Comments and Responses, Continued.

Updated 12/22/98

More Comments:

First in our second file of comments and responses, we begin with this lengthy one from Western Canada.

There is a need to clear up some misconceptions about evolution by natural selection. The lead article mentions "the necessary death of individuals, and even some species." In fact, all species die as surely as all individuals do. After a variable number of generations, on the order of hundreds to tens of thousands, the accumulated mutations in the common DNA of a species are sufficiently differentiated to prevent viable reproduction with descendant species. Thus if we could resurrect the common ancestral species of chimpanzees and humans, let's call it species A, it would be a separate species from either chimps or humans. In fact though, we can't resurrect it; species A is dead. Similiarly, the species representing common ancestry of gorillas and species A, let's call it species B, is dead, as is species C, the common ancestor of species B and orangutans, etc. You'll run out of letters far sooner than you'll run out of dead species, for in fact, the vast majority of species that have ever existed are now dead... A species is an arbitrary concept; a species only exists when frozen in a snapshot of time. Much more meaningful in evolution is the concept of the continuous genetic tree, extending from the first organism to ourselves, with billions of blind ends that represent evolutionary death, ie leaving no offspring, of everything from individual organisms to collectives as small as species and as large as phyla. Perhaps it was in this sense that the article referred to the 'death' of species.

The article also suggested there exist modern 'refinements' of evolutionary theory that take issue with the notions of 'survival of the fittest' and evolutionary 'advance'. Evolutionary theory has had many refinements since Darwin's time, but these are not among them. They are simply the result of toying with the emotive value of words like 'fitness', 'survival', and 'advance'. Survival of the fittest is simply axiomatic and self-defining in evolution by natural selection; those that survive are defined as the fittest. Yes, an impartial, god-like observer watching the end of the large dinosaurs and the triumph of small mammals, only to be followed by an extinction of many lines of small mammals, with a progressive trend to enlargement in other mammalian lines, could theoretically say that the large dinosaurs had in fact been the fitter after all. However, no such observer exists, and all it's possible to say is that, at the time, the small mammals (and those small dinosaurs we like to call birds) were fitter than the large dinosaurs, simply because they survived. In other words, if the term "fitness" offends egalitarian sensibilities, we evolutionists won't mind in the least if you simply get rid of it. In evolution, "survival' and "survival of the fittest" are the same thing. Survival is the only meaningful standard of fitness in evolution...

Similiarly, if you fear the words "evolutionary advance", perhaps because racists may expropriate them, perhaps because they're too anthropocentric, feel free to substitute the non-emotive "complexity." Whether we're more advanced or not, it is quite clear from the fossil record, from ontogeny and from existing variation that there is an uninterrupted genetic chain of increasing complexity from the first organisms to advanced mammals. The human brain (substitute the dolphin or the sperm whale brain if you find that too anthropocentric) is the most complex thing that has ever existed in this solar system. To a neurologist like me, its complexity is so great, it's at once truly humbling and also inspiring of pride, to be lucky enough to possess one in reasonable functional condition.

By referring to these sorts of misconceptions in the piece, I fear the writer may be one of those religionists who, while professing tolerance for the principles of evolution by natural selection, secretly wishes they would just go away. What to say? Sometimes the truth seems harsh. Also, why introduce vague ideas like mental "energy fields" to describe the configuration of the human brain at particular instants in time? I gather it is in the hope that these "fields" might then acquire some separate, immortal existence of their own. Yet it is clear from existing neurologic knowledge that brain states are no more fixed in time than are species; the matter/energy conformations that subserve consciousness are constantly in flux, and consciousness arises from that flux. Far from being immortal, these matter/energy states have incredibly short lifespans and mean nothing by themselves; it is only by their relationships in time and space that meaning arises. Is it so hard to accept that once the organism supporting them undergoes energy failure (death), they cease to occur, and, since they are so ephemeral, cease to exist? I can't prove to you dualists that there isn't something else surviving, but since materialism is a sufficient explanation for the observable behaviour of consciousness and the brain, it's up to you prove there is something [else].

