arise, however, if we say that all theories are insights, which are neither true nor false.
… Man is continually developing new forms of insight, which are clear up to a point and then tend to become unclear. In this activity, there is evidently no reason to suppose that there is or will be a final form of insight (corresponding to absolute truth) or even a steady series of approximations to this. Rather, one may expect the unending development of new forms of insight (which will, however assimilate certain key features of the older forms as simplifications, in the way that relativity theory does with Newtonian theory). Our theories are to be regarded primarily as ways of looking at the world as a whole (‘world-views’) rather than as ‘absolute true knowledge of how things are’.
What prevents theoretical insights from going beyond existing limitations and changing to meet new facts is just the belief that theories give true knowledge of reality (which implies, of course, that they never change). Although our modern way of thinking has changed a great deal relative to the ancient one, the two have had one key feature in common: i.e. they are both generally ‘blinkered’ by the notion that theories give true knowledge about ‘reality as it is’. Thus, both are led to confuse the forms and shapes induced in our perceptions by theoretical insight with a reality independent of our thought and way of looking. This confusion is of crucial significance, since it leads us to approach nature, society and the individual in terms of more or less fixed and limited forms of thought, and thus, apparently, to keep on confirming the limitations of these forms of thought in experience.
If man thinks of the totality as constituted of independent fragments, then that is how his mind will tend to operate, but if he can include everything coherently and harmoniously in an overall whole that is undivided, unbroken, and without a border then his mind will tend to move in a similar way, and from this will flow an orderly action within the whole.
The notion that all these fragments is separately existent is evidently an illusion, and this illusion cannot do other than lead to endless conflict and confusion. Indeed, the attempt to live according to the notion that the fragments are really separate is, in essence, what has led to the growing series of extremely urgent crises that is confronting us today. Thus, as is now well known, this way of life has brought about pollution, destruction of the balance of nature, over-population, world-wide economic and political disorder and the creation of an overall environment that is neither physically nor mentally healthy for most of the people who live in it. Individually there has developed a widespread feeling of helplessness and despair, in the face of what seems to be an overwhelming mass of disparate social forces, going beyond the control and even the comprehension of the human beings who are caught up in it.
All things, especially living ones, are marinating in the river of time. We see and understand that our bodies will wear out and we will die. At least that’s how it looks through the lens of Western science, where all things come to an end, winding down in a final surrender to entropy. But there’s another perspective, surprisingly in harmony with science, that helps us revisit that huge and ancient terror—fear of time itself—in a new and perhaps even reassuring way. And that is the perspective offered by Buddhism.
For Buddhists, the “center cannot hold,” as the poet W.B. Yeats pointed out, because it doesn’t exist as something rigidly separate from everything else. Nothing is permanent and unchanging, ourselves included. Attempting to cling to a solid, immutable core of a self is a fool’s errand because time not only creates anarchy, it provides the unavoidable matrix within which everything—animate and inanimate, sentient and insensate—ebbs and flows.
As Buddhists see it, all organisms are necessarily, unavoidably—even marvelously and gloriously—impermanent. In Sanskrit, the word for impermanence is anitya. To understand anitya is to achieve something remarkable: opening a door onto the accord between modern western science and ancient eastern wisdom.
Even inanimate objects that appear solid and persistent are revealed by modern physics to be in a constant state of flux. An iron bar is mostly empty space, and even the ostensibly solid, sub-atomic particles occupying that space are either moving so rapidly as to be unimaginable or, alternately, exist as clouds of probability rather than as stationary monuments to permanence.
With living things, the world is even less fixed. Biologists as well as Buddhists know that living stuff is always dancing, constantly replenished by, and created from, nonliving components. At every moment, our existence takes place only on the instantaneous, knife-edge of Now, which can never be captured and held immobile. The last words of the Buddha reportedly began, “Decay is inherent in all things.”
But even decay—an unavoidable consequence of time impacting the real world—isn’t something to regret. As the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and scholar, Thich Nhat Hanh, put it, impermanence (anitya) is intimately tied to continuity. “Look back,” he counsels, “and you will see that you not only exist in your father and mother, but you also exist in your grandparents and in your great grandparents.” Look again, and you will see we “have been gas, sunshine, water, fungi, and plants,” he writes. “Nothing can be born and also nothing can die.” To understand this, and to do so deep in our ever-changing bones, may forever change our sense of time and what it means to participate in life on earth.
It would seem, nonetheless, that living things struggle to defy anitya, to resist change. The technical term among physiologists is “homeostasis,” the process whereby organisms maintain their internal environment within limits. This is notably true of mammals, which possess various adaptations to keep their internal temperature independent of the outside environment. At least as important, however, is the internal chemical environment: not too acid, not too alkaline, enough sodium, potassium, and calcium. Without a precisely stable Goldilocks balance, life ceases.
In a narrow sense, that is a defiance of anitya. But the physiological constancy required by life can only be achieved in what physicists label an “open system,” which receives regular inputs of energy and material from elsewhere. In the case of living things, this means that even the temporary, seeming defiance of impermanence can only occur via a never-ending introduction of new stuff. In the short term, that means energy-carrying molecules that permit respiration and metabolism; in a longer perspective, that means proteins and other substances involved in growth, maintenance, and repair.
