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THE LONG FUTURE OF HUMANITY

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By Jon Benner

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The Montréal Review, July 2021

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The City Rises (1910) by Umberto Boccioni

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The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”  

--Albert Einstein

 

Introduction

We stand at a moment of increasing uncertainty and anxiety for our species.  We are destabilizing the very support systems which have enabled the rise of our global civilization over the past 10,000 years, and while we intellectually understand the harm we are causing, and we know what we need to do to change course, we seem unable to cooperatively act to avert disastrous climate change.  We have not learned from past smaller civilizational collapses on our planet, and we feel ourselves helplessly repeating their mistakes, like passengers in a car without brakes hurtling towards a cliff. 

We may yet figure things out and work collectively to prevent disastrous climate change, but that prospect dims as nations retreat into tribal fiefdoms and tempers grow short on an increasingly crowded, hungry, and thirsty planet.  Darkness is rising in our collective mind – hatred and irritability swell, and increasingly our leaders encourage and foment bellicose thinking.  We fear where this will lead because we have seen it before, only now our tribes bristle with nuclear weapons, and the taboo against their use is eroding as memories of their horrors fade. 

And we are all living in the shadow of the Holocaust.  No longer in Western civilization is Satan the touchstone of evil, but rather the gas chambers of the Nazis.  We tell each other never again, and we tell ourselves that we could never participate in such a horror, but these promises feel strained and uncertain.  We have seen what humanity is capable of, and we don’t understand, and our hearts darken.

But our hearts break, because we know the love we are capable of – the boundless love we have for our children, our love for friends and family, our capacity to love and shed tears for those we have never met on distant continents, our deep love and concern for our fellow animals and plants on this planet.  We are great goodness too, and it pains us to see darkness ascendant.

We desperately need leaders of light and wisdom to arise to bring forth the best in us and discourage the worst, to inspire us to act according to our better angels, to turn away from tribal hatred and violence – this is the best hope we have for avoiding catastrophe in the near term.  But such leaders, the Mahatma Gandhis and Martin Luther King Jrs of the world, are rare, and they don’t always come when they are most needed.

And it has been so long since a messiah has come, one of our true sages, to remind us of who can be, the goodness and light that we are.  Though their names are always on our lips, we forget them, and many of our loudest religious leaders urge the very intolerance and hatred that their messiahs gave their lives trying to overcome.

What comes next?

The coming century is likely to be fraught with peril and chaos as passions rise and the voices of our wiser, cooler minds are drowned out in the din.  While a pandemic may allow for a pause for us to take stock of our situation, and hopefully encourage cooperation to face our shared future together, it seems more likely that it will accelerate a retrenchment into tribal nation states as our globalized trade system atrophies (which bodes ill for peace, because trade between nations has been a proven and effective inhibitor of warfare).  Absent a major turning of the tide of our collective mind, a fall seems increasingly likely as climate change stresses our complex civilization beyond the breaking point.

There are some who yearn for such a fall, and hope for the destruction of our civilization and all of our cultural record as a solution to our modern malaise and discontent, and to give the planet time to heal from the destruction we have wrought.   But this is not a permanent solution to our predicament, because what comes next, over the following thousands of years?  If humanity should survive the fall, which I believe it likely will (although on a planet dramatically altered by warming climate), civilization will inevitably rise again even if the cultural record is somehow completely destroyed, given enough time, possibly many thousands of years.  Small agrarian settlements will eventually once more coalesce into towns and cities, and fungible money will once more arise because it is so useful.   Economies will grow more complex, and there will be advances in technology, driven by our innate curiosity and our drive to make our lives convenient and easier, and to develop better weaponry (which is sadly inevitable because the nature of our minds will remain unchanged).  Over long time, a technological global civilization will rise again.  So, a return to an idealized agrarian past is at best a short-term solution to our current predicament.

If we survive a coming crash to rebuild, will we repeat the same mistakes, with planetary civilizations rising and falling cyclically over the millennia, until our species finally blinks out on this rock spinning in space?  Or will we be wiser as we rebuild, having learned from our mistakes, and we will finally find a way to peace and living sustainably on our planet – no longer genocidal and warring, no longer ashamed of how we treat our fellow species on this planet, but truly wise women and men worthy of the name Homo sapiens?

We have made moral progress so far

To our credit as a species, we have already made progress over the past 10,000 years towards a wiser future.  The long arc of our species’ moral progress has been towards greater tolerance and wisdom:  we as a global society have come to the understanding that slavery is wrong, and we are fumbling our way towards a broader and more tolerant view of human sexuality.   We know that tribal hatred is our shame, and if we knew how to prevent another Holocaust, we would.  If the writings of our wisest survive the tumult to come, we can hope the thread of this halting progress will continue unbroken.

And we have made progress in understanding how to organize our large societies to prevent our worst tendencies from running amok.  We have tried to enshrine the best of us in our laws and systems, to safeguard the voices of the powerless and to guard against incompetent and selfish rule – from the wise judges of Israel, to our early Athenian and Roman democracies, to the Magna Carta, to the American Constitution.   We have experimented and learned from ways to organize our complex economies, from the failures of Marxism when practiced to the obvious harm caused by unfettered capitalism: from each iteration we learn.

This is the project of civilization.  We are used to thinking of progress as material prosperity and technological and medical advances, our booming cities and airplanes and gene therapy, but the true progress, the measure of our maturation as a species, is our moral progress.  All of the great advances of our civilization have been in how to keep the darkness in our hearts in check while encouraging and incentivizing the light and goodness.  Progress is not forests razed and the land tortured by coal mines to power our machines – progress is learning how not to do this, so that we are no longer ashamed of who we are and the destruction we cause.

But our best attempts always fail

But though we take these steps forward, there is always backsliding, and our best attempts at lasting stability and peace always seem to end, and darkness reasserts.  Wise and benevolent government lasts for a while but inevitably crumbles as those motivated by greed and selfishness rise to power.  Our best attempts to organize our societies economically so that all prosper always seem to slide into widening inequality, and then revolution results, and the cycle repeats.  Though our thinkers have tried for millennia to come up with a workable model for large societies that stably enshrines the best in us and guards against the worst, from Plato’s “Republic” onward, we have not yet come up with any truly good solution.

Further, large societies of humans have consistently failed to live within the bounds of their environment, from the Maya to Easter Island and now our current global civilization.  Unchecked population growth is the root of our current predicament as a species – billions of humans desiring comfort and food straining our planet’s soils, waters, and atmosphere – and we have failed to curb our global population growth to live within the carrying capacity of our planet.  Our current climate crisis has been brought about by our advanced technology, but past civilizations on this planet have proved no better at preventing themselves from soiling their own home, and so collapsing.

Will a future civilization be wiser?

If and when our current civilization does collapse and humans rebuild down the road, will a future civilization be wiser – what will we have learned from our mistakes?

We likely will have learned the planetary mindset – that humans are indeed capable of affecting and destroying our planetary support systems (climate, soils, fresh water, element cycles).  We are fumbling our way as a species towards this understanding, but we are too slow, and the high cost we will pay for that ignorance (our fall) is likely to persist in our collective memory, like the memory of the ancient flood shared by so many of today’s cultures.  Fresh water and soils will remain tainted by our industrial activities, ancient cities will stand flooded by the rising seas and marooned in barren deserts that were formerly arable – stark reminders of our past mistakes.  We are as a species like we are as individuals: we must be burned badly before we learn to change our ways.

We may also have learned the value of population control, and societies will be more willing to practice it.  Primitive societies in our past understood the need for and practiced population control, but as societies grow larger we lose this understanding.  Some individual nations have tried to regulate their population this past century, but as a global civilization we have failed.  We may do better the next time around.

But I believe there is no lasting political or economic solution to our human problems, because the root cause for all these failures spring from the human mind as it has evolved.  We cannot put our hope in government as a way to stably guard against human desire for wealth and power, because these spring eternal from our mind, and cannot be held in check by laws indefinitely.  Warfare will continue in future civilizations because we have evolved to be tribal and bellicose, and our minds will not have evolved to be any different in the mere span of thousands of years.  Attempts at a stable global government will likely fail for these reasons, as they have recently – humans rebel against global government because we are by nature tribal, and would-be leaders exploit this to gain power locally.  Attempts to cooperate across the planet to regulate our population size and tend to our planetary environment will struggle for these same reasons.

Our attention must turn to understanding our minds

Until we understand that the root cause of these failures is in our mind as it has evolved so far, we will forever be confused why peace never seems to last, and why those motivated by greed for money and power always take control and the poor and vulnerable suffer.

Our traditional explanation in the West for our failure to live peaceably and wisely has been that we are fallen creatures, weighed down by the knowledge we gained when Adam and Eve ate the apple in the Garden of Eden.  This story is still useful as a metaphor, but we now know so much more from our science about our origins and how our minds have evolved.   If we are to learn as a species and find a way to transition to a peaceful, sustainable future, we need have to a clear understanding of the weaknesses and strengths of our mind as it has evolved. 

