I've always been interested in phenomena at the borders of what we know, where there's some evidence but not enough to be truly convincing, such as UFOs and near death experiences. These are the kinds of things that, if found to be objectively real, would completely upend our perspective on the universe.
I always like having my perspective completely upended. So I keep a weather eye on such things, hoping someday for better evidence.
I've just read Eben Alexander's recently published book Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey Into The Afterlife. Dr. Alexander tells a vivid story of nearly dying of meningitis, during which, he says, he experienced a full-blown near-death experience (NDE) in which he visited a divine realm filled with love and knowledge.
I have no doubt that Alexander sincerely believes that he had the experience; a neurosurgeon who worked at Harvard Medical School isn't going to be a charlatan. He offers what is, within the story, evidence that it really happened: he met a woman whom he later found was his birth sister, now deceased.
The problem with such claims is that there's no way to verify them externally. We have only Alexander's word to go on. Here's what would do it for me: a person having an NDE coming back with an equation, and an explanation of it, that could not possibly be known by science at the time. If, for example, an NDE in 1900 returned speaking of an equation where energy equals mass times the speed of light squared, that would be impressive. Or if one returned today with an equation unifying quantum mechanics with relativity, or explaining why the fine-structure constants of the universe are they are, or why the universe has only three large-scale spatial dimensions, that would impress me.
Let's look at this idea a little more closely. Alexander writes, “My understanding of what we call ‘dark energy’ and ‘dark matter’ seemed to have clear explanations, as did far more advanced components of the makeup of our universe that humans won’t address for ages” (82). Well, these “clear explanations” are things today’s physicists would very much like to have. But Alexander can’t provide them, at least not yet: “That doesn't mean, however, that I can explain them to you. That's because – paradoxically – I am still in the process of understanding them myself” (82). Within the parameters Alexander sets, this is not unreasonable because all he has now to understand these things is the merely human brain he was born with, and one that's not particularly trained in mathematics. Nonetheless, the proof will be in the explaining, and it will be very interesting if he comes up with something. Until then, I have to suspend judgment.
Alexander discusses the problem of evil, and that may be particularly relevant at the moment since America has been thinking about suffering and evil. If the God he saw is infinitely good and infinitely loving, how can that be reconciled with the terrible suffering we see here on Earth? When someone shoots up a room full of first-graders, you do have to wonder about divine love and divine justice. This question is of course as old as religion itself, and Alexander's answer is not surprising because it has often been offered by theologians. He writes, “Evil was necessary because without it free will was impossible, and without free will there could be no growth – no forward movement, no chance for us to become what God longs for us to be. Horrible and all-powerful as evil sometimes seems to be in a world like ours, in the larger picture love was overwhelmingly dominant, and it would ultimately be triumphant” (48).
I can think of only one perspective in which that is not nonsensical, and that is the “tenseless universe” often contemplated by physicists and philosophers. Brian Greene talks about it at length in chapter 5 of his book The Fabric of the Cosmos, and it goes like this. Just as physics tells us that there is no privileged point in space, there is also no privileged moment in time. Every instant is just as much “now” as all the others -- and that includes all of the instants that we think of as being in the past and future. Think of it this way. I am writing these words at 6:03 PM on December 19, 2012, at the age of 47 years, 11 months, and 21 days. To me this moment feels like Now, The Now, The Real Present, and all other moments are either past or future. But I know perfectly well that as I was writing my book World Wide Mind, all of those moments felt just as Now as this one, and all of the moments in writing my next book will also feel just as Now. Every instant of my life is Now. If you follow this train of thought to its conclusion, as Brian Greene does, you are practically forced to conclude that space-time is actually a whole in which all moments are equally present. The moment in which the sun swells into a red giant and swallows the earth billions of years from now is not really in the future; it already exists, and it always will exist. (This is where the word “tenseless” comes from: in a universe where past and future are illusions, you don't need past or future tenses.)
Was Alexander living in a tenseless universe? He doesn't say so specifically; the closest he comes is “time as it was there just doesn't translate to our conception of time here on earth” (70). But if you are living in a tenseless universe, that offers an interesting perspective on suffering. From the perspective of someone living in a tenseless universe, your suffering is always and already over. You may be suffering in the year 2012, but from a higher perspective your life is already over and you are, and have always been, in a place without suffering. And since earthly life is very short compared to the lifespan of the universe, the amount of non-suffering would be much larger than the amount of suffering.
