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We have over 85 billion neurons in our brains, as many as there are stars in a small galaxy. Distant ancestors gained so much from the act of thinking that evolution kept scrunching our ever-expanding brains into a pink wrinkled wad just to fit inside our skulls. Early humans, balancing heavy heads on narrow frames, considered the stars in the dark heavens and came down with a mean case of apophenia, seeing patterns in random splatters of light. Each culture makes of constellations what they will, giving them stories and a past, and with that, meaning. Chaos is replaced with archers, crabs, fish, bulls, and other mythic figures lost in time. They are representational, they are divine. It is nothing short of a miracle the way they disappear for weeks or months, then resurrect themselves at intervals so regular you could set your sacred stones by them. Predictability is a comfort. Gods are a comfort. The firmament is eternal.
Not so us.
We are blessed, if that is the word, with the shiny apple of consciousness so that we might better navigate the world, but there is a cost. There is always a cost. It didn’t take long for the modern brain to confirm what had been long suspected: We are so very mortal. We had not just the knowledge that death can happen (many animals know this), but that it will happen to everyone. Not some. All. The good, the bad, and the indifferent. We do not leave and return like the stars, cycling through the universe forever. We just leave. We age and die, in that order if we are lucky, but more likely we are devoured by a predator or consumed by a natural disaster long before that. We move in one direction towards our end, flailing in our search for a happier outcome.
The word science comes from scientia, or knowledge. No wonder so many people reject science and its uncomfortable tidings.
We worship gods because they are able to avoid what happens to humans. We worship gods because they do not die. We worship what we want to be.
For all the good it does us.
Close both eyes and the world continues in dreams, the mind as alive and vivid as if strolling down a bright street. We do not move our bodies in sleep, but in our heads we soar, flying as if we were born with wings. Wild animals approach us like friends. The dead reappear and stare at us. Fully articulated strangers take us for intimates. What is the meaning of this place, this other world that is both so familiar and so strange? We ask for answers, we get them. For much of our history there would be someone in the tribe to explain the dream and offer advice. A shaman. A priest. The herbalist in a pinch. They knew the natural world and they knew the internal world, interweaving a working narrative of how to go about being human, a knowledge not completely lost. The best Native American hunters still find the location of their prey by dreaming.
Science now tells us that dreams are the random firing of neurons in REM sleep, with one side of the brain desperately trying to make sense of the other, coming up with one scenario after the other, plausible or not. The thing is, the situation is not much different when we are wide awake. The conscious mind is always second-guessing the subconscious. If we are unhappy, the mind casts about for the cause and settles on the most appealing answer, not necessarily the true one. The important thing is to have an answer.
We are a story the brain tells itself. We still tend towards pattern-seeking apophenia, but instead of myth we use modern tropes of chemical responses, neural circuits, and brain function to turn chaos into order. Yet for all our scans and studies, we don’t even know why mammals sleep, nevermind dream.
The more we know, the more we don’t know. There’s no comfort to be found in that.
The illusion of truth effect: You are more likely to believe that a statement is true if you have heard it before, whether or not is actually true. We give too much credit to the modern brain, or maybe we just need to be taught how to use it. History makes a good teacher, if only we could remember it. The spinal cord plays a far more important role that the brain itself, and how much stronger its hold is. Those words were written by Alfred Einstein to Max Born, looking back on their ineffective trip to the Reichstag to try to make democrats out of fascists. There is much about humans that is genetically wired, but Einstein and Born, riding the train to Berlin, still had faith in the power of reason. They believed that the neocortex, which evolved so we could override crude biological impulses, would make us think before acting. They had no faith by the time they left. We are quite capable of saying no to violence, bigotry, and the stench of burning flesh, but do we? Do we over-ride our worst instincts? The Nazis didn’t. Science didn’t save us from world war two and its genocidal atrocities.
But, then again, neither did religion.
Science and religion are both based in our desire for understanding, but to what end? Our own?
We seek our origins as much as we seek our destinies. The dawn of the universe goes back 14 billion years ago, give or take, earth about four and some change. Life on earth began around three billion years ago, although multicellularity took a very long time to get going and did not mutate into being until 900 million years ago. It was all just pond scum before that. Fire became possible 470 million years ago, when there was finally enough vegetation to produce sufficient oxygen for fire. Evolution continued to churn for hundreds of millions of years, exploding with possibilities, when finally, just two million years ago, Homo habilis shows up. The handy habilis might have hammered together a religion of sorts, and if so, fire was surely their god, burnt offerings their pact. Whatever they did or did not do, they thrived for 900 thousand years. (Will we? Unlikely. Highly unlikely.) Next on the scene, just under a million years ago, is a variety of Homo erectus, upright species who coexisted for hundreds of thousands of years. If they had religion they were keeping it to themselves. Spoken language wouldn’t emerge until 200 thousand years ago with us, Homo sapiens. Word became knowledge. Word became law. Then the squabbling. 60 thousand years ago, groups of humans start packing up and leave Africa. Twelve thousand years ago, agriculture begins to supplant hunter-gatherer culture around the globe. We are 300 generations from ten thousand years ago.
How is it possible for anyone to grasp all this? Deep time is a faith-based religion. For many, it is too big a leap.
