“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” ― Albert Einstein
Will people someday discard beliefs about a caring universe? Will mindfulness meditation take the place of religion?
Like my last two, this post was prompted by the recent book by Sam Harris, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. Harris dreams of a religion-free world, one in which mindfulness helps us adjust to life in a universe he believes indifferent and meaningless.
Can we expect the masses to trade intuitions about a cosmos possessed of heart for philosophies that insist we’re adrift in an unfeeling mechanism spinning randomly through time? I suspect that only those for whom the latter vision feels comforting would accept the trade.
Atheists consider belief in a caring universe an atavistic weakness born of fear. They declare the mystically inclined muddle-headed, besotted with wishes for a parent-in-the-sky. Faith, according to this view, is a neurotic throwback to subconscious memories of infancy, when caregivers seemed like omniscient sustainers.
It’s a reasonable hypothesis, but one can think of parallel explanations for the beliefs of those who see themselves as accidental products of an indifferent universe. Couldn’t such attitudes grow out of an infant’s preverbal frustration with distracted parenting? If so, they might represent a species of attachment disorder, a failure to trust in the environment.
Which of these two perspectives is more infantile is thus open to debate. Obviously, much hinges on the answer to one basic question: does the universe care?
“NO!” You can imagine the materialists objecting. But we shouldn’t take their word for it. We must look to the science they claim as their authority.
A caring universe would first of all need to be a feeling one. So the central line of inquiry is this: Are organisms like ourselves alone in sentience? Is it the case that only animals with advanced nervous systems experience reality in the subjective sense of the world?
If only humans and higher mammals can feel, then either we are alone in our subjectivity, or we must imagine that whatever else marks the flow of events exists separate from reality as we know it. Many religions take this view, of course. They believe God resides beyond matter, space, and time, and thus outside the reach of science, which traffics only in the tangible world.
But imagine, for the moment, that matter itself possesses inner experience. The fabric of the cosmos is now history’s participant, not merely its substrate. Matter and energy accompany us through time, which flows as a series of pervasively felt events.
The notion that subjective experience might not be restricted to nervous systems isn’t a supernatural proposition; rather, it’s a material hypothesis that can be evaluated on its own merits. “HOW ABSURD!” retort the atheists, red-faced with frustration. Science, they insist, has proven that matter consists of elementary particles incapable of experiencing anything. But science hasn’t proven this at all.
For well over a century experiments have illuminated the subatomic phenomena that underpin what we experience as matter. But demonstrating the existence of these processes does not prove them insentient. We might think the possibility that matter possesses an inner life, however rudimentary, too bizarre for sober consideration, but time and again the universe has shown itself capable of surprising us. To fully explore this hypothesis would take a book, or perhaps a think tank, but allow me to highlight some relevant facts.
First, consider how a respected interpretation of quantum physics posits that subatomic vibrations respond to observation, which serves to collapse a cloud of possibilities into a discrete reality. Although what ‘observation’ means in this context has been hotly debated, the fact that many physicists believe quantum phenomena react to subtle cues should tell us that science has not proven matter incapable of sensing its environment.
Or consider the average neuroscientist’s belief that inner experience emerges from neuronal complexity. As a graduate student in the field, I never questioned this widespread assumption, even though how material intricacy might lead to inner awareness has never been explained. This descriptive gap was emphasized by philosopher Karl Popper, who called it “promissory materialism … a prophecy about the future results of brain research…” A plausible alternate possibility is that some extremely limited sentience has resided within matter since its creation, and that as nervous systems evolved through natural selection this baseline subjective state grew more structured and sophisticated.
Or watch a video showing an ameba engulfing paramecia. Ask yourself: don’t the microbes under attack exhibit something akin to panic, just like a human would? Then go further and view an animation showing how cells function on the inside. Doesn’t it appear, just a bit, like intracellular macromolecules might be purposeful in their own right?
Given the observations listed above, is it truly absurd to entertain the possibility that atoms feel something internally? If we were to answer objectively, we’d admit that our resistance to the idea comes from a cultural prejudice few dare question. The idea that even so-called inanimate matter might be aware is referred to as panpsychism. It sounds ludicrous to moderns, but do we have any proof one way or the other? We do not.
There is a longstanding philosophical conundrum surrounding our native assumption that other people possess inner experience. Yes, they respond as if they feel, but how can we be sure they aren’t mere automatons? This is not a problem that can be deductively solved. We rely on instinct and the preponderance of evidence. But notice that while we can’t prove subjectivity exists within others, we also can’t disprove it.
The same principle holds with regard to matter. An atom might possess inner experience, or it might not. Whatever the answer, at this point science is incapable of providing it.
As we’ve said, to most educated people in our culture the idea that atoms could feel in any subjective sense sounds silly. But it wouldn’t sound so to aboriginals. Is this because we’ve learned something they never did? Or is it because we live so far from nature, so dependent on human artifacts, that we reject rather than embrace any ‘aware’ quality in the biosphere?
