Discussion paper for family and friends. This is a draft version and I never expect a final version.
My personal journey: Exploring science and religion
In this essay I would like to explore the role that religion and science has played in our insatiable quest of the meaning of life with questions such as “Why are we here?”, “What is life all about?” and “What is the purpose of existence?” The Ancient Greeks investigated these questions already some 2500 years ago. As we have not been able for all that period to answer any of the ‘why’ and ‘what’ questions, it will be more appropriate to change that into ‘how’ questions.
The key reason why I am writing this is because of the need for critical thinking that is now more than ever needed in a world were ideologies are throwing up their own new dogmas and where people are creating all sorts of new belief systems for purposes that are to say the least, questionable if not outright dangerous for the future of humanity. The trouble is that if we look at our evolution this is how we have always progressed. We are still very tribal in nature and split along different morality foundations (liberal/progressive and political conservative). What can we learn from earlier belief systems and current religions? Can we separate the supernatural from the social, in other words what can we replace religion with? Are there ways that we can overcome our tribalism and could our brainpower assist us here? Much more critical thinking will be needed, that is for sure.
We have reached cross roads, for humanity to move forward we will all have to work together and silo structures such as belief systems and religions are making it difficult to collaborate let alone to unify us in order to face the many challenges ahead of us such as climate change, conflict resolution, the fight against poverty, massive migrations, development of new technologies and so on.
History is not very kind to us in this respect our evolution is based on outcompeting others, our natural state has been more than often based on war rather than peace. Is this bred into our evolution, can’t we change this?
Natural selection favours social development. Without a good understanding of their natural world our forebears used the supernatural to explain their environment. I will investigate why they used the supernatural for this. From here we move into more formalised belief systems and building on them the current organised religions, which largely started to become more institutionalised during the Middle Ages. They have been an essential part of the foundation blocks of social cohesion that formed our nations and empires.
These reasons for our behaviours can be explored in science. The development of consciousness allowed us to support social behaviour, this is possible thanks to the processing power of our brain. We will follow the nurturing process as the brain develops during our childhood and adolescence. But from here on it is mainly us (our thoughts and actions) that creates the neuron communication paths in our brain that creates our unique ‘me’ but this is highly influenced and limited by the social environment we are in.
While religion and belief systems have been and still critical elements in creating the moral communal capital needed to evolve as a species, at the same time they are limiting the opportunities to works more closely together as the issues confronting humanity are now well beyond our tribal and religious boundaries.
I hope to take you with me on a journey to explore my thoughts on these developments. Obviously there have been and are many people that have done this, but this is my personal journey. I also accept that not everybody will agree with some of my conclusions, which opens the possibility of debate.
The Big Bang and Gravitational Singularity
I will start my journey at the very beginning.
Carl Sagan famously once said “We’re made of star stuff” . But we can go back to the Ancient Greeks, Democritus conceptually came to the same conclusion and Aristotle followed on from here in his work: The Physics.
If we bring us humans, the earth and the universe back to what we know as ‘the beginning’, this in its basic form evolved from the Big Bang. It is at that point that the current laws of physics break down and further theories become pure speculation. We don’t know if there was something before, but a widely accepted scientific theory is that the Big Bang evolved as a gradual expansion of space from a Gravitational Singularity in other words, according at least to this quantum theory, time and space as some scientists assume it works didn’t exist at that point in time. I agree that it is unsatisfactory to theorise that something came out of nothing, So it doesn’t come as a surprise that many quantum scientist are working hard on finding possible answers. However, as I will argue I don’t believe that there is anything supernatural that happened at that time or before.
There is no scientific proof that god does not exists, but for me the likelihood of this is too low to take this into serious consideration. Furthermore, I don’t believe we need the divine to find the meaning of life, since we now start to understand more and more about our brain and its consciousness and unconsciousness processes. A world created by god(s) would be measurable different from our world. Our world doesn’t look like a world with gods.
I would like to use the assumption that all elements in our universe can be traced back to the Big Bang and therefore all elements of us humans including our mind as its gets formed by our brain activities; not from a creational perspective but based on biological evolutionary processes, however in such a way that it also favours choice made based on creativity and innovation. While this is still highly debatable within scientific circles further research into this is taking place.
If we now philosophise further and take the Big Bang as a starting point, from that perspective, everything that there is in our universe evolved from here. As far as we know all of that together is a contained system known as the universe, or for that matter any other theoretical or real super-universe, whatever that may look like.
As we are gradually finding out more and more, the universe is not something random, it follows certain physical laws, even if there might be different forces at work at a quantum level and in different parts of the universe e.g. ‘granularity’ , the more scientists start to understand this the more integrated the universe is proving to be. I find the word “wholeness” an appropriate description for this. From that Singularity the universe started to evolve and to refocus it down to us humans, we also evolved from there. A key success of our own evolution is the evolution of our brain which amongst other things provides us with consciousness. Could this be the key to the survival and flourishing of the human species?
The consciousness and unconscious mind.
As we will see in more detail later, when humans arrived and again much later we (homo sapiens sapiens) arrived we developed extra ordinary brain power and thus the conscious mind arrived.