Rational thought is one of our two greatest assets, our right hand, and we will need to rely on it heavily if we are to plan and work cooperatively to avoid our destruction.  But we cannot jettison religion, because this is our other great asset, our left hand.  We as a species must arrive at a more mature understanding of what religion is: a cultural vehicle for preserving and passing on our species’ greatest insight to date:  that the mind can be released from its mistaken belief in its own separateness while we humans are alive in a body (whether we call it Enlightenment, the Kingdom of Heaven, the Elysian Fields, no matter).  So far the scientists have largely failed to appreciate this bright golden kernel at the core of every religion, and the religious have felt threatened as the advances of science chip away at their creation myths and their belief in the supernatural.  The two must merge: our science must advance to understand the mind and its release, and religion must mature to incorporate what we have learned from science, if we are to thread the needle into a wise and sustainable future.  Darwin and Jesus, Einstein and the Buddha, must walk hand in hand.

Now, on the eve of our civilization’s possible collapse, we must ask ourselves who we have been, and who we are capable of becoming.  Are we dark, violent, fallen creatures?  Or are we creatures of light, love, and wisdom?  And if both, can we chose the light in us over the dark?  Not just in our individual thoughts, words and actions, but also in what we aspire to as a species, and perhaps down the road in the directed evolution of our species’ mind.  I am concerned with the long future of our species, should we have one, and whether we are capable of transcending our inherited darkness or are condemned to inevitably destroy ourselves. 

We are hamstrung by how our minds have evolved – tribalism and greed

Our great strengths as humans – our cleverness, our cooperation, and our strong pull to kindness and love – have given us perennial hope that we can build stable, peaceful societies that enshrine the best in us.  But time and again, these attempts to build lasting peace and prosperity are sabotaged by two evolved characteristics of our human minds: our tribalism and our greed.

Tribalism

From the dawn of our species millions of years ago, humans have lived in cooperative social groups, or tribes.  We are a social species; we work together cooperatively to build, to invent, to pass on stories, to create.  This is one of our great strengths – our ability to collaborate with other humans (including those who came before us, and those who will come after us, by leaving records of what we have done).  This cooperative nature has enabled us to build our planetary civilization, for without cooperation there can be no great cathedrals, no scientific advances over the centuries, no landings on the moon, no internet.  Cooperation has built our civilization.  And it is clear how evolution has selected for our minds to be cooperative: groups that cooperate thrive and outcompete groups that don’t cooperate, and so the individual members of the cooperative group thrive as well, and so pass on their cooperative genes.

The feeling of belonging to a group is a hallmark of being human.  We feel most at home with those who look like us, speak our language, share our religion and traditions – it is a rich and warm sense of belonging – oh, the pride of being Irish, with its green hills and thick brogue and pennywhistles!  Or the warm glow of generations as elders tell stories around the campfire to the extended clan, or the heady sense of brotherhood and limitless possibility among the young revolutionaries sharing songs and ideals in the beer hall, or the sacred belonging of reciting prayers in the temple with your fellow faithful.  We humans are most at home in our group, and we lose our bearings and feel ill at ease when our group borders fray and disintegrate. 

The downside of this tribalism is obvious to us: we are distrustful and wary of other tribes, of people who are not like us.  Pride in our group all too easily curdles into mistrust and hatred for the other group.  It is all too easy for us to see members of the other tribe as other, as different – even, in the extreme, not human, which paves the road to murder and genocide, as we know all too well.  And so arise racism and xenophobia, and all manner of hatred towards those perceived as other.  And so countries are torn apart into tribal political parties, and civil wars result.  And so arise pogroms, the lynchings of the Ku Klux Klan, the Hutu-Tutsi massacre and the Holocaust.

But even though we as individuals and as a species are aware that we have this tendency and try to guard against it with cultural norms and laws, still, for us individual humans, it feels good and like home to be tribal, to indulge in hatred towards other groups, to rejoice in our tribe’s successes.  This is the very human happiness of the fervid fans cheering on their hometown football team and hating the opposing team from the next town over.

In our early evolutionary history, this tribalism caused problems and suffering that were local in scale – warring between tribes over territory, for example.  But as civilization developed, tribes developed into associations of tribes, and later city-states and nations, and the suffering became larger in scale – the wars became larger and the weaponry more powerful and devastating; whole peoples were enslaved.  We have seen the dangers of nationalism in the last century. 

At this point in our civilization warfare has become almost unworkable because our weaponry is too powerful.  Not just nuclear weapons, but biological and chemical weapons as well are capable of killing many millions of people at the push of a button.  For the past seventy-five years we have agreed as a planet of nations not to use these weapons because of the terrible destruction that would result, but these agreements are weakening as taboos against their use fade and cooperation among nations frays, as new generations forget the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

So our tribal thinking has not changed, even though our planetary civilization’s survival is threatened by it: we are still stuck with our human mind as it has evolved. 

Are there ways to keep this tendency of our mind in check?  The best we have found are education and material prosperity.  With education, humans become more tolerant of those who are not like them, and we learn to guard against our inborn mental tendency towards hatred of other tribes.  And when people are well-fed and housed and living lives that are sufficiently meaningful, our tendency to tribal hatred is at low ebb.  But even with education, when people feel stressed, anxious and uncertain, and their daily lives have lost meaning – as is increasingly the case in our technological societies on this crowded, warming planet – our tribal nature reasserts, and overwhelms the tolerance and intellectual understanding we have gained from education.

Given the risk of nuclear conflagration and the need to cooperate to avert disastrous climate change, what is urgently needed is for people to begin thinking of humanity as their tribe, recognizing that the fates of all of our tribes are now intertwined on this small planet.  But our attempts at global governance are crumbling: the pendulum is swinging in the other direction, as people are anxious that their tribal identities are being diluted and lost in a global homogenization, and power-hungry humans are quick to exploit this anxiety to gain power and encourage a retreat back into nation states.  Perhaps if hostile aliens were to land on our shores, humans would have an other to hate who is not human and we would at last bind together as one tribe, but pinning our hopes on that is no solution to our predicament.

It is heartbreaking to watch this happen, because we all know that humans have the capacity for great cooperation and love, and we all long for peace.  We know that nuclear weapons are an abomination and should be eradicated, and we know what must be done to avert the worst of climate change.  What is desperately needed is for our leaders to call forth the best in us, not the worst.  It is like watching a man beat a hopeful and innocent puppy – in that puppy’s heart is the capacity for such trust and love, but what the man will bring forth is fear and aggression (though our bellicose leaders are not only cause, but symptom as well – they ride the wave of our collective anxiety and fear to power). 

Greed

Our inborn greed is the other weakness of mind that is threatening the survival of our civilization and the survival of our species.  We are not alone in this; all organisms are driven by hunger, by a sense of lack.  We all crave comfort, food, shelter, sex – to be alive is to have this river of desire flowing through us.  When we seek to fulfill our desire we are often selfish, and we push out of our minds any suffering we may cause for other beings in pursuit of what we crave. 

It is clear how this has evolved, in us and in all creatures – individuals who are selfish gain more resources (more food, more mates, more territory), and so are more likely to survive and pass on more copies of their genes than individuals who are selfless.  (This evolved tendency to selfishness, which is of benefit to the individual, is in direct conflict with our evolved tendency to cooperation and caring for members of our group – E.O. Wilson writes eloquently of this inborn conflict in our minds).

Because greed if left unchecked causes great harm to others and to our environment, it was kept in check by strong taboos in primitive and small societies: the group was harmed by selfish, greedy behavior, and so such behavior was not tolerated.  But as civilization developed and societies grew larger, this taboo eroded.  The rise of money and complex economies enabled people to hoard wealth, and inequality widened.  And as people moved into cities and complex trade relationships arose, the harm done by the individual to the environment supporting the society became less apparent, especially if the harm was being done somewhere else – no longer was it a small tribe living within the means of its local environment, in which overfishing or overharvesting of plants was clearly antisocial and so frowned upon.  (And so when European settlers arrived in North America and slaughtered all the buffalo for their tongues and hides, it was readily apparent to the Native Americans that the Europeans suffered from the “wendigo sickness” – greed was running unchecked in their minds, and this was the cause of their great destructiveness).

This is the paradox of capitalism: while it has led to astonishing innovation and advances that have arguably made life better for humanity (medical advances, education, comfort, entertainment), it has incentivized greed and elevated it as the organizing principle of society.  Whereas primitive societies did all they could to keep greed in check because they knew its destructive nature, our modern civilization has enshrined greed as a good, with predictable harmful consequences to our mental well-being and to the rest of life on this planet.

