Friday, June 30, 2006

The universe is so big, the mind so intricate

When it comes to explaining the world I live in, religion doesn’t work. Science works, but is disturbingly incomplete. I can see how it wasn’t like that for people thousands of years ago, even hundreds of years ago. If one just takes our world at face value, I can see coming up with explanations as ancient people did – that there is something alive behind every feature, a god for every river, every mountain, a god to push the sun across the sky, maybe as a menial task, but maybe as a grand chariot that inspires us all. I can see how some would say no, this is all one God, our God, not yours. And how this God relates to us is a reasonable subject for so many stories.

But living today, I know context for what I see that ancient people had no way of knowing, context that means their ideas don’t work at all. Consider how large the universe is. Just to know that stars we see at night are hundreds of light-years away is mind-boggling. Yet cosmologists explain that the universe is at least 14 billion light-years across, more if the early universe was inflationary. Even our galaxy being 100,000 light-years across is mind-boggling, before getting to how many more galaxies there are than just the Milky Way. Who can grasp a light-year when light takes 8 minutes to get here from the sun? I can do the math of how many 8-minute periods are in a year (65,745), but from there to the nearest star being over 4 light-years away, the center of our galaxy being about 30,000 light-years, the next galaxy being 2 million light-years, leaves me without understanding. Why so big?

Are there gods all across the universe? If there’s just one God, why should there be so many stars? That religious people have their answer for this doesn’t surprise me. Excuses come very naturally to people. But how can anyone have confidence in why one God would need so many stars? I can understand making an assortment, but trillions or orders of magnitude beyond that? Maybe it takes that many to get one world with beings that can relate to Him, but then traditionalists don’t believe in God being limited to natural processes, so already that doesn’t work.

It’s hard to find a place for God in science, but then there are these places where science hasn’t gone very far. My colleagues in neuroscience didn’t worry about that. Surely there never has been a stop sign to the scientific method except for people’s prejudices or a dumb question like what time it was before there was time. Surely functional MRI will tell us everything left to know about the brain, as EEG was once expected to do. Won’t it?

It is impressive to think about where knowledge will be by the end of this century as the genetics revolution and neuroscience revolution play out. We will know all 25,000 of our genes, the proteins they make, and the variations in them that make us different from one another. We will know our evolution better by knowing which molecular changes went along with each change in us, when each change happened, and maybe which way we’d like it to go now. Will that be all there is?

I doubt it. I suspect there will still be a place for spirit, not the life force that the word “spirit” meant long ago, but something that knowing all of our genetics and all of neuroscience may leave unanswered. Why do people do what they do? Will it be enough to know all the genetics and environmental factors that manipulate us? Will that explain everything? I doubt it. Any advertiser knows a pretty girl gets my attention, maybe some things beyond that, but everything I do? No, I don’t think so.

I look at the world I experience, outside of me and within me at the same time, and compare that to the definition of consciousness that neuroscience taught me, that consciousness is just the subjective experience of a world built up by my senses, inside and out, along with the feedback of living in that world. It is the image of a world that includes everything I know of me, projected by my brain onto some virtual screen, where I live out my life. Experience tells me that the real world is very close to how I experience it in my consciousness. Individuals vary only in such details as what does it mean to me that a baby is crying, what do I want today, and what will happen if I do this or that to try to get it. Our emotions, our abstract models of how the world works, everything like that is in our consciousness. It disappears with sleep or certain other states, but then comes right back, unless we’re dead. Then maybe it comes back somewhere else.

I doubt that science will explain all of that any better than Genesis explains why there are so many stars. Maybe I’m wrong. Time will tell. I’ll be dead, but time will still tell. Believers of any variety don’t like considering that they might be dead wrong, including atheists. My time on the net has taught me that even agnostics don’t like to embrace the possibility that they are wrong with a full bear hug. They don’t want to know that there is a truth that can be known short of some comprehensive understanding of everything, what, how, when, where, and why. Having listened to so many try to sell their version of some political or religious truth, I don’t blame anyone for being skeptical, but that’s no reason to imprison oneself with a firm belief, even belief in atheism or agnosticism.

