The following essay details one of the important lines of development that led to MindfulBiology.org. It is far longer than most of the pieces on this site, and it may be of interest to only a few. But if you want to know some of the ‘backstory’ behind this project, read on!
MindfulBiology grows from roots that extend back into my childhood. But its flowering began in 2000, when after suffering the loss of my surgical career due to neck disease, my mind underwent a dramatic and painful shift. After a psychiatric hospitalization for suicidal depression, I gradually became more uplifted and energized. This felt good, and then it felt better and better, until I began to perceive LOVE surrounding me such as I’d never known. Visionary experiences began, and the reality of something like God seemed unquestionable.
Needless to say, this change in my mental milieu was unsettling, despite its uplifting flavor. So much so that I ended up hospitalized a second time, now with a diagnosis of bipolar manic psychosis. Thus began my long struggle with a major mental condition and–what was sometimes worse–the psychiatric system that serves to help (according to one view) or control (according to another) people struggling with chaotic mentation. There’s a story to tell around my experience as a psychiatric patient, but that’s not the point of this essay.
I only introduce my visionary/psychotic experiences to let the reader know one of the key stages in the development of MindfulBiology.org. For the altered mental state came with a sense of purpose: to merge my scientific training with my newfound spiritual awareness.
Let’s be clear: early on this ‘purpose’ looked pretty unbalanced. It didn’t just seem like a good idea to pursue; it came to me like a revelation: I felt chosen. One of the many tasks ahead of me was to separate a healthy sense of calling from grandiose convictions about my own importance. To this day I believe that my path in life is one of reconciling scientific and religious sensibilities. But I no longer consider myself divinely appointed to serve humanity; in fact, I often wonder if this reconciliation isn’t merely for the purpose of my own healing rather than public instruction.
But now that healing has been achieved, along with a personally satisfying view of reality, it seems only fair to share my realizations with others. My philosophical viewpoint, such as it is, resulted from years of formal study, hard introspective work, a diversity of readings, and many additional transcendent experiences that were more organized than the first (since they were facilitated by careful meditative and somatic practices rather than a shattering crisis). The fruits of all this effort may offer something valuable to like-minded seekers. Or it may be that my words will fail to find an audience. Even so, I shall try to explain how it gradually became clear to me that one can use verified scientific findings to develop a relationship with life that has all the hallmarks of religious faith, minus reliance on scripture, legend, or elaborate conceptions of God.
This isn’t to say that God is ruled out by my hypothesis. How could that be, when that hypothesis grew out of mystical experiences? But if “God” exists, its characteristics appear to me quite different from the anthropomorphic deity we’ve come to associate with the term. Luckily, in religious thought there’s a long history of turning to a more mysterious quality, a Godhead, Tao, or Brahman, that can’t be described but can be felt. That sort of world-pervading presence fits well with the notion soon to be introduced.
Still, the fact that religious precedents can be found doesn’t make the task of combining science and spirituality trivial. There’s enormous tension between the two realms, mainly because academic scientific attitudes are constrained by material atheists, while the most commonly heard spiritual views are proclaimed by dogmatists who believe ancient writings trump empirical methods. But there’s no a priori reason why the two shouldn’t mix.
In fact, if we believe spiritual experiences reflect natural phenomena (even if only in the brain), and if we consider science a valid method for understanding all real-world processes, then the two perspectives must mix. There is now considerable literature treating the relationship between science and spirituality. Some of this work (like that of William James and more recently Andrew Newberg) investigates mystical experience using neuropsychological methods. Other texts focus on cosmic evolution, and the debate often boils down to this: is the universe directed and purposeful or random and meaningless?
All sides agree the universe has many highly specific characteristics, without which life could not exist. These include the weights of fundamental particles, strengths of physical forces, and hard-to-explain asymmetries that arose during cosmic construction. A tiny minority of scientists—those working with religious motivation—believe the evidence points to a universe designed for human habitation by the God of Abraham. In sharp contrast, the majority believe our universe is just one of a vast (essentially infinite) number of universes, each of which emerged with random properties. Because we could only have evolved in a universe with the correct parameters, we imagine those parameters were exceptionally well-tuned, but they just happened by chance. They believe appealing to special causes is akin to a lottery winner believing that since the likelihood of winning is so small, his good fortune must have been “God’s will”. But, of course, if enough people play, one of them is bound to hit the jackpot, just by chance.
