Scientists and Their Gods

Carl Proper, April / July, 2014

 

“I believe in Spinoza’s God,” physicist Albert Einstein famously stated, but “not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.”

Paleontologist and Jesuit priest, Father Teilhard de Chardin, also living in the early 20th century, saw things differently: “The impersonal cosmos (the body) and the personal God (the soul) are uniting,” he believed. “Eventually, the world will have a single Soul.”

“People simply believe because they want to,” says the author of The Atheist and the Bonobo, Frans DeWaal. “This applies to all religions.”

I naturally — or perhaps as a consequence of a Christian upbringing (now mostly discarded) – assume, with Teilhard, that there is a deep and lasting significance to our lives in a vast universe. And, as a person with some education, I acknowledge the validity of the scientific method, which brings new and tested revelations every day. To see how these perspectives can be reconciled, we will look in this paper at the views of some modern prophets– scientists — to see how they understand body and spirit, matter and consciousness, determinism and free will, and the likely destiny – if any — of our species.

Common to the individuals discussed below is a perspective that looks far into the past and future, as well as far into space, to explain daily realities on the ground. Within this large framework, how might science and faith consistently address the questions summarized in the corner of Paul Gaugin’s painting of a South Sea paradise? “Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going?”

As a guide for the journey, I will take the admonition of Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama of Tibet: “empirical evidence should triumph over scriptural authority, no matter how deeply venerated a scripture may be.” That is, where science and religion conflict, go with the science. But where both point in the same direction, have faith.

As for Frans DeWaal’s (and Stephen Jay Gould’s) conviction, shared by some of my friends and many thoughtful students of science (my daughter included) — that there is nothing in the universe but the physical reality of matter, that there is no direction to evolution beyond the struggle of genes to survive, that humans are just one more species among many, that consciousness (presumably) is nothing but the interaction of neurons, and there is certainly no immanent, transcendent or developing consciousness that unites the universe – I disagree. I join with several, if not all, of the philosophers and scientists discussed below, in sensing a mysterious or sacred aspect to reality – as well as perceiving an objective and purposeful direction to the development of our universe, this planet, life on Earth – and perhaps to life on other planets as well.

Though we may not individually reach mankind’s, or our universe’s final destination, there is a basis for faith that we, as a species, are on a path toward a higher understanding.

I am concerned that the now common view among educated people that our universe, life, and conscious awareness are just random accidents, leading to an eventual dead end of no lasting significance, is a misreading of science as well as religion — a source of unnecessary sadness, and possible passivity in the face of real opportunities and threats.   It is my hope that the present inquiry may be of use to my own children, or to others seeking to reconcile the contradictions of life.

Baruch Spinoza: Natural Law is God’s Law

 

Baruch Spinoza was born in liberal Amsterdam in 1632, ten years before the birth of Isaac Newton in England, and near the dawn of modern scientific culture. He was descended from grandparents who had emigrated from Portugal to escape the church-led Inquisition that extended at that point throughout the Iberian Peninsula.   At the age of twenty-four, he was placed on trial and expelled from the Jewish community of Amsterdam for what the religious leadership deemed flagrant and outspoken atheism. He flatly rejected the charges, insisting that he saw God in everything.

spinoza Utterly confident and uncompromising in his philosophical views, Spinoza was kind and humble in interpersonal relationships, earning a modest living at work in his small apartment, grinding glass for microscopes and telescopes. He also made little money from his philosophical work – most of it banned from public sale, but widely distributed hand-to-hand. His ideas attracted the attention of European intellectuals like Gottfried Leibniz, co-inventor of calculus (and hypocritical butt of Voltaire’s Candide). He died at the age of forty-five, probably from respiratory infirmities stemming from his profession.

 

Einstein explained his admiration for Spinoza by crediting him as “the first philosopher to deal with the soul and the body as one, not two separate things (and) the first to apply with strict consistency the idea of an all-pervasive determinism to human thought, feeling, and action.”

Spinoza, in fact, defined God and Nature (the entire physical and conscious world) as one and the same: God WAS Nature.   And, he wrote, “things have been produced by God in the highest degree of perfection.” Since, logically, God could ONLY act perfectly, “things could be created in no other mode or order by him,” and would continue, essentially unchanged, throughout eternity.

Progress and change were not to be expected in a universe already and always perfect. Even God / Nature, therefore, “does not act from freedom of the will.” And to attribute tragic or positive events on Earth to divine intervention in the natural order, rather than seeking a rational explanation, was “the last refuge of ignorance.”

Of course, if even God must act in accord with the laws of Nature, humans, Spinoza believed, also lack free will. Human minds and bodies (Spinoza wrote at a time before the brain was generally recognized as the locus of thought) were one and the same. Every thought and every action is predetermined, but seems to us an act of choice, due to our incomplete understanding. “Man considers himself free,” writes Spinoza, “because he is conscious of his wishes and appetites, whilst at the same time he is ignorant of the causes by which he is led to wish and desire.”[i]

Remarkably, and in no less defiance of the political norms of his day than in his religious views, Spinoza advocated complete free thought, political freedom, and democracy with the same vigor as he denied the ultimate existence of free will in a deterministic universe.

Speaking with a passion no doubt derived from his personal experience, he insisted that “freedom is absolutely necessary for progress in science and the liberal arts… “[T]he more rulers strive to curtail freedom of speech, the more obstinately are they resisted… [T]he object of government is not to change men from rational beings into beasts or puppets, but to enable them to develop their minds and bodies in security, and to employ their reason unshackled… In fact, the true aim of government is liberty”

In politics as in science and religion, he blazed the path that many scientists follow to this day.

Spinoza was a man who followed his vision fearlessly, wherever it took him, living quietly, but writing and arguing with fire. Other than his linguistic preference for defining all of existence as “God,” rather than “Nature”, he precociously laid down the underlying principles of science almost 250 years before Einstein’s great year of discovery in 1905.

From this author’s point of view, however, Spinoza both defined the practical, deterministic path and assumptions natural science must follow, and articulated its central contradiction: if free choice is ultimately an illusion, what can words like “truth” and “freedom” mean? If there is not real choice somewhere, are we not just puppets on a stage? And, of course, in defining Nature as at all times perfect, Spinoza – and his times – had, as yet, no inkling of evolution.

