Monthly Archives: June 2014

How Big is Life?

Galaxy in Hands

Galaxy in Hands

Intelligent life should be abundant throughout the universe, according to the Drake Equation. However, for humanity to encounter intelligent extraterrestrials, the Fermi Paradox suggests that several conditions have to be met. We must exist during the same time period, we need to be located close enough within the universe, and we need to be within a reasonable size range in order to be visible to each other. The least comprehensible of these three conditions is that of size. How big or small can life get? Is it possible, as in the movie Men in Black, for an entire galaxy to be as small as a marble to us (microscopic) or for us to be a mere speck within a greater (macroscopic) realm?

Let’s look at it another way. Our bodies are composed of many molecules built from atoms that are mostly empty space. Those atoms have a nucleus with electrons circling at a great relative distance from that nucleus, and are themselves composed of additional sub-atomic particles. So, from the viewpoint of a sufficiently small creature, we would look mostly like open space with many clusters of matter around which other pieces of matter revolve. When I was in high school, scientists were just beginning to discover subatomic particles. Now, such particles continue to be identified or postulated, but nothing that looks like a teeny tiny spaceship. Still, if it were sufficiently small, it would of course go unnoticed.

The point of this discussion, however, is that it is hard to say what life looks like from too small a scale or, for that matter, too large a scale. The collection of atoms that make up the bacteria, skin, flesh, blood and bones within our bodies would not show any apparent relationship to each other. They might not even appear to be static assuming they are continually recycled into new molecules as the body replaces itself. It would, in fact, be impossible to discern the structure of that life form or to interact with it in any meaningful way, especially if the time scales involved were also out of proportion. So, what makes something alive? Could the universe itself be alive? Could the component parts of our bodies be alive at the subatomic level?

Gut-Brain Connection

Gut-Brain Connection

We already know that the bacteria within our bodies constitute a major ecosystem that affects our physical health and most likely even the functioning of our minds, including our thoughts and behavior. In effect, we have an entire small universe of life within our own bodies.

We believe that DNA contains a pattern of instructions for the creation of life, but have no idea how those instructions are implemented. Instructions, after all, have to be followed according to a perfectly timed plan that converts raw material and energy into something new. Instruction books can’t build things by themselves, so when an egg is fertilized, what uses the information within the DNA to create a new life? If there is some vast universe of life within a single strand of DNA that is responsible for the creation of life, then that life form must be abundant and functionally identical within every atom and molecule.

Could human life also be a common and abundant form of life in a universe that itself is growing into a greater life form, much like the bacteria within our own bodies? Do we exist merely to play a role in the development and reshaping of our solar system and galaxy as a step in the creation of a greater form of life? Is it the “manifest destiny” of all intelligent life forms to develop social skills and technologies that enable them to expand throughout the universe? If so, are we here to create, transform, or destroy?

Am I talking crazy now or did I reach that point a long time ago? In any case, do these questions even matter? If we are a part of a greater life form or if we are composed of a nearly infinite number of incredibly tiny intelligent life forms, we’ll never know because it is beyond our scale of time and space to be able to comprehend. We’re back to the question of why life exists at all and how and why it continues to transform.

Invasion of Virus DNA

Invasion of Virus DNA

Back to the size of life. Scientists are now coming to realize (or at least hypothesize) that most of the life on the planet consists of viruses. Yes, those simple, tiny things that have not quite been considered alive, yet can affect us in profound ways. Craig Venter, one of the first inventor entrepreneur to use machines to sequence the human genome, has been traveling the world collecting and documenting new viruses (among other things) and is finding that the number of different types is astounding. A recently discovered virus, the Mimivirus, is so large and complex, that scientists are reexamining all previous assumptions about them. Viruses may actually be responsible for the evolution of humanity.

Viruses may be the original body snatchers. You see, some viruses can actually alter human DNA. That’s right, they are actually altering the DNA in your cells and, as they spread throughout your body and as the altered cells reproduce, a new set of DNA is propagated throughout your body. Remember how a human was transformed into a half¬-human, half-fly creature in the movie The Fly? Thinking about having my DNA altered, whether inadvertently by a virus or through deliberate Gene Therapy gives me the chills!

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The Prime Directive

The Prime Directive

The Prime Directive

Most of humanity still believes that it is superior to the other creatures on the planet and that animals are here for our use. Clearly, we are superior in intellect, linguistic skills, and tool-making ability, and the bible implies we are the only creatures with a soul. So, for the most part, we ignore evidence that many animals have intelligence and emotions not necessarily too dissimilar from our own. Elephants, chimpanzees, dogs, cats, and many other animals have shown the ability to feel what appears to be love, anger, fear, happiness, boredom, excitement, depression, compassion, and pain. They have shown the ability to recognize individuals, to sense our various emotional and physical states, and to care for and help us.

Charles Darwin was one of the first scientists to write about the existence and nature of emotions in non-human animals. Yet, scientists do not generally agree on the extent of these emotions because there are no widely accepted, objective scientific tests that can conclusively prove their existence one way or another and we lack the ability to communicate with animals in a sophisticated way. However, anyone who has ever owned a pet, worked with primates, or read compelling anecdotal accounts or anthropological studies on such creatures understands that these emotions are present. Two excellent books addressing the evidence of animal intelligence and emotions are Dogs Never Lie about Love, by Jeffrey Masson and A Reason for Hope by Jane Goodall. Rather than restate their extensive and compelling evidence, let’s just assume that animals, to a varying degree, are intelligent and possess emotions.