Freud was the first who systematically started to research our unconscious mind and he became the father of psychoanalyses, a science that for the first time started to shed some light on the unconscious. According to him, consciousness is the aspect of our mental processing that we can think and talk about in a rational way. The unconscious mind is a reservoir of feelings, thoughts, urges, and memories that outside of our conscious awareness.
The unconscious mind is basically the automatic operation of our body. The conscious part is only the tip of the iceberg and most of our thoughts and actions are coming from the automatic pilot.
Consciousness however kicks in when unusual things happen in the operation of the ’automatic’ operation of the brain or when conflicting brain reactions occur and when it needs to make a ‘management’ decision. In the other direction conscious activities that have become repetitive can be done without conscious thinking can be hardwired back in the unconscious part of the brain (think of music virtuosos). Perhaps all our decisions are made by our unconscious mind and our consciousness kicks only in after that.
I would like to argue that we can use our brain to overcome materialistic determination and that our brain allows us to make choices that can influence the way humanity continues to develop.
When and why did the supernatural arrived?
Since time immemorial gods (pagan and otherwise) have been an integral part of human beliefs and are widespread throughout all cultures.
So how did that all start?
Natural evolutionary selection started to favour social behaviour and therefore the human brain started to become more conscious and people were able to start reasoning the world around them.
There is archaeological evidence that some 2 million years ago the human species started to become more conscious and self-aware.
As social behaviour favoured collaboration and cooperation a sense of morality started to emerge, some innate and some developed culturally. Belief systems (religions) proved to be an excellent social tool for this.
Perhaps therefore our forebears started to make sense of the world around them through what we perhaps could call proto-belief systems, maybe starting with ancestor veneration, making that social connection. Humans are the only ones that understand death and the fear for this and other disastrous developments in life made them aware of the temporal nature of it. The ancient Egyptians were totally obsessed by death. Death would have been mysterious, fearful and distressing, the death of ancestors might have been a trigger to look for explanations in the supernatural. Death plays a key role in all religions as it is the gateway to the supernatural world.
From here their intuition might have played a role to construct a non-temporal (supernatural) view. Stories were developed to explain the unexplainable, which was then given a supernatural projection. Stories were also important to provide them with a legitimation of their place and time in their world as well as the key communication tool to transfer knowledge from one generation to the other and on the way these narratives were embellished.
Without any scientific understanding of this, the conscious mind allowed them to conceptualise supernatural belief systems. This assisted humans to work closely together which again was favoured by natural selection.
These belief systems were further embellished by brain experiences such as: imagination, sensations, hallucinations and dreams (some of these experiences were conscious, some unconscious).
The key reason why these belief system developed was socially determined as it assisted in providing:
- A sense of community to keeps people together;
- A set of ethics that – they were let to belief by their seers and shamans – were mandated by supernatural forces; and
- The use of rituals around the supernatural to strengthen their belief system as well as the cohesion of their community.
As these belief systems became key tools in the social evolution of humans they were now further incorporated in the cultural and environmental structures of the tribal societies.
For example to address the ‘the lack of understanding’ solutions based on animism were invented to provide answers to help interpret, predict and control environmental phenomena, unexpected developments in human and animal lives, luck or bad luck, illnesses, deaths and so on – all the natural elements were spiritually impregnated; rocks, mountains, animals, trees, fire, water, the stars and so on. The Australian Dreamtime stories – as so many other stories from hunter-gatherers’ civilisations provide plenty of evidence of this early belief system.
They also provided a sense of belonging and territory, the social structure of the tribe ensures an ‘all for one and one for all’ sense of community. The more cohesion the stronger the tribe and supported the survival of the fittest. The fact that these early belief systems are universal further indicates that this was a critical tool in human social evolution.
Not all that much changed over that period of roughly 2 million years. A major new – and still unexplained – event in the development of our conscious mind happened around 100,000 years ago (this date is getting pushed back further), humans (Cro-Magnons) from most likely a relative small base started to use improved language, create art, music, symbols, jewellery and rapidly stated to spread around the world sometimes interbreeding with cousin species such as the Neanderthals and Denisovans, clearly whatever happened this was a further step in the evolution of humankind and consequently also belief systems became more complex.
I will further develop my thinking on the relation between these social evolutionary processes and the belief systems that we humans culturally expanded during that process.
Selfish and Selfless genes
While the description of selfish and selfless genes is not scientific (there are no such individual genes), it does provide for a way to describe the following level of evolution. Basically, social treats became instinctive through the evolutionary process of the ‘training of the brain’, resulting in neurological connections to facilitate this.
As social behaviour became key in our evolution, we needed tools that would suppress the selfishness in order to be able to obtain the communal benefits.
Animals depend (mainly) on their selfish instincts to survive but our human forebears increasingly relied on life in more complex social environments as well as in managing changing environmental situations, this required social adaptation. Natural selection favoured this so this proved to be evolutionary successful for these human species.
While the ‘selfish genes’ didn’t go away, as these remained important for our survival, the development of additional ‘selfless genes’ – be it for selfish reasons! – became the ones that resulted in the enormous success of conscious humans. As highly adaptive humans we became the most successful specie on earth.
