Thursday, 17 April 2014

Our perception of reality, ancient and modern

In a sense humanity has come full circle. The world we live in today is just as inexplicable and full of the unknown and the unknowable as it was 50,000 years ago, despite all the knowledge and technology amassed over millennia.

Ancient homo sapiens would have been humbled and bewildered by the natural world around them. They would have learned that when something happens it has a cause. When they banged a hard stone against a soft stone a piece was likely to flake off, depending on how hard it was hit and at what angle. When they wrapped themselves in animal skins they felt warmer. When they ate fruit they enjoyed it and felt less hungry. When they heated meat it tasted better and was easier to chew.

But reasoning would have got them only so far. Fire, lightning, thunder, lakes, the sea, rain, clouds, trees, grass, flowers, bushes, lions, lizards, birds, butterflies, rocks, mountains, deserts, sun, moon, stars, comets. Where did they come from? How did they begin to exist? He had no chance of answering these questions.

The same questions applied to people. All humans came from the previous generation; but how did the first generation originate?  What happened when a person’s life left the body? Why did the corpse decay? Similarly with animals. Death, pain, violence and decay were as much part of reality as life, pleasure, peace and growth.

They were confronted with the terror of the unknown. With that which could not be tamed by logic.

Hence, the concept of the myth, the metaphor, the poem and the gods. All these attempt to make manageable the great unknown gulf outside of a reality governed by logic, although reason still played a role in seeking to understand the supernatural. The gods did things for reasons.

The gods made the world and the ancestors from which the people living originated. Reason dictated that these gods – hundreds of them – would expect something in return, just as all humans expected to receive from one another in exchange for giving.

Hence sacrifices. The more animals, crops and children you sacrificed the more you would please the gods and the better would be the yield from animals and crops. And the less likely you would be to suffer injury or premature death or the loss of a loved one.

Now jump forward tens of thousands of years to the present. Miss out the Greek philosophers, Hinduism, Buddhism and the Abrahamic religions. We are in essentially the same situation except that we have

  1. Developed the power of reason through philosophy and science.
  2.  Constructed scientifc models able to describe some of the natural world in terms of chains of cause and effect.

We can follow chains of cause and effect a long way back. A was caused by B was caused by C was caused by D……etc. Even when no cause can be found we have sufficient faith in logic and science to believe that eventually a cause will be found.

But there is a snag. If everything is the end result of a cause-effect chain what was the first cause?  Is the chain infinite? Have things always existed in their own right?  But infinity is a point you never reach and mathematically meaningless within the investigable universe. So the first cause is never reached and so in effect is outside of reality. Which means reality never started which is illogical because we are living in it.

We have to acknowledge that the source of being is beyond investigation by any process of logic or science. Goedel’s theorem of undecidability proves beyond doubt that all logical processes must rest on assumptions which are unprovable.There will never be a true theory of everything.

 In a very real sense we are back to the same position as the ancients. Even without the basic problem of infinite regression of cause-effect there are no scientific models available to explain even the immediate cause of an increasingly large range of phenomena revealed by the science of the last few decades. Here are just a few:

  1. Cause-effect relationships between entangled quantum particles occur independently of space and time. For example: consider two entangled spinning electrons, one in your brain and one in the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago and 13.8 billion light years from Earth. If one changes its direction of spin so will the other, instantaneously.

  1. The universe originated from beyond space and time, which means outside of all natural laws we can ever know about – i.e. it originated supernaturally. This is a truism in cosmology.

  1. The end point of the creation event is conscious beings concerned about love, justice, truth, destiny and beauty.

  1. We still don’t know what life is. What is it in an organism that sustains the myriads of molecular processes even as the molecules themselves are continually replaced or damaged? See also 'ET life: what are we searching for?'

There is much else in this vein and other posts on this blog frequently deal with them.

Today more than half of humanity is cocooned in urban or suburban environments,  protected from the reality of  the natural world and almost oblivious to the rest of the universe except through the media. Astronauts are more aware of it than most of us.

 Yet as in the early days of humanity, we should be confronted with deep mystery; but instead of myriads of competing pagan gods, which had their place in the ancient world and still give us insights into the human condition,  spiritual evolution has taken us to discover that it all comes from one monotheistic Creator.

This, it seems to me, is an inescapable conclusion. Why do some people want to escape it? As a Christian I  believe we relate to this Creator through Christ and the Holy Spirit.

See also the series of posts

Deep mystery of existence

John Sears