I have said a lot about beliefs, and suggested that different beliefs are often the cause of many conflicts. Our beliefs are based on how we interpret the reality around us but who is to say which interpretation is correct? Are your beliefs about a religion any truer than someone else's beliefs? I believe that we all interpret reality in our own ways based on instinct and our experiences in our lives. Ultimately, if we interpret reality inaccurately, we do not survive. If I, for example, believe that when stepping off a ledge that I will fly, the reality of matter and energy will ultimately predominate, and I will fall. What we believe does not always correspond with the physical reality around us, and we pay the price for being inaccurate. We then can make the choice to change our beliefs, just as in the example where they once believed the Earth was the centre of the universe.
One of the great questions that humanity has often pondered is: What is reality? Are all the things of matter and energy real around us - the sun, a book you are reading, or the chair that you are sitting on? If they are real, what does it mean when we say they are real? These are all perplexing questions and probably things most animals do not ponder much, other than humans. I guess we all have our own way of interpreting reality. In the following I will give you one possible interpretation.
Assume you are standing at a street corner and someone asks you to point out all the things that are real around you. You see the road. You see a sign and there are shoes in a store window. You see cars of all different types driving on the street. You look in the sky and see the sun. You see a dog, a cat, and so on. As you look around, you conclude there are thousands of objects that are real around you. Now let's for a moment go back to some of our high school science regarding the elements. Consider the following quote from Wikipedia:
"Common examples of elements are iron, copper, silver, gold, hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen. In total, 117 elements have been observed as of 2008, of which 92 occur naturally on Earth. All chemical matter consists of these elements."
The notable observation for my discussion is that all chemical matter consists of approximately 100 elements in the world that we perceive. Therefore let's ask ourselves a very important question. How is it that you can stand on a street corner and conclude there are thousands of real things around you when you also know that those things you see are really composed of only about 100 real elements?
So which is it? In one instance you see 1000 things, yet in another, it is like putting on a special set of glasses that allow you only to see the 100 elements. If you only perceived the elements, when looking at the dog, you might just see the oxygen and hydrogen and his other elements, not the dog. When looking at the asphalt, you would just see the carbon and the other elements that make up the asphalt. What this indicates is in the instance where you are seeing 1000 things, you are creating a more diverse reality. You are assuming that, depending on how the elements are combined, you will see them as cats, or dogs, or signs or whatever. You create your reality based on what is meaningful to you physically, and also functionally. Ultimately, we perceive the objects that we consider real around us instinctively, in order to survive, even if it is true that everything is composed of about 100 elements. It is virtually impossible for us to interpret the world in any other way, otherwise we could not survive. Can you imagine that if we saw a car coming at us, we instead could only see the elements it was made of, unable to distinguish it as a car? This would not be good for our survival. This is why we instinctively define our reality in ways that are meaningful to our survival.
In the previous section, I discussed how we make assumptions. I think the fact that we assume that the world is more than just the 100 elements is an example of one of the greatest assumptions that we make as human beings, and we cannot help but do so in order to survive.
Let's now consider a few examples of how we create our reality. If you look from the distance, a cloud may seem like a "real" puffy white object in the sky, but if you are in the cloud you might redefine it as a "mist" or a "fog", even though only your location has changed, not the cloud. Each is one and the same, but you define it relative to what works for you at the time. As another example, if you are making a vase from a piece of clay, at what point does its shape allow you to redefine it as a vase, or is it still a piece of clay? As one can see with these examples, we have a tendency to categorize what surrounds us as real based on how objects are physically and functionally meaningful to us. The point is, we appear to create our own reality.