Lastly, in the philosophical realm, the writer seems obsessed with the implications of the various theories about the end of the universe. He even suggests, in this and your first issue, that potential finalities such as heat death render our human existence meaningless and not worth living. Surely this is a gross extrapolation from one spectrum of existence to a completely different one. In the first place, we animals are gifted with a gritty instinct for survival that not even philosophy or cosmology can efface. Even the aging parents of Admetus would not give up their tired lives to save their son, so why should we give up ours for some remote physical event? More importantly, most of us are able to distinguish the pleasures and happiness of this realm on earth from the imagined aspects of religionists' realms and the far-off ones of astronomers. No human being will ever again be the world's greatest chess player, yet that knowledge doesn't ruin enjoyment of chess for more than an obsessed few of us. Whatever the end of the universe, one thing is certain, life on earth will have long since passed into the cold and dark by the time it happens. Why should that dampen our pleasure in life any more than Big Blue dampens our pleasure in chess? We all have qualities supercomputers and galaxy clusters haven't got.
John Hostetler

Editor's Response:

While the corrections concerning the more technical points regarding the evolutionary process are much appreciated, perhaps I should point out a few other points that the above corespondent seems to have missed.

One is that, as demonstrated in the issue #4 of this journal (see "Theodicy in an Evolutionary Context") I do more than just "tolerate" evolutionary principles. Rather I see them as absolutely fundamental for arriving at any satisfactory solution to the most vexing of all theological questions -- the problem of evil in the universe. Likewise, it is precisely because of what I take to be the fact of evolution that I look likewise to it for a solution to the dualistic dilemmas that have plagued human attempts to explain the full range of experienced reality in the past. Yet it is quite obvious that it is precisely because of this dual aspect of our own reality, however it be explained, that we humans can assume the position of "god-like observers" -- impartial or otherwise!

Next, I would like to reiterate that the lead article in this issue claims nothing like any natural permanence for human "energy fields": quite the contrary, it is precisely because of their perceived impermanence that I suggest that some other factor would have to be involved to secure any form of immortality -- which in turn explains (in psychological as well as perhaps philosophical terms) why most cosmologists, many philosophers, and even a few theologians -- at least those who don't think they already know the answer -- seem "obsessed" as to the fate of the universe. But we'd probably be wise to leave most of that to a future issue of this journal.

Meanwhile maybe some of the additional comments below may bring us further insights into some of these same questions. (RWK,ed.)

More Comments:

The need is real for an understanding of immortality that reconciles the two primary worldviews of ancient times (stemming from the Platonic and Zoroastrian traditions) with a current scientific understanding of our place within the cosmos. The time is fast approaching when science and religion will find themselves bedfellows whether they like it or not. Segregation will no longer be an option. One can see hints of the imminent rapprochement of science and religion today. [For example] Menas Kafatos and Robert Nadeau (The Conscious Universe, Springer-Verlag, 1990) argue, according to my understanding, that the twentieth-century legacy of complementarity, uncertainty, and nonlocality represent epistemic barriers to scientific knowledge beyond which lie the necessary and proper domain of religious knowledge . Frank Tipler's Omega Point theory states that life shall survive the final fate of the universe billions of years hence. It is falsifiable in a very weak sense (I personally think it would constitute 'ironic science' under Horgan's definition, Issue #1), but dressed up in Christian theology by which Tipler claims that "theology is nothing but physical cosmology based on the assumption that life as a whole is immortal" (The Physics of Immortality, Doubleday, 1994, pages 17 and 338). Tipler's work, and to a lesser degree Menas and Kafatos' work, stands condemned by both the scientific and theological establishments. By reaching out to both they are regarded as neither.

Tipler makes for some interesting reading but his condescension towards religion is sometimes harder to stomach than even the blatant disrespect shown by more hostile scientists such as Richard Dawkins. I confess to a feeling of vindictive joy when I claim that his own abhorrence of religion keeps Dawkins from elucidating one of the more profound consequences of his conceptual scheme of selfish DNA and memes.

Biologists tell us that evolution's overriding goal is (1) to fill as many ecological niches as possible with as much diversity of life as is possible and (2) to survive within a given niche and, most importantly, to survive long enough so as to get one's genes transmitted into the next generation. Dawkins takes this basic understanding of evolution a step further by arguing that our DNA is an ultimate parasite whose unending fight to survive and reproduce has ultimately resulted in the diversity of life found today. DNA has surived for many thousands of years by constructing replication machines that mediate between it and the environment and are forever evolving in their response to it.