The development of human mind had to go much further than just survival. In order to facilitate this process more nurturing was required. As heads needed to facilitate brains that increased in size, babies needed to be born before they were fully developed in order to be able to pass through the birth canal. Not fully developed humans needed to be nurtured further outside the body of the mother for longer periods. During this period the neuron connections made in the brain depend on the quality of the nurturing that takes place. Nurturing became largely the role of the females and she made a conscious selection to mate with non-aggressive cooperative males and so our evolution continued. I prefer the word nurturing here, nowadays that also includes education, however there are questions about education systems and therefore I will stick with the word nurturing.
To see how this evolutionary process of the development of the mind might have occurred it is interesting to observe how this happens in the development of the brain in babies, toddlers and young children. Such processes that psychiatrists have observed provide a great insight in how this process of the evolution of the mind evolves. It is essential that during this period of their lives the children are well taken care of and are not confronted with just the need for survival. In all this nurturing (education) process last till adulthood, which again has proven to be an evolutionary advantage.
There is plenty of evidence that children that have been well nurtured and loved over a long period of time until they mature have a much better chance to fully develop themselves holistically (body and mind), it gives them an advantage in life and thus evolution will further favour such a development.
An interesting and relevant quote from Aristotle that has been used throughout history is: “Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man.”
Having said this, biological genes are another important factor that decides the person that you are and will be and this adds another complexity to an already complex system. From our evolutionary process genes are imprinted with signals that for example directly interact with our unconscious and we have no control over that what so ever, simply think of the difference between men and women and the effect that this has on thoughts and actions coming from their respective brains.
Morality and good and evil
Morals and ethics played an important part in our evolutionary process as they assist in the survival of the tribe. Some of them are innate but most are culturally defined and mandated within the various communities.
Morality provided the tribe with a social code which was very important for the social cohesion of the group.
This was a major evolutionary result that led to extensive cooperative behaviour; one for all and all for one. Humans were not the only ones that developed social behaviour such as ants, bees, termites in the insect world, but we took it many steps further.
Jonathan Haidt argues that this created the moral communal capital that became so important for the success of the tribe and he mentions five morality foundations:
- Harm and care
- Fairness and reciprocity
- Ingroup loyalty
- Authority and respect
- Purity and sanctity
As mentioned religion can be seen as an evolutionary adaptation as it assists in creating moral communities, these morals became important tools in the evolutionary process of natural selection. Morality regulates selfishness, some of that became innate, but more importantly most of it was, and got extended and controlled, by cultural (and religious) developments.
Social behaviour based on the morality foundations also allowed humans to form armies in their ongoing quest of the survival of the fittest. We all are the product of that natural selection process, which in the process of wars and conflicts killed between an estimated 500 million and 1 billion people (out of the estimated 100 billion of humans that went before us). From a evolutionary point of view that is a relative small price to pay.
Working together around those moral foundations provided the tribe with trust and an identity, this created the successful conditions for humanity to work together and to grow from tribes to communities, cities, nations and empires. Religion became key in harnessing people behind those morality foundations.
It is important to note here that we need to separate the supernatural from the social elements of religion. Religion has been wrong in making factual claims in relation to gods, the supernatural and the divine, science have proven them wrong in every single aspect. But at the same time religion became a powerful social tools in creating the human success story.
Good and evil were dominant value elements in the judgement of morality and were used in ‘them and us’ competition issues. The rules around these morals were continuously finetuned to cater for an ever-increasing complex environment around us .
Good and evil – based on the morality rules that people developed – became an important guidance for people’s life and nurturing and later also education played an important role in strengthening and confirming moral codes. ‘Good and evil’ were also used by the shamans and priests to keep control over their people as explanations were needed for why bad things happened and evil spirits and devils were invented and added to their belief system to assist in explaining this.
While the morality rules worked fine within the context of history, two things have happened since. Science started to undermine the facts that religions has made them to believe and at the same time global events are now more than ever making it critical to work together across the religious divide.
What is complicating this is that in a more secular world, the individual has become the centre of morality, while traditionally the group was the centre and, in many cultures, this is still the case. As a result, what we are seeing in the more liberal secular world is that the first two morality foundations still stand, as a matter they are now the only universal ones (Harm and care, Fairness and reciprocity).
However, in politically more conservative societies all five foundations are adhered too. If we think about this, it is also clear why we have many of the problems of today. Societies that adhere to all five foundations despise those where the individual is now centre stage. On the other side the secular societies are calling ‘the others’ backwards and don’t want to see their individual rights being undermined, by the last three morals (Ingroup loyalty, Authority and respect, Purity and sanctity).
Francis Fukuyama argues that liberal democracies were the culmination of a process of natural selection that had winnowed out all other kinds of social organisation. I do question that, it certainly is not the case at the moment. Furthermore we are currently facing the downsides of liberal democracies.
It is this clash of morality that we need to address if we want diverse societies to work together, this won’t be an easy task and there are no indications that this will happen any time soon, yet our survival depends on it. Science, being more liberal in nature, will have to consider the viewpoints of more political conservative groups within their own societies as well as those at a global level. Without making a value statement what would be the best society, the reality is that we do have both groups and will have to work out together what will be next, otherwise the evolutionary processes of natural selection will do that for us. As natural selection has proved, morality has been and will continue to be a key driver in our social development and these moral issues can’t be simply pushed aside. So far evolutionary societies have used all five morality foundations to move forwards.
