Reality, Meaning, and Comforting Stories

Charles Jeanes
By Charles Jeanes
April 14th, 2015

Arc of the Cognizant LXXXX

The Grand Synthesis, or the Complete Theory of Everything Real

When pressed to say what gives you your proofs for what is real and how the universe can be understood, what do you say?  “Science” is a good bet for your probable reply.  A thousand years ago in our civilization it was a safe bet one would say “the Church.”

I noticed how CBC news anchor Wendy Mesley subtly told her Canadian audience what is our normal source of true facts in Canada — and what is the knowledge of a peculiar and particular sub-community within the country.  On Easter Sunday, she spoke of how that day was “the holiest day for Christians, whose religion teaches this is the day when Jesus rose from the dead.”  No question, Wendy is being careful to let audiences know that this religion is just one among many.

[She did not explain the word “Christ” was not Jesus’ name but his title, perhaps assuming this information was unnecessary for the audience.  But the Easter resurrection is the reason Jesus the Nazarene was known by this new title, and personally I would include this bit of data for non-Christians’ education.]

Mesley’s very next news item was about the Hadron Particle Accelerator being restarted in Europe after two years offline.  She said quite certainly that science was telling us more and more about the world we live in and how it works, and the CERN experimental technology was helping “us” to push back the mysteries of the universe, as for example its discovery of the Higgs-Boson particle, and its creation of a tiny amount of anti-matter.  Clearly, science is truth, and religion is merely belief. The CBC only reports facts, as a news medium.

Christianity once was our complete theory of everything real.  Scientific materialism now has that role in our civilization.  Matter and energy, space and time, are the parameters of reality that physicists work within, men like Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking.  String theory, the uncertainty principle, spooky action at a distance, the principle of non-locality, anti-matter and dark matter – these are just some of the ways in which science just within recent time has been attempting to inform us about our universe and what is real in it.

It is the hope of some scientists that one day the methods of scientific materialism will explain everything in one grand all-encompassing theory, from the origin of matter and energy and the space-time continuum, to the emergence of life and the appearance of consciousness on one planet, ours.  Science will do what religion has only pretended to do, and will do it with proof and will leave no mysteries.   The conviction that science has such power to explain everything is in all practical senses a religion.  A fair label for this religion is “scientism.”  (The word “scientology” has already been coopted by an American Church founded by L. Ron Hubbard.)

Consilience: All together, right now.

Edward O. Wilson wrote a short book in 1999 arguing that the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities – as these bodies of knowledge are conventionally distinguished at universities in the Western tradition – must very soon harmonize all their data into one unified learning for human comprehension; ethics and ecology, physics and metaphysics, must  be unified.  He called this crucially-necessary harmony, “consilience.”  Other writers have taken up the idea, and promote it as a goal for research and scholarship.

Wilson is an older-generation humanist.  For him, humanity is the measure of all things, our autonomy to choose our future is paramount.  His book concludes with opinionated observations.  Here are a couple;

“It is enough to get Homo Sapiens settled down and happy before we wreck the planet… [O]nly unified learning, universally shared, makes accurate foresight and wise choice possible… A united system of knowledge is the surest means of identifying the still unexplored domains of reality…

“We are learning the fundamental principle that ethics is everything… And if we should surrender our ethics and art and our very meaning to a habit of careless discursion in the name of progress, imagining ourselves to be godlike and absolved from our ancient heritage, we will become nothing.”

Wilson was no respecter of religious claims against science, yet he knew that for humans, right and wrong, goodness and happiness and meaning, are not immaterial.  His reflections on the future of our species were written before we would know just how we have brought Earth and other species into deadly peril with our activities.  Clearly, Wilson was an optimist for the human prospect.

One naturally asks if humanity deserves optimism for its future.

Big Bang and Human Anxiety

Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry are authors of a recent popular book, The Universe Story, that attempts to tell the narrative of how the universe came into existence 13.89 billion years ago in the so-called big bang, and explain how science understands light, stars, galaxies, our planet, life, and human consciousness.  This is not explicitly their attempt to bring consilience to human knowledge, but an effort to give people a new way to understand the human condition in our relationship to Earth and to the cosmos.  Needless to say, the topic is vast.

