Do you believe unequivocally that science can explain everything given enough time? If you have seriously considered all that you have heard on documentaries and learned in school, all that you have observed, thought about, considered how you think, learned in church if you go, and you find yourself completely satisfied that science is all there is, stop reading right now.
I asked you to think about questions that science could answer (mainly the ‘how’ questions) and the questions that science cannot answer (mainly the ‘why’ questions). Now I will ask you to consider a second big question:
“Do I matter?”
I do not know your answer, but honestly, is there anyone who could say they have never wondered if they matter?
If you told me you had never thought about that, I would probably think you were not telling me the truth. Of course, I could neither prove that, or explain ‘why’ you would choose to deny that, or even ‘why’ I would conjecture you were lying. After all, I have no instrument nor method to measure, much less to prove, that you are inclined to be deceitful and why. Science cannot determine that either.
Do you know why I say this?
Because wondering whether we matter is a profoundly important question asked by a majority of the eight billion people on this planet! There are no economic, educational, societal, or personality barriers to that question. Not only that, humans have been trying to answer that question since humans were recording their thoughts. I can promise you that the bacteria I work with in the desert of Mexico does not ask that question. Neither does my dog. (Although he really loves me. And I can prove that because he always wags his tail and smiles when he takes the treats I give him!)
If humans and the human brain were nothing more than containers of chemicals producing reactions causing predictable consequences, then there should be no differences in how we perceive music, beauty, ourselves, or the value of another human person. We should not care at all ‘why’ we matter. We would do just like the octopus does, live a while, mate, and then die, never wondering if we were meant for something bigger, better, or even if we had a purpose beyond creating another octopus.
Let us remind ourselves one more time of some of the capabilities that we have, that science is ill-equipped to explain, the things that make us uniquely human. Remember, we are still categorizing the ‘how’ versus ‘why’ questions…
We humans have a conscience. We are capable of great sacrifice and we will know when we are sacrificing. We can enjoy good music, food, and art and yet steal, lie, and cheat. And no brain chemistry experiment can tell you why you are not a serial killer, or why you can create a painting that stirs the heart of almost everyone, or why a song can make you remember the best kiss you ever had, or why you can fall in love with someone you are convinced is your soul mate and then divorce them because you have fallen out of love.
We humans, you, me, every child, even your granny, appears to be vastly different beings.
“Now hold on there a minute,” you say. “I think you are overstating human uniqueness a bit! Come on! Every day I see something else from science that gives me reason to believe we are not appreciating the sentient (ability to perceive or feel things) of non-humans! Even YouTube has evidence.”
Excellent! I agree, to a point.
I have no issues discussing the possibility that your dog has a soul and might go to Heaven. I have watched a cow deliver her first calf and I know mothering when I see it. Whales astound me. Since I consistently mention octopuses, you know I have seen that strangely weird and unsettling documentary of the depressed man and the South African octopus. But, if there is something dynamic and creative about the chemistry of a human brain, it seems to follow that we should expect some similar levels of consciousness mirrored in other beings with similar brain chemistry.
There are also arguments for our non-specialness based generally on the similarity of our DNA. This is a branch of science that basically creates family trees of every living thing. It is how you find your ancestors on 23 and Me or Ancestry.com. In a broader concept, it hinges on the idea that we are animals, just more evolved ones. That we are just another species on the continuum, just a non-special product of the trajectory of evolution.
I do not buy the premise that humans are not special. I say that, not because it scares me or goes against what I think Genesis states in Christian scripture, but I think observation tells you we are different. I think there are limits to what evolution can explain. I think no matter how far evolution theory pushes the envelope, science will ever get around or over the fact that humans are unique. It is valuable to think about these explanations to see how much of who we are is explainable in science terms. But it is your job to carefully parse out when fact becomes a thought experiment. Thought experiments are important but they are merely beliefs, not proofs.
Belief, as well as faith, falls squarely onto our list of uniquely human traits along with regret, a sense of right and wrong, and self-sacrifice. These are not the rules of consciousness that my drive my cat, Daisy. She purrs and rubs gently and sweetly across my leg when I walk outside. She has not spent one minute in existential guilt over the beautiful but very dead screech owl she left at the back door yesterday. My angst in life is not hers.
There is an additional attribute of humanity, completely unique to us, that I have yet to mention. It is the tool of investigation between how things are and why they are. No other creature even comes close to accomplishing it. It sets us apart in ways that allow science to flourish, or at the very least allows us to acknowledge or deny our philosophical needs. By pure science estimations, in the 3.8 billion years of recorded, evolving life on this planet, there is only one ‘branch’ that has the ability to ‘do’ this thing.
Do you know what it is? I like it in the Greek language: logos. You speak. You have words. And you use those words to write, and to read and to reason. You use these words to express your thoughts and desires. It is true that all of life communicates. Bees and trees use chemicals to signal, dolphins sing, and birds call to each other. Bacteria do it too. Our entire world communicates, but no other organism can talk with words that can be preserved, read, reasoned over and shared. No other creature does this, not even our closest relatives in the hominid world (by measures of DNA: chimps, gibbons, monkeys, orangutans, and gorillas), and they have similar faculties to accomplish the task! While humanity uses language in all its forms to explore and improve technology, to understand the world around us, it also most pointedly allows us to seek and reason the answer to ‘why’ we are here.
We are literally the only ones asking the question, “Do I matter?”
Something is different about us.
Where are we then? We are left with real questions outside of the ability of science to answer. And very specifically, we have this true and accurate reality that only humans talk, read and write. We have the ability to share our thoughts. This is not trivial. In some subtle way in today’s world, our reliance and confidence in the ‘how’ questions of science have caused us to ignore the important ones that ask ‘why.’ Understanding our needs, beyond the science of the wisdom of getting a cavity filled or taking a bath because we are dirty, is at the heart of our humanity. It dictates the laws we make to govern ourselves. It is embodied in our desire for peace. It allows us to extend grace and mercy. It preserves the value of gratitude. It bears on our prejudices and our ability to find joy, even in a difficult world. As you experience life, you are going to use science to fuel, transport and communicate. And yet, every single one of you will also need to call on or satisfy, or at least acknowledge, this other part of you. That part that science does not nor cannot explain. The ‘who’ you are who wants to love someone, to do things that are right even if you would rather not, even if it might be advantageous if you did not! It is this part of you that drives you to make your mark wherever it is that your talents and abilities lead. And then wonder, “is this all there is?”
You want to matter. You are going to ask why. Because you are uniquely equipped to do so!
SO, if there is a reality untouchable by science, yet ready to be explored, how in the world do we do that?
Your third big question is this:
Since there is something beyond science, is there a way to access information to help us better understand this ‘other’ reality?
Stay tuned for Part 3. The Supernatural