Category Archives: Philosophy

From Simplicity to Complexity

What makes the existence of life and the universe seem so improbable? Without question, the incredible complexity of all things is at the heart of the improbability dilemma. And it requires some form of explanation. In order to properly examine improbability, we must first address complexity. How can complexity be explained?

The complexity of the universe is staggering, in some ways beyond human understanding. For many, this fact alone can’t be accounted for without a design, particularly when the only alternative considered is chance. With this comparison, design usually wins over chance, and design implies a designer. Ancient civilizations observed a universe that was much simpler—in their eyes—than the universe we know exists today. Nevertheless, it would have appeared complex enough to invoke a designer. Even a number of natural phenomena that are easily explained today were attributed to gods.

Our present understanding of the universe reveals a universe that is far more complex than the ancients could have imagined. We have the opportunity of looking back in time for answers—back to a time when the universe wasn’t nearly as complex. Through a series of scientific discoveries, simple origins were found to be the precursors of the present universe.

Darwin opened our eyes, albeit slowly, with his insights on evolution. As it pertains to life, Darwin showed us a different way of thinking about the emergence of life. His theory of evolution by natural selection broke down the complexity of life into incremental steps. He managed to shift the focus from the finished product (or the present product) to the steps that led to it. According to Darwin, and verified by other more recent discoveries, life has evolved from simple beginnings—simple relative to its present state. It all began with single cell organisms, and perhaps only one. Now we have a world full of diverse and complex life forms, some containing trillions of cells. Darwin showed that from simple origins, complexity could arise over time, and by a natural process.

Even the life that we see today starts simple, and grows in complexity. For example, a tree begins with a single seed, and grows to a complex structure of roots, branches and leaves. When I look at a seed I find it difficult to imagine that a tree can come out of it, and yet it does so naturally. Like the seed of a tree, a human being also has a simple beginning—we were all initially a single cell. You could make the argument that a cell is complex on its own, and it is, however, millions and trillions of cells working in unison is several orders of magnitude more complex. Keep in mind that what we classify as the origin of life—a single cell—is somewhat arbitrary. Even a cell has to be constructed from simpler chemical processes, which at some point we call life. Although life, especially the origin of life, is an amazing and mysterious process, we can clearly see that it moves in a direction from simplicity to complexity.

Now let’s turn our attention to the universe as a whole, and see if the same principle applies. After Darwin had provided an explanation for the evolution of life, it was not automatically assumed that the universe evolves by a similar process. In fact, the idea that the universe was eternal and unchanging was a long-held belief by the general population and scientists alike. This idea took some time to overthrow. But by the mid-twentieth century, new discoveries were pointing directly towards an evolving universe; one which had a beginning.

The big bang is analogous to a cell. Just as a single cell can be viewed as the origin of life, the big bang can be viewed as the origin of the universe. And as I mentioned earlier, a cell can also be thought of as complex, but nowhere near as complex as the life that arose from it. The universe can also be viewed in a similar light. Although the big bang was not necessarily a simple event, it was nonetheless simpler than the universe that emerged from it.

Scientists theorize that a substantial amount of activity occurred at the initial moment of creation. The basic forces of nature emerged (gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces), as well as a host of elementary particles (such as photons, protons, neutrons and electrons). Space and time as we know it were also created.  All that and more happened in a tiny fraction of a second. On the surface, this seems to present a problem as far as a simple beginning is concerned, however, there is more to consider.

In spite of this initial creative activity, for the first 300,000 to 500,000 years the universe was nothing more than an enormous cloud of hot expanding gas. Complexity would then increase gradually over time—in a sort of cosmic natural selection. It took one billion years before stars and galaxies formed. A few more billion years before supernovae explosions (the death of stars) created and distributed the heavier elements necessary for life. Simple life on earth emerged 9.9 billion years after the big bang. And from there it would take over 3 billion years of evolution to arrive at modern humans. From this simplified timeline, we can see that the early universe was much simpler than it is now—the result of 13.7 billion years of cosmic evolution.

There is another point worth noting that relates to the discussion. The big bang theory is a theory that describes the universe a fraction of a second after the universe came into existence. The big bang theory is silent on the cause of the creation event. Although scientists speculate on what the cause may have been, the big bang represents the edge of our present ability to understand the universe, a theoretical time barrier that we have not yet crossed. I like the way Bill Bryson wraps up the discussion regarding the cause of the big bang. In  A Short History of Nearly Everything, he writes:

“… it may be that space and time had some other forms altogether before the Big Bang—forms too alien for us to imagine—and that the Big Bang represents some sort of transition phase, where the universe went from a form we can’t understand to one we almost can.”

Like a cell, which is created by more elementary processes, the big bang could have been a transition phase that was precipitated by a simpler pre-existing cosmos. Some scientists even suggest that the universe may have been created out of nothing. And by nothing, I don’t think they really mean nothing, but perhaps something very small that we don’t completely understand. Physicists now believe that you have to incorporate aspects of the quantum world in order to understand the big bang. And if you go by quantum theory, particles can spontaneously come in and out of existence from nothingness. That is the nothing that scientists are talking about. Bryson writes: “It seems impossible that you could get something from nothing, but the fact that once there was nothing and now there is a universe is evident proof that you can.” Therefore, if the universe was created from nothing or very little, you can’t get much simpler than that. And if this is even remotely correct, the principle of things moving from simplicity to complexity definitely applies to the universe as a whole.

Having said all that about complexity, let’s insert improbability into the equation. Both life and the universe evolved from simple origins, and through incremental steps, have grown in complexity. Although this does not explain how the simple origin came about, it does show that complexity can be achieved by gradual steps, even if the finished product seems improbable—improbable by means other than design. Also, an after the fact approach of looking only at the finished product can be deceiving, that is in terms of what improbability entails. If something is improbable, does it mean that it can’t happen? And because the existence of life and the universe appears improbable, does it mean that it came about by design?

Let’s begin with a simple exercise. Do you remember what you did yesterday? I mean everything you did yesterday. If you went to work, think about the route you took, and the exact location of the cars you passed. What about the people you met and the exact time you met them. Then there are the phone calls or emails you received. Where did you have lunch, what did you eat, and with whom? What tasks did you perform? And what about after work, what else happened? You get the idea. Although you may think you had an ordinary day, the fact is that the exact details of your day will never happen again. Yesterday, just as it occurred, was extremely improbable. And today, tomorrow, and every other day will unfold in a way that is also improbable.

Now let’s look at another example, something more profound than an ordinary day—your own existence. In order for you to have a life, an almost endless series of events had to occur. Think about the coupling of your parents, and their parents, and every ancestor that came before that. In order for you to exist, every combination of ancestors had to mate, and possibly at the exact time that they did. I will spare you the trouble of going any further down the evolutionary line, but the basic idea is that your life is extraordinarily improbable. And so is my life and everybody else’s. Just because something is improbable, does not mean it can’t happen. The fact is that as long as you have a universe, something has to happen, and that just about everything that happens is improbable.

Therefore, if improbable things happen all the time, does it have to come about by design? I am certain that many would say that it does. They could also argue that the existence of life seems so improbable that it implies a higher order to the universe. Although that may be true, it does not necessarily mean that life was designed. The universe’s enormous scales of time and space allows for limitless opportunities to create. Given the mind-boggling numbers that are involved, what seems improbable or impossible does not necessarily apply to the universe.

We know that the universe allows life, because we find ourselves on a planet that allows life. On the other hand, on all the planets that don’t allow life, there is no one to count the failed attempts, or whether any attempts were made—no one to contemplate why it wasn’t designed to allow life to exist, or if it was designed at all. Although we can’t definitely confirm that life exists elsewhere, we know that life is rare relative to the size of the universe. If life was plentiful, we probably would have found some elsewhere by now. This means that vast regions of the cosmos are without life. And if we could closely observe those regions, we wouldn’t think that they were anything special. We would see planets orbiting stars and swirling galaxies, but this would go on for eons, without any conscious experience. Keep in mind that the process that led to life here on earth is essentially the same process that led to the lifeless regions. Of course, there are a few exceptions. One of which is the earth’s special location.

The location of the earth is an example of something that appears improbable, and thus appears designed. The earth’s location has been called the Goldilocks Zone, taken from the fairy tale Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The obvious reason being that its location is just right (just the right distance from the sun to support life). Of all the possible locations that couldn’t support life, why here? Again you could say that it is by design. But it doesn’t have to be, simply because improbable things can happen, especially with large scales like the universe. With a universe as vast as ours, it is inevitable that some planets will be located in Goldilocks Zones. It may be that we just happen to be here. Not necessarily because it was designed that way, and not merely by chance. But rather by an evolutionary process on a cosmic scale, which moves in a direction from simplicity to complexity. It is a process that creates stars, galaxies, and planets. Sometimes when the conditions are just right, it creates life.

