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.


pam said...

You can't figure out the answer of Immortality
by "science" nor by
"religion" nor by anecdotes
nor by any means.

All rules of the game may change at any time.
We just dont know anything.

What are we left with then? Hope. Hope that we will go on beyond and especially that we will be reunited with others. Hope. That is a wonderful thing.

Thom Quine said...

Hi Pam, thanks for your comments. I agree with you that hope is a wonderful thing. I try to base my hope on something tangible.

I also agree with you that the rules of the game may change at any time, and therefore there is no absolute truth we can count on.

But science is about building on experience, and even if we can't know anything absolutely, we can make some pretty sound predictions about how things will go based on what we know from experience.

For instance, we know that all things must pass, and there is no guarantee that our planet will survive. At any time the earth may be struck by a giant meteorite and plunge into the sun.

But in the meantime, we can pretty much bank on the sun coming up in the morning and setting at night. We don't know this for certain, actually we are pretty sure the planet will perish some day, but in the meantime, the sun will rise and set and it's not very helpful to say we don't know that.

All truth is a working proposition. That's all we've got. That and hope.