Spinoza’s re-unification of body and spirit may prove his most lasting contribution – moving Western thought away from the Platonist view that the world we can see and touch is not real or worthy. He challenged the Christian view of his day, that the ideal and unseen universe of Heaven was vastly more important than anything that could be accomplished “down here” in the world of dirt and sin.

 

Albert Einstein: A Mystery Behind the Machine?

Albert Einstein, probably the most famous scientist in history, was born in the late 1800s to moderately well-off, non-reliEinsteingious Jewish parents in southwestern Germany. Like Isaac Newton in an earlier era, his revolutionary ideas in many areas continue to draw challenges and win confirmation long after his death[ii]. As a rebel and a Jew in early 20th century Germany, he had to struggle to win acceptance – then modestly accepted global rock-star status when his predictions of light bending and shifting toward red under the influence of gravity were experimentally found accurate, consistent with his General Theory of Relativity.

In his adherence to scientific principle, Einstein was as confident and uncompromising as Spinoza defending his philosophy. In the words of biographer Walter Isaacson, “Einstein… believed, as did Spinoza, that a person’s actions were just as determined as that of a billiard ball, planet or star.” “Everything is determined,” the voice of doom insisted, “the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control.” Lest he be accused of pandering to the public, he added, “I cannot conceive of a personal God who would directly influence the actions of individuals or would sit in judgment on creatures of his own creation.”

In his other religious and philosophical views, however, Einstein was less rigid. In contrast to Spinoza, he seems to have imagined a God distinct from our physical universe — possibly a Creator, but one who did not intervene in the daily affairs of the universe. “The most beautiful emotion we can experience,” he said, “is the mysterious…. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: that deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.”

His great discoveries and charming personality eventually won him huge popularity across the globe and in all classes of society, from Presidents to other scientists to the immigrant garment workers of New York City.

Both of the two scientific hard-ballers we have discussed so far were generally humane and modest in their personal lives, and generously radical in their political views – Spinoza as a democrat ahead of his time, and Einstein as a socialist. “From the standpoint of daily life,” Einstein put it, “there is one thing we do know; that we are here for the sake of others”

Einstein’s commitment to Spinoza’s determinism, however, and even his revelation of Relativity, may have placed excessive constraints on the free development of life, and science. His refusal to accept the findings of quantum science, with their suggestions of uncertainty, and their modifications to perfect “billiard ball” causation, Einstein came to appear unreasonably stubborn to some. He never overcame his mistrust in such quantum weirdness as “entangled” particles moving in tandem across cosmic distances.[iii] “It was as if the ground had been pulled out from under us,” he said, “with no firm foundation to be seen anywhere.”

As for Relativity, his graphic vision of Time as a fourth dimension opened possibilities for exploring the vast universe, while the speed-of-light “speed limit” in the theory suggested that humanity might remain trapped forever in a blue-green prison cell, staring through the window at a universe too far away to explore in the lifetime of any individual, or even the human race.

Charles Darwin: Nothing Stays the Same

While Spinoza described an essentially unchanging universe, and Einstein sought to expose unchanging laws, history and constant change were the essence of Charles Darwin’s work. He brought new, specific – and, for many people, unacceptable — answers to Gauguin’s three questions (see first and last pages of this essay): We are animals, related to all life on Earth; we are descended from earlier life forms; and we will continue to evolve. Like Spinoza, Darwin believed he was revealing God’s ways to man. His discoveries, though, provoked endless denunciation from those who believed in God’s daily management of the world, man’s uniqueness and our centrality to God’s plan. Creation, Darwin showed, is a continuous, natural process, and we are one of the most recent results.

Darwin’s ideas, merged in the Darwinearly 20th century with the science of genetics, provide the framework for the modern science of biology

Darwin was born in 1809 to a wealthy, Protestant, rural English family. His father encouraged him to be a farmer or Minister, but Darwin loved biology instead. His great opportunity arrived when, at the age of twenty-seven, he was hired as biologist on a five-year voyage that took him, aboard the HMS Beagle, to the islands of Cape Verde and Galapagos, to Brazil, and elsewhere. His close observation, in particular of differences among species of finches, each of which had apparently developed on a different Galapagos island, and of many similar histories, was followed by years of analysis, back home in England. Follow-up studies included rural English breeders’ guided re-design of various domestic species, and observations of change in many other species of plants and animals.   These strengthened and confirmed his world-changing theory.

Darwin at first frightened himself as he followed his observations to their logical conclusion, that all living species have been created through a natural process, over long periods of time – and not through divine intervention. He had developed a vision of a world where God lacked a role in everyday affairs, and where species, not individuals were the key actors. Humans, in this new interpretation, were descended from other, earlier species – making us peers, in this respect, to all of life.

 

As Darwin well understood, his discoveries challenged millennia of human belief, including the traditional Western perspective of human dominion over the world, based on individuals’ personal relationship with God. Other than a few articles, he did not write or publish his dangerous conclusions until after a competitor, Alfred Wallace, sent him a letter outlining virtually the same theory, based on field research in Brazil and the Malay Archipelago. At an 1858 presentation of both theories to the Linnaean Society, which Darwin did not attend, his discovery was recognized as prior to, and more thoroughly researched than Wallace’s. He then quickly published his work and findings in his magnum opus, “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,” which dealt with non-human development. This was followed a few years later by the still more shocking “The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex.”

Darwin CreatorFor his earthshaking ideas, Darwin was widely attacked, as he had known he would be, by traditional religious leaders. Over time, his own religious faith dwindled to a more agnostic position.

What was in his vision that so shocked traditional thinkers in his day, and still shocks today?

Following the discoveries of geologist Charles Lyell, Darwin described a world many millions of years old. Life, he said, had eventually emerged, spread and developed into innumerable species over many generations. New creatures had come into being through “natural selection” of the varieties best adapted to changing circumstance. The best-adapted individuals survived, displaced the rest, and the species changed.

Natural selection is good for the species, but not for each individual. The process is random, statistical – and inevitable. Darwin adheres to the guiding principle of science – determinism.   There is in his writing no suggestion of intent or direction to evolution.

