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The Spiritual Universe
One Physicist's Vision of Spirit, Soul, Matter, and Self
By Fred Alan Wolf
Moment Point PressCopyright © 1999 Fred Alan Wolf
All rights reserved.
Some Soulful but Wrong Questions
My Moon is in Uranus. My future's lookin' spotty When I went into a trance, My soul left me for another body.
—"New Age Blues," lyrics by Ray De Sylvester, Scott Savage, Bil Thorne, and Chris West; music by Elfheim
This is not an easy book for a scientist to write. I feel conflicts arising in me as I attempt to put my thoughts into words. These conflicts occur because I should know better than even to attempt to write about the mystery we call the soul. I should know better because I have been trained in that objective information-base of the world called physics—the acknowledged king of the sciences. Unfortunately, this king, unlike Old King Cole, seemingly has no room for any soul, merry, old, or not.
I'm not the first nor the only physicist-philosopher to speculate about the issue of the soul's existence and its seemingly precarious, mysterious, and subtle relationship with the energy and matter of our bodies. As we shall see, Aristotle and Plato also worried about its existence. Aristotle saw the soul as a subtle substance, one that would vanish when the body vanished in much the same way that the sharpness of a knife will vanish when it is melted down in a furnace. Plato, sharing a somewhat similar view—after all, he was Aristotle's mentor—also saw the soul as a substance, but as a nonphysical one, which was eternal, idea-like, and capable of existing beyond the body.
Where does modern science and technology stand in this debate? Can today's physics and computer technology provide us with the hope of eternal life? Set aside these questions for the moment and consider how answers to them might change our lifestyles.
Have We Lost Our Souls to Modern Technological Life?
We live the good life. Yes, indeed. We are better fed, more protected, and bathed in the light and luxury of countless new technical achievements springing up every day, at least in the Western world. In the so-called Third World countries, the good life of material wealth may be absent, but if all goes as planned by ideal altruistic ruling and governing forces, soon the whole world will enjoy Western-like material wealth.
Many Westerners feel we are approaching utopia: living longer and, perhaps with the aid of science and technology, enjoying more fruitful lives. The subject of life-extension through cryogenic storage (literally freezing the dead) until science reaches the understanding and technology to resurrect the dead is becoming more popular. Although modern medicine promises us longer life and even the prospect of living forever as perhaps programs in a computer or as cryogenically frozen heads, I think few of us take heart from this. Consider the following: Upon resurrection, just what or who would be resurrected?
As we live longer, we face untold population growth reaching into ten billion by mid twenty-first century. Do we have enough material wealth and scientific know-how to support all of these souls? Or should we reconsider whether people are souls at all and, if they are not, should they be subject to the same laws as other plant and animal population controls? In other words, should population control be the right of people everywhere?
This leads us to reconsider what we mean by life and death and what we could mean scientifically by the soul. In the West the question of death is hardly ever considered. Except for immediate and personal tragedy, we see no signs of it anywhere, except for the make-believe body count we watch on TV cop shows and the like and perhaps an occasional news broadcast describing an auto fatality or an assassination of a political figure. Most of us seem to feel we will live forever. Of course many intelligent, sensitive individuals see through this charade.
Beyond the abortion issues, population growth, and frozen dead-heads, there are other darker shadows in the bright light of the setting Western sun and foul-smelling scents in the chilly dusk wind that howls in the future. Our Western approach to life seems to be leading to an ever-growing "cool" isolation—this insularity results in many people finding themselves only able to communicate with the world from behind computer screens or within the confines of an office. We are growing apart from each other, and this lack of communion is taking its toll.
Choking Smokers, Don't You Know the Joker Laughs at You?
Our failure to communicate has a funny side to the chill. My recent trip to New Orleans brought this realization to me. There was a surprisingly cool crispness in the air as my wife and I enjoyed Halloween night in the normally balmy Big Easy. The French Quarter was chock-a-block with the usual ghosts and goblins, but there was something else present—something I would call sinister and funny at the same time.
Many walked Bourbon Street dressed in skull masks. I felt a giddy laughter bubbling inside of me because it appeared that no one was raking death seriously that night. I especially found it amusing to see these walking skull-heads blowing cigarette smoke out of their lipless, toothy, grinning mouths.
I felt as if death was present, from the time I arrived in the French Quarter until the moment I left. That made me wonder: Have we in our growing isolation allowed our souls to slip from our grasps as easily as the smoking skulls let loose their clouds of burning tobacco? Is our soul-loss due to our present day isolation?
