01.03.2010

Life, the Universe and Everything

NOVA Magazine Article: Life and the Universe is full of mysteries and the more we understand, the stranger everything becomes
"To see the Universe in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wildflower"....Eric Harrison ponders life's ultimate mysteries.When we look at life on this planet, it seems incredible that everything works as well as it does. This is sometimes called the Goldilocks effect - not too hot, not too cold, but just right. Our planet is exquisitely attuned to the requirements of life. It's just too perfect for words. While there may be a kind of mechanistic, billiard ball logic governing the world at the atomic level, science is still quite unable to explain the complex mechanisms of life itself.

Reductionist principles in science are very important, but it turns out that "1 + 1" usually equals a lot more than "2". The brain of an ant is only a rudimentary cluster of neurons. These are not even capable of keeping a lone ant alive for more than a few minutes. But put that "stupid" ant together with thousands of its "stupid" mates, and it will terrorise the rainforest. Our brain cells are intrinsically no smarter than those of the ants, but connect them to a multitude of others and they can send a man to the moon. Given the limitations of our basic equipment, how are we all so clever?

Part of the mystery can be explained by what is called "survivor bias". For every species alive today, be it mammal or bacteria, a million related species have lost the evolutionary struggle. Ants may seem stupid, but every survivor is the best of the best of the best in its class. The losers vanish as if they had never existed, recycled as raw materials for the winners. We are all phenomenally clever compared to the losers. We are all part of the all-star team, unaware of our brilliance because we're surrounded by champions.

Yet even survivor bias can't explain why we are so clever. How do ants become a ravenous super organism? Why do humans so vastly outperform chimpanzees? How do human brains learn language and music? How does one person enormously excel another in a certain field?

Shakespeare's brain started out virtually identical to yours or mine. In fact, his education opportunities were inferior to those of anyone in this century who has access to a library. His consumption of marijuana, cocaine and alcohol, and that of his appreciative audience, probably helped his genius, but it doesn't explain why he wrote 38 plays and others just got drunk. Shakespeare, though, knew about chance, mystery and the unpredictable and, like any creative person, he knew how to use it.

In Tom Stoppard's play, Shakespeare in Love, the climax comes at the imagined first opening night of Romeo and Juliet. It is an hour before the curtain rises and pandemonium reigns. The actor (yes, a male) playing Juliet has vanished. Romeo has lost his voice, and the police are coming to close down the theatre. Shakespeare is beside himself. "It's a catastrophe!" he wails to the manager, played in the movie by Geoffrey Rush. "Don't worry. It'll all work out," says Rush. "How?!!!" exclaims Shakespeare. "I don't know," says Rush, bemused but placid, "But always does. It's a mystery!" And of course it does. Despite every impossibility, the play opens on time. Life's like that. The Goldilocks effect triumphs again - but how does it happen?

If a scientific "hypothesis" can repeatedly make accurate predictions and resist all attempts to disprove it, it is upgraded to the status of a "theory". The "theories" of Relativity and Evolution are thus regarded as facts as hard as any rock, with the proviso that new evidence could still prove them wrong. Conversely, an idea such as the existence of God, that has no predictive capacity, and which can't be proven right or wrong, is regarded as an opinion or a belief until the facts emerge to support it. (As Bertrand Russell said in relation to God, we're still waiting for the evidence.)

Mystery makes any good scientist restless and impatient. Scientists try to convert total mysteries, such as how plants grow, into problems that are capable of being solved, if not by this generation of scientists then the next. Paradoxically, the deeper our understanding, the stranger everything becomes. Scientific breakthroughs, such the germ theory of disease, rarely stop the enquiry dead, "case closed". Instead, they invariably trigger off a flood of questions that were previously inconceivable.

Science doesn't explain anything away, it simply opens up new mysteries. The more we know, the more we find out what we don't know. As the famous astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington said, "The world is not only stranger than we imagined, it is stranger than we can imagine."