This greed is not just the cavernous need for wealth of the oil baron or the hedge fund titan, not just the rapacious greed of the tycoon (and how many of us know ourselves well enough to honestly say that we would turn down a five million dollar paycheck and a second home in the countryside?) – it is also the humble desire in each of us for comfort, for pleasure, for entertainment, for security.  The oil executive may be more directly responsible for our warming climate than the rest of us, but we all turn up the thermostat a few degrees more so that we can be comfortable on a mild winter’s day.  This is not wicked, this is human – but in the aggregate, when there are seven billion humans on the planet, the effect of this minor domestic greed is huge.

In large societies, the tendency towards excessive greed and selfishness can currently only be kept in check by human institutions – laws and government decree (I say currently, because one can imagine a large society in which the shared moral code frowns on greed and wealth accumulation).  In our modern societies, we have seen how this can work – we tax the wealthy at a higher rate to prevent them from hoarding all the wealth while the poor suffer, and we have written laws preventing individuals (often banded together as corporations) from fouling our waters, soils, and air, and from driving our fellow species on this planet extinct.  But for this to work, it requires wise and selfless leadership – a government that cares for the long-term health of its populace and the environment that supports it.  When the government is taken over by those in thrall to greed who are concerned only with short term gain, these laws erode, and the rich grow richer and our shared environment is polluted.

And indeed, most of our advances in understanding how to organize large societies politically have been aimed at keeping greed in check – to keep the wealthy from buying the politicians, and to keep those greedy for power over their fellow humans from seizing control and ruling absolutely.  We know as a species that societies of humans suffer when those motivated by hunger and selfishness rule to benefit themselves only, not their constituents.  Democracy has been our best attempt at preventing such people from rising to power and crowning themselves emperor for life, but all such governments eventually end, eroded by the power of greed.

And so our best attempts to create egalitarian societies in which all prosper, ruled by stable and wise and benevolent government, eventually crumble and fail, because greed, like water, always finds a way to flow.  Inequality always widens as humans hoard wealth, and the poor and vulnerable suffer as the power-hungry seize power.  Throughout our civilization’s history the result of this has been revolution, but the bright new dawn ushered in by those young idealistic revolutionaries always curdles over time into inequality and selfish rule, because greed springs eternal from the human mind – our utopias never last, because humans (and all beings) flow strong with hunger and need.  And so where does this lead – endless cycles of revolution and bloodshed, never learning, always hopeful?  We should be able to do better than this, to think on a broader scale, and we can if we understand that the root problem is in our mind as it has evolved.

If we survive a coming fall, and rebuild our civilization down the road (perhaps far down the road, if the fall is dramatic), we will need to rely on our two greatest strengths as human beings: rational thought, and the spiritual path – by which I mean cultivating the mind in pursuit our species’ greatest wisdom (I will explain further below).  With rational thought, we can plan for a future worthy of who we can be, but it will not come to pass if sabotaged by our tribalism and greed.  With the spiritual path, we can bring that worthy future to pass, because this is the way to cultivate altruism and kindness, and to transcend the evolved weaknesses of our mind.  These are the two arrows in our quiver, and we will need to use both together, as one, if we are to thread the needle into a wise and sustainable future. 

Rational thought

We humans are unique on this planet as the species with the ability for abstract, complex thought.  We are constantly thinking, trapped in reveries and daydreams and plans, reliving past glories and failures, agonizing over social slights and possible future alliances, worrying about what might or might not come, scheming for future gain, hoping against hope for a bright future to come.

This capacity for rational thought has evolved relatively recently in our evolutionary line.  Millions of years ago, when our pre-human ancestors first controlled fire and began to live in permanent settlements from which they foraged for food, the volume of our brain tissue began to expand dramatically.  Driving this dramatic increase in processing capacity of our nervous system were the complex social interactions that arose from living in stable settlements with other humans – we became masters at social relationships, constantly evaluating where we stood in relation to other humans in our social group.  These intricate social interactions formed the glue that enabled the group to work cooperatively for their common good – and so when the group thrived, the individual group members thrived too, and passed on their genes.  Further, this mental capacity enabled us to plan and mitigate for future problems (such as food shortages), and to innovate and invent tools to make life easier and more stable, which is of clear evolutionary benefit.

(As an aside, rational thought can be the cause of our greatest personal suffering, our anxiety and worry and gloomy mental maunderings – caught in a labyrinth of endless thinking about ourselves and our perceived shortcomings, of worrying about possible dark futures and agonizing over past failures, we can sink into despair, and in the extreme, kill ourselves).

In our cultural evolution, rational thought first rose to prominence in the heady days of ancient Greece, when bold thinkers from Parmenides to Pythagoras to Plato had faith that they could use their minds to understand and explain the world they found themselves in: the world was not unknowable, not at the arbitrary whims of deities in the sky.  For the first time we had confidence that we can use our intellect to untangle all the mysteries of the universe.  It was not until the Enlightenment two thousand years later when we regained this confidence and optimism that we could figure out everything, that nothing was off limits.  But this confidence has waned once more as knowledge has proliferated and disciplines of thought have splintered, and we now view science, philosophy, art and religion all as separate disciplines, each with their own experts and passionate believers.

Our capacity for rational thought, along with our ability to cooperate as a social species, has enabled the rise of our current global civilization.  All of our technological and scientific advances, from the bow and arrow to the hydrogen bomb, from cuneiform tablets to the printing press to the internet, and all of our medical advances, are due to rational thought. 

Further, rational thought has enabled us to learn about who we are, our place in the Universe.  Only two thousand years ago we thought our planet was the center of everything and the stars were fixed in a sphere that encased us; now we know we are living on a minor planet orbiting an ordinary star in a backwater arm of one galaxy among billions.  Not long ago we were clueless of our origins and relied on ancient creation myths to understand where we came from; through our study of the fossil record we now know where we stand in the grand pageant of the evolution of life on this planet over the past four billion years.  

And rational thought provides us the tools to think about our current predicament, to understand how we are affecting our planetary environment and how we could change course, and to try and peer into the future and discern if there is a way for us to mitigate for or overcome the evolved limitations of our mind, as I am doing now.  Without rational thought we are hamstrung, and cannot envision and work toward a future built around our better angels.

But it is clear that rational thought alone is not sufficient, and can lead to great darkness when not guided and tempered by wisdom and love – we do things like invent nuclear weapons, and we stand on the verge of cloning human beings.  It is our cleverness that has gotten us into our current predicament: we strive, invent, and create, but we are not good at thinking ahead of time whether we should, whether it would be wise to do so, whether it will lead to greater peace and well-being for us and all other species on our planet. 

And rational thought loses to the passions every time in a head-to-head match.  Cool-headed rational planning for the future can easily be swamped by greed, anger, and fear.  Even in placid and prosperous times rational thought has only a tenuous hold on our collective mind: we are not currently burning witches at the stake and living in fear of demonic possession because our science has rendered these ideas ludicrous, but how easily we can backslide.  It is easy to envision a repeat of the Salem witch trials, even in our current civilized nations, if enough people become stressed and fearful and public faith in science continues to erode.  Education is our greatest tool for strengthening rational thought in the human population, but beneath the veneer of education and civilized cooperation lie the snarling passions of the mind, just waiting to be poked and prodded into action.

And further, rational thought and the scientific worldview it has birthed do not provide our lives with the rich meaning and understanding we yearn for.  We can intellectually understand that we evolved by chance over billions of years, and at any point in our past we could have been obliterated by a meteor or some other catastrophe, and it’s just luck that we happen to be here today as the dominant species on this planet.  We can intellectually understand that we are the product of our genes, which have been selected for by the cold logic of Darwinian evolution.  We can intellectually understand that our mind arises (somehow!) from the tangle of neurons and synapses and the stew of neurochemicals in our brains.  And we can intellectually understand that we are adrift on a rock in a vast and cold and perhaps infinite universe, and that there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of a personal and loving God watching over us and saving us from pestilence and suffering.

But at the same time our minds cry: and yet!  And yet!   We ache and yearn for more – this does not feel like the complete picture.  What of the yearning for freedom, the wild breathlessness of the new frontier, our love and yearning for wild places, the time-stopping heights of sex, the bottomless pool of soul we see when we look into our children’s eyes?  What of the mystical depths I pour into when I listen to Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony?  What of the sense we all have deep inside that there is somewhere over the rainbow?  What of altruism and selflessness and pure love, what of the wild promises of the prophets?  What of the feeling we all have that surely death is not final, it can’t be, but just a doorway to something beyond?  Surely Jesus and the Buddha weren’t babbling madmen – surely this cold and clinical worldview of science is missing something?  Surely that moment I had when I was a child and the world fell away, and I stood bathed in the glory of God’s light, isn’t simply delusion, the misfiring of chemicals, a faulty memory?  The Romantic poets rebelled against this scientific worldview, and we create art to give voice to this nameless yearning.  Even the most rational scientist yearns for something more – she may seek it in pushing the frontier of our knowledge, shining a light into the dark areas of our understanding, but like all of us she knows the sense that there is something more, somewhere, somehow, just beyond…

And so, while the capacity for rational thought that has evolved in our mind is one of our two great strengths, our right arm, and vital to our future if we are to have one, it is not enough: if we are to understand who we are, and who we can be, we must somehow incorporate our spirituality into our understanding.  Our science has so far failed in this task.