Goldilocks Zones are not only applicable to planets, but the same principle is also present in nature. For instance, let’s examine something that is closer to home, such as the life cycle of a tree. A mature tree can produce at least several thousand seeds in a growing season, which are eventually deposited on the ground. The vast majority of these seeds will never become trees. Usually, only a very small percentage will germinate and grow to become trees. They are seeds that fall in Goldilocks Zones. In this context, a Goldilocks Zone would include fertile soil, sufficient water, sunlight, shade, etc. The probability of any one specific seed becoming a tree is very remote; however, when all the seeds are taken into account, probabilities can be viewed in a different light. We know that some seeds will become trees, because they will benefit from conditions that are just right. What we don’t know is which seeds will be selected by this process.

There is another analogy that I have heard a few times, which deals with the improbability question. This analogy has been used in support of design, and it goes something like this: the world’s oceans, with the comings and goings of its tides and waves could never construct a sand castle. The argument being that it requires a design for something constructive to emerge, and this applies to all the complexity we see today. The problem with this view is that it evaluates design against only one other alternative—whether chance alone could construct the sand castle.

There is another way to look at this analogy, which in my opinion, better shows how seemingly improbable things emerge. I agree that the ocean could not directly construct a sand castle, but it could do so indirectly. Life emerged from the ocean, and gradually made its way on land, and over billions of years evolved into more complex forms. One of these forms, a child, walked on the beach and built a sand castle. Consequently, the sandcastle came about from a complicated natural process that can’t be broken down into simplistic explanations, such as the polar opposites of design or chance. If we could go back in time a few billion years, we would think that the likelihood of a sand castle appearing on any of the world’s beaches would be very low. And yet today, sandcastles regularly appear (and disappear). Therefore, whether we are talking about living planets, trees, or sandcastles—and even if the finished product seems improbable—it doesn’t mean it can’t happen.

 

References: Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (London: Black Swan, 2004), 31, 32.


 

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Acts and Consequences

The unfolding of the cosmos does not appear to have any moral direction. Natural events seem to occur in arbitrary ways, unconcerned with human implications, or any other life forms for that matter. For example, in a period of drought, a timely rainfall can save vital crops and prevent hunger or even starvation in some parts of the world. Hence, the suffering of thousands or even millions of people will be averted. On other occasions the rain does not come, crops fail, and widespread suffering ensues. Sometimes the rain is so relentless that flooding causes as much suffering as a drought would. Where and how much precipitation falls is just one example of the indifference of nature.

There seems to be no rhyme or reason to natural events. Some events are relatively harmless as their effects on the population are minimal. In other cases, these events can be devastating to human life. Take, for example, natural disasters, such as the tsunamis that struck Thailand in 2004 and Japan in 2011, or the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010. Had they occurred in unpopulated areas they would have been afterthoughts. Natural spectacles with no human casualties, they would have been easily forgotten. We all remember the events, because of where they occurred, and how it affected the population. Nevertheless, we don’t attach a moral component to any of these events. We live in a geologically active planet, and that’s the only explanation that makes sense.

In ancient times, natural events were probably interpreted much differently. The ancients may have questioned why nature favored some people, while others were devastated by it. Possessing little understanding of meteorology, geology or the precise workings of nature in general, they would have turned elsewhere for explanations. Nature was closely associated with the Gods, and pleasing the Gods was of paramount importance. The idea being that Gods could intervene to show their approval or displeasure. From their level of reasoning, there was a human behavioral component attached to nature’s consequences.

Today, no clear-thinking person would attach a moral component to any natural event. Everything I know about science and nature, as well as my life experience suggests that nature is morally neutral. Nature does not act morally. Most of the time nature is helpful, but sometimes it’s destructive. Either way, it doesn’t care. Also, nature doesn’t care whether human beings act morally. It’s not in the business of handing out rewards or punishments based on moral grounds. In terms of morality, the universe is also on equal footing. The universe is neither good nor bad, neither right nor wrong—it just is.

Are we innately moral beings, or is morality primarily learned? As to where morality comes from, it may be a question of nature versus nurture. It is difficult to quantify if or how many innately moral characteristics we possess. I suppose there is a case to be made for evolutionary reasons for moral behavior. For the continuation of our genes it is necessary to love and care for our kin. As for the species, there are plenty of reasons to consider the well-being of our social group. The better we act towards one another, the more we increase our chances for survival. By pooling resources, collectively we gain a survival advantage. “I scratch your back and you scratch mine” is the basic idea. Then there is altruistic behavior to consider. When we act selflessly towards strangers with little chance of having the favor reciprocated, where does that kind of behavior come from? There is little doubt that altruism creates a better society and ultimately a better world. The benefits to the individual acting selflessly may be intangible, but in the end, all of humanity gains, both socially and evolutionary.

The other side of the same coin is that immoral behavior could also have evolutionary advantages. At times in our evolutionary past resources would have been scarce (mainly food or shelter). It was probably necessary for survival to steal from or even kill off rival tribes. The farther back in time one envisions, the closer humanity would have resembled the animal kingdom. In fact, in the wild, selfishness is often a virtue; many animals must kill and eat other animals in order to survive—there is no other choice. Therefore, moral behavior as we would generally describe it is closely linked to cooperation, and immoral behavior is closely linked to competition—both necessary survival skills. For modern societies to thrive we must get beyond primal evolutionary drives. For the most part, humankind has gradually progressed from tribalism to organized societies, where the common good of larger groups needs to be considered.

Apart from survival instincts, morality can also be learned. The wide range of moral norms present in diverse cultures is clear evidence of this. Although some people adhere to moral absolutes, such as, “do not steal” or “do not kill,” a good deal of morality appears to be cultural. Right behavior in one culture can be wrong behavior in another. For example, in some cultures women are expected to cover their faces or heads in public. By many in those cultures it would be considered immoral behavior if women disobeyed this rule. In other cultures, it is seen as absurd and degrading that women are subjected to covering their faces in public.

Morality can also be historical or circumstantial. What is acceptable moral behavior at a given time and place can be deplorable elsewhere. For example, slavery was the norm for long periods of human history. Many of the ancient empires were built on the backs of slave labor. Today, one could not make a case for slavery as an acceptable moral practice. Circumstances can also muddy the waters when it comes to moral absolutes. A clear example of this is wartime activity. There is perhaps no stronger moral rule than “do not kill.” Yet in warfare killing is not only accepted, in some cases it is celebrated. Even the killing of innocent civilians is considered acceptable at times. Collateral damage is the term often used by military leaders. This makes it sound more palatable to the general public. Granted there is a self-defense component to some war activity, but here also, there is an eroding of moral absolutes. My point is that there are fewer moral absolutes than some of us would like to think or are comfortable with. It may be comforting to believe that certain actions are clearly right while others are clearly wrong, but such is not always the case.

By-products of morality are the concepts of rewards and punishments. This leveling of the score is perhaps as old as civilization itself. These concepts are ingrained in most of us in childhood. As we grow up we learn that good behavior is rewarded and bad behavior is frowned upon. In society at large, judicial systems hand out punishments in an attempt to administer justice. When a crime is committed there is a feeling by the public that if the criminal is punished, then justice is served. I suppose it is necessary for practical purposes to hand out punishments when certain laws are broken. For one thing, punishment can prevent the guilty from re-offending, and also be a deterrent towards other potential violators. However, in many cases a criminal act is the last domino to fall in a long series of events. If we were to trace back the lives of many criminals we would find that a number of factors likely played a part in the criminal behavior. For instance, parenting, social environments, poverty, lack of education or opportunity, mental illness and more. From a practicable point of view, not much can be done about these circumstances—after the fact. But one should keep in mind that the offender is not solely at fault.

Now I would like to shift my attention towards a much deeper level of justice. Is there such a thing as justice aside from human applications? I can recall a conversation with a group of friends at a dinner party when the idea of justice arose. Several opinions were exchanged, but there is one in particular that I would like to share. One fellow pointed out that he could see no adequate justice in this life for evil deeds. He stated that if there was no retribution for atrocities committed by men like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, then there was no real justice. What he was suggesting was that only in some kind of afterlife scenario could these men, and others like them be properly punished for their actions. I responded to his comment by posing a simple question, which may have changed his view on the matter of justice. My question to him was this: “As appalling as the actions of Hitler and Stalin were, would any of the suffering they inflicted be alleviated in any way by their punishment in an afterlife?” He paused for a moment, and then he simply replied, “No.”

