It's a marvelous quest, our oh-so-human desire to fully understand the mysteries of the cosmos. Dogs don't do this. Chimpanzees don't do this. Dolphins don't do this. (So far as we know.)
Science and religion are alike in this regard: each seeks knowledge, as much as possible.
Scientists aspire to the discovery of a Theory of Everything which encompasses the core laws of nature. Prophets, mystics, gurus, yogis, and other spiritual seekers hope to know the "mind of God," perhaps even becoming it via enlightenment.
Yet there's an egotistical, anthropomorphic, humancentric undercurrent to these attempts to reveal ultimate reality.
We Homo sapiens aren't content with knowing what clearly can be known: the nature of every day existence. We aren't happy with stopping at the boundaries of what can be observed, experimented on, calculated, modeled, analyzed into patterns of causes and effects.
No, by and large members of our species believe that humans can know everything. (Admittedly scientists are less grandiose in this regard than religious believers; still, they're the ones who coined the term "Theory of Everything.")
Given our place in the universe, this seems almost laughable.
Here we are, creatures with a recently-evolved consciousness capable of knowing a lot of stuff, yet a species confined to one planet circling one of hundreds of billions of stars in one of hundreds of billions of galaxies.
And we think we can know it all? Or, know all about the All? Come on... let's get real.
That's what MIT psychologist Steven Pinker does in his book, "How the Mind Works." My wife has been listening to an audio version of the book. Yesterday she played me a concluding section where Pinker talks about religion and humankind's ability to fathom the ultimate mysteries of the cosmos.
I was particularly interested in what Pinker had to say, since in a previous blog post I'd questioned whether we have an ability to know ultimate reality -- which to me entails coming to grips with the essence of existence.
There is nothing more mind-blowing than to ponder the astonishing mystery of "is." Personally, I suspect that the fascination we humans have with the philosophical, religious, and mystical questions surrounding why existence exists is a byproduct of our all-too-human cognitive abilities and brain processes.
A more advanced alien intelligence might look upon the question of "Why is there something rather than nothing?" with a resounding Huh? This is a meaningless question. The answer is obvious. Which, however, we wouldn't be able to understand.
l can't remember the details of what Pinker said on this subject, but it was close enough to what I wrote above for me to stop the audiobook and proudly tell my wife, "Steven Pinker and I think alike!"
Pinker said that evolutionary processes have caused humans to adapt to the conditions here on Earth. For example, our brains are good at discerning cause and effect relationships. "Joe got bit by a snake with diamond markings; he died soon after; I should avoid snakes that look like that."
Also, we have evolved the ability to fathom to a considerable extent the minds of other people. "Jane is frowning; she's angry at me and holding a large stick; turning my back on her right now wouldn't be a good idea."
Put our capacity to comprehend cause and effect relationships together with what is called our theory of mind ability, and you've got a pretty good start on explaining the foundation of religiosity. We're naturally driven to come up with explanations for why this or that happened, and we're naturally driven to attribute mental states akin to our own to other entities (both animate and inanimate).
If these and many other cognitive abilities weren't adaptive, we Homo sapiens wouldn't have evolved to have them as part of the human brain's repertoire. However, Pinker points out there's no reason to think that we possess a capability to know everything about the cosmos.
A vastly superior intelligence might very well look upon our religious, mystical, and philosophical musings about the nature of God, existence, creation, and such in much the same way as adults view a toddler's babbling.
Cute. But way out of touch with reality.
I think that one of our biggest problems is that we don't know what we aren't capable of knowing. After all, how could we? If we knew what we can't know, we'd be halfway to knowing it, since we could take steps to remedy the limitations in our knowledge-gaining capacity.
I'm mildly (maybe majorly) obsessed with grokking the mystery of existence. One of my favorite activities, and I don't even have to be stoned to do this, is pondering why or how anything is. You know, the famous question Why is there something rather than nothing?
I have a marvelous weightless, floating, dizzy, vertigo-inducing feeling when I brush up against the limits of my brain's capacity to comprehend an existence that seemingly has always existed, a seeming effect without any cause, a cosmos containing consciousness seemingly without any mind behind it.
This feeling isn't unique to me.
I suspect what I feel is close to the mind-blowing sensation countless religious seekers, mystic practitioners, and cosmically-minded philosophers have experienced when they pondered similar ultimate questions.
I used to have a strong desire to penetrate the mystery of existence, to know what lies beyond the outer limits of usual human knowing. Such is the dream of youth and middle age: to be a know-it-all. With additional aging, and perhaps a little wisdom, I've come to look upon things differently.
There's a limit to what I, or anyone, can know. We are human beings having a human experience. Yes, we can imagine that we are divine beings temporarily bound by a physical body, capable of understanding ultimate mysteries through a supernatural enlightenment experience.
Well, maybe. But extremely doubtful.
I used to believe that. Now I'm reluctant to devote much of my remaining life to quixotic pursuits -- such as seeking to know what almost certainly can't be known, or to experience what almost certainly can't be experienced.
It's more important for me to become pretty good at dancing West Coast Swing before I die, than to comprehend the meaning of existence. (My bet: there's isn't one.)