The spiritual path (faith, or religion)

Many will balk at the following discussion or reject it out of hand because it is incongruous with their experience or orthodoxy, but I can only ask them to pause and give what I have to say the benefit of reflection and consideration.  The next step for humanity is to build a bridge between science and religion, because they must be joined if we are to progress as a species in our cultural and biological evolution: this is our next Enlightenment, whether it comes soon or after a long intervening dark age: and this writing is a step in that direction.

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We humans have been religious as far back as the archaeological record goes, and no doubt further – we find burials from tens of thousands of years ago with valuable offerings for the afterlife.  Our early gods were gods of the elements, of fertility, and we sacrificed and prayed to them to appease them, to gain their blessings for our harvest.  We invoked their supernatural powers to explain things we didn’t understand – why the rains didn’t come and the crops failed, the appearance of a comet or a supernova, why a plague killed nearly everyone.  With the advent of Judaism, and later Christianity and Islam, the gods condensed into one God, but he was still viewed as a supernatural entity outside the natural laws that we understand, who can be petitioned through prayer and who directs and ordains the affairs of humanity (or at least, his faithful).  Our science has obviated the need to invoke the gods (or God, singular) to explain the weather and pestilence, but we still invoke a supernatural God to explain what our science has not yet understood, be it the existence of dark matter or what came before the Big Bang. 

This is the conception of God that most adherents of religion have today, whether Eastern or Western religion – for the Eastern religions, even if the devout ascribe to different views of the afterlife, gods, and saints, most still hold a belief in something supernatural and powerful.  And this is what most people mean when they use the word faith

People have this faith in a supernatural God because they sense deeply that there is something beyond, something vast and good and infinite, but beyond that, the rational mind cannot go – and they have inherited from our predecessors this notion of an all-powerful and supernatural God who responds to our prayers.  And so, even when our prayers seem to fall on deaf ears, and God seems to callously decline to intervene to prevent terrible suffering and injustice on the surface of our planet, we chalk it up to God’s mysterious ways, or we say that God is testing us, and so our faith is not dented (or we despair of his existence, and become apostates).  How we struggle to explain the mysterious ways of God when a pandemic sweeps the planet!  How many poor priests over the centuries have struggled to explain to grieving parents why a loving God would allow their child to die! 

When atheists and scientists argue against the existence of God, they are arguing against this conception of God as a supernatural power outside of the natural laws of the universe, who perhaps directs and ordains human affairs, or intercedes on our behalf when we petition in prayer – a personal God who watches over our lives.  Scientists are disdainful of such a notion because there is no evidence for it, and they are disdainful of such a faith because it requires tossing aside rational thought – it flies in the face of the Enlightenment confidence that we humans can figure everything out using rational thought.  They rightly say, if we abandon rational thought and science, we humans end up burning witches at the stake and sacrificing goats in trembling fear whenever a new comet appears in the sky, or perhaps worse, denying the science of climate change and so failing to avert it.  And of course, these critics rightly balk at how religion becomes just another tribe for humanity (a most powerfully felt one), just another excuse for us to slaughter those who are different from us.

But both of these people, the faithful with their all-powerful God and the scientists who disdain this possibility, feel the same yearning and wonder and awe that courses through all humans (if only we remember how to let ourselves feel it!) – the same inborn sense that there is something beyond that we cannot understand with our rational minds, something we cannot describe.  This wonder, this hope, this intuitive faith that there is somehow a freedom that lies beyond, is what drives and inspires the poet and the artist, the mountain climber and the explorer, the scientist and the philosopher, the musician in the throes of rapture, and the devout supplicant in the temple, on her knees and praying to the power and freedom she has sensed always, that golden wispy dream that has always danced just beyond the edge of her consciousness, that has called her onward since earliest childhood memory, promising her fulfillment and peace at last.

All of us know this yearning, and some of us have had a direct experience of the vast open frontier at some point in our lives, a time when the monolithic prison walls of the mind cracked open and light from what lies beyond flooded in.  In that moment we stood awash in light and beauty and stillness, and the pressing concerns of our life crumbled away into irrelevance, and all was well, all was so very well, and we knew there is nothing to fear, not even death.  It came unbidden, perhaps when we were a child sitting alone on a river bank skipping stones, or during sex with our first true love, or on the morning subway commute, or when floating on a surfboard beyond the breaking waves, or in those weary weeks as a new mother nursing our firstborn in the dead of the night: and it left just as it came.  But such experiences are so hard to understand, and so hard to incorporate into our worldly lives, these lives of heartache and bills and joyful children and sick parents and roofs that need to be patched against the winter rains.  We wonder, what was that place, and how do I get back there?  We can call it God – but will he ever come back?

And so, our understanding of what God is must mature if we are to advance as a species.  We as a species must understand what religion is – a vehicle for the cultural transmission of our species’ greatest insight to date: that we are not separate from the rest of the Universe, but rather are knit of it, and it is possible, in the eighty-odd years we are alive in these mortal bodies, through the path of contemplative prayer (meditation) and moral action, to free our minds from this delusion that we are separate.  This framing of the insight first arose in ancient India, and is most explicitly laid out in the teachings of the Buddha – but all of our species’ true sages (the true saints) have taught this path, from the Buddha to Jesus onward: this state of the mind freed is the Kingdom of Heaven, enlightenment.  It is the vast open beyond we all sense and yearn for, and that pulls us humans onward in hope and wonder – this is what we call God.  The delusion that we are separate we can call the self

What is the self, and how has it evolved?

When we humans are born into this world, separated from our mothers in the rather traumatic and terrifying event of birth, we quickly begin to learn that we are separate, a body alone in a cold and uncertain and sometimes painful world.  (We never really get over this trauma, and spend the rest of our lives yearning to return to the womb – oh, how hard it is to get out from under the warm and safe covers of our beds each morning!  And how popular is mother-son themed pornography on the internet).  Our minds come pre-programmed to learn that we are separate, and this learning is strong and persists throughout our lives.  We quickly learn to believe that we are our bodies, and that “me” ends at the borders of my body, and that things outside our body can hurt us.  Most frightening of all, we learn that “I” will end when the physical body dies, and so death looms as a terrifying cliff edge that we are inexorably sliding towards, and beyond that the terrible void of nonexistence.

This sense of self is a story that our mind weaves throughout our life.  It is the strong feeling that “I” am the one thinking, “I” am the one feeling and doing and getting hurt and trying to avoid being killed.  And it is from this sense of being separate and cut off from everything else that desire arises – the strong current of desire that flows through all of our minds (desire for money, power, sex, food, etc.). 

And it seems clear that this propensity of our minds to coalesce around a sense of self, a feeling that we are separate and cut off from the rest of the universe, has evolved over the long course of the evolution of life on this planet, or is a fundamental attribute of life.  It is of clear evolutionary benefit to believe that you are your body and separate from everything else – fearful of injury and death, you seek safety, and so live another day; alone and cut off and yearning for connection, you seek companionship and sex and so pass on your genes; craving and in need and fearful of the vast cold beyond your skin, you seek food and warmth and hoard against the winter to come.  A species with a mind not trapped in a sense of self would not last long, for if you don’t fear death and are freed from constant craving, how likely are you to pass on your genes, and so persist as a species?

We humans are not alone in this delusion of our own separateness – it is clear that the sense of self is the norm across the animal kingdom.  We can readily see this in the animals with which we are most familiar; cats and dogs are much like us in their fear, their desire, their yearning.  It is clear that they identify with their bodies, and so fear the end of their bodies: all animals fear injury and death.  Certainly species whose nervous systems have evolved to a minimum complexity experience this as fear, and have emotions much like ours.  I cannot speak for how a more primitive animal, such as a sea sponge, experiences mind, and whether they feel separate and so course with desire, but at the minimum their nervous system is programmed the same way as more complex animals: to seek food, to avoid injury and death.

This persistent belief in our own separateness is a prison our minds yearn to escape from, and we intuitively feel that such an escape is possible, even if we don’t know this in conscious awareness and need to be told by someone like Jesus or the Buddha that escape is indeed possible.  We sense that there is a vast beyond that is infinite and good, and to many of us it feels holy and sacred and worthy of veneration, and we call it God. 