Paradoxically, maintaining a state of apparent constancy (i.e., life) requires continual openness to change, in this case exchange with an organism’s environment. When that exchange ceases, so does life; although even then, every body continues to change, whether via decomposition, incorporation into another body, or incineration.
Let’s look at two phenomena essential to that condition we call “alive”: respiration and digestion/metabolism. We regularly inhale about a half liter of air, relatively high in oxygen and low in carbon dioxide. Our bodies combine some of that oxygen with food molecules we earlier consumed, generating energy. The half-liter that we subsequently exhale contains less oxygen and more CO2, a by-product of metabolism. “New” atoms are incorporated into our bodies at every moment, and “old” ones are rearranged, while some are pushed out. Every few days we essentially recycle ourselves, reminiscent of an old advertising jingle for milk, “There’s a new you coming every day!” Except it’s more like every hour, minute, second, instant.
Then, of course, there is evolution, the process that has produced and underlies all life. Evolution is change—change in the make-up of a lineage over time. Although certain organisms have evolved rapidly (human beings, elephants, bacteria), others do so slowly. They include such peculiar creatures as coelacanths (lobe-finned fishes believed extinct before one was caught in the deep ocean off Madagascar in the 1930s), tuataras (peculiar lizards found only on several islands off the coast of New Zealand), or horseshoe “crabs” (closely related to spiders and which appear not to have changed significantly in a few hundred million years). But even these “living fossils” have themselves evolved—that is, changed over time—compared to their ancestral, soft-bodied pre-Cambrian ancestors, just as they will continue to do so—or go extinct—when their environment changes.
What about genes themselves? Aren’t they permanent rather than temporary? As Richard Dawkins effectively popularized in his book, The Selfish Gene, bodies are merely temporary structures constructed by their constituent genes, for their—the genes’—benefit. Bodies, suffused as they are with anitya, come and go, whereas genes go on and on, catapulted into the future either as offspring or in the bodies of other relatives. One chapter in Dawkins’ book is titled “Immortal Coils.”
Although the potential immortality of genes is an effective simile, it is not strictly true. Biologists know that some genetically based traits are “highly conserved,” which means they are unlikely to change over time. These include the commands undergirding such basic intracellular activities as how energy is derived from hydrocarbon molecules, and the coding system by which nucleic acids are translated into proteins. The fidelity with which these genes are accurately replicated between generations is remarkable, but also not surprising, given that errors in such fundamental processes are quickly selected against, leaving the unchanged to persist.
But not forever. Mutations happen. On average, genes mutate at a rate of about once in a million replications. Given enough time, errors are inevitable. Given changes in their environment, beneficial mutations are selected for, while hurtful ones are selected against. Even genes do not—and cannot—escape their appointment with anitya.
Most mutations result from incorrect base pairings, involving the four key molecules of heredity: adenine (A), cytosine (C), thymine (T), and guanine (G), when by accident they fail to line up according to the normal pattern of A-with-T and C-with-G. By contrast, the remarkably rigid spiral backbone of DNA—which gives rise to its double helix structure—consists of repeating sugar and phosphate groups, which are more stable than the base pairings, since the former rely on “regular” chemical bonds whereas the latter occur via weaker “hydrogen bonds.”
But even here, change is inevitable, although presumably less consequential. Hydrogen atoms that are ubiquitous throughout DNA molecules are constantly switching places with other hydrogen atoms in their immediate surroundings; the resulting “hydrogen exchange” is well documented, insuring that even a non-mutated DNA molecule is something of a shape-shifter, even when it is ostensibly resting. So even the most unchanging component of potentially immortal DNA is immersed in anitya, constantly refashioning itself.
Over time, anitya is manifested at many different levels: the ecological flux of biogeochemical cycles, the unavoidable conveyor belt of birth to aging to death, and the instantaneous transformations in all parts of living organisms. While our illusion of permanence may be fostered by our sense of continuous memory, psychologists now understand that memories are not only frequently incorrect but as impermanent as our physical substance.
From a scientific perspective, there is every reason for biologists to join with Buddhists in rejecting what the latter call svabhava, fixed and unchanging essence. At our deepest, molecular levels, we have no essence.
In Eastern mythology, the story is told about a king who called his Wisdom Council together and asked for an observation that would always be true, for all living things, at all times. They agreed upon the following: “This too shall pass.” The universal recipe for anitya is as simple as it is inevitable: Start with the stuff of the world, then marinate in tincture of time.
I’ve been writing a lot lately about consciousness, the ultimate enigma. I used to think why there is something rather than nothing is the ultimate enigma. But without mind, there might as well be nothing.
Some mind-ponderers, notably philosopher Colin McGinn, argue that consciousness is unsolvable. Philosopher Owen Flanagan calls these pessimists “mysterians,” after the 60’s-era rock group “Question Mark and the Mysterians.”
Recently, physicist Edward Witten came out as a mysterian. Witten is regarded with awe by his fellow physicists, some of whom have compared him to Einstein and Newton. He is largely responsible for the popularity of string theory over the past several decades. String theory holds that all of nature's forces stem from infinitesimal particles wriggling in a hyperspace consisting of many extra dimensions.
Witten is optimistic about science’s power to solve mysteries, such as why there is something rather than nothing. In a 2014 Q&A with me he said: “The modern scientific endeavor has been going on for hundreds of years by now, and we've gotten way farther than our predecessors probably imagined.” He also reaffirmed his belief that string theory will turn out to be “right.”
