In scientific circles, the debates between Albert Einstein and quantum physics revolutionary Nils Bohr in the 1920s were just as significant as were the Lincoln-Douglas debates to historians. A famous exchange occurred after Bohr finished summarizing the notion of “quantum entanglement”, or the perpetual interaction of two sub-atomic particles regardless of their proximity in space. Flummoxed at this bizarre new theory (and perhaps feeling that his famous relativity theory was in jeopardy due to its dependence on Newtonian physics), Einstein bellowed, “God does not throw dice!” Without missing a beat, Bohr deadpanned in response, “Don’t tell God what to do.”
Admittedly, I am at best a scientific hack. You know the kind: one of those people who has read a few books on a certain topic and henceforth presents himself to the world as one of its foremost authorities. The ego is a funny thing, even though every book on Eastern philosophy I’ve read insists that it isn’t a thing at all. Sometimes I know better than the authors of the books I read. Scientist Supreme. Guru to the Lamas. That’s me. If you’ve heard it from me, it must be true.
False modesty through hyperbolic arrogance aside, I really don’t know what the hell I’m talking about most of the time. Then again, I suspect no one does. Most people specialize in one field of study and spend their lives exploring every conceivable aspect of it. We have physicists, biologists, astronomers, philosophers, theologians, anthropologists and sundry experts all trying to answer the BIG questions via their respective disciplines. I think this is why, after centuries of exploration and contemplation, we haven’t arrived at anything like a consensus.
From the aforementioned BIG questions, I am going to examine two of them here: 1) Is there a soul?; and 2) Is there a God? Yes, I realize those are arguably two of the most convoluted questions I could possibly choose, but worry not – I will be brief. No mysteries are going to be solved in this post, other than perhaps the mystery of why there are so many disparate and contradictory answers to these two questions.
Let’s just get my best guess answers to those 2 queries out of the way: 1) not as such; 2) not as such. Sorry, but that’s the best I can do, Folks. And quite frankly, it’s about the best that anyone can do because, you see, these are unanswerable questions. Every religion claims otherwise, of course, and this is why I have a hard-wired disrespect for religion in general. All of the major Western religions believe in a soul that is essentially an eternal spirit underlying and animating the physical body. At death, it is posited that this soul, which is identical to one’s personality (it remembers and even “watches over” surviving family members, for instance) takes up residence in either Heaven, Hell or Purgatory depending upon its behavior during its embodied time on Earth.
Thankfully, our friends to the East have a different interpretation that has far fewer parallels to a Brothers Grimm morality fairy tale. The Hindus believe in a soul or Atman that isn’t a microcosm of one’s personality or ego, but quite the opposite: an inner, immortal spark of awareness that doesn’t just have “godlike” qualities, it is God (or Brahman), witnessing its own creation through innumerable sets of eyes. Upon death, this spark simply rejoins the Godhead. Finally, the Buddhists – in one of the few tenets of that tradition that smacks of stubborn contrariness – insist that there is no immortal soul. They coined the term Anatman, just to drive the point home a little further. Since the core of that philosophy deals with the interdependence of all things and the emptiness of phenomena, it seemed important to apply this view to the soul (Atman), too. However, before all of you atheists and agnostics out there start thinking that perhaps Buddhism might be an ideal spiritual pursuit for one of your skeptical nature, be aware that the Buddhist argument against the soul is linguistic at best. After that big, wonderful middle finger to the notion of immortality, they then go on to describe how all sentient beings are caught in the web of Samsara for “infinite lifetimes”. There is a complicated afterlife cosmology, referred to as the Bardo, that describes in excruciating detail the nature of the various realms your (don’t you dare call it a soul!) will be thrust into again and again until the highly unlikely event of one attaining “enlightenment”. When pressed, they will call this element that survives death a “karmic continuum” or a “mind stream”. To-may-to, to-mah-to. It’s the same damn concept.
Of all these theology-based theories of the soul, the Hindu Atman makes the most sense to me. It goes along with my pantheistic view that every single one of us is not just indispensable to but IS this thing we call God. More than that, since this outlook doesn’t describe this spark of divinity as having anything to do with our individual temporary egos and it dispenses of the childlike anthropomorphic view of god pervasive in Judeo-Christian circles, I’d hazard a guess that it’s the view held by most non-atheistic physicists, too.
Quantum mechanics has helped to proliferate that previously rare animal, the “non-atheistic physicist”. For the issue of the soul, it is precisely the previously mentioned quantum entanglement (or “spooky action at a distance”, as Einstein called it) that gives some renewed credibility to the concept. At the sub-atomic level, when two particles (knots of energy) become entangled, they remain so indefinitely. Particles that have been found to affect one another’s behavior have been separated and moved to laboratories thousands of miles away from each other, and the action of one still has the same instantaneous effect on the other as before. Extrapolating this phenomenon out to the extreme macro level, the fact that each of our bodies contains multitudes of particles that may be entangled with other particles all over the Universe seems to imply that there is constant communication between the Universe and ourselves. The laws of conservation of matter and energy take care of the immortality bit in relation to such particles (or waves…or wavicles).
My use of that awkward term at the end of the last paragraph was methodical. The other exceedingly bizarre concept to come out of quantum theory is that of the need of an observer in order for any event to take place. A quantum particle’s position can be measured, as can its trajectory, but never both. That is because a human observer, even with the aid of the most advanced observational equipment, can only concentrate on one thing at a time. You can either view a particle’s position in space OR you can view its path. For the former, an observer sees it as a particle; the latter, a wave. So which is it? Much like Schrodinger’s poor dead-alive cat, it is both until such time as someone looks at it, causing it to suddenly “choose” a definitive nature. But really, the observer did the choosing. Again, extrapolating this notion to the extreme, a creator/infinite observer is implied in order to explain our own existence. It looks at us causing us to be and we, in turn, look at little particles under microscopes, causing them to be. I can dig all this, and it does seem to give veracity to many Taoist, Buddhist and Hindu philosophical points. But there is no morality to any of this. No “justice”, as religious folks in the West seem to insist MUST be a part of the grand plan. But what if it isn’t? What if we invented the concept of “justice” as a biological imperative (and a psychological salve) but the Universe, the All, the Whatever-the-Fuck-You-Wish-To-Call-It has no such sense of right and wrong? To me, it’s far more of a stretch to believe that it DOES give a crap about whether we are good or evil than that it doesn’t. For a start, both “good” and “evil” are completely subjective notions, so who’s to say that god, were he/she/it so inclined, would even get it right according to our judgments?
Finally, although I can accept the idea that I am god and you are god and she is god and he is god and it is god and they are god…I cannot accept the idea that our identities survive our physical death. And what this means, ultimately, is that my vision of the “afterlife” is exactly the same as that of atheists and nihilists. In short, nada. I just take far longer to arrive at that conclusion than they do. Incidentally, I am available to give classroom lectures at local elementary schools if you get the feeling that your children are growing up to be far less fucked up than you are and hence need a good dose of confusion injected into their precocious little minds.