Yet there are some prominent scientists who—without pursuing a traditional religious agenda—have rejected blind, unconstrained randomness as an explanation for the remarkable situation we find ourselves in. Theoretical physicist Lee Smolin once proposed that universes evolve sequentially over time, old ones spawning new ones. After many cycles, most universes would both fairly stable and highly dynamic, since universes with these qualities are the ones most likely to produce new universes. Such dynamic stability would—in some cases—favor the evolution of life. And Cambridge evolutionary paleobiologist Simon Conway Morris points out that evolution does not appear utterly unpredictable and contingent, but shows strong tendencies to follow certain paths. Rather than a random walk, it is one guided by so many constraints that something like the world we see might be expected to evolve anywhere conditions are ripe. The point is, one is not forced to choose between a intelligent life emerging randomly against vanishingly unfavorable odds (but with such a vast number of universes that intelligence was inevitable despite the unlikelihood in any given case) and it being designed by an anthropomorphic deity. The landscape of possibilities includes much territory that requires neither freak accidents nor designing gods.
My own position, soon to be explained, hopefully falls into that middle ground between extremes. As already hinted, it is consistent with ancient philosophies that see the forces driving the universe as deeply mysterious but also proceeding purposefully.
But to get to the point, here’s the crux of my thesis: The universe can be viewed as a mind. This is a stronger statement than likening Creation to a computer, which is an idea favored by a number of physicists and computer scientists as an extension of standard mechanistic views. A machine-like cosmos is one that lacks awareness; a mind, in contrast, operates with sentience.
My hypothesis is that the universe is a mind of some sort, but not the human sort. It doesn’t plan ahead; it doesn’t judge. It simply grows, creates, and adapts. Among its creations, the cosmos favors those that endure and proliferate. Not because it likes them better, but because that’s how the Mind works: new ‘designs’ arise (for instance by genetic mutation) and then are perpetuated or culled according to their capacity to endure and propagate.
Such natural selection–often called Darwinian selection–may be a common feature of minds. Natural selection is currently used to explain the way thoughts compete for attention and (at a structural level) brain synapses compete for strengthening versus attrition. If you think about it, human creativity often operates that way as well. The essence of ‘brainstorming’ is to generate ideas willy-nilly. The raw possibilities are then reviewed, and the ones that continue to attract attention are retained (and revised in the next cycle of consideration), while those that seem beneath consideration are forgotten. Or look at the history of technological innovation, such as the progression that led to the first airplanes. Countless designs were proposed, many were constructed, and only one of the early plans (airfoil wings with lightweight motorized propulsion) ultimately survived to be copied by others. So the idea that our cosmos deploys both the sentience of mind and the methods of natural selection is not unreasonable.
Conventional scientists and atheists, of course, will not agree that the proposition is so reasonable. The sticking point comes down to the distinction already mentioned: there is an inward experience associated with a mind. This is very different from the sort of cosmos favored by materialists: a random mechanical process that only elaborated consciousness late in the game, as complex brains evolved. What I’m proposing falls into the philosophical category of panpsychism, and it is clearly in opposition to the mechanical view. Panpsychism, however, has had some notable proponents over the years, such as Plato, William James, and Alfred North Whitehead.
In a later essay I’ll explore the reasons for believing inwardness might be built into the cosmos. For now, let’s just say that my working model is one of subatomic particles and their physical laws serving as (respectively) the basic components and procedural rules of cosmic development. The accomplishments of physics thus remains unchallenged. But instead of believing that particles are—in essence—inanimate grains of sand—we believe they possess a (very) rudimentary interior experience. With that ingredient in place, our cosmos can be understood as a vast mind that appears increasingly intelligent at higher and higher levels of observation. It’s analogous to believing individual neurons possess some interior experience that builds up, bit-by-bit, as we examine them at the level of local nerve networks, individual personalities, and entire cultures.
Although creative and endlessly generative, this mind is dissimilar from human ones because it operates only by selection mechanisms. I see no reason to suspect it capable of rational design (at least not before organic minds evolved that capacity and thus extended the skill set of the cosmos as a whole). So when this putative cosmic mind created Homo sapiens, it did not do use our vaunted methods of conceptualization and forethought. Rather it worked by randomly generating forms that were sorted according to success or failure in survival and reproduction (i.e., by evolution through natural selection). This is the standard scientific explanation altered in only one (vital) detail: sentience was present throughout the process rather than only late in the game.
Nor is there necessarily a central ‘being’ in this cosmic mind. There might be, which would reassure the religious camp, but comparisons with our own nervous systems prove there need not be. Neuroscience understands the human brain to be a system of interacting elements with fluctuating levels of influence on the experience of self-identified consciousness. There is little sign of a stable core, only an imprecise personal narrative cobbled together from a hodgepodge of drives, motives, and interpretations. The cosmic mind, as envisioned here, is a vast collection of particles, molecules, life forms, and so on, possessing degrees of awareness ranging from rudimentary to highly advanced, in accordance with the evolved structural complexity of each. Given that outside the small domains we know as brains (and brain-designed computer systems) the universe appears to lack complex informational connectivity, there seems little reason to suspect it of coalescing into a unified (i.e., omniscient) consciousness.
