Minds wide open

Some puzzles are usually not readily solved. As an example: How can a bunch of atoms, when organized a sure manner, produce the ideas and emotions of human consciousness?

A variation of this query is particularly intriguing to MIT professor of the follow and creator Alan Lightman. How do those self same bits of matter produce not simply consciousness however seemingly religious sensations — the moments when our ideas and emotions appear to transcend our personal selves?

“Despite the fact that we’re atoms and molecules, we’re able to extraordinary human experiences, like feeling a part of nature, feeling linked to the cosmos, falling in love, appreciating magnificence, having awe — and the elemental human sensation, which is consciousness,” Lightman says. “All of us are able to this, though these experiences are rooted in a mind made out of fabric parts.”

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Lightman explores these issues in a brand new guide, “The Transcendent Mind: Spirituality within the Age of Science,” revealed this week by Pantheon Press. He has additionally simply hosted a three-part PBS sequence, “Looking out: Our Quest for Which means within the Age of Science,” which explores associated themes. Moreover, MIT will host an April 12 occasion on the subject, that includes Lightman and a various panel of consultants.

Within the guide, Lightman is not only asking how consciousness exists, however exploring the sort of worldview — his personal — that has room for each spirituality and an acceptance of scientific explanations. Lightman calls this attitude “religious materialism” and considers it a logical final result of taking each our sensations and our science critically.   

“I’m making an attempt to offer a scientific clarification of a few of these wonderful transcendent experiences that we’ve got,” says Lightman, who’s professor of the follow of humanities at MIT and a skilled physicist who has written over 25 nonfiction books and novels.

It’s sophisticated

In “The Transcendent Mind,” Lightman defines spirituality broadly, not simply with regards to formal non secular doctrine, however together with extra free-form sensations of awe, transcendence, and oneness with nature and the cosmos.

Lightman additionally delves into the historical past of concepts associated to spirituality and materialism, with a specific curiosity in unorthodox thinkers linking each collectively. Amongst these positing that an immortal soul exists, Lightman has an affinity for Moses Mendelssohn, an 18th century German mental who argued that, though the fabric world is the inspiration of our expertise, for all times to have which means there have to be a facet of us present past our bodily elements.

Conversely the materialism of the Roman poet Lucretius was partly meant to talk to the spiritually inclined: He assured them their souls wouldn’t be eternally tortured after dying. Reasonably, Lucretius advised, as a result of we’re simply made from atoms, upon dying, individuals totally stop to exist. Lucretius’ law-like fascinated about the bodily world, Lightman writes, implies that “his reasoning, like that of Moses Mendelssohn almost 2,000 years later, was completely fashionable in its sensibility.”

The latter half of “The Transcendent Mind” drives towards a scientific account of how consciousness and religious impulses can exist, drawing from neuroscience and evolutionary biology. We are able to achieve traction on the difficulty by concerning consciousness, as many researchers do, as a capability for consciousness and notion. Subsequently, Lightman notes, consciousness just isn’t an all-or-nothing matter; it has gradations. Behaviorally, people present extra consciousness — and thus a extra subtle type of consciousness — than crows, who in flip show extra consciousness than rats, and so forth, all the way down to some single-celled and fairly distant cousins.

Lab analysis enhances behavioral research, by indicating how creatures with seemingly extra subtle consciousness have vastly extra brainpower, too. People have about 100 billion neurons, or mind cells, every of which is linked to about 1,000 different neurons; thus our brains have roughly 100 trillion synapses, or connections between neurons. Solely the African elephant and a few whales have extra neurons; against this, mice solely have about 71 million neurons, and ants roughly 250,000.

“We’re sophisticated issues,” Lightman says. “The human mind is likely one of the most intricate objects within the universe. We don’t know of something that’s extra complicated.”

It doesn’t appear a stretch, then, to acknowledge that consciousness is a part of our shared evolutionary improvement, with people taking place to have accrued the best capability for cognitive reflection. However nonetheless: How did that happen in any respect?

Emergence alert

To deal with this, Lightman finally turns to the idea of “emergence,” an thought typically attributed to British thinker John Stuart Mill, and revived in current many years. Emergence is, Lightman writes, “collective conduct of a posh system with many elements that’s not obvious and sometimes not predictable by understanding the person elements.”

For Mill, water was an instance, as one thing aside from a pile of hydrogen and oxygen atoms. One other instance: It isn’t apparent that the element elements of proteins would ever mix and form themselves to have purposeful energy, however they do.

For Lightman, then, greedy how consciousness developed leans on the idea of emergence to clarify how the evolutionary improvement of consciousness produced one thing past mere sensory notion. Finally, given extra subtle neuronal networks, our brains acquired the capability for the consciousness we observe in ourselves — together with studying, communication, social exercise, planning for the long run, a capability of abstraction, a way of the previous, and far more.

In flip, the broad sense of spirituality that so fascinates Lightman might effectively replicate our evolution, too. Having an consciousness of others, or of nature, and eager to really feel a part of one thing bigger than ourselves — these impulses have been with us since a time after they have been extra instantly helpful, he suggests. 

“Most individuals really feel a robust connection to the individuals round them or nature,” Lightman observes. “I feel these emotions of connection have an evolutionary foundation. They’ve a survival profit [dating back] from hundreds of thousands of years in the past.”

And that is how, finally, Lightman locations himself within the camp of “religious materialism,” and regards it as a viable outlook. For Lightman, there are materials underpinnings to our capability for spirituality. Which doesn’t make the existance of consciouness any much less wondrous, however might make it rather less mysterious. No less than for now — as Lightman notes, his personal specific conclusions on the subject might shift as empirical analysis retains shifting ahead.   

“I’m nonetheless a learner,” Lightman says. “I think about myself a lifelong learner, and one of many pleasures of life is studying new issues.”


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