But Homo sapiens is not [just] subject to evolution as it is seen in the animal kingdom. Humans are [also] subject to cultural evolution. Again, Dawkins does well in placing our intellectual heritage in an evolutionary framework of memes, in which ideas or any particulate custom/behavior parasitizes our brains and are transmitted throughout the generations by culture. Those ideas that best capture our imagination and zeal, or those modes of behavior which best maintain the integrity of a given unit of selection such as the family, tribe, or nation-state, those are the ones that will tend to survive the longest. It is here where I feel that Dawkins does not give religion its due, and thus misses a crucial link between biology, anthropology, and religion.

It does not seem to me too far a leap to say that the witness of history to date tells us that a belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth has been the most captivating idea in human history. This is not polemic it is using the historical record to infer a sweeping generalization. And ignore the politics, economics, and logistcs of what I imply because for a good seventeen hundred years all of that stemmed from a belief in the living Jesus. Remember that religion actually mattered for most people in Western culture until the Enlightenment.

Today we have science. Before the Enlightenment we had religion. Before organized religion we had a fascinating array of sybils, prophets, shamans, mystics, and a hundred other professions in which the self-actualization of our species was felt in the bones, not in some 'objective' body of scientific knowledge, nor in any creed. One system is not better than any other, they are simply incommensurable. For as long as our brain has had the ability to create an external frame of reference with which the individual can not only consider aspects of existence beyond herself but also turn that questing gaze inward, the human species has held a belief in life after death. We've had some sort of belief in life after death since Neanderthal man, thirty thousand years ago. For perhaps seventeen hundred of those years a certain segment of the human species has held a particular variant of that belief which they acted upon with great vigor. Can one not see cultural evolution at work here?

The sacred writings produced across cultural lines are witnesses to our desire for eternal life. It is the self-actualization of our species through cultural evolution, among other mechanisms. Take the culture of a downtrodden people who held on to their beliefs most stubbornly, mix it with the Greco-Roman world which at the time was the greatest potpourri of ideas on earth, and the result was early Christianity, the most profound dialectic in our history. Thus I am less concerned with Kropf's interesting speculation on how we might achieve immortality than with the wealth of insight that can be drawn from the realization that the law of complexity-consciousness operates specifically towards the defeat of death, and that the cultural evolution of the last ten thousand years (since agriculture) is a necessary part of such a relentless imperative.
Dan Killian

Next, we have some thoughts from Brazil, which although they began by reflecting on the experiential evidence of God (see DIALOGOS issue #5: "Can Science Prove There Is A God?", here continue on the subject of personal immortality.

Our relative singularity [as humans] is to be the "locus" of the reflexive conscience, an advanced form of evolution that can feel itself apart from the universe, transcending it. In this meeting point union of transcendence and immanence, the consciousness, the human phenomenon is made aware of the need to give existence a finality and a continuity to each individuality with a different personality. Outside the universe, the human phenomenon longs for the eternity that the universal cosmogenesis owns. All men wish to be eternal and to have a permanent evolution. That is the human drama: man sees his evolution without continuity, the absurdity of individual life confronted with the end of his existence and his own planetary system.

This existential absurdity rejects the end of evolution in the form of an eternity frozen in the heavens or dissipated in space. Evolution must go on, [this is] the rule of cosmogenesis. [So] Here we...need to find the phylum of the continuity of evolution of individual consciousness after the individual and planetary deaths. The phylum supposes the acceptance of the end of each personality after death, but may presume the hypothesis of preservation of each amimate individuality. The divine phenomenon is dual: personal and impersonal. In the same way, the immanent consciousness phenomenon is also dual: an animate individuality and a personality.

If the continuity of individual "souls" -- the product of animate evolution -- were impossible after death, the feeling of absurdity would ensue. We would have to question the divine phenomenon as a source of continuous creation of the human phenomenon with an evolutive direction. The [continued] evolution of the human phenomenon must be considered as an essential condition of any superior form of divine phenomenon [if it is to be] comprehended as the motor of permanent cosmic creation. Human consciousness in the cosmos would be an absurdity in itself without new evolution.