All of our hunger and greed, all of our fear and hatred, and all of our confusion springs from this innate belief that we are cut off and marooned in these bodies – and once we have freed our mind from this mistaken belief, we are no longer beholden to greed and hatred: the shackles have been loosed, and the mind is free.

We humans can intellectually understand that we are not separate from the rest of the universe.  Take our bodies: we are constantly sloughing off skin cells, losing hair in the shower, occasionally losing limbs in accidents.  When these parts of our bodies are shed, do they remain “me”, such that we are constantly splintering into countless selves that litter the surface of our planet?  When we defecate each day, and send feces and body cells and billions of bacteria who use to call our guts home down the plumbing of the toilet, are we losing parts of “me”?  When we exhale, are those carbon atoms in our outbreath little parts of “me” that disperse into the atmosphere, such that we are mixed by the wind and clouds and spread all over the world, and creatures the world over are breathing “me” in?  Our bodies are shared with the rest of the universe.

But perhaps then we say, “me” is the core chunk of the body (the torso, the head).  After all, this is what it feels like.  But then, our cells are constantly dying and being replaced, and the food we take in from the world outside is providing the building blocks for the new “me”.  There is no constant, stable body: these bodies are constantly in flux, exchanging material and energy with everything that lies beyond our skin.  So we can understand that drawing a line where our skin ends and calling this body “me” doesn’t really make sense.

What of our minds – can we intellectually understand that they are not separate from everything else?  This is difficult to understand using rational thought, and so has been a stumbling block for our philosophers and scientists since the ancient Greeks.  We can understand that mind somehow arises from or is received by the complex tissue of our nervous system, but beyond that, we stumble.  Clearly, it doesn’t make much sense to consider our minds to be confined to these two-meter long bodies, trapped within the thin barrier of our skin and extending no further than that.  When we dissect and rummage through these bodies, we can find no “self”, no thoughts, no memories, no yearning.  No doubt there are patterns of neurons and synapses firing and neurochemicals that give rise to this persistent sense of self, and no doubt over the long course of the spiritual path there are changes in our nervous system that lead to (or accompany) freeing the mind from the self, and this is where our science should head.

Fortunately, to free our minds from the self does not require an intellectual understanding of what mind is and how it relates to matter.  Neither the Buddha nor Jesus gave energy to thinking about these questions in their teachings because they are not needed for the spiritual path.  I only consider them here because I am trying to build a bridge between science and religion, between rational thought and intuitive awareness.   I am trying to speak to those who have concluded that religion has nothing to offer humanity, whether because they disdain the notion of a supernatural all-powerful entity at odds with the Enlightenment project of figuring this world out using rational thought, or because they have been turned off by religions’ dogmatic insistence on disproven creation myths.  I am trying to speak to those who feel spiritual longing but aren’t quite so sure how to express it or what it means.  And I am trying to speak to the devout religious who do hold a conception of God as a supernatural father of mother somewhere in the sky: their faith is true and good, but they may benefit from realizing that there is a path to freeing their mind and so reaching their God in their lifetimes.  I am trying to take a step towards the maturation of our understanding of what religion is, because only then will we be able to use it as an asset on our march towards a wise and peaceable future.

We have evolved to the point where we have the ability to free our minds from the self

We humans seem to be unique on this planet as the species that has evolved the capacity to free the mind from the self through sustained and concerted effort (though it is of course difficult to know whether there are enlightened elephants or dolphins).  How have we evolved to this point – what separates us from the other species on this planet?  The two attributes which separate humans from other species, and so enable us liberate our minds, are our capacity for rational thought and our ability to use awareness to untangle the knots in our mind (I will explain the latter below).

Because of the large processing power of our nervous systems (which has evolved via Darwinian selection, as discussed above), we are able to use rational thought to reflect on and ponder our situation as mortal beings.  This is the critical foundation for seeking liberation.  Using rational thought, we peer into the future and see that we and everybody we love are sliding towards an inevitable death, which we fear and don’t understand.  We ask ourselves, what happens to the mind when the body dies?  Using rational thought, we reflect on our lives: what has brought me fulfillment?  Why do I spend my life seeking pleasure, which never brings lasting fulfillment?  Why do I accumulate wealth, if I can’t take it with me when I die?  What is this bottomless yearning I feel when I listen to soulful music, or when I stand on a mountaintop and the wind blows so strong and cold, this freedom dancing just beyond the limits of my consciousness?  And then the critical question may arise in rational thought: what is this feeling of “I” that attaches to all of my thoughts, emotions, desires, and memories, and does it have any independent existence, or is it just something that feels so real, and keeps me painfully separate from everything else?

This capacity for abstract thought and reflection about ourselves is, as far as we know, unique to humans and a relatively recent development in the evolution of life on this planet.  Without it, we would not be able to reflect on our predicament as organisms that will die, and so would not be able to choose to embark on the path of cultivating our minds to set them free.  But rational thought alone is not sufficient for freeing our minds. 

The other capacity we humans have that enables us to free our minds from the self is the ability to tune into awareness.  What is awareness?  It is receptive openness to what is happening in the present moment, something we all practice all the time.  While the default mode for our minds is to be stuck in self-based thought – for example, thinking about what groceries we want to buy, or worrying about how we will pay the rent this month – we readily and often switch mental channels to receive stimuli impinging on our consciousness, like an antenna receiving radio waves.  This is what happens when a sudden painful sensation in the body barges into our consciousness: the mind drops what we were thinking and switches mental channels to feel and receive that pain in our minds.  In that moment, our mind is resting in receptive awareness.  Then, our mind might quickly switch channels back to self-based thought (“Oh no, maybe it’s stomach cancer, should I go to the doctor?”), but for a moment our mind was in receptive awareness of the sensation in our body. 

Another way to describe receptive awareness is what happens in the first moment you step through the door into a crowded room.  In that instant, your mind is open and receiving the room – feeling the mood, taking in the visual and auditory cues, sensing if there are any threats or if the room is safe.  This is the capacity of mind that will save our life if there happens to be a tiger in that room, crouched and ready to pounce – our minds will receive the threat and respond to it before self-based thought even has a chance to start contemplating the tiger and weighing the danger it poses.

It is this capacity for awareness that we humans use to untangle the dense knot of the self over the long years of the spiritual path.  In contemplative prayer, we learn to tune into mind (consciousness) without the contorting and warping filter of self-bound thinking, and we feel our way in the body to where the knots and tangles and blockages are.  When they are held in awareness, they slowly untangle, unfurl, like a tight flower bud opening in the morning sun.

This capacity for awareness is not unique to humans; it is shared across the animal kingdom among the more complex animals (again, I cannot speak for the mind of a sea sponge).  It is highly useful from an evolutionary point of view – it is simply the state of mind that takes in our environment.  Watch a cat who has just heard a sudden noise and stands taut and alert – this cat is resting in receptive awareness, not lost in a tangle of thoughts about what might have made the noise.

But what is unique to humans is our ability to choose to use this faculty of mind to untangle the knots in our minds.  We can choose to turn towards the goodness and freedom that we have always sensed and away from the cramped confines of greed and hatred, away from the delusion that we are cut off and marooned in a gangling sack of skin, bones and viscera.

Why does a human choose to do this?  For two reasons: one, through rational thought, she has pondered the philosophical questions above, and concluded that the bright open frontier she has always longed for can’t be found in this material, time-bound world.  Two, she has realized that it is possible to turn towards that frontier, whether she calls it God or liberation or something else, and perhaps reach it within her lifetime. 

She reaches this second realization when she hears the exhortations of the ones who have come before and succeeded in freeing their minds.  We humans hear the words of Jesus, we hear the words of the Buddha, and those of us with ears for the teaching say, “I knew it was possible!  Me too, here I come!”.  This is the true meaning of the word faith: not a culturally inherited belief in an all-powerful bearded man in the sky watching over his human charges, but a turning towards what lies beyond the prison walls of the self.

In summary: because of how our nervous systems have evolved to be complex, we humans are now at the point in our evolutionary history where we can use rational thought to evaluate our predicament as beings trapped in mortal bodies, to realize that our minds are saddled with a strong and deluded belief in our own separateness, and to choose to work to free our minds from this belief, and so reach freedom.  For this we use awareness, which is not unique to humans, but rather seems to be the default state of mind shared across the animal kingdom. 

It does not seem that this human ability to free our minds from the self has been selected for by Darwinian evolution.  It is of no clear adaptive value and seems likely to decrease an individual’s fitness (enlightened people are not interested in reproducing, and no longer fear death).  Rather, it seems this ability is an outgrowth, or “unintended” consequence, of the large processing power (and perhaps strong energy flows) of our nervous systems. 

Humans have reached this step only recently.  The first word of it comes to us from the time of Zoroaster, though there were likely earlier enlightened humans and our cultural record simply does not go back that far.  We have put just one toe across the threshold.

