Wednesday, February 28, 2007


A human being is a part of the whole that we call the universe, a part limited in time and space. And yet we experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest - a kind of optical illusion of our consciousness. This illusion is a prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for only the few people nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living beings and all of nature.
-- Albert Einstein

The fact of humanity as a collective being is not a remarkable concept. What is remarkable is how one can carry on life’s daily activities, one of billions of others shuffling across the face of the planet doing much the same sort of thing, and still maintain a firm belief in one’s own individuality.

We distinguish ourselves with our styles and our fashions and our “unique” thoughts, apparently unaware that the very things that mark us off as individuals “different from the rest” are themselves the products of a collective culture to which we as individuals make only a vanishingly small contribution.

This blog, so unique to my own thoughts, is one of perhaps hundreds of millions of others, each as certain of its own individuality as my own.

Every human being has two souls, one a product of individual experience, and the other the product of the collective experience of the human species.

The collective soul is carried in two vessels: the DNA in which is encoded the blueprint for the species, and the culture, in which is encoded the collective actual experience of humanity.

As I’ve tried to say in an earlier post, what we call the “soul” is nothing other than the learning of the species. The soul lives in the genetic material.

But the learning of the species resides not only in the human body. Perhaps the greatest distinguishing feature of the human species is that we are the only animal that stores its learning outside of its own mortal body.

The soul of humanity in 2007 resides as much on the Internet as it does in the human genome.

What is DNA but the distilled experience of the human species? And what is the Internet but the memory of the human race?

Thursday, February 22, 2007


I’m just listening to a lecture series on Emerson, Thoreau, and the Transcendentalists that ties into the last post about Plato and the concept of forms.

I admire Emerson and Thoreau and the Unitarians in general, because for me they mark a stepping stone away from traditional Christianity in the direction of a more naturalistic interpretation of the world. A step in the direction of materialism, though they would vehemently deny it.

The Transcendentalists argue, as I gather from these lectures, that there is something that transcends nature and matter, but that spiritual force is to be found within nature itself. Influenced by eastern spiritualism, they denied a distance between humanity and God, and insisted that God is within us and around us in nature and can be experienced directly by man without need of an intermediary such as a priest or church.

From there it’s just a skip and hop and you’re saying that we and nature are God, pure and simple. This dangerous idea was rejected by mainstream religion of the day as Deism, the doctrine that we cannot know God, or even atheism, the notion that there is no supernatural God.

I’ll be arguing in this blog that what we call God is just code for natural phenomena, for a nexus of concepts and symbols referring to humanity and its relationship to the natural world.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Forms

Plato made some interesting arguments that still have life these many centuries later.

One of these was the notion that there are “forms” which exist on a more perfect plane. In his parable of the cave, Plato argued that we can see these forms only dimly, like shadows on the wall of a cave.

The world of matter was for Plato essentially corrupt and temporal, and therefore while it seems real to the unenlightened, it is less real than the forms, because while matter decays and dies, the forms live on.

To pick up on my point from the last post, again I think Plato here is recognizing something eternal in the soul of man – and that little something is not ethereal or immaterial, it is simply DNA. He writes of this or that horse which lives and dies, but never can be described as the perfect horse. Meanwhile, we have a concept of the form of a horse that allows us to recognize one when we see it.

What Plato, limited by the science of his day, could not see, is that the form of the horse, the blueprint for all horsiness if you like, is recorded in DNA and other genetic material. That record is not a mere concept, it is laid out in complex proteins and other real matter. What Plato meant by forms is DNA.

Another thought came to me the other day about Plato – he argued that not all knowledge can come from experience, because some knowledge is innate. To illustrate he tells a story of teaching an uneducated slave boy some geometry, which the boy immediately grasps. The conclusion is that if the knowledge of math were not innate, the boy could never learn it so quickly.

Plato is right – our brains are capable of learning and understanding math. But what he could not know is that this is so because of knowledge gained through experience. Not the experience of the individual, but the experience of all their ancestors, as recorded and encoded in DNA and other genetic material.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Soul

What is the soul?

In various religious traditions, the soul is referred to as the immortal essence, the spirit, the “higher self”. The soul is generally considered to be “immaterial”, meaning not made of matter but in some way supernatural, existing on a higher plane.

These religious interpretations of the concept of the soul can now be answered by science. The immortal essence of humanity is DNA, RNA, and other genetic material that achieves immortality by copying itself through successive generations.

The soul is therefore NOT immaterial. The ancients recognized that our bodies were just “envelopes for the soul”, but lacked the science to identify the substance of the soul itself. Their stories were naïve interpretations of a genuine natural phenomenon.

Part of what this blog wants to argue is that it is all too easy to dismiss the naïve interpretations of the ancients as ignorance, and to miss the deeper truths they tried to express.

