The experience of reality constantly reminds me of how many ways so many people delude themselves with extreme viewpoints – extreme viewpoints they cling to because somehow it feels better and more clear to answer every question with “100% yes” or “100% no.”
My “experience of reality” includes everything from the mix of things I am lucky enough to see from my back porch on a cool calm morning like today, to the things I see in mathematics and the things I see in reading about scientific experiments (and sometimes seeing them), to the things I can see in meditation, particularly in a state which some describe as “cosmic consciousness.” And yes, I keep an eye on places like Washington DC ten minutes down the road. (Literally: Constitution Avenue, route 50, is the road I hear but do not see on top of the deep forest ridge opposite the forested ridge I look down from.)
Mathematics contains a nice, clear image of how we are all stuck in the middle, not at the extremes. There are some dynamical systems in which everything moves inexorably to a definite, fixed state – “fixed point equilibrium.” There are other systems where everything moves to a totally random stochastic state, with no patterns or form or correlation between what happens in one place and what happens in another – “the heat death, the ultimate gas.” The first is rigid like ice. The second is like fire. Life itself is possible only BETWEEN these extremes of fire and ice. If we find this middle zone unnatural to us and suspiciously complex, and we try to simplify it all by going towards fire or towards ice – we end up opposing life itself. We are stuck here in the middle. Given the alternatives of total fire and total ice, the middle is where we want to be.
“Does God exist or does he not? If so, is he/she one or is he a trinity? Will we have a life after death or not? Is this imam or priest telling the truth or not? Is this computer system conscious or not? Should we all strive to be focused, effective true Christians? Moslems? Buddhists? Materialists?” In every one of these cases, people tend to demand a simple “yes” or “no” answer. They tend to assume that any clear revelation of truth must give a clear “yes” or “no.” But in all these cases, the demand for a yes or no answer is in fact a demand for blindness, a demand which is not consistent with a clear understanding of what is being discussed.
Of course, these are all big issues – so where do I begin in describing how clear answers are possible which are NOT “yes” or “no?”
First – some simple general thoughts. In engineering, there is now a large school of “fuzzy logic,” which has led to lots of practical automated systems in situations where the old binary expert systems did not work so well. (It started becoming very popular in Japan after a major government effort to fund rule-based automated systems, when they discovered what actually worked and what didn’t in such applications.) A pure follower of fuzzy logic might say “Thinking in black and white gets you in trouble. You need to think in terms of degree of truth, of shades of grey, of truth value BETWEEN 0 and 1.” But at one point Jesus warned us about those folks who are neither hot not cold, but just lukewarm. So which side do we support – thinking in black and white and thinking in shades of grey? (This isn’t just philosophy; it’s also computer design!) My own knee-jerk response: “Let’s try to get past thinking in black and white by thinking in vivid color.” There is a place for simpler kinds of thought, but the clearest vision is in vivid color. That often means breaking down a question... and coming up with a kind of multidimensional description or clear image of whatever we are asking about. It often means what Hegel and the Rosicrucians talked about, responding to a thesis and an antithesis by striving for a synthesis which transcends the binary extremes. This is all old stuff – but it’s important to remember old stuff when we are at risk of falling into ancient fantasies and delusions, as the people are who ask for binary answers to the questions I listed above.
This morning, in particular, I am thinking about some thoughts which came to me in Quaker meeting last Sunday, and about an important science fiction trilogy I finished yesterday by Peter Hamilton – “The Dreaming Void,” “The Temporal Void” and the “Evolutionary Void.” Both of them bear very seriously on those questions, and on the question “What is the meaning of life – in practical terms?” I am glad that retirement allowed me both important experiences.