And nothing in Darwin’s work suggests that he believed evolution would end with us. It is, we now recognize, our destiny to adapt to changes as they come along, or to die out. Over time, if we survive, we will become one or more different species.

  • Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: The Evolution of God

 

TeilhardBorn in France, in the last year of Darwin’s life (1881), Jesuit Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, was a committed believer in the evolution of life and the universe. He added to our knowledge of the evolutionary process as a practicing paleontologist, participating in excavation of the hominid skeleton known as “Peking Man.” As a mystic and Catholic philosopher, he also developed an original vision in which – and on this one point Spinoza might have agreed – matter and spirit were aspects of the same substance.

By re-envisioning evolution in a spiritual framework, Teilhard shocked the sensibilities of both hard scientists and orthodox Christians, but also managed also to attract supporters on both sides of the divide.

The hierarchy of the Catholic Church tolerated Teilhard for his deep spirituality, but did its best throughout his lifetime to protect the world from his unorthodox views.[iv] He was ordered, around 1923, to halt his lectures at the Catholic Institute. A few years later, his Jesuit superiors forbid him to teach altogether. His greatest work, The Phenomenon of Man, written in 1938, and other works, were blocked from official publication until after his death in 1955.

Forbidden to teach, preach, or publish, deChardin spent more than twenty years doing geologic and paleologic research in China – where exposure to the rising influence of radical socialism may have affected his vision of a rising, unified world consciousness.  The Church’s ban on his work was finally lifted in 1966, and by1981, the Vatican news outlet, l’Osservatore Romano, gave deChardin positive front-page coverage. Today, he has an international following, including many Jesuits who see him as a prophet.

As for the scientific response to Teilhard’s work, with a few important exceptions, colleagues dismissed his views.   “In 1961, Nobel Prize-winner Peter Medawar, a British immunologist, wrote a scornful review of The Phenomenon of Man for the journal Mind,[15] calling it ‘a bag of tricks’ and saying that the author had shown ‘an active willingness to be deceived.”

What was the philosophy that provoked such controversy?

For his supporters on both sides of the scientific / religious divide, de Chardin “squared the circle,” – resolving the conflict between the view that consciousness (spirit) is only an emergent feature of matter organized at a high level of complexity; and the insistence that “spirit” is immortal and distinct from matter. Teilhard argued that matter and consciousness are different aspects of the same reality at a fundamental level. A sort of pre-consciousness is inherent in all matter, he believed. It represents a tendency toward purposeful development, and eventually emerges as the consciousness of humans (and of some animals with complex neurological structure).

DeChardin expected that evolution on Earth would continue toward a higher stage: the emergence of a unified “collective, humane consciousness.” Individuals would continue to exist, but also – in a way analogous to cells forming a body – share a common consciousness. This destination he defined as the “Omega Point,” and sometimes equated with God himself.

Full consciousness, then, in Teilhard’s view, naturally emerges from matter organized at a high level of complexity, but as an inherent tendency of material nature to reflect on itself, not as a wholly new phenomenon.

God evolves.[v]

The course of Earthly events is not only toward greater complexity, leading to fuller consciousness, but toward the unity of human awareness and spirit – toward a moral, positive end. (He maintained his views even in the face of the horrific violence and hatred of two world wars — in the first of which he served as an ambulance driver — nuclear weapons and cold war. It is a vision based as much on faith and hope as on scientific study.)

For the science, and to some extent for his vision, Teilhard won the backing of biologist Julian Huxley, one of the architects of the “modern synthesis” of evolution and genetics. Huxley, the son of “Darwin’s bulldog” and defender, Thomas Huxley, wrote the Introduction to The Phenomenon of Man, in the face of criticism for allowing “magical” views to pollute science.

Teilhard also cited in support of his views the words of an early 20th century biologist and polymath J.B.S. Haldane, (whose name will come up again in discussing the contemporary view of evolution).   “We do not,” Haldane wrote, “find obvious evidence of life or mind in so-called inert matter….but if the scientific point of view is correct, we shall ultimately find them, at least in rudimentary forms, all through the universe…. Now, if the co-operation of some thousands of millions of cells in our brain can produce our consciousness, the idea becomes vastly more plausible that the co-operation of humanity, or some sections of it, may determine what Comte calls a Great Being.” This was also Teilhard’s view.[vi]

In a separate essay, Haldane also pointed out that early Christians, including St. Paul, were “materialists” in believing in bodily resurrection after death, rather than imagining a soul separated from the body.[vii]

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin both promoted and pushed back against Darwin’s life work, which took pre-scientific spirituality out of natural history. Teilhard helped to confirm and followed Darwin’s historical framework. At the same time, he restored a spirituality integrated with science. He believed that, with faith, science and spirituality can walk together.

Isaac Asimov and the Adventure of Science

 

Like religion, science also brings us visions.   We understand reality through mythic stories, as our distant ancestors did. Science fiction, in particular,             offers myths in which people like us explore as-yet unreachable regions of the planet, the universe and our future. These stories both enhance our understanding of the world, and illustrate the adventure, the power and the payoff of challenging and possibly boring scientific work.

AsimovPNG

Let’s take a quick look at some stories. We’ll begin with a different kind of scientific genius – Isaac Asimov.

Asimov was born in Russia in 1920. His family emigrated to the U.S. when he was three. He died in New York City in 1992.   During his lifetime, Asimov wrote during most of his waking hours, producing or editing more than 500 books and an estimated 90,000 letters and postcards.   The books included both “real” science – he was a Professor of Biochemistry at Boston University — and science fiction.

Among his most popular works were the Foundation and Robots science fiction series. In Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation, Asimov imagined a universe millenia in our future, populated by quintillions of people (surprisingly no more evolved than us), occupying and travelling casually between millions of populated planets and thousands of galaxies. In this universe, honest scientists and liberal democrats struggle against the forces of ignorance and oppression. Spoiler alert: in Asimov’s work, the good guys win. Technology is not the central issue; character is. But technology delivers on its promise.

In Asimov’s The Robots of Dawn and other Robot stories, helpful humanoid robots serve humanity. They are bound, unlike us — or our drones — by the three Laws of Robotics, to do no harm to humans. For the agnostic author, the universe tends toward morality. And, our expectations are raised for science’s ability to take us to the stars.

Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek television series of the 1970’s and ‘80’s also shaped the imagination of a generation, attracting millions of viewers, and giving a basis for “Trekkie” conventions years after the show left the air. New and sometimes “far out” concepts were explored in imaginative ways. A Bethesda neighbor of mine today, for example, now a semi-retired technology writer, recently wrote of a Roddenberry show that explored the inner workings of our brains, under the pretext of merging a Starship character’s cerebrum with the ship’s guidance mechanism.[viii] The show, at least for Bob Burruss, raised the distinction between reductionist neuroscience and Teilhard’s vision of consciousness. Neuroscience, he notes, defines consciousness as an emergent arrangement of matter, while Teilhard (and I) view it as an emergent property.

Movies, of course, also spread new and old speculation about alternative realities. The unabashedly mythic Star Wars movie universe, created by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, is populated by a wide variety of differently humanoid creatures from other galaxies, reflecting late-twentieth-century America’s increasingly cosmopolitan vision. Scientific knowledge and technology, again, are important to the extent they make the “game” of life more exciting.

It would be hard to find a scientist or astronaut today who was NOT inspired in youth by the artistic visions of one of these creators.

The distinction between a hopeful, but un-fact-checked science fiction vision of a universe — one where our descendants move freely through the vastness of space — and the restrictive vision of relentless determinism and relativity often pits hopeful “dreamers” against gloomy “realists”. The Realists, based on today’s limited knowledge, would confine the human race eternally to an insignificant portion of the universe, virtually encaged by the speed of light. But Dreamers – including some hard-headed scientists — see in the uncertainties and weirdness of quantum science, in suggestions of an anti-gravity in the expansion of our universe, and in other recent discoveries or speculations, the chance for an escape from the absurdity of a world where we look through our telescopes to the farthest times and distances of our universe – which we will never be able to reach.

Science fiction visions add greatly to the high regard we have for scientific research in our day. While science still competes with old-time religion as a way of explaining reality to the non-academic population, it is a respected institution, with credibility derived from improving our lives and enlarging our world. It is, at this point, also understood as a force for expanding freedom.

 

Hazen       A contemporary view: Robert M. Hazen

 

A recent lecture series by Earth Scientist Robert Hazen, a Professor at George Mason University, available on CD by the Learning Company, and free at public libraries around the country, lays out in a matter-of-fact way a contemporary scientific view of who we humans are, and how and from where we have arisen. His work represents, for the most part, an expert, consensus view, with lectures focused mainly on detailed chemical and geologic factors, summaries of key experiments, consideration of varied possibilities, and so on.

But in tracing the probable origins of life on Earth, and singling out dominant trends over millions of years, Professor Hazen presents a profound and rather stunning vision of life and consciousness as natural, almost inevitable products of our material planet, the energy supplied to us by the sun, and eons of time. And probably not the final products.

In his close analysis of nature, Prof. Hazen reinforces much of Teilhard De Chardin’s message: there is a direction to evolution, one of growing complexity, newly emergent[ix] patterns and behaviors, and gradual revelation of new and unpredictable characteristics of matter.

Once the Earth’s initial violent formation was completed, Hazen explains, and the planet cooled to a point where large water oceans could form, a process leading to life began. Whether in tidal pools, underwater vents or sheltered mineral deposits, simple molecules, energized by ultraviolet radiation in an atmosphere with no initial ozone protection, gradually and spontaneously combined into complex organic molecules, then to life, and eventually, after a long Darwinian process, to conscious life.

Hazen describes a random but evolutionary process in our universe through which, once a large enough number of interacting particles of any kind come together – whether hydrogen nuclei, stars, planets, simple molecules, or complex organic molecules and organisms — and energy is applied to the system, – the units self-organize into patterns, forming complex and completely novel structures. New behaviors “emerge.” Billions of stars organize into galaxies, grains of sand self-organize into sand dunes, large numbers of neurons form animal brains, brains form networks with up to trillions of connections and grow increasingly conscious. Scientists and mathematicians are still struggling to formulate a mathematical description for the process – but it happens.

“Random,” that is to say, does not mean “without direction,” in Hazen’s argument – far from it.   “The theory of emergence,” as he sums it up, “argues for an inexorable evolution of the cosmos, from atoms to stars to planets to life…. [These emerging structures and behaviors] appear to be much more than the sum of the parts… New, often surprising behaviors emerge with each new level of complexity.” Conscious awareness, for example, is considered to gradually “emerge” as a product of matter energized and organized to growing levels of complexity[x]. Our brains are the most complex entities of which we are now aware.

 “Spirit” (consciousness) is now associated with a material process, but the question whether this new “behavior” simply is matter is not addressed. If so, there would certainly be more to matter than we had previously imagined. [xi]

“And perhaps,” Hazen adds in his conclusion to the twenty-four lecture course, “the universe [elsewhere] holds levels of emergence beyond individual consciousness, and beyond even the collective accomplishments of human societies. If that’s true, then the story of life’s origins and evolution is far from over.[xii]

Potentially emergent further along in the process of this universe, as one of many possibilities, could be something similar to Teilhard’s, or Haldane’s or Comte’s “Great Being” – a unified human consciousness – though we cannot know in advance which way nature will move. “We recognize this progression only in hindsight,” Hazen asserts. “Emergent phenomena are all but impossible to predict from observations of earlier stages.”

Whatever future steps may await our species, Hazen’s lectures challenge not only traditional religious distinctions between matter and spirit, but also the view of the late evolutionary biologist and atheist, Stephen Jay Gould (or Frans deWaal) that humans are only one more among myriad equal life forms on our planet[xiii]. The identification of a trend toward increasing complexity supports instead, a Teilhard-like vision of human life as the growing shoot of life’s development – with our complex and conscious brains at the tip of the shoot.

As has been clear through one hundred fifty years of discussion about natural selection, no external intervention is required for the development of emerging complexity. We may, however, reasonably ask why it is that we live in a universe where this seemingly improbable trend is part of Nature’s program. Confronted with questions of this kind, some scientists have responded defensively, predicting that many other universes may exist, where nature’s laws are randomly different from ours, and NO life emerges.