Undoubtedly the philosophy of nature based on its most recent experimental scientific progress is paralyzed today by impasses... Hereafter, the human phenomenon can only be penetrated, in its complete individuality, on a level ignored by natural sciences. Sooner or later natural science will be forced to study the "post mortem" evolution of individualities which would preserve memories of each personality in all stages of continual evolution. [If this be] so, as I believe it should be, cosmic evolution will not be frozen at the phylum of human consciousness. The freezing cannot be supposed without denying cosmic evolution.
Luiz Alberto Bahia
Rio de Janeiro

Many thanks for these thoughtful contributions. Killian's references to Tipler's book plus the general drift of Bahia's remarks prompts me to link two book reviews (by this editor) to this discussion:

The first, of Tipler's The Physics of Immortality , was witten before the appearance of this journal. The second is of a more recent book, The Divison of Consciousness: The Secret Afterlife of the Human Psyche , by Peter Novak.

And now for some trenchant remarks from Romania:

I have read with high interest the contributions to the Immortality theme. The impression is of a general effort by the authors to get a "scientific" design, something that doesn't move under our feet. (Remember what Pascal said "Certitude. Certitude". But as a Romanian philosopher, Constantin Noica, wrote about mathematics: "Exactitude isn't always truthfulness").

Someone observed the traps of the vocabulary, derived from a particular pattern of thinking when everybody is taking part in the debate. I would add here that it is not ambiguity that is the obstacle, but the striving to have "reality" captured in uncompromising words. Words that happen to be, in their self-confidence, so poor and, no offence, sometimes ridiculous.

It isn't a matter of "technicality". It's about a deep feeling about a direct, revealed knowledge, working together with, but superior to the constructed one ...

The knowledge tools put at work in this issue of your magazine are, most of them, in the tradition of Enlightenment. Only in the end of the editorial stance I have perceived an attitude more comprehensive of the paradoxes we have to live with.

And death is a paradox -- an end as a beginning...The death and resurrection of Jesus underlie the hierarchy of the universe, without transition between its levels -- something like the "gap of potential" in physics...

Our vitality is, with its present-condition oriented hope to an endless life, a conservative one (rooted in the security instinct) and obstructive to evolution. The point is to become aware, with humility, of our mortality. Aware of a cosmic hierarchy and a long evolution ... That's why I think we should overcome our "humanity".

Meditation over mortality will bring us to the ultimate source of our idea of immortality -- i.e. the mystery of universe. But for an "enlightened mind" there is no human limit in solving mysteries. "Scientific" and even "religious" thinking (two aspects of the same knowledge) are undermined by triumphalism.
Cristian Andrei

Editor's Response:
No doubt we in the west need to be taken to task for our attempt to pin everything down under the canons of "science". But at the same time I'm not sure that mystical appeals to "cosmic hierarchies" help all that much. No doubt that death is one of those mysteries to be lived more than a "problem" that can be solved (G. Marcel), but still, can we be blamed for trying to do both? But perhaps Andrei's remarks also point to another theme, the difference between faith and belief, a subject taken up in DIALOGOS, Issue #12.

I must also add an apology for cutting Andrei's remarks rather preemptively. In a later communication he asks we include his earlier statement attesting to his "bitterness" at the inadequacy of his words and reminds us that Pascal's "certitude" was derived from revelation, not logic. He also would reiterate that "cosmic hierarchy" is more than just a mystical concept -- it needs to be taken seriously as a scientific concept as well. In the same vein he speaks about an "dynamic invariability" to evolution which may throw light on the "open vs. closed" universe debate. (See DIALOGOS issue #9 ). To which I say it sounds like Andrei really needs a web-site of his own, which he does have indeed. See http://www.geocities. com/Athens/Troy/4797

Any comments on this comment from Nan Snyder, an artist who writes from Harpers Ferry W.Va?

The laws of physics tell us that we are all made up of the same "cosmic stuff". Death is logically a transformation of the particles into another form. All matter lives on in some manifestation: earth, air, fire or water. We have always been and always will be. Notice that all our communication waves broadcast into the atmosphere are always there. Nothing disappears - it only transforms. Consciousness is eternal.
Nan Snyder

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