Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

The Big Three

One reason religion is appealing, obviously, that it offers some consolation. The fact of an indifferent universe, the finality of death, the inconsequentiality of humanity in the vast darkness -- it's just too hard.

But people are also unsatisfied with the limitations of science. We don't have all the answers, and some people feel compelled to fill in the blanks. There are an infinity of questions we haven't answered, big and small, which is what keeps science in business, but there are three that most people find uniquely consequential and difficult, each in its own way.

These are the nature and genesis of consciousness; the origin of life; and why we find ourselves in this particular universe. The latter is a two part question: Why does the universe exist at all? And why does it happen to have its particular history and properties?

The problem of the origin of life is difficult in a simpler way, if you will. It isn't metaphysically challenging, it's just an ordinary puzzle. We may never know for sure how it got started because it was just so long ago, but we may well come up with highly plausible scenarios that we can reproduce. It doesn't pose any fundamental challenge to the philosophy of science.

Consciousness is a deeper problem, however, because the only person who can observe your consciousness is you. People say that they have something they call conscious experience, and that it is absolutely compelling that it is a stuff, a reality, an entity, that transcends the material. We see red and green, we feel hot and cold, happy and sad, love and anger -- and these are tangible, somehow real in a way that is far beyond the observations others can make of the link between sensory inputs and behavioral outputs. Something essential happens in between that cannot be measured or observed by anyone else. That challenges the fundamental philosophy of science.

The problem of the origin of the universe may be insoluble in principle, because if the universe is defined as everything observable, then either something outside of it accounts for its existence, meaning we can never observe it; or we confront an infinite regress, in which every solution is a new puzzle to be explained.

As far as I'm concerned, none of these problems challenges the credibility of the rest of science. But they -- or at least the last two -- do mean that we have not come to the end of metaphysics. Religion, on the other hand, is no answer. It is just the invention of one arbitrary mystery to substitute for the real ones.


davidknz said...

Religion is for those who believe in Hell. Spirituality is for those who have been there

Cervantes said...

We've all had our troubles, David, I'm sure. How we make peace with them is an important question, although it's not one of the three I mentioned. Maybe I should have listed a Big Four.

davidknz said...

If we make Peace, then all else follows...

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in all your philosophy.

* Hamlet, scene v