Evolution of Wisdom
The Point of Return
Evolution of Wisdom
Cover: Stacked Oak, by Andy Goldsworthy, using branches left over from locally felled trees Courtesy: Yorkshire Sculpture Park
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Paintings courtesy of Sohan Qadri
God is a field of consciousness that pervades the universe.
IN PART ONE of this article, published in the May/June issue of Resurgence, I discussed the limitations of what I term “arch-materialism”, as espoused by Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion. In Part Two, I discuss how wisdom is the key to human evolution.
The fact that Dawkins is voicing a broad sense of outrage among scientists who want religion to stay out of the laboratory is a social issue. The deeper issue is whether God has anything to offer to science. Dawkins emphatically thinks there is no practical use for God, the soul, transcendence or any other so-called spiritual concept in his field of research, which is evolutionary biology. He believes that the evolution of life can be explained completely without the notion of an intelligent designer.
This point would seem to be irrefutable, since Darwin’s theory and those that have sprung from it are purely physical. Evolution proceeds, according to Darwin, through environmental stresses that put pressure on a species to survive. A sudden change in climate, the appearance of new predators, and a drastic drop in the water supply are all examples of such stresses. Some creatures will adapt better than others. This is measured by whether a population of animals increases or decreases. Thus adaptation comes down to reproduction. If an animal exhibits changes that increase its chance of passing those changes on to its offspring, evolution moves forward. If, however, a mutation occurs that lowers the chance for reproduction, obviously it can’t be passed on, and as a result other species survive in the endless competition for food, territory and mating rights.
This whole scheme, which has been validated thousands of times over, excludes God. Random mutations have nothing to do with a designer. The rise and fall of species shows no intelligent plan. Even the idea of progress is over-simplified. Evolution doesn’t automatically make a species bigger, stronger, more intelligent or more beautiful. Blue-green algae, for example, are some of the most primitive forms of life, yet they fit their niche in the environment perfectly well today, just as they have for billions of years. The fact that an orchid seems more beautiful to our eyes, and a redwood tree more majestic, doesn’t mean God created that beauty and majesty. Or that Nature intended those qualities in any way.
Yet the triumph of materialism in explaining the formation of life is grossly flawed. Dawkins realises that there are enormous gaps in evolutionary theory, but he keeps assuring us that these will be filled in over time. Genetics, like evolution itself, proceeds by increments, and we mustn’t leap to embrace an intelligent designer just because so many things around us seem, well, intelligently designed.
The fact that the world appears to be so perfectly knit, so stunningly precise down to the millionths of a degree, so beautiful, and in the end so meaningful to anyone who can appreciate these qualities, is a problem for materialists. For centuries one of the strongest proofs of God has been the inference that nothing less than a supreme being could have created life. Unfortunately for Dawkins, refuting this claim isn’t nearly as easy as he thinks.
To begin with, he tries to claim probability for his side, saying that the odds against a Creator God are too slim to be credible, whereas the odds for Darwin’s theory exist right before our eyes. Could it really be true that blue-green algae evolved, one tiny step at a time, until every single tree, flower, fern and grass grew from them – not to mention every animal? The odds seem impossibly small, but the fossil record proves that they came true.
God, on the other hand, is merely inferred as an invisible supposition; and who needs God when we have fossils? The flaw here is subtle, for Dawkins is imagining God in advance and then claiming that what he imagines has little chance of existing. That’s perfectly true, but why should God be what Dawkins imagines – a superhuman Creator making life the way a watchmaker makes a watch? Let’s say that God is a field of consciousness that pervades the universe. Let’s say that this field keeps creating new forms within itself. These forms swirl and mix with each other, finding more combinations and complexities as time unfolds. Such a God couldn’t be imagined because a field is infinite, and there’s nowhere it isn’t. Thus trying to talk about God is like a fish trying to talk about wetness. A fish is immersed in wetness; it has nothing to compare water to, and the same is true of consciousness. We are conscious and intelligent, and it does no good to talk about the probability of not being conscious and intelligent.