Let's go further regarding the "100 elements" and do a little bit more science. I remember when I was in high schoolss they taught us that the elements combined to create "molecules". For example, a water molecule is the combination of 2 elements being hydrogen and oxygen (2 hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom hence H2O). Working the other way though, we also were taught that each of the 100 or so elements were basically combinations of subatomic particles called protons, neutrons, and electrons. Each of the elements was different because of the number of protons in them. For example, a gold atom always contains 79 protons which distinguishes it from a nitrogen atom which contains 7 protons. Anyway, my point is that the person standing on the corner of the street could further conclude that the 1000 things he sees are just protons, neutrons, and electrons, instead of 100 elements. Once again we also see that we "assume" there are 100 elements just because the shape of the protons, neutrons, and electrons, result in elements that are physically and functionally important to us for our survival.
During my lifetime, science has gone much further into the area of quantum mechanics and wave-particle duality that suggest that all matter and energy are interchangeable. You may have heard of the formula e=mc2 (energy=mass times the speed of light squared) most often associated with Albert Einstein. Basically, it suggests that matter and energy are really different forms of the same thing. For example, matter can be converted to energy through nuclear fusion and nuclear fission.
Regardless, let's make a big assumption now that the person standing on the street is seeing only one thing instead of protons, neutrons, and electrons. Instead, as the formula e=mc2 suggests, these particles are just energy dispersed in different densities which the man on the street interprets as the 1000 things he sees. We define there to be 1000 real things because that is the reality we must create to survive, even though they just may be energy of different densities. Now imagine all the matter that we can perceive in the universe as just different densities of energy. The pond is like a picture of the expanding universe with ripples representing these different densities of energy, or matter, that make up the universe. Even we are a part of the ripples, hence we can only perceive the matter and energy that are a part of the ripples. Another way to visualize this might be to imagine the pond and the expanding ripples as a swirling galaxy, or a solar system where the planets circle its sun - the ripples.
Consider the image of the pond where the pond, our universe, may have been flat and homogenous at one time, then something is dropped in the centre of the pond - a singularity from where it all begins. The Big Bang leads to the creation of the ripples and the universe, all of which we are a part, and the ripples disperse throughout the pond. The ripples are the different densities of energy which we define as our planets, all the matter around us, the 1000 objects around us, and even ourselves. One might even suggest that over the eons, as the ripples become farther from the centre from where they began (the universe expands), that there will be so little energy left that they will become barely existent. I understand this analogy is totally hypothetical. It is just one way to interpret our reality using an analogy, but consider what it might suggest:
That since we are a part of the ripples, we can only perceive within the physical laws of the pond (the universe). For example, the laws of gravity within the pond (the universe) will determine the nature of the ripples in the pond. The "scientific laws" like gravity that we are capable of using to measure the world around us are limited to the universe we are a part of. Given we are a part of the pond, being the universe, even if there were something beyond it, we would not be able to perceive it with our physical senses or science. By simple definition, it would not be a part of our physical world - our universe. For example, if we were to consider the pond our universe, and drop a boiled egg in it, the egg would sink. Imagine though that there is another universe. It is also a pond but instead of being filled with fresh water like in our universe, it is filled with salt water. In this case the egg would float, as if governed by an entirely different set of physical laws, like a different type of gravity. If there were such a universe, we could only conceptualize it since it would by definition not be measurable as part of our universe.
For those that imagine some form of life after death, their conception could never be proven as true or false, given that it falls outside of the laws of the physical universe that we are capable of perceiving. The fact that we cannot 100% prove that an idea or a conception may be true or false is one of the reasons why human beings are able to conceive so many interpretations of reality. For example, many beliefs surrounding religions are accepted because they cannot be 100% proven as true or false.
This therefore still leaves open the possibility, though highly improbable, that even though we might not be able to physically experience how another universe might be different than our own, our capacity of abstract thought and imagination might still allow us to conceive what it might be like. In a sense, it allows us to imagine worlds beyond our own, and such abstract thoughts can neither be proven or disproven. I think it is important that we are cautious that, in conceiving worlds outside of the physical one in which we exist, our ideas of our conceived world may conflict with our desire to survive in the physical world in which we live. Animals, given they do not have abstract thoughts like this, do not face such conflicts between worlds. You will rarely see an animal other than man sacrifice its existence, or the existence of others, so that they might go to what they conceive is a better world than the one they live in.