But in a fascinating video interview with journalist Wim Kayzer, Witten is pessimistic about the prospects for a scientific explanation of consciousness. The chemist Ash Jogalekar, who blogs as “The Curious Wavefunction,” wrote about Witten’s speech and transcribed the relevant section. (Thanks, Ash.) Here is an excerpt:
I think consciousness will remain a mystery. Yes, that's what I tend to believe. I tend to think that the workings of the conscious brain will be elucidated to a large extent. Biologists and perhaps physicists will understand much better how the brain works. But why something that we call consciousness goes with those workings, I think that will remain mysterious. I have a much easier time imagining how we understand the Big Bang than I have imagining how we can understand consciousness...
Just because Witten is a genius does not mean he is infallible. He is wrong, I believe, that string theory will eventually be validated, and he could be wrong that consciousness will never be explained. I nonetheless find it newsworthy—and refreshing--that a scientist of his caliber is talking so candidly about the limits of science. For reasons that are perhaps too obvious, I like Ash Jogalekar’s take on Witten’s comments. An excerpt:
It's interesting to contrast Witten's thoughts with John Horgan's End of Science thesis… The end of science really is the end of the search for final causation. In that sense not just consciousness but many aspects of the world may always remain a mystery. Whether that is emotionally pleasing or disconcerting is an individual choice that each one of us has to make.
The Mind–Body Problem, Scientific Regress and "Woo"
Was I Wrong about The End of Science?
Physics Titan Still Thinks String Theory Is "On the Right Track."
Meta-post: Horgan Posts on Brain and Mind Science
Dispatch from the Desert of Consciousness Research, Part 1
Dispatch from the Desert of Consciousness Research, Part 2
Dispatch from the Desert of Consciousness Research, Part 3
Dispatch from the Desert of Consciousness Research, Part 4
Flashback: My Report on First Consciousness Powwow in Tucson. How Far Has Science Come Since Then?
Can Integrated Information Theory Explain Consciousness?
Are Brains Bayesian?
The Singularity and the Neural Code
Why information can't be the basis of reality
Is Scientific Materialism "Almost Certainly False"?
Scott Aaronson Answers Every Ridiculously Big Question I Throw at Him
Christof Koch on Free Will, the Singularity and the Quest to Crack Consciousness
For a physicist, there is nothing more exciting than an experiment that fails to behave. The thrill is akin to that a religious person confronted with a “miracle”. Suddenly appears a rift in the well-ordered, almost boring world that we know so well, a crack in the fabric of that reality we sometimes feel imprisoned in. Although most scientists would never admit it, could it be that this sudden event, which contradicts something we think we know, triggers a child-like hope for an “elsewhere” governed by magic rather than hard and fast rules, a mysterious and hidden world hidden at the bottom of the wardrobe where freedom and awe would reign? Or is it that for a moment, we come in contact with the fundamental mystery inherent in all things, a taste of the ultimate reality?
No matter what the psychological or mystical underpinning, there is no denying the excitement. Earlier this month, a small bump in the LHC data hinting at new physics generated hundred of papers attempting an explanation… before being chalked up to a statistical aberration last week. But right now, something well out of the box has been confirmed and it has the community wound-up.
The culprit? A new measurement of the radius of the proton. We can measure it by its influence on whatever is orbiting it, typically an electron. The result is well established. But in 2006, a team of researchers had the idea of replacing the electron by a muon. Like the electron, the muon is a lepton, with a mass close to that of a proton’s and a half life of only 2.2 microseconds. But beyond the mass and instability, the muon should otherwise behave like an electron. Just before the atom comes apart, they measured the proton radius. Surprise: it came out 5% smaller than expected.
More recently, the team has repeated the experiment using a deuterium nucleus, which has one proton and one neutron. They obtained the same results, and by now, it’s impossible to blame a statistical error: the outcome is significant to 7.5 sigma!
So what? Well, the most fundamental theories, the Standard Model, Quantum Chromodynamics, can’t explain the difference, and no one has a better idea.
Kingston, Ontario — THERE was no mistaking the diagnostic significance of that little red stick inside a deep blue cell: The Auer rod meant the mystery patient had acute myelogenous leukemia. As slide after slide went by, her bone marrow told a story: treatment, remission, relapse, treatment, remission, remission, remission.
I was reading these marrows in 1987, but the samples had been drawn in 1978 and 1979. Median survival of that lethal disease with treatment was about 18 months; however, given that she had already relapsed once, I knew that she had to be dead. Probably someone was being sued, and that was why my hematology colleagues had asked for a blind reading.
Imagining an aggressive cross-examination in court, I emphasized in my report that I knew neither the history nor why I was reading the marrows. After the work was submitted, I asked the treating physician what was going on. She smiled and said that my report had been sent to the Vatican. This leukemia case was being considered as the final miracle in the dossier of Marie-Marguerite d’Youville, the founder of the Order of Sisters of Charity of Montreal and a candidate to become the first Canadian-born saint.
As in the case of Mother Teresa, who was canonized Sunday by Pope Francis, miracles are still used as evidence that the candidate is in heaven and had interceded with God in response to a petition. Two miracles, usually cures that defy natural explanation, are generally required. For Mother Teresa, the Vatican concluded that prayers to her led to the disappearance of an Indian woman’s incurable tumor and the sudden recovery of a Brazilian man with a brain infection.