Conversely, religion and belief, facing the same Great Unknown, tend to lie down abjectly at the feet of mystery. "Can't understand it? Just take it on faith. Don't tax your little mind about it. God knows what he is doing. If you have any doubts, trust the spiritual experts."

For science, mystery is the starting point. For religion, it is the end point.

Since I teach meditation, people often assume I hold spiritual beliefs even if I never mention them. In fact, I have a long-standing, sneaky admiration for God and I'm quite willing to talk about it, but the conversation never seems to get very far. Because I'm also a writer, I'm very conscious that words can have several meanings. So to avoid confusion, when I'm asked, "Do you believe in God?" I usually reply, "What do you mean by 'God'?" I just want to establish a common starting point.

Unfortunately, my response usually stops the conversation dead. Typically, the person looks flummoxed and says something like, "Well, you know . . . God . . .", as if his or her concept of the divine is more or less identical to that of everyone else. It goes with the all-embracing, all-explaining, end-of-the-line nature of the concept. It doesn't seem right that there should be alternative or even contradictory views on the matter.

But of course, there are. God comes in many forms from which we can pick and choose to suit the colour of our soul. There is God as Avenger and God as Universal Love. There are male and female gods, sky gods and Earth gods. There is God as transcendent pure spirit, and there is the pantheistic god that invigorates all matter. There is God the original watchmaker and God as the mafia boss whom we can petition for favours.

Above all, if we're looking for clear, simple answers, God's our man. Do you feel that the world has lost its moral compass? It is not surprising that a god who demands that adulterers, homosexuals, blasphemers and apostates be stoned to death is probably the most popular god of all time. Jehovah, the spiritual fountainhead of three great religions, still has hundreds of millions of devoted followers, and you can see why. You know where he stands. He can't be accused of being wishywashy like so many other forms of God.

Do you find life particularly unfair? God and his Eastern equivalents provide an excellent answer for this. It is sometimes called the "Just World Fallacy". This is the fantasy that because God must be just, all wrongs that occur in this world are bound to be righted in the next.
If you are good you will be rewarded in heaven, or by climbing higher on the ladder of reincarnation. If you are bad, you go to hell, or get reborn lower in the chain of being. If you are having a hard time now, it is because you are being punished for your past sins.

If this belief makes your stomach turn, as it does mine, then God explains this as well. God is often invoked to describe that gut sense of right and wrong that guides our day-to-day behaviour towards others, that is our conscience and morality. Similarly, God can easily be felt as a kind of internal guardian angel or soul - a personification of the self protective instincts that guide us from below the radar of consciousness.

We stay alive thanks to body-mind feedback mechanisms of immense complexity. There are now good reasons for thinking that science may never be able to grasp the whole picture. It may be altogether too complicated, too fast and too unpredictable. Faced with this boundless uncertainty, we could choose to see the whole dynamic as the work of God, but this really adds nothing to our understanding.

God has always been evoked to explain what we can't understand, the so-called "God of the gaps". How did the world begin? God. How did all the life forms come about? God. Why do good people suffer and bad people thrive? God. Why does someone recover from illness? God. Why does an earthquake kill thousands of people? The vengeance of God. Why does a baby survive an earthquake? The mercy of God. Why did a sport team win? God, once again.

Yet some things remain forever unexplainable. Ever since childhood, I've occasionally been dumbstruck by the beauty of some small aspect of nature. Why, sometimes, given the simplicity of its function, can a flower or the plumage of a bird seem so exquisite, right down to the smallest detail? It strikes me as extravagant beyond belief.

As Jesus said, "Consider the lilies of the field. I tell you that not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed like one of these." Why, when seen in the right frame of mind, is the natural world a thousand times lovelier than it needs to be? Not even God's son can answer that one.

Eric Harrison has been running the Perth Meditation Centre since 1987: www.perthmeditationcentre.com.au

Advertisement