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Why Consciousness Exists: Douglas Rushkoff on Science, God, and the Purpose of Reality

What to make of the fact “that something wonderfully strange is going on in the dimension we call reality.”

“If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from,” Carl Sagan wrote in his magnificent meditation on science and spirituality, “we will have failed.” Some centuries earlier, Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, touched on the same idea in a beautiful letter to her neighbor; and some decades later, Alan Lightman, MIT’s first professor with dual appointments in science and the humanities, considered how we can find meaning in the space between the known and the unknowable.

Joining that canon of intellectual elegance is media analyst, documentarian, and writer Douglas Rushkoff with his contribution to This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress (public library) — that mind-stretching volume by Edge founder John Brockman, who posed before 175 of the world’s greatest scientists, philosophers, and writers the certainty-rattling question: “What scientific idea is ready for retirement?”

Rushkoff points the skeptical prod of his answer at “the atheism prerequisite” — atheism, of course, being a case of our curious tendency to define what we are by what we are not — and writes:

We don’t need to credit an all-seeing God with the creation of life and matter to suspect that something wonderfully strange is going on in the dimension we call reality. Most of us living in it feel invested with a sense of purpose.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo’s, from Michael Benson’s book ‘Cosmigraphics.’Click image for more.

Echoing John Updike’s exquisitely articulated observation that “the mystery of being is a permanent mystery, at least given the present state of the human brain,” Ruskhoff adds:

Whether this directionality is a genuine, preexisting condition of the universe, an illusion perpetrated by DNA, or something that will one day emerge from social interaction has yet to be determined.

Rushkoff cautions that blind faith in dogma, be it scientific or mystical, is equally perilous to grasping the true nature of reality — including the grand grasper itself, human consciousness:

Science’s unearned commitment to materialism has led us into convoluted assumptions about the origins of spacetime, in which time itself simply must be accepted as a by-product of the Big Bang, and consciousness (if it even exists) as a by-product of matter. Such narratives follow information on its continuing evolution toward complexity, the Singularity, and robot consciousness — a saga no less apocalyptic than the most literal interpretations of biblical prophecy.

It’s entirely more rational — and less steeped in storybook logic — to work with the possibility that time predates matter and that consciousness is less the consequence of a physical cause-and-effect reality than a precursor.

By starting with Godlessness as a foundational principle of scientific reasoning, we make ourselves unnecessarily resistant to the novelty of human consciousness, its potential continuity over time, and the possibility that it has purpose.

See more of the answers from This Idea Must Die, then complement this particular one with astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser on how to live with mystery in the age of knowledge and theoretical cosmologist Janna Levin on science and the human spirit.


Astrophysicist Janna Levin on Free Will and Whether the Universe Is Infinite or Finite, in Letters to Her Mother

“The simpler the insight, the more profound the conclusion.”

In 1998, while on the cusp of becoming one of the most significant theoretical cosmologists of our time, mathematician-turned-astrophysicist Janna Levin left her post at Berkeley and moved across the Atlantic for a prestigious position at Cambridge University. During the year and a half there, she had the time and space to contemplate the question that would eventually become the epicenter of her career — whether the universe is infinite or finite. What began as a series of letters to her mother, Sandy, eventually became an unusual diary of Levin’s “social exile as a roaming scientist,” and was finally published as How the Universe Got Its Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in a Finite Space (public library) — a most unusual and absorbing account of the paradoxes of finitude.

“I’m writing to you because I know you’re curious but afraid to ask,” Levin offers in the opening letter — a “you” that instantly becomes as much her mother as the person Virginia Woolf memorably termed “the common reader.” From there, she springboards into remarkably intelligent yet inviting explorations of some of the biggest questions that the universe poses — questions most of us contemplate, sometimes consciously but mostly not, just by virtue of being sentient participants in the chaos and enchantment of existence.

