We are afflicted with what’s been called Adam’s curse -- awareness of our own mortality.
Unlike you and I, for example, dogs don’t reflect upon themselves or worry that their breath is bad. Their self-awareness is limited.
Living here in paradise, why am I entertaining these dark thoughts? Because I spent last weekend in Philadelphia, visiting my grandson, Connor, who’s studying biology sciences and psychology at Drexel University. Connor has developed a keen interest in neuroscience and psychology. He’d like to someday improve the way these two fields can be applied -- through research and clinical work -- to medicine and spirituality.
He gave me a book to read so that I might understand his ambition about unlocking the secrets of the mind: Consciousness, by Christof Koch, a colleague of DNA discoverer Francis Crick. Now, thanks to Connor, I can’t stop wondering about a subject few of us ever think about.
In reading the book, I learned that our inner world of mind, soul and spirit is more a mystery than is the external universe. It comes down to one simple question: “How can something physical (brain matter) give rise to something nonphysical (feelings)?”
Think about this. Georges Lemaitre, who died in 1966, is the acknowledged "father of the Big Bang." A Belgian Catholic priest, Fr. Lemaitre, while still a junior lecturer at the Catholic University of Louvain, proposed an expansionary theory of the universe at odds with the prevailing belief that the universe had always existed in a steady state. He asserted that the entire universe began with what he called a "cosmic egg" or "primeval atom" -- a theory that Sir Fred Hoyle derisively dismissed as "the Big Bang." Fr. Lemaitre also argued that not only was the universe expanding, but the speed of its expansion was accelerating. To Sir Fred’s chagrin, the priest's theories have been substantively confirmed.
Yet, scientists and scholars still don’t know what our inner, mental world is made of -- much less understand why it exists at all.
In other words, astronomers can make statements with surety about the Big Bang -- an event that took place 13.7 billion years ago. But we are baffled by the processes that make us aware of a toothache. Here’s Christof Koch:
“How the brain converts bioelectrical activity into subjective states, how photons reflected off water are magically transformed into the perception of an iridescent aquamarine mountain lake is a puzzle. The nature of the relationship between the nervous system and consciousness remains elusive and the subject of heated and interminable debates.”
The lack of any true scientific understanding of consciousness – especially when you consider the feats of science in other fields -- leaves lots of questions. In fact, many philosophers, scientists and medical experts accept the possibility that consciousness may rise from a source that is beyond the physical.
The concept of free will, for instance, has baffled scientists throughout the centuries. How is it that we humans are able to bring ideas and actions into existence from nothingness? This defies the most basic physical law -- cause and effect.
Judy Bachrach, in her recently published book, Glimpsing Heaven: The Stories and Science of Life After Death, writes:
“This is an area where a lot more scientific research has to be done: that the brain is possibly, and I'm emphasizing the 'possibly,' not the only area of consciousness. That even when the brain is shut down, on certain occasions consciousness endures. One of the doctors I interviewed, a cardiologist in Holland, believes that consciousness may go on forever. So the postulate among some scientists is that the brain is not the only locus of thought.”
In a world where science has pretty much tossed out non-physical concepts from serious inquiry, paradoxes like this remain – the human capacity to “create through intention.”
Where do we go from here? Perhaps:
- Continuing deep curiosity about the role of spirituality
- A profound responsibility to hone for the better the “seemingly divine” tool of conscious awareness of ourselves and of our world
- Final acceptance that each person wields wondrous power to manipulate the world in any way we please
In hindsight, we realize that if Mr. Duell did in fact utter those words, he was an ignoramus.
The lesson for me is that, just when I’ve reached the advanced age when I start to actually buy into the idea that I have achieved some level of “wisdom,” along comes a grandchild – perhaps one I once taught to tie a shoelace – to teach me how little I really know … and how much more there is to learn.
In my next blog, “Recess Rhythms”