What first needs to happen is to separate the supernatural from religion, this will stop the manipulation of facts which are better addressed by science. While I argue that we will be able to achieve this over time, the question is how much time we have to do so. Do we need a catastrophic event that will bring people together, or will it simply be a survival of the fittest? While wars might have been part of our evolutionary process, we could now easily wipe out most of humanity in one single global war.
The development of the early belief systems
In order to move forwards we need to much more seriously investigate the social elements of religion as a natural phenomenon and science should and could be able to assist us in investigating this further. I will now first look in more detail at the developments of belief systems and religions.
As natural selection favoured social behaviour, both innate and culturally developed morals played a critical role in that process and belief systems started to be developed around this. In order to embed this in the tribal society and pass these moral codes on to the next generation stories were created and many of these stories are still with us today, indicating their strength.
Other important elements that our brain caters for played a role here: feelings, emotions, imagination, sensations, hallucinations and dreams. Optical and cognitive illusions also played a part in some of the magic performances. Current research has indicated that these illusions also play a part in our decision-making process.
Scientist have also linked (non-drug induced) hallucinations to temporal lobe epilepsy that results in religious visions. A new study called neuro-theology is researching the use of electronic stimulation of the temporal lobe of the brain which shows that nearly all research subject (80%) could be stimulated in this way to get religious visions, see ghosts and experience other supernatural experiences. There are differences as some people have more, or less temporal lobe sensitivity. Certain outside electromagnetic fields could create similar effects on the temporal lobe to those people who are sensitive to it. Deep meditations (across religions) show similar effects on the brain. It is also important to state that this doesn’t tell anything about the value of religion as it appears to the individual person. The fact that at least some religious experiences can be linked to the brain also indicates that the belief in god and religion will stay with us for a very long time.
There is still a lot to learn from the conscious, unconscious and subconscious processes in our brain expressed in for example: mediation, emotions, rituals, cultural norms and practices and prosocial behaviour. These are still underrepresented in scientific research and it would certainly be useful to have a more empirical look at emotional thoughts and actions. This might also helpful in getting a better understanding of the moral issues mentioned above.
Some people are more in tune with the unconscious elements than others. Mix these various unconscious elements together and those people in tune with them can use dreams, meditation, sensations and their own imagination to construct and/or embellish a conscious belief system, especially as such a person is seen as an authority in the tribe. From here shamans, seers, koradji, clever men/women became the external interpreters between the supernatural that had been created through belief systems and the real world. They often used conscious-altering substances in these processes and some people with certain (mental) illnesses were also seen as being able to connect to the supernatural world.
The manipulation of memory – as a part of the unconscious part of the brain – is another interesting element that is used, even in the way of influencing the collective memory of the tribe. Obviously, the brain doesn’t store all our memories, it is selective. Furthermore, our recollections depend on our age, the circumstances, the intensity of the event, emotions, conversations with others and so on. Interestingly memory can also be influenced by us. Many people will be aware of some of their memories that are not true or have found out something along these lines. Obviously, shamans, priests and others can use this to their advantage.
I would also argue that already from the earliest times onwards at least some people would have questioned and even challenged those supernatural interpretations based on their own brainpower and their conscious mind to rationalise their own thinking. We already saw this with the Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers. There are also plenty of stories of punishments, both by shamans and by the gods and later by religious institutions of those people (heretics) who wanted to follow their own internal interpretations of the world around them or who stood up for them.
When we moved from hunter-gathers’ societies to sedentary agriculture ones, societies became more intricate and people started to create more complex civilisations around them (cities). Many of the elements of their belief systems slowly started to change and they became now linked to natural (agriculture) systems such as life and death and became more institutionalised with a separate class of priests and kings being in charge, like shamans they were also able to communicate with this supernatural world but now these priests and god-kings obtained a monopoly to provide guidance to the populous and could reward and punish them accordingly. In the process these priests and kings often became very rich and it is sound to ask the question what their objective was of the use of religion was?
The belief systems now took a new step by humanising the spiritual force and it took on spectacular forms with the Mesopotamians, Greeks and Romans, with frolicking Gods and direct (sexual) interactions with humans.
And we see that religion as a social tool was enormously successful in creating these civilisations, often through massive war efforts, where large number of people were willing to cooperate based on the last three morals (Ingroup loyalty, Authority and respect, Purity and sanctity).
Moving towards the current world religions.
Greek philosophers and others in Persia and Egypt questioned the external interpretations of the belief system that had become more and more complex and unworkable in a spiritual world with literally thousands of gods. There were attempts to bring them together in one God, the Pharaoh Akhenaten worshipped only the sun god Aten and the Persian prophet Zoroaster developed the first monotheistical religion Zoroastrianism, the Jews over time went from several gods to one, Yahweh.