But to me this is just a little too pat. It's easy enough to talk about suffering in the abstract, and to discount suffering because it is someone else's. Try telling that to the parents who just lost their children incomprehensibly and violently. To someone who is dying horribly of cancer. If you ask me, in a better-tuned universe the maximum possible amount of suffering would be limited to the amount felt by someone losing their wallet in a supermarket. That's enough suffering for me. To dial the maximum potential amount of suffering up to “unlimited horror” just seems excessive.
But let's try another perspective. I have recently read half a dozen books that argue that progress is built into the nature of the universe. In his book What Technology Wants (2010),Kevin Kelly writes, “The course of biological evolution is not a random drift in the cosmos, which is the claim of current textbook orthodoxy. Rather, evolution – and, by extension, the technium [that is, human technological innovation] – has an inherent direction, shaped by the nature of matter and energy” (103). That is, the physics, chemistry, biology, and social dynamics of life are such that life and mind inevitably get better over time.
Kelly focuses on biology and culture, but Stephen Pinker, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature (2012), focuses on morality, and his argument is broadly similar: that there is an inherent dynamic in society that is making it more moral and more peaceful. One is entitled to be skeptical (World War II? The Holocaust? Rwanda?) but Pinker marshals voluminous statistics to argue that violence per capita has in fact declined even when one takes those atrocities into account. Relative to our growing population, he argues, an individual's chances of dying violently have dropped in every century. Furthermore, since the end of World War II, humanity has enjoyed the longest absence of large-scale wars in its entire history.
But why should this be? Pinker identifies five forces pulling humanity toward greater morality: the state’s monopoly on violence, interdependence based on trade, the feminization of culture and a consequent de-emphasis on violence, the expansion of empathy, and the “escalator of reason” – the self-reinforcing use of rational thought. Each of these, he says, is self-reinforcing and self-expanding. For example, reason is “an open-ended combinatorial system, an engine for generating an unlimited number of new ideas. Once it is programmed with basic self-interest and an ability to communicate with others, its own logic will impel it, in the fullness of time, to respect the interests of ever increasing numbers of others” (71%, Kindle edition).
In short, the complexity of life, and its degree of morality, increases not just because it can, but because it must. This invites the speculation, and at this point it's just a speculation, that the universe as a whole is evolving toward the good. Evil and suffering happen, but they happen less and less often as the universe works out how to overcome them. From that perspective, the evolutionary process is bent on getting rid of them.
And it could be that the best way to get rid of them is to work through a process in which numerous mistakes are made and numerous reversals happen. Life on Earth is brutal: species go extinct, animals starve and get eaten, humans go to war, deranged individuals do unspeakably cruel things. But one cannot deny that the evolutionary process, as cruel as it is, has produced an extraordinarily diverse and robust ecosystem. And humans, as stupid and benighted as they often are, have created extraordinary achievements. It could be that you cannot get the diversity and wonder without the mistakes and the pain. It could be, that to get a universe worth living in, you have to let it work through all the bad things in order to get to the good ones. As John Updike memorably suggested in Roger’s Version, maybe God “draws the universe freehand.”
From that perspective suffering is inevitable, but it is also diminishing. And the evidence, as outlined in the books I mentioned, seems to suggest that suffering is in fact decreasing.
The paleontologist and philosopher Teilhard de Chardin is famous for suggesting in his 1955 book The Phenomenon of Man that the purpose of the universe is to create God, rather than God having created the universe. In this view, God is emergent rather than immanent, flawed and improving rather than perfect. In a tenseless universe, God could be seen to be the totality of the process, existing at every moment rather than just at the end.
Well, this is not what Alexander says in Proof of Heaven. In Alexander's view, God is already omniscient and omnipotent. I don't know how to reconcile Alexander's beliefs with the few tentative suggestions I have offered here. But I think there is at least some evidence that the universe is not simply a random mishmash of physical objects. It is arguably evolving from less complex to more, from less capable to more, from unconsciousness to consciousness, from amorality to morality. I don't think that is yet evidence that it is created by a consciousness that stands outside the universe. It is only evidence that order exists, without telling us where that order comes from.
I think that if Alexander, or some other experiencer of an NDE, is able to tell us of some scientific truth well ahead of our present understanding, that would be intriguing evidence that stories of a transcendent realm are not simply illusions or hallucinations, and that there is some profound order to the universe that rational thought is just beginning, tentatively and haltingly, to understand.
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