Monday, March 20, 2006

intelligence in the universe

Some recent reflections.

We know with certainty that the universe has come to reflect upon itself in some sense because we, who are a part of the universe, reflect upon it. When we reflect upon its ultimate origins, we are left contemplating a mystery. But it hardly seems uncertain that consciousness has arisen where once there was only unconscious matter.

For the moment, let's think of unconscious matter as unintelligent and merely obeying the laws of nature. We look out on the universe and we see conditions that are, in the immediate sense, hostile to any life or consciousness that might come into contact with it. Nothing, for instance, lived in the early seconds after the Big Bang, when temperatures prevailed which were so high that atoms did not yet exist; nor do we detect the possibility of life in the much reduced infernos at the centers of present-day stars. The heat is too hostile, and so is the crushing gravity.

When we look out in the universe and back into time, or we look directly at the craters of the moon, we see a history of violent attraction between objects. The earth is a rock in a stable orbit around a star. This orbit is a remnant of a violent history; it is an orbit that allows life to grow and finally to look out upon its universe in contemplation of repeated patterns and consistent laws of nature. What we have here is matter that has moved sufficiently away from violence to achieve consciousness. What once dumbly obeyed the laws of nature and was therefore caught up in violence, now finds itself not merely aware of those laws, but also contemplating free will.

Let's acknowledge, however, that moving away from violence into quiet stability is not sufficient by itself to produce consciousness. Many objects in the universe, while no longer colliding with other objects, have ceased also to produce very much activity of their own. These cold bodies we might contrast with the intense violent activity inside stars. Neither extreme can produce or sustain life and consciousness.

Hinduism has certain Sanskrit terms describing these extremes and a middle ground: tamas, rajas, and sattwa. Tamas can be translated as inertia, though the term is not restricted to what a physicist would call inertia. Certainly, gravitational inertia would be called tamas, but the idea can also be applied to a rotten apple, decay, illness, sleep, laziness, stupidity, and death. The moon is, relatively speaking, tamasic. It is inert, or mostly so.

Rajas is all anger, power, and violent movement. The sun's nuclear fire is rajasic. So is war and aggressiveness.

Sattwa is often translated as light. What physics terms as light would be called sattwic, though the term is also used to denote lightness of foot, lightness of being; nonviolent but productive activity; and cleanliness. It denotes fullness of life, not in the broad scientific sense of everything that reproduces, but in the narrower poetic sense of that which lives beautifully. It is not the same as enlightenment, but enlightenment would be called sattwic. To say it another way, sattwa is a prerequisite for enlightenment.

Earth is not merely a rock that ultimately escaped violence; it is full of all the ingredients of life. Most of the elements of the universe are found and gathered here in sufficient abundance and stability, in an environment that is neither too hot nor too cold to produce complex activity. Here the elements interact in such a way as to produce, well, all life that we know, and all life that we are moved to call living or conscious.

Our human history is a story of coming to learn how rajas and tamas lead to death -- or to put it in the language of spirituality, how rajas by itself destroys life, and how tamas merely obeys death. Our greatest teachings remind us not to murder, steal, or give in to any vice; they teach us not to fear or obey death, and to work.

When I step back and try to meditate on God's plan for creation, I do so as a Christian; and Christ's turning the other check to evil is in my eyes the farthest along on the path to consciousness I have described. But all the great teachings, like Hinduism's ahimsa (nonviolence), seem to me to come as God's grace: ways by which God has helped us to understand the laws of nature and our relationship to them. We are no longer material merely obeying the physical laws; we are conscious of our will, and of what circumscribes it; and in being aware of these things, we become the conscious matter of the universe.

From this it follows that the violence that we perceive as natural evil, in what we call natural disasters, does not represent God's intelligence or God's intentional will, anymore than what we call man-made evil represents those things. What seems certain is that God has willed conscious and unconscious matter to co-exist, which means that the latter, being unintelligent, will drown or destroy anything weaker than itself.

The tsunami, we can say, is a part of God's intelligent creation with its natural laws, and is in that sense willed by God; but it is not the direct representative of God's will for the universe, which seems to be that consciousness arise from unconsciousness and live in its midst. Consciousness does not arise separately in a painless universe of its own, because God wills that all matter co-exist. All matter seems related, in deeper ways than the mere fact that we are made of the same stuff. The violence of nuclear fusion may be immediately destructive to life as we know it, but it is tremendously creative; it produces the elements from which all life springs; and then it directly sustains the life that comes into being.

That aspect of the relationship is clear. The obligation on the part of conscious matter toward that which is unconscious is less clear, though much has already been affirmed within the human realm: those who have seen the Light are to love the unconscious doers of evil no less than their own friends. That is clear, if controversial.

Does that extend to the natural world? Certainly, the part of the natural world that we call living calls for our respect. Perhaps that which is destructive and cancerous calls for our respect less than what is living and plainly intelligent, like humpback whales; but there is no question anymore that it all deserves to be honored as life.

And what of the nonliving material world? Is there some sense in which that matter which became human and intelligent can find an active positive meaning in co-existing with earthquakes, tsunamis, storms, floods and other material events that have no consciousness of the death that they cause? Of that I'm not sure -- not because I bear any ill feeling to this part of the natural world, but because I can't really conceive of a relationship with nonliving things.

Environmentalism has sought to invest not just animals and plants, but the material Earth itself, with a consciousness and consequent value. That consciousness does not seem to me to exist, because that which comes into contact with life and destroys it -- even while sustaining life at other times -- cannot be conscious in the sense of enlightenment. That which is destructive in the human world, such as Hitler, can be intelligent, but it is not enlightened, since it destroys when it comes into contact with life and even with knowledge; that which is destructive to consciousness in the material world can be no more enlightened. And unless we invest it with a conscious hostile intent, we cannot even call it intelligent (hence another reason that we cannot find it to represent God's intelligence).

But I do have some positive thoughts about this, which follow from realizing that there is no hard distinction between what we call natural evil and man-made evil. A plague exists right at the border of these two things. Its chief agents are not human; but they are not like the nonliving magma of a volcanic eruption, either; they are living things. And people can bring about a plague, for instance by warring with one another; or they can do very little to stop it. So if there is an unclear border between "living" and "unliving" evil, and we know already that we are called to arise from, live among, and minister to living evil, then something similar must follow with regard to what I call unliving evil.

That plainly cannot mean subjecting the earth to whatever we think is best. Such unreflective confidence would be merely falling back into the imitation of the nonliving violent history from which we arose. Any return to such history, by this paradigm, takes us away from enlightenment. To the extent that we have behaved aggressively with natural resources in the past, we have been merely acting out of our own immaturity.

What I can say tentatively is that we are called in some way to cultivate a material environment conducive to life and consciousness.

God's mind is surely a great mystery. What I observe from looking around is that God has willed us not merely to co-exist with unconsciousness, but to arise from it. In short, it is not merely a tragedy that we take injury and suffer death at times from unconsciousness; we arise from it, and for that reason live with it. Love co-exists with lovelessness, and that seems to be how God wills it.

Evolution is plainly ugly. In the early universe, we see unimaginable radiation, vacuum, supreme cold, collision; on earth we see predator and prey, and truly ugly things like cancer. It is even possible, as recently proposed, that life began in viruses.

And then we see all these things in early human history, and too many of them in the present.

We cannot look into the past and expect to find only the wonders of God’s benevolence. What we can expect to find instead is unconsciousness, and God raising consciousness from it.

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