The fact that we continue to look for evidence of intelligent life on other planets while we virtually ignore the intelligent life on our own is curious. Sure, we may be the only creatures here who have a sophisticated method of communications and the resultant ability to share knowledge. But what if intelligent life on other planets is so far advanced over our own, that they have absolutely no interest in us? Even if they could find a way to communicate with us, would they even care to do so? What would be the point? The chance that there is something they can learn from us would be negligible and what would be the point of trying to teach us about their way of life? Maybe we are just too violent and limited in intelligence to even benefit from their teachings.

Alien species may be as far advanced above humans as we are over chimpanzees. Do humans try and communicate with chimpanzees in an attempt to establish a code of behavior appropriate for a creature of our higher intelligence? We have taught some how to use sign language, but do we believe they have rights equal to those of humans? Have we tried to develop and teach them a code of chimp behavior? Chimps have been known to initiate brutal attacks upon members of their own group or other groups over territorial disputes or what appear to be simple grudges or jealousy, but do we really care?

Obviously, we don’t care about the lives of most other species. Cats and dogs are partial exceptions, but we still continue to use them by the hundreds of thousands per year to test toxic products and new medicines. Aside from this, we like to take care of our pets, but what about other creatures? If we were ever able to find a way to communicate with insects, would we try and convince worker ants or bees that they don’t have to live as slaves to an all-powerful queen? Have we ever tried to find a way to persuade lion prides to respect clear, negotiated borders rather than fight over land? Do we intercede in the wars between neighboring groups of chimpanzees or gorillas fighting over territory? No. We assume there is no effective way to communicate with them about such things and we are probably right–at least for now. We merely observe, take notes, and remark on how only we humans can resolve our differences through communication, learning, empathy, and caring. Although I can’t really say that has really worked for us so far.

Alien Abduction

Alien Abduction

If we don’t care about the lives of wild animals, what makes us think aliens would care about wild humans? Many people have reported being abducted by aliens and being forced to endure experiments or medical procedures, including impregnation and the birth of hybrid children. Then there is the unexplained yet widespread phenomenon of weird cattle mutilations. If aliens are visiting Earth, it sounds to me like they have a very different concept of human or animal rights.

Remember the “Prime Directive” from Star Trek, which is the rule that humans must not interfere with the internal development of alien civilizations until they are ready for space travel? Maybe the real Prime Directive for alien visitors to Earth is that a species can use and interfere as much as it wants with the development of another species, but should try and keep from getting caught and sparking a global panic.

Alien Visitation Coverup

Alien Visitation Coverup

What would happen if governments of the world confirmed that Earth was being visited by meddling aliens who frequently scoop some of us up to conduct genetic or other medical experiments? Naturally, I think that many would instantly panic. People in isolated rural or suburban communities would feel the most vulnerable even if we were all equally at risk, so there would be a rush to migrate to the cities, leading to overcrowding, violence, food shortages, and unemployment. People would act like cornered animals and attempt to defend themselves by purchasing weapons and setting up 24×7 neighborhood security patrols, even though we know this would be completely ineffective. Criminals would take advantage of a newfound fear of the dark. The transportation system might break down as people started to fear traveling in the dark. We would see a drastic increase in anxiety and tension, which would manifest itself in irrational behavior and create a more dysfunctional society. Is there any wonder why governments have been accused of suppressing and confiscating all evidence of alien visitation?

Eventually, however, society would adapt to the new reality and try to cope. Wasteful spending on homeland security would be replaced by “global security” as the major world powers spend trillions of dollars on useless surveillance and defense technology that the aliens can easily bypass or defeat. The major religions of the Earth will adapt, as usual, to changing circumstances, by clinging to scripture and a belief in god while widening the scope of god’s creation. They may even welcome the aliens as angels sent to test or punish us for our sins, or may consider them demons to be resisted.

In any case, the world will go on and most people will continue to die from disease and car accidents, not from alien activity. Eventually, the nations of Earth will settle down and continue to fight amongst each other over terrestrial resources while a small few plan their migration to the stars.

I’m Not Dead Yet!

Near-Death Experience

Near-Death Experience

There is already a good amount of data on near-death experiences, but it has not been collected in a consistent and deliberate way in order to test specific, measurable hypotheses. One theory is that there is indeed an afterlife that a person visits after the body stops working. Another theory argues that these experiences are merely the effects of a dying, oxygen-starved brain. This theory requires better scientific testing to verify the accuracy of external observations allegedly made when the spirit of the deceased claims to have been looking around from above after his physical death. Between the two theories, it is probably easier to disprove the dying brain theory, but we need better ways to examine the afterlife theory as well.

Some evidence has been reviewed and case studies performed, such as one that correlated near-death experiences with the level of CO2 in the blood, but these are usually performed after the fact using whatever data are available. Another study associated the symptoms of a near-death experience with the G-forces on the body in an Air Force pilot centrifuge.

Near-Death Cartoon

Not Dead Yet

The ideal way in which to collect good data is to control all the conditions of a near-death experience, including pre- and post-experience interviews and the presence of witnesses such as doctors, researchers, and psychics. Ideally, a hospital should have a death protocol that could be implemented in the event that a person physically shows evidence of death, but later returns to life. Perhaps a set of video, audio, and body sensors and displays could be automatically activated as soon as the patient’s heart stops beating. The sensors could measure the conditions of the room and the patient, while the displays could present audio and video messages to test the ability of a deceased patient to perceive them.

