Shattering the Sacred Myths - Chapter 14

Deepening Consciousness

 
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Describes consciousness as a natural phenomenon and establishes a theoretical foundation for justice based upon the democratic decisions of free and educated people.

Science can be described as a collection of information that has been carefully filtered to remove any impurities, leaving only the closest thing that we have to the truth at this time in history. The scientific community can be described as a group of intellectual elitists who are committed to keeping this valuable collection of information free from fantasy and superstition, and uncontaminated by politics or religion.

Members of the scientific community are generally uncompromising in their condemnation of any irrational ideas or unprovable claims. Disputes and disagreements are a normal part of this process, and we can only hope that by carefully examining the theories and the evidence, and through open debate, scientific reasoning will continue to prevail in the pursuit of rational truth.

For those scientists who study the physical properties of the universe, each theory must be able to accurately predict the results of an experiment, and we have learned to expect that every detail can be neatly described using mathematical equations. As physical scientists continue to discover the secrets of matter and energy, and as this knowledge finds practical applications in fields like engineering and medicine, we continue to enjoy the fruits of advancing technology.

Compared to the physical sciences, despite more than a century of research, the social sciences have failed to agree on any reliable theories about human nature or the nature of human society.

Social sciences like anthropology, sociology, and psychology emerged from the political and social revolutions of the 1800s, when new scientific discoveries were destroying the intellectual credibility of Christianity. No longer held back by fear of religious persecution, and no longer satisfied with the speculations of philosophers, scientifically minded thinkers confidently set out to apply scientific methods to the study of humankind.

However, because of the fluidity of the human mind and the complexity of everyday social interactions, human behavior soon proved to be too difficult to predict with any degree of certainty.

In the absence of any measurable quantities or objective standards, the best that can be done is to compare different cultures or collect and analyze statistics. But because of the countless uncontrollable variables of everyday life, it is almost always impossible to reach any reliable conclusions.

Social realities are so complex that any kind of social theory can only ever be a generalized approximation. Any attempt to describe human behavior quickly becomes bogged down by the limitations of human language. Achieving a perfectly clear explanation requires more effort than most social scientists are prepared to give. Unrefined explanations are easily misinterpreted, and most contributions to social science have been spoiled by ambiguities, arbitrary categorizations, and subjective valuations.

Ideology

From the very beginning, the uncertainties and inaccuracies of social science created opportunities for ideological extremists to interpret observations in ways that justified their own political agendas. Claiming to have science on your side is a powerful form of political propaganda, and social science immediately became a battlefront in the struggle for political power.

Most people recognize that we inherit some of our behavioral characteristics from our parents while other characteristics are shaped over our lifetime by our social interactions and other environmental influences. But many early social theorists overstressed the importance of hereditary characteristics in order to justify continuing racial discrimination, sexism, and class distinction. They said that the reason why some cultures are more advanced than others is because some groups of people are biologically superior.

Such potentially destructive ideas were fiercely resisted by other theorists who maintained that all people have roughly the same mental capabilities regardless of their race, sex, or class. The human brain is highly adaptable and everyone has the ability learn new skills.

Other theorists went even further, saying that no culture can be said to be more advanced than any other. Each culture has followed its own equally valid path to the present time, regardless of their current level of technology or material wealth. Every traditional culture deserves equal respect despite what its people believe or how they behave.

Some theorists even rejected the significance of technological change, refusing to admit that patterns of human behavior adapt over time to suit the prevailing technological conditions, insisting instead that human choice plays a greater role in defining culture than any materialistic influence. This way of thinking better suited Christian and Marxist hopes of reconstructing society and reinventing human nature in order to bring about their promised utopias.

More concerned about political outcomes or moral sensitivities than scientific objectivity, and often ignoring any evidence contrary to their position, these kinds of ideologies have been battling to dominate social science since the 1800s. Support for each ideology has shifted over the decades in response to European imperialism, world war, the spread of communism, the Great Social Revolution, and the postmodern age.

Under the influence of postmodernism, many social scientists have now lost faith in the possibility of discovering any reliable patterns in human nature or in the nature of human society. They instead prefer to believe that human history is just a disconnected series of meaningless events. Concepts like ‘progress’ and ‘civilization’ are rejected as myths invented to uphold Western cultural values. Cultures may be observed, but any attempt to compare or evaluate them based upon any notion of progress raises the fear of cultural discrimination and racism. Any attempt to justify the emergence of the modern world is condemned as being a rationalization for oppression.