The “miracle” involving d’Youville had already been overturned once by the Vatican’s medical committee, unconvinced by the story of a first remission, a relapse, and a much longer second remission. The clerics argued that she had never relapsed and that her survival in first remission was rare but not impossibly so. But the panel and her advocates agreed that a “blind” reading of the evidence by another expert might provoke reconsideration. When my report confirmed what the Ottawa doctors found, that she had indeed had a short remission and then relapsed, the patient, who had prayed to d’Youville for help and, against all odds, was still alive, wanted me to testify.
The tribunal that questioned me was not juridical, but ecclesiastical. I was not asked about my faith. (For the record, I’m an atheist.) I was not asked if it was a miracle. I was asked if I could explain it scientifically. I could not, though I had come armed for my testimony with the most up-to-date hematological literature, which showed that long survivals following relapses were not seen.
When, at the end, the Vatican committee asked if I had anything more to say, I blurted out that as much as her survival, thus far, was remarkable, I fully expected her to relapse some day sooner or later. What would the Vatican do then, revoke the canonization? The clerics recorded my doubts. But the case went forward and d’Youville was canonized on Dec. 9, 1990.
That experience, as a hematologist, led me to a research project that I conducted in my other role, as a historian of medicine. I was curious: What were the other miracles used in past canonizations? How many were healings? How many involved up-to date treatments? How many were attended by skeptical physicians like me? How did all that change through time? And can we explain those outcomes now?
Over hundreds of hours in the Vatican archives, I examined the files of more than 1,400 miracle investigations — at least one from every canonization between 1588 and 1999. A vast majority — 93 percent over all and 96 percent for the 20th century — were stories of recovery from illness or injury, detailing treatment and testimony from baffled physicians.
If a sick person recovers through prayer and without medicine, that’s nice, but not a miracle. She had to be sick or dying despite receiving the best of care. The church finds no incompatibility between scientific medicine and religious faith; for believers, medicine is just one more manifestation of God’s work on earth.
Perversely then, this ancient religious process, intended to celebrate exemplary lives, is hostage to the relativistic wisdom and temporal opinions of modern science. Physicians, as nonpartisan witnesses and unaligned third parties, are necessary to corroborate the claims of hopeful postulants. For that reason alone, illness stories top miracle claims. I never expected such reverse skepticism and emphasis on science within the church.
I also learned more about medicine and its parallels with religion. Both are elaborate, evolving systems of belief. Medicine is rooted in natural explanations and causes, even in the absence of definitive evidence. Religion is defined by the supernatural and the possibility of transcendence. Both address our plight as mortals who suffer — one to postpone death and relieve symptoms, the other to console us and reconcile us to pain and loss.
Respect for our religious patients demands understanding and tolerance; their beliefs are as true for them as the “facts” may be for physicians. Now almost 40 years later, that mystery woman is still alive and I still cannot explain why. Along with the Vatican, she calls it a miracle. Why should my inability to offer an explanation trump her belief? However they are interpreted, miracles exist, because that is how they are lived in our world.
Jacalyn Duffin, a hematologist and historian at Queen’s University in Canada, is the author of “Medical Miracles” and “Medical Saints.”
We usually describe the world in terms of trees, mountains, rivers, clouds, cars, houses, people, and so on.
But a chemist could say: “No, this is not how things truly are! The world is basically composed of molecules which are ceaselessly combining one with another at random”.
However a physicist would reply: “Not at all! Reality is actually made up of intermingling fields of energy/matter where the dance of waves/particles takes place ceaselessly”.
Who is right? Who is wrong?
All of them are clearly mere conceptual descriptions that can just supply a relative view of reality.
We do not actually live in ‘reality’, but rather in a description of it, that is like a ‘bubble’ of concepts and words all around us, which in time builds up a fictitious view of ourselves and the world.
Even non-dualism (as any other -ism without exception) is just a conceptual description of reality, that hopelessly tries to point to the unknowable ‘Whatever it is’: in so far as it becomes an ideology that relies on words and thoughts, it is unable to enjoy the taste of Being.
So we live in concepts without realizing it.
We blindly believe that reality is just as our thought represents it.
Science gives us an ‘objective’ description of the material world that, to some extent, can be very useful for the improvement of humankind, however relative and incomplete it is.
Non-duality – as far as it still relies on words and thoughts – is just another conceptual description of reality, though its understanding of non-separation can dispel a huge amount of suffering in one’s life.
Neither of them is more or less right, and both are useful.
But as long as we rely merely on them, we remain trapped in the net of concepts.
Just as the fisherman’s net can catch only fishes, but not the water that passes through it and even supports it, so the thinking mind can grasp only concepts, but not the awareness that perceives it as an object: the ‘water of awareness’ can never be detected by the net of the thinking mind.
Indeed, awareness is a paradoxical mystery: on the one hand its evidence is undeniable for the very fact that we are aware of objects, but on the other hand it is unknowable, just as the existence of the eye is undeniable for the very fact that we can see objects, though it always remains invisible, outside the picture.
However, even ‘awareness’ is just a concept: through it, we are ultimately confronted with the unknown ‘bottom line’ of any human knowledge.
No understanding whatsoever can touch the unknowable Source of everything.
What if any idea about who I am, including even the idea of ‘consciousness’, totally collapses?
What if any idea about reality, including even the idea of ‘non duality’, totally collapses?