But it would be even better to have planned, controlled experiments. Where it is legal to undergo doctor-assisted suicide (euthanasia), and with the patient’s complete permission, a near-death experience could be induced one or more times before the patient finally completes the process. I suspect that it will be possible to get volunteers for such a procedure and that it would be perfectly legal. Interviews with the medical staff and patient prior to the experiment could establish their state of mind and preconceptions about what they will experience. The patient should even be directed to try and perform certain tasks after physical death has been induced. The experience should be fully documented using technological means such as CAT scans and other body sensors, room sensors and perception tests, and paranormal means such as the use of psychics. You never know–after the initial tests, some patients may even change their mind about going through with the final procedure! 

But how can the theory of an afterlife driven by near-death experience data be further tested? Near-death experiences should be further correlated with attempts to communicate with the deceased. As medical care has improved our ability to delay death, the number of survivors of near-death experiences has risen. These individuals should be sought out for a study that will continue as they approach death and beyond.

Observation vs. Belief

Creationist Timeline

Creationist Timeline

Many observers have used the scientific method of observation, measurement, experimentation, and testing of hypotheses in ways that have challenged many of the facts that underlay religious beliefs. This is not to say that they have challenged the religious beliefs themselves–merely that they have made observations that were not what religious believers originally expected. For instance, Galileo’s observation that the Earth rotates around the sun challenged Catholic Church doctrine. Christianity has since adapted to this astronomical fact because the centrality of Earth was really just an assumption that made its way into Christian doctrine, not a core part of the religion.

Other scientific observations have challenged religious doctrines in similar ways. The evidence of billions of years of geologic change, hundreds of millions of years of dinosaur dominance, and the apparent evolution of millions of other prior life forms on Earth seem to contradict biblical accounts of creation. But creation stories don’t have enough detail to be scientifically disproved, only to be analyzed and seriously undermined.

However, scientists do not generally try and test religious beliefs themselves. They have generally explored only the physical universe that surrounds us in a pure quest for knowledge regardless of whether or not the answers challenge religious assumptions or core beliefs. This unwillingness to directly challenge the major religions could either be because they assume religious beliefs are untestable, they do not want to test them because they are religious themselves, or they are cowards because they know that there will be a public backlash against them. Charles Darwin spent years privately developing evidence for his theory of evolution because he well understood that it challenged Christian beliefs and would result in an uproar of disbelief and anger.

For the biblical stories to be disproved, they would have to be converted into theories that are specific and testable. Some religious scholars have already tried to estimate the age of the Earth by counting the number of generations of humans identified in the bible. This was done for religious rather than scientific purposes, but it at least identifies some basic assumptions, such as the average number of years per generation. The theory resulting from this effort is that the universe and Earth itself is only about 6,000 years old. Obviously, archeological evidence shows that humans have existed far longer than this, so this particular theory has been disproved to all except those who believe the bible is literally true despite any evidence to the contrary. Of course, religious believers can simply add more assumptions that change the theory to make it impossible to disprove. For instance, they could argue that archeological evidence is just an illusion of a fictional past.

Archeology is an example of a field of science that can be used to examine the validity of some elements of religious history. Many archeological studies of places and events mentioned in the bible have confirmed the existence of many people, places and many events. But it cannot verify their true nature. Whether events occurred as written, were embellishments of the truth, were completely fictional stories, or were a result of misunderstood natural forces rather than supernatural ones is mostly beyond the reach of the hard sciences (e.g. physics, archeology).

So why not expand the means of scientific analysis in order to undertake a direct study of those other elements of religious belief? I suspect that many scientists do not believe it can succeed or that it should even be attempted and most have not even considered the possibility. This is partly because it will take non-traditional means of observation and analysis similar to those used by the soft sciences (e.g. psychology, anthropology) than by the hard sciences. Theories generated from the soft sciences are more suspect than those of the supposedly more concrete hard ones. But they are the only ones that can deliver the needed evidence.

We need some theories and tests that could be used to scientifically examine specific religious or spiritual beliefs. But first, we have to define new, scientifically-acceptable methods of experimentation and analysis that must be mastered before such an effort can be attempted. These methods may not be traditional, but if they are conducted using the basic principles of the scientific method, they could provide meaningful results. If they are pursued with objectivity, deliver reasonably repeatable observations and measurements, and result in testable theories, then they must be considered valid scientific methods.

Since religion and spirituality invariably deals with life as well as death, we need a way to obtain data from the following situations:

  • Near death experiences
  • Communication with the deceased
  • Memories of past lives
  • Visions of spiritual masters or god
  • Spiritual or non-physical healing
  • Psychic communication between humans (ESP)
  • Communication with animals
  • The effects of prayer and meditation

Data from these situations can be used to test some of the core beliefs of many major religions and to build better theories about the nature of our existence. They can be used to test religious answers to the following questions:

  • Is there an afterlife, and if so, what is the nature of that life?
  • Can a mind exist without a brain?
  • Can memories be stored outside of the brain?
  • Can memories be transferred to another location?
  • Is intelligence just a set of algorithms?
  • Can those algorithms be transferred to another location?
  • Can intelligence be increased with more processing speed or memory?
  • What happens to consciousness immediately after death?
  • How is a mind stored after death?
  • Do human personalities change after death?
  • Do we continue to learn after death?
  • Can spirits (ghosts) be detected and communicate?
  • Do spirits get confused or lie after death?
  • What is the duration of the afterlife?
  • What are the characteristics of the afterlife?
  • Does reincarnation occur and, if so, when and how does it occur?
  • Are people reincarnated in proximity with other close friends or relatives?
  • Does mind-to-mind communication (ESP) occur and, if so, what is its speed?
  • In what circumstances and between which people is ESP most likely to occur?
  • Is there brain activity that can be measured when ESP occurs?
  • Does the body have an aura of energy fields surrounding its physical parts?
  • What is the nature of such energy and how can it be measured?
  • How is body energy linked to body mass or mental activity?
  • Does the body respond to other nearby fields of energy?
  • Can fields of energy be controlled to heal body mass?