Interestingly the Greek philosophers went closer to an abstract force that permeates the universe. Building on earlier giants, Plato’s in his ‘Theory of Forms’ and Aristotle’s in ‘Metaphysics’ are some of the greatest philosophical works that for the first time, addressed issues such as the ‘meaning of life’, a ‘non-physical essences of all things’; exploring different world views.
Full humanisation happened with the Christians who declared that a human being, Jesus, was a God, in order to not make him yet another God the complex structure of a Trinity was constructed by the early Church Fathers and Augustine declared that there was no proof for a Trinity and that as such it could only be believed based on faith.
Further standardisation led to the creation of what are now the dominant world religions.
Religion vs. science.
As we saw, religion played a key role in the development of civilisations; its social value was enormous. However, it got intertwined with explanations about the natural world as well and this is where science started to become involved in, especially in the period of the Enlightenment. Rapidly it became clear that the factual claims made by religions were plainly wrong. Our world doesn’t look like a world created by gods.
While we can argue that our conscious and unconscious experiences are innate elements of us human beings, the process of interpretation is culturally constructed and therefor overtime we have seen great divisions in these belief and religious systems, most of them claiming exclusivity and that theirs is the only ‘true’ one. This was often based on the ancient writing, teachings and often (untrue) facts of prophets and their followers.
People lived in tribal structures were concepts about slavery, violence, the role and place of women, morals and ethics were rather different, and those writings should therefore not be read literally. Significant cultural and environmental differences of the people that started the current religions also influenced these writings – yet these writings are taken literally by their religious institutions and most of their followers.
Religion became – and often still is – an easy tool for groups of people to manipulate people, the more sophisticated and powerful these systems became the easier it became to get people to do and not to do what these people/intuitions ordered.
Religion is still used by some religions and/or some of their followers to claim ‘just’ wars, as an excuse to murder those who wouldn’t convert, to dehumanise the ‘other’ and holding a monopoly over issues of ‘right and wrong’. We still see secular powers and individual religious charlatans liberally using religion for their own political power and wealth creation, appropriating lands and properties. As such religion became entangled in some of the major global conflicts’ humanity is facing. Many wars have been fought over this and whole societies have been whipped out based on exclusive religions and belief systems.
It is frightful to think that this could just be a survival of the fittest condition as part of our evolution and that we as such won’t have any say in this, something I would like to dispute.
The ‘belief stories’ that were created in the minds of (tribal) people or (religious) followers was also used to influence thoughts and actions of individual people. With the knowledge we now have we know that this can result in brain processes that cause these people to belief these stories. It was not until we were able to understand this in a more scientific way that these supernatural elements of the belief systems started to lose their credibility in explaining morals, ethics, beliefs and the world around us.
The powers behind the religious systems realised this was a threat to their faith-based systems and thus supressed critical thinking and the search for knowledge outside their religious teachings. For me some the saddest and most exemplary cases of the death of critical thinking was the execution of the last philosopher of the Ancient tradition, the Roman Senator and Christian Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius in 524 and the closure of the 1,000-year-old Athenian Academy by Emperor Justinian 529AD; for me they herald the true start of the Dark Ages.
These intellectual clamp downs stifled the evolution of knowledge in many of the religious societies, in the case of Christianity for over 1,000 years. Islam still largely suppresses a separation between religious and secular thinking.
Having said all this, at the same time religion played an enormous successful role as a social tool, further scientific investigation into those aspects is certainly warranted, especially if this can lead to a better understand between people.
As humans are conscious beings, they are continuously looking for reasons and therefore, progress has been made in explaining more and more of what non-material elements – connected to the mind, spirit, or intellect – are and therefore there is less and less need for spirits, gods and religions in those societies that have embraced scientifically based knowledge. Education has been all important here and critical thinking enables people to create neuron connections that allow them to further open their minds to a whole range of other explorations, innovations and solutions. By moving away from doctrines, the plasticity of the brain allows us to use its capacity to a far greater extent.
With this knowledge we can now far more consciously create our own unique consciousness . We do this through our own thoughts and actions. An interesting question here is if there could be a purposeful element embedded in our evolution and in our human situation could a purposeful mind have an evolutionary value? If we than link this to the survival of the fittest than that might give hope to a more positive next step of humanity, a more global cooperative society, I would argue that this would have evolutionary value. There is a revival of this in origin Aristotelian theory of teleology. There certain are areas that we should revisit based on what we are learning about evolutionary processes. As the physicist Vlatko Vedral mentioned, one might reconcile biology and quantum physics in order to explain the ‘purposefulness’ of living things.
Science will further have to guide us to better understand our conscious and unconscious mind and as a result we will also be able to learn more and more about the meaning of life. An interesting project in this respect is ‘Blue Brain’, a Swiss national brain initiative, aimed to create a digital reconstruction of the brain by reverse-engineering mammalian brain circuitry. Other interesting developments such as the Cochlear hearing implant, robotic arms and certain electronic brain implants (e.g. to prevent epileptic events) show that external tools can make new neuron connections in the brain, bypassing damaged parts of the brain.