I hesitate to say that there is some perfect understanding of life and everything related to life just waiting to be put into words. But I know two points that anyone desiring to be a know-it-all needs to appreciate before his or her words mean anything. The universe is so big. The mind is so intricate. Why?

The physicist in me says that the universe is so big because it’s started expanding so long ago. The neuroscientist in me would like to catalog everything I sense, in reality and through imagination, along with my thoughts and feelings and measure how well this fits into the brain along with all of my long-term memories and knowledge of language and other things that let me process all this information. Is there enough room in the brain to make it work? I don’t know how to do that. Maybe neuroscientists will figure out all of that eventually, even enough to satisfy me, or maybe it will just continue to be obscure. In that case, there will remain the possibility that there is more to the mind than is in the brain. As the spinal cord needs a brain to regulate it, does the brain need a spirit to regulate it, a spirit not to found in a physical form?

It’s a question much more likely to draw out prejudice from people than wisdom. Maybe the answer is a simple no. Maybe neuroscience will demonstrate that there is nothing missing from purely material models just as physics is missing nothing except the precise origin of the universe and a few details that won’t fundamentally change anything. Medicine is the same showing that life can be explained completely through physiology as a dynamic process that ends when that process falls apart from lack of oxygen or similar cause, with no need for a mysterious life force. Why shouldn’t the mind be the same? Only because it’s not the same. Physics is physical. Life and death of a body is physical. Is my experience of life completely physical? I once thought so, but things keep coming up that I can’t explain, just as astronomy once kept coming up with facts that showed anyone willing to see that ancient religions got it wrong.

I’m comfortable with half of it. The universe is so big because traditional ideas of the creation are wrong. But why is the mind so intricate? Why would evolution make it so complicated? Our mind is so intricate that people refuse to go everywhere their minds would go, instead insisting that some things are right, while some are wrong, making oversimplification part of human nature. Is there an evolutionary advantage for that? Instead of having such conflict, why not just be dumb and good at procreation?

Maybe this century will make the mind as easy to understand as physics makes the universe. Maybe I was born at an awkward time for knowledge. Yet I have been to the future by a different means than confidence in the scientific method. The scientific method eventually may show that there is something to the mind as inaccessible to us as that time before time began. If I can’t get there, can spirit come to me? If so, that makes both the universe and the mind so much bigger.


jc-ww said...

I've got a screen saver that shows the universe in "powers of ten" beginning with 100 light years, and I was just staring at it today and it occurred to me that if our galaxy alone is 100,000 l.y. across, something we could "never" traverse (a big assumption), then a universe at 15 BIL l.y., created for us creatures on our 1 planet, makes God seem very inefficient. I'm not giving up my belief in Him, but I always question in order to understand Him, as opposed to assuming I know all about Him. I did a Google search on Why would God make the universe so big, and there was someone on Yahoo who gave a very good, Catholic answer in terms of why a Triune God, with Jesus as the Son, seems to negate the idea that there are other earths out there. I then came across your entry. I agree that dogma will always result in nothing but a comfort for the dogmatist- be he atheist or True Believer. I think the Bible, though, says that God's ways are not our ways; Paul writes that the foolish things of the world confound the wise; God destroyed the Tower of Babel because man was trying to reach too high; the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil was forbidden and kept us from the fruit of the Tree of Life- all these ideas suggest that unknowability is built-in, that God actually doesn't want us to know all. It's a moral issue that requires careful thought and may not result in Eureka moments but may result in a deeper understanding, not of the workings of the universe which we have to rely on science for, but of God's purpose for us in such a universe. That's where I'm at. It was interesting to read your thoughts on the subject.

Anonymous said...

But thou, O Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book, [even] to the time of the end: many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased.

i rest my case