The Elephant and I

Elephant Mirror Test

Elephant Mirror Test

People have believed for a long time that elephants exhibit empathy and altruism and have a long memory. That is, they appear to remember people who treat them well or badly. Certainly a good memory is some kind of sign of intelligence. But what do elephants think about with this great memory?

A group of researchers in 2006 decided to create a test to see if elephants had any sense of self-awareness. They did this by building a large, strong mirror made of plastic framed in steel and placing it in a cage at the Bronx zoo. Three female elephants immediately began examining the mirror and looking to see what was behind it. They also examined the insides of their mouths, studied their ears and showed other signs of self-recognition. One of them also felt his forehead for an X that had been painted there, which is a classic test of self-recognition invented 35 years ago by biologist Gordon R. Gallup, Jr. This is strong evidence that elephants can understand the concept of a reflection and how it can be used, yes like a tool, to examine parts of their body previously inaccessible to them.

This seems to be a pretty basic first step, but I’ve got many more questions. Do they care about how they look or is it just something to do because they are in captivity and bored? Is it possible that they might enjoy having their face painted? If we could let them watch as someone painted their face and then show them how to wash it off, what would they do? Would they keep the makeup on or wash it off? I wonder if they would enjoy watching movies of themselves. Would they fondly remember a happy day from their youth and recognize themselves as they played with their friends? Would it stimulate them to play again? Would they feel sadness seeing movies of lost loved ones or joy at the thought that they could see them again? Would they start looking for their missing loved one or would they understand the temporal difference between past and present? Can they anticipate future events? Can they be taught that a particular action, like the ringing of a bell, is an indicator of some future event that is about to occur? I’m pretty sure this is the case. Are they be smart enough to try and trigger the event by ringing the bell themselves?

Elephants also have very complex social lives. I remember a documentary about how poachers killed all the older males in a particular region for their ivory tusks, leaving the young elephants with no elder male supervision. The adolescent elephants started to act like a bunch of irresponsible teenagers, trampling farmers’ fields and attacking and killing rhinos and other animals. When some older bulls were brought in from another region, they effectively put the young ones in their place. They served as surrogate fathers and stopped the rampaging. Does this mean that older elephants have some concept of morality or have learned the consequences of irresponsible behavior? Do they consider it wrong to kill rhinos and other animals that do not threaten them? Why else would they care what the young bulls did unless they perceived a challenge to their leadership of the herd? Have they learned that people are dangerous and that they will fight back if their territory is invaded?

I’m pretty sure that an elephant would remember someone who did something bad to them and therefore can hold a grudge. But this is probably also the case for many other species. In a TV documentary called The Meerkats, the female leader of the family clearly showed a willingness to hold a grudge for a long time. In one of the episodes, she attacked and expelled one of her female offspring for getting pregnant. Apparently, the leading female is the only one allowed to get pregnant. In episode after episode, it became clear that she would not let her daughter back into the family. When her daughter tried to return or to protect her young from abuse by the others, the leader would viciously attack and expel her again. The daughter apparently was desperate to return to the group, but was shunned by everyone. So, even the lowly Meerkat shows the ability to have individual relationships that may demonstrate emotions such as anger, jealousy, fear, sadness, or remorse.

I think we need to stop asking ourselves which animals have emotions and intelligence and acknowledge that they all probably have some level of both. The real questions are more involved but more difficult to answer. What emotions predominate? What do they understand and remember? How do they communicate and learn? How can we better communicate with and live alongside them?

Planet of the Ape Men

Animal Intelligence

Animal Intelligence

What differentiates humans from other species? Clearly, the opposable thumb is an important characteristic. Could you see a cave man trying to throw a spear without a thumb? How far do you think our brains would have been able to take us without the ability to create and use tools? OK, maybe we would have found a way, but it might have been very limiting. Are there other intelligent creatures all around us that merely lack an opposable thumb? What about dolphins?

Apes have a huge advantage over other creatures since they do have the opposable thumb, but we don’t believe they have all our complex reasoning skills. They do appear, however, to have most if not all of our emotions and social skills. They experience love, anger, compassion, and fear. They are leaders, followers, and family-oriented (at least the females are). If they could just develop language skills, they might even be able to build an advanced society to compete with us. So, what really is the difference between an ape and a mentally impaired, mute human? Do apes also have more social skills than a severely autistic person?

People often claim that the ability to use tools and pass on knowledge distinguish humans from animals. But what they don’t tell you is that some animals can also do both. They just don’t have the intellectual or physical capacity to manufacture tools.

For years, chimpanzees and orangutans have been known to use primitive tools such as rocks and sticks to perform specific tasks. While they are only able to use basic objects such as rocks for simple tasks such as crushing shells, it shows that they understand the benefits of using objects to help with specific tasks. They are also able to teach their young how to use such tools. Now, gorillas have been added to the list as they have been observed using sticks to test water depth and using branches as a makeshift bridge.

In June 2005, scientists also identified the use of tools by dolphins. Some female dolphins use marine sponges to help forage for food and they pass this knowledge on to their female offspring, which spend a lot of time with their mothers. The dolphins wear the conical-shaped sponges on their nose while foraging along the seabed. While nobody yet knows how this helps them to feed, it seems that they have a different diet than other dolphins that do not use the sponges. Dolphins are now the first non-primates known to be able to use tools and pass on the learned behavior to their offspring.