Many students of postmodern social science no longer even believe in the scientific method, and those that still do believe often feel so disillusioned that they give up any hope of ever eradicating the political bias, moral censorship, anti-scientific sentiment, and pseudo-science from their profession.

Many scientifically minded people now believe that the traditional social sciences are so paralyzed by relativism and skepticism, and so crippled by political correctness, that they should be abandoned in favor of new disciplines like sociobiology and evolutionary psychology that derive their ideas directly from the theory of evolution.

Over the next few decades, computerized neurobiological models should become powerful enough to simulate the functioning of the human brain, and they may eventually become sophisticated enough to simulate the complex interactions of human society. This should bring an end to many of the uncertainties of social science. Even then, we may never be able to account for all of the biological, environmental, historical, and technological factors that create our human world.

However, no computer model will ever be able to answer the ultimate question of human existence, the question of whether consciousness has any kind of cosmic purpose. This question is relevant to social science because the ultimate determinant of all social theory is metaphysical.

Social theories that assume the evolution of humankind was a mere accident of nature and the discovery of advanced technology was an unplanned consequence are philosophically incompatible with social theories that allow for the possibility that consciousness might have evolved to fulfill some kind of cosmic purpose.

Metaphysics

Most people want their lives to have meaning and purpose, and they want moral guidance so badly that they are prepared to gamble away their understanding of existence by basing their beliefs on myths and superstitions. They choose traditional religion, new age mysticism, or some other supernatural explanation because social science has not yet been able to popularize any all-embracing social theory that offers people a sense of purpose and guidance based on scientific rationality.

Other people want facts, or they want freedom from religious moral oppression. They reject metaphysical considerations because the only explanations that they are aware of that offer purpose and guidance are based upon traditional religious myths that are so corrupted by lies and stained by blood that it seems like a miracle that anyone can still believe in them.

For these people, losing any sense of purpose might seem like a small price to pay for rationality and freedom, but while some rationalists might be mentally strong enough to overcome the inevitable existential crisis, finding their sense of value in self-expression and self-realization, others are finding it increasingly difficult to stay sane when their lives have no perceivable meaning.

Almost all evolutionary biologists today believe that the evolution of humankind was a totally random and purposeless process. Almost all social scientists agree with them, believing that humans have no higher purpose beyond whatever purpose each individual or community chooses for themselves. This is understandable, given that speculating about any unproven purpose would be unscientific.

Yet we still have no conclusive proof as to whether the evolution of intelligent life was ‘planned’ or not, and so the whole enterprise of modern science seems to be based upon an unproven assumption. In many ways, today’s scientific community acts like a secular priesthood of purposelessness, preaching the teachings of the prophets of meaninglessness.

Until now, science has only ever attempted to describe reality assuming that consciousness has no purpose. It has not yet seriously attempted to describe reality from the point of view that maybe consciousness does have a purpose. By ignoring one of the two very real possibilities and basing their entire system of knowledge on an unproven assumption, perhaps they are missing half of the picture.

The accumulation of information

Perhaps the skeptical scientists are right, and intelligent life did arise unplanned from an ultimate cosmic chaos. But if they are wrong and intelligent life did evolve for a reason, then consciousness and everything that flows from it must be as much a part of the natural universe as matter and energy are. And like matter and energy, perhaps consciousness is bound by natural laws that can also be described using mathematical relationships.

Let us imagine that consciousness is a force of nature; not quite the same as other physical forces like gravity, more of an abstract informational force. In a similar way to how the force of gravity attracts matter, the force of consciousness seems to have a tendency to collect information. As consciousness evolved, it allowed animals to collect information through their senses and store it in their memories.

A group of individuals who share information might be said to have a group consciousness. The power of speech allowed early humans to share information and pass it on to new generations. But as individual memories faded over time, only the most frequently used information remained in the group memory.

As markings on clay tablets were slowly refined to become words on paper, information could be preserved and made available to distant future generations. A recording of historic events and a body of information on valuable subjects began to accumulate. Group memory was slowly becoming more permanent, but only those writings that were copied and cared for over the centuries survived.

As information continued to accumulate, various religious, philosophical, and scientific explanations of our existence began to compete for believers. But the quality of these explanations was limited by the lack of verifiable facts, and by the difficulty of using human language to communicate complex concepts in a way that could be easily understood.

Following the invention of the printing press, a healthy profit could be made from publishing books. Driven by market forces and by a natural enthusiasm for sharing knowledge, a dedicated army of authors began to collect and summarize unprecedented quantities of information. Vast collections of books began to accumulate in homes and public libraries.