As yet, there is no compelling evidence of any universe beyond our own, and certainly no hint of possibly different natural laws.

Back in our universe and on Earth, given the natural flow of the process, it seems likely that new, more complex and surprising phenomena will continue to emerge. It is likely, as well, that initial conditions similar to those on Earth may have existed on planets, in other solar systems. Life may already have emerged elsewhere, or will emerge in the future. Certainly, many astronomers and biologists are looking for it. A “second genesis” on a different planet, Hazen points out, would “reveal countless details about life’s inevitable origin.”[xiv]

 …


CONCLUSION: The convergence of science and religion

 

Atheism

                     Determinism                                                                             Materialism                   trapped          C

 In Stephen Jay Gould’s writing, as in Frans De Waal’s “The Atheist and the Bonobo” (a movingly written treatise on the natural origins of morality in earlier life forms) — the universe, Earth, life and consciousness simply are. We have, a common atheist message seems to say, arrived here without a plan, and will move forward on a random path, possibly a short one, until entropy is restored. The human species is one among many species, all of equal value, all made of the same building blocks, and none more “advanced” than another. There is no direction, no destination, and little purpose beyond consoling each other and appreciating the beauty of the day. If the human race were to disappear, and the rest of life to remain, the loss would be of minor importance.

While DeWaal is condescendingly respectful of the socially adaptive utility of religion, he is also fundamentally dismissive of faith. Effectively paraphrasing Spinoza, he asserts that, “People simply believe because they want to,” he says. “This applies to all religions… Accepting that faith is driven by values and desires makes at once for a great contrast with science.”

But perhaps the contrast is not so great.

I would argue that deterministic materialism also requires a kind of faith – faith that our mental observations, though effectively programmed since the beginning of time, accurately describe reality at its deepest level. If the invariant motion of atoms controls all our thoughts, as Haldane noted, there is no foundation for logic[xv]And even Einstein acknowledged that “I am compelled to act as if free will existed, because if I wish to live in a civilized society I must act responsibly.” [xvi]

I would say, instead, that paradox and uncertainty are as universal as cause and effect. We must have faith in our observations to live, or to do science.

Authors like Gould and DeWaal would also do well to acknowledge the variety of religious experience. They appear to limit “faith” to those who do not understand science, and substitute magical beliefs for cause and effect. This is true even though DeWaal begins his story by describing a panel he appeared on with Tibet’s Dalai Lama, who clearly stated that where science and religious scripture conflict, the scientific view should always prevail.

But that many people WANT to believe there is a real meaning to life, a goal for humanity, and the ability to make free decisions, is true enough. And as long as advocates for science insist that our consciousness is ONLY the collision of billiard-ball-like particlevendors briefly stimulated to life, that there is no direction to evolution, that humans are no more advanced than other animals, that the universe is out there for us to see, but too far away to touch, and so on, who would not look elsewhere for inspiration?

The man in the New Yorker cartoon has little reason to be happy:

And certainly, most of us would prefer to be one of the little automata turning aside for a smoke in the accompanying cartoon; rather than carrying on like one billiard ball striking another.

Fortunately, much of science has now moved beyond the “billiard ball” world of absolute certainty. We live in a world of quantum uncertainty that Einstein helped reveal, but later rejected, where “particles” exist simultaneously as “waves,” and may “entangle” with other particles vast distances away[xvii]. We hear that space and entire universes may appear complete and almost instantly from “singularities” of infinite heat and mass, but occupying no space. Numerous hardheaded scientists expect that life, probably similar to ours, exists in many parts of our universe, and are actively searching for it.   And many continue to believe we will one day travel throughout the universe, current Relativity Theory notwithstanding.

On the other side of the gap, some religions have come to terms with the expanding body of scientific knowledge. Early Unitarian philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote and preached about a God who was “immanent” in our bodies – not so different from Spinoza’s God. The Dalai Lama sees no contradiction between Buddhism and science. Many Christian churches place more emphasis on improving conditions in this world, rather than waiting for the next. And many people – especially young people — speak of being “spiritual,” but not “religious.”

The convergent descriptions by Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin and Earth Scientist Robert Hazen of the origins of life and consciousness point to a potential common understanding. If there is something in the nature of matter that tends toward life, consciousness and the probable emergence of more advanced states of awareness, the separation of matter and spirit may be unnecessary. If we are here so the universe can reflect on itself, if we have the potential for exploring that universe, and are at the beginning of that long adventure, if Einstein’s “superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe” is actually leading us toward a higher reality in this universe, do we still need an individual heaven?

As individuals, like all animals, we will die. But not for nothing.

I would argue that it is premature, at best, to conclude there is no intelligence behind our existence, or that our thoughts are so pre-determined as to disallow real decisions. There is a potentially great destiny for humanity, for life on Earth, and in our universe, if we take our choices seriously.  The emergence of consciousness from matter – and the potential in all matter for creating consciousness — is the most spectacular surprise to date.

To view faith as simply wishful thinking is wrong. Faith of some kind is a necessity for taking the next step.

Martin Luther King, like Teilhard de Chardin, had a vision of a promised land, one that he, as an individual, might never reach. “But I want you to know,” he said, on his last evening, “that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”

In a mission with a longer term than King was addressing that night, we are all in the same position. The potential for transcendent understanding is in us, but in its full form, surely far away.

Our universe seems directed toward the development of species and the creation of a self-aware whole, not the lives and deaths of individuals.

We can now answer, with ever-expanding detail, the questions on the painting below. But can we, one day, with our fellow-beings, make that paradise – not excluding the dying old woman on the left – real throughout our universe?  That will surely require faith and hope – and some force in the universe to back us up.

Who are we?  Where do we come from?  Where are we going?