You see, punishment in many cases is nothing other than revenge, it doesn’t right the wrongs. The reverse can also be true. Take for instance someone who has made a positive contribution in the world. Will a reward in an afterlife enhance their good deeds in any way? The good that was experienced is set and unchangeable. Furthermore, to expect a reward in exchange for good deeds feels more like a contract than morality. Rewards and punishments are essentially incentives and deterrents respectively. They are practical human concepts, implemented to create a civil society. But, is it sensible to carry the concept of justice beyond this life? Would after the fact adjustments that are handed out in an afterlife correct anything? Unfortunately a lifetime can not be adjusted. As with good and bad deeds, “what is done is done.”

In the absence of clear moral absolutes, in an apparently morally neutral universe, how do we differentiate right from wrong? What makes an action morally right or wrong? Some people adhere to certain rules of conduct that they acquire from some form of authority. I suppose that some rules can be helpful, but I don’t subscribe to simply following rules blindly. Actually this can sometimes lead to destructive behavior, by shielding the consequences of one’s actions. What’s more, firm rules provide little flexibility to deal with real life situations, which are not always as clear cut as rules may emphatically imply.

As far as moral rules are concerned, the Golden Rule is hard to beat. It has been expressed in different ways, but what it basically says is this. “One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.” It is also sometimes expressed in the negative form, such as “One should not treat others in ways that one would not like to be treated.” Either way, it’s as good a rule as you’re going to find, and it’s not all that complicated.

In the final analysis, morality is about acts and consequences. By consequences, I mean for all the people affected, and also for the person whose actions are in question. If an action has good or benign consequences, then it may be regarded as moral. On the other hand, if an action has bad consequences, then it may be regarded as immoral. Now I know that it is not always possible to anticipate the consequences of our actions. Sometimes we act with good intentions in mind, and it still ends up badly. That’s another instance where morality falls into a grey area, because moral behavior is as much about intent as it is about the act itself. “It’s the thought that counts,” as the saying goes. Once again, absolutes don’t always work well as a moral compass. No matter what guidelines are used, there are always exceptions; seldom are actions morally black or white.

I think that a life of high moral character goes hand in hand with some level of insight. How can we consistently act morally, unless we can foresee the consequences of our actions? Moral behavior involves some sensitivity towards the common good, which also includes oneself as part of the common good.  Of course, no one gets it right all of the time. We are bound to miss the mark once in a while. Although rules, codes or creeds are helpful and probably necessary, there is no one size fits all that will address morality. In the absence of a universal moral code, moral behavior is at its best when individuals are able to contemplate the consequences of their actions, and act accordingly. Not because we fear punishment or hope for rewards, but simply because it’s the best way to act for everyone concerned.


 

Life and Death in the Universe

It is quite common to think of life and death as two completely opposite realities; one revered and the other dreaded. However, if we thoroughly examine what is really going on, a different picture emerges. Life and death are more related than they first appear. These two realities actually co-exist in complex ways.

The chemistry necessary for life has its origins inside the core of stars, and the eventual death of stars is fundamental to life. The early universe consisted of atoms of hydrogen, helium and trace amounts of lithium. All other heavier elements were forged by stars.  For about 90% of a star’s life it generates its energy by fusing hydrogen to make helium. Eventually it runs out of hydrogen, and begins to fuse its stocks of helium, making yet heavier elements. The fusion process continues producing heavier and heavier elements until the star has nothing left to burn. Of course all this takes anywhere from about a million to hundreds of billions of years, depending on the size of the star. The larger the star the faster it burns, resulting in a shorter life span. When a large star runs out of fuel a delicate balance is lost between gravity, which wants to keep material in, and the outward pressure generated by thermonuclear fusion in the core of the star. It collapses in on itself and then recoils outward in a gigantic explosion called a supernova.

A supernova explosion releases the elements created within the star, and the extreme heat and energy of the explosion creates the remaining elements in the periodic table. Each generation of stars adds to the concentration of elements in the universe, until there are enough to support life like we have here on earth—essentially we are all made of star dust. If it were not for the death of stars, life as we know it could not be.

When life began on earth so did the evolutionary process, where death also plays a significant role. The complex and intricate web of life was made possible by about 3.8 billion years of evolution. The powerful forces of natural selection have shaped life according to its environment. Death is the means by which natural selection removes individuals within species and eventually entire species. Throughout the process of evolution death is there every step of the way. For species to evolve and diverge into more and more complex life, each generation must die, giving way for the next to live. Evolution is a multi-generational process. Without death, complex life—like human beings—could not have evolved from simpler life, and life as we know it could not be.

Death is also present within living organisms, in the form of cell death. Cells are the basic unit of all life. Some organisms consist of only one cell, however, plants and animals are made of numerous cells. For instance, the human body is composed of about 100 trillion cells. A cell is alive as you and me; it breathes, takes in food and gets rid of waste. It also grows and reproduces by dividing. Each new cell is created by a pre-existing cell, and like all other life, it dies. Each day several billion cells in the human body die and they are replaced by new cells. The life span of cells varies widely. White blood cells live about 13 days, red blood cells about 120 days. On the other hand, liver cells live about 18 months and nerve cells can live approximately 100 years. Even in a healthy living human body death is always present.

Contrary to conflicting emotions caused by life and death, they are clearly not opposites, but actually co-creators. All living things carry death with them, and eventually, they will all die. As much as death is dreaded, it is necessary for life and a completely natural process. Instead of thinking about death as some kind of cosmic accident—something that shouldn’t be—perhaps we can view death as something that is compatible with life. There are no free rides in life and regrettably, the price for life is death. If it were not for the reality of death, we could not have the experience of life. It’s that simple.

If one considers the universe as the source of all life, then what do we make of its parts? By labeling the parts we create individual forms that are not completely individual. Every part is related to other parts. The relationships amongst the parts are so intricate that they depend on each other for their very existence. The circle of life is relational between living and non-living things—non-living things such as sunlight, water, oxygen and living things like microorganisms, plants, animals and humans. We are humans, so it stands to reason that we are partial to our own kind. However, our affinity for the human species does not change the reality of life and death, which is natural to all living components of the whole. Why would nature make an exception for human possibilities after death, which is not granted to other species? All life comes into being from life and in the end, goes back into life—there are no exceptions.

From everything we can see it appears that the momentum of life sustains the whole and that individual life is expendable. The natural cycle of birth, growth, decline and death repeats indefinitely, all the while preserving the whole. Living organisms are necessary for a living planet, but no one organism is essential. You could think of individual life forms as leaves from the same tree. A living tree needs leaves, but no single leaf is crucial. As long as the falling leaves are replaced with new healthy leaves, then the tree is sustained. This does not mean that any given leaf is not valuable to the tree. Each leaf contributes to the well-being of the tree. It serves the tree (the whole), and then dies in order to allow other leaves to take its place. Keep in mind that it doesn’t stop there. The tree has a life span of its own. The tree serves the forest as the leaves serve the tree.

In the face of the observable facts of life and death, why then do we ask, what happens after death? Is it because the thought of nonexistence (for eternity) is just about unthinkable? How does one handle the possibility that “what we see is what we get”—that all individual life may be a “one shot deal.” Perhaps a change of perspective can be helpful. We need not dwell on nonexistence, but can be comforted by considering the improbability of us being here in the first place. Richard Dawkins, in the first lines of Unweaving the Rainbow, clearly points out that we have won the lottery of life. He writes:

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.”

Then there is the approach taken by Mark Twain as he dismisses the fear of death altogether: “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” Obviously Twain was not expecting much after death. If one takes that view, there is no reason to be traumatized by the second stage of non-existence if the first stage caused us no harm.

However logically fitting, I am aware that for many people Twain’s perspective will not be emotionally satisfactory. If hope for an afterlife is not found in the empirical evidence, then where does one find it?  Despite mankind’s tremendous strides of knowledge, we still don’t know what we don’t know. Mystery will always be part of life. The unknown can be an uncomfortable place to be, however, when it comes to the afterlife; the unknown could provide a ray of hope. Nature may open the door just a bit to an otherwise seemingly bleak outcome. If we are to have any experiences after what we consider our life, then a transformation completely unknown to us (or science) must be in store.

If one looks to nature, amazing transformations happen all the time. I will highlight a few of them, but I am certain that you can think of many more. 1) There is perhaps no greater transformation than the life cycle of stars I described earlier. The fact that all life is made possible by exploding stars is astounding to say the least. 2) Imagine if an unborn child could be completely aware in the mother’s womb. There would be nothing in its surroundings that could possibly prepare it for the world to come. 3) If we did not have the experience of butterflies, we could never imagine the potential in a slow and grounded caterpillar. The transformation from caterpillar to a butterfly could not be predicted from everything we see in a caterpillar. 4) If we had no experience of spring, the falling leaves of autumn would be interpreted much differently. There would be no way of knowing that the trees would sprout fresh leaves after a long cold winter.

