Do you believe in reincarnation, and if so, does it matter? According to a 2018 Pew Research survey, 33% of Americans say they believe in reincarnation, yet it is beyond the range of ordinary polling to ask why this belief exists. In an age of faith, both East and West, a person’s daily life was deeply influenced by a religion’s teaching about the afterlife.
Questions of sin and redemption, karmic retribution, heavens and hells, and journeys through other bodies such as those of animals—these were pressing concerns for many centuries. Now in modern secular society, the question of surviving the extinction of the physical body has been channeled into belief versus science. We don’t ask if God finds us worthy to go to heaven so much as how credible a near-death experience might be according to the best research.
The scheme of belief versus science is something of a false divide, however. There has been credible research on reincarnation, which would surprise most people, including scientists. Pioneering studies were conducted by Ian Stevenson, chairman of the psychiatry department at the University of Virginia Medical School, who began investigating the phenomenon of young children who say they recall a past life. Hundreds of such cases were looked into with the aim of validating if the person they remembered being actually existed.
It’s hard to imagine a world without numbers. The square footage of your house, the rent or mortgage payment, the weight you see on your bathroom scale are all examples of lower mathematics, while the GPS that guides your travels, your smartphone, and sending a space probe to Saturn are examples of higher mathematics. Yet the Pyramids and the Parthenon needed only lower math, little more than a few basic equations and the ability to count.
It seems absurd to call numbers a problem; they are too useful in every aspect of life. But if you aspire to go beyond your present state of consciousness, if you want to be happier, to find love, or to know yourself, mathematics is not only useless, it blocks the way. It traps you in an illusion and deepens the illusion in radical ways. Believe it or not, anything you can count, weigh, calculate, or measure is part of an all-embracing illusion—to grasp this fact will put you on the threshold to the “real” reality and your place in it.
I mean illusion in the most common sense of the word, the way a dream is an illusion. Imagine that you are dreaming one night, and inside your dream you can use numbers, measure things, and even pursue science. Obviously the ability to do these things would reassure you of the reality of your dream. But once the bubble is burst and you wake up, all the counting, measuring, and doing science would become instantly irrelevant.
The popularity of the mystic Sufi poet Rumi is based on his love affair with God, expressed in such ecstatic terms that he makes the spiritual journey seem deeply romantic. But Rumi also reported about how his state of consciousness felt, which gives valuable clues about higher consciousness itself.
Here is a beautiful line of his that has profound implications for consciousness as well: “Exchange your cleverness for bewilderment.” What kind of bewilderment does he mean? To most people, bewilderment is the opposite of an appealing state, since it implies indecision, confusion, perhaps loss of control entirely. Rumi was known for applauding such a state, however, if the result was bliss and ecstasy.
To modern ears the message is more pointed. “Cleverness” is Rumi’s synonym for the rational mind, which seeks explanations that are logical and consistent. The aim of the intellect is to bring everything down to earth, so to speak, eliminating the folderol and fantasy associated with spirituality and mysticism in particular. Rumi encountered this not in terms of modern rationality with its basis in science but from clerics who studied and became expert authorities on “correct” Islam.
If you want to know what human beings really want, consider how Alice reacts to Wonderland. Lewis Carroll’s inventions are so entertaining, we tend to smile at how upset, vexed, and unsettled Alice actually is. Wonderland overturns our regular, orderly, and predictable life, which is what people actually want.
The inhabitants of Wonderland aren’t just fantastic. They are unhappy. The White Rabbit is anxious enough to be a study in stress over a deadline. The Duchess’s cook throws dishes in a state of rage, and the Duchess herself hands Alice her squalling baby, which turns into a pig. Alice is very glad to get out of there. But Wonderland haunts us, and for good reason.
How do we know that anything is real? This isn’t a question that usually bothers most people, because we’ve all been brought up to look upon the physical world “out there” as a given. But let’s say that someone actually asks you the question, “How do you know the physical world is real?” What would you answer?
If you pause for a second, there are only two kinds of answers to this question: Either you tell a story or you refer to your own experience. Stories used to be collective myths, generally based on religion, about how God or the gods created the world. But any story, including the most advanced scientific models, depends on belief. If you believe in the Book of Genesis, you will see reality very differently from someone who believes in the Big Bang. To sort out which story is actually true, the second kind of answer arose, defining reality according to our experience. A rock is hard because two people who kick it agree from their experience that it is, in fact, hard.