A 1617 depiction of the notion of non-space, long before the concept of vacuum existed, found in Michael Benson’s book Cosmigraphics, a visual history of understanding the universe

In an entry from September 3, 1998, Levin fleshes out her ideas on infinity and writes with exquisite Saganesque sensitivity to the poetics of science:

For a long time I believed the universe was infinite. Which is to say, I just never questioned this assumption that the universe was infinite. But if I had given the question more attention, maybe I would have realized sooner. The universe is the three-dimensional space we live in and the time we watch pass on our clocks. It is our north and south, our east and west, our up and down. Our past and future. As far as the eye can see there appears to be no bound to our three spatial dimensions and we have no expectation for an end to time. The universe is inhabited by giant clusters of galaxies, each galaxy a conglomerate of a billion or a trillion stars. The Milky Way, our galaxy, has an unfathomably dense core of millions of stars with beautiful arms, a skeleton of stars, spiraling out from this core. The earth lives out in the sparsely populated arms orbiting the sun, an ordinary star, with our planetary companions. Our humble solar system. Here we are. A small planet, an ordinary star, a huge cosmos. But we’re alive and we’re sentient. Pooling our efforts and passing our secrets from generation to generation, we’ve lifted ourselves off this blue and green water-soaked rock to throw our vision far beyond the limitations of our eyes.

The universe is full of galaxies and their stars. Probably, hopefully, there is other life out there and background light and maybe some ripples in space. There are bright objects and dark objects. Things we can see and things we can’t. Things we know about and things we don’t. All of it. This glut of ingredients could carry on in every direction forever. Never ending. Just when you think you’ve seen the last of them, there’s another galaxy and beyond that one another infinite number of galaxies.

Illustration from Thomas Wright’s visionary 1750 treatise ‘An Original Theory,’ found in Michael Benson’s book Cosmigraphics, a visual history of understanding the universe

But having painted this bewitching backdrop for our intuitive beliefs, Levin sublimates the poet to the scientist, pointing out that however alluring these intuitions may feel, they are nonetheless ungrounded in empirical fact:

No infinity has ever been observed in nature. Nor is infinity tolerated in a scientific theory — except we keep assuming the universe itself is infinite.

It wouldn’t be so bad if Einstein hadn’t taught us better. And here the ideas collide so I’ll just pour them out unfiltered. Space is not just an abstract notion but a mutable, evolving field. It can begin and end, be born and die. Space is curved, it is a geometry, and our experience of gravity, the pull of the earth and our orbit around the sun, is just a free fall along the curves in space. From this huge insight people realized the universe must be expanding. The space between the galaxies is actually stretching even if the galaxies themselves were otherwise to stay put. The universe is growing, aging. And if it’s expanding today, it must have been smaller once, in the sense that everything was once closer together, so close that everything was on top of each other, essentially in the same place, and before that it must not have been at all. The universe had a beginning. There was once nothing and now there is something. What sways me even more, if an ultimate theory of everything is found, a theory beyond Einstein’s, then gravity and matter and energy are all ultimately different expressions of the same thing. We’re all intrinsically of the same substance. The fabric of the universe is just a coherent weave from the same threads that make our bodies. How much more absurd it becomes to believe that the universe, space and time could possibly be infinite when all of us are finite.

A decade and a half later, Alan Lightman would come to write with a similar scientific poeticism about why we long for permanence in a universe defined by constant change. But however poetic the premise, Levin brings a mathematician’s precision to her “reasons for believing the universe is finite, unpopular as they are in some scientific crowds.” In another entry twelve days later, she writes:

Infinity is a demented concept…

Infinity is a limit and is not a proper number. No matter how big a number you think of, I can add 1 to it and make it that much bigger. The number of numbers is infinite. I could never recite the infinite numbers, since I only have a finite lifetime. But I can imagine it as a hypothetical possibility, as the inevitable limit of a never-ending sequence. The limit goes the other way, too, since I can consider the infinitely small, the infinitesimal. No matter how small you try to divide the number 1, I can divide it smaller still. While I could again imagine doing this forever, I can never do this in practice. But I can understand infinity abstractly and so accept it for what it is.