What if even these very words you are reading now lose any meaning whatsoever and fall away?
What remains when every attempt to understand or to know reality reveals its utter futility?
Then, out of frustration, the thinking mind cannot help saying “I don’t know” and finally quits.
But when that “I don’t know” plunges off the head into the heart, the philosopher dies and the mystic is born.
It is not a process in time. It is a singularity where all the known collapses and disappears.
It is a timeless explosion of pure wonder and awe that blows away everything else.
And what remains is a wild, free, spontaneous, and utterly unknowable aliveness, within the glowing darkness of the Mystery that we ultimately are.
The article below is about attaining a balance between highest level of spiritual intelligence through its various stages of growth and the highest level of spiritual experience through its various stages depending upon the religious/mystical system adopted.
The Leading Edge of The Unknown in the Human Being ~ Ken Wilber
But I can start by summarizing the beginning of this discussion in a few sentences: we now have very compelling, cross cultural evidence that human beings actually have two quite different—but equally important—types of spiritual engagement or types of spiritual awareness. Now it’s not at all obvious at first, but the failure to grasp both of these ends up being literally catastrophic, affecting everything from education to politics to global warming to world terrorism, as we’ll increasingly see. But one of these is often called spiritual intelligence, and this spiritual intelligence is one of perhaps a dozen multiple intelligences that all human beings have (others include ones such as cognitive intelligence, emotional intelligence, moral intelligence, kinesthetic intelligence, musical intelligence, aesthetic intelligence—and, yes, spiritual intelligence). Spiritual intelligence is just that: our intelligent or intellectual approach to Spirit or an ultimate Reality—how we think about that Reality, the concepts and symbols we use to represent it, the ideas we form about it: our general worldview when it comes to religious or spiritual realities. When it comes to Spirit, it’s our talk. The other type of engagement is not spiritual intelligence but direct spiritual experience. Our spiritual intelligence might tell us that, as one example, we are each intimately interwoven and interconnected with every thing and event in the entire Kosmos, that we are one with the All; and, to support this, we might bring in various spiritual texts, but also various other knowledge branches, such as modern physics, quantum mechanics, systems theory and complexity theory, evolutionary ideas, and so on. These are all ideas held in the mind as we conceive or think about Spirit.
But the other type of engagement is not spiritual intelligence but direct spiritual experience. This is not our talk, but our walk. It’s not any content of Awareness, but Awareness itself. Where spiritual intelligence might tell us that we are one with the All, with spiritual experience we directly and fully experience that oneness with the All—we don’t think it, we ARE it, so called Kosmic consciousness or ultimate nondual unity consciousness or the Great Perfection or Christ consciousness or Yeshe or Ein Sof, and so on.
Almost in spite of themselves, scientists are driven to a teleological view of the cosmos.
By Howard A. Smith
Illustration by Joanna Neborsky
People today, if asked about humanity’s place in the cosmos, would probably echo the sentiment of Carl Sagan: “We live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star, lost in a galaxy, tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe.” That is to say, humanity is ordinary, cosmically speaking, just one of countless examples of extraterrestrial intelligence spread across the universe. This view reflects an appreciation of the remarkable successes of science that show that the universe is vast and about the same everywhere. But there was a time when astronomers placed the Earth at the center of the universe and humanity, too, was seen as being cosmically central. Once Copernicus showed that the Earth was not the center of the universe, we demoted ourselves to being ordinary. The idea today that we are commonplace is sometimes called the notion of Copernican mediocrity.
As a research astrophysicist, I can say without exaggeration that a day never goes by when I am not impressed by the amazing explanatory power of modern science. But I am also trained to be open to the world as it presents itself, not just as I would like it to be. So it is worth calling attention to two recent discoveries that suggest our place in the cosmos needs reconsideration. We might not be ordinary at all.
I am an experimental scientist because I love discovering the world and its often surprising, unexpected, features. I think it is good advice not to make too many assumptions, and presuming we must be commonplace is an assumption. Of course, presuming we are rare is another. Instead, we must learn from nature with an open mind. I think the evidence, and the simplest conclusion, is that humanity is not ordinary and we may have a significant cosmic role. There are, therefore, ethical issues to consider, and religion can contribute a meaningful voice to this discussion. We should treat one another as the priceless beings we appear to be, and care for our rare cosmic home, the Earth. Modern science may have prompted this re‐evaluation, but addressing it will require the best of all our human abilities.
About 25 years ago, a conversation between me and one of the greatest biologists of the 20th century took a weird turn.
I was talking to William D. Hamilton, who was famous for coming up with the theory of “kin selection,” which explains patterns of altruism among close relatives in various species, including ours. This and other seminal ideas had earned Hamilton a place in the pantheon of thinkers who ushered in the modern Darwinian understanding of social behavior. Richard Dawkins, in the preface to his landmark 1976 book,“The Selfish Gene,” paid tribute to Hamilton and the three other “dominant figures” in social biology whose ideas formed the book’s foundation.
I was interviewing Hamilton at the University of Michigan, where he was on sabbatical from Oxford. A video camera was rolling. I had been researching a book about evolutionary psychology, and I was hoping to create a documentary on the subject. The documentary never materialized, and Hamilton died in early 2000. My interview with him sat unwatched until earlier this year, when I tracked down the tape containing it.