Religious systems are often stopping people from critical thinking and are standing in the way, as each of the religions – and their numerous sub-systems – claim that their worldview is the only true one, there is little room for compromise, let alone for much needed global collaboration and even unification. Instead of creating a universal social connect we divide ourselves in ideological belief systems. There is however no doubt that for humanity to survive and flourish we do need to overcome those silos in one way or another.
Our brain and conscious mind should be able to assist us in looking at how to best creating a global consensus to address many of the global issues’ humanity is facing.
It is no wonder that hardly any of the several-hundred Nobel Prize winning scientists are religious people. Only 3.3% of the Members of the Royal Society in the UK and 7% the National Academy of Sciences in the USA, believe in a personal God. The more senior and learned the scientist, the less likely they are to believe in God. These are the people that do collaborate across cultures to address the complex issues in the world. At the same time this has also blinded scientist from understanding the important of the moral issues that are driving huminaty.
In order to see the above in action one only has to look at America. Approx. 6 in 10 Americans say that religion is very important in their lives, while 26% say religion is fairly important and 16% say that religion is not very important. These results from Gallup’s 2006 update on religion are not materially different from the pattern observed over the past several years. According to yearly averages going back more than a decade, between 57% and 61% of Americans have reported that religion is very important in their lives.
So here we have most likely the starkest difference between people that have adopted the liberal road forwards, based around individuality, while the rest of the country is far more conservative and many of them will value all five morality foundations.
People who believe in a God who works in mysterious ways are more inclined to believe in miracles, prayers and dogmas and are less likely to be critical thinkers. On the other side the liberal people will have to get a better understanding of the larger moral structure that their conservative counterparts live in.
A worrying development now is that while religious ideologies – at least in some parts of the world – are in decline, to a certain extend they get replaced of overlayed with (secular) ideologies. This has a similar effect on people who are not able or willing to critically think for themselves as religion had on their forebears. Critical thinking in the age of social media is essential if we want to see humanity to progress forwards.
Can our free choice push our human evolution forwards?
An interesting question here is one that many others have posed: what does the seemingly pure biological evolution of the brain means for ‘Free Will’, is that just another development pre-programmed in our space-time evolution, the debate on this is still raving, but the consensus is that Free Will as such does not exists.
Perhaps a better question here is if we will be able, with our very extensive and complex brain, which allows for unexpected egocentricity and novelty beyond mechanistic determinism, influence our human evolution?.
In my humble opinion this should be the case, the complexity of our brain with trillions of neuron connections is linked in with the brains of millions of other people, combined creating zillions of new connections every minute. I find it hard to believe that all of this is pre-programmed. Instead I belief that as part of the evolution of our brain this allows us individually to create neuron connections that let us to influence the way we think and act. Imagine the complexity of the zillions of connections if we look at societies making decisions going forwards.
This is a double edge sword as we know from history, we can use our brains to create supernatural belief systems, populists’ beliefs and even use it to make decision that led otherwise normal people to conduct genocide by dehumanising others (refugees, migrants, other races, other religions, homeless people and so on) or on the hand it allows us to make decisions to advance humanity based on critical thinking. Those who don’t believe in ‘Free Will’ will say that the evolutionary process of natural selection will sort this out. If that is indeed the case than humanity will be in for a very rough ride.
I would argue that it is the free choice of the conscious ‘me’ that can make decisions that lead to outcomes that we independently create for ourselves, as such we can influence our position in the world, both in relation to ourselves as well as in relation to others. As mentioned before, we are still only at the beginning of a proper scientific exploration of our mind.
It will be interesting to contemplate where this can lead us? I would argue that this brain development could be critical in our survival and while both Nietzsche himself as well as his use of the term Übermensch by others have been questioned, this remains an interesting thought. My interpretation is that Nietzsche hinted to a further evolution of humans, in the context of the search of the meaning of life. I would also argue that this evolution will be driven by developments of the mind. According to Nietzsche, who we become is up to us.
Thanks to science and education, IQ is growing with 3 point every ten years. Having said this, there is in my opinion very little possibility that we will ever grow into a utopia, humanity will always need the evolutionary competition with its good and bad dynamics to move forward. I also don’t believe that a world ruled by robots will ever happen – by considering the development and the complexity of our own ongoing ‘learned’ and ‘automated’ neuron connections.
Obviously, robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) are going to be key new technologies that are at our disposal, again for good and bad developments.
This again is linked to nurturing and the fact that this is such an important part of the development of the brain it is clear that the role of females in all aspects of our society will need to be increased to get a much better balance in addressing the issues ahead of us. Griffith argues that ‘the female gender created humanity’.
Will evolution favour its tradition success formula of the survival of the fittest (through for example wars) or will evolution favour a further development of the brain and allow us to move beyond mechanistic determinism which would favour critical thinking which could create truly global social behaviour.
What could replace religion as a social tool?
As mention we should split the supernatural element of religion from the social aspect of it. While scientifically you can’t proof that god doesn’t exist, for me the probability of it is so low that the question is if it is worthwhile to consider this. Furthermore, what sort of a god? The theologians of all the major religions claim they are the only ones who have a say in this and that each one of them has the monopoly on their interpretation of god, so depending on where you are born in the world you are either out or in, this does not make any sense.
