There are various implications of our premise yet to explore, but maybe it is best to begin with the possibilities that open before us, lest the improbabilities still seem to tip the scales toward despair.
Actually, the possibilities are countless, because we are talking about an open-ended evolution. No one can say what life will come up with. A look at the evolutionary track record shows starts and stops, dead ends and paths with multitudinous living branches, failures both obvious and elegant, as well as success through ingenious innovation and brutally efficient designs that change little over millions of years. What it does not show is a steady predictable progress like the endless minor upgrades to consumer products. Some people may choose to take mythical accounts of creation literally, but even the Catholic Church, which only admitted as the 20th century drew to a close that it was wrong for condemning Galileo 350 years earlier, does not deny evolution as the practical engine of life. It does, however, insist a Creator got the process going and somehow guides it.
Personally, I see very little difference between saying a Creator got it all going and saying that the impulse of life drives it. It started with a bang and has continued since, but there is no evidence of evolution following a predetermined or even ordered path. Natural selection provides a sufficient mechanism to produce the variety of life we see, the designs that won out over time, and it accounts for the misses as well as the hits. The latter point is crucial, for I can see no way to explain how the guiding hand of an all-powerful or all-knowing Creator could make so many apparent mistakes. And appealing to the Great Mystery, that we cannot possibly fathom the mind of a Supreme Being who nonetheless has a master plan, immediately brings an end to any sense of rational discussion. My aim here is to see precisely how far we can go with simple rational discussion, without rarefied specialization and knowledge.
Does this mean that I am ruling out the possibility of a Creator, of God? No. But certainly the history of life — the evolutionary record, the odd variety of surviving organisms and the brutal extinctions of species that survived for millions of years — argues against some kind of Supreme Being who fashions creatures and environments at will. Reality is simply too complex for such programmatic answers. My simple approach to the “God question” is that if someone can explain their idea of God to me well enough that I can understand it, then I am sure that that God does not exist. And I really don’t see much point to saying more than that, although I will come back to certain parallels between religious ideas and the conclusions we are drawing on our own.
So we dispense with any possibility of knowing what the further evolution of the wave of life we are riding will bring, assuming that humanity does not bring down the curtain through arrogance and literal selfishness. And obviously we can have no heavenly reunion of eternal individuals that do not exist. So what could there be to look forward to? The answer, though perhaps not immediately appealing, is that we have no idea. But we do have several billion years of life evolving. And that offers the open-ended possibility that what comes could exceed any expectation we are now capable of formulating. Life on Earth is an evolutionary experiment that has produced the wonders we see around us and the awesome phenomenon of self-consciousness.
We have seen the marvelous things the human mind has come up with, as well as the horrors it has created when it places self-centered interests ahead of all else. Just stop and try to imagine what the human mind could achieve if it shed the blinders of self-existence and acted as a conscious center of life, something like a neuron in an evolving cosmic brain. Even without any specific idea, I think we have something worth trying out. If we want to indulge in a little New Age-type speculation, we could wonder whether claimed instances of telepathy, psychic healing or whatever suits your personal fancy could be early signs, mutational beginnings, of the potential evolutionary future. And while I could easily grant for the purposes of discussion that 999 of every 1,000 such alleged occurrences, or 999,999 of every 1,000,000, could be mistaken or fraudulent, the funny thing about a scientific approach is that you have to prove every alleged instance of something is false or impossible to prove that it doesn’t exist. For instance, I have no personal experience of and hence no reason to believe in ghosts, but it is hard to prove there are no such things, however many claims are debunked.
It goes without saying that any evolution in the power or capacity of the human mind brings with it the same or likely even greater dangers than those we face due to the intellectual advances we have already made. So let’s not delude ourselves. Humanity has no future if we do not get our act together, if we do not stop killing and hurting one another and the planet that gave birth to all the life forms we know and sustains us all. Our world itself might not have a future, though I think it would be more than presumptuous to think we could stop life in its tracks. What we could do is wipe out millions of years of evolutionary development in the realm of consciousness, a phenomenal amount of diversity and the prospect of seeing what we really are capable of. Life would just slowly emerge in a different way, leaving behind the geological record of a failed experiment somewhere in the outer reaches of the Milky Way.
So, as we indulge our imagination of what might be possible, we do not do so with the giddy sense of children wondering what Santa might bring, confident he will bring something good. We simply acknowledge the possibilities as unlimited. And we have only briefly turned our attention to ways in which the mind might develop on its own if it could open outward and move beyond self-imposed (literally) limitations. But lest we wander lost in fantastic speculations, I leave these for you to ponder at your leisure. You will naturally be better than me at coming up with possibilities that you find inspiring. And I am not implying that instances of what might be abilities on the forefront of the evolutionary curve necessarily resulted from people having broken through the wall of self. What I am suggesting is that such a breakthrough could unshackle the mind in ways we might scarcely be able to imagine.
From a more down-to-earth perspective, which I want to investigate in more depth presently, the universal ethics we have hinted at holds out the possibility of a world in which sharing replaces greed and cooperation replaces war. Such developments might seem even more far-fetched than the average science-fiction movie, but they actually would be within reach if we could remove the reasons for sliding into the negative alternatives. And all this requires is that we see through our false concept of self.