During the interview, I was trying to steer Hamilton toward philosophical topics, and at one point he went further than I had expected. He said, “I’m also quite open to the view that there is some kind of ultimate good which is of a religious nature — that we just have to look beyond what the evolutionary theory tells us and accept promptings of what ultimate good is, coming from some other source.” That’s an unusual thing for a great evolutionary biologist to say, but the most unusual part was still to come.
Hamilton continued, in his British accent, “I could enlarge on that in terms of the possible existence of extraterrestrial manipulators who interfere, and so on, but I think this would be getting too far from the general topic of discussion.” Well, maybe, but this sounded at least as interesting as the general topic of discussion. I asked him if he meant that there was some kind of “transcendental purpose” that we humans are generally oblivious to.
He answered: “Yes, yes. There’s one theory of the universe that I rather like — I accept it in an almost joking spirit — and that is that Planet Earth in our solar system is a kind of zoo for extraterrestrial beings who dwell out there somewhere. And this is the best, the most interesting experiment they could set up: to set up the evolution on Planet Earth going in such a way that it would produce these really interesting characters — humans who go around doing things — and they watch their experiment, interfering hardly at all so that almost everything we do comes out according to the laws of nature. But every now and then they see something which doesn’t look quite right — this zoo is going to kill itself off if they let you do this or that.” So, he continued, these extraterrestrials “insert a finger and just change some little thing. And maybe those are the miracles which the religious people like to so emphasize.” He reiterated: “I put it forward in an almost joking spirit. But I think it’s a kind of hypothesis that’s very, very hard to dismiss.”
The headline almost writes itself: “World-Class Scientist Says Miracles Can Happen!” The subhead would add: “Extraterrestrials may play a role.”
But that’s the headline you’d write if you were just trying to maximize clicks. If you wanted to capture the philosophical significance of what Hamilton was saying, you’d take another tack. Rather than focus on miracles, you’d focus on the idea of “higher purpose” — the idea that there’s some point to life on earth that emanates from something that is in some sense beyond it. And — in hopes of generating as many clicks as possible, notwithstanding the philosophical significance — you’d put this in listicle form, laying out several misconceptions that Hamilton had implicitly dispelled. You could call these the “Three Great Myths About Evolution and Purpose.”
Myth number one: To say that there’s in some sense a “higher purpose” means there are “spooky forces” at work.
When I ask scientifically minded people if they think life on earth may have some larger purpose, they typically say no. If I ask them to explain their view, it often turns out that they think that answering yes would mean departing from a scientific worldview — embracing the possibility of supernatural beings or, at the very least, of immaterial factors that lie beyond scientific measurement. But Hamilton’s thought experiment shows that this isn’t necessarily so.
You may consider aliens spooky, but they’re not a spooky force. And they’re not supernatural beings. They’re just physical beings, like us. Their technology is so advanced that their interventions might seem miraculous to us — as various smartphone apps would seem to my great-, great-grandparents — but these interventions would in fact comply with the laws of science.
More to the point: If you ask how Hamilton’s aliens had initially imparted “purpose” to life, the answer is that they did so in concrete fashion: by planting simple self-replicating material on earth a few billion years ago, confident that it would lead to something that would keep them entertained (keeping them entertained being, in this scenario, life’s purpose). Which leads to:
Myth number two: To say that evolution has a purpose is to say that it is driven by something other than natural selection.
The correction of this misconception is in some ways just a corollary of the correction of the first misconception, but it’s worth spelling out: Evolution can have a purpose even if it is a wholly mechanical, material process — that is, even if its sole engine is natural selection. After all, clocks have purposes — to keep time, a purpose imparted by clockmakers — and they’re wholly mechanical. Of course, to suggest that evolution involves the unfolding of some purpose is to suggest that evolution has in some sense been heading somewhere — namely, toward the realization of its purpose. Which leads to:
Myth number three: Evolution couldn’t have a purpose, because it doesn’t have a direction.
The idea that evolution is fundamentally directionless is widespread, in part because one great popularizer of evolution, Stephen Jay Gould, worked hard to leave that impression. As I and others have argued, Gould was at best misleading on this point. And, anyway, even Gould admitted that, yes, on balance evolution tends to create beings of greater and greater complexity. A number of evolutionary biologists would go further and say that evolution was likely, given long enough, to create animals as intelligent as us.
In fact, that idea is implicit in Hamilton’s saying the aliens could have “set up” evolution in such a way that “it would produce these really interesting characters — humans.” This part of Hamilton’s scenario requires no intervention on the part of the aliens, because he believed that evolution by natural selection has a kind of direction in the sense that it is likely, given long enough, to produce very intelligent forms of life. (When speaking more precisely, as he did in other parts of the interview, Hamilton would say that the human species per se wasn’t in the cards — that it wasn’t inevitable that the first intelligent species would look like us.)
With these three myths dispelled, you’re left with this philosophically liberating upshot: You can entertain the possibility that evolution has a purpose, a kind of goal (a “telos,” as philosophers say), without departing from a strictly Darwinian view of evolution — without abandoning belief in natural selection as evolution’s only engine, and without surrendering your credentials as a modern, scientifically minded kind of person.
In case you’re still feeling a little uneasy about becoming a purpose ponderer, I should emphasize that not all teleological scenarios that pass scientific muster involve space aliens. Indeed, some scientists have suggested that natural selection has a purpose that wasn’t instilled by any kind of intelligent being.
