The afterlife?

Found 13th Jun 2008
Here is what we know about this great question: It has been estimated that between 50,000 B.C. and today, about 106 billion people were born. The Earth's population is presently about six billion. Of the 100 billion people born before us, every one of them has died, with not one returning to assure us that life continues beyond deathat least not to the high evidentiary standards of science (and we don't count the TV psychics that claim to talk to the dead)leaving us with Dylan Thomas' sentiment, addressed to his dying father in 1951 and now annealed into Western literature:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Now, I don't know if there is an afterlife or not. Like the God question, on this one I adopt the position I once saw on a bumper sticker:

Whether or not there is an afterlife, however, we must live as if this is all there is. How meaningful become our lives, our families, our friends, our communitiesand how we treat otherswhen every day, every moment, every relationship, and every person counts; not as props in a temporary staging before an eternal tomorrow where ultimate purpose will be revealed to us, but as valued essences in the here-and-now where provisional purpose is created by us.

In science, a fact is something confirmed to such a degree that it would be reasonable to offer our provisional assent that it is true. Apples might start rising instead of falling[DROP APPLE] nope, not yetbut for now we can assume that gravity is a fact, a provisional truth. In life, purpose is provisional for the same reason that facts arethere is no Archimedean point from which we can authenticate final Truths (capital T) and ultimate Purposes (capital P). In its stead, we have to create our own systems of fact validation and purpose determination. The self-correcting machinery of science fuels the corroboration of provisional facts. But, what powers provisional purpose? Life itself.

Life began with the most basic purpose of all: survival and reproduction. For 3.5 billion years organisms have survived and reproduced in a lineal descent from the pre-Cambrian to us, an unbroken continuity that has endured countless terrestrial and extraterrestrial assaults and six mass extinctionsand perhaps even a seventh if we don't do something about global warming.

This fact alone ennobles us with a sense of cosmic destiny, but add to it the innumerable evolutionary steps from bacteria to big brains, and the countless points along the journey in which our lineage could have easily been erased, and we arrive at the conclusion that we are a glorious contingency in the history of life.

Think about thatfor three and a half billion years life could have evolved along just as it did, all the way from the primordial soup to Neanderthals and our immediate ancestors the Cro Magnons, with our lineage being snuffed out at the last moment and Neanderthals inheriting life?mantle as the most advanced bipedal primate. Now, some people speculate that this is precisely what did happen during the past eight years in Washington DC, but politics aside, it now appears that every one of those 106 billion humans who ever lived are the descendents of a tiny population that migrated out of Africa some time after 100,000 years ago, making us all African-hyphenated humans. Had those brave explorers not survived that extinction bottleneck, Homo sapiensWise Manwould not be here today, and all of thiscivilization and culturewould vanish into the mists of time.

Part of our legacy as big-brained primates is that we have an evolved sense of purposea psychological desire to accomplish a goalthat developed out of behaviors that were selected for because they were good for the individual or for the group. Although cultures may differ on what behaviors are defined as purposeful, the desire to behave in purposeful ways is an evolved trait. Purpose is in our nature.

Purpose is personal, and there are countless activities people engage in to satisfy this deep-seated need. There are, however, a handful of powerful means by which we can bootstrap ourselves toward higher goals that have proven to be especially beneficial to both individuals and society. Science tells us that there are five things you can do to create meaning and purpose in your life. Here they are:

1. Love and familythe bonding and attachment to others increases one's sphere of moral inclusion to care about others as much as, if not more than, oneself. And here I shall take a moment to acknowledge the courage of the California State Supreme Court to increase the possibility of marital happiness to the tens of thousands of gays and lesbians in our state who wish to enjoy the same rights and liberties as everybody else.