Chimps are also known to be able to participate in more complex behavior. In experiments, for example, they are able to learn the benefits of pulling or pushing levers in order to feed themselves or others. In some experiments, they show an ability to work as a team by pulling a lever that can only be used to feed another chimp. Why do they do this? Because they understand that the other chimp can also pull a lever that will feed them. When they mutually feed each other, they are happy to work together to their mutual benefit. But if one chimp fails to reciprocate, then the other shows signs of anger and resentment and will refuse to cooperate as well even after the other animal later decides to cooperate. See the book: Dogs Never Lie About Love. Cats and dogs, raccoons, bears and other animals are also known to be able to turn doorknobs to open doors, which shows the ability to learn from watching humans. Clearly, some animals are intelligent and have a good ability to learn and remember people, places, and the purpose or use of objects.

The Real You

 

Reincarnation

Reincarnation

Buddhists believe that we are reincarnated many times until we are able to achieve perfection. If this is true, it brings up many questions about the nature of our personality. Do we start out each life with the same personality traits or are they completely replaced each time with one that is shaped by a combination of genetics and environment? Does our personality evolve slowly over multiple lives, or is it completely changed by the new physical and mental traits that we inherit and the environment into which we are born (nature versus nurture)? When we die, do we instantly remember all of our previous lives and suddenly understand why we acted like such a moron when we were alive? If we discover that we’ve had vastly different personalities among our past lives, what is the final result? After death, do we instantly change by adopting only our favorite characteristics or do we have to go to some kind of school in which we analyze and learn more from our life lessons?

We have to recognize that our bodies have tremendous influence over our personality. In effect, we live in a chemical bath that strongly influences our moods, abilities and intelligence. Our bodies impose limitations on what we can do, think or feel, especially when we are severely mentally or physically handicapped. Let’s say that in one life you are the son of great warriors, a strong man with a lot of testosterone who releases a lot of endorphins and has an over-active thyroid. In the next life, you are the daughter of slaves, a frail woman with tremendous surges of progesterone every month who doesn’t produce enough endorphins and has an under-active thyroid. You go from being an aggressive, happy, physically fit, macho man to that of an overworked, depressed, moody, overweight woman. How much of your “real” personality is in there and how much has been influenced by your body? Now, let’s say you go from life in a racist, militant tribe of cannibals to a life in a peace-loving, tree-hugging commune? How much of you has been influenced by your social environment? Who are you really? How do you reconcile your multiple personalities?

The Dark Side of Reincarnation

The Dark Side of Reincarnation

If you are gay, is it really just the leftover feelings towards the opposite sex from a previous life? What if your former lover comes back as your sibling, child, or parent? This is exactly what some spiritualists say happens. Are some of the relationships that are considered inappropriate in today’s society just the result of reincarnation? Sure, I can hear the excuses now. Just to be safe, be careful how you treat your loved ones and your enemies too or they really might just come back and torment you!

People who claim to speak with deceased spirits often characterize them as though they still have the same personality they did when they were alive. They are still cranky or cheerful or whatever, although they often seem to have learned something and want to convey some message. If true, this indicates that people do not change much after death. Whatever previous lives they had before the most recent one must somehow have already been incorporated into their personality while they were still alive.

Sometimes spirits supposedly show remorse and ask for forgiveness for wrongs they committed upon those who are still alive. If our personality were to change dramatically after death, I don’t think we would bother to ask for forgiveness from our loved ones. First of all, we might not even love them anymore if we saw everything in a new context and knew that everyone alive was just a temporary condition of his current environment. Second, we would probably realize that our actions were the result of the unique conditions created by our former body and physical environment. So, why would we bother to ask forgiveness for the actions of our former self if that self was not representative of whom we really are? Third, we would know that our loved ones would eventually come to understand this situation when they die too.

These questions and what limited knowledge we have about deceased spirits point us to a logical answer. If reincarnation is a fact, then it must continually shape our personality from life to life. What you see really is who we are, although our bodies still may affect us in minor ways. Perhaps our personality actually influences our body more than our body influences us. The great American healer and psychic Edgar Cayce used to say “the mind is the builder and the body is the result.”

There are many more questions to ask. Is there a purpose for not being able to consciously remember past lives or is it just a random effect of the interaction between the spirit and the body? Most good cases of supposed reincarnation involve young children remembering what seem to be past lives and correctly identifying facts from those lives. But after a few years, these memories seem to fade. Why do memories from early childhood tend to fade? Our bodies are rapidly developing and our minds are rapidly learning and storing as much as possible, so why does it just disappear into our subconscious? Is there a reason or is it just because our brains are too immature to properly store the data? Could it be because we need to start out life with a clean memory so that we don’t try and continue where our previous life left off? If we did, there might be a lot of little kids running away from home looking for their loved ones, seeking revenge, or doing whatever it is they used to like doing last time. We might just wallow in misery that our loved ones were all gone and we certainly wouldn’t listen to our new parents.

The failure to remember past lives seems to have a good purpose, but is it a limitation deliberately imposed on us because we have a reason for coming back that would be frustrated by a good memory? Some psychics claim that, after we die, we decide what additional life lessons we need to learn and agree to be reincarnated to learn those lessons. This doesn’t make much sense to me, since understanding your flaws is at least half of the battle. If I decide that I need to learn to be more patient or less angry, well I think I’m already most of the way there. Why would I want to go through another life not knowing what I need to learn and having to figure it out again the hard way? Wouldn’t it help to keep at least some of our old memories? Would remembering a past life really interfere with our ability to learn something new?