This scenario emerges from one version of physicist Lee Smolin’s theory of “cosmological natural selection.” Smolin thinks our universe may itself be a product of a kind of evolution: maybe universes can replicate themselves via black holes, so over time — over a lot of time — you get universes whose physical laws are more and more conducive to replication. (So that’s why our universe is so good at black-hole making!) In some variants of Smolin’s theory — such as those developed by the late cosmologist Edward Harrison and the mathematician Louis Crane — intelligent beings can play a role in this replication once their technology reaches a point where they can produce black holes. So through cosmological natural selection you’d get universes whose physical properties were more and more conducive to the evolution of intelligent life. This might explain the much-discussed observation that the physical constants of this universe seem “fine-tuned” to permit the emergence of life.
Crane, in a recent dialogue on my website meaningoflife.tv, told me that in this scenario “human life—and I don’t mean on an individual scale, but as a whole—has a purpose in the same sense that a chicken’s egg has a purpose. The purpose of a chicken’s egg is to create a chicken.” Crane isn’t using language carelessly here. Some philosophers are comfortable talking about animals having a “purpose” imbued by natural selection (to spread their genes). So if biological evolution is a product of cosmological natural selection, it has a purpose in a defensible sense of that term—and we’re part of that purpose.
So add another item to our listicle:
Myth number four: If evolution has a purpose, the purpose must have been imbued by an intelligent being.
That said, one interesting feature of current discourse is a growing openness among some scientifically minded people to the possibility that our world has a purpose that was imparted by an intelligent being. I’m referring to “simulation” scenarios, which hold that our seemingly tangible world is actually a kind of projection emanating from some sort of mind-blowingly powerful computer; and the history of our universe, including evolution on this planet, is the unfolding of a computer algorithm whose author must be pretty bright.
You may scoff, but in 2003 the philosopher Nick Bostrom of Oxford University published a paper laying out reasons to think that we are pretty likely to be living in a simulation. And the simulation hypothesis has gained influential supporters. Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium and America’s de facto astronomer laureate, finds it plausible. The visionary tech entrepreneur Elon Musk says there’s almost no chance that we’re living in “base reality.” The New Yorker reported earlier this year that “two tech billionaires” — it didn’t say whether Musk is one of them — “have gone so far as to secretly engage scientists to work on breaking us out of the simulation.”
I’m guessing that will take awhile, and meanwhile I’d like to note an irony.
When an argument for higher purpose is put this way — that is, when it doesn’t involve the phrase “higher purpose” and, further, is cast more as a technological scenario than a metaphysical one — it is considered intellectually respectable. I don’t mean there aren’t plenty of people who dismiss it. I’m talking about how people dismiss it. The Bostrom paper drew flack, but a lot of it was from people who thought the chances that we’re living in a simulation are way less than 50 percent, not from people who thought the idea was wholly crazy.
If you walked up to the same people who gave Bostrom a respectful hearing and told them there is a transcendent God, many would dismiss the idea out of hand. Yet the simulation hypothesis is a God hypothesis: An intelligence of awe-inspiring power created our universe for reasons we can speculate about but can’t entirely fathom. And, assuming this intelligence still exists, it is in some sense outside of our reality — beyond the reach of our senses — and yet, presumably, it has the power to intervene in our world. Theology has entered “secular” discourse under another name.
Personally, I’m fine with that. I think discussion of higher purpose should be respectable even in a scientific age. I don’t mean I buy the simulation scenario in particular, or the space alien scenario, or the cosmological natural selection scenario. But I do think there’s reason to suspect that there’s some point to this exercise we Earthlings are engaged in, some purpose imbued by something — and that, even if identifying that something is for now hopeless, there are grounds for speculating about what the point of the exercise is.
I won’t elaborate much on this, since I’ve done that elsewhere, arguing that higher purpose can be framed as a hypothesis, and that evidence for or against the hypothesis can be marshaled. But I will say that the evidence I see for purpose includes not just the direction of biological evolution, but the direction of technological evolution and of the broader social and cultural evolution it drives — the evolution that has carried us from hunter-gatherer bands to the brink of a cohesive global community. And if the purpose involves sustaining this direction — becoming a true global community — then it would seem to include moral progress. In particular, our purpose would involve transcending the psychology of tribalism that can otherwise divide people along ethnic, national, religious and ideological lines. Which would mean — in light of recent political and social developments in the United States and abroad — that our work is cut out for us.
Robert Wright (@robertwrighter) is the author of “The Moral Animal,” “Nonzero” and “The Evolution of God,” and a visiting professor of science and religion at Union Theological Seminary.
[i]In the debate between religion and science, wonder is what the doctor ordered.[i]
By John Durant
December 15, 2016
I have always had a soft spot for Buckland and the other clerical naturalists who walked this coast in the 1820s and 1830s. As a historian of evolutionary biology and director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Museum, I have come a long way from my own upbringing as an evangelical Christian. Yet I retain a broadly Christian sensibility that leads me to admire their quest for a unified understanding of the world, based on insights from what they took to be all of the relevant sources—which included not just fieldwork, measurement, and close observation of their rocks and fossils, but scripture. Their philosophy of “natural theology” is one that many people would find hard to fathom today, when science and religion are so often viewed as irreconcilable adversaries. But this philosophy treated the world of nature as “the book of God’s works,” waiting to be harmonized with the better-known “book of God’s words.”