Assume the pond (the universe) was calm before the rippling of the universe - before the Big Bang. The pond was homogeneous. We would perceive it as uniform, just like empty space with no matter. If this were the case, and there were no ripples to represent matter and energy, would a person, being a part of the calm pond, be able to identify anything as real at all? Would there actually be a reality to exist? Ultimately does reality only exist because we perceive it to exist? When we disconnect from all our assumptions about what we consider to be real, is any idea that you might conceive any less real than a glass that might sit in front of you? This is just something to ponder and not a question that I have an answer for. It is just an example of how we might open our minds to the ambiguous nature of reality, and also ponder the tenuous nature of the assumptions and beliefs that we make about this thing we call reality.
I have used the ripples in a pond as an analogy to the Big Bang theory, which is one of many theories for the creation of the universe. One may ask the question, "If the universe and ourselves unfolded from these ripples, then how is it that the ripples (the Big Bang) came to be?" I cannot answer this question and you may already have your own answers. There is a comfort in knowing that anything may be possible. Maybe there are uncertainties that we can never know for sure. It could be that the ripples were caused by something outside of our universe as we know it. Possibly it was something we could never measure with our science or perceive in our physical universe. Of course these questions only require answers because we assume the ripples actually exist. Given the tenuous nature of reality, that may be something to consider in itself.
Could it be that it is we who create the concepts of truth, reality, causality, time, and even existence for our own reference? In the grand scheme of ourselves within the universe, do we create the questions for which we need answers? Would there be any questions to answer if we did not exist to ask them? Could it be that what you believe to be the truth is the truth because you define it that way? Regardless of how we might answer these questions, there is one thing we can know for sure. However we decide to interpret reality, whatever we may choose to call the truth, whatever we choose our beliefs to be - it is those beliefs that will lead to the actions we take that will allow us to survive or not. The more accurately we interpret the universe, the more likely we are to make choices that will help Life and Earth to endure. In a sense, the concepts of "truth" and "right and wrong" may be defined in the broadest sense by whether we are successful in interpreting the world accurately so that we endure to see another day.
For a moment "open your mind" and try to let go of all that you may consider real. Imagine that you are holding a glass, but rather than concluding that it feels hot or cold, instead imagine that what you are feeling are just different levels of energy. For a moment, let go of your instincts, and imagine that a tree and a flower are one and the same, just different levels of energy. Could it be that we create our own reality, simply by choosing to identify one thing from another? For a moment let go of the idea that it is "you" and the "universe". Allow yourself to be a part of all that is. Is it possible, that even the ripples that we may all be a part of, only exist because we perceive them to be a part of our reality? This entire argument is like the age-old question, "Which came first, the chicken or the egg"? Which came first, the universe, or our ability to perceive the universe? Maybe the answer to the question is that we create the question. Maybe the answer lies in accepting our existence and appreciating the world that we have - living in the moment. Maybe if we take a big breath, let go of the idea of "me" and the world, our ego, then we can find comfort in the awareness that we are a part of all that is. Do we really need to imagine that there is more?
Whatever truth one may come to live by, I hope that we all place Life and Earth above all. If we do this then we can continue to enjoy all that it is, and also find the answers that we may seek.
The preceding discussion offered one way to interpret reality. Regardless of how we interpret it, what are we as human beings within reality?
Consider the young bean to the right. Is the young bean able to sense the warmth and energy of the sun, the refreshment of the water in the soil around its roots, or the coolness of the wind blowing through its leaves? Probably it does not, because without a nervous system the bean very likely does not feel pleasure and pain. It exists, but the bean does not question its existence, nor does it have the consciousness to be able to observe the universe and ask questions like "Why?" or "Where did it come from?" The bean grows if it receives enough nutrients like sun and water until its life cycle is complete, producing seeds so that there might be more green beans to survive it. The bean is much the same as a small pond that grows from the streams that feed into it, and ends when the sun dries the pond to an empty bed.
