I think we have outlined here a way of approaching human existence that provides a simple framework for understanding matters that otherwise appear very complicated. And we have done so without using presuppositions or external constructs that have no grounding in observable reality.
I’d like to look at how this view corresponds with some religious views, because I think the difference is not as much as one might think, but first we would do well to recap and clear up something we have come at from several angles but not head on: Who are we?
We launched our discussion by wandering into what might have seemed a dead-end street. Humanity’s time-tested failure to live harmoniously on this planet seemingly indicates a problem that lies with us and that we cannot fix. We had no other choice but to question the only assumption we had left unchallenged, the seemingly ironclad assertion that we exist, or, more precisely, that we exist in the way we think we do.
Probing this idea led to the conclusion that self-identity is illusory, based on an understandable error very early in our development, as we discover the individual nature of our physical existence. Consciousness, however, seems non-individual, collective, shared among various forms of life that reach a sufficient level of development. Exploring the consequences of these realizations showed that loss of self is not necessarily the black emptiness it might at first seem to be. What, however, is left once we strip away not only myself and yourself, but every self?
We are what is left — life billions of years along its evolutionary journey. But we represent a fascinating stage in that journey, a stage at which individual instances of life have reached a level of consciousness capable of recognizing that their only lasting identity is life as a whole, that sooner or later every individual form of existence must end. In fact, death is precisely and only the ending of individuality.
This brings us full circle, because just as life is unitary even if it manifests in countless instances, so there is only one death, replayed endlessly. Any ending is the same: something that existed in a particular way ceases to do so. That this is our greatest fear makes it all the easier to understand how tragedy has such a powerful hold on us. The myriad differences we see between our life and someone else’s disappear in the face of a catastrophe, when we cannot escape the realization that only circumstances separate the very different outcomes. The narrowness of our escape jolts us. Or, if we make the breakthrough, if the wall of self crumbles, then we feel the full emotional impact.
If, however, we pass through death and beyond separateness, then we understand that things have their individual existence and die only in our mind. The wave of life passes on, and the material it stirred into a particular form settles like water in the ocean, until it is stirred again. Life does not die; it changes. But self-consciousness cannot outlive the error that gave it birth, or the mind that never escaped the illusion.
What then is the meaning of life? I’m afraid the question itself ceased to have meaning along our journey. Life is; it does not come and go. Evolution is the only game in town, and life is the town, not a part that needs to be understood in relation to some whole.
We are as much or as little as we let ourselves be, but in a paradoxical way. We “become” more by letting who we think we are, our illusion of self, die. Conversely, we become less by identifying with more things, by asserting our self-will and isolating ourselves from all but the miniscule portion of reality that our brains can process. To identify ourselves with the whole of life is to evolve. Our futile attempts to identify with select others and ideologies are distorted images of this understanding, but to identify with any part or parts of life — no matter how seemingly significant or how many — is to opt for individuality and its limitations including death.
Seen another way, the more I align my will with consciousness rather than operate out of “independent” self-will, the more I will act from a center of life as a whole, in a way that fosters our evolutionary journey. The more I manifest through self-will and put individual concerns ahead of the good of all, the more I hamper life as a whole.
The lack of a permanent self is the reason why so many people answer the question “Who am I?” by constructing an ever larger aggregate self. Or they might wrestle with this question unsuccessfully until they no longer have the strength to care or to continue fighting. In general we assume our individuality is somehow permanent and then feel like we are going downhill on a roller coaster whenever we take stock of our situation and find no evidence to support the assumption.
Once we allow this self-delusion, however appealing it might seem, to die, we can begin to explore reality and find answers to our most troubling questions lying right there, where we were sure they could not be found.
The reason we have been unable to establish a balanced relationship with life as a whole, despite endless attempts, indeed lies with you and me. So long as we believe in or assume some permanent form of individual existence, so long as we see any difference between us that is not temporary and circumstantial, putting others’ needs on a par with our own remains a matter of choice. And when push comes to shove, I will prioritize my needs and wants over yours. Occasionally a hero or saint will act differently, but he or she will be a hero or saint precisely because such acts will remain rare, not the stuff of which ordinary lives are made.
We will live in harmony with each other only when we realize that we are one and the same. I will see things through your eyes when your eyes are my eyes, and not before; when your life and my life are our life. We will begin to act responsibly when we understand that we all win or lose together.
However, we must also allow the walls of being human to crumble with our other illusions. It was convenient to restrict our considerations to our species thus far. But we have been speaking about life, not just human life. And while it does seem we are on the cutting edge of evolution, at least locally, this is certainly not a certainty.