The belief in an afterlife is nothing new and it is still quite widespread today. Although I wonder how many people have actually thought it through, that is, what life after death might entail. Does it mean eternal life? If so, how do we account for the time before we were born—that period of time is also part of eternity. Where will we go? And what will we do if we get there? What are we going to do with all that time? There are some people that don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy day; how will they handle eternity? After a few thousand years, might it get a little tedious? Also, I wonder what kind of experience we would have without a physical body—without a brain to think, eyes to see and hands to touch.

We all accept that life is a natural process, yet many people believe that something spooky takes over in the afterlife. They view life as natural, and the afterlife as supernatural. But is this a rational way of thinking about life and death? Life and death are both natural processes. So it stands to reason that a natural process will determine what happens after death. Regardless of our hopes or fears, our fate lies in what the universe has and will allow—how could it be otherwise? Acceptance of the mystery of death appears to be the only reasonable approach to the question of life after death.

I will conclude with a fitting gardening analogy. In the late fall, when the gardening season is winding down, it’s the time to plant tulip bulbs. From experience I know what the bulbs will bring to the gardens the following spring. Yet there is nothing in the dull brown bulbs that would indicate that colorful tulips are in the offing for next year’s gardens. The brown bulbs will transform into bright flowers after a long winter in the frozen ground. This transformation happens not because of any hope, belief or wish on my part, it happens as a result of a natural process. The bulbs will grow into the only thing they can become—tulips. On the other hand, if I were to bury a few small stones into the ground, they will remain lifeless, regardless of any wishes on my part.

 

References:  Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998), 1.

Goodreads, http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/show/25647,  August 27, 2011, October 29, 2011.


 

How not Why

We are often compelled to ask why? Why this and why that? Usually our why questions are directed towards everyday occurrences, and we ask them out of curiosity. For example, why is there thunder and lightning? Why is the sky blue? Why are there high and low tides? As far as the tides go, high and low tides are caused by a combination of gravitational effects, which are exerted by the moon, the sun and the rotation of the earth. That being said, I have not provided an answer for why there are high and low tides. I have explained in simple terms, how high and low tides occur. On these relatively simple questions we ask why, although I think we really mean how. What we are looking for is the reasons or the causes behind the observed reality. We are not searching for a hidden meaning or purpose for the tides. But rather for how high and low tides occur, the causes for the tides, or the thunder and lightning, or the blue sky.

Having said that, other “why” questions are of a more profound nature, and they generally come in two categories. One type of question relates to the deeper mysteries of life. For example, why are we here? Why is life the way it is? And why is there a universe in the first place? Although we may ponder these or other similar questions from time to time, we can usually put them aside without too much trouble. There is some value in just asking the questions, even though there may be no complete resolution.

A second category of questions, which are more disturbing, arises primarily when an event impacts us in a negative way. That is when we tend to ask: why do bad things happen? As opposed to the simpler questions, like the ocean tides, when it comes to the bigger questions, we ask why—and we really mean why. We are looking for a meaning or purpose behind an event that has transpired—an underlying order behind the apparent chaos of our present situation. Conversely, when something happens that we perceive as positive, we seldom ask why it came about. I have yet to hear someone question why their day went so well.

It is very common for people that are faced with a tragedy to ask why. It could be the death of a loved one, or an illness that compels us to ask why. The trouble with this line of questioning is that it very rarely leads to a satisfactory answer. It may be comforting to believe that “everything happens for a reason,” as the well-known phrase goes, however, there may be no why (at least no why that the human mind can comprehend). The random element in life alone, if not for countless other factors, makes it inevitable that bad things will happen. Instead of saying that “everything happens for a reason,” we could easily reverse the phrase and say that “there are reasons (causes) for everything that happens.” We may be able to find the cause (the how) for an event, but trying to find why something happened will leave us scratching our heads.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with a couple of friends while watching the evening news. The newscast was reporting on a tragic motor vehicle accident that resulted in several young people losing their lives. There had been a snowstorm the night of the accident and the safety of the vehicle involved was in question, namely the condition of the tires. One of my friends commented, “I can’t understand why young people, with so much life ahead of them, had to die in this way.” The other friend responded by stating the obvious, “It’s just tires and ice.” The accident was caused by icy road conditions, and worn out tires. Although it may have sounded cold and unsympathetic, perhaps he was right. In most cases, the only answer available to us is how.

In fact, all investigations focus on “how” questions. For example, when an airline crashes, which usually results in casualties, investigators will focus their attention on determining how the plane crashed. The obvious reason is to prevent a future accident, but also to provide the grieving family members with an explanation. The people that are closely connected to the tragedy may also seek comfort by asking why the plane had to crash, and why those people had to die. Once again, the only attainable answer will be in determining how the plane crashed. As for the passengers, regrettably, they were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The strange thing about the randomness in life is that when we are not personally or emotionally involved, we have no problem with it. I doubt that anyone would question why a coin toss turns up head or tails. We all accept without hesitation, the random nature of a coin toss. Keep in mind that the same natural laws that determine the outcome of a coin toss, also apply to the rest of our lives. The random element in life will also lead to inequalities, which may be slight or seem grossly unfair. This may lead someone to ask: “Why is life so unfair?” In some ways life is a numbers game, much like a lottery. Sometimes your number comes up, and sometimes it does not. Look at it this way, if I had 100 dollars to give away, and I chose to give it away by lottery, would anyone say it was unfair?

Aside from our efforts to either prevent or alleviate bad things from happening, it may be that bad things happen for the simplest of reasons. There is no apparent mechanism to prevent it. Another point worth noting is that good and bad are sometimes subjective. Even a single event can be perceived as good by some people and bad by others. This is usually based on how an event personally impacts each individual. Aside from our egocentric viewpoint, there is no reason to believe that the universe will favor one individual above anyone else or anything else—there is no empirical evidence to support it.

For many years, I have asked why, especially when my life was not going as I wanted. Even after considerable reflection, I have found no suitable answer to any of my why questions. There may or may not be an ultimate reason for life’s unfolding. But if there is a why, it lies beyond human comprehension. And for me, when I started asking how, I was able to make some progress on the bigger questions. How did we get here? How is life the way it is? How did the universe come to be? And of course, how do bad things happen? So from now on when I am inclined to ask why, I try to catch myself, and ask how.


 

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

It is human nature to have goals, dreams, and expectations. Our ability to project into the future, to plan, imagine and create is a unique quality that separates us from other animals. That being said, it can also be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, in order to accomplish a goal we need to project how we will get from here to there. On the other hand, in spite of our best efforts, there is no guarantee we will ever get there. In fact, there are often numerous obstacles to overcome from the moment we conceive a goal. Contrary to some peoples’ belief, the universe is not conspiring in our behalf. We are but one moving part in a multitude of moving parts. There are many factors that help us, but there are many others that do not.

The odds of reaching a goal increase when many people work towards a common objective. Many of mankind’s great accomplishments have come with contributions from many people. The advances in technology and medicine, and the development of democracy and civil societies are prime examples. Unfortunately, many people have also worked together for destructive aims, which has led to horrific results. The human cost of war immediately comes to my mind. It is difficult to quantify how our individual efforts impact the grand scheme of things. Life unfolds as a result of all its variables.

The modern way of life can obscure our ability to see that we are part of a natural system, and subjected to the same laws. The way our life unfolds is not all that different from how a tree grows in a forest. The analogy is not perfect; however, I think it is helpful in making my point. The genetic information contained within a seed could be compared to a plan, as all the information necessary to construct a tree is present. From the beginning there are many factors outside of this plan that will affect its eventual growth. Will the seed fall on fertile soil? Will the weather conditions be favorable? What will its immediate environment be like? And if the seed sprouts, will it be destroyed by animals, insects, or diseases?

Even if the tree takes root, and grows to a substantial height, it is still susceptible to the conditions of its environment. There are many events surrounding the tree that are random.  Nevertheless, all living things in the forests have a plan of their own (their genetic information), and a drive towards their fulfillment. The state of the forests is determined by the interactions of every life form, as well as the inanimate substances in its environment. There is no plan for the forest as a whole, but the blending of countless plans, which creates a whole.

What the tree needs to grow and prosper is always present in the forest: energy from the sun, nourishment from soil and water, necessary processes from microbes, and protection provided by nearby trees. The environment of the forests will determine which seed (or tree) will grow, and which will not. The same can be said for every living thing in the forest.