Coalescence may depend on the the extent of cross influence between aware elements. In some cases there might be only minimal interaction, and in other cases the degree of something like harmonic resonance might be quite high. For example, planets on opposite sides of the galaxy don’t ‘feel’ one another much, whereas the planets within our solar system are dancing in complex cycles as the gravitational mass of each influences the trajectories of all. Similarly, people on separate continents may begin with few shared ideas, but that changes when they plug into a global communication system. Whether conscious entities can exchange information by mechanisms still in strong dispute (the psi controversy) is not very relevant to the question of a cosmic mind, but may be important to the possibility of that mind achieving unification.
We cannot know what the inward experience of the cosmic mind—whether unified or not—’feels’ like. Nor can we know what the experience of a proton might be like. After all, we can barely imagine what it’s like to be another person. But the fact we can’t imagine what it’s like to be a universe or a proton does not imply it isn’t like anything at all. This touches on important issues raised by Thomas Nigel in his famous essay, What is it Like to be a Bat? The implications of this work have been dissected by many philosophers and I’m not qualified to chime in. I’ll simply use Nigel’s piece to make the point that while we suspect that a bat experiences life, we can’t envision what the subjective world of a bat ‘looks’ like. We can believe an animal or other entity (like a particle) possesses inward experience without being able to describe that experience.
I am proposing that interiority is not unique to humanity, but far more general, which is a view held by many philosophers, including Nagel. For these purposes I’m assuming it extends all the way to the smallest matter particles. As I’ll explore in a later essay, assuming the presence of interiority in matter particles makes as much sense as assuming its absence (which is the centuries-old practice of conventional scientists). With pervasive interiority we can use the already respectable idea that the universe operates like a computer, and update it to say the cosmos functions like a mind.
Note that I’m not suggesting the universe was designed by a mind. Nor am I proposing that the cosmic mind is in any way separable from the physical universe we see around us. The “mind” is implemented as material substance and operates by matter’s rules. The difference between this view and that of conventional science hinges on the timing of consciousness. If sentience arose late, with the evolution of complex nervous systems in the last 500 million years, then the cosmic mind hypothesis fails. One would be forced either into the conventional scientific view (which would be my fallback position) or else into religious views that see the universe as designed by a creative intelligence (God) that is separate from its own creation. On the other hand, if the rudiments of interior experience, of consciousness, are inherent in the cosmic ingredients themselves (matter and energy) then all scientific findings remain valid as before, but the assertion of a purposeless, accidental universe becomes less tenable. Instead we’d be looking at a vast mind-like process with which we might, if we wished, begin to build a relationship.
Whew! In this piece I’ve put forth some audacious (though not novel) proposals. Let’s pause for a moment and ask why anyone should care about any of this. More specifically, why do I care?
As mentioned at the outset, reconciling mystical leanings with scientific findings has seemed vital to my recovery: not only from career loss, but also from childhood trauma and some major physical and mental health problems. It has thus become my life’s purpose. So the reason I care that the universe can be viewed as a materially implemented mind is that it resolves a my central dilemma: how to feel at ease in the world despite a punishing upbringing and tumultuous adulthood.
Why is the dilemma resolved? Because I no longer feel alone. With the idea of a cosmic mind I find myself in an awe-struck relationship with an ancient and aware universe. I find it possible to feel not just awe, but devotion; and not just devotion, but also a sense that the cosmos remains invested in its (my, our) experience—it cares. With the crucial ingredient of sentience the universe known through science becomes an endlessly generative awareness that appears passionate about life. Anyone who finds this viewpoint compelling (as I do on both rational and experiential grounds) can reap the benefits of religion without relying on scripture or mythology.
Yes, a tectonic shift in the conventional perspective is required: assuming sentience rather than its opposite. As already mentioned, I’ll return to this altered perspective in another essay, where I hope to make it seem plausible. I’ll even attempt to demonstrate how it might shed light on one of the most intractable problems currently plaguing science.
But let me close by tying this together with Mindful Biology. There’s a double meaning in the name. One can be mindful of biology, but one can also see biology as full of mind. The point is that a mind is something one can relate to personally. Mind-full biology thus points the way toward reconciling scientific understanding with spiritual yearnings.
With all this said, the cosmic mind hypothesis is not central to MindfulBiology’s primary mission, which is to help us feel more familiar with and friendly toward our bodies. Feel free to reject it if it conflicts too strongly with your own views, whether religious, scientific, or atheistic. You can still benefit from the guided mindfulness exercises, which will never insist on a notion as unproven as that of the cosmic mind.