Medieval paintings of winged souls departing the body for the great beyond may seem like pure fantasy, but they symbolized something of enormous importance for humanity. Even after our mortal remains have scattered to dust, there is a part of us that lives on - a part of us that is a record of our own experience, and a record of the uncounted generations before us who left us the legacy of their genetic material.

Mention made in the classics of the “World Soul”, or the “Soul of Humanity”, are inklings of an understanding that in vital ways we share our soul with our fellow human beings.

In fact, since all life is on a journey towards immortality, we share a soul not just with those creatures whose DNA is very close to our own. We share a soul with all species who use DNA to overcome time.

When the ancients write of “Spirit”, I think of that common spirit shared by all living things – the desire to persist through time and to overcome mortality and decay.

When current religious traditions speak of how the body is a mere envelope for the soul, and the soul is a mere envelope for the spirit, I understand what they are saying better than they do themselves. The body is just an envelope for DNA, and DNA is just an envelope for the mainspring of life – the desire to defeat and overcome time itself.

Monday, February 12, 2007


I’ve mentioned in earlier posts that matter “learns” how to survive by the simple means that behaviours that don’t serve survival through time do not persist.

But there can be no “learning” without memory, because there can be no knowledge without memory. There has to be a persistent record of experience to learn from.

In a sense, life itself is all about maintaining a record of experiences that result in persistence, that result in survival.

But where does that record reside? We know that human beings (indeed all forms of life, but let’s discuss human beings) keep a record of experience in various short-and long-term memory systems. But there are some human behaviours that are clearly not learned. A child will focus on its mother’s face from the moment its little eyes are capable of focusing. No one taught the child to stare at its mother, or to say “bababa”, or to suckle at the breast. These things are instinctual.

The idea that some forms of knowledge seem to be innate has confused philosophers from at least the time of Plato. Fortunately, science has solved it. Every living creature carries a record of the sorts of behaviours that work for its species in a longer-term “memory” system – DNA.

Experience is the fount of all knowledge. One of the arguments against this position has been that some knowledge appears to be innate. How can it therefore be founded on experience? An infant has no experience to draw upon!

The answer is that in DNA and other genetic material is recorded the experience of generations of living creatures, who passed on their knowledge to the new generations.

This innate, instinctual knowledge is a record of the sorts of behaviours that result in survival. Behaviours not only of the baby as a whole, but of its eyes, ears, and other organs, of its brain, of its digestive system, of the hair on its head, all of which through the millennia have served the survival of its kind.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Mortality and Immortality

Thus far I’ve made a few points that I think are commonly accepted in the scientific community:

Nature, the observable world, is composed of matter and energy.

Because matter is set in constant motion by energy, change is inevitable, and being itself a form of change, what we call “death” is inevitable.

Some forms of matter behave in ways that allow them to persist through time, by transmitting copies of themselves to new generations, so that when their carrier inevitably dies, they live on. Principle among these persistent forms of matter is the complex protein known as DNA.
What we call “life” is the mortal, temporal matter that carries the DNA; what has been called “the divine spark” or “life’s essence” is really DNA.

Based on just these few assumptions, which are more thoroughly and systematically argued in a thousand books than I can do here, we can draw some sweeping conclusions that have a profound impact on philosophy, religion, and the whole of human understanding.

It’s because these points have not been argued through to their logical conclusions, neither by myself nor others, that I started this blog.

Let’s look at one of the immediate implications – the above sheds some insight into the human conception of mortality and immortality.

From almost the dawn of human consciousness, we have struggled with our own mortality, and with concepts of immortality. All mythologies and religions have an immortality myth, a heaven, hell, limbo, paradise, Valhalla, or other physical location to which we will travel after leaving this mortal world. Many also have a notion of reincarnation, in which our spirit in one form or another goes on after death. Others believe in ghosts or other forms of the afterlife.

All of these beliefs are based in ignorance of modern scientific understanding, and of the existence of DNA and the role that it plays in carrying forward our life’s essence. But I believe that all of these are based on an intuitive understanding that some force like DNA exists. Our ancestor’s *knew*, they were dimly aware, that death does not end our existence, and that in some unknown form our existence continues and persists through time.

Scientists tend to ignore ancient beliefs, dismissing them as superstitions based on ignorance, which of course they are. What so many fail to recognize is that while these ancient beliefs were denied the benefits of science, they were in so many ways incredibly insightful about the operation of the physical world. The old myths managed to capture some deep truths through some very compelling metaphors and narratives, stories that even today much of the world finds more compelling than “science-talk”.

Joseph Campbell defines mythology as “other people’s religions”. In doing so he doesn’t distinguish between religion and mythology. Unfortunately, unlike Joseph Campbell, most of those who base their thinking on a scientific understanding of the world dump religion and mythology together into the dustbin of irrational belief. I think this is a mistake.

My goal in this blog is to develop arguments that reconcile the old world with the new, that map the mythology to the science, and that simultaneously celebrate the insights of the religions of the world while undermining the religions themselves.