The power of seeing is well known to everyone, and many examples exist. There is love at first sight and Alexander Fleming noticing that penicillium mold kills bacteria. Galileo as a youth in church was the first to notice that a pendulum swings in a regular rhythm, setting the basis for pendulum clocks. Isaac Newton famously discovered gravity by watching an apple fall, although this tale was told second-hand and is probably a romantic fiction.
But what if a mere glance has untold power, literally the power to create reality? The opening for this idea came from what is known in quantum physics as the measurement problem a hundred years ago. A quantum is a tiny unit of energy, and if a specific quantum like an electron or a photon is considered a thing, it should be measurable. You should be able to know where it is at a given instant in time, for example, or how fast it is moving, how much it weighs, and the other properties that we assign to things in the everyday world.
Although we don’t often put it this way, the most important relationship in everyone’s life is with the mind. The late Stephen Hawking drew the world’s attention by leading a life totally of the mind, his physical activity reduced to eye motion and blinking. The body without the mind is inconceivable, however. We cannot exist without thought. So it’s important to ask how best to relate to our minds.
I’m thinking of the most basic issue: Is the mind friend or enemy? Leave aside for the moment the traits that make it fascinating to be human: love, creativity, intelligence, evolution, and self-awareness. These traits make the human mind unique among all life forms on Earth, but we also suffer uniquely. Our minds are the source of anger, fear, envy, depression, grief, and hopelessness. If a friend brought suffering into our lives, it wouldn’t matter how happy he made us at other times—suffering trumps friendship, especially when you consider that the mind is capable of confusing us so deeply. The last thing the mind seems to understand is itself.
If someone invited you to live in a world where every physical thing—granite, stars, trees, the bones in your body—lost their thingness, would you accept? The fact that things exist is very reassuring, so reassuring that we can hardly do without it. Unfortunately, this reassurance is false. We live in a world where things aren’t really things, whether we choose to or not.
Matter, the physical side of matter and energy, is one half of a duo act. We are told matter is what the universe is made of, and energy is what puts matter in motion. The dance between them constitutes the reality we inhabit, a fact so obvious that modern science relies upon it as the unquestioned basis for doing science, not to mention for leading our everyday lives.
If matter and energy are not what they seem, science could be rocked to its core—but great care is taken for this not to happen. Strangely, a nursery rhyme tells the tale. Like Humpty-Dumpty in the English nursery rhyme, physical matter—solid, tangible inert matter composed of atoms and molecules- took a great fall over a hundred year ago, when quantum mechanics demolished every one of those qualities. It is entirely inaccurate to envision the universe being built up from bits of solid matter—or bits of anything.
The ancient Greek notion that reality can be reduced to a minuscule speck of matter (the atom) was a delusion of logic, and therefore a mental construct only. In reality the elementary particles that comprise the atom have a mysterious existence. They have no measurable weight, position, or any other characteristic until they are observed. Before that, they exist as waves that extend infinitely in all directions. These waves have no properties you can assign to any solid object. They arise as ripples in the quantum field, and the entire structure of the universe is mathematically described as interference patterns among these ripples, like the pattern formed on the surface of a pond if you throw two rocks in at the same time.
The dissolution of physical matter isn’t controversial—quantum mechanics is the bedrock of modern physics--but it turned out to be intolerable for working scientists. They rely upon the reassuring nature of thingness just as much as ordinary people. Theoretically, doing away with thingness should have been the end of the story. As every child knows, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty-Dumpty together again. Physics, however, managed to do something more mysterious. It ignored that matter fell and broke in the first place.
The billions of dollars spent on high-energy particle accelerators shows the lengths to which jobs, budgets, and complex projects rest on an ability to ignore what quantum physics actually means. There are now eighteen basic particles, with the hope that more will be discovered in the future, dependent on building even more mega-accelerators. But when these vast machines cause a new particle to bounce out of the quantum field for a fraction of a millisecond, using huge amounts of energy to accomplish this, where is that particle really coming from?
The story of life on Earth owes a great deal to Charles Darwin, and even though few people today read his epoch-making 1859 book, On the Origin of Species, without a doubt we live in a Darwinian world. Revolutionary ideas are subject to change, and when they go viral, as Darwinism did with a vengeance, many unexpected consequences result.
The crudest misuse of Darwin’s theory of evolution are contained, ironically enough, in phrases Darwin never uttered: “survival of the fittest,” ”the law of the jungle,” and “Nature red in tooth and claw.” These notions have been enormously influential. They turn evolution into a winner-take-all competition ruled by the violent opposition of predatory and prey.