2. Meaningful work and careerthe sense of purpose derived from discovering one's passion for work drives people to achieve goals so far beyond the needs of themselves that they lift all of us to a higher plane, either directly through the benefits of the work, or indirectly through inspiration. And here let me shift my politics slightly rightward to tell you that not only is it okay to make a lot of money, it is a moral virtue to earn your way to wealth and prosperity, and that market capitalismconjoined with liberal democracyis the best hope for humanity's future that we have.

3. Recreation and playit is vital to take time off from work, get away from the office, hang out with your friends, see new places, veg out, goof off, and explore new activities with no purpose other than their shear enjoyment. (In other words, build into your purpose no purpose at all.)

4. Social and political involvementas a social primate species endowed by evolution with the moral emotions of guilt and pride, shame and joy, we have a social obligation to our local community and our larger society to participate in the process of determining how best we should live together, and a moral duty to reach out and help those in need. Research shows that those who do so are happier and more fulfilled people.

5. Transcendency and spiritualitya capacity unique to our species, as far as we can tell, that includes aesthetic appreciation, spiritual reflection, and transcendent contemplation through a variety of expressions such as art, music, dance, exercise, meditation, prayer, quiet contemplation, and religious revere, connecting us on the deepest level with that which is outside of ourselves.

How can we find spiritual meaning in a scientific worldview? Spirituality is a way of being in the world, a sense of one's place in the cosmos, a relationship to that which extends beyond ourselves. In this sense, science and spirituality are complementary, not conflicting; additive, not detractive. Anything that generates a sense of awe may be a source of spirituality. And, I think science does this in spades.

I am deeply moved, for example, when I observe through my eight-inch telescope in my backyard the fuzzy little patch of light that is the Andromeda galaxy. It is not just because it is lovely, but because I also understand that the photons of light landing on my retina left Andromeda 3 million years ago, when our ancestors were tiny-brained hominids roaming the plains of Africa.

I am doubly stirred because it was not until 1923 that the astronomer Edwin Hubble, using the 100-inch telescope on Mt. Wilson just above us here in the San Gabriel mountains, discovered that this "nebula" was actually an extragalactic stellar system of immense size and distance. Hubble subsequently discovered that the light from most galaxies is shifted toward the red end of the electromagnetic spectrum, meaning that the universe is expanding away from an explosive creation. It was the first empirical evidence indicating that the universe had a beginning.

What could be more awe-inspiringmore numinous, magical, spiritualthan this cosmic visage? For my money, Mt. Wilson Observatory is the Chartres Cathedral of our time, and I recommend that you make the 25-mile trek up Angeles Crest Highway (Highway 2, off the 210 freeway in La Canada, its a public venue so everyone can go) to see it and be moved that our species in our generation was able to widen our cosmic horizons by so muchfrom 1900 light years in Hubble's time to 13.7 billion light years in our timethe universe grew by seven orders of magnitude in our time alone. That's even more than the federal deficit!

So in conclusion, what science tells us is that we are but one among hundreds of millions of species that evolved over the course of three and a half billion years on one tiny planet among many orbiting an ordinary star, itself one of possibly billions of solar systems in an ordinary galaxy that contains hundreds of billions of stars, itself located in a cluster of galaxies not so different from millions of other galaxy clusters, whirling away from one another in an accelerating expanding cosmic bubble universe, that very possibly is only one among a near infinite number of bubble universes.

Herein lies the spiritual side of sciencesciencuality, if you will pardon an awkward neologism but one that echoes the sensuality of discovery. If religion and spirituality are suppose to generate awe and humility in the face of the creator, what could be more awesome and humbling than the deep space discovered by Hubble and the cosmologists, and the deep time discovered by Darwin and the evolutionists?

Through a natural process of evolution, and a creative course of culture, we have inherited the mantle of life's caretaker on earth, the only home we have ever known. The realization that we exist together for a narrow slice of time and a limited parsec of space, potentially elevates us all to a higher plane of humanity and humility, a passing proscenium in the drama of the cosmos.

Thank you.
Friday, May 23, 2008
Dr. Michael Shermer
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