This “two books” idea allowed Christian naturalists of many different persuasions (conservative, liberal, evangelical, and none of the above) to work alongside one another in reasonable comfort; together, they assembled a history of life on earth that helped lay a solid foundation for all the geological work that came after. And in the process, not incidentally, they mentored many of the most important geologists of the next generation—including a young English naturalist named Charles Darwin.
Today the relationship between science and religion is not very healthy. In the public sphere there’s a widespread perception that the two are somehow in conflict, or at least in an uneasy standoff, and it often seems that a synthesis between knowledge and faith is neither possible nor even desirable. Still, as contemporary historians and interpreters of science, we can at least try to help our students understand that things were not always this way—that, as L.P. Hartley put it, “The past is a foreign country: They do things differently there.”
And that is why we brought our students to the Jurassic Coast—so that they could feel for themselves the sense of wonderment that greeted the cascade of new discoveries about the history of life on earth in the first half of the 19th century, and that helped shape the turbulent relationship between science and religion down to the present day. Our hope was that the Jurassic Coast would help our students find lessons for our far more divided age—that, whether theist, atheist, or agnostic, they might together experience the kind of awe that can bring anyone up short, and make them think that perhaps there is, after all, something more to be learned about our place in the universe.
Scientists say your “mind” isn’t confined to your brain, or even your body
You might wonder, at some point today, what’s going on in another person’s mind. You may compliment someone’s great mind, or say they are out of their mind. You may even try to expand or free your own mind.
But what is a mind? Defining the concept is a surprisingly slippery task. The mind is the seat of consciousness, the essence of your being. Without a mind, you cannot be considered meaningfully alive. So what exactly, and where precisely, is it?
Traditionally, scientists have tried to define the mind as the product of brain activity: The brain is the physical substance, and the mind is the conscious product of those firing neurons, according to the classic argument. But growing evidence shows that the mind goes far beyond the physical workings of your brain.
No doubt, the brain plays an incredibly important role. But our mind cannot be confined to what’s inside our skull, or even our body, according to a definition first put forward by Dan Siegel, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine and the author of a recently published book, Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human.
He first came up with the definition more than two decades ago, at a meeting of 40 scientists across disciplines, including neuroscientists, physicists, sociologists, and anthropologists. The aim was to come to an understanding of the mind that would appeal to common ground and satisfy those wrestling with the question across these fields.
After much discussion, they decided that a key component of the mind is: “the emergent self-organizing process, both embodied and relational, that regulates energy and information flow within and among us.” It’s not catchy. But it is interesting, and with meaningful implications.
The most immediately shocking element of this definition is that our mind extends beyond our physical selves. In other words, our mind is not simply our perception of experiences, but those experiences themselves. Siegel argues that it’s impossible to completely disentangle our subjective view of the world from our interactions.
“I realized if someone asked me to define the shoreline but insisted, is it the water or the sand, I would have to say the shore is both sand and sea,” says Siegel. “You can’t limit our understanding of the coastline to insist it’s one or the other. I started thinking, maybe the mind is like the coastline—some inner and inter process. Mental life for an anthropologist or sociologist is profoundly social. Your thoughts, feelings, memories, attention, what you experience in this subjective world is part of mind.”
The definition has since been supported by research across the sciences, but much of the original idea came from mathematics. Siegel realized the mind meets the mathematical definition of a complex system in that it’s open (can influence things outside itself), chaos capable (which simply means it’s roughly randomly distributed), and non-linear (which means a small input leads to large and difficult to predict result).
In math, complex systems are self-organizing, and Siegel believes this idea is the foundation to mental health. Again borrowing from the mathematics, optimal self-organization is: flexible, adaptive, coherent, energized, and stable. This means that without optimal self-organization, you arrive at either chaos or rigidity—a notion that, Siegel says, fits the range of symptoms of mental health disorders.
Finally, self-organization demands linking together differentiated ideas or, essentially, integration. And Siegel says integration—whether that’s within the brain or within society—is the foundation of a healthy mind.
Siegel says he wrote his book now because he sees so much misery in society, and he believes this is partly shaped by how we perceive our own minds. He talks of doing research in Namibia, where people he spoke to attributed their happiness to a sense of belonging.
When Siegel was asked in return whether he belonged in America, his answer was less upbeat: “I thought how isolated we all are and how disconnected we feel,” he says. “In our modern society we have this belief that mind is brain activity and this means the self, which comes from the mind, is separate and we don’t really belong. But we’re all part of each others’ lives. The mind is not just brain activity. When we realize it’s this relational process, there’s this huge shift in this sense of belonging.”
In other words, even perceiving our mind as simply a product of our brain, rather than relations, can make us feel more isolated. And to appreciate the benefits of interrelations, you simply have to open your mind.
The experience made me wonder about a question that has never let go of me: Are you more than your brain? Hardly a week goes by, it seems, without an enthusiastic report in the popular media about intriguing neuroscience research linking some human behavior to the function of a particular brain circuit. So you might hear that the insula lights up when you’re sad, another region when you’re happy and still another when you’re enjoying a drink or an orgasm.
For some reason we love to hear our mental experiences described in the language of neuroscience, yet what does it actually add to our understanding of ourselves to learn that our brain shows activity when we think and feel one thing or another? By itself, not a lot, except to encourage the erroneous and simplistic idea that the brain is an independent sovereign, calling all the shots.
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