Survival of the fittest, when applied to human society, celebrated the rich and powerful as evolutionarily superior. It justified the prejudice that the poor deserve to be poor because they are unfit (i.e., weak, stupid, genetically inferior). Racism and genocide have looked to Darwinism as an excuse to “purify” whole populations through means ranging from forced sterilization to mass murder. Oppressing workers in the worst periods of the Industrial Revolution also looked to Darwin for (false) justification.
For over four hundred years, Western civilization has chosen science as its source of truths and wisdom about the mysteries of life. Allegorically, we may picture the wisdom of the universe as resembling a large mountain. We scale the mountain as we acquire knowledge. Our drive to reach the top of that mountain is fueled by the notion that with knowledge we may become “masters” of our universe. Conjure the image of the all-knowing guru seated atop the mountain.
Scientists are professional seekers, forging the path up the “mountain of knowledge.” Their search takes them into the uncharted unknowns of the universe. With each scientific discovery, humanity gains a better foothold in scaling the mountain. Ascension is paved one scientific discovery at a time. Along its path, science occasionally encounters a fork in the road. Do they take the left turn or the right? When confronted with this dilemma, the direction chosen by science is determined by the consensus of scientists interpreting the acquired facts, as they are understood at the time.
Modern machines are assembled from separate moving parts, a fact that seems so obvious that we usually don’t notice its vast influence over us. But the image of a machine extends to the human body, which is an assemblage of trillions of separate cells, and ultimately to the universe, which is considered an assemblage of atoms and molecules beyond numbering.
So ingrained is the machine metaphor that it has taken centuries to realize that it has a fatal flaw. The human body and the universe operate as a single wholeness that cannot be explained mechanically or even logically. The general public has a vague acquaintance that quantum physics changed how science views space, time, matter, and energy. What escapes general notice, however, is the revolution that followed the quantum revolution.
For many decades It was assumed that the human brain must be special, as superior to the brains of other mammals as our minds are. This specialness was never seriously questioned, and even basic facts, like asserting that the human brain contains 100 billion neurons, were arrived at with surprising casualness.
In an interesting 2013 TED talk, the articulate Brazilian neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel offers clarity for the first time on several of the basic issues. After devising a way to dissolve brain cell membranes so that only the nuclei remained, and isolating them to be counted, she determined that the human brain contains 86 billion neurons, the most of any primate. Even though the human brain is a small fraction of our total weight, it uses 25% of a person’s daily calorie consumption.
That may seem like an incidental fact, but Herculano-Houzel makes it the cornerstone of her argument, which declares that the human brain isn’t special. We have primate brains, she says, that are in proportion to our primate relatives like chimpanzees and gorillas. But in an odd evolutionary twist, chimps and gorillas cannot sustain the calorie load of an immense brain by eating raw food. Typically, a great ape feeds for eight hours a day to sustain its large body, and over time a choice was made to prefer a very large body with a smaller number of neurons.
Scientists first postulated that a genetic change occurred in our species resulting in increased intelligence. Another theory stated that there was a change in the structure of the brain which accounted for the boom in intelligence. The best explanation I've heard is the fact that technology was stymied by a limitation in population size.
If you live in a small group someone has an idea, there may not be anybody else to offer a follow up to help make that idea a reality. As the population of a community gets larger and larger, ideas are able to shared more freely and change can be achieved. As more and people come together, and communities get larger, evolution indicates that the field of information is greater and new ideas can be synthesized that wouldn't be possible in a smaller population. Right now, we as humans are experiencing emergence.
The field of genetics is so complex that the story is simplified for popular consumption. The simplified story is that DNA contains the “code of life,” a master blueprint that jumps into action the instant an egg is fertilized in the mother’s womb. From that point on, a human being develops from a single cell to 37 trillion cells as the blueprint unfolds. The traditional view is that we are then the sole products of our genes. Yet, increasingly, evidence shows that “nurture” plays a much bigger role over “nature” than even professional geneticists have ever envisaged. When it comes to genetics, “nurture” exerts its effects on “nature” via epigenetics, as we laid out in our book Super Genes.