Modern science began with new inventions like the telescope and new discoveries like electricity. These provided new opportunities to study the world and the universe.

The collection of scientific knowledge now continues to grow as scientists compete with each other for the prestige of making new discoveries. Universities play a vital role in judging the value of new information and teaching as much of the truth as has yet been revealed.

With the rise of industry and the need for more educated workers, schools became training camps for office and factory jobs. Children are now programmed with ten or more years of practical knowledge and skills, and are then given a level of qualification which reflects how much information they absorbed.

Newspapers, magazines, television, and radio now compete with each other to distribute any information for which there might be a market. The modern mass media produces an overload of easily digestible information, with opinions and analysis, available for free to the public, paid for by advertisers.

While some media networks scrounge around for any information worth sensationalizing for a dollar, the accumulation of daily news reports are now forming an incredibly detailed recording of history; with words and images stored in digital format, easily searched, and with no deterioration in quality over time.

Rapidly advancing computer technologies like website databases are making it easier every year to collect and organize information to share with the rest of the world. Increasingly refined summaries of almost every kind of information are now freely available on millions of Internet websites.

Digital video cameras built into mobile phones now allow us to capture the memory of any moment. Our everyday experiences can be easily shared with our family and friends, and these experiences can be collected and stored to be studied later by other people.

There was a time when words flowed directly from the mind onto the page and editing was slow and difficult. Now with word processors, words can be reworked and refined until they are as close to perfect as the language allows.

And with high quality television documentaries being digitally edited and enhanced with special effects, even the illiterate can be educated in ways never before possible. The quality with which information can now be presented is only limited by the time taken and the effort expended.

Information overload

The information now exists for people to envisage a much more detailed picture of the world and reach much more profound conclusions about the workings of nature than ever before. But instead, we seem to be drowning in unfathomable amounts of information. We can only learn so much, only concentrate on one thing at a time, and we have trouble remembering even important things.

Few people can afford the time to learn even those things that are of practical use. We spend all of our time and energy every day just struggling to earn a living and make our relationships work. Sports and entertainment are much more interesting than trying to read and understand volumes of boring and often useless facts.

Our stone-age brains are struggling to appreciate the significance of this information revolution. Scientists still argue over the meaning of consciousness, and many people’s minds are still snagged on religious beliefs which preach that any new information is a threat. For most people, personal happiness and economic success are much more valuable than knowledge about their existence.

Perhaps the mainstream of human consciousness will never reach the level of objective awareness where it sees itself as an abstract force of nature, collecting information in nature’s scheme. Even university professors cannot agree on what nature’s scheme might be, and many of them doubt that there is one. In human society, higher understandings often have little practical value anyway.

If consciousness did evolve for the purpose of collecting information, then perhaps all that humankind needs to do is to survive and prosper, and the information will continue to accumulate, and the technology needed to support this information will continue to be assembled, without us really needing to understand why.

Thinking computers

Imagine a consciousness that never sleeps and never loses concentration. Imagine that it can concentrate on many different thoughts at the same time. It gathers information from wherever it can, taking notice of even the smallest piece of information, never forgetting anything, and remembering every detail with crystal clarity.

Imagine that this consciousness reads every book, newspaper, magazine, and website; and watches every movie, television show, and documentary; in every language; and it never stops scanning the computer networks for new information.

It never stops processing this information, looking for patterns that might lead to new conclusions. The information gathered and the conclusions reached are never forgotten. These conclusions continue to accumulate, forming an ever more detailed picture of the world and the universe.

Now imagine that this consciousness is connected to every government and business database. It knows everything that has ever been recorded about you - your birth details, school reports, tax returns, license photos, blood test results, credit card transactions, supermarket purchases - it even knows your fingerprints and DNA.

People living under authoritarian dictatorships and even people living in democratic countries threatened by war rarely have their privacy protected, and so it might also know enough from listening to your telephone conversations and reading your emails to be able to predict what you are thinking.

Such a system is slowly being implemented across the world today. Information is being collected and new connections are being made between computer networks and databases, making the flow of information more efficient, and improving the decision making ability of governments and businesses.

When you add up all of the information being collected by both people and machines, and you consider all of the information being shared through human relationships and communication networks, and when you consider the increasing amounts of computing power available for processing this information, then you might be forgiven for thinking that the ‘all seeing eye’ and the ‘all hearing ear’ are slowly opening onto the ‘all knowing network’.

Any information that now exists, especially information stored in digital format, will probably remain in existence for a very long time, maybe even until the flowering of consciousness that began here on earth comes to an end.