Long before we begin to make plans for our lives, many things are already in place. It is our genes that first determine the potential for our lives. Even before birth the traits that we have acquired are set. Beyond these genetic traits the events in our lives are mostly random. For example: we don’t choose who we are, where we are born, and the time period. We also don’t choose our parents, family, and our community. The people we come in contact with and world events also have an impact. Our lives are formed by the environment that we are exposed to. Prosperity, poverty, peace, or warfare, whatever the case may be, is mainly beyond our control. Nothing in nature is in complete control and neither are we. Even our own body is primarily beyond our control, as it is maintained by subconscious processes. We are mostly unaware of the internal functions of our body, and we pay little attention to them until something goes wrong. And just as vital to our existence is the outside world. The air we breathe, the energy from the sun, and the food supply are but a few of many outside factors that are essential for life.

The comparison of the tree in the forest can make us aware that we are not all that different or separate from nature. But with humans, there is a difference in the sense that people have a degree of free will. Some would argue that what we perceive as free will is nothing more than an illusion, but let’s just say that we have, at best, a degree of free will. We have the ability to respond creatively to our environment. We can make choices, learn from the past, and make plans for the future. Our imagination has no bounds, therefore we can dream up any number of possibilities for our lives. That being said, there is a risk that what we imagine or dream of may not always be realistic. I can certainly relate to that way of thinking. When I was younger, I had a tendency to believe that events in my life would unfold as I had planned. As I age, I now realize that life is much bigger than I, and the world is not concerned with my plans. I found that when my primary focus was on my expectations, I would often end up disappointed. Things rarely work out as I had envisioned. What I was doing was focusing on life’s results rather than life’s process.

I now view goals and dreams as potential destinations. They are necessary in the sense that they give us direction. It is obvious that random and directionless processes do not lead to anything constructive. Therefore, we do need to make plans despite the uncertainty of going forward. What we are really choosing are paths, but we cannot know where they will eventually lead. No matter how much we plan, there are always numerous factors outside of our control that will influence our plan. Think of it this way: with all the plans of other people and their actions, as well as natural events, what are the odds that the outside world will fit the plan we have devised in our minds? And if, at a given time everything did come together just right, how long would we be able to sustain it?

The plans that we make for our lives are presumably forms of order that we envision. The more in depth the extent of the planning is, the more variables will come into play. It’s quite simple, the more factors involved, the more difficult it becomes to predict or direct the outcome. In order to move ahead with confidence, it is important to have an open perspective on goals. Life’s unpredictability and uncertainty is the cause for much anxiety and worry, however, it is intensified by our expectations. For me, my expectations have probably caused more anxiety than any other reason I can think of. Although it is difficult to pull off, I find that when I live with no expectations, I am more at peace and more productive in general.

Let me clarify that last statement. I did not say low expectations; I said no expectations. The pitfall with expectations is twofold. One is that you might aim too high, the other, aim too low. This means that instead of focusing on one particular outcome, which can be very limiting, I try to be open to a number of future outcomes. When I am moving in a path that I am pleased with, and actively engaged in life, my life seems to flow freely. I am open to receive the blessings that may come my way, as they usually come unplanned or unexpected. I am also able to place my full attention to the present task at hand, unencumbered by future expectations. Or perhaps the biggest gain is in letting go of the fear of not meeting those expectations; not only my expectations, but also the expectations of others as I perceive them.

Seeing the forest for the trees is recognizing that our life is a minor contribution to an immensely larger system. We are like individual trees in a large forest. Although the forest needs trees, no one tree is absolutely necessary. The forest does not differentiate or favor one tree from another. The sun shines on all; the clouds rain on all. We are not directors of our lives, and the only real control we have is in our ability to respond to events as they arise. Regrettably we can’t make life into what we want it to be. It is a harsh reality that one unfortunate incident can drastically change our lives, or even end it, no matter what we have going for us. There is no certainty beyond the present moment, and the only thing we can expect from life is the unexpected.

The best we can do is to accept life on its own terms, and try to respond appropriately. We can achieve this by being actively engaged in life’s present realities, and moving in a desirable direction. This should at least allow us to move forward, regardless of the uncertainty that lies ahead. We may or may not get to where we want to go. We use different words to define that place: goals, dreams, success, happiness, peace and fulfillment. However, in time we may realize that these final destinations do not matter absolutely. We may also realize that the fullness of life can only be found in the journey and not in the final destinations.


 

Addressing the Big Questions

There are some fundamental questions that humans have been grappling with since we have developed the ability to reason. These questions deal with the nature of our existence. For instance: Where do we come from? Why are we here? Does the universe have a creator? What is our place in the universe? Is there life after death? What is the nature of reality?

These and other related questions have often been called the big questions. And they have been addressed in various ways, from the dawn of civilization, throughout the ages to modern times. Religions, myths, rituals, celebrations, and even architecture have been built as a response to these questions. Some fields of science have also responded to the big questions. In order to form a view of reality, one will usually have to contemplate some of these questions. Therefore, our answers to these questions play a major role in determining how we see the world.

Although many people may not be consciously aware of their picture of reality, at least not on a daily basis, I believe that the majority of people have some form of picture in the back of their minds. We accept things as facts without regularly thinking about it. For example, we know that gravity keeps us from flying off the earth, and an object thrown in the air will fall down. We know it to the extent that we don’t even think about it. This is a simple example; however, I believe we respond in similar ways on the more complex questions. At different points in our lives we arrive at conclusions to some of these questions, and consequently, it forms our view of reality.

Our view is usually composed of things we know as facts, things we believe by faith, and things we accept as unknown or unknowable. The degree to which each aspect is present varies with the individual. This view of reality is determined over a long period of time, and in segments, eventually creating a whole. It is internalized and we go on with our lives. Some seldom question their view, while others are aware that their view is subject to change. If we were to question and examine our view of reality, would it stand up to reason? Would it form a cohesive whole? Would one part contradict another? Would we have properly separated the knowable from the unknowable? And how would faith factor into the equation?

There are many factors that contribute to establishing our picture. We are influenced by family, friends, society, religion, and life experiences. Genetics also likely plays a role. However, it ultimately comes down to how we interpret the world that we observe and experience. In our modern world we can draw a great deal of insight from science. It is an advantage that no other civilization in history would have had, at least not to the extent we have today.

In ancient times, people were limited to the observable world, lacking the knowledge of modern science. They would have observed the world around them, and drawn conclusions based on their observations. They were actually using a simplified form of the scientific method; however, it was significantly more primitive. The ancients must have intuitively understood the world in which they were living. Although they would not have been able to calculate precisely how things worked, they must have known what they needed to survive. Their understanding of the world would have been deeply rooted in nature. They would have felt a deep connection with their environment. The soil and the plants, the rivers and the oceans, and the sun and the stars may well have been recognized and celebrated as their life source.

The ancient civilizations were in tune with the natural cycles, and much of their lives were governed by these cycles. Archaeologists have found clear evidence at a number of sites that support this claim. For instance, Stonehenge and the Pyramids at Giza (which includes the Great Sphinx) are precisely positioned in accordance with solar alignments at specific times of the year. We could question the ancient interpretation of the natural world without science to guide them, but their devotion to nature was evident.

In our modern industrialized world, many people have lost this profound relationship with nature—an unintended consequence of modernization. The daily life of many individuals in the developed world has little direct contact with nature. The population is densely congregated to large cities, where one finds predominantly concrete streets and buildings, instead of green pastures, forests and wildlife. Even for those that live in rural areas, lifestyles are somewhat similar. We travel mostly in vehicles, and move from building to building. We purchase our food at grocery stores, and purchase other material items at department stores. As far as where the goods come from, we don’t have to give it a second thought. Although industrialization and technology have eased many of life’s burdens, improved quality of life and increased longevity, it has come with a cost. The obvious environmental costs are evident, but the more subtle effects of the disconnection that humans have with nature are just as profound.

In order to properly understand and internalize reality, we need to incorporate nature, and find a balance between experience and knowledge. Both the methods of modern science and the ancients are available for us today. The fields of science give us a factual or logical understanding of reality, but the meaning would be diminished without the experience. In some situations, the information from our sensory perceptions aligns directly with empirical scientific knowledge. The example of gravity, which I provided earlier, demonstrates this point. One can understand the laws of gravity, and also experience its effects in a personal way, such as observing the trajectory of a ball that is thrown in the air.

In other situations, where the facts contradict our direct experience, it becomes a little more problematic. The experience of day and night is a prime example of this. It appears to us that the earth is stationary, and that the sun is moving from the eastern to the western horizon, however, the scientific explanation is very different. Science explains that the earth rotates once in twenty-four hours, thus causing day and night; the sun doesn’t move across the sky. Nevertheless, when it is explained to us from a scientific perspective, we can easily make sense of the experience. We can integrate both a logical and intuitive understanding of the reality of day and night. Similarly, many other natural rhythms can be interpreted by experience, or explained by scientific reasoning.