We are in God as a fish is in water. Dawkins doesn’t take this argument seriously. He imagines that he can entirely dismiss geniuses like Plato, Socrates, Hegel, Kant, Newton and Einstein. In the past, thinkers saw intelligence and consciousness all around them, and they set out to explain their source, which some called God. It’s not necessary to use that word. But it is necessary to find the source.
DAWKINS AND OTHERS dismiss such a search. Are information fields real, as some theorists believe? Such a field might preserve information the way energy fields preserve energy; in fact, the entire universe may be based upon the evolution of information. There’s not the slightest doubt that the universe has an invisible source outside space and time. A field that can create something new and then remember it would explain the persistence of incredibly fragile molecules like DNA, which by any odds should have disintegrated long ago under the pressure of entropy, not to mention the vicissitudes of heat, wind, sunlight, radiation, and random mistakes through mutation.
Dawkins falls prey, not to the delusion of God, but to the delusion of an all-mighty chance acting mindlessly through matter. He cannot admit the possibility of an ordering force in Nature. Therefore, he has no ability to discover the precursors of the human mind, which is ultimately the greatest triumph of evolutionary biology, not DNA. Until we have a credible explanation for mind, it’s pointless to argue about God as if we understand what’s at stake. Religion and science are both operating with incomplete concepts.
Ultimately, Dawkins can fight with religion as much as he wants and it will be only a sideshow. Scepticism offers critiques, not discoveries. Ironically, this is a shared fate with religion, which has ceased to play a progressive and vital role in modern society. The two are locked in a sterile embrace.
Dawkins believes that the universe is full of wonder and mystery, but these will be solved, one at a time, until science has complete understanding. In this way the entire supernatural tradition – and the notion of God itself – will be erased.
This is an optimistic claim that seems plausible in an age of heady discoveries in physics and biology. The famous Theory of Everything draws closer to fulfilment than ever. In fact, science has become even more ambitious. The original Theory of Everything belonged solely to physics. It had no intention of explaining the evolution of life. But with the completion of the human genome project, life will also cease to be a mystery – so Dawkins assures us. Every mechanism hidden inside DNA will be mastered, explained and used for human benefit.
It’s hard for arch-materialists not to thump their chests. Unfortunately, the Theory of Everything has hit a brick wall. Quantum physics lacks the power to cross the border into the invisible world that lies beyond subatomic particles: the so-called virtual domain. Not only is this the realm of ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’, but all possible universes also lie across the same boundary, as well as the ‘zero point’ where space and time are born.
Genetics seems to be riding higher, but behind the display of public triumph biology has not solved the existence of mind, and therefore the same obstacle faces both fields. An invisible world lies sealed off from investigation, leaving us to trace its footprints and echoes. Dawkins finds consciousness (as well as quantum physics) totally irrelevant – a comment on his own intellectual limitations rather than reality.
So many mysteries remain unresolved by the arch-materialists. For example,
• What separates life from inert matter?
• What part does the observer play in creating reality?
• How does the infinite quantum field organise and govern every event in the universe?
• How does chaos relate to order?
• How did evolution overcome entropy, the ceaseless march of the physical universe toward chaos and the deep freezer of ‘heat death’?
• Why is the universe so amazingly hospitable to human life?
THIS LAST QUESTION is the most pressing one, for both believers and non-believers. To claim that the swirling, chaotic quantum soup that erupted from the Big Bang evolved into human life by random chance is only believable because science has no urgent need to find a credible alternative. As long as scientists stand outside nature with their nose pressed against the glass like a child peering through a bakery shop window, we get a false picture of the cosmos. The only advantage of isolating yourself in this way is that it fits the scientific method. But no matter how many rats run through the maze, it’s futile to pretend that we are outside the experiment. The truth is completely different:
• We are embedded in the universe. What we observe is ourselves reflected back at us.
• Every sight, sound, texture, taste and smell is the product of an observer. As the observer changes, so do all these qualities.
• We perceive imagination, beauty, creativity, etc. in ourselves and thus we see the same in Nature. Every attribute of the human mind is embedded in the universe.