                                                            Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? — Paul Gauguin

 

 

 

SOURCES

Isaac Asimov, The Foundation Trilogy, Doubleday & Co, 1951, 1952, 1953

Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, with Introduction by George Levine, Barnes & Noble Classics, New York, 2004

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, manuscript 1938, first publication in English by Wm Collins Sons & Co., Ltd., London and Harper & Row, 1959, with Introduction by Julian Huxley, 1958; Harper Colophon edition published 1975

Frans De Waal, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, Norton & Co., New York, 2013

Robert M. Hazen, “Origins of Life, Part 1 and Part 2,” audio lecture course and guidebook, The Great Courses (The Teaching Company Limited Partnership, 2005)

Walter Isaacson, “Einstein: His Life and Universe”, and: http://einsteinandreligion.com/meaninglife.html

 

Baruch Spinoza, selections from: Ethics, Part 1, and Theologico-Politico Treatise (from Monroe C. Beardsley, The European Philosophers From Descartes to Nietsche, Modern Library, New York, 1960

 

Matthew Steward, “The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza and the Fate of God”, 2006, Ww Norton & Co., New York

Robert Burruss, “Photons and Electrons: A Speculation On The Material Basis Of Consciousness, Inspired By Mr. Feynman And Capt. Picard’s Holodeck Horse,” posted: November 23, 2011

J.B.S. Haldane, “The Origin of Life,” http://www.uv.es/~orilife/textos/Haldane.pdf (c. 1929)

Michael Powell, “A Knack for Bashing Orthodoxy,” NY Times, September 19, 2011

Chris Stedman, “Frans de Waal on Ken Ham, Richard Dawkins, and morality without religion” – http://chrisstedman.religionnews.com/2014/02/28/frans-de-waal-ken-ham-richard-dawkins-morality-without-religion/

Wikipedia biographies:

Isaac Asimov

Charles Darwin

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Stephen Jay Gould

J.B.S. Haldane

 

[i] Spinoza, Ethics, Part 1

[ii] Einstein’s prediction of “gravity waves” from the explosion that gave birth to our universe fourteen billion years ago was apparently confirmed a week before I write these words by scientists who may earn a Nobel Prize for their description of the “Big Bang.”

[iii] Isaacson (supra), p. 458

[iv] Much of the biographical material on Teilhard deChardin is from Wikipedia

[v] Much of the biographical material on Teilhard deChardin is from Wikipedia

[vi] J.B.S. Haldane, Essay on Science and Ethics in The Inequality of Man, Chatto, 1932; cited in Phenomenon of Man, p. 57

[vii] “…the earlyChristians held many views which are now regarded as materialistic. They believed in the resurrection of the body, not the immortality of the soul.” — J.B.S. Haldane, The Origin of Life,”   “The Origin of Life,” http://www.uv.es/~orilife/textos/Haldane.pdf (c. 1929)

[viii] “Photons And Electrons: A Speculation On The Material Basis Of Consciousness, Inspired By Mr. Feynman And Capt. Picard’s Holodeck Horse,” unpublished article posted: November 23, 2011, by Robert Burruss

[ix] Emergence” is the consensus scientific view as to how new phenomena gradually develop in nature – rather than suddenly appearing from nowhere.

[x] Oliver Sacks, in a fascinating article, “The Mental Life of Plants and Worms, Among Others,” in the April, 2014 New York Review of Books, reports on the long emergence of intelligence / mind / consciousness. Charles Darwin’s last book, Sacks notes, dealt with the contribution of worms to developing soil. Darwin believed he detected in worms “the presence of a mind of some kind.” His student, George John Romane, conducted research on nerve cells resembling our own in jellyfish. Later researchers have found that jellyfish have about one thousand neurons. Insects (bees) may have up to one million. An octopus may have half a billion nerve cells distributed between its brain and its ‘arms.’ Human brains have one hundred billion neurons, organized through trillions of connections. And Daniel Chamovitz, in “What a Plant Knows,” (2012) explains that, though plants lack neurons altogether, they “are capable of registering what we would call sights, sounds, tactile signal, and much more.”

[xi] The question as to the nature and origins of consciousness has some relevance to this paper. That a phenomenon which most philosophers see as a different kind of thing from “inert” matter would suddenly emerge, ex nihilo, when matter reaches a certain level of complexity seems a virtual (and improbable) second creation. That consciousness may have evolved from the beginnings of material reality, and then “emerged” as a central life characteristic after a period of evolution seems more likely to me. A third possibility also exists – that some form of consciousness, or spirit, has an existence separate from brute matter, but normally aligns with matter in our universe.

[xii] Robert M. Hazen, “Origins of Life,” (guidebook to lecture course), Part 2, p. 72

[xiii] “life shows no trend to complexity in the usual sense — only an asymmetrical expansion of diversity…”, Stephen Jay Gould,   Eight Little Piggies: Reflections in Natural History, New York: W. W. Norton, 1993, p. 322.

[xiv] Hazen, “Origins of Life, Part 2”, guidebook, Lecture 24, p. 72

[xv] “[I]f my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true. They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically.”

[xvi] Isaacson (supra), p. 392

[xvii] As I revise this text, a new report has appeared in Science magazine and elsewhere of “entangled” particles transmitting information to each other at about ten thousand times the speed of light, not simultaneously.

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Matter, Consciousness, and All That

1)      Is existence determined by the consistent behavior of fundamental material particles?

Spinoza and Albert Einstein were adamant on this point. In Einstein’s words, “Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control.” He added, however: “I am compelled to act as if free will existed, because if I wish to live in a civilized society I must act responsibly.”

His convictions were challenged by the rise of quantum theory, which identified some areas of uncertainty. As Einstein’s biographer, Walter Isaacson[i], noted: “Einstein quickly realized that quantum theory could undermine classical physics.”   Einstein himself acknowledged that “It was as if the ground had been pulled out from under us, with no firm foundation to be seen anywhere.”

We live today in a quantum world. Scientists have shown they can make extremely accurate predictions based on deterministic cause and effect. The recent identification of “gravity waves,” as predicted by Einstein, which depended on amazingly precise measurement, is an example. But a world of quantum waves that may stretch to other parts of the universe, or “entangle” instantaneously with waves / particles in distant places, seems a less solid basis for deterministic causality than a world of particles colliding like billiard balls.

Where there is uncertainty, some freedom is not absolutely ruled out.

 

2)      Is consciousness merely the motion of molecules or the interaction of neurons in our brains?