How do other creatures and we differ from the bean? We too need nutrients, sun, and water to survive, and like the bean we have our life cycles and produce our offspring that might survive us and further our species. Unlike the bean though, animals have a nervous system thereby enabling them to sense pleasure and pain.
Imagine for a moment a basic creature like a worm that would seem no different from the bean, but it does have a nervous system. Have you ever held a worm and felt it moving in your hand as if it were attempting to get to the soil again? Have you ever seen a fly on a window and tapped the glass to see it fly away? It seems that these basic living creatures are able to sense. Does the worm have good sensations when it goes deeper into the moisture in the soil? Does the worm sense pleasure and pain? I suspect that it does, if it indeed feels the pain to motivate it to return to the soil from your hand, as do almost all creatures with a nervous system.
Our nervous system allows each of us a sense of consciousness, an awareness of "us" and the world that surrounds us. Hence, each of us becomes the centre of the universe. Our senses such as our sight, our smell, and our hearing allow us to receive the world that surrounds us giving us the perception of the existence of "me" and the world around "me". Each of us is the centre, and all the planets, stars, energy, matter, and all that we can perceive go around us.
Given our sense of self and consciousness, we are able to categorize and identify what we perceive outside of ourselves, and give it meaning. We envision our reality and we apply our energy to change our condition within it. If our environment changes we can consciously redirect our energy so as to adapt to the changes we perceive. Unlike the bean that just survives, our consciousness gives us the advantage to change our condition. Like the bean, we depend on nutrients, water, and the air to survive, but with our consciousness we have the ability to place our energy toward changing the world as we interpret and increase our chances of survival. We do not have to wait for the rain to fall on us because we learn to store fresh water. We do not need to wait for nutrients to fall upon us because we learn to grow our own.
In a way, our ability to sense pain and pleasure is the beginning of us defining our own existence. You may have heard of the phrases, "I think therefore I am" and, "To be or not to be". Maybe such words regarding our existence are better said as "I sense therefore I am". In sensing the world, we create the idea of "me" and "the world around me". Even the worm, able to sense pain and pleasure, may perceive a very limited world outside of its sense of "self". Imagine yourself as a worm moving through the ground and sensing moisture on your body, or feeling the warmth of the sun as you broke through the surface of the soil from the ground. How would a worm know to move to the moisture unless it derived some sense of pleasure from doing so? Indeed, human beings are much more evolved to the point where we have a greater self-awareness (ego) and also a greater ability to conceptualize the world around us.
Each of us feels we are the centre of the universe, "me" and the world around me, with our own unique sense of consciousness, which allows us to survive in our physical world. In addition, with our capacity of abstract thought, we are also able to conceive of possibilities that might seem to allow us to outlive our bodies and live beyond our lives on Earth. Possibly, for example, we may conceive that our consciousness will continue in the form of a spirit beyond and outside of the reality that we know, after we are gone.
Regardless of what we may conceive beyond our physical world, we always seem to have an instinctive desire to protect our existence in the physical world - to survive. Why is it that we choose to live? I remember my grade 3 teacher once said, "We live for the good moments". I think this is true. We live for the warmth of our friends and family. We live for a glass of pure cool water when we are parched and have worked in the fields all day. We live for the sense of success that comes from our achievements. We live for the hope of tomorrow.
I have come full circle now in this discussion. I have tried to give some interpretation of reality and to make the point that our desire is to protect our consciousness - our sense of existence. We all choose to survive in this physical world. This is simply shown because we are still here.
If we choose to live and protect our consciousness and existence, we must acknowledge the growing threats that may be coming from the side effects of our technologies. The very tools (technology) that we have created to make our survival easier, have also come to threaten our existence - resource depletion, overpopulation, destructive technologies, and pollution of our air, water, and land. There is no one else but ourselves that can ensure the survival of Life and Earth. We must take responsibility for the problems that we face and deal with them through our collective efforts, overcoming our reasons for conflict. In the interest of the survival of Life and Earth, it is time for humankind to break free of our differences and focus on working together to resolve global issues, and prepare for the new ones we may be about to face.