This new trilogy from Hamilton is really pretty important and unique. I suppose I should write a glowing review of it. It has characters I can empathize with a lot more than traditional boring kinds of literature where everyone is fully absorbed by petty personal things. There is a kind of primitive life out there where people just live day to day, without thought of any grand or heroic goals. (Hey, kids, to get into Harvard, they say you need “passion.” What is this “passion” if not some kind of heroic goal?) Is that like ice? Is it like fire, then, to be fiery kind of fanatic whose whole life is focused on some random choice of extreme goal, usually out of touch with the complexities of reality? Hamilton’s trilogy is unique in really working through the territory between that fire and ice, full of serious and sincere heroic striving, but coping with the way that human fallibility and limitations modulate the valid heroic striving. And, of course, it fully accepts the fact that we live in a big galaxy – one of the core realities we can see with our own eyes. It is such a fantasy to think as if earth were the only planet which counts in this vast galaxy, let alone the universe and the cosmos!
Deeply as I respect this book... at the end, I can see that he gives a binary answer to one of the key questions here, an answer which I think is a bit biased towards the heroic – too crisp, too black and white to be true. And yes, it has a strong, almost pure Silicon Valley attitude; I fully appreciate Silicon Valley, but I try to be a bit bigger.
That question is the question of afterlife.
Old men (like me) are famous for wondering what comes next: are we about to just evaporate completely, or will we continue to exist somehow?
A couple of years ago, I had the great experience of visiting one of the catacombs of the early Christians (before Constantine’s radical reconstruction of his brand of Caesarian Christianity). It was one hell of a full three-dimensional experience in color to feel those cool damp rocky rooms, which were basically crypts, not churches. In fact, they were very much the ancient version of corpsicle facilities, where inert bodies are stored in hope/expectation that soon someone will come back and bring them back to full life. Dawn of the living dead and all that. Zombie wannabees? It was a very strict doctrine of the early church to believe in the “resurrection of the body,” and those words echo in the Catholic Church today. Years ago, my German grandfather, a Catholic, had his leg amputated – and the priest told him he needed to have a special funeral and burial for the leg, lest he be reborn one-legged. (My forthcoming cataract surgery reminded me of that.) But in fact, most Catholics today, like most mass religions, state that the afterlife is a kind of afterlife of the person in heaven. Almost all the Buddhist temples in China have statues depicting the kind of thing you read about in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, where the soul comes up to a gate or reception hall and faces... someone important, whoever, who gives some kind of guidance to the next stage. People imagine that it is the same “me” who floats out of the dead body, as in those great videos “What Dreams May Come” and “Beetlejuice.” And it’s everyone.
But many important cultures (like the Druze?) believe that some people have afterlives, and some people don’t. In fact, there is even a book in the Bible (one of the Apochrypha, in the standard New English Catholic bible), the Book of Esdras, which suggests this. It does NOT reflect another very vivid piece of modern science fiction, Dante’s Inferno, which they teach to lots of kids in modern “Christian” schools. It does not say that souls are allocated to hell versus heaven versus limbo and so on. No one lives in hell burning for eternity. Rather, those who don’t cut it, the chaff, are simply burned away to nothing, to lifeless ash which drifts away on the wind. Every time I think of this, I think of an old nun I saw on a place called “Chicken Dragon Mountain” in South Korea, a woman who strived her whole life to achieve lack of emotion and passion and emptiness..,. who had the weirdest expression on her face, a smile of achievement (she did get to her goal!) and a rictus of terror (was this REALLY what she wanted? Is it not as violation of her deepest soul?) both at the same time. She reminded me of the “Crystalman smile” in the very important science fiction novel Voyage to Arcturus by Lindsay. (Quick aside: if you ever look it up, DON’T believe the “new introduction” by the cult version of Gnostics who got it reprinted!) And so: some people believe that they should dedicate their lives to becoming part of the minority which DOES have an afterlife, which doesn’t just get burned to ash by the great garbage collector in the sky. (Most powerful computer systems, whether intelligent or conscious or not, do have garbage collection routines. It is not at all strange to suggest that our spiritual environment has the same. It would be strange if it didn’t. It is curious how some folks who have been strict about deleting enterprises and people which did not contribute to their own particular bottom line might well experience being deleted themselves, based on a different bottom line.)