Machines are of no help in this question. They do what we find to be drudgery. Yet, in ancient days there was wisdom to be gained in the old dictum of Buddhist life—chop wood, carry water, clean your rice bowl. Our modern life seems to have made that old dictum vanish into the pages of ancient history. We use machines to chop our wood, to pipe water into our homes, and to wash our rice bowls. Or we go to restaurants where we order from a mechanically smiling waitperson, who, having taken a course in operant-conditioning, responds with a heartless, "Hi, I'm Brian, and I will be serving you this evening. Our specials are ..."
We need only look around us to become disheartened. People become machines to survive at their jobs. We are ever building labor-saving devices to make life easier for us as we sit in the lap of stupor having nothing better to do with our time than watch Roseanne on the boob rube.
The modern world appears to be run by every different kind of machine imaginable. These machines are becoming more and more complex as modern computers grow tinier and tinier. We even see these devices, products of ingenious human thinking, gradually replacing the humans who designed them!
With this growing mechanical disillusionment, something else gnaws at us. Are we all soon to be replaced by machines? Artificially intelligent though they be, they're mechanical soulless entities, aren't they? Metaphorically speaking in the hidden-meaning names of rock musical groups from the sixties, our machines and our life styles seem to be leading us to a twenty-first century bleak landscape of modern heavy metal, concrete covered pathways leading to The Grateful Dead, and lifeless non-floating Led Zeppelins. Today we are facing the notion that we are again a lost generation: a world without soul.
Are we indeed in danger of losing our souls only to be replaced by modern artificial intelligent conveniences? Some scientists believe our souls are nothing but artificial intelligence devices—sophisticated wetware computer programs—nothing more and nothing less. Other scientists believe we will find our souls in the minuscule interactions of atoms and molecules that ultimately fuel the activity of human biological functioning. And to other scientists, possibly like myself, the soul remains a very big mystery not to be confined to the folds of flesh we call our human bodies. Yet, at the same time, is it necessary that it should be found there? Is there someplace else should we look?
Indeed how should I, as a scientist, look for scientific proof of the soul? My physics knowledge is both a gift and a curse insofar as it is needed to define the spiritual universe and its agent, the soul. The gift is that I see, objectively, how much of the physical universe works. That perspective gives me a certain peace of mind that the universe is not an accident and that human life is meaningful and purposeful. The curse is that when it comes to seeing essential matters of the heart, subjectively, I often see nothing. My scientific mind habitually takes over and I become skeptical and unfeeling. But my path in this life is through my mind as well as through my intuition. So I have to work to gain subjective spiritual insight that is heartfelt as much as most nonscientists may have to work to gain objective scientific knowledge.
Some Scientific Soul-Searching
As a result of this scientific perspective, I have a difficult time blindly accepting what many call "spiritual truth." The sorry state of the impoverished world—often victimized by seemingly false if not evil spiritual beliefs—troubles me. I shudder when I think of the millions of men and women killed throughout the last one thousand years of history because they simply failed to follow the current religious (usually politically based) beliefs of the people surrounding them. I feel somewhat envious of nonscientists who appear to have great spiritual wisdom and a special frustration with my scientific peers who seemingly fail to appreciate the mysteries contained in physics.
Scientists frequently use words such as soul and God in their book titles (often in big bold letters) to attract readers, but these words are rarely defined, scientifically or otherwise, and the important human issues dealing with these concepts are equally rarely discussed. In fact, one of the major themes of this book is the failure of scientists to ask the right questions—those that lead directly to answers concerning our vital and precarious human condition.
Instead, scientists lead readers down the well-trodden paths of objective inquiry—what I call the wrong questions. Even though these wrong questions are answered correctly, soon enough the reader gets lost in descriptions of neurophysiology and the like.
I can't stress enough the importance of the questions themselves. Accepting answers to the wrong questions can lead to spiritual isolation, a feeling of depression, and to a sense of pointlessness to life and to the existence of the universe. I call this feeling soul-loss. I see it as the general malaise of Western civilization—the loss of a sacred sense of life.
But finding the right questions is not easy. The sacred soul does not possess objective qualities in the same sense as a baseball possesses mass or energy. Thus what can science ask about it? I hope to convince you that the soul is just as real as these baseball qualities. In fact, I shall present rational, science-based reasons for its existence in spite of its apparent nonmateriality (and lack of objective qualities) and offer reasons for remembering your soul in everything you do. To prove the soul's existence requires us to find out what the soul is—to come to some agreement on its definition.
Science is not normally interested in nonmaterial, seemingly mysterious, things. At least most scientists do not seem to be concerned with them. I understand why scientists fail to involve themselves with these mysteries. Such things are exceedingly difficult to deal with, and sometimes result in the investigator's giving up previously held shibboleths, particularly those questioning the foundations of science. History has taught us that we painfully clutch our ideas of right and wrong, life and death, good and evil, in order to maintain order in our lives. Yet the result of our clutching often leads to emotionally polarized minds and unfeeling hearts.