It becomes a little more difficult when we are dealing with phenomena that lie mostly beyond the scope of our senses, such as the very large structures of the universe or the microscopic realm. We are then left to choose between science and our sensory perceptions. But if we choose to trust the science, we can somewhat imagine what the experience would be like.

Science is addressing the big questions, though somewhat indirectly, in ways that previous generations could not have imagined. In the last century, scientific discoveries have completely changed the picture of the cosmos. Human sense of place in the universe is being reevaluated. The big questions can no longer be dealt with solely by ancient methods. Although it is vital that we retain some of the ancient wisdoms, science can lead the modern search for truth. The universe, which was once thought to be beyond human understanding, is being revealed by modern science. Albert Einstein clearly realized this. He is quoted by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design: “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.”

Although there are few absolute proofs, or unquestionable truths regarding the big questions, the universe has left many clues that point to its nature. As a human race we are getting closer to understanding the nature of our existence. We have the opportunity to create a picture of reality that is in line with the natural world, and ultimately the universe. I believe that collectively and individually it is one of our most important challenges. Since our view of reality forms the foundation for our lives, the challenge is well worth taking. On this note, I have to agree with the Greek philosopher Socrates when he said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

References: Stephen W. Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (New York: Bantam Books, 2010), 87.


 

Horizons Out of Reach

Imagine you are walking on a terrain of rolling hills; in the distance you can see the horizon. Beyond that point you don’t know what you’ll find. When you arrive at the crest of a hill a whole new landscape appears with its own horizon. This is a common metaphor used to show how knowledge is usually acquired. Each horizon reached often presents another horizon (or question) in the distance.

The story of science is one of impressive discoveries. Many horizons have been reached, but many more are yet to be encountered. No one knows how far we can go and what we will find. I hesitate to limit what might be possible, because science has surprised us time and time again. If the human race survives long enough, is there anything we can’t find out? I would think that there are some questions we will not be able to answer, but which ones? One should think long and hard before ruling anything out, which I have done. For what it’s worth, I am left with two questions which appear out of reach. I’ll get back to this later but first a little context.

Horizons Reached

At present the knowledge base is immense, but it had to be acquired. Imagine going back 100, 500 or 1,000 years and contemplating the future. It’s possible that some future discoveries could have been predicted. However, there are other findings that few saw coming. It is practically impossible to provide a full account of impressive scientific discoveries. However, there are some that immediately stand out. What follows has been mentioned in prior blogs of mine; think of it as a short list of scientific highlights:

  1. The Idea of Natural laws: At around 500 BC the ancient Greeks documented the concept of natural laws. They suggested that patterns in nature could be recognized and attributed to natural laws. This was a major breakthrough in scientific thought.
  2. The Copernican Revolution: In 1543 Nicolaus Copernicus published his theory of the heliocentric model of the universe. He removed the Earth from the center of the known universe and replaced it with the Sun. This was a significant reality check, which would influence human philosophy for years to come.
  3.   Newton’s Laws: In 1687 Isaac Newton disclosed his law of universal gravitation and his three laws of motion. Newton laid the foundation for what later became known as classical physics. Now over 300 years later, Newton’s equations still apply (except for extreme circumstances).
  4. Einstein’s Relativity: With special relativity (in 1905) and general relativity (in 1915), Albert Einstein filed in the gaps in Newton’s laws. Einstein accounted for those extreme circumstances. His contribution led to a greater understanding of the large-scale universe.
  5. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution: Charles Darwin provided an explanation for how all life evolves with his famous publication in 1859. This one basically speaks for itself; few if any discovery is more impressive.
  6. Revealing the Atomic and Subatomic Realm: Beginning in the early 1900s, several people worked on theories such as quantum mechanics and the standard model of partial physics. A realm previously inaccessible was shown to be real and would unwittingly have a significant impact on human affairs.
  7. The Big Bang: In the 1931 George Lemaitre suggested that the universe began in a single geometric point. He arrived at this by applying general relativity to the observations of William Hubble. Lemaitre`s idea would eventually provide us with a truly universal origin story. 
  8. DNA: In 1962 James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins won a Nobel Prize in medicine for the discovery of the structure of DNA. This opened up a whole new science, which will undoubtedly impact us for generations.

Of course the list above could be significantly longer and still fall short. However, I present it just to give you a feel for how knowledge, particularly scientific knowledge, alters our perception of the world. It is debatable how many past discoveries could have been foreseen; nonetheless one can imagine some horizons in the distance which may be attainable. For example: figuring out how life on Earth got started, or the discovery of life elsewhere in the universe. Closer to home, perhaps finding a cure for cancer (or most cancers), and maybe even weather forecasting weeks or months in advance. No one knows for sure which findings are coming, but I feel fairly certain that at least two questions will remain unanswered.

Contemplating the Unanswerable

The two questions I am referring to are as follows: 1) Why is there a universe in the first place?  2) Why is the universe the way it is and not some other way? Another question which I feel I must address before moving on to question 1, is this: Why is there something rather than nothing? You’ve probably heard this one before, and it is similar to question 1. However, I find this to be a peculiar question and here’s why. First let’s define what is meant by nothing. If by nothing, one assumes the absence of everything, then nothing is a non-entity. In other words, how can nothing be a reality if by definition nothing has no existence. The question gives us two options, something or nothing and it seems to me that something is real and nothing is not. By this logic one could conclude that there has to be something, but why a universe?

For some, the existence of the universe doesn’t seem to be a big problem to solve. The standard answer is that God created the universe and that’s it. However, I can’t help but ask two simple follow-up questions: a) Why is there a God in the first place? b) Why is God the way he (she, it) is and not some other way? Do you see how this works, by inserting God as the explanation for the universe we’ve circled back to where we started. In essence the questions are identical. We have merely moved the starting point from the universe to God.

Another approach is to examine the possibility of a multiverse. There are scientific reasons that suggest that other universes may exist, but that is as far as it goes.  Although the multiverse is theoretical, it may shed light on question 2. Why is the universe the way it is and not some other way? If multiple universes actually exist, it could be that all possible universes exist, therefore it is not surprising that at least one universe is like ours. Although the multiverse idea is somewhat satisfying on the surface, it has its problems. For starters, it does not address question 1. Why is there a universe in the first place? It says nothing on why there would be a multiverse in the first place.

There is also the problem of testing the multiverse idea scientifically. How can we ever verify something outside the boundaries of our vast universe? Hypothetically, even if our science advanced to a point where universes outside our own could be detected, how could we know the full-scale of a multiverse? We would likely be unable to determine how many universes exist in total. Ultimately that’s where I think the multiverse idea falls short in terms of answering question 2. Why is the universe the way it is and not some other way? If we can’t know how many universes exist in total, we can’t explain why our universe is the way it is and not some other way. All possible universes have to exist in order for the multiverse to the job. Or at the very least, it would take an extremely high number of universes.

Why is there a universe in the first place and why is the universe the way it is and not some other way? I have thought about these two questions philosophically, religiously and scientifically and have made little progress. Each approach gains momentum only to fall short. There are undoubtedly still many horizons within our reach and it will be interesting to see what lies ahead. That being said, I have to conclude that there are at least two horizons that seem to be hopelessly out of reach.

References:http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/science/add_edexcel/cells/dnarev3.shtml

https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-relationship-between-the-Standard-model-and-Quantum-field-theory


 

Why Religion?

Why is religion so pervasive in human societies? Organized religion has been with us since the dawn of civilization. In fact, religion is so common that few societies have existed without it. As far as ideas surviving in human brains (memes) religions are among the most successful. That’s right religions are memes, but they are usually referred to as traditions. They stay in existence because they are ideas that are passed on from person to person and on to the next generation.

In The beginning

How and why did religion begin? For something like religion to arise it requires a highly evolved being. One would assume it requires a large enough brain to formulate abstract ideas and ask complex questions. That pretty much rules out every other species except humans. It is my contention that as soon as a being is able to pose a question it can’t answer, the raw materials for a religion are present. Although, it does not necessarily mean religion had to come about. The fact that it did is indeed complex. However, I will try to break it down by proposing a lengthy list of possibilities.