Maybe it would. Maybe the purpose of the subconscious and of dreams is to keep memories hidden away, but too far hidden. We still need the memories to guide us in our lives, but not too explicitly. By the time we are old, however, we might have too much memory for our own good. Elderly people are notorious for not wanting to learn new things. We may have accumulated a lot of experience and wisdom, but we don’t seem to be able to handle change or override all those old prejudices. Maybe we need to die and start over again just to stuff all those memories away and keep learning.

If all this reincarnation stuff is true, it implies that our brains and our bodies may be designed for a reason rather than just the result of random evolution. Either that, or evolution applies to our souls as well. Maybe our souls can only evolve if our bodies make it possible. Bodies that permit memories of past lives might not survive as well because they make it difficult for its inhabiting souls to continue to learn and adapt. In that case, the souls that evolve the best will be those that inhabit the most suitable bodies. Good characteristics of a body would be those that dream and permit a strong subconscious influence, or instinct. In other words, people who have a strong intuition, based on subconscious memories from past lives, may have an evolutionary advantage.

Reincarnation into Animals

Reincarnation into Animals

Those bodies might not necessarily have to be human. If animals dream and have a strong instinct, is it for the same reason as humans? Are they also accessing memories from past lives? If so, are animal bodies suitable places for a reincarnating soul? Some psychics claim to have communicated with deceased pets that can express emotions. If this is the case, then maybe animals also have souls. But are they any different in nature from the souls of humans?

This brings us to a related question. Is our intelligence independent of our body? If we inhabit a mentally-impaired body, do we continue to have low intelligence after we die or is it just a temporary limitation? Are animal souls limited by the capacity of their former brains or are they really just as smart as us after they die? Are some souls only as intelligent as a poodle while other souls are as intelligent as Einstein? Is that why some kids show unimaginable genius when they are very young? What about plants and bugs and rocks? Are they inhabited by-really dumb souls low on the evolution scale? Do they get the chance to move up to a better body next time? Do human souls sometimes move down the evolutionary scale or die out by inhabiting lower-quality bodies?

Good Guys Finish Last

Life Isn't Fair

Life Isn’t Fair

Let’s address the circumstance when the bad guys always seem to win. When the people on top happen to be scumbags who should be living in a cave somewhere, good people get annoyed and wonder why things are they way they are. So, why do good guys often finish last? This isn’t really a hard question. It’s just a matter of survival of the fittest.

Those who do whatever is necessary to achieve their goals are more likely to get ahead unless they inadvertently get too many people mad at them and suffer from a backlash. Even then, some of the most adept bad guys are able to accumulate enough power to suppress all dissent from the masses they have oppressed. It is the same principle throughout nature. All organisms compete against each other for resources, except for those symbiotic creatures that rely upon each other in complementary ways, such as benign parasites. Strength, speed, ambition, intelligence, and beauty are advantageous qualities, but they are not limited to the “good.”

Why should mankind differ? If we were created to be good, why do we seem to have all the same characteristics that make other creatures competitive? We’re basically self-centered, love to eat, think a lot about the act of reproduction, and usually take care of our young. If we are inherently good, why do we harm things for no other reason than amusement? We all know why boxing and professional wrestling are so popular. As far as sports go, they aren’t too far removed from the gladiators who fought to the death in Rome. Is it evil or normal?

Evil cat

Evil cat

For that matter, why do cats play with their prey and kill even when they get plenty of premium cat chow? Are cats evil? Why have dogs been known to rescue people? Are they good?

Good dog

Good dog

No, I’m not counting pit bulls–not all dogs go to heaven. What does it say about our species if half of us like dogs and the other half prefer cats? Can we really trust cat lovers?

Good guys finish last because that’s just the way nature tends to work and god has not seen fit to change things just for us. Of course, that doesn’t mean we won’t be rewarded or punished in another level of existence. Nice guys would like to believe that, ultimately, the bad guys will get what they deserve. This assumes that they actually deserve to be punished rather than to enjoy the rewards they reaped by screwing everyone else, as nature seems to have intended. Freud called this aspect of religion wishful thinking. But, as I tell my kids, life isn’t fair.

To Thank or Not to Thank God

Thank god for the bombs!

Thank god for the bombs!

Why do people thank god when something good happens or when something really bad is narrowly avoided? Do they really think that god is actually making an effort to reward them for something they did? If they win the lottery, does that mean that they were favored over millions of other people or does god let chance rule most of the time? If someone just avoided getting hit by a tractor trailer, does it mean that the Devil was out to get him, but god intervened just in time to save him and, instead, allow somebody else less deserving to die? Some people think that god actually kills people in retaliation for bad behavior. It doesn’t even have to be their own behavior, it could just be group punishment for the actions of an entire country or the whole world. Why would god really want to punish us by group affiliation? Does he really care if someone is an American? It isn’t like we each get to choose what kind of stupid policies our government often inflicts upon us.

Thank god we won!

Thank god we won!

People love to “Thank God” when things go well for them. They mostly thank him when some catastrophe is narrowly avoided or when they recover from some devastating situation or illness. I find this curious because one might also assume that it was god who put them in the situation in the first place. Are we to assume that all bad things are the result of the devil or of chance and that all good things are the conscious interventions of god? Is this rational thinking? Let’s think about this by dividing up all situations into three categories, good, bad, and neutral and applying a sanity check.