WHY CAN YOU remember your birthday and the face of someone you love? Because DNA can remember how to produce generations of human beings. Why does DNA remember? There’s the mystery. We can link memory as a human attribute to chemical memory. But when we ask where chemicals learned to remember, science is baffled. Dissecting DNA is one thing. Asking the ‘why’ of DNA is another.
Dawkins feels that ‘why?’ is a meaningless question, totally devoid of scientific interest. But ‘why?’ is the single most important question humans ask, particularly when it comes to ourselves. Ultimately we want to know who we are and our purpose for being here. Dawkins doesn’t seem to have any doubt about who he is: he’s the evolutionary by-product of chemical forces, physical laws, random events, natural selection, competition, adaptation and survival. So is an amœba. Sadly, this reductionist picture of human life is devoid of meaning. It’s merely a map of how a physical machine called the body came to be built. Such knowledge is like knowing everything about a computer except how to plug it in.
What if memory is an attribute of Nature itself? All around us we see memory at work. The insulin that functions in primitive organisms retains the same function in higher mammals. The chemical reaction that propels a butterfly’s wings to beat is duplicated to make the human heart beat. Once we take seriously the notion that we are inside the bakery shop, not standing outside with our noses pressed up against the glass, it becomes obvious that memory isn’t a separate, isolated attribute.
Nature is constantly remembering. Nature is constantly creating. It is exercising imagination and discovering quantum leaps. When hydrogen and oxygen combined, the result wasn’t another inert gas. It was water, and water represents a huge imaginative leap on the part of the universe. The reason one can say this with confidence is simple: if the universe didn’t have imagination, neither would we. That’s what it means to be embedded in the field. Nothing we know about ourselves can be separated from what Nature displays.
Dawkins is absolutely right to declare a requiem service over the God of organised religion and to warn us about the dangers of superstition, dogma, and pseudo-science. But what Dawkins tragically misses holds far more optimism for the future than he ever could: the universe is renewing itself through us. Science is God explaining God to God using a human nervous system.
There is nothing outside the field. It displays omnipresence and omnipotence, being all-pervasive and containing all matter and energy. Soon science will come to terms with the presence of consciousness in the field. Advanced systems theory as well as information theory is hard at work already and we will add omniscience to the list. This new God will be the source of mind. Its ability to orchestrate evolution will make sense because it must. We humans cannot have any knowledge except knowledge of ourselves. Every facet of the cosmos is a mirror. The fact that the chemical reaction driving a butterfly’s wings also keeps you and me alive is no accident – it’s part of a design.
This design isn’t a blueprint or a diagram set down by a fictitious God. It’s a vital, ever-evolving, imaginative, dramatic process and so too is human existence. The similarity isn’t a coincidence – there is nothing we call human that isn’t transcendent. Beyond the physical world lies the womb of creation, and whether we call it God or something else is irrelevant. We came from a source, we are forever in contact with our source, and we are constantly returning to our source. This is the real mystery of existence. Profound are the words of T. S. Eliot:
And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks
only when it is fulfilled.
THERE’S A SENSE of crisis in the air over the notion that reason itself is in jeopardy. So the alarm-bell rings to defend science and push back unreason.
But how can anyone seriously defend science as a panacea when it gave us the atomic bomb? Rationality is creating new methods of mechanised death every year. The future being planned by so-called rationalists includes robot armies and neutron bombs that can kill every enemy combatant – or civilian population – while leaving their buildings standing. How much less messy the clean-up will be! The bald fact is that science and reason have unleashed incredible fear and diabolical inventions, and this happened because we don’t use reason alone – it is always mixed with anger, fear, dread, aggression and all the other aspects of our hidden, unconscious nature.
Reason isn’t the saviour of the future. That role belongs to wisdom. With all the threats to human survival that we now face, I resort to a phrase coined by Jonas Salk: “the survival of the wisest”. Salk had the vision to look beyond materialism. He saw that evolution, as it applies to modern human beings, isn’t Darwinian. Competition is more mental and technological today than physical. The survival of specific gene pools, which is the crux of animal survival and adaptation, is irrelevant for us.
For at least two thousand years, our evolution has shifted to the following:
• We assimilate new information and evolve mentally.