  • Fear and Uncertainty – Without a workable understanding of the natural world, imagine what kind of questions our distant ancestors   must have had. Why are we subjected to thunder and lightning? What is behind the force of a hurricane? Why does the Sun set in the horizon? There is perhaps no greater fear than the unknown and the ancients were pretty much left in the dark by their lot in history. Natural occurrences that are now clearly understood were often (and perhaps logically) attributed to the will of gods by our ancestors.
  • Agriculture – At around 9000 BC the rise of agriculture made it possible for civilizations to develop. As humans went from living in small groups of hunter gathers to farming villages, it may have set the stage for organized religion. Farming made humans increasingly vulnerable to the whims of nature. The idea of praying to gods for blessings in a ritualistic setting (such as a good harvest) may well have originated with agriculture. In addition, with large groups of people living in close proximity, it may have been wise to have everyone on the same page.
  • Solidarity – We are social beings at heart and there is something to be said for unity. Unlike today in the developed world, in ancient times survival was at the forefront. It likely would have been a survival advantage for a society to share common goals and ideas. A fractured community would have been at a disadvantage in fighting off enemies and acquiring resources. Religion may have been vital for strengthening social bonds and getting people to work for a common cause.
  • Order and Ritual – Life was then and is now a mix of unforeseeable and anticipated events; both can create anxiety and worry. For many people, the belief in something behind the ebb and flow of life provides order for their lives. This sense of order, even though life does not necessarily reflect it, is often reinforced in people’s mind through religious traditions and rituals.  
  • Perseverance – If you think life is hard now (and it is at times) imagine what it must have been like thousands of years ago. Without modern conveniences, the ancients had to work much harder for sustenance. They had no theory of disease, limited medical care and a shorter life expectancy. With a difficult life and the awareness of eventual death, would humans have been able to persevere without religion? Religion may have been a survival advantage, not directly but perhaps indirectly over the long haul.
  • Hope for an Afterlife – The awareness of death is a by-product of a highly evolved brain. We are aware that we will lose everyone we love, unless death overtakes us first; this is a sobering realization. Central to most religions, is the prospect for an afterlife. This idea alone helps religions remain viable for long periods of time. It is very hard to come to terms with the idea that someday we will no longer be. 
  • Agency – We go through everyday life with desires and intentions. We are also aware that other living beings possess them as well. If every animated being we are in contact with (human or non-human) has intentions, we could say they are intentional agents. Nature is also animated, with wind, rain, rivers, vegetation, celestial bodies and much more. In a pre-modern world, was it such a stretch to extend the principle of agency to nature? Even today nature is still personified as Mother Nature. And if animals and nature were thought to have intentions, it was just one more step to attribute agency to gods.
  •   Power and Control- Small groups of people have a way of regulating themselves. If someone is taking advantage of others they can usually be dealt with. However, when small groups grow to become villages, cities and empires, things change. An ugly side of religion is that it has been used (or misused) for controlling people. This is how it works in a nut shell: When populations become too large for self-control, we end up with government and laws. If we break the laws then we are punished. But it is impossible for any regime to police everyone. Religion steps in as an all-encompassing secondary force. If you think you got away with something, then there is an eye in the sky that sees all and in the end you will be held accountable. This is a very powerful force and difficult to eliminate.
  •  Morality- Some people tend to view religion as the de facto origin of morality. However, it is hard to imagine how humans could have evolved to the point of organized religion, without first adherence to social norms. As a matter of fact, other primates exhibit social norms as well. Religions have been successful at converting established social norms into moral codes. As a consequence, religions have mostly presented themselves as moral authorities. The moral dimension of religion, in part accounts for their staying power.
  •   Explanation- Many of the existential questions, which puzzled humankind for centuries, have in large part been address by the scientific enterprise. At present we have access to a beautifully   coherent explanation for how the universe works and how we got here. However, all this knowledge came to us much like a dripping faucet. As information was being collected the business of living was at the forefront. For generations religions provided an explanation in the form of origin stories which could be shared with the masses.
  • Meaning- Humans are meaning making beings; we tend to look for meaning in life situations. I suspect that the ancients did not differ in that regard. The religious stories have and still provide meaning for large sections of the population. Today things have changed a bit, in the sense that we now have the scientific story to factor in, as opposed to the largely unchallenged voice of religion. That said, I must admit that the meaning value of the scientific story is incomplete.

Going Forward

One would think that our religions provided some survival advantages along the path of human development, how else can we explain their universality. To be clear, they are ubiquitous in their presence although not necessarily in their message. Some of what I touched upon earlier could very well fall under evolutionary gains, such as solidarity, perseverance, order, and perhaps even meaning. It appears that religions have contributed to civilization in a significant way, but will they continue to do so going forward? Or will something else step in to take its place?

Religion may have been our first attempt at understanding the world and ourselves. One might even say that religion was our first attempt at philosophy, morality, and perhaps science. However, much has changed in the world since religion was in its infancy. For the most part they don’t have the same hold on people as they once did, also we can now look at religion with a wider perspective. We tend to think of religions as being ever-present but they do have life spans. We are all aware of ancient religions and gods that are no longer taken seriously. However, normally religions easily out live their followers.

With the advantage of a lengthy history behind us it is easy to see that religions are universal in their presence but regional and cultural in their message. A look at the demographics for the various world religions points this out; numbers very slightly from different sources but not enough to matter for my purpose here. Also, I have rounded off the numbers for simplicity. This is how they rank globally in percentage of followers:    

  • Christianity 30 %
  • Islam 20 %
  • unaffiliated 16%
  • Hinduism 15%
  • Buddhism 7%
  • others 12%

These figures indicate that in a best case scenario (if you’re a Christian) 70 % of all the people in the world will disagree with you on this matter. And let’s not forget that there is much disagreement amongst numerous Christian denominations. If one falls in any of the other five categories, the disagreement is even greater. Hypothetically, from a visiting alien’s point of view, any given religion would be indistinguishable from the others. In other words, with no cultural bias, it would be difficult to favor one religion over any other.

I suspect that in ancient times, it was far easier to buy into the religion of the day, but perhaps the golden age of religion has past. Not that today’s religions don’t have influence in many pockets of the world; they just aren’t as universal in their appeal. We are not as isolated geographical and far more aware of numerous past dead religions and a variety of current active ones. The religious stories continually change over time and across cultures. Religions stay alive for varying lengths of time in a sort of natural selection of ideas. It may be comforting for believers to think that today’s religions are here to stay, but if history is any indication, the future of religion is not set in stone.

 

References: Dr Michael Shermer | God does NOT exist, OxfordUnion, Published on Dec 21, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pOI2YvVuuE

Religion – when, why and how did it begin? http://www.garvandwane.com/religion/religion1.html

World Religions – populations pie chart statistics list. http://www.age-of-the-sage.org/mysticism/world_religions_populations.html


 

The Puzzle of Consciousness

consciousnessOur conscious experience is so commonplace that we seldom think about how remarkable it is. How does the mind integrate all the sensory information into one coherent picture? How does it seamlessly update the information from moment to moment? How does the perception of the self emerge? The brain is one of the last frontiers of the scientific endeavor. Much research has been done in identifying different parts of the brain and their functions. Although a large amount of progress has been made in connecting behaviors with specific brain activity, consciousness remains elusive. There is still no well-established scientific theory of consciousness.

What is Consciousness?

On the surface consciousness seems simple enough; it is our subjective and individual experience. My consciousness is different than yours and every person has experiences that are uniquely theirs. Clearly the individual brain is fundamental to consciousness, but when we look into the causes or location of consciousness it becomes ambiguous. Philosophers and scientists alike have tried to explain consciousness and tried to explain why they can’t explain it. Philosopher Dan Dennett calls consciousness “An illusion.” Philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers calls it “The hard problem,” as opposed to “The easy problem,” of explaining behavior.

david-eaglemam

Neuroscientist David Eagleman provides an interesting angle to the puzzle of the mind. Rather than focusing solely on an orderly brain map with clear correlations of cause and effect, he views the brain from a holistic perspective. In an excerpt from This Explains Everything, Eagleman writes:

“It [the brain] possesses multiple, overlapping ways of dealing with the world… It is a representative democracy that functions by competition among parties who all believe they know the right way to solve the problem.”

Eagleman is referring to mental functions, yet the concept can also be applied to consciousness. If I had to make a general comment on consciousness, I would say that, “Consciousness emerges from or is the result of multiple processes of the mind and body.” Still it goes further than that.

Some would say that a part of consciousness resides outside the brain, something like a soul. I would partly agree as we have to account for the world beyond ourselves. Consciousness is an emergent property (greater than the sum of its parts), which also includes the outside world (something to be aware of). In a way, consciousness is non-local, as it is the integration of the brain with the outside world. That being said, I am not going to attempt to explain consciousness. However, I hope I can shed some light by analyzing it further.