First, there is the situation wherein something bad happens, but eventually everything turns out OK. Maybe it even seems like a miracle that we survived at all. This is the best-case scenario for god lovers. Obviously, the devil tried to do something bad to us, but god intervened and stopped him cold. Hurray for god! Hurray for us, as we obviously have god on our side!

The situation wherein something good happens out of the blue is similar. God decided to reward us–hurray for us! Of course, maybe it was just a test to see what we would do with our good fortune. If we win the lottery or are born into great wealth, what we do with the money might determine the future of our souls. When does someone qualify for such a wimpy test? I’m certainly willing to volunteer for this softball rather than the kind where your life falls apart for no apparent reason and you have to struggle every day until you die a miserable and lonely death. Come on, test me, please! Make it a whopper. I don’t buy lottery tickets because it is basically a waste of money (“a tax on the poor”), so you’ll have to send me one of those winning tickets that some sucker loses or forgets to check and throws away. By the way, that would be a pretty good punishment, so let him know he lost it. Note to Oprah: You are definitely passing your “great wealth” test.

Now, consider the case where something bad happens and it only goes downhill from there, eventually resulting in sickness, poverty, disgrace, and death. Now, we have to wonder if the devil or chance did the dirty deeds and then god either was too busy to care or decided not to intervene. Either way, it doesn’t look too good. He obviously didn’t want to intervene on our behalf. The reasons, however, get complicated, but here is a stab at some of the more likely reasons for not making everything turn out OK. Either (1) we were not worth the effort to help and he was willing to see what would happen by chance; (2) we needed to learn a harsh lesson before we died, so he consciously decided to punish us and see how we react; (3) we already earned a place in heaven, so he decided to use us to punish or test someone else; or (4) we were already guaranteed to go to hell, and he needed to use us to reward, punish, or test someone else.

The first case, where we are not worth the effort, could be true of the mediocre majority. We’re borderline cases and could go either way towards good or evil. But this implies that god’s resources are limited and need to be expended on those who really need the attention. If this is the case, we have a problem. We’re pretty much on our own unless we are special enough to take note of. How can we get god’s attention? Does it help to have more people pray louder and longer on your behalf for your prayer to be heard? Scientific studies on prayer have showed that having many people pray for people with medical conditions does not seem to help.

In the second case, where we are in need of a harsh test, we have to resign ourselves to “god’s will” without complaint and without turning towards evil. This is the standard position of most religions. Put up, shut up, and be happy about it. I guess that makes life a bit like a frat house initiation. It really sucks for a while, but if you want to get into the club, you’d better take it like a man. My opinion is that any deity that has an initiation procedure really ought to apply it to everyone. No letting in your favorites with a couple of pats on the backside. Either we all go through the mud, or nobody does. Why can’t we all just take the lottery test?

In the third case, where we already earned a place in heaven and are just being used for another purpose, come on! Do I really need to comment on this? Is that they way to treat your favorites? I thought that our good deeds were supposed to come back to us in kind several times over? Isn’t that what the bible says? If you punish the best people along with the worst, what kind of message do you think that sends to everyone? You know that we humans instinctively respond to short-term rewards and punishment, so this isn’t a very smart way of getting good behavior.

What if a good person is so pushed over the edge, that he does something really, really, bad? Does he then get sent to hell even though he was doing just fine before god decided to use him like a punching bag to test someone else? Or is there a point beyond which you can do anything and still get into heaven? We would all like to think so. I would definitely like to be able to take my own life if I were suffering from a painful, fatal illness, and don’t think that should cancel out the rest of my life’s work. I would also like to be able to blow away some bastard if he just killed my entire family. I’m sure most juries would probably let me off on the basis of “temporary insanity.” Didn’t Jesus even question god while he was on the cross? It certainly didn’t hurt him.

Now, we’re down to case four, where we are already guaranteed to go to hell, so god is just using us for another purpose. If you believe that we only have one life, then we only have one chance to prove ourselves. Somehow, it doesn’t seem fair to cut our lives short just because we were bad-even if we were really, really bad. Don’t we get the chance to redeem ourselves? Is there a point beyond which we are a completely lost cause? The Catholic Church doesn’t think so. As long as you are still breathing, you have the chance to accept Jesus and confess your sins. But in the Old Testament and in the Koran, god does seem willing to kill us as punishment for doing bad things. Time is up, you’re out of here! Go straight to hell. The answer is obvious if you look at the exceptional case: when someone who has not yet earned a place in Heaven (i.e. a bad guy who has not yet redeemed himself) is killed instantly. Maybe he is hit from behind by a truck, has a massive heart attack, or is blown to bits by a car bomb. If we only have one life, then god is obviously willing to kill us or let us die by chance without giving us the chance to save ourselves. Your time may be up at any moment and he doesn’t care. So, if you thank god for the good things that happen, you have to blame him for the bad.

On the other hand, if we have more than one possible life, then maybe we do get another chance. This changes the whole equation. Now, death can be as much of a test as life. It means that god can use us at will without worrying about the ramifications of killing us. He can kill a perfectly good person just to punish or test someone else, knowing that the good person will always get another chance. Does that mean that we humans can also kill someone good just to test or punish someone else? Obviously, god could just send him back again. I think my attorney just wet himself, so I don’t think I’ll answer that question. I just can’t afford the liability.

So, let me ask this corollary question instead. If we kill someone bad, will it matter? Won’t he just get another chance anyway? Correct. If reincarnation is possible, then killing someone doesn’t do anything other than free up some resources for someone else. If you think the death penalty in this country saves us money in prison costs, think again. It probably costs us more to keep someone on death row for decades while lawyers keep things tied up in court. Yes, it would be cheaper to take someone out back and string him up 30 minutes after the trial, but we don’t do that anymore. Anyway, I wouldn’t trust our legal system to stop convicting innocent people. Of course, couldn’t they just be reincarnated anyway? Forget I said that.