Consciousness

If we consider consciousness to be an abstract force of nature, then we can describe the human brain as a device for generating this force. Although we cannot easily measure the amount of consciousness generated by a person’s brain, we can assume that it varies over time. When we are in deep sleep, we are barely conscious, and throughout the day, our consciousness might vary from idle observation to deep concentration.

Whenever we experience something, we absorb information through our senses, and we interpret this information with respect to our memories of similar experiences from the past. Whenever we think about something, we usually draw our conclusions from our knowledge of similar or related things.

Thinking requires knowledge (or information), and the act of thinking can be described as the processing of this information. For the sake of advancing this argument, let us define the amount of consciousness generated by a person’s brain at a particular moment in time as being equal to the rate at which information is being processed.

However, we cannot say that the processing of false information contributes anything to consciousness. False information often leads to misunderstandings which distort our perception of reality. Contemplating things that are not real is more like dreaming than thinking, and so we would have to say that the value of each piece of information depends on how accurate it is.

We would also need to consider how relevant each piece of information was to a particular issue or event. Knowledge about cats would be of limited value if we were thinking about dogs.

Once again, for the sake of advancing this argument, let us define the total amount of consciousness generated by one person about a particular issue or event as being equal to the total amount of information processed while thinking about it.

Total consciousness = the sum of all information processed

Where the value of each piece of information depends on its accuracy and its relevance to the issue or event.

Opinion

After thinking about an issue or event, a person’s feelings might range anywhere from extremely positive to extremely negative. When we remember an event, we also remember the feelings that we had about the event. These remembered feelings affect our future decisions, hopefully guiding us towards more successful outcomes.

A person’s ‘feelings’ are a determinable quality which reflects the results of their thinking. But the value of a person’s opinion cannot be measured by the strength of their feelings alone, we must also consider how much thinking they have done.

If a person does a lot of research and spends a long time thinking about an issue, then their opinion should have a much greater value than someone whose opinion is based upon wrong information, or based upon an instinctual reaction, or someone who simply believes whatever they are told.

For the sake of advancing this argument, let us define a person’s ‘opinion’ about a particular issue or event as being equal to the total amount of consciousness that they generated while thinking about it multiplied by their resulting feelings.

Opinion = total consciousness generated * resulting feelings

Where the total consciousness generated is equal to the sum of all information processed. And where the value of each piece of information depends on its accuracy and relevance to the issue or event.

Morality

Opinions about right and wrong depend on a wide variety of factors, like the desire for happiness, the dream of harmonious coexistence, the performance of duty, the welfare of family and friends, the preservation of wealth and power, and an assortment of other practical and idealistic considerations.

We learn many of our ideas about right and wrong from our family and from the traditions of our society, and our opinions continue to be shaped by our own unique lifetime of experience and by our personal needs and desires.

Whenever there is a difference of opinion about right and wrong, the ensuing power struggle between groups with conflicting opinions will usually result over time in the formation of laws and values, and the establishment of institutions for enforcing these laws and values.

Things that happen in this universe do not have any inherent moral value. Despite the passionate claims of political and religious extremists, nothing is universally good or bad. Only when the force of consciousness is directed towards determining what is acceptable or unacceptable do issues or events gain moral value. And the greater the force of consciousness applied, the more accurate the moral judgment will be.

In order to take advantage of all of the lifetimes of knowledge and experience, and considering all of the time and effort that people have spent thinking about what is best for themselves and their community, let us define the ‘moral value’ of an issue or event as being equal to the sum of every person’s ‘opinion’.

Moral value = the sum of every person’s ‘opinion’

Where each person’s ‘opinion’ is equal to the sum of all the information they processed while thinking about it, multiplied by their resulting feelings. And where the value of each piece of information depends on its accuracy and relevance to the issue or event.

Democracy

Modern democracy represents the above ‘moral equation’ in action. As the supporters and opponents of each issue battle it out in the news media, the population become educated, opinion polls influence government decisions, and people pass their judgment on the government’s responsiveness at election time.

Democracy is often criticized because each person has equal voting power regardless of the accuracy of their information (regardless of whether their opinion is based upon knowledge, faith, greed, or fashion). However, any attempt to discriminate against people based on the quality of their information will inevitably be abused by some self-serving faction to seize permanent power.

We must expect democratic outcomes to be distorted by government propaganda, corporate media brainwashing, religious evangelizing, and a general shroud of ignorance. But as long as there is freedom of speech then there should at least be consensus among voters on practical issues that affect people’s everyday survival.