We are not instances of human life; humans and all other beings are instances of life. Simple acknowledgement of our impossibly limited knowledge and experience relative to the cosmos is cause enough to treat all life, everything that exists for that matter, with respect. But if we need any convincing, then the environmental catastrophes we have had a hand in creating should suffice. And we need not even debate whether it is worth betting the future of life as we know it on a gamble that global warming will turn out to be wrong or exaggerated. Flooding due to excessive logging and deforestation, contamination from industrial waste, and other horrors are indisputably the result of either a contempt for reality that will not bend to our will or indifference to the consequences of such contempt in others.
Naturally, such indifference is perfectly understandable for anyone who does not see life as an evolutionary whole but instead believes God or some grand cosmic process will eventually dispense ideal justice and set all wrongs aright. But by continuing a little further along the alternative line of reasoning we have developed, we can follow our insight to its logical conclusion. Just as I can neglect, deprive and even harm a person I do not consider part of my identity, I can exploit and even destroy other forms of life — anything, in fact — that I see as separate from me.
Earlier we noted the difficulty in setting a threshold for consciousness in the development of species. I suggested the point at which decision-making came into play rather than mere stimulus and response. We were indulging ourselves. We might have better luck establishing criteria for self-consciousness. But we need to consider life itself, not merely consciousness or life’s awareness of itself through sufficiently advanced consciousness.
You might think this a much easier distinction, between the animate and inanimate. But the one assumption we have made, and that has carried us all this way, is that life is a unitary impulse. This goes well beyond biology, and the evolution of life is more than the origin of species.
Before taking the long view, however, let us focus on just that part of existence we can easily agree is part of life. If life as a whole is our true identity, if consciousness is life becoming aware of itself, then we clearly extend beyond the little clique we have labeled homo sapiens. We extend to all life. This is not as abstract as it sounds, once we understand the dynamics of self-identity as essentially an illusion. It is not a matter of moving the boundaries of self outward a little; it is a matter of realizing they are entirely illusory. Family, tribe, race, nation and even species are merely extended boundaries of the abstract self. They crumble as one, or fall as dominos. Physically we are defined exactly, but consciousness has no boundaries, no limits.
It is probably not too hard to somehow include a pet, or species that exhibit high levels of intelligence — apes and dolphins, for instance — on the perimeters of an expanded sense of life-identity. But what about reptiles and insects? And what of microorganisms? Then we also have the plant kingdom. Certainly there is little or nothing connecting these disparate forms of life or proto-life, or whatever you want to call them, if life is in fact a random collection of unrelated forms of existence, or of independent creations. But if life is a unitary impulse incarnating with no plan, expressing itself as matter through a process of discovery, of trial and error, then every form it takes is part of a whole. And these forms are not self-contained. They have evolved together, affecting one another, and within the limits imposed by material existence and the environment in which their particular evolution has occurred. The unitary nature of life manifests as an interconnected web of existence.
This is not some utopian view of life proceeding as one harmonious gesture of love after another. “Nature” can be unspeakably brutal. Life’s free manifestation can produce forms that annihilate other forms, and we would do well to remove certain clear threats to the continuance of human life, such as those posed by viruses. But we must do so with intensely considered awareness of what we are doing and what the consequences could be. And we shouldn’t forget the possibilities we briefly touched on of vast untapped potential abilities. For instance, there may be ways of neutralizing threats posed by viruses or other organisms other than eradicating these forms of life seemingly incompatible with our own. Or maybe not. As I said, we are not fantasizing but considering unexplored byways.
Throughout the history of life on Earth, new forms have arisen and some old forms have disappeared. Most commonly life has been able to continue its evolutionary incarnation on our planet by maintaining a shifting, dynamic balance. But the course of evolution has taken some dramatic twists. Catastrophes have occurred, as with the meteorite impact that scientists believe caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. Life might well find its way no matter what; that might be the nature of existence pure and simple. But we have a chance for life to find its way with our conscious cooperation, with our having a knowing hand in it.
Perhaps it is unfair to appeal directly to Brian Swimme’s tale of creation, but our story does go back to that star and includes an unfathomable sequence of unlikely happenstances since (as well as perhaps before). Forget one in a million, our chance of existing as we are is one in a zillion, where you are free to add as many zeroes as you like.
In the end, it almost doesn’t matter whether a unitary impulse got the whole show started. If life has arisen at random, the sheer improbability of getting to where we are should impress upon us even more the need to not sabotage the incredible evolutionary experiment we are part of. Yet the battle of individual wills we have engaged in for a relatively short span of our planet’s several billion years is leading almost inexorably toward erasing a huge chunk of that history. Are we ready to acknowledge that we have no other choice, that we have to let go of the only thing we are sure we are sure of? That we have a future of boundless possibilities, but “you” and “I” are not part of it?