Hardly a day goes by when questions concerning the soul's existence do not enter the political, moral, and spiritual arenas. Often, science gets into the spiritual fray. The well-known Scopes trial about the teaching of creation versus evolution in schools comes to mind. The effects of that debate are still felt in our classrooms. No longer can sacred or spiritual matters even be discussed for fear of upsetting parents' closed minds.
Today we again watch as science enters a difficult arena dealing with the creation of life and the maintenance of life-support. Because these are difficult times, people may, with hope in their hearts, turn to science to solve these problems. But, science usually takes the "heart" out of the soul by discussing it so abstractly and so materialistically that we lose the focus of our concern and find ourselves mulling over the wrong questions—the objective inquiries—and even though we may find answers to these questions, they are not the questions we really wanted to ask.
The soul is not an easy subject to deal with either scientifically or spiritually. If I were scientifically ignorant and spiritually wise, this book would be an easier task. But I'm not and it's not. So why do I try? Because a new and original scientific look at the soul is important today. Indeed, the idea of the soul is perhaps the single most significant concept of our time: one that needs a current, scientifically relevant and heart-centered spiritual view.
We need only to turn to today's headlines to see why. For example, abortion is a major concern for our society. During the writing of this book, Planned Parenthood clinics were bombed and shot at by right-to-lifers, while Catholic churches were picketed by pro-choicers. The debate about abortion, the rights of the fetus, and the rights of the mother is not easy to resolve. The issue concerns whether a fetus is a human being and therefore has a soul. The link of the soul with the fetus has not been made by either side. It is as if each side tends to avoid the question of soul presence. Both sides deal with the issue as blind individuals feeling an elephant and drawing different conclusions based on feeling different parts.
If the soul exists, then when does it begin to exist? When does a fetus become a soul? At conception? At three months? At six months? At birth? And, if the soul does not exist, what does come into existence at conception or during these other stages of gestation?
At the other end of the spectrum, issues about the right to prolong life with medical life support continue. When should a person be taken off life-support? After three days, six days, several months? And what about capital punishment? If we knew what happens to a person at death, would we still condemn prisoners to the death penalty? Suppose that killing a condemned man is shown to produce negative karma and ultimately be the cause of more violence in the future? Suppose we could prove universally that violence begets violence as the Bible says?
Consider children born with lifetime disabilities, some of them without any sign of consciousness. Would we, as a society, feel freer to allow these children to die moments after birth, if we had a perspicacious view of the soul?
Without a new, enlightened scientific view the soul may disappear into the lost pages of propaganda and history, leaving us to wrestle with such issues in the dark. Even worse, suppose we have souls and, because they are often represented as medieval entities, simply do not regard them as real or important. Without a new view we may be in danger of losing our souls, if we haven't already. Worse still, if we continue to ask the wrong questions, putting the soul outside the scientific realm or taking it apart mechanically and without feeling, in spite of finding answers, we may be left hopelessly morally adrift.
The Mystery of the Soul: Can We Find a Scientific Solution?
Some of you might ask, why bother looking for a scientific solution to the mystery of the soul? Isn't science to blame for this soul-searching? Isn't our present soulless malaise—the loss of a sacred sense of life—being caused by science? Isn't science responsible for our present soulless condition? Why, then, should we ask it for answers?
I agree that science, at first glance, may appear to be the worst place to go for answers about the soul. But we shouldn't be too hasty in rejecting it. In our journey to find a more informed basis for the soul, we may find some heartening surprises, provided we look at our findings in a new sciencific and spiritual manner.
You see, science itself is undergoing a major shift in its understanding of matter and mind and is now attempting to deal with what were previously thought to be arcane subjects. As I mentioned, many books are appearing on the search for a scientific basis for God and the human soul. As we explore the science of soul-searching—that is, searching for the soul—we will see that several have taken this path before us with a scientific bent in mind. The list includes Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Isaac Newton—but this is not a surprise, no? —and even the ancient Egyptians. Today, you will quickly see by perusing the latest books about the overlap of science, God, and the soul, that most if not all of them attempt either to explain away the soul as a material process, missing its essential points (that it is sacred and immortal) and its essential purpose (that it is necessary for consciousness to exist) or never discuss it at all in spite of the promising book titles.
Excerpted from The Spiritual Universe by Fred Alan Wolf. Copyright © 1999 Fred Alan Wolf. Excerpted by permission of Moment Point Press.
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