Here is how Swimme tried to explain his motives for writing his book, in an interview:

“… I’m like anyone who’s alert – anxious about our situation and the kind of world that is going to be here in the generations to come. That’s constantly on my mind. Especially when I think about this lack of awareness of what the real issues of our time are, it’s easy to become really discouraged. But if you look back over the universe story, what’s incredible is the universe gets itself into these situations that just seem so bleak. I mentioned the supernova. You have a star and the whole thing just starts to collapse. It’s obvious to anyone who knows what’s going on at the level of a star, that it’s over and the collapse is inevitable. Just in a second the whole thing goes down to a dot and then explodes out and then we have the creation of all the elements of the universe enabling the adventure to move forward. The breakthrough moments are unimaginable until they happen…

“… I have a sense that something amazing is at work, namely that I think that our planet is actually moving into a period of profound harmony and fecundity and peace. Whether that’s going to take 600 years or six years, I don’t know. I think that as humans begin to take seriously the planetary dimension of conscious self-awareness, then we will become ‘homonized’ versions of natural selection. We will then begin to make decisions with the large-scale dynamic of the planet in mind. So I see that we’re actually entering into the transformation of the human species out of the modern period into this new era. It may take centuries. But like the past and its catastrophes, I think that’s what’s taking place in the midst of so many hardships…. We all float out of this process so we are all cousins, we are genetic kin. We sort of know scientifically but we [will] really live what we know to be the case, then we will enter more deeply into this period of peace.”

These are the ideas of a man deeply educated in science, not a religious or philosophical leader.  His book has been adopted as a species of holy writ by the ministers of the Universalist Unitarian Church, such as Connie Barlow and Michael Dowd.  [visit www.TheGreatStory.org]

Swimme is not sounding much like Einstein the physicist but more like Eisenstein the propagandist for A New Story of the People, of whom I have often written in this column.

Einstein or Eisenstein? – real facts or narratives of meaning?

Albert Einstein is a popular image of The Scientific Genius.  E=mc2 is the most famous equation we know.  He was not a conventionally-religious individual but had spiritual inclinations, and he is a sympathetic figure often quoted for insightful proverbs illuminating human challenges.  Mostly, we think of him as adding to the sum of human knowledge.

When we think of what scientists do, we often think of Einstein, and if we believe science is good for humanity, we hold him up as a paradigm of doing worthwhile work, valuable for human life.  Though his colleagues used Einstein’s physics to guide them in the development of the atomic bomb, we do not hold him responsible.  [Einstein did not work for the bomb to be built, though he warned the American President that Nazi Germany might be working on one.  We generally forgive Einstein for the misuse of his science by politicians for weaponry.]  We do not think of him as a genius in human questions, however, such as the meaning of our lives.

Charles Eisenstein, author, (The More Beautiful World our Hearts tell us is Possible), lecturer on constant tour, workshop leader, blogger, inspiration, is not a scientist.  But he writes extremely well about science, religion, human history, and our future.  He is easily found on the internet.

Einstein tried to learn more about the nature of reality.  Eisenstein tries to tell us how to meet the many deadly challenges we, our planetary habitat, and other species on Earth, face.

The quantum physicist told us about particles of matter and behaviours of energy.  The popular writer tries to harmonize physics with a narrative about what humanity is doing on earth.

What Story-telling Does, and Science Does Not

Eisenstein and Swimme are in total harmony about the necessity of a story of humanity that gives meaning and purpose to human lives.  Science does not offer those comforts to us.

But, Story shapes human consciousness; our consciousness is a proper subject for science to understand, therefore the narrative of the universe, and how it came into being with us in it, includes science in it.  Science is now giving us proofs that all life and matter and energy are interdependent; think of the ‘uncertainty principle’ as an example.

Science is part of what Eisenstein calls The New Story of the People; science as Western civilization understands that word, is going forward with us, but we will evolve a quality of science that is appropriate to the new story Eisenstein titles “The Story of Interbeing.”

The science that secular Westerners have reverenced since the seventeeth century upheld an old, and now destructive, paradigm of reality.  That paradigm was that a mind is separate from all else, it is the subject and the observer, and the world/universe is an object to be observed and controlled.  We must evolve beyond that story – “The Story of Separation” — if we are to have a future, Eisenstein says.

Swimme obviously endorses Eisenstein’s new kind of story of interbeing. (See the long quotation from Swimme cited above.)

John N. Gray: without story, does Humanity have meaning?

The philosopher John N. Gray is the most trenchant critic of the story of progress of any writer alive that I have come across, more damning of the false narrative of forward improvement of humanity than Charles Eisenstein or any other writer on the idea of “Progress in Human History.” No one these days, scientist, philosopher, person-in-the-street, has much good to say about the idea of progress, since we see reasons all around to doubt it, yet still the force of hope and optimism drive many thinkers to see a future better than this present time.

John Gray is dismissive of hope and of any story that projects humanity evolving into better beings, ridiculing the improved humans that Swimme says we are transforming into.

