It was the philosophical obsession that largely defined the first 15 years of my adulthood. After having a life-changing 'mystical experience' at 18 of the separative nature of thought as opposed to the seamless wholeness of nature, I began asking: How did nature evolve a creature that operates in opposition to its basic principle?
After over a decade of sustained inquiry, research, and talking to every philosopher West and East that I could, there were new insights that pertain to the evolution of intelligent species. They apply wherever life develops enough neural complexity to produce creatures with the cognitive capability to consciously manipulate their environments, and eventually develop sophisticated science and technology.
Though more philosophical and spiritual than scientific, these insights have a simplicity and elegance that great discoveries in science have. They may be proven or disproven in my lifetime.
To grasp them one first has to emotionally perceive the truth that that Homo sapiens is not an intelligent species, but a potentially intelligent species, with a limited number of chances to change course and grow into one. If doubt it, the human species is presently repeating World War I and World War II, with nuclear weapons.
Within the next few years, using the new James Webb Space Telescope (which will release its first science-quality images on July 12), we may well know how common life is in the universe. Though the Webb Telescope will not be able to definitively determine whether life exists on other Earth-like planets through spectroscopy, in which different wavelengths of light suggest different elements, it will provide evidence one way or another for extraterrestrial chemistry, and even biology.
Physicists and astrophysicists presume that the same physics that applies to the sun, the Earth, and our solar system and galaxy, also applies to all other stars, galaxies, planets and moons, however many trillions there are in the expanding universe.
Yet astrobiologists entertain the absurd notion that different chemistries and biologies may exist on other planets and moons. In our solar system, two moons of Saturn, little Enceladus, with its geysers spewing organics into space from a liquid ocean below its icy crust, and huge Titan, with its super-cold methane lakes and topography roughly resembling Earth's, are examples of the confusion that basically different principles of chemistry and biology may exist on different planets and moons. Life may exist in the ocean of Enceladus; it will not be found on Titan.
Given that chemistry and biology, like physics, follow the same principles everywhere in the universe, then wherever there is liquid water and the right conditions over time exist, we should find at least single-celled life. And if simple life is common, complex life is probably rare. Potentially intelligent life, like humans, is no doubt very rare. And truly intelligent life is undoubtedly exceedingly rare and precious.
What characterizes truly intelligent life? An intelligent, thought-bearing species is one that has put thought in its place. To understand that requires understanding what makes for potentially intelligent life, and why every species like man face a perilous path to it.
My insights might sound a bit like science fiction, but they flow from the opposite of the imaginative source of science fiction - that is, from so-called mystical experiencing.
An authentically meditative state has no method, technique or tradition, but arises from self-knowing, which is always in the moment. When the ancient habit of internal psychological separation ends in passive awareness growing quicker than thought splitting off as the observer, attention gathers unseen and acts on the entire movement of thought, completely quieting the mind.
In that state, one sees into the basic nature of symbolic thought, which is conscious separation. When the earliest humans evolved, the ability to consciously separate animals and plants from the environment, and accumulate knowledge about them, defined man as a very different and most powerful kind of species. No other animal on Earth consciously separates 'things,' and lives in a symbolic world of its own making.
This made humans psychological creatures, which was ok as long as we lived close to nature, or had intact cultures with coherent and cohesive traditions. But once our ability to manipulate nature reached a certain stage (with the Industrial Revolution), man's inward alienation and outward fragmentation increased exponentially. Climate change and the Sixth Extinction ineluctably followed.
With all due respect to Buddhists, a sentient species is not one simply able to perceive and feel things. Worms, by this definition, are sentient. Anthropologically speaking, sentience is defined is the capacity to be conscious of being conscious. Given that definition, humans are almost certainly the only sentient species on Earth.
The fact that a sentient species is decimating the diversity of life on Earth to the degree of bringing about only the Sixth Mass Extinction in the history of life on Earth, should give everyone pause. It does not however, because people don't see how unique the human adaptive pattern of conscious separation is, and because too few see that the rest of nature unfolds according to a different principle, that of seamless wholeness.
I felt confident enough in my insights into what used to be called "the riddle of man" to write a 12-page synopsis of my thesis to David Bohm, the physicist Einstein called his intellectual and spiritual son. I was then able to dialogue with him over a long weekend in southern California.
At the end of it, I asked Bohm if he thought I had finally "resolved the riddle of man." To my surprise, he said, "Yes." What do I do with it? I immediately replied. "Just don't make another philosophical system out of it," he said emphatically. Since that is precisely what I was trying to do in philosophy grad school, his advice changed the course of my life.
So what does the meditative state, which is the ending and emptying of psychological thought, have to do with the transmutation of man? In other words, what is the relationship between methodless meditation, the crisis of human consciousness, and the transmutation of the human species from an increasingly destructive potentially intelligent species to an essentially harmonious intelligent species?
The universe, which is imbued with intelligence beyond thought (including reason and logic), has invested a great deal in potentially intelligent species like Homo sapiens. But we have a limited number of chances to change course and grow into an intelligent species. If we use them all up, the cosmos will shed a tear, and move on.
There is no separation between the individual and humanity. We are not tiny pieces of humanity, but contain within us microcosm of the true and false, good and evil of all humankind. Understanding ourselves and growing in wholeness, we naturally contribute to the wholeness of humanity.
It isn't that we return and restore some Edenic time of humanity, but that we radically change from creatures of separation and symbol, identification and identity, to cosmic beings growing in insight, understanding and compassion.
Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He welcomes dialogue. email@example.com
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