We can see clear evidence of how effectively democracy has facilitated the moral equation. Many of the worst cases of corruption, discrimination, and injustice in the democratic world have now been addressed, and values like tolerance and fairness now have a powerful voice in democratic culture.

Many of the moral guidelines that were written down in ancient religious scriptures are now hopelessly out of date and often cause more problems than they solve. Opposition to religious moral oppression is growing, and with the spread of democracy, opponents are gaining the power to remove oppressive religious moral influences from the law.

Although the fixed moral values of ancient religious scriptures are slowly being superceded by modern democratic values, unless we can explain this moral progression using a scientific theory which describes consciousness as the only force in nature capable of making moral judgments, and which sees the democratic decisions of free and educated people as being the best theoretical foundation for justice, then the political debate about moral issues will continue to be clouded by religious myths.

Adaptable democratic values are the inevitable evolutionary outcome of the conscious struggle for power over time. As information technology continues to improve our ability to communicate and educate, as democratic institutions continue to be formed and reformed at the local, national, and international level, and as the laws are continually refined, our ongoing moral progress seems certain to provide an increasingly favorable environment in which consciousness can thrive and continue to grow.

Religious reform

If there was no cosmic plan, and the evolution of intelligent life was never intended, then there can be no real connection between evolution, consciousness, and technology. Any patterns that we see in nature would be purely the result of coincidence, and this is why secular science will never be able to provide us with any meaningful explanation for modern life, other than continuing to teach that life has no meaning.

However, by extending the theory of evolution to include the rise of intelligent life, the conscious struggle for power, and the development of advanced technology; and seeing how technology is now changing evolution from a natural process into a consciously controlled process; and seeing consciousness as an abstract force of nature that deepens as it accumulates information; the evidence begins to support the possibility of a cosmic plan.

Only by identifying a cosmic plan will we ever be able to provide a satisfying explanation for what is happening in the world right now, and what might be happening in the near future. Only if consciousness has a universal purpose can human life truly be said to have universal value, and only then can we derive a rational and believable alternative to traditional religion; an alternative in which the concept of God is associated with healthy progressive values rather than ignorant conservative ones.

In a similar way to how the church once held a monopoly on knowledge, in the modern world, the universities stake their reputation on teaching as much of the truth as has yet been discovered. Modern society places great trust in the universities to teach us the truth, and not to teach us any myths or other mistaken ideas. But as long as the only truth taught by the universities is that we are living a meaningless life in a purposeless multiverse then they can forget about ever playing the leading role in shaping the future of people’s beliefs.

Until the universities begin to popularize an authoritative and compelling theory of existence in which God and natural evolution work seamlessly together, then the traditional religions will continue to be the only significant institutions which preach that humans have both universal purpose and universal value.

It is now too dangerously close to the time when technologies of mass destruction begin to proliferate into the hands of religious fanatics who have spent their entire lives praying for the coming of the Day of Judgment. The time has finally arrived for the universities to take responsibility for what people believe by offering a convincing and widely agreeable alternative to traditional religion, before the nations descend into religiously inspired nuclear terrorism and war.

Your choice

It was mentioned at the start of this book, that when it comes to explaining our existence, once all of the myths and misconceptions have been stripped away, there remains only two possibilities.

One possibility is that there is some kind of purposeful creative process that designed the universe and planned the events that led to the evolution of intelligent life. If this is true, then we have a reason and a duty to survive and to progress, to play our part in the grand cosmic scheme. We could have faith that continued technological advancement will lead to social, economic, and moral progress. And we could have hope that humanity can survive by choosing to be thoughtful and cooperative.

The other possibility is that there is no God, no plan, no purpose, life is meaningless, consciousness has no special value, and so human life has no special value either. Our only reason for continuing to struggle through life would be to pursue our instinctual needs and desires, and our only reason for continuing this social and economic progress would be to increase our material wealth and level of luxury. Other than friendly affections or noble ideals, our only justifiable reason for caring about each other would be for the anticipation of some mutual benefit. Without any cosmic purpose worth making personal sacrifices for, this universe will never be anything more than a cosmic battlefield for evolutionary competition and the conscious struggle for power.

These are the only two possibilities. Other writers might claim that there are other possibilities, but if you look closely enough at their explanations, you always find flaws. Their arguments will either be unscientific or be based around some hollow form of reasoning.

In any case, it is up to you to decide which of the two you want to believe. Believing in either possibility requires having faith in some unproven assumption. The only understanding that requires no leap of faith, and so therefore the only understanding in which we can be totally confident, is to keep our minds open to both possibilities.

Continue to chapter 15 ... Politics and Religion

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