In Social Animal, David Brooks organised knowledge in a nutshell: Information from the evolutionary past we call genetics. Information revealed thousands of years ago we call religion. Information passed along from hundreds of years ago we call culture. Information passed along from decades ago we call family. Information offered year, months, weeks or days ago we call education and advice.
Where is science in all this? With culture or education? Too recent. Far too recent. Certainly, even in our most primitive forms, we were prewired to seek as much knowledge about our world as any animal would be. And what is science if not the keen observation of life? It might have preceded religion. It could have led to it.
Montaigne once wrote that man wouldn’t know how to create a maggot and yet he creates gods by the dozen. Maybe we, the humans, are genetically programmed for religion. Maybe it is an evolutionary trait like any other, an adaptation to keep us from going insane from our mortal awareness. Perhaps we have gone mad anyway. It certainly seems so, as the world abandons both religion and science to demagogues, and we are left bereft of any truth. We have faith in false idols because we have lost faith in everything else.
The goal of both science and religion is to transform the unknown into the known. But what if we don’t want to know?
Aldous Huxley once suggested that the reason there aren’t nearly as many mystics and visionaries walking around today as compared to the Middle Ages is the improvement in nutrition. Vitamin deficiencies damage brain function and might explain a large portion of visionary experiences in the past. A pity. Because if a visionary really can see into the future, maybe time is a celestial cyclorama after all, a loop in which we, the humans, will reappear, again and again, like the constellations.
Some scientists think that many of history’s prophets had temporal lobe epilepsy. This disease affects a part of the brain that won’t cause seizures but instead creates a false sense of an external presence talking to them, a voice easily attributed to God. Science is such a killjoy. We want to believe in prophets. We want someone to tell us what to do.
In 1615, after a nutritious meal or two, Galileo Galilei takes a good look at the sky and discovers that the sun, not the earth, is the hot center of it all. The Pope and his surrogates are threatened by science, afraid they might lose power. They fear the dethronement of man, the displacement of the church. The Roman Inquisition concludes heliocentrism is foolish and absurd, but Galileo doesn’t know when to shut up. For all his knowledge, he does not understand that fearful people are dangerous beings. Ignoring the smell of burnt flesh in the air, he argues his case, saying that the Bible was an authority on faith, not on science. I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use. Silly, silly man. He is tried by the Inquisition and forced to recant, spending the rest of his life under house arrest.
Will we all have to recant? Are we now under house arrest?
Will science be a burning crime once again?
17th century English poet and polymath John Milton met Galileo during his arrest. Later, in Paradise Lost, Milton has Raphael warn Adam that he should not wonder too much about the motion of the stars, for “they need not thy belief”.
Don’t dig too deep is the mantra of the day.
The Bible says the world is firmly established and does not change. Before Darwin, the clergy claimed fossils were litter, leftover from a series of past creations. After Darwin, they claimed God planted dinosaur bones to test our faith with the appearance of evolution.
We look for answers, we find them.
The average human heart will beat three billion times over the course of a lifetime, but who’s counting?
Wait. Science is counting.
Alarmed by the rush of modernity and technical advances at the end of the 19th century and into the 20th, philosophers begin to worry about our hearts. Science is built with facts as a house is with stones, but a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house, wrote Jules Henri Poincaré in 1913.
The link between the ancient parts of our brain, such as the emotion-laden amygdala and limbic, with the modern neocortex, is what makes us human. Neither alone, but connected.
The word religion stems from the Latin religio, to connect.
Without heart, without connection, we are all fact and no meaning.
In the eponymous The Education of Henry Adams, Adams wrote that the new American – the child of incalculable coal-power, chemical power, electric power, and radiating energy, as well as new forces yet undetermined – must be a sort of God compared with any former creation of nature.
If we are a sort of God, we are a short-sighted one. When it comes to the planet, we act like there is no tomorrow. The future, without a visionary to inform us, might just be too difficult to comprehend since it will not include us. It did not include Adams’s wife, Clover, who killed herself. Eventually, it will not include anyone. Two hundred million years from now the Earth will be consumed by the sun. Our impressive brains, our three-pound galaxy of neurons, tells us so. We are the most successful species that has ever existed because our intelligence has made us highly adaptable, allowing us to occupy all climates and conditions, but what is the point if we know the endgame? A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
But then again, so is faith.
Faith. Alan Lightman, in The Accidental Universe, wrote that faith is about far more than belief in the existence of God or the disregard of scientific evidence. Faith is the willingness to give ourselves over, at times, to things we do not fully understand. Faith is the belief in things larger than ourselves.
How about the universe? Is that just too large to believe in?
Boltzmann brains is a slippery little scientific theory that proposes reincarnation, of sorts, but without the body baggage. According to 19th century Austrian physicist, Ludwig Boltzmann, quantum physics could allow for an infinite number of disembodied brains to materialize in the deep future of space, when the universe has expanded to the point of dissolution. Science brings us back around to the celestial cyclorama of our ancestors who may have got it right after all. We want to be eternal in the skies like the constellations, sparkling in ecstasy forever, like the gods. We find the answer we’ve been looking for. Divine in science, at last.
What is that if not religion?