The year’s end often brings up thoughts about fundamentals, and this one is no different. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this odd fact: though we have all kinds of religions and spiritual practices, and though science has brought us insight and evidence about natural processes from the inconceivably huge—the universe, said to have originated 15 billion years ago with a Big Bang—to the infinitely small—particles so puzzling they can hardly be said to have an actual existence beyond a certain probability, yet the whole existence in which we are engaged is still an almost total mystery. Who are we? What are we? We don’t know. We all have beliefs about this; and half-baked ideas from popular versions of science; but when it comes right down to it, we not only don’t know who we are or what we are, but even less about why we’re even here. How we’re even here. Why the human race is even here (sometimes, and often these days, it appears we’re here to fuck up the planet so badly that it becomes unlivable not just for us, but for all else. Even prehistorically, as Edward O. Wilson in The Future of Life says, man, far from being a “noble savage,” was and is “the planetary killer…Eden occupied was a slaughterhouse.”)
But for now, let’s just look at this simple question: Which is primary, matter or mind (sometimes referred to as spirit, soul, etc.)? Science, of course, has few doubts about this. Matter spontaneously generated life (it used to be thought that light energy, a flash of lightning perhaps, was needed to ignite basic chemicals into amino acids; now, much research is focused on life originating in the oceans near the deep vents—sites where exudations of sulfur and heat from the earth’s interior generate anaerobic bacteria, and strange life-forms that require neither light nor oxygen), and from tiny one-celled organisms continued to evolve into more and more complex organisms over billions of years until finally, there was us. In fact, for most of the previous hundreds of years, scientists did not even consider ‘mind’ a fit term to investigate. More recently, though, psychologists and neuroscientists have been looking more seriously into this thing called ‘mind.’ And though they’re still not sure what mind is, or where it’s located, it appears to be some product of matter, specifically the brain, and to have a ‘real’ existence. When it comes to priority, though, most scientists would be adamant: matter comes first. And this has meant, logically, that our era has become the age of materialism. Matter is what matters. All conclusions about origins and purpose stem from that.
Materialism, though, is precisely what many thoughtful people—philosophers, artists, spiritual seekers, religious leaders—find wanting. And so the origin stories that have come down to us from great thinkers and spiritual leaders all put matter secondary to something else: spirit, soul, mind, ideal forms, consciousness, something immaterial. And, that that something immaterial either is or gives birth to mind. In Genesis, God—the great spiritual, eternal being—creates the universe and all in it, including all the various animals and humans, in seven days. God speaks the Word (or is the word), and it is made flesh, or is clothed in flesh. Thus, the breath of some creator God instills life and order into a previously dead and chaotic mess of something, or nothing. And keeps it going. And the task of beings, especially human beings, is to seek to obey and eventually to reunite with that creator God in a more ideal place, an Afterlife. In eastern traditions, including Hinduism and Buddhism, the theoretical base suggests that some sort of Cosmic Mind has priority. From that big mind emerges the forms that are designed to survive in the material world: cells, bodies, and all that drives them from the beginning, mainly desire for increase and security. The task of the human—built as a vehicle for contemplating all of existence, sometimes imaged as the desire of the creator mind to reflect or contemplate itself—is to come to some sort of realization of what is true and real, above and prior to the material self that is secondary and, in some sense, illusory. As Karen Armstrong puts it in the Great Transformation: “The ultimate reality was an immanent presence in every single human being. It could, therefore, be discovered in the depths of the self.” It takes most humans several lifetimes to accomplish this; meantime, the imperishable part keeps recycling through life forms (rebirth or reincarnation) over and over. Plato’s image of the cave provides a concrete image for a similar idea. That is, the ideal forms that are primary and eternal for Plato, are not seen by normal beings, who see only reflections—reality reflected by firelight on the wall of a cave. Most humans, that is, see only the physical world, which is changing constantly, and which was created by a demiurge. Though the world he created was based on the eternal forms, it is really only a weak, pale reflection of the true forms. These eternal forms themselves are accessible only to philosophical reason and exalted perception.
It is clear then that two positions are available to us all. Either we consider material existence the be-all and end-all; which is to say that we are born, our brains generate an entity we call mind, we mature, and we die; one shot and that’s the end of it. OR, we are aggregates of some stuff that is really only a pale shadow of a more fundamental reality—a prior and superior mind or soul that we can unite with through the proper rational, behavioral, spiritual, or contemplative practices. Those who subscribe to the first view are sometimes called ‘realists;’ those who subscribe to the second are sometimes called ‘idealists.’ Which are you?
What has given new life to such questions is the emergence, in recent years, of formerly esoteric practices, mostly from the east, coupled with interpretations of scientific developments that appear to provide real-world support for those esoteric views. Consider this quote from a recent book, The Non-Local Universe: The New Physics and Matters of the Mind, Robert Nadeau and Menos Kafatos, Oxford U Press: 1999:
If the universe is a seamlessly interactive system that evolves to higher levels of complexity and if the lawful regularities of this universe are emergent properties of this system, we can assume that the cosmos is a single significant whole that evinces progressive order in complementary relation to its parts. Given that this whole exists in some sense within all parts, one can then argue that it operates in self-reflective fashion and is the ground for all emergent complexity. Since human consciousness evinces self-reflective awareness in the human brain and since this brain (like all physical phenomena) can be viewed as an emergent property of the whole, it is not unreasonable to conclude, in philosophical terms at least, that the universe is conscious. (p. 197)
What this interpretation leads to—starting from a wholly materialistic view based in the most materialistic of all scientific paradigms, evolution—is the rather idealistic view that the material universe is actually not dead matter at all; it is alive. It is, in some sense that we are still not clear about, conscious. More, that this universal, conscious whole—that which may have given rise to the idea called ‘God’—“exists in some sense within all [its] parts.” Which is to say, in each one of us.
So what are we? Are we truly separate selves going about our daily lives as best we can—which is to stay alive long enough to reproduce our kind in a way that helps them not just survive, but out-compete all other beings? Or are we interconnected manifestations of some incomprehensible whole, some mind that has not only generated us, but which is within each one of us and thus accessible to our self-reflection?
And how can we tell? What would serve as proof of one or the other position? Is there such a thing as proof; or is there simply belief? And what does it matter?
I would suggest that the view one settles on matters profoundly. For what we believe about who or what we are is the basis for all sorts of decisions about how to act—both towards all other humans (not just those in our tribe), and towards the world as a whole. And it is this that will increasingly, I think, become the crucial matter for all of us.
Obviously, there is more to say about this. Later.