The Upanishads, which underlie Vedanta and early Hinduism, begin, “Thus we have heard….”. And it is well to remember that virtually all our knowledge and most of our thoughts are at best second-hand. I suppose this is what sets the Gnostics apart who claim not to have faith but knowledge, knowledge born of personal experience. But most of us learn from the words of others and assimilate into our belief systems what seems to resonate with us. And I, and no doubt most of you, are the same. We look for evidence for what we want to believe and discount that which is at odds with our beliefs. This was the underlying premise behind the seminal work of Thmas S Kuhn, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”.
So with that frank admission let me tell you about a few things I don’t want to believe and something I do want to believe!
Bertrand Russell, the great English philosopher, mathematician, pacifist, atheist and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, once darkly wrote in his “Mysticism, Logic and Other Essays”:
“Brief and powerless is Man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good or evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for Man, condemned today to lose his dearest tomorrow, himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day; disdaining the coward terrors of the slave of Fate, to worship at the shrine that his own hands have built; undismayed by the empire of chance, to preserve a mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life; proudly defiant of the irresistible forces that tolerate for a moment, his knowledge and his condemnation, to sustain alone, a weary but unyielding Atlas, the world that his own ideals have fashioned despite the trampling march of unconscious power.”
Thus to Russell the Universe is a dispassionate process, driven by material processes that have no other purpose than playing out the eventual demise of individuals, the species and finally everything in the universe under the inevitable demands of increasing entropy.
The modern philosopher and determinist, Daniel Dennett, has an equally bleak message. “The only message in evolution,” says Dennett, “is that the universe has no message.”
Such pessimism is ubiquitous. And even those few who hold up hope for a “Golden Age”, such a vista is normally portrayed as remote from us. One requirement of golden ages is that they never happen now. Some will admit of them in the remote past (usually with little evidence) and some will envisage them in the distant future. The Hindu golden age is safely ten thousand years old while John’s Christian vision of Revelation set the coming age of light and peace two thousand years into his future. In other words travail is imminent and pervasive, but any source of hope is remote and tenuous.
The determinists believe the universe is running to a predetermined program to an inevitable end. In such a universe Mankind is largely an observer of that process with little impact on its course. But as we see shortly, quantum mechanics suggest that Mankind is an active participant in this process and it can impact significantly on its course.
The fear mongers amongst us are always active taking not only a deterministic view but often a cataclysmic one to boot. “The end is nigh!” has been a popular chant over our recent history. It wasn’t long ago that the world seemed paralysed by the Y2K event. But the second millennia AD came and went without a hiccup. And there have been many such unsubstantiated alarms. Currently the cataclysm engaging the world is the possibility of extreme impacts of climate change.
Here is one of my other favourites propagated by a would-be prophet in the late 1980’s:
“There are cycles within the gigantic seasons of the earth itself. Five planets will be aligned with the earth during spring of the year 2000. In fact the whole solar system is lopsided at that moment and there is no knowing what effect this might have on the delicate balance of either the sun or our globe. It is believed that this occurs about every six thousand years. Already there are predictions which bear serious consideration of a major and possibly cataclysmic shift in the earth’s axis. Many observers feel that the ecosystem is anyway in a highly volatile and unstable state. The vast icesheets of Antarctica lie precariously off the south polar centre and are creating a wobble to the planet. Billions of tons of ice pressure are effecting the cracks and faults in the delicate plates which make up the earth’s crust. It is predicted that a cycle of volcanic eruptions could add to the natural disasters and droughts which plague us at present.”
This prognostication suggested that the earth’s axis would shift by almost 90 degrees. The chief explanatory agent for this major drama was that the Egyptians recorded on one magical papyrus that, “The South becomes North and the Earth turns over.” (There is in fact scientific evidence of a reversal of the magnetic poles in the history of the earth.) Now I must acknowledge that for centuries the Egyptians were the experts in cosmology, but it is not plausible that we should give precedence of their ideas over modern scientists. Of course one of the other explanatory factors contributing to such a traumatic change was the fact that the Age of Pisces was giving way to the Age of Aquarius!
Among the doomsdayists was Paul Ehrlich, Professor of Population Studies at Stanford University who reignited the Malthusian spectre with his 1968 book, “The Population Bomb.” This was rapidly followed by the Club of Rome’s cataclysmic report in 1972, “Limits to Growth” which predicted that many of the supplies of critical resources would be in serious decline by the year 2000 with disastrous impacts on society.
With the risk of boring some of you, because we’ve been there before, if we were to look at a map to understand the development of Mankind and its place in the cosmos it is hard to go past Aldous Huxley’s “Philosophia Perennis” (The Perennial Philosophy). Huxley defined it as the “ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendental Ground of all Being.” It is that abiding philosophy among believers which seems to survive all seasons and all changes of age.
And as I implied in a recent blog essay, one of our problems is that the philosophy of the Western world, and as a result science, has largely focussed on the exoteric whereas what has endured in both philosophy and religion is what we have learnt through our internal, esoteric processes.
