As I frequently say here on the Church of the Churchless, and will undoubtedly be saying again and again, religions are notable for basically being stuck in the Dark Ages, with fresh theologies being very rare, while science and reason continually make strides in casting more light upon the unknown.
Recently I've been blogging about a couple of books that I've finished reading, and want to get off my active-reading bookshelf to make room for new titles.
So here's what probably are my final observations about Life is Simple: How Occam's Razor Set Science Free and Shapes the Universe and Losing Ourselves: Learning to Live Without a Self.
Well, now that I think about it, there could be more for me to say about the latter book. But that remains to be seen. Anyway, here's a Big Idea from each of the books that I found to be both fascinating and a decent chance of being correct.
In Life is Simple, Johnjoe McFadden discusses how the universe came to be. This is the "Big Idea" approach of physicist Lee Smolin. I'm going to leave out quite a few details, focusing just on the natural selection aspect.
He proposes that our universe is the product of a cosmological evolutionary process, roughly analogous to natural selection, which he calls cosmological natural selection (CNS).
Currently, the most accepted scenario for the universe's origin starts with a random quantum fluctuation. Most likely this tiny universe was not interesting as the randomly selected values of its fundamental constants were incompatible with even the existence of matter.
As quickly as it popped into existence, the positive and negative energy of this matter-infeasible universe wold have recombined to vanish into nothingness. Yet further quantum fluctuations would have continued to generate universes out of the cosmological nothingness until, after maybe many trillions of searches through parameter space, a universe was born with values that promoted the formation of matter, stars, planets and, at least a few, black holes.
The formation of black holes is, in Smolin's scenario, the cosmological equivalent of the origin of life: it made universes self-replicative. The early primordial universes would probably have generated few black holes and thereby produced only a handful of descendants.
However, so long as that handful was greater than one, then the number of universes would increase.
...However, all universes would not be created equal. Some would be more fecund than others. Those that inherited parameter values that led to the greatest concentration of matter inside stars that collapsed into black holes would leave many descendants. Conversely, any universe that failed to produce stars or black holes would eventually blink out of existence to become extinct.
...Just as natural selection guided the evolution of life towards improbable creatures like dinosaurs, elephants or humans, so that same process, cosmological natural selection, fine-tuned the fundamental constants of physics towards the highly improbable values needed to make stars, planets, black holes, and us.
...Smolin's theory, with or without its Occamist tweak [which I haven't mentioned], has one final and startling implication. It suggests that the fundamental law of the universe is not quantum mechanics, or general relativity or even the laws of mathematics.
It is the law of natural selection discovered by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. As the philosopher Daniel Dennett insisted, it is 'The single best idea that anyone has ever had.' It may also be the simplest idea that any universe has ever had.
Jay Garfield's "Big Idea" in Losing Ourselves is related to the seeming fact that our self actually isn't an internal subjective fact, but an interdependent construction involving us and the world. Here's how he ends his book. I'll keep this fairly brief, since likely I'll be writing another blog post about Losing Ourselves.
We are not isolated individuals who happen to choose to live together; we are social animals who only become the individuals we do in social contexts that scaffold our flourishing. We can only make sense of our lives and see them as meaningful when we understand our personhood and when we give up the fantasy of independence encoded in the idea of a self.
When people hear about the idea of selflessness, they often find it disturbing. They think that this is the nihilistic idea that we don't really exist. But that only makes sense if you think that to exist is to be a self. Once we see that the self is illusory, we see that that can't be right.
The fact that a dollar is not a piece of paper does not mean that dollars don't exist, and the fact that we are not selves doesn't mean that we do not exist.
Instead, for beings like us, to exist is to be a person -- a socially constituted being embedded in a rich and meaningful world -- just as for things like dollars, to exist is to be a unit of currency embedded in an economic system.
To deny that we are persons would be to deny that we exist. So, the self illusion, although it seems to confer a greater reality on us than would mere conventional personhood, in fact undermines the very reality that makes us who we are.
To accept that you have no self is not to reject your identity; it is to reclaim your humanity.