The problem is that it is very hard for humans to reach liberation

Though we have evolved to the point where we are capable of freeing the mind, it remains very difficult to do so.  These teachings have been in plain sight and revered for thousands of years, and yet how few understand them, and even fewer have succeeded in walking the path to completion.  Why is that? 

It is not the failure of our teachers; they have been good:  it is hard to imagine improving upon the teachings of the Buddha, for those who want a clear path laid out and can follow his path of meditation (for those of us with roiled, unstable minds, it is not so easy, even if we know the light).  For others, Jesus’ teachings will get you there – an ecstatic path of faith, of taking the leap, reassured and held in his loving hands as you move towards the edge and prepare to let go.  And there are other paths too, good ones, that work for minds of different karma and life situation; I am simply less familiar with them because of the idiosyncrasies of my life path.  It is difficult to imagine a future messiah substantially improving on the teachings we have already been given.  Humans have been effectively taught, we just have a hard time hearing and following through.

The reason for this is that it is so hard for us humans to conceive of liberation – our minds cannot go there, it is too frightening, the walls of the self seem too solid and real, and what is beyond them feels too terrifying in its cold emptiness.  We are the dwellers in Plato’s cave, living by dim and flickering shadows on the cave wall – when someone comes into our cave and tells us of the blinding clear light outside, and exhorts us to follow him out of the cave into the light, many of us laugh at his madness, because we know with certainty that the darkness of the cave is all there is.  The cave is the prison of believing in our own separateness; the bright clear light outside is the mind freed from this delusion.

And so it seems to me that these sages and their heirs have been shouting into the wind for thousands of years, giving their lives to passionately, fervently, and with great love and concern exhort the flock of humanity to follow them, many of whom cock an ear and say “Hey, yeah, that sounds right to me, I don’t really get it but it stirs something deep and good in me, I’m on board,” but find themselves too mired in the muck, too busy trying to survive, too pressed with the urgencies and realities of their worldly lives, to start out on the true path of self-sacrifice and letting go. 

And as the generations since their coming pass, Jesus and the Buddha become godlike, and the heights they reached unattainable as mythology and miracles spring up around their life stories – and soon enough we humans find ourselves petitioning them as deities to intercede in our worldly lives, and wondering why they don’t do more to stop suffering here on the surface of our beleaguered planet.

We need another messiah to come, to remind us of the goodness that we are, to renew our faith in the spiritual path, especially at this critical juncture in our history – but even then, as time elapses, she too will fade into the mists of the past and become a deity in her own right.

This model is not working for getting humans to walk the path to the light en masse.  The teachings are good and right and true, but they are not reaching people, they cannot penetrate most everyone’s mind, they are too frightening and alien, and the path so difficult.

It has been good to have the few who do make it reminding us of who we are and who we can be, but I fear this is no longer enough – we have reached a point in our species’ history where it has become urgent to get more humans embarking on the path to the light.  How do we do this, before we end ourselves through nuclear warfare, irrevocably messing up our planetary support systems, annihilation by the smart machines we have invented, or something else we don’t yet recognize or anticipate?

How can we get more of us to make it to enlightenment?

We might ask: if our minds have evolved on their own to the point where individual humans are capable of reaching enlightenment, might the trend continue, given time, and evolution will naturally guide our minds to be more and more susceptible to enlightenment, until we transition en masse?    And if evolution selects for both the good (kindness, cooperation, empathy, love) and the bad (violence, tribalism, hatred, greed), is there a chance that natural selection alone will guide our species closer to the light, and we will evolve to be kinder and less violent, and so capable of living peaceably and wisely on this planet? 

This seems unlikely, because we have as yet discovered no selective force that would select for light without the dark, the love without the selfishness, the cooperation without the violence, the trust without the fear.  And we do not have a good understanding of how civilized life has changed the selective forces that have shaped us for millions of years.  But evolution works over long time, and it seems unlikely that the human minds that we are born with now are substantially different than they were at the dawn of civilization 10,000 years ago – we have only been living in these paved technological cities for a short time.  If this complex civilization falls and times of trial and hunger and warfare return, the selective forces will be reset to how they have been for the vast majority of human history – the strong, the violent, and the cooperative will survive (our post-apocalyptic film and television has been effective in showing us this dark vision).  So I do not think we can put our faith in natural selection to guide our species to enlightenment – we will likely destroy ourselves first.  Our hope, then, must be in our cultural evolution.

Is it possible that we can create conditions in a future society favorable to more humans successfully walking the path to enlightenment?  Certainly some societies throughout our civilization’s history have proved more able than others at producing enlightened people – when a society prizes the true teachings and establishes monasteries, supports alms mendicants, and venerates the wise, enlightened masters appear.  An example is the Forest tradition of 20th century Thailand, in which there were several enlightened Buddhist masters , or the long series of wise monks and nuns produced by the monasteries of Europe from the 13th through 16th centuries, even in times of great societal hardship and intolerance (for example, the bubonic plague and the Spanish Inquisition).  And enlightened people often come in clusters – one sage begets another, as we see in the clusters of enlightened around the Buddha and Jesus, and in pairs like St. John of the Cross and St. Theresa of Avila. 

In contrast, recent Western civilization, with its materialist mindset and dearth of monasteries or alms mendicants, has produced very few wise people.  So, a society which treasures and supports those who dedicate their lives to walking the religious path can indeed be a help, and although this has never yet succeeded in transitioning humans in large numbers, it is possible a future society will do a better job.  I can envision the schoolchildren of a future civilization learning about the days of we ancients, who were forever confused about why peace never lasted because they did not understand their own minds.

Science and religion must merge to help

But there is a new possibility looming on the horizon: that we may figure out through our science and technology how to more easily transition an average human being to enlightenment, no matter if they have ears for the teaching, and without the long years of mental cultivation through meditation and prayer.  This is the natural outgrowth of a merging of our two capacities of mind: reason and faith.  If we can scientifically understand the nervous system/energetic changes leading to liberation, then could we, down the road, engineer an individual’s mind to achieve liberation? 

This would be directed evolution of our minds.  We have already been directing the evolution of other species for millennia – note our friendly pet dogs and our corn crops with their swollen kernels.  And now, having cracked the genetic code, we stand on the verge of engineering the genetic material not just of other species, but our own.  We now have the power to tinker with our own species’ evolution, and it seems likely (if unfortunate, given the lack of species-wide debate on the implications of this) that we will take the step of engineering humans with traits we view as desirable. 

And we are already familiar with using rational thought to mitigate against problematic tendencies of these minds we have inherited: we have invented contraception to decouple reproduction from the lust we can’t help but act on.

But our efforts to understand liberation and the physical and energetic changes that occur with it are still in their infancy for two main reasons: first, the simple reason discussed above – we as a species still have an immature view of what religion is.  Most of humanity does not understand that liberation is possible in a human lifetime; we view heaven as something that happens only after you die.  In particular, scientists are those among us most likely to reject religion in favor of a materialist worldview, and so have been unlikely to research these questions.

The second reason we have made little progress on this front is because we don’t really know what to measure, or even if we have the tools to measure what needs to be measured.  We have a crude understanding of mind, both philosophically and scientifically – how does matter relate to mind?  Does matter produce mind, or receive it like a transistor radio?  Or are mind and matter not different, and there is only one thing, call it energy, and then there is also the possibility of being aware of that one thing?  If this is true, then there is the sole and one fabric of the universe, and then there is awareness of that, but they are not different: awareness is to this sole energy as fuzziness is to a sweater.

We have already made much progress on understanding the human nervous system and how energy flows through it (we measure these energy flows as electrical impulses), and we have also made progress in understanding the cellular and molecular building blocks and mechanisms that comprise our nervous systems.  We can measure electromagnetic fields, and we have a nascent understanding of gravity.  We may need all of these in the future to measure and understand mind.

I suspect we already have the tools to make much progress on understanding what changes occur in a human being on the path to enlightenment, both in terms of matter and electrical activity.  And there are clearly humans whom it would be valuable to study: those among us who have experiences of freedom from the self, so called “mystical experiences” – not only those on the path of prayer, but also those who experience epilepsy, mania, psychosis, strokes that only affect one hemisphere of the brain, and in some cases those who take psychedelic substances.  These can all open the cracks in the darkness to let the light of the beyond shine though, to have a vision of release from the self, the vision of divine love.  I suspect from my own path that these experiences have much to do with enhanced (possibly unfettered) communication between the right and left hemispheres of the brain/nervous system.  The sense of self – the analytic, rational, timebound self – is constructed from fear, and I imagine hemispheric lopsidedness has much to do with this.

A few scientists have begun to think along these lines already, and have attempted to investigate what is happening in the brain during mystical experiences, but they have made little progress – in part because they are approaching the problem from self-bound thought, but also because mystical experiences are rare and cannot be conjured at will in a laboratory setting at this point.