Sometimes really bad things happen to really good people and it doesn’t seem that anyone benefits or is deservingly punished. What if god always tries to help save us from bad situations but is not always able to succeed? Yes, we always assume he is all powerful, but what if he is not? What if the forces of hell or chance are sometimes stronger? Is there a balance of power in the universe and a war between good and evil whose outcome is in doubt? Can god lose? Is god too busy to help everyone? Is managing the universe just too overwhelming and complicated a problem considering all the seemingly random interactions that affect us all? The “butterfly effect” implies that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings on the other side of the world can affect the entire global weather pattern through a progression of small, seemingly insignificant, actions occurring in progression. Maybe god just can’t handle the complexity of the universe.

Planetary Cancer

Resistance-is-futileWhat is cancer? I’m certainly not an expert, but I know it has something to do with cells that start growing out of control until they eventually destroy the rest of the body. We know a little bit about why and how it happens and a tad about how to prevent it, but don’t have very effective treatments to deal with it. Sometimes we can cut it out or mix up a batch of nasty toxic chemicals that may be able to stop or slow it before the chemicals themselves kill us. If I say that cancer is out-of-control growth, then it becomes very easy to make analogies between cancer and the growth of predatory species.

Some species reproduce and spread rapidly, devouring their environment as they expand. Only when such a predatory species encounters a natural enemy or environmental limit does it stop expanding. If there arises a balance between the various species and the environment, then we have a balanced ecosystem. Otherwise, the process of natural selection leads to the extinction of inferior species in favor of the superior. What happens, however, when a species is so successful, that it destroys everything around it. We could call it a cancerous species.

Are humans a cancer upon the planet? Our only natural enemies include each other and microscopic organisms like viruses and bacteria. As long as we don’t completely destroy each other, we only have to worry about those tiny, adaptable, little pests that share the planet with us, and the environment of the planet itself. This includes, of course, large meteors that might accidentally smash into us and, in several billion years, an exploding or dying sun. Assuming we don’t get taken out anytime soon, you might say we’re like a cancer on the planet. Granted, we’re not really destroying everything. We try hard to protect anything that we like to eat, like cows and chickens. Unfortunately, when people can’t figure out how to own a resource, such as the fish in the sea, we as a society tend to be pretty incapable of protecting it. This situation often ends up creating a dilemna we call the Tragedy of the Commons. We’re also not so good at protecting other species that make non-obvious contributions to our well being, like bugs and plants with medicinal value, or are merely nice to look at in a zoo, like tigers and elephants.

Humanity is growing out of control and nothing yet appears likely to stop us. But if we are really growing like a cancer, are we also threatening some larger organism, like the planetary ecosystem? Maybe we are, but then maybe that’s just natural selection in action. We may destroy 99% of life on the planet, but will our descendents really care as long as the temperature stays moderate and we have enough to eat? They will probably have some really awesome virtual reality pods in the future that will simulate just about anything, so people will just sip lattes and direct robot servants to do all the manual labor. My main worry, however, is with those microscopic critters that are so very good at infecting and killing us and then mutating before we can kill them ourselves. We may need all the natural resources we can muster to combat them, so destroying the rest of the species on the planet may not be such a good idea.

If we can just figure out a better way to own and represent the value of other species, then we may solve the problem. Perhaps we can sell off the rights to the ocean and patrol it with a naval consortium using an advanced surveillance system to monitor activity? I’m sure we already have space-borne and undersea sensors that can be used to build this global surveillance network to protect property rights. It would not be good enough to just divide up ownership of the seas geographically, like we do with the land, because we can’t stop fish from migrating. People would just continue to fish as much as possible knowing that if they don’t, somebody else will.

Instead, we could create a new kind of commodity market to trade limited fishing, undersea mining and dumping rights for specific areas of the ocean. We already sell off electromagnetic frequency rights to communications companies and trade credits for the right to pollute, so this would not be an entirely new concept. If the same entity owned the rights to fish as well as to dump toxic chemical waste, then we might see some more responsible behavior emerge from the owners.

Unfortunately, I’m sure nobody will ever agree on how to implement such a scheme and it might just provoke another global war. Who would get the money raised from the initial sales and who would set the limits on how much fish can be caught, oil can be drilled or waste can be dumped? Does anyone want to leave it up to the United Nations? Who would be the biggest winners or losers? How would the money from the initial sales be spent? Maybe the global maritime superpowers should just get together and agree among themselves to divide it up as fairly as they can. If we don’t do anything, we’ll probably eventually end up fighting over ocean resources, in which case the most powerful nations will take the majority of it by force anyway.

In any case, let’s assume this is just a local, planetary issue that will eventually be solved. If we advance our technology enough to travel across the divide between star systems, will we spread throughout the galaxy destroying or transforming all that stands in our way? Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that taking over the galaxy would necessarily be a bad thing. I’ve always been a Trekkie and I think it would be pretty cool if we could build something like the Genesis Device that can transform lifeless rocks into habitable planets (see Star Trek 2, the Wrath of Khan). But I think we may actually end up more like the Borg than the Federation, assimilating all that we encounter into our increasingly wired civilization. That is, of course, unless we encounter a superior intelligence that stops us. In any case, if you believe in my Anti-Entropic Universe theory, you will agree that it is just natural that we should do our best to help bring order to the universe.