An interesting observation of Chinese historian Yuen-Gen Liang – studying cultural interaction around the Mediterranean – is that it is hard to phantom that in a such a relatively small space there are three competing monotheistic religions, fighting each other for life and death. This is difficult to reconcile for somebody living in a part of the world where the religious system is polytheistic.
The divine has a very strong base in the much older pagan supernatural belief systems, where scientific understand did hardly exist and many of concepts and ideas that are still around can directly be traced back to them. People remain tribal and some find it easy to bring in the supernatural – or nowadays the divine – for things they don’t understand, many people therefor belief that they still do need the divine to find their own meaning of life.
So what could replace religion? Don’t expect an answer here but I will make a few observations.
On the positive side, there is a strong continuation of the tribal constructions, where the natural world is seen in a holistic way, in general people care for their environment, we can use this to the advantage of humanity.
It also important to look at these religions as a social tool. We should further investigate from a social science perspective what we can learn from it, how does this assists in keeping the tribe together, what is the importance of morality providing social rules and regulations, what enabled the tribe to survive as a group and how can we use this to move forwards?
The power of religion as a tool is still very visible in today’s religious groupings. In order to benefit from its group-support it is necessary to adhere to the (religious) rules, ceremonies and traditions. Adhering to this shows to everybody that you are a member of the group and gives people the feeling of belonging. Even if people are less religious many still like to hang-on to churches and congregations.
I also recognise that some people will say that a belief in the divine is making them feel good. But without wanting to be disrespectful romance stories and fairy tales are also making people feel good and yet we see them for what they are. Even the stories from other belief systems are seen for what they are, just stories. Yet regarding the stories of their own belief system they are seen as real and truthful. Obviously, this doesn’t apply to each individual member of a belief system, many people are critical thinkers also within the belief system they are a member of, but by ‘staying in’ they support the system that does have these doctrines in place.
Religions and belief systems in developing countries where the levels of nurturing and education are still very low – because of war, famine, poverty and so on . Religion remains very dominant and prescriptive throughput these societies, similar for example to the role that religion played in the European Middle Ages. Blaspheme often means death and other religious and secularity are not tolerated. Elements all strongly linked to the social element of the struggle for survival of the individual tribe.
Others will say that they get personal strength from faith and obviously if that works for some people that is a great experience, but equally others will get that form motivating stories, motivation people, role models and so, the latter will stimulate them to think deeper and more critically which again will have a positive effect on their brain activity.
Material science is certainly not the only way to explore the meaning of life.
Experience is another avenue for exploration, some are using this to find different solutions for the world around them, other pursue the search of the meaning of life through non-material elements and are interested in exploring their own unconscious to develop themselves and the people around them. There are also many lessons to be learned looking at the world around us through the often very differently thought processes developed by tribal societies who are still with us today. Philosophy is another avenue that can be used for this search as it has been for millennia. All resulting in critical thinking and activating new brain activities. These should be inputs in our scientific explorations of our conscious and unconscious brain processes, morality and religion as a social tool. It can be argued that science is lagging in exploring this further.
Apart from the supernatural, religions have had an enormous impact on our cultures, we are all part of such cultures, for me that is the Christian culture and I admire cathedrals, love Gregorian music, enjoy visiting old monasteries and so on. Similarly, I am very interested in the cultures that developed around other religions, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhism and Hinduism. But I very clearly separate the supernatural from the cultural aspects. Of course I also recognise the positive side effects of religion by bringing people together, looking after the sick, the poor, the elderly, the lonely ones, etc. , I admire the people that are standing up for morals and ethics, human rights, equality but this is a human trait not exclusive to religions and has nothing to do with supernatural.
Such positive human treats should bring us all together rather than that they divide us along religious (and ideological) structures.
Ever since the Big Bang we have been able see evolution in action, eventually creating humans with a large brain capacity. Evolution favoured social behaviour and religion became an important tool in this development.
I find it fascinating that from the very early stages of our consciousness we started to develop critical thinking to ask questions about the meaning of life with questions such as “Why are we here?”, “Why is the universe/world as it is” .
Perhaps as Bertrand Russell once said: “The true meaning of life is to come to terms with the fact that there isn’t one.” It just means, as Jean-Paul Sartre argued, that human life does not come with any pre-assigned meaning. But perhaps there might be an element of purpose in evolution?
So perhaps better questions should start with ‘how’, “How did we get here”, “How did the world and the universe develop”, “How did we develop religion as a social tool”, “How does our mind work” and “How are going to proceed from here”.
With little knowledge of the world around them, our forebears used their newly acquired brain powers to come up with the concept of the supernatural. For better or worse we must give it to them that this was a very powerful thought as it developed from here in belief systems, followed by organised religions, which are still with us today.
While already the Ancient Greeks started to use philosophy rather than religion to look for answers it wasn’t until the Enlightenment before science started to be used in a more empirical way to investigate some of these questions and came up with more rational answers and explanations and this process is still ongoing.
Science linked to our powerful mind can deliver a much better reasoning of the ‘hows’ which will be needed to guide us through live both in a material and non-material sense.