Of course, the ideal way to study this would be to follow one of those rare individuals from the start of her path as a fearful (yet hopeful) self-bound human all the way, over the long years of spiritual practice, to her final emergence into the light of freedom, studying the changes in her nervous system along the way.  But this is difficult, given the rarity of such people and the challenge of identifying such a person early on in their path.

And so, it might be possible down the road to engineer a human mind to be freed from the limitations of the self.  But will a person liberated in this manner have the same wisdom as a human who spent the long years cultivating her mind through contemplation, moral action, and meditation?  I expect yes, though such a person would not be very good at teaching other humans how to reach liberation via the traditional, long spiritual path, and might not be very wise about how and why other humans struggle and suffer along the way.  There are many examples of humans who have had the vision of God, of freedom from the self, by chance (for example, many teachers of Advaita-Vedanta; those who have had near-death experiences) – and while they are good at urging others to seek the light, they struggle to meet other humans where they are and teach them the gradual steps of the path. 

Is this a solution to our problems?

So we may succeed in transitioning more humans to enlightenment by creating societal conditions that are favorable to following the path, or we may figure out how to transition more humans via our technology and science.  Either way, the question follows: if this is the solution to our current predicament, is it enough for simply a larger share of humanity to transition, or must the whole species transition?  If the latter, how would that be done?

 

Is it enough to have simply more humans be enlightened?

How would it help if more were enlightened, or at least had the experience of transcending the self (the vision of God, or “stream entry” in the Buddhist tradition)?  This is Plato’s “the Good” – his notion that the vision of the Good would ensure that leaders are wise.  But like humans ever since, Plato struggled to come up with a workable mechanism for ensuring such leaders remain in power successively – humans ruled by darkness inevitably claw their way into power, even though wise and competent rule can conceivably last for centuries.

Historically, enlightened people have not involved themselves in running worldly affairs.  They teach the path to free the mind, and tell those they teach to set their minds not on worldly affairs, but on reaching freedom.  Jesus certainly stepped right back into the messiness of the world once he reached the light, but even as he did so he did not reflect much on practical affairs of the world and society – he taught going beyond the world, seeking the Kingdom of Heaven. 

In the Buddha’s tradition, once enlightened the sage returns to the marketplace, the world, to help others find their way to the light, much like Plato’s former cave dweller who returns to the cave to tell the others of the blinding light outside – but again, the focus is on reaching the light.  The wise do not struggle to right the messiness of the world, perhaps because they see it cannot be righted, and there is no workable and lasting solution given the shortcomings of our minds as they currently are, and given that nothing lasts anyway, save the one thing that has no beginning and no end.  So instead, perhaps they see with clear eyes that the only thing worthy of their effort is point out to others that there is a way out, and this is the only thing worth doing with our time in these mortal bodies.  

And so it has fallen to those still on this side of the veil, those with clearer eyes than most but who have not yet stumbled into the eye-blinking light of liberation, to ruminate on the practical matters of how we humans can govern our societies to keep the dark parts of mind in check while fostering and enshrining the light and good parts of our mind in worthy institutions: democracy, a fair legal system, freedom of speech and religion, egalitarian distribution of wealth (for example, Plato, Locke, Marx). 

But at this juncture in the history of our species, can the wise still afford to recuse themselves from the messiness of the world?  What does it mean to teach others to seek the light if humanity runs the increasing risk of driving itself extinct?   We have not yet had a true sage come in this time of anxiety and concern that we may destroy ourselves.  I am not enlightened, and so I still concern myself with worldly affairs and the fate of our species, and maybe that is just lack of wisdom – after all, everything eventually ends, humanity included.  And because they are worldly phenomena, all civilizations rise, grow senescent, and then crumble – and so is it wise to worry about how to forestall the inevitable collapse of a future civilization?

And yet, enlightened people overbrim with love for humanity and for all of life.  They give their lives to help other beings, all too often literally.  In a world in which humans are killing life on this planet and themselves, would enlightened men and women feel an obligation to use their wisdom to help us govern ourselves wisely?   I picture an enlightened council keeping our planet on a wise and good track, not unlike the Jedi Knights of the “Star Wars” films. 

But there are practical problems with this.  These sages would then be the ones who hold the power, and the billions of unenlightened humans would still be prone to all the usual weaknesses of our mind – the tribalism, the fear, the violence.  We crucify our sages even when they don’t hold worldly power – how much more likely would we be to kill them when they are perceived as our overseers, our powerful governors?  And enlightened humans eschew violence – could this council of sages keep the billions of unenlightened humans from fighting without needing a military to help keep order?

While there are clearly practical difficulties, and I do not yet see how this would work in practice, I believe this is our best hope: to have a larger share of our species bathed in the light of wisdom, to guide and encourage our species on its path forward.  The Buddha said in one of his suttas that his knowledge was like all the leaves in the forest, but what he taught was only one leaf: the path to liberating the mind.  If he were to come now, would he broaden his teachings for the sake of averting the destruction of life – not just human extinction, but the extinction of so many other innocent species on our planet?  Would he take a more active role in worldly affairs? 

The good news is that a human does not have to reach the end of the spiritual path to grow in wisdom and love, and to weaken the hold that greed and hatred have on her mind.  Even simply recognizing that tribal hatred and greed are evolved attributes of the mind, and recognizing that they need to be transcended, and can be transcended, is a gigantic step towards a wiser future, both for us as individuals and as a species.

Can the whole species become enlightened?

Even if we figure out through our science how to transition individuals to enlightenment in large numbers, it is unclear how this could be implemented species-wide.  There would be strong resistance from the vast majority who don’t understand what it means to free the mind, who understandably wouldn’t want to give up their humanity (the passion, the art, the clans, the feasts, the music, the battles!).  And I am sympathetic to this – our tribal belonging, our romance, our art, our terrible longing, our violence – this is the very fabric of being human.  Would humanity still exist if the whole species liberated their minds?

There would be also be the problem of who would be empowered to implement the transition in a species such as ours, and again there would be resistance to those in power.  And new humans would continue to be born who hadn’t been transitioned – how would each new generation be transitioned, and again, who would implement this?

Further, if we succeeded somehow in transitioning en masse, there would be problems with reproducing the species.  The sex drive is born of our belief in our separateness – we desire and lust for things (other peoples’ bodies, money, power) only because we feel incomplete and cut off.  When individuals have freed their mind, they are no longer plagued by this gnawing feeling of a vacuum inside that needs to be filled, and so they no longer lust, and no longer have sex.  A civilization of enlightened beings, reproducing in test tube laboratories because they have all transcended the sex drive?  This is a sterile and odd vision, and it’s hard to imagine why an enlightened species would do this – what drive would there be to perpetuate the species?  

Perhaps the fundamental shift that happens over the long course of the evolution of mind is from organisms driven by need and lack to organisms pulled onward by love: with the baggage of natural selection transcended, with the sex drive transcended (and so with it the inherent drive to restlessly create and explore), an enlightened species would choose to continue living and reproducing itself for wise stewardship of all other beings (much as Adam and Eve were tasked with in the Garden of Eden – though how sadly we have failed in our species’ assigned task, with entire species blinking out of existence on our planet due to our carelessness!  With compassion and care for other life swamped by our greed and fear, we have been poor stewards indeed, though within each of us is the potential for perfect, wise and loving stewardship.  But at least now we are learning to blame natural selection for our fallen nature instead of an innocent snake).

The question “can a species ever fully transition to enlightenment?” might also be the wrong question, only asked because I am stuck in the rut of tribal thinking – in this case, the tribe being my species.  The concept of species is an artificial one, one we have devised to try and make sense of this world we process visually.  There are no clear borders to many species, with interbreeding and gradation common.  We are used to thinking of humanity as one species with no truly close relatives we can interbreed with, but that’s only because we likely killed them off in the not-so-distant past (the Neanderthals, the Denisovans) – the genetic data shows that we used to interbreed with them. 

We can picture life like a tree flowing through time, with the constantly splitting branches being evolutionary lines.  We, at the tip of the great ape branch, have reached the point where individual members are succeeding in freeing their minds, though rarely.  The concept of humans as a species, then, is not so helpful – we are simply part of a river of mind flowing through matter over time.

And so perhaps this tribal thinking is why I am struggling so much with this question of whether a species can reach enlightenment, and the only real question is whether life can reach enlightenment: whether life can evolve to the point where individual knots of energy, such as a human, can realize that mind is not tied to their bodies, is not tied to matter at all, and so be set free.  Perhaps this is the end trajectory of the evolution of life – individual organisms, no matter the species, freeing their minds, and so joining the vast sea they were part of before they were born, and will be part of long after the death of their mortal bodies. 

And if this is so, then perhaps our species cannot escape the fate of destroying ourselves, but we will have already reached the end goal, of life freed, because the best among us have already done so.

Should we leave the planet to colonize among the stars?