For a long time science proceeded well without bothering much with the question of interiority. Indeed, experimenters viewed subjectivity as dangerous to their empirical project and so had little reason to look for it in nature. Strongly influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition, with its doctrine that only humans possess souls, scientists also considered panpsychism no more plausible than ectoplasm, and assumed its opposite.
Only with the quantum revolution did the assumption of insensate matter begin to show the cracks in its foundation. But by then so much seemed to depend on it that mainstream scientists refused to consider other options. But if they could quell the fear that their entire edifice would collapse if the notion of sensate matter were taken seriously, and consider the merits of the hypothesis, materialists would discover that it wouldn’t undermine any major theories. Nothing would change in our understanding about the birth of the universe, the means of biological evolution, or the functional architecture of brains.
Of course, material interiority would be difficult to establish empirically, given that it’s tough to pin down even in humans. But my intent isn’t to make a claim that matter is definitely vital. Rather, I just want to point out that science hasn’t settled the issue by its own methods, but only on the basis of assumptions that would sound ignorant to our pre-technological ancestors.
Given that feeling matter remains a possibility, however remote, let’s return to our thought experiment: consider the further implications of sensate matter. All of a sudden we aren’t lonely accidents of inert mechanics, but instead embedded in a chaotic and unplanned but pervasively sentient unfoldment. We could be forgiven for feeling something like affection toward this universe. We might even be forgiven for suspecting that the universe feels something toward us in return.
This brings us back to the Harris’s dream of a future where everyone settles for a philosophy that sees us as cogs in a mindless machine, and for a spiritual practice restricted to observing consciousness from within, while understanding it only as the accidental byproduct of a random biological mechanism. If the question about cosmic sensibility remains unanswered, confidence in this prophecy seems premature, at best. And religions, although they remain burdened by literalist interpretations of ancient legends, no longer seem so hopelessly out-of-touch with reality.
True, many religions declare the existence of omnipotent, anthropomorphic Gods, whereas the suggestion here is merely that the fabric of the universe might possess an inner quality of experience. This sensate quality wouldn’t imply that the universe is planning our fates, and the nature of that inner experience is probably nothing like our own. But knowing the cosmos might be alive rather than dead can’t help but bolster the cause of religions. If they could reign in literalist interpretations of myths, they could offer what people truly want: a profound sense of connection with the world.
And let’s admit that many of us crave feeling connected. If you doubt this, just watch people in an airport prior to boarding their plane. Few sit in stillness, mindfully meditating; most fiddle with their smartphones, tablets, or laptops. They plug themselves in precisely in order to avoid feeling alone. Religion will never disappear while humans remain so hungry for constant companionship. Not everyone will seek a relationship with the universe itself, but many will. And this quest for cosmic connection is perfectly reasonable so long as a feeling cosmos remains possible. It is at least as rational as the opposite project of adjusting to a universe assumed indifferent.
Perhaps it really does come down to preverbal memory. Those who once believed (or hoped) that their parents cared dream of an embracing cosmos, one invested in their journey. Those who yearned for independence from unreliable caregivers imagine an indifferent universe, one that leaves them alone.
If the question of cosmic sensibility remains unanswered, the possibility of universal love (so to speak) remains viable. Those who yearn to feel embraced by the cosmos can choose to see things one way; those who neither need nor want to feel connected with something deep inside reality can choose to see them the other. In an ideal world, our responses would not be judged; there would be no dogmatists condemning or ridiculing dissenters. Sadly, lack of empirical evidence restrains neither the religious nor the atheists from attempting to impose their guesses about reality onto the rest of the world.
Freedom to answer the question of cosmic sentience as we see fit seems central to the goal of recovery from childhood adversity. Many of us have spent decades feeling unwanted and isolated; we find it difficult to connect with others. What better remedy for this sense of alienation than to remain open to the possibility that the universe–like us–experiences history. Wouldn’t this help us feel less alone? Wouldn’t it warm the heart more than the atheist’s view that our cosmos is a dead mechanism? Some of us could benefit from such warming. Others might feel no need for it. Let us each relate to the universe in the way that best serves our needs.
Although we each build a picture of reality, none of us can be sure of its accuracy. Mindfulness meditation, in pure form, teaches us to feel comfortable with brains that crave finality while situated in a world built on uncertainty. This power of mindfulness to reconcile us with paradox is its most vital feature. Unfortunately, it often gets undermined by secularists who insist on provisional interpretations of nature. This is the basis of my objection to Sam Harris’s recent offering. Harris believes mindfulness will satisfy our call to spirituality, but his is a crippled form of mindfulness. It aims not to help us accept deep uncertainty, but to help us resign to a stark and unproven material hypothesis.
Although mindfulness always helps, it will never take the place of religion so long as its instruction comes freighted with implicit secular assumptions that reject the possibility of a caring cosmos.