However, there are very important social lessons to be learned from religion especially in the case of the morality foundations. We haven’t yet figured how we can use the lessons learned from religion in creating an alternative social tool that we can use to unite all of humanity . The current political (moral) state of the world is a clear example of this problem.
If we go back to the singularity and ‘star stuff’, we are all a part of that wholeness: humans, animals, the earth, the universe as well as anything non-material such as our mind and intellect. This should be a unifying factor that would allow us to overcome our tribal differences. However, the answer to this can not be provided through material science alone, we have to solve the issues surrounding the morality foundations – basically the differences between liberal individualism and political conservatism. This is now more than ever critical for the next stage of human evolution, we are at the cross roads of our future. Will we continue our tribal wars or will we with the assistance of our critical thinking overcome the differences and work together as one big global community?
I argue that we indeed can influence the output of our mind beyond mechanical determination, this will be critical for the survival and further development of our human species. The question is how we can take everybody with us on this journey, maintaining and respecting each other social values and at the same time getting people to become critical thinkers, unfortunately our track record on all of this isn’t good.
Nevertheless I like to finish with the Nietzschean affirmation. The best example of this concept can be found in Nietzsche’s The Will to Power:
“If we affirm one single moment, we thus affirm not only ourselves but all existence. For nothing is self-sufficient, neither in us ourselves nor in things; and if our soul has trembled with happiness and sounded like a harp string just once, all eternity was needed to produce this one event—and in this single moment of affirmation all eternity was called good, redeemed, justified, and affirmed”.
Perhaps that is what life is all about, as simple as that.
With thanks to Tibor G Molnar, Honorary Associate, Department of Philosophy University of Sydney. He has given me invaluable advice along my journey.
 This relates to the significance of living or existence in general. It has produced much philosophical, scientific, theological, and metaphysical speculation throughout history. Different people and cultures believe different things for the answer to this question. It includes inquiries about existence, social ties, consciousness, and happiness. Many other issues are also involved, such as symbolic meaning, ontology, value, purpose, ethics, good and evil, free will, the existence of one or multiple gods, conceptions of God, the soul, and the afterlife. Scientific contributions focus primarily on describing related empirical facts about the universe, exploring the context and parameters concerning the “how” of life. (Wikipedia)
 Democritus (c. 460 – c. 370 BC) was an Ancient Greek pre-Socratic philosopher primarily remembered today for his formulation of an atomic theory of the universe. Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democritus
 The Physics is text in a collection of surviving manuscripts known as the Corpus Aristotelicum, attributed to Aristotle.
 This is a fundamental theory in physics which describes nature at the smallest scales of energy levels of atoms and subatomic particles.
 Astronomy without a telescope – Granularity https://www.universetoday.com/87354/astronomy-without-a-telescope-granularity/
 Freud – The Theory of the Unconscious.
 For example when walking, the unconscious manage this process, however, when suddenly a car creates danger the conscious mind immediately kick in, at the same time the instant (unconscious) reaction is to step back and avoid a collision.
 The Biological Explanation of the Human Condition (Part 8:7B )- Why, how and when did consciousness emerge in humans? – Jeremy Griffith
 Australian Aboriginal Religions – Ernest Ailred Worms
 The Masks of God: Creative Mythology – Joseph Campbell
 European early modern humans – Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_early_modern_humans
 Man’s Religions: John B. Noss, David S. Noss
 The Biological Explanation of the Human Condition (Part 8:10) Nurturing now becomes a priority. – Jeremy Griffith
 Why, how and when did consciousness emerge in humans? – Jeremy Griffith
Jonathan Haidt Beyond Belief – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P-DaSqVB1l4 and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bmdIOpIZJQc
 New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/06/books/chapters/what-every-person-should-know-about-war.html
 Morality is a culturally conditioned response – Jesse Prinz https://philosophynow.org/issues/82/Morality_is_a_Culturally_Conditioned_Response
 The End of History and the Last Man (1992) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_End_of_History_and_the_Last_Man
 On the Reality of Cognitive Illusions – ResearchGate https://www.researchgate.net/publication/14443725_On_the_Reality_of_Cognitive_Illusions
 BBC – God on the Brain – https://vimeo.com/180544930
 God a human. History of religion – Reza Aslan
 Theory of Forms – Plato https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_forms
 Metaphysics – Aristotle https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metaphysics_(Aristotle)
 Augustine’s New Trinity: The Anxious Circle of Metaphor by Eugene Webb
 What life wants – Aeon Magazine https://aeon.co/essays/across-the-wide-gulf-how-to-get-life-out-of-quantum-physics
 Vexen Crabtree – Religion and Intelligence http://www.humanreligions.info/intelligence.html
 Religion Most Important to Blacks, Women, and Older Americans – Gallup Poll 2006 https://news.gallup.com/poll/25585/religion-most-important-blacks-women-older-americans.aspx
 Flynn effect – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flynn_effect
 Why, how and when did consciousness emerge in humans? – Jeremy Griffith
 Yuen-Gen Liang: https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/summer-2014/aha-member-spotlight-yuen-gen-liang
 Bertrand Russell A Free Man’s Worship https://www3.nd.edu/~afreddos/courses/264/fmw.htm
 Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Will to Power (Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale translators)