"According to the theory of emptiness, any belief in an objective reality grounded in the assumption of intrinsic, independent existence is untenable. All things and events, whether material, mental or even abstract concepts like time, are devoid of objective, independent existence. To possess such independent, intrinsic existence would imply that things and events are somehow complete unto themselves and are therefore entirely self-contained. This would mean that nothing has the capacity to interact with and exert influence on other phenomena.... In a universe of self-contained, inherently existing things, ...events would never occur." - The Dalai Lama, quoted from New ScientistI am often struck by how quick Western science is to absolve humans of their natural status. In matters of religion, or more specifically, the evolution of religion, science tends to send me into a quiet rage. Yet the tides are beginning to turn:
"When we see a complex structure, we see it as the product of beliefs and goals and desires. Our social mode of understanding leaves it difficult for us to make sense of it any other way. Our gut feeling is that design requires a designer - a fact that is understandably exploited by those who argue against Darwin...Paul Bloom is a proponent of 'the byproduct explanation' of religious evolution, which in simple terms claims:
...Religious teachings certainly shape many of the specific beliefs we hold; nobody is born with the idea that the birthplace of humanity was the Garden of Eden, or that the soul enters the body at the moment of conception, or that martyrs will be rewarded with sexual access to scores of virgins. These ideas are learned. But the universal themes of religion are not learned. They emerge as accidental by-products of our mental systems. They are part of human nature." - Paul Bloom, "Is God an Accident?"
Could it be said that from this perspective religion is just the model which human evolution built to understand an underlying, naturally occurring component of reality? For instance; in his study of neurological damage in his own patients V.S. Ramachandran often makes beautiful leaps of logic to assess his findings. His book Phantoms in the Brain is one of the most engrossing analyses of the human condition I have come across, and yet when religion rears its ugly head Ramachandran resorts to the glorification of it as a unique aspect of human evolution.
"...religion is... an accidental byproduct of stuff that is part of human nature." Religion, in this account, didn't arise because it served any purpose, but because the human brain is amenable to certain supernatural ideas. - link
[see also 'Religion Explained' by Pascal Boyer]
"Religion is a uniquely human trait..." - linkIt is just my opinion, but this same error can be seen time and time again in the works of eminent scientists and philosophers of mind. But if one extends 'the byproduct explanation' of religion to its broadest horizons the seedling of nature can once again be seen protruding from the human mind. No one would argue that religion is not a response by the human brain to grasp a oneness with the universe, as the quote from The Dalai Lama above would suggest. Yet in matters of a scientific conception of religion the loose ends of logic continue to flap in the wind for me. Surely animals, with undoubtedly a lesser degree of mental capacity than us, have greater access to the universe in indefinable instinctive terms. Their minds do not need to rationalise desires, emotions, feelings of identity. Indeed for many creatures I would suggest these abilities would be a disadvantage to their survival (for more on this see my recent MetaTalk question here).
I have no doubt that the various models ascribed to religious doctrine or spiritual union with creation are uniquely human traits - no animal has an evolutionary reason to have acquired such subjective nonsense. But I find it difficult to believe that the sense of oneness it takes Buddhist monks decades to attain; the rapturous glory the Christian gains from their union with Jesus; the mental infinity arising from the brain of the epilepsy sufferer are uniquely human. That oneness, rapture, seizure, hallucination - whatever you want to call it - is something that animal kind has full access to AT ALL TIMES! In rationalising the universe humanity had to lose its natural propensity with the cosmos. Evolution forged us a rational brain to perceive objective truths, and as a consequence we lost the ability to just be 'at one' with our surroundings. Religion then, and all other irrational systems of acquiring models of existence, are evolutions' mediocre attempts to cope with the infinite peace we lost.
The universe is vast, incredible and awe inspiring for all the same reasons it ever was. It's just that with this brain, this perceptive reflexive consciousness, humanity is somehow unable to just accept that glory instinctively anymore.
When I was a few years younger I mourned this loss. In the religious, spiritual and social concepts I had come across in all my life nothing managed to build for me an understanding of reality I was happy with accepting. These days though I smile gleefully to myself. In the realms of physics, biology and philosophy broad vistas of objective glory stretch ahead of me. To each side of my remaining instinctive vision I catch glimpses of a reality so beautiful in its depth, its intricate infinities, that it took 13 billion years of gradual acquisition for anything to remotely come into focus.
The loss of that oneness is a small price to pay for the knowledge that the concept of God is nothing more than an echo of laughter rebounding in the depths of reflexive consciousness. Religion and the spiritual mind are for me mere evolutionary idiosyncrasies that nature has not yet had time to fully be rid off. Never fear that your existence is meaningless, for in this infinite universe you are the evolutionary pinnacle of a glory yet to be fully realised...
- From Animism to String Theory: Forever in Search of Eternal Mystery
- The Protagonistically Determined, Objective Reality-Narrative That is Your Life
- The Next Great Revolution in Reality
- The Holographic, Evolving and Self-Realising Universe
- On The Nature of Experience
- On the epistemological validity of the mystic experience
- Exponentially Self-Realising Reflexive-Consciousness Machine
- Opening the Doors of Perception: Hallucination, Schizophrenia and Reality
- Science vs God's Phenomenologically Inferred Love
- A continuous trajectory through a high-dimensional mental space