If I am separate from you, then taking something for my own or sharing it becomes a choice. And it is all too easy to choose me over you, because I know and feel every need or reason I can muster to take something, while you and your needs or desires remain abstract, and the more so the more separate I think you are from me. Of course, I may have a special bond with you — mother or father, child, sister or brother, friend. If so, then you are part of my family, my tribe. I identify to some extent with you. And the stronger the identification, the more I recognize you as me, the more I will share with you and consider your needs and desires, because they are at least partly mine. The dynamic is simply one of self-interest.
Still, you might not be convinced that anything of great value or wonder is created through the end of the individual, through death. It is hard to see what gain there could be in the loss of the physical self, when this means there is no self to appreciate the transition. And I’m afraid there is no consolation prize. But this is looking at the situation upside down. Interesting or fun as our individual existence can be, we live cut off from the totality of life. It is a reduced way of being. And it traps us in time as well as space. An example is the idea I would be willing to bet that most people have of heaven.
I remember that as a rather young child, the thought of heaven came to fill me with dread. I tried to think what I enjoyed the most. I can’t remember all the details, but I know eating ice cream featured prominently in my vision of eternal bliss. Then I imagined living my “ideal” life day in and day out, for years and years, for centuries, and realized the fun would gradually diminish until eventually heaven would become terribly boring. But endless boredom stretched out from that point on. Heaven became a place of potentially eternal torment, a well-intentioned hell rather than a paradise. So for a while I cried myself to sleep, disturbing my poor mother in the process, until the “no way out” pain dulled.
Maybe my child’s view was too simplistic, but how does one conceive of eternity as an individual? It is a series of experiences strung out in time that simply never ends. The idea of one party or picnic after another, or of singing hymns of praise, or of doing anything or any number of things forever and ever may have a good number of people saying “Amen,” but it would still chill me to the marrow if I thought that was the best future I could hope for.
From within a self convinced that its continuance is the only desirable goal, we cannot conceive of what opportunities the loss of self could open up. But we do know that it will happen, sooner or later, without exception, through death. Of course, one need not wait. To see the unreality of individual identity is in a very real sense to die. The mind’s greatest creation ceases to exist, yet life does not cease, and neither does awareness of it. On the contrary, both expand without limit through true identification, which the mind’s erroneous attempt to build a limitless individual self reflects in pale, distorted hues. So if we can see and accept the death of the self, then the death of the body need not produce such anxiety, even without the traditional reassurances. We merely play the odds or, if you will, trust that billions of years of evolution are headed somewhere. We can’t know where, but we can learn to live with the uncertainty.
Even without death, one of the greatest pains in life is separation. No matter how close we feel to someone, individuality poses a barrier we can never overcome. We are continually saying good-bye as we move from one place and one person to another. And the more people we know, the less time we can spend with any one of them. Again, one can only imagine how absurd this situation would get in some heavenly eternity. Eventually, I suppose, one would get to know just about everyone. And then wouldn’t planning one’s social calendar be a chore? Really, the more you think about it, the more absurd the whole idea of some endless individuality becomes, and the more a fundamental unity seems the only possibility for an existence that transcends time and space. These dimensions impose a localization that makes no sense without them.
If the end of the self, through insight or death, still seems an unsettling prospect to you, perhaps some consolation can be found in Brian Swimme’s account of our thinking back on the star that eons ago spewed into space the stuff of which our world is formed. The evolution of life on earth has not left its beginnings beyond hope of remembrance. So it should not be surprising if life turns out to have a more sophisticated memory linked to advanced forms of consciousness, especially those forms through which life explicitly becomes aware of itself.
The idea of a “collective” memory is nothing new, but such a memory might turn out to be more collective than has been speculated. And while we will not continue to exist as physical selves, maybe some kind of record of our time here is preserved within consciousness as a whole. Since part of our proposition holds that self essentially is memory, there could be less difference than we might fear. Besides providing some form of continuance, this would also provide a basis for understanding some claims associated with the popular idea of reincarnation. Some people reportedly possess knowledge from the past that they would seem to have no access to, and so it is said they are remembering their “past life.” Naturally this fits in with the idea of transmigration of a soul, but it also could be explained by a collective memory accessible to a more evolved consciousness, or one that simply mutated.
There is no point spending too much time on this. If we do not truly exist as individuals — selves, souls or whatever — then any fantasies based on individual existence have to go too. The thoughts and memories stored in our brains do not outlive us. We do not need to dismiss the idea of evolving consciousness having a memory that could include some of what we conceive of as individual, but at this point we can do little more than keep in mind that boundless possibilities exist, that life including what we perceive as the past is open-ended, even if we discount the idea of an afterlife that continues the delusion of our body-mind combination as an essential self.
We are an experiment in progress, as well as the most present threat to that progress. We can accept the physical limitations that we currently see no way around and simply go on with what is in front of us. We can carry the experiment forward by simply acting in our best interest — as well as we can determine this — when we are the world. Or we can turn back in fear and take refuge in caves of self, imagining that one or another ideology will magically rescue us in the end, comfortably numb in the knowledge that our choice cannot be proven wrong any more than it can be proven right.
I think that’s enough to convey the idea that taking reality on its open-ended terms is not the black hole of horror it might at first appear to be if you measure it by the standard of impossible fantasies. It’s a bit like the glass being half-empty or half-full, in that reality simply is and how you look at it is what you add to the equation. Getting back to the line of reasoning we were pursuing and seeing how core concepts such as justice and love can be explained naturally and without complications might help to solidify the sense that our concept of self only hinders the progress of life, and that we will be infinitely better off without it.