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Life, the Universe
To see the Universe in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wildflower.... Eric Harrison ponders
life's ultimate mysteries.
When we look at life on this
planet, it seems incredible
that everything works as well
as it does. This is sometimes
called the Goldilocks effect -- not too hot,
not too cold, but just right. Our planet is
exquisitely attuned to the requirements
of life. It's just too perfect for words.
While there may be a kind of mechanistic,
billiard ball logic governing the world at
the atomic level, science is still quite unable
to explain the complex mechanisms of life
Reductionist principles in science are
very important, but it turns out that "1 +
1" usually equals a lot more than "2". The
brain of an ant is only a r udimentary cluster
of neurons. These are not even capable of
keeping a lone ant alive for more than a few
minutes. But put that "stupid" ant together
with thousands of its "stupid" mates, and it
will terrorise the rainforest. Our brain cells
are intrinsically no smarter than those of
the ants, but connect them to a multitude
of others and they can send a man to the
moon. Given the limitations of our basic
equipment, how are we all so clever?
Part of the mystery can be explained
by what is called "sur vivor bias". For every
species alive today, be it mammal or
bacteria, a million related species have
lost the evolutionar y struggle. A nts may
seem stupid, but every sur vivor is the best
of the best of the best in its class. The
losers vanish as if they had never existed,
recycled as raw materials for the winners.
We are all phenomenally clever compared
to the losers. We are all part of the all-star
team, unaware of our brilliance because
we're surrounded by champions.
Yet even sur vivor bias can't explain why
we are so clever. How do ants become a
ravenous super organism? Why do humans
so vastly outperform chimpanzees? How
do human brains learn language and
music? How does one person enormously
excel another in a certain field?
Shakespeare's brain started out
virtually identical to yours or mine. In fact,
his education opportunities were inferior
to those of anyone in this century who
has access to a library. His consumption of
marijuana, cocaine and alcohol, and that
of his appreciative audience, probably
helped his genius, but it doesn't explain
why he wrote 38 plays and others just got
drunk. Shakespea re, though, knew about
chance, mystery and the unpredictable
and, like any creative person, he knew how
to use it.
In Tom Stoppard's play, Shakespeare
in Love, the clima x comes at the imagined
first opening night of Romeo and Juliet.
It is an hour before the curtain rises and
pandemonium reigns. The actor (yes, a
male) playing Juliet has vanished. Romeo
has lost his voice, and the police are
coming to close down the theatre.
Shakespeare is beside himself. "It's a
catastrophe!" he wails to the manager,
played in the movie by Geoffrey Rush.
"Don't worr y. It'll all work out," says Rush.
"How?!!!" exclaims Shakespeare. "I don't
know," says Rush, bemused but placid.
"But always does. It's a mystery!" And of
course it does. Despite every impossibility,
the play opens on time. Life's like that.
The Goldilocks effect triumphs again -- but
how does it happen?
If a scientific "hypothesis" can
repeatedly make accurate predictions
and resist all attempts to disprove it, it
is upgraded to the status of a "theory".
The "theories" of Relativity and Evolution
are thus regarded as facts as hard as any
rock, with the proviso that new evidence
could still prove them wrong. Conversely,
an idea such as the existence of God, that
has no predictive capacity, and which can't
be proven right or wrong, is regarded as
an opinion or a belief until the facts
emerge to support it. (As Bertrand Russell
said in relation to God, we're still waiting
for the evidence.)
Mystery makes any good scientist
restless and impatient. Scientists try to
convert total mysteries, such as how plants
grow, into problems that are capable of
being solved, if not by this generation
of scientists then the next. Paradoxically,
the deeper our understanding, the
stranger everything becomes. Scientific
breakthroughs, such as the germ theory
of disease, rarely stop the enquiry dead,
"case closed". Instead, they invariably
trigger off a f lood of questions that were
previously inconceivable. Science doesn't
explain anything away, it simply opens up
new mysteries. The more we know, the
more we find out what we don't know. As
the famous astrophysicist Sir Arthur
Eddington said, "The world is not only
stranger than we imagined, it is stranger
than we can imagine."
Conversely, religion and belief, facing
the same Great Unknown, tend to lie
down abjectly at the feet of mystery. "Ca n't
understand it? Just take it on faith. Don't
ta x your little mind about it. God knows
what he is doing. If you have any doubts,
trust the spiritual experts."
For science, mystery is the starting
point. For religion, it is the end point.
Since I teach meditation, people often
assume I hold spiritual beliefs even if I
never mention them. In fact, I have a
long-standing, sneaky admiration for God
and I'm quite willing to talk about it, but
the conversation never seems to get very
far. Because I'm also a writer, I'm very
conscious that words can have several
meanings. So to avoid confusion, when I'm
asked, "Do you believe in God?" I usually
reply, "What do you mean by 'God'?" I
just want to establish a common starting
Unfortunately, my response usually
stops the conversation dead. Typically,
the person looks flummoxed and says
something like, "Well, you know . . . God . . .",
as if his or her concept of the divine is
more or less identical to that of everyone
else. It goes with the all-embracing, all-
explaining, end-of-the-line nature of the
concept. It doesn't seem right that there
should be alternative or even contradictory
views on the matter.
But of course, there are. God comes
in many forms from which we can pick
and choose to suit the colour of our soul.
There is God as Avenger and God as
Universal Love. There are male and female
gods, sky gods and Earth gods. There is
God as transcendent pure spirit, and there
is the pantheistic god that invigorates
all matter. There is God the original
watchmaker and God as the mafia boss
whom we can petition for favours.
Above all, if we're looking for clear,
Peace Australia Inc
& the Sufi Ruhaniat Intnl
"Heart Opening to Ecstasy"
with International guest leaders:
Arienne & Wali van der Zwan
2 days Dance & Sufi workshops on
Sat 3rd and Sun 4th April 2010
Magnolia Healing Centre, Rose Bay,
Cnr Dover Rd & Old South Head Rd
"Journey to the
Land of our Heart"
with Arienne & Wali van der Zwan
International leaders & musicians
to be held at the beautiful
Govinda Valley Retreat,
Lot 1, Lady Carrington Rd Otford, NSW
from 4pm Monday 5th April to
3pm Sunday 11th April 2010
Enjoy these Dances in a nurturing
setting, with Ayurvedic food
Download the Retreat flyers from
Bookings/enquiries to Mu'mina,
Registrar: (04) 2404 9351
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