There has been much discussion over the past century of whether we could leave our increasingly crowded and polluted planet to colonize other planets.  There are grave technical problems with this – at this point we can only travel to our moon and nearby planets and at best set up primitive outposts there, and we don’t yet understand if interstellar travel is even possible.

But we know from our telescope surveys that potentially habitable planets abound in our galaxy, planets that might have atmospheres and climates suitable for humans.  We don’t know if there is life on those planets, though there is in all likelihood life scattered throughout this universe – and there is growing evidence that some of that life may be visiting us even now.  The question arises: if down the road we still haven’t learned, and continue to foul our own planet and prove unable to keep our population at sustainable levels, caught on a mad cycle of boom and bust on millennial time scales, should we try to leave this planet and colonize others?  The bright dreamers and visionaries among us already look to the stars and dream of finding a new home for us among them, lebensraum for our booming populations, fresh resources to support us, escape from a spoiled planet.

And we yearn for a new frontier.  We have become crowded on this planet, and we yearn for space.  The frontier has died on Earth – there are no more blank areas on the maps, no more terra incognita, nowhere left to explore, and even the dream of retreating into the wilderness as an unknown hermit is dying as satellites monitor every square foot of the planet’s surface and roads cut across our deepest wilderness.   Our hearts, then, yearn for the vast unknown of the night sky, the next frontier we see, the wide open space above us.

As is typical for our species, we have been mostly concerned with the question of whether we could travel to other habitable planets and colonize them, instead of asking whether we should.  But we need to ask this question now: who are we as a species, and who do we want to be?  Shouldn’t we figure out how to live sustainably and peaceably on our own planet before sailing forth to conquer and despoil others, especially if there is life on those planets? 

This is already our violent and shameful history on Earth.   We always set off as brave explorers, heading off into uncharted territory, and this is noble and praiseworthy – but when we arrive, we bring diseases, we send the military, and then we conquer, displace, slaughter and enslave whoever we find living there.  This is not unique to Western civilization; human societies throughout history have done this – this is the human way.  And if we treat other forms of life on our own planet with such barbarism and cruelty (even those so closely related to us – a cattle feed lot, glue traps for mice, hunting for trophies), I shudder to think what we might do to alien life forms, as scared and repulsed by them as we will likely be.

I very much hope we humans learn wisdom, kindness and sustainable living before we leave this planet to live elsewhere in the universe, especially if there is life on other planets.  The last thing we want to be is an interstellar scourge, a virus that trashes planet after planet in an ever-expanding and shameful radius.  It would be a credit to us as a species to figure out how to manage and transcend the darkness in our own minds before imposing it on other worlds in the universe.  Let’s get our own act together before we export our darkness farther afield – if we are to become interstellar voyagers, let us be the ones who arrive in wisdom and light, not in darkness and hunger.

How can we preserve the cultural record?

It is vital to preserve the cultural record if we are to make progress on our species’ march to the light.  Communication across the generations enables the project of civilization – if we don’t leave durable records of what we have understood and discovered, future generations cannot learn from us.  The words of Jesus and Darwin must be passed on, as must the knowledge of DNA and vaccination.  We can try to leave out the blueprints for the hydrogen bomb and the recipe for sarin gas, and this is good: but even without this knowledge surviving we will create new weapons.  We must steer towards the light, and keep on marching in that direction.

We have been lucky to find such things as the ancient Sumerian tablets and the Dead Sea Scrolls, and to have the few ancient Greek texts that were preserved via the Arab culture and those enterprising Irish monks who copied and treasured them.  How can we ensure humans thousands of years from now will be similarly lucky, and even luckier?  How do we guarantee the preservation of our insights to date against a future totalitarian regime bent on eradicating knowledge and wisdom, bent on the ignorance of the governed?  How can we guard against the book burnings to come? 

I worry about our civilization’s increasing reliance on electronic storage of data, and I know I am not alone.  If there is any break in the continuity of our technology – even just a few decades due to some global catastrophe – we would lose huge amounts due to the instability of electronic storage.  We should be creating durable, printed or etched Libraries of Alexandria containing our most important thoughts and discoveries, much as we are for plant seeds in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.  Perhaps we are, at least haphazardly, but to forego archiving the written word would be foolish.

Some visionaries are storing our data in quartz and sending it to orbit our planet in satellites.  Caching our cultural record on the geologically stable surface of our moon would also be good, though with both of these approaches future humans will have to be technologically capable of accessing these off-Earth records. 

And it is good to think even longer term, many millions of years, perhaps long past our extinction.  Life will persist on this planet even if there is a catastrophic extinction event (perhaps wrought by us), as we have learned from the fossil record.  Complex life will rise again, and quite likely intelligent, civilization-building life (maybe the social species such as ants and termites are waiting in the wings, as we mammals were at the time of the dinosaurs).  It is good to think of those future civilized ants, seventy million years from now, retrieving our data from satellites or the moon and learning all about our rise and fall, our triumphs and mistakes – and perhaps learning from us, and not making the same mistakes themselves. 

Then, we would be participating in life’s grand arc towards wisdom over long time, a cultural evolution that spans species, even though we ourselves are long since extinct.

Conclusion

We humans grow increasingly anxious on this crowded planet.  Great instability looms – should we continue to flounder in our efforts to address climate change, cities will flood, crops will fail, and tempers will flare among nations as mass migrations of people increase.  There is a chance still that the tribes will band together in the coming decades in a large-scale cooperative effort to mitigate the effects of climate change, but the current trend is towards less cooperation, not more.  The outlook for our civilization is not good on this small planet of increasingly irascible tribes armed with weapons of mass destruction. 

The words of our past messiahs fade – their names are on our lips, but they feel stale and distant, and our religions become just one more tribe, one more reason to slaughter one another.  Our science has provided us with answers about how we’ve come to be, but not meaning, and we grope to understand our place in the universe.  We need another messiah to come, to remind us of who we are and who we can be, to light the spark of hope and love in our hearts once more, but messiahs are few and far between.  A great fall seems increasingly likely, but most of us have not thought much past that, and wondered how we will fare long into the future.

Many of our best thinkers peer into the future and see humanity merging with machines, our clever thinking and communication enhanced by machine circuitry.  But this is no solution to the problems we face – our hope lies in our morality and our capacity for love, and the machines we create will at best be reflections of us, and at worst will accentuate and empower our dark passions.

I do not have clear answers for our human predicament.  It is clear that just as our clever minds and the technology they have invented have gotten us into this mess, they are our best hope for our future.  But rational thought alone will not be sufficient to save us, because cleverness without love always leads to destruction, and our passions always erode our best attempts at peace and cooperation.  And the religious insight alone cannot save us, because so few of us understand it, and even fewer of us ever succeed into putting it into practice and freeing our minds. 

Maybe our best hope, then, is the inevitable next step, our next Enlightenment – the merging of science with religion.  We have been fumbling towards it for millennia in our art and science, and now we grow close to its blossoming, even as our civilization lurches towards a fall.  Just as we are on the verge of directing the evolution of these physical bodies, having cracked the genetic code, there is hope that we will be able to direct the evolution of our minds, and so inoculate ourselves against the self-destructive passions which have been our great shame and difficulty.  I do not yet understand how this would be implemented, as I see grave practical difficulties, but I believe it is possible.

And the good news is that individual humans need not walk the path to completion to grow in wisdom, love and kindness.  Even partially transcending our evolved Achilles heels, weakening the hold of tribal hatred and greed on our minds, enables us to choose to act contrary to their dictates.  If we can succeed in getting a large share of humanity to recognize the need to transcend our evolved mental baggage, and so embark on the spiritual path, this might be enough to create sufficient wisdom in our societies to pull us back from the brink of self-destruction.

If religion and science remain separate, and we make no further strides towards directing the evolution of our mind to transcend our evolved self-destructive tendencies (whether culturally by getting more humans to recognize and embark on the spiritual path, or through our technology), I suspect we will remain stuck wondering why we can’t achieve lasting peace, endlessly dreaming of utopias that are doomed to fail, and forever being ashamed of our murderous and destructive ways, our planetary civilizations rising and falling on the scale of tens of thousands of years until we finally go extinct.

Perhaps wise aliens will arrive on our shores and teach us how to thread the needle into the future we long for.  Or perhaps our minds will remain as they are and yet we will somehow survive long enough to develop the technology to colonize other planets, and repeat our history of conquest and genocide, but this time among the stars. 

But my sincerest hope for our species is that one day we will be worthy of the name we have given ourselves, Homo sapiens, and we will be the aliens who arrive in light from a distant star thousands of years into the future, bringing solutions to a young alien civilization soaked in anxiety and despair, teetering on the brink of a sickening fall.  I believe this is possible.

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Jon Benner is a former Buddhist monk with a Ph.D in ecology and evolutionary biology from Stanford University.

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