‘The unexamined life is not worth living’, said Socrates.
Life is a blessing, a gift that comes with huge responsibilities. I believe the greatest of all responsibilities is to make an effort to understand life itself. Life is beautiful. It could also be an endless chain of suffering. A celebration of unbounded joy one moment, a bottomless pit of pain and agony the next. Why are there so many contradictions in life?
Our planet earth is more than 4.5 billion years old. Life on earth began about 3.5 billion years ago. Contrasted against these enormous time periods, an individual’s life span of 70 or 80 years is truly humbling. Yet this is the only opportunity for us to contemplate the mysteries of existence. All of us will disappear from the face of this beautiful planet in a few years time, never to return again, leaving behind everything we wish to hold on to. Unexplored paths will remain unexplored till eternity. There will be no second chance. How can we grasp the enormity of this unique opportunity? Who will help us to do so? Which sacred book or guru will awaken us? I believe we are cheating ourselves if we rely on a guru or sacred book to show us the way. The wisdom of ancients can offer useful hints, but the journey itself is every individual’s responsibility.
Imagine reading a great mystery book. A terrible murder happens at the end of first chapter. You are exposed to minor revelations and misleading threads as the book proceeds. You get completely engrossed in the intricacies of the plot and by the time final chapters are reached, you are holding breath to find out who actually did it. Then you realize with a shock that the last few pages are missing!
This is a real possibility. Your life may come to and end before you begin to understand the greatest of all mysteries. In case of reading a book you can find another copy from the local library, but in life there is no second chance. It may be too late by the time you realize the enormity of the puzzle facing you.
I want to make a sincere effort to avoid this terrible situation. I am fully aware that many capable and intelligent individuals have attempted to solve the mystery of life. Am I arrogant enough to think that my tiny and feeble self will succeed where giants failed? I have no such delusions. But I am convinced that this is every individual’s responsibility. However insignificant my answer might eventually turn out, I owe this to life, to nature. This is my unique chance.
How do I start? I am exposed to the ideas of modern science. I have also spent some time trying to understand the essence of religions. My head tells me that science is the path to liberation, but my heart is convinced that there is a great truth behind the religious sense. Science points to little truths that are verifiable and convincing. Religions appear to hide a great truth that is overwhelming and liberating. Is there a path leading from the simple and verifiable to the overwhelming and liberating?
Religious thinkers of all times appear to be unanimous in the view that rational thought is not an effective tool to reach God. Is science anti-God? If this is not a path leading to God, how come God-the-creator allowed us to develop this tool? Well, I am not willing to accept this view. If religious sense has any meaning (I am convinced it has), it should be open to rational understanding. There has to be a path leading to God through science. If God is separated from us by our own present day ignorance, science has to be the tool to navigate through this cloud of unknowing.
Even the longest journey starts with the first step, as the Chinese say. Let us start with the sure and convincing steps, avoiding the cloudy and unsure ones. For example, I accept the laws of physics and refuse to accept that dead people come back to life. I accept the theory of evolution (that man evolved from simpler life forms over a period of millions of years), and refuse to accept the possibility that man could be created from clay.
How does science explain the greatest of all mysteries – Life? Evolution, yes of course. But how did life evolve? Even though many scientists believe that evolution happened due to random genetic changes and natural selection of favorable variations, this is not yet a closed case. Within the scientific community itself, many researchers question this explanation. But the greatest argument in favor of neodarwism is the absence of a credible alternative. I am convinced that life is still a mystery at the present level of scientific understanding.
Life evolved and proliferated for 3.5 billion years without an observer. Natural disasters and mass extinctions wiped out entire species of life many times in its history, but there was no dearth of diversity and innovation. Life was spontaneous, whole and participatory till the emergence of human beings around 200, 000 years ago. There was no division into good and bad, cruel and kind or observer and observed. Self-aware man realized that he is different from all other forms of life. New ways of knowing evolved through a process of de-mystification. The relationship between self-awareness, objective knowledge, and the undivided whole from which self-awareness emerged is the key to solving the puzzle of life.
Remnants of the ancient way of existence, undifferentiated and participatory, though corrupted by the invasion of reason, survive even today. These are our religions. There is no rational explanation for religion because religious sense is more fundamental than reason. Self-aware man is unable to accept the validity of this un-differentiated state that pre-ceded his origin by millions of years. His mind demands explanations and justifications for everything he does. Man has been cooking up stories for thousands of years to justify his innate sense of participation. These are our religious myths.
Just think about it. We feel so cock-sure about our reason and the explanatory power of modern science. But what is this science? How did we come to have this powerful tool? The rational/objective way of looking at nature is something that evolved in historic times. It is crucial to realize that self-awareness did not originate from pure nothingness. There must have existed a proto form of awareness in earlier life forms, down to the first self-replicating molecules.
Life is 3.5 billion years old. How old is Reason? About 10, 000 years old at best. Diversity of life existed on this planet for millions of years being part of nature, not separated from it. Something strange happened with the emergence of self-awareness. Man began to view himself as different from nature. The observer was separated from the observed. This was an entirely new approach to life. Only the ‘Whole’ or ‘Nature’ was in existence before such differentiation set in. Science was born when man realized that he is different from everything else in nature.
Our Gods are misinterpreted. There has to be a realization that ‘God’, ‘Universal mind’ or ‘Creativity’ is a fundamental property of nature, and religious sense is the human way of participating in this joyous dance of life. We are unable to directly perceive the importance of participation in the dance of life because we so completely identify ourselves with the rational fragment of our wholeness. Science alone can help us to reach this realization because science is a God given tool to help us navigate through this cloud of ignorance.
The ignorance finds expression in many forms. There are over zealous believers who are convinced that reason and rule of law is evil. Their faith could even lead them to voluntarily blow themselves up for the promised luxuries of heavenly life. At the other extreme, there are scientists extolling the virtues of materialism, insisting that you exist only because your ancestors successfully reproduced. What we need is a more balanced science, a science that does not shy away from accepting its limitations.
There are scientists looking for evolutionary reasons behind the persistence of religious faith. Various theories are proposed to explain the survival value of faith and religion. It is a futile effort. Religion is not something that evolved; it is the outpouring of a primitive way of existence. Reason or science is a product of evolution. In fact one should be searching for a religious explanation for science. Life multiplied on earth uninterrupted and unobserved for millions of years. Impartial observers of the future will conclude that human reason was only a flash, a bolt from the blue that blinded everything while it lasted.