As powerful as the “code of life” story is, behind the scenes a growing number of geneticists don’t buy into it; in fact, they think we’ve gotten a lot about genes, wrong. At the same time, a new, improved picture of human development, based on the interplay of genes and lifestyle, is emerging. This revolution is outlined beautifully in an online article at Nautilus.com titled “It’s the End of Genes as We Know It.” The author, Ken Richardson, is an expert in human development, and he is worried that wildly exaggerated assumptions about the deterministic effects of DNA could lead to social policy that echoes the racism that fueled the eugenic movement decades ago, most notoriously with the Nazi ideology of a master race. As a case in point, Nobel Laureate, James Watson, who co-discovered the structure of DNA in 1953, was recently stripped of all his honors at Cold Spring Harbor, Laboratories, where he spent much of scientific career, after he continually expressed his bigoted opinion that black people and women are less intelligent than others based on their genetics.
There’s an old joke about a man who falls off the Empire State Building. As he passes an office window on the way down, someone shouts, “How are you doing?” and the man answers, “I’m okay so far.” I don’t know anyone who doesn’t laugh at the punchline the first time they hear the joke, but there’s also a wince thinking about the thud that awaits the man at the end.
Science has been okay—so far—in explaining how nature works, riding the crest of success for several centuries now. But the thud is near at hand, as outlined in a very readable, perceptive online article titled “The Blind Spot,” jointly written by two physicists, Adam Frank and Marcelo Gleiser, and a philosopher, Evan Thompson. It’s well worth your time to read it, because the blind spot referred to in the title has been of tremendous but hidden importance in your life.
The research that first led me to question scientific dogma took place in the petri dishes that are the workhorses of cell biologists' laboratories when I was cloning stem cells. Stem cells are embryonic cells that replace the hundreds of billions of cells we lose daily in normal attrition due to age, wear-and-tear, etc. As hundreds of billions of cells die every day, hundreds of billions of new cells are created from our bodies' stem cell population.
For my experiments, I would take one stem cell and put it in a petri dish all by itself. That cell would then divide every ten to twelve hours. After a period of about a week, I’d have about 50,000 cells in the petri dish. For my experiments, the most important factor was that all of the cells were genetically identical because all of them came from the same parent cell. Then I split up the cell population into three dishes, each with different culture mediums, i.e. each with a different environment. Despite the fact that all the cells were genetically identical, in environment A, the cells formed muscle; in environment B, the cells formed bone; and in the third environment C, the cells formed fat cells.
The human potential movement has become a roaring success over the past few decades. Yoga, meditation, the evolution of consciousness, even human potential itself are terms almost everyone knows. But the aura of spirituality hovers around them, which leads scientists to ignore human potential or to relegate it to psychology, considered the softest of soft sciences.
So it is quite startling, and a major leap forward, to find out that human potential deserves its place among the hard sciences. In fact, the five senses, instead of being grossly inferior to modern scientific apparatus, turn out to have abilities ten times greater than anyone ever supposed. In a nutshell we are quantum detectors, meaning that simply by sight, touch, taste, hearing, and smell we are participating in the finest fabric of Nature, and possibly can cause the quantum field to move at will.
There needs to be a clear rebuff of this notion that human beings are mechanisms, and the fact that science has a wealth of findings about both genes and the brain doesn't make the notion any more valid. The general public isn't aware, for example, that only 5% of disease-related genetic mutations are fully penetrant, which means that having the mutation will definitely cause a given problem. The other 95% of genes raise risk factors and in complex ways interact with other genes.
Neuroscience is based on the assumption that the brain produces the mind. After all, without a brain, most of us would be much poorer thinkers. If the brain produces the mind, then it’s important to know how it does it. A team at the University of California Santa Barbara has come up with a new theory—actually, an ancient theory now couched in modern scientific terms—basing mental activity on vibrations.
For a long time it’s been known that various waves of electrical activity are present, and these waves are independent in how they relate to having a mind. As explained by one of the team members from UC Santa Barbara, “Gamma waves are associated with large-scale coordinated activities like perception, meditation or focused consciousness; beta with maximum brain activity or arousal; and theta with relaxation or daydreaming. These three wave types work together to produce, or at least facilitate, various types of human consciousness…”
More than six decades after Einstein's death in 1955, his prestige is enormous and worrisome. It is enormous because relativity remains tremendously important and to this day, both the special and the general theories of relativity remain valid. It is worrisome because Einstein harbored a deep skepticism about quantum mechanics, even though quantum mechanics has been validated time after time experimentally and despite the fact that Einstein himself was one of the founders, receiving the Nobel Prize for the quantum photoelectric effect. The embarrassing fact is that quantum mechanics, which explains the behavior of the smallest level of Nature, cannot be reconciled with general relativity, which explains the behavior of the universe at the largest level. They are both right but not merged yet.
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