I’ve always wanted to know the answers: What creates consciousness? How did the cosmos come to be? What happens when we die? Why are we here? From a certain perspective, my life has consisted of a series of investigations into ways of discovering the answers to these kinds of questions. In college, I became interested in philosophy. In medical school, I became fascinated by neurology and simultaneously began my experiment with Buddhism. I’ve learned a lot along the way and have settled at least the answer to the last question to my satisfaction (which, for interested readers, I detail in my forthcoming book The Undefeated Mind), but as to the others, a recent conversation with one of my brothers sparked an unhappy thought: perhaps our brains are built in such a way that they can’t even properly conceive the answers.
For these questions clearly do have answers. Consciousness arises somehow. Something happens to us when we die (our soul rushes off to some version of an afterlife, or gets reincarnated, or we enter oblivion, or something else no one has yet imagined), and the universe is here so it got its start in some fashion.
Or did it? That last issue perhaps demonstrates the potential problem best. Everything in our experience has a beginning and an end. In fact, our minds rebel at the notion of infinity—the notion that something could be timeless or eternal—because we have no real experience of it. We can say the universe has always existed, marching backward in time in our minds, but the idea that we could march backward forever—well, it’s like trying to imagine how many stars there are in the universe or how many neurons there are in our heads. We can represent the ideas with numbers but our metaphorically-minded minds that must think of all things in comparison to something else really can’t grasp it.
On the other hand, the other possibility—that something (meaning, our universe) came from nothing—is equally impossible for us to imagine, violating, as it does, what appears to us as a fundamental law of the universe itself. But what if the principle that something can’t arise from nothing isn’t a limitation inherent within the universe but only within our mind’s ability to conceive? Perhaps we’re limited in a way similar to the characters in Edwin Abbott’s book Flatland, who lived in a two-dimensional space and couldn’t conceive of three dimensions to save their lives, so that objects which moved in three dimensions and crossed their plane of existence seemed to appear from nowhere (something from nothing?). As Richard Dawkins discussed in his book The God Delusion, we evolved to interact with what he terms the Middle World. That is, we can neither see atoms with our naked eyes nor fathom the distance to even the nearest star, largely because, he argues, we don’t need to in order to survive. Though solid matter is largely composed of empty space, it feels solid to us because at the level of our interaction with them, it is.
In other words, as marvelous as our brains are, they’re principally constructed to help us survive and reproduce—not to answer the big questions. After all, understanding the great mysteries of the cosmos doesn’t demonstrably convey a survival advantage. The simple fact is that we may not have yet evolved enough brain power to be able to answer them at all.
To me, this is a depressing prospect. For though I may not need to understand the answers to the big questions to survive, or even to be happy, I also evolved to care about meaning, so I want to. But how can I—how can any of us—when in order to do so we likely need to be able to wrap our minds around ideas and experiences we’ve never had—and may in fact be incapable of having?
The principles of pure reason and mathematical truths may, as some believe, exist independent of our grasp of them, as principles for us to discover, or they may only be products of the way our minds work, accurately describing not only Dawkins’ Middle World but the worlds above and below it well enough for us to make wonderfully accurate predictions about them—but which may still fail to answer the big questions. (Already math and physics can describe things we find difficult, if not impossible, to conceive: how empty space can be curved by gravity, how parallel universes may exist, and so on.)
In Buddhism, there exists a principle that states the subjective wisdom of the Buddha is fused with objective reality, meaning in essence that we human beings are endowed with the capacity to perceive and conceive of the universe as it truly is. Despite the fact that many recent advances in psychology that tell us our brains and our thinking are chock full of biases of which we can become aware but which we can only sometimes escape, Buddhism argues we retain the capacity to realize the “ultimate truth” of things.
As far as I can tell, the form of this ultimate knowledge—enlightenment—is principally an emotional state, a sense or a feeling about what the truth is, accompanied by ideas expressible in language that can only ever capture the experience of it incompletely. The sense I have is that to become enlightened is to tap into a completely different way of knowing.
Or maybe not. Enlightenment could be nothing more (though this would be far from nothing!) than a supremely joyful state in which we feel all matter and life contained within the universe are one. Though Buddhism presumes the knowledge and wisdom one can gain from enlightenment actually reflects the truths about the cosmos, the skeptic in me recognizes this to be a first principle—meaning it’s unprovable. And the scientist in me recognizes that our brains—again, marvelous as they may be—may actually not be marvelous enough, and that the experience of enlightenment (a life-state that’s entirely reasonable to believe is possible given that many have reported experiencing it) doesn‘t actually describe the way things are, but simply represents the most enviable life-state we can experience.
Then again, science may eventually become capable of testing ideas that enlightened people argue are true. I wonder, though, if that happens, whether only enlightened people will be able to understand the results.
Next Week: Why Raising Children Is So Hard