No. Consciousness may be a product of those interactions, but most philosophers would agree that the experience of life is a different kind of thing from any observation one can make of it. As an illustration of the difference, Colin McGinn, writing in the April, 2014 New York Review of Books, cites some well-known examples, noting that “a blind man ignorant of the nature of color will never come to understand what color is (while remaining blind),” and “our inability to imagine what it is like to be a bat is permanent, since our imagination is constrained by the type of mind that we happen to have.”

So, we know of at least two kinds of things in our universe: the interaction of matter, and the phenomenon of awareness, or consciousness.

The above does NOT contradict the possibility that our conscious thoughts are completely determined by their material base. Spinoza boldly dismissed all other possibilities: “Man considers himself free,” he says, “because he is conscious of his wishes and appetites, whilst at the same time he is ignorant of the causes by which he is led to wish and desire.”

Colin McGinn grimly acknowledges in the book review referenced above that: “If there is anyone left in the world who does not believe that the mind can be minutely controlled by the brain, right down to particular molecules, then this book (‘Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain,’ by Patricia S. Churchland) might disabuse them of such ideas.”

The late J.B.S. Haldane, a polymath and biologist in the first half of the 20th century, was an example of a person who did NOT believe physical matter controls our thoughts. More interestingly, he also commented that “if my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true. They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically.”[ii]

The argument from logic resonates with me: if we lack free will, it seems quite a leap of faith to trust that ideas we were effectively programmed to hold long before we were born, are true.   How would we ever discover that we were NOT living in a “Matrix” situation? Are the wind-up toys in the cartoon on this page pre-programmed to understand their situation?

It may, in fact, be impossible to understand our situation here on Earth without faith of some kind. The same Baruch Spinoza who dismissed the possibility of ontological freedom also insists that political “freedom is absolutely necessary for progress in science and the liberal arts.” Einstein (and probably most scientists) would agree. Perhaps the “quantum weirdness” he resisted to the end of his days is our only hope for actual, not illusory freedom.

 

3)      Is there a direction to evolution?

Paleontologist / Catholic priest / philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, writing in the first half of the 20th century, described a mystical vision of evolution. Teilhard believed that all matter had a spiritual quality and was fore-ordained to evolve toward life (seen as a “biosphere” surrounding the Earth), then to individual consciousness (the noosphere), and then to universal consciousness, which he called the Omega Point. In effect, he shared Spinoza’s belief that God was immanent in Nature, but differed not only in understanding that life evolved, but in believing that it evolved through stages toward a moral transfiguration. For Teilhard, evolution was the ancient God’s progression through time toward the goodness of Christ.

Earth Sciences Professor Robert Hazen, in a Learning Company lecture course recorded on CD in 2005, lays out a more dispassionate view of the “Origins of Life” on our planet – but one still resonant of Teilhard’s revelation. The Theory of Emergence that Hazen and most contemporary scientists follow appears built into the nature of the universe itself. The direction is toward increasing complexity.

As Hazen describes the process of “emergence”, once enough interacting particles of any kind come together – whether hydrogen nuclei, stars, planets, complex molecules, organisms or neurons — and energy is applied to the system – the units self-organize into patterns of increasing complexity and novel structure. The new structures “appear to be much more than the sum of the parts… New, often surprising behaviors emerge with each new level of complexity.”

Once the Earth’s initial violent formation was completed, Hazen explains, and the planet cooled to a point where large water oceans could form, a process leading to life began. Whether in tidal pools, underwater vents or sheltered mineral deposits, simple molecules, energized by ultraviolet radiation in an atmosphere with no initial ozone protection, gradually and spontaneously combined into complex organic molecules, then to life.

In the course summary, Hazen gives an overview of the process that goes beyond the emergence of life. “The theory of emergence,” as he sums it up, “argues for an inexorable evolution of the cosmos, from atoms to stars to planets to life.” But “we recognize this progression only in hindsight…. Emergent phenomena are all but impossible to predict from observations of earlier stages.” [iii]

Hazen – and this is the consensus view of contemporary scientists — describes the origin of consciousness as simply the latest emergent step. Human brains are the most complex entities of which we are now aware. This places us, I would say, in a leading role on our planet.

But, “perhaps,” he concludes, “the universe [beyond Earth] holds levels of emergence beyond individual consciousness, and beyond even the collective accomplishments of human societies. If that’s true, then the story of life’s origins and evolution is far from over.”

Certainly, given the natural flow of evolution, it seems likely that new, more complex and surprising phenomena will continue to emerge. One possibility, among many, is that something akin to Comte, Haldane and Teilhard’s vision of an emerging collective consciousness on Earth lies in our future.

Many scientists in addition to Hazen, of course, now also find it likely that life may already have emerged elsewhere in the universe, or will emerge in the future. Certainly, many astronomers and biologists are looking for it. A “second genesis” on a different planet, Hazen points out, would “reveal countless details about life’s inevitable origin.”

As has been clear through one hundred fifty years of discussion about natural selection, no external intervention is required to shape Nature’s pattern of emerging complexity. We may, however, reasonably ask why it is that we live in a universe where this seemingly improbable trend is part of Nature’s program.

Hazen’s lectures, and the Theory of Emergence, in fact, challenge not only traditional religious distinctions between matter and spirit, but also the now common perspective that humans are only one among myriad equal life forms on our planet. Confronted with evidence of progressive and directional evolution, and with the extraordinary “friendliness” towards life in general on our planet, some scientists and some atheists have responded defensively, predicting that many other universes may exist, where nature’s laws are randomly different from ours, and NO life or no consciousness emerge.

As yet, there is no compelling evidence of any universe beyond our own, and certainly no hint of possibly different natural laws.

4)      Is consciousness an “arrangement” of matter, or a “property” of matter?

The question here – addressed directly by Teilhard de Chardin, but not by Hazen – is: does consciousness emerge ex nihilo from matter, once it attains a certain level of complexity, billions of years after formation of the universe? Or is there a “pre-conscious” characteristic of all matter, or of certain particles, that develops into “full” consciousness through a long evolutionary process?