Hamilton’s trilogy essentially does take that point of view, grounded in something like a synthesis of transhumanism and popularized Gurdjieff teachings. He explores MANY viewpoints in some depth (lots of pages to do that!), but ends up supporting the goal of evolution towards the “postphysical.” A striving for a kind of transcendence, where somehow our highest intelligence or consciousness migrates to another level of existence. And no, in his picture there is not much hope of having that kind of afterlife if you just hang around doing what your grandparents did in the local farm or casbah. It basically happens when an entire culture or species rises high enough to be ABLE to reach a higher level of existence, which sounds like some kind of quantum hyperspace or matrix of mind or something like that. Not pious, but vivid and real.
Vividness and real I appreciate... but I simply do not agree with the binary nature of all this, and, as a mere human, I cannot claim to know whether such a change is really possible.
So far as I can tell, loss of a body and “physical” brain must be at least as severe in its implications as total loss of one’s library and hard drives. Jane Roberts, in her (short clear) Oversoul Seven trilogy, gives great images of people who move out of their bodies regularly... but in a foggy state so barely conscious that they cannot do or remember much later. Gurdjieff describes something similar. (I suppose that Bennett’s book, Is There Intelligent Life on Earth?, explains this more clearly than Gurdjieff’s own writings do.) That fits what I have seen as well. In their view, most people who strive to experience “out of body travel” (what a gas! How binary can you get!)... might better strive to raise the level of consciousness in their “essence,” so that they can do more with the out of body stuff they ALREADY do routinely. In that view, SOMETHING lives after the death of the body, but HOW MUCH? To put it another way... if you value your data, maybe you should strive to store it or back it up on a more durable medium.
But why? Why should we bother?
Long long ago, I remember thinking about the meaning and possible heroic goals of life as I rode my bike down Haws Lane, and walked by a forest next to a parking lot where Haws Lane met Bethlehem Pike, in the suburbs of Philadelphia. It seemed pretty clear that no matter what we do, no matter how extreme our human abilities might be, it is not realistic to imagine that the whole cosmos is at a crossroads where we decide the outcome. No matter how huge it is... it is more realistic to picture the cosmos as a kind of gigantic Markov process. Our impact may be much more than the small impacts many people are content with, and we have every reason to try for more.. but even so, it will be finite. In the cosmos as a whole, it is still meaningful what intelligent people do, and it affects our large neighborhood within the cosmos... but it is finite. Does it even matter at all? It matters because it matters to US... because WE as intelligent creatures have feelings which WE naturally care about, born into our “material” and “spiritual” utility function systems. And so, a few weeks back, when someone at Quaker Meeting asked: “How did this boy have the strength to carry on and do what is rational in the face of so much extreme adversity and shock,” I could truthfully say: “I faced some incredibly strong adversity and shock myself on 7/14/14... and it was not faith which kept me from totally falling apart of going nuts.. it was memory of commitment... commitment to life, light and love”.. (see Rose-Croix)... which is an articulation of my nonverbal sense of what seems ultimately good to me. Likewise, in a draft space policy for IEEE, I put a “quotation in front:
“Who needs humans in space?
Who needs humans on earth?
Humans, that’s us.”
WE value human life, for its own sake, as part of our fundamental ground. BUT that doesn’t mean that there is some bean-counter regulation that all ova must be nurtured to become humans, or even that fetal human brains less conscious than that of an adult cow should receive more legal protection! That is such a grotesque twisting and misunderstanding of what it really means to support life! And life on earth in general is very much at risk at the present time. Will the entire planet go Esdras, and could even more permanent hard drives get trashed? Maybe, maybe not. That’s something we should pay real attention to.
All for now. Lots more I ought to write, but this is probably too long already for modern media.
Best of luck.