Observations, Possibilities and Questions 

  • Can consciousness be explained by physical and chemical means? Some people support a purely material view; what we feel as non-physical is solely the result of physical processes. States of consciousness can easily be altered with the use of drugs, brain injury and deterioration, a clear correlation between physical causes and non-physical experiences. A material explanation only provides a starting point. There is still a lot of work ahead to identify the specific mechanisms that give rise to consciousness.
  •  Does consciousness develop? We can’t assume that consciousness is the same for everyone. For instance, an infant can’t have the same awareness as an adult. And at what point does a newborn become conscious? Does it happen at birth or at some time before in the womb? The fact that a person has no memories before the age of 2 or 3 makes me wonder if an infant is even conscious (at least not fully conscious). Does he/she respond only by instinct? It is well-known that the brain is not fully developed at birth, and maybe consciousness also develops over time (a gradual awakening similar to waking up in the morning).
  •  Life has varying degrees of consciousness. How aware are bacteria or worms, fish or birds, cats or dogs? Life does not necessarily equate to advanced consciousness. You would be hard pressed to find someone who thinks trees and flowers are conscious. There is clearly a progression of consciousness in life. And like anything else consciousness had to evolve, which means primitive life was barely conscious, if conscious at all. As life branched out over long periods of time varying degrees on consciousness emerged.
  • How do thinking, imagination, memory and dreams fit in? These mental functions are different than typical sensory perceptions. But how can we deny their role in consciousness? The mind can think of concepts, imagine pictures, have clear memories and vivid dreams. There are often feelings associated with these mental states. We could call this the abstract mind and it is more mysterious than the perceiving mind. Nonetheless, the abstract mind is a piece of the puzzle of consciousness, and clearly affects our experience.
  • Different parts of the mind compete for your attention. We can’t be fully aware of all the potential conscious aspects of the brain at the same time. If I divide the brain in two parts, the thinking brain and the perceiving brain (for the purpose of explaining), we can see how this works. When we focus on our stream of thoughts, our surrounding environment becomes numbed. By comparison, when we focus our senses on perceiving our environment, thinking subsides. The mind blocks out what it does not focus on; consciousness continuously shifts from one state to another. You can’t think about work, taste your coffee, watch a video and hear background noises all at the same time.
  • Does consciousness do anything? We could imagine a world where all human behavior is automatic, completely controlled by the laws of physics. Those that believe in a deterministic universe (with no room for freewill) should have no problem with this. If determinism is real, our subjective consciousness may just be observing the world. We could be like the actors and audience in a play, experiencing events with no power to affect the outcome.
  • The subconscious does more. Who is driving the car when we are thinking of something else? Of course the subconscious takes over to perform previously learned tasks. This is just a simple example of the multitude of actions our subconscious mind and body do every day. Most of our bodily functions are automatically controlled. It is easy to forget that we are also subconscious beings (more so than conscious beings).
  • Consciousness may be our greatest gift. We often here about the gift of life, but consciousness may be our most valuable gift. Of course we need life to have consciousness, but I suspect that the fear of death (losing one’s life) is really the fear of losing consciousness.  Life without consciousness would have no meaning; we wouldn’t know that anything exists. There is also a downside to consciousness. Just as it allows for feelings of pleasure, it also allows for feelings of pain. I guess that is the price to pay for experiencing the fullness of life. Everything that is worth living for would not be possible without consciousness.

 

References: Edge Foundation, Inc., This Explains Everything (New York: HarerCollins Publishers, 2013), 91.

Waking Up with Sam Harris – The Light of the Mind: A Conversation with David Chalmers, Sam Harris, Published on Apr 18, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qi2ok47fFcY

Dan Dennett: The illusion of consciousness, TED, Uploaded on May 3, 2007. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fjbWr3ODbAo


 

Is Anything Possible?

You’ve heard it before: ‘anything is possible.’ I have also, but how much truth is there in this statement? On the surface it sounds OK; it’s usually used in a positive tone (but not always) and it’s open to seemingly unlimited possibilities. What could be wrong with that? Hold on just a minute until we look a little deeper.

highway-at-nightIs anything really possible? And can we determine when something becomes impossible? If a person losses a hand, it won’t grow back. A conventional air plane will not fly without wings. Pure water will not freeze if the temperature is above 0 degrees Celsius. So there you have it, anything is not possible. I don’t think this is a big revelation. People who say that ‘anything is possible’ know that it isn’t true. So why do they say it? We all go through life with insufficient knowledge, it’s just part of being human. I believe what people are really thinking is: many things are possible, or they don’t know what’s possible.

Nature’s Regularities

‘I don’t know what’s possible’ doesn’t sound quite as positive as ‘anything is possible.’ So maybe that’s why the word anything is so often used. Despite our limited knowledge, there lies one fundamental truth which determines what is possible and what isn’t. This truth is related to the following question: What does the loss of a hand, an airplane not being able to fly and water not freezing have in common? On the surface they seem totally unrelated; however, they share a subtle and profound relationship. I’ll get back to this later but first a little back ground.

There are reasons why some things are possible and others impossible and they are fundamentally the same reasons. It has to do with the way the world works (in fact the entire universe). There exist regularities in nature, both seen and unseen. Some of these regularities would have been known in ancient times simply by observing nature. For example, the ancients were aware of the conditions needed to make fire and how to put it out. They learned how to grow food by observing how crops responded to the seasons and so on. Early humans had a rudimentary understanding of what might be possible. They achieved this with varying degrees of success by observing nature’s regularities. However, they lacked an appreciation of what was behind the observed regularities. A deeper understanding would come about later.

The Scientific Revolution of the 15th and 16th hundreds is the unofficial line of demarcation of modern science. This is when scientists began deciphering the laws that govern nature. The laws of nature are fundamental to the regularities we observe. For the first time nature could be explained by a series of scientific laws rather than superstition, conjecture or a few rules of thumb. For instance, seen phenomena such as the motion of objects were explained by Newton’s laws of motion. Perhaps even more ground breaking is that eventually parts of the unseen world could also be explained by scientific laws. For Example, quantum laws of the early 19th hundreds, of which several scientists were involved, explained the workings of atomic and sub-atomic particles.

Out of the Ordinary

In everyday experience people often use the ‘anything is possible’ line as a positive projection into the future. They are usually thinking about the trajectory of one’s life and the numerous untapped possibilities. In this context they are referring to ordinary events in human affairs. Ordinary in the sense that one doesn’t had to believe in anything outside the established laws of nature to account for what might unfold.

ghostSome people consider other ideas, which fall into a totally different category. These ideas are sometimes called paranormal or supernatural, but personally I dislike both those terms. The reason being, that some of these concepts diminish the established laws of nature. The simplest way I can convey what kind of ideas I mean is to begin with a list. The following is just from the top of my head and much more could apply: alien visitations, ghost stories, miraculous healings, near-death experiences, psychic readings and so on. With this list, one should ask: how do the laws of nature fit in these schemes?

Let’s look into one of the possibilities listed above. With alien visitations for instance, one has to consider such things as a life-sustaining planet and the distance the aliens would have to travel. A little understanding of the laws of nature can give us clues as to how seriously we should consider a claim. We know that other than Earth, there is no complex life in our Solar System. So our star system is out.

The nearest star system is a three star system call Alpha Centauri, of which Proxima is the closest (about 4.24 light years away). On the surface this doesn’t sound all that far away. However, if we consider present technologies, it would take anywhere from 19,000 to 76,000 years to make the trip. The wide range in estimates has to do with which technologies would ultimately prove viable for such a trip. We should also consider the possibility that the proposed aliens would have to come from much farther away.

rocketIn short, in an absolute best case scenario, there would have to exist a life-sustaining planet where intelligent life evolved and its inhabitants developed far superior technology. Not an impossibility, but a long shot. The determining factor is the limits imposed by the laws of physics. The limits in this case are distance and how fast a spaceship can travel. Keep in mind that no matter how advanced a technology may be it cannot overcome the laws of physics. Considering the distances involved, it seems unlikely that we have been visited by aliens.

Pure and Simple

Now back to my earlier question: about the loss of a hand, an airplane unable to fly and water not freezing. All three are determined by the laws of nature; specifically, the limits of biology, physics and chemistry. And that’s not only true for these three scenarios but for any proposed idea. That’s right, any proposed idea. That being said, it needs to be mentioned that our understanding of the laws of nature are likely incomplete and currently serve as our best representation of reality. Nevertheless, whether we are talking about everyday experience or the fantastic, the laws of nature run the show. Whether the answer lies within the scope of our knowledge or not; it all boils down to one simple truth: anything which is in principle allowed by the laws of nature is possible and anything which is not allowed by the laws of nature is impossible!

 

References: Universe Today, How Long Would it Take to Travel to the Nearest Star?, Sept 6, 2016 by Matt Williams. http://www.universetoday.com/15403/how-long-would-it-take-to-travel-to-the-nearest-star/