A Bethesda neighbor of mine, Robert Burruss – a former newspaper technology writer, has suggested a way of thinking about the origins of consciousness in pre-life. Every physical interaction – down to the collision of a photon with an electron, or the reaction to sunlight of a stone – may be said to communicate some information. But actual intelligence or awareness would only begin with the ability to compare two events or states. Even a one-celled paramecium, of course, can distinguish between food (which it surrounds and absorbs) and non-food.

Also critical to perception and consciousness is the ability to filter out irrelevant information. Burruss uses the analogy of a newborn child whose senses receive an overwhelming amount of information which s/he is at first totally unable to differentiate. Vision, for example, would be a complete blur until the mind learns to focus on discrete objects and ignore the rest.

A rock in the sun would, by comparison, have no means to compare or filter all the information reaching it – but the material of which it is made would still have the potential for consciousness when properly organized.

However this may be, many investigators have traced the origins of consciousness far back in time, if not to an elementary “quantum” unit of a colliding electron and photon.

Oliver Sacks, for example, in a fascinating article, “The Mental Life of Plants and Worms, Among Others,” in the April, 2014 New York Review of Books, reports on numerous scientific investigations into the emergence of “mind” or consciousness. Daniel Chamovitz, for one, comments in “What a Plant Knows,” (2012) that, though plants lack neurons, they “are capable of registering what we would call sights, sounds, tactile signal, and much more.” Charles Darwin believed he detected in worms “the presence of a mind of some kind.” His student, George John Romane, conducted what he described as “comparative psychology” research on nerve cells in jellyfish. The young Sigmund Freud, working in a physiology lab in Vienna, “was able to show and illustrate, in meticulous, beautiful drawings, that the nerve cells in crayfish were basically similar to those of lampreys—or human beings.”

More recent research has added numbers to this history. Jellyfish have about one thousand nerve cells, bees have up to one million, and the octopus may have half a billion nerve cells distributed between its brain and its ‘arms.’ Human brains are distinguished by our one hundred billion neurons, organized through trillions of connections.

Though Hazen appears to argue that emergence initiates completely novel realities, which appear to be much more than the sum of their parts, I favor the view of consciousness as a property of matter, which then emerges into full bloom in higher forms of animal life. Since consciousness is so fundamentally different from “billiard ball” matter, its sudden appearance from nowhere, billions of years after the formation of matter, would seem more like a second creation than simply the product of a new structure of matter, comparable to planets forming from the residue of exploded stars, or organic molecules learning to reproduce.

There appears, in any event, to be a characteristic of matter that can produce the immaterial phenomenon of consciousness, a quality which may have evolved from the beginning of time. This is a remarkable characteristic of our universe, one that would be hard to account for as “just the way things are.” Perhaps it was among the factors that prompted Einstein’s observation that: “To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: that deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.”[iv]

………..

5. Will the future be like today?

In speaking of universal history as a slow and often bloody march of progress, we must consider what to expect of the future. Obviously, and even if we assume that all is determined, we don’t know. But there are a number of realistic and radical possibilities:

  • We now have it in our power to destroy ourselves and most life on Earth. Anyone’s guess on this is as good as another’s. I would hope there is another populated planet – or perhaps a million – to pick up in case we drop out.
  • “Synthetic biology” is now the subject of high school experiments and courses. This is about creating new life forms. We can expect human and animal life to be changed in science labs in fantastic ways, for good, ill or both.
  • Space travel may turn out to be viable.       We may encounter intelligent life outside our solar system and be changed for better or worse.
  • Collective human consciousness, or other weirdness may be emerging outside our awareness. Next steps may not be obvious.
  • Or, we may just continue to evolve in less dramatic ways

It seems likely that change will accelerate, and the future will look very different.

 

6)  “Religious” questions

We will deal here with questions that don’t have definite answers, but perhaps we can narrow the differences between “believers” and “atheists” by looking beyond the least probable.

 

      Is reality eternal?

The universe today is known to be larger than people throughout most of history could have imagined. There are trillions of stars (at least) and possibly many planets with life. Some scientists speculate that there are many universes, and others popping (Big Banging) into existence from “time?” to “time.” Our material / mental multiverse could be eternal, with universes rising and falling and rising again.

If universes collapse into “singularities” and rise again, then entropy, time and life could be cyclical. Our religious myths are mostly too small. Only science fiction seems to have any grip on the situation.

 

      Is Nature God?

This perspective seemed good enough for Spinoza, who was dazzled by the rise of natural science. For most of us, if there is no purpose, there is no God.

But a God “immanent” in Nature, and moving, through us, in a definite direction, was good enough for Teilhard de Chardin, and could be inspiration enough for most of us.

 

      Is God / Nature “good?” And do we have immortal spirits that go to heaven when our bodies die?

 Voltaire, in Candide, demolished Leibniz’ sycophantic pretense that we live in the “best of all possible worlds.” How could it be good for innocent children to die miserable deaths — in the great Portuguese earthquake of Voltaire’s day, or in shipwrecks, for example?

We are related to all life on Earth.   Many other life forms are conscious. Our closest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, are genetically almost identical to us. So, do chimpanzees have an immortal spirit? Do dogs and cats? Ants and bacteria? This seems unlikely.

Evolution and survival seem focused on the species and the tribe, with individuals regularly exposed to random dangers, sometimes including sacrificing themselves for the good of their family or group. If life is not about us as individuals, it seems implausible that this changes with death.

I would say that God, Nature, or whatever “spirit” motivates the universe or multiverse, appears to be a “big picture” kind of entity. The world evolves, but individuals often suffer and always die. We should try to take satisfaction in the progress of life, the happiness and achievements of friends and family, and the beauty of the Earth.  

 

      Are we are part of something extraordinary?

Absolutely. The evolution of Earth to date is consistent with the possibility of a purposeful God, or with conscious Nature. If consciousness can emerge from “brute matter,” could there be a spiritual consciousness without matter? And do we participate in that?

We don’t know. That is a question of faith.

….

 

[i] Isaacson, Walter, “Einstein: His Life and Universe,”….

[ii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._B._S._Haldane

[iii] Hazen, Robert M. , “Origins of Life, Part 1 and Part 2,” audio lecture course and guidebook, The Great Courses (The Teaching Company Limited Partnership, 2005)

[iv] Isaacson, ibid