Contrast this with the view of the enigmatic Jesuit paleontologist and geologist, Pierre Teilhard De Chardin. He believed that, far from the Universe running down, it was moving inexorably to a marvellous climax that he called the “Omega Point.” This belief is titled orthogenesis which posits that evolution is moving in a directional, goal-driven way. His beliefs which questioned the literal truth of Genesis, caused his most important works to banned from publication by the Church in his lifetime (1881-1955). This of course puts him in excellent company with Galileo and other dissidents. Someone I quote regularly, Anthony De Mello, another Jesuit and psychotherapist, also had his works banned by the Church.
Teilhard was one of the first scientists in the twentieth century to realise that the entire universe, not just the story of biological life, has a historical character. On our planet, he proposed, natural processes have successfully brought about the realm of matter (the geosphere), then life (the biosphere), and most recently the sphere of mind (the noosphere). The noosphere is the “thinking layer” of earth history, a history made up of human persons, societies, and cultural and technological achievements. Teilhard complained that scientists have failed to see that the noosphere is one of the most interesting developments in the history of the universe.
Intriguingly the Omega Point, according to Teilhard, is not the outcome of the evolutionary process, it is the cause. Rather than a mechanistic universe arising from the Big Bang and then under the inexorable Second Law of Thermodynamics gradually running down, the evolutionary processes of the universe are purposeful, drawing it to an inevitable climax.
So, in his own unique way, you might even say that Teilhard is also a determinist – not because he believed that the inputs and processes were fixed and the universe was obliged to run its inexorable course, but because the endpoint was already determined and the processes of evolution are merely the mechanism of taking us to this inevitable, marvellous climax!
To the Jesuit, it seemed that the universe was not running down as a result of increasing entropy, it was being driven by a creative process creating higher and higher levels of consciousness.
The Christian Scientist, John F Haught writes:
“Matter and spirit, in Teilhard’s cosmology, are labels for two polar tendencies in nature’s evolution, not two separate types of substances. ‘Matter’ is the tendency of nature to fall back toward a state of sheer multiplicity and incoherence. ‘Spirit’ is the tendency of nature to move towards unity up ahead. Moreover it is spirit, not matter, that gives solidity and consistency to the cosmos.”
From his earliest days Teilhard had a deep affection for the natural world, and this interest carried over later to a career in geology and paleontology. He was especially fascinated by rocks, for these symbolized the permanence he sought in the face of life’s impermanence. His entire life was a constant search for something incontestably solid to which he might fix his anxious, spiritual sensibilities. Although he confessed to being temperamentally inclined to tie his life to the security of the past, he eventually realised that the world dissolves into the incoherence of mere fragments the farther we look back in time. As his life went on he became increasingly convinced that whatever consistency the universe has lies in the future not its past. The solidity for which he longed his whole life gradually shifted from a focus on the past to a concentration on the future.
Haught again makes this commentary:
“The universe is still coming into being. Evolutionary biology, geology, and cosmology have now established as a fact that the cosmos is still emerging and that it remains incomplete. It is a work in progress, a book still being written. The incontestable fact of an emergent, unfinished universe may not seem to be much of a footing on which to erect a sense of cosmic meaning or find a good reason for hope, but at least it invites us to keep on reading. For if a wondrous plot is still unfolding beneath our feet and over our heads, we cannot expect its inner meaning to be fully manifest yet. Any purpose the universe may have will be at least partially hidden from our view – at least for now.”
Well, I know you’ve been waiting for it – but here’s my gigantic leap of faith! In the beginning there was ….. Well let’s have someone else say it.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John 1:1 (KJV)
Now I am not a biblical scholar but I believe that this was translated from the Greek. In the original Greek “logos” was translated as “the Word.” Logos can also mean knowledge or perhaps in this context “knowing”. It is not much of a stretch to interpret this as consciousness. (Bible scholars have taken far greater liberties than this! Not that I believe either, that the author of John had any greater insights than most of us have.)
Before there was matter and energy there was always consciousness. I have always believed that the universe could not have evolved without consciousness. At the very core of physics, quantum mechanics allows many potential outcomes until the intervention of an observer (consciousness). Without consciousness there would be no universe – all the probability functions of quantum mechanics would be unresolved. There would be nothing concrete just a vast array of probabilities smeared all over the place!
For reasons that are beyond me to understand (the good Dr Phil has some interesting theories) consciousness dissipated itself in the creation process and evolution is the process of restoring it to wholeness.
So that’s what I think is going on in the universe, foolish optimist that I am! Teilhard de Chardin was compelled to put some Christian spin on his theory but I still believe his theory of the Omega Point and what he called complexification still has merit. I would, as I initially intimated, prefer to believe this than the gloomy prognostication of Bertrand Russell mentioned at the outset.
No doubt many of you might want to challenge my rather cavalier interpretation of physics and theology and I look forward to a lively discussion!