• We don’t evolve physically but instead use technology to extend our physical limitations and gain more power over Nature.
• We gain a higher vision of ourselves and evolve spiritually.
The progress made through the first two factors has reached a tipping point. Our technology and our challenge to Nature may destroy us. So where is evolution going to go? In an age of information, anyone can access knowledge for incredible destruction or incredible creation. The choice isn’t left to governments, churches or isolated geniuses. Putting technology in the hands of everyone is progress only if the third factor – our vision of ourselves and our spirituality – evolves at the same time.
Despite an expertise in evolutionary biology, arch-materialists like Dawkins miss the whole point of human evolution, which is that it long ago broke out of the prison of physicality. True, modern athletes are stronger, bigger, faster and more accomplished than those of the past, but this doesn’t affect anyone’s survival the way becoming a bigger, stronger, faster gazelle would.
Taking all factors together, humans evolve through the metabolism of experience. That is, we absorb everything going on in our environment, and in some rather mysterious ways the next generation knows more and can do more than we can. When Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity, Bertrand Russell famously said that he was one of three people in the world who understood it. Now a bright high-school student can grasp Einstein’s principles, if not his mathematics.
The same holds true for today’s ten-year-olds who can navigate through a computer better and faster than many adults of an older generation. We assimilate difficulties, solve them, and move on to a new future as more evolved humans. The evolution of the wisest holds that this cannot be a random process. No-one is going to stop the diabolical creativity of weapons research except us. Nature is perfectly willing to let us destroy ourselves through ecological collapse. Are we to be regarded as one of Nature’s most interesting failed experiments? And one of the most short-lived? When asked if he found the cathedrals of Europe inspiring, Mark Twain answered to the effect that the architects forgot to build inspiring people to go in them. We risk leaving the same legacy to the future. What will save us is self-awareness, the key to evolution of the wisest.
TO SAY THAT our future survival depends on wisdom can sound vague and vaporous. But there’s a serious point here. The state of the planet today is a direct result of human vision. The way we pursue happiness – by exploiting natural resources, ignoring environmental degradation, and largely giving up on overpopulation – represents our current stage of evolution. We have created a vision without wisdom.
The key ingredients of this vision are both obvious and subtle:
• Happiness based on consumption
• A shift from centuries of religious idealism to pragmatic materialism
• A desire to conquer Nature and be free from disasters and threats
• A belief in science and progress as separate from spirituality
• Loss of community, replaced with individualism and competition
• Feeling isolated and unsupported except on the physical level
• Denial of the existence of a transcendent power
Changing these factors will take time, and there is no guarantee that we will succeed in finding a vision that will promote wisdom for survival. There’s no doubt that mere political effort is woefully insufficient. Nor will technology alone save us, although no doubt the joint efforts of government and massive corporations will eventually deliver efficient cars and alternative fuels. But this will not be enough.
Survival of the wisest means a shift in consciousness. Consciousness develops through self-awareness.
Survival is a conscious act. When animals behave to survive, they are making a decision. Primal acts like hunting for food, mating, and rearing one’s young show the existence of awareness. It seems absurd to deny this, yet Darwinians must, because of their religious devotion to their founder and the credo of materialism. The irony is how much consciousness it takes to convince oneself that consciousness doesn’t exist.
The survival of the wisest is therefore not vague or vaporous. It represents another step in the same evolutionary direction that life has been following forever. As in every past crisis, the environment has changed, new stresses threaten us, and adaptation is the only way out. Like ancient people deciding whether to use fire or run away from its dangers, modern people face both good and bad choices. The outcome won’t be based on Darwinian principles. We’re already advanced enough to heal the sick instead of abandoning them and to protect the weak and helpless. Those decisions, made centuries ago, are absolutely non-Darwinian. Luckily, despite all the self-destructive threats from our innate hostility and aggression, human consciousness displays a huge amount of good and an infinite amount of potential. We should try to survive on the basis of wisdom. If we succeed, this dark phase that we are passing through will dissolve, as all the dark ages that went before it have.
Deepak Chopra is the author of many books, most recently Peace is the Way. He is President of the Alliance for a New Humanity. www.anhglobal.org