Here’s Gray attacking the idea that if global, capitalist, materially-affluent civilization collapses, something better emerges:

“The notion that social breakdown could be the prelude to a better world is a Romantic dream that history has proved wrong time and time again… The result has never been the stable anarchy that is sometimes envisioned… Ecological catastrophe will not trigger a return to a more sustainable way of life, but will intensify the existing competition among nation states for the planet’s remaining resources… Waged with high-tech weapons, the resulting wars could destroy not only large numbers of human beings but also much of what is left of the biosphere… A scenario of this kind is …no more than history as usual, together with new technologies and ongoing climate change. …How can anyone imagine that the dream-driven human animal will suddenly become sane, when its environment starts disintegrating? [People who imagine that] have swallowed the progressivist fairy tale…”

Gray is a misanthropist, says a Guardian newspaper review of his book The Silence of Animals.  This may be so.  He has no patience for anyone who thinks humans, their nature and their societies, are evolving in a progressive direction: “Natural selection is a process of drift. Evolution [as Darwin meant it] has no endpoint or direction, so if the development of society is an evolutionary process, it is going nowhere.”   So much for Eisenstein’s optimism for humanity!

As for humans’ apparent need for meaning – apparent from our history, our religions, our stories, Gray has nothing supportive to say either:

“Life is a random walk yet we humans desperately pursue some meaning to our lives, to the point that when truth is at odds with meaning, it is meaning that wins. Why is meaning so important? Why do human beings need a reason to live? Is it because they could not endure life if they did not believe that it had hidden significance? Does the demand for meaning come from attaching too much sense to language – from thinking that our lives are books that we have not yet learned to read?”

Gray accepts that there is a progress in science of a cumulative sort, so that facts and technologies are added up over time.  He says that for certain life in Europe in 1990 is better than in 1940, and the progress is in material affluence and the comforts of secure lives.  But he rejects progress of our ethics or politics.  There is no progress in those areas; he cites history and its record of highs and lows in human civilization as his proof.  He prefers civilization over barbarism, but does not believe humans as we are can ever escape the latter permanently.

What is real, What it means, What it’s for

Finally, Gray will not accept that science of any time or place can deliver us ultimate answers and peace of mind, nor that its explanations are part of any narrative with meaning, quite unlike what Eisenstein proposes:

“The need for peace seduces the human mind in the mirage of a resting place in the heart of its striving for knowledge… At all times and in all places, the science of a particular time is the expression of the poor human spirit’s wistful desire for rest. …[Critique] must rudely awaken science, remove its illusion of an oasis, and drive it further along the hot, deadly, and possibly aimless desert paths.”

Gray offers this observation about human striving for peace of mind, and about the self:

“Whereas silence is for other animals a natural state of rest, for humans silence is an escape from inner commotion. The human animal looks to silence for relief from being itself, while other animals enjoy silence as their birthright… The world in which you live from day to day is made from habit and memory. The ‘perilous zones’ are the times when the self, made from habit and memory, gives way. Then, if only for a moment, you may become something other than you have been… Contemplation aims not to change the world nor understand it but merely to let it be. Contemplation of this kind involves nullifying the self.”

Here, what Gray tells us about his notion of self and human peace of mind might partially explain his misanthropy. He likes animals better, as the review in The Guardian asserts.

There is no purpose or direction in human life nor in the universe, Gray holds.  Still he wants us to strive to fend off the worst effects of the coming inevitable collapse of global civilization and do what we may to avoid barbarism.  Accept what is, without dreams or illusions, and do one’s best to preserve what is good “while knowing that it won’t amount to much.”  Gray considers himself a Stoic.

At any rate, Gray is not the philosopher of the human condition one would turn to for support of meaning in human life; the importance of Story for shaping human consciousness in healthful, improving ways, is no part of his perspective.  Gray loves most to subject other people’s narratives to his withering critique.  His own inclination for the good life leans toward “grateful contemplation” and “godless mysticism.”

Conclusion: there’s reading to do…

This has been a long discourse about the future, but not in the usual way.  From the start of writing The Arc of the Cognizant, my driving concern has been to answer for myself and others the question,  “What is a good way to live in a time of unravelling and peril, like these times?”

What you think the future holds for you, your loved ones, and humanity, and the planet, are not realities.  They are your thoughts.  They give you meaning and purpose for living.

What is truly the reality of the times and situation we live in, we ask science to tell us.  Its answers are not stories of meaning and purpose.  Its answers might provoke feelings of fear, wonder, dismay or bewilderment.

You have to harmonize your knowledge of what science says is real with your feeling about why you live.  You have to have your own story.  No one but you can do that for you.

This column has only been to introduce some of the current thinking on these subjects.  I rarely feel my writing is to persuade anyone to one point of view.  I do not write for that purpose.  The best I hope for is to provoke readers to search out my sources and think about what they find there.

Categories: Op/Ed

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