This one’s for Jonny B., who’s been on my mind.
A visit to the Museum of Osteology can precipitate quite a train of thought, provided one is open to that pleasure. I’m fortunate to live a mere 20 miles away, and pay it a visit now and then. I always spend a good deal of time tracing limbed vertebrate evolution through various ancient and modern skeletons on display, admiring especially the universal template shared by amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals –a template that begins with a shoulder or hip, then includes one long bone, then an elbow or knee, then two bones, then a wrist or ankle, then lots of bones, then digits (which have become fused in quite a few cases, in the wings of birds and the hooves of ruminants).Yesterday I gazed upon skulls and skeletons of our vertebrate kin, remote both in time and in degree of cousinhood, and a sense of continuity, of being embedded in an everlasting flow of events simply took hold of me. It was a transcendent experience that has great staying power. I’m moved to share some of this with you, even while realizing that I can’t possibly capture it in words.
It was gazing into the empty eye-sockets of Australopithecus africanus, of Homo habilis, of Homo erectus, of Homo heidelbergensis, of Homo neanderthalensis, that unleashed a flood of reflection on “selfhood.” Was that sense of identity as strong in some of those ancestors and cousins I just named as it is in us? Does an elephant have a sense of self? Does a dolphin?
The sense of self seems so precious to us, so critical, such an indispensable feature of the universe, and yet it’s nothing more than an illusion, an epiphenomenon of brain activity and in no meaningful sense a “soul”; and at the end of one’s life it cannot really be said that anything important has been lost. The universe goes right on doing what it’s always done: expanding and evolving. It continues to be observed by other sentient organisms, and thus from the perspective of the cosmos, a human’s loss of “self” at death is no more significant than that of a cat, or a snake, or a salamander, or a guppy, or a housefly.
Yet we are apt to spend our days weighed down with that awful sense of importance and responsibility that comes with that sense of self. (That’s one of the reasons we invented religions, calling into being an unneeded “redemption” that was bound to enslave us.) But surely this cannot the best way to live our lives, and some of our best teachers have pointed the way out, the way toward the only freedom that it is possible for us to enjoy.
It is the truth that sets us free. (Jesus of Nazareth allegedly said that, and a similar sentiment is attributed to the Buddha. And Lawrence Krauss, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris say the same thing.) It is when our beliefs correspond to reality that we are in at least some measure free. And an important feature of that reality as we now understand it is the fact that causality stretches all the way back to the beginning of time. The inference is inescapable: the cake of the present moment in all its minutest details was baked long before we arrived on the scene. If the Law of Universal Causation means anything at all, it means that free will is an illusion and there is no god. And I would argue that this also means there is nothing to regret, and no salvation to seek. Is there any place in this grand sweep for “selfhood?”
I think the thing to do is not to waste our time in idle conjectures about whether or not some vast, unknowable intelligence might have set all this in motion, or in lamenting what we imagine to have been regrettable choices and squandered opportunities, or in hating others on account of the wrongs they did us: things simply could not have turned out other than the way they have (effects result inevitably from their causes and “free will” exists only in our imagination). Yes, the ruling class are a bunch of bastards – but given their birth circumstances and the milieu that shaped them, they could hardly have turned out otherwise.
We are all, in some fundamental sense, as innocent as Adam and Eve before the Fall.
It seems to me that this insight points the way to real freedom – freedom from those mind-forged manacles that are far more insidious than those imposed on us by a cruel and opportunistic society – and that if this insight were to become widespread, we might finally stand some chance of forgiving each other, reforming our criminal justice system, sharing the planet’s bounty a little more equitably not only with our human brothers and sisters but with all that lives, beating our swords into plowshares and getting to work saving our sorry asses if possible from the worst effects of the climate horror show we’ve already set in motion.
That’s the state of mind I’m enjoying for at least a little while, and I think I won’t bother to take a look at the stupid things creationists and various other deluded god-intoxicants are saying today because I’m not inclined to surrender this beautiful viewpoint just yet.
Brothers and sisters, won’t you join me?