Pointing out that all titans of science — including Galileo, Aristotle, and Cantor — were besotted with the notion of infinity at some point, “each visiting the idea for a time and then abandoning the pursuit,” Levin notes that we can neither accept nor dismiss infinity on the basis of popular opinion alone. In early October, she writes:

Where in the hierarchy of infinity would an infinite universe lie? An infinite universe can host an infinite amount of stuff and an infinite number of events. An infinite number of planets. An infinite number of people on those planets. Surely there must be another planet so very nearly like the earth as to be indistinguishable, in fact an infinite number of them, each with a variety of inhabitants, an infinite number of which must be infinitely close to this set of inhabitants. Another you, another me. Or there’d be another you out there with a slightly different life and a different set of siblings, parents, offspring. This is hard to believe. Is it arrogance or logic that makes me believe this is wrong? There’s just one me, one you. The universe cannot be infinite.


I welcome the infinite in mathematics, where … it is not absurd nor demented. But I’d be pretty shaken to find the infinite in nature. I don’t feel robbed living my days in the physical with its tender admission of the finite. I still get to live with the infinite possibilities of mathematics, if only in my head.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ Click image for more.

Understanding the infinite — both as a mathematical possibility and an impossibility of the physical universe — might be more a matter of coming to terms with infinite simplicity than with infinite complexity. In an entry from early February of 1999, Levin echoes Margaret Mead’s famous proclamation about clarity and writes:

I try to find a simple expression for my ideas. I figure if there is none, the ideas must be wrong. When I first started to work on topology I wondered about complex properties of spaces and didn’t take my own suggestions seriously until I realized the simple way to ask the question: is the universe infinite? Einstein’s simplest insights were profound. The simpler the insight, the more profound the conclusion.

In the remainder of How the Universe Got Its Spots, which is unbearably beautiful in both intellectual elegance and stylistic splendor, Levin goes on to explore questions of quantum relativity and freewill, death and black holes, spacetime and Wonderland, and more. Complement it with Levin on science, free will, and the human spirit, then revisit Alan Lightman on how dark energy explains why we exist and treat yourself to this poetic primer on the universe written in the 1,000 most common words in the English language.


A Graphic Cosmogony: Artists Imagine How the Universe Was Born

From the lyrical to the ludicrous, uncommon takes on how our world came to be.

Humanity’s history of mapping the cosmos is as long as our margin of error in explaining the universe is wide. We have been wrong about so much so often and so staunchly stubborn in admitting our errors. But we have also produced works of immeasurable beauty in giving form to our awe, however rooted in illusion, and continue to dwell in awe as we struggle to reconcile conflicting explanations and pursue the truth of our origins.

In A Graphic Cosmogony (public library), twenty-four of today’s most celebrated illustrators and graphic artists each take seven pages to tell their version of the story of the universe’s origin and how our world came to be. There are unusual takes on traditional creation myths like The Book of Genesis (who needs Adam’s biologically suspect rib when there is Eve’s true-to-life vagina?), imaginative homages to evolution, gorgeous interpretations of Japanese folktales, and all kinds of fanciful alternative mythologies that fuse the playful with the profound.

In the introduction, Paul Gravett considers why the medium of comics lends itself to the story of creation so aptly:

There is something instinctual, almost primal about making and reading/viewing comics, especially highly graphic ones with few or no words. They spark a provocative clarity that taps into our inner caveman’s brain, our pre-literate child-self deciphering to make sense of the strange wonders of the everyday. And for all our scientific advances, here we are now, only a mere decade into this second millennium, and still finding fascination in the show-and-tell choreographies of pictures, lettering, balloons, captions and panels.

Rob Hunter: Luna
Rob Hunter: Luna
Rob Hunter: Luna
Rob Hunter: Luna
Brecht Vandenbroucke: Genesis
Brecht Vandenbroucke: Genesis
Jon McNaught: Pilgrims
Ben Newman: All That Dreams Matters
Ben Newman: All That Dreams Matters
Ben Newman: All That Dreams Matters
Clayton Junior: Ara Poty
Luc Melanson: Deus Magicus
Yeji Yun: Solitude

A Graphic Cosmogony, far more delightful in its sequential and tactile totality, comes from British independent press Nobrow, who have previously given us such gems as a graphic biography of Freud and an illustrated tour of how the brain works. Complement it with French graphic artist Blexbolex’s bewitching Ballad, a different kind of lyrical graphic mythology as old as the world, and this evolution coloring book.

Illustrations courtesy of Nobrow


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