In the preface of this book, I pointed out the one feature of all life that we have in common. Whether a life form is a simple plant growing between the rocks, an insect, a polar bear, or a human being - all of our energy and resources go toward our objective to survive and endure. This "truth" is supported simply by the fact that every day when we wake, our mental and physical resources go toward acquiring food, keeping warm, and finding a roof over our head. In almost all cases, we do everything possible to ensure that we will be able to enjoy another day of life. Just as this is our goal as individuals, it also is the goal of all life in general. This also includes the various cultures and countries that make up our planet. Their objective is also to endure and be as happy as possible.
Consider the graph shown. On the vertical scale is the happiness level that we can experience as human beings over the next number of centuries. At the bottom of the horizontal scale are the numbers of centuries. The light blue area represents maximum indulgence, in which case we show no concern for the future. Possibly our irresponsible approach toward climate change, or our uncontrolled development of technologies such as viruses or nuclear weapons will allow us to possibly live another 10 centuries as shown on the bottom scale. On the other hand, if we exhibit caution and make "intelligent" choices, whereby we tend toward globalization and create a global education system that might help us prepare for the impact of our changing technologies, we may endure many centuries longer. In a sense, we may have to give up a bit of indulgence now for a longer and better future. In fact, it may be the case that if we interpret the world around us accurately, and we make favourable choices for the survival of Life and Earth, we may endure even longer than the 35 centuries shown on the graph. Of course, the numbers on the graph are entirely arbitrary, but the point made is that our objective as human beings is to live long and prosper.
Even if we knew that our star, the sun, was going to explode sometime in the future, and our existence as life forms was in all probability going to come to an end some day, we must value the time we have and endure as long as possible. I can imagine that it might be difficult for many to accept that all life may come to an end one day, especially if they also believe that their consciousness would not carry on after death. If we had to accept that our existence was indeed finite though, would that mean we should just give up? Or do we as a species choose to carry on and enjoy the time that we have in the best way possible. Indeed, this is what we do as individuals, even if we do not believe in life after death. In such case we do not give up simply because we know that our lives will come to an end in 100 years or thereabouts. Instead, like other creatures, we choose to live as long as possible, and as richly as possible. My suggestion is therefore, that as human beings, regardless of their religious beliefs regarding different forms of life after death, we tend to accept our condition of life. We still choose to carry on as long as possible, in a way that gives us as much pleasure as possible. The big question becomes: "What choices can we make that will help to ensure our survival?"
The preceding may like seem a lot of words to state the obvious, but it is an important conclusion if it is true. With all of the things that we find in our lives that seem important, ultimately our purpose may simply be that we continue to survive. If this is indeed the case, then we can rest at ease knowing that as entities on this planet Earth, we are in a position to make choices that can either serve the objective of survival, or steer us away from it. If we can accept that survival is our primary objective as a species, it brings us closer to understanding the values, morals, ethics, and ideas of right and wrong that will bring humankind, and all life, closer to enduring survival and happiness.
It is important to make a few more points regarding our objective of survival. Specifically, more complex organisms not only care about their own survival, but they also make a concentrated effort to help the survival of others. This is simply seen when a mother lion will fight to protect her cubs, or that a person will defend their friends. This trait certainly is not found in simpler life forms like bacteria, but it is a trait, almost instinctively inherent in more complex organisms. We not only protect our own survival, but also that of people and things around us that we care about. Part of the reason for this behaviour is that we recognize that cooperation is often the best way to ensure our survival. Imagine if a lion did not protect her young and left them exposed to the environment. Animals might prey on them while they are still cubs. Clearly, such action would not contribute to the longevity of the species, hence a lion might instinctively face death in order to protect her cubs. It is a shame that many humans do not see that by protecting future generations from the current side effects of our technologies, like the lion protecting its cubs, we help our species to endure as well. Concern for the survival of our future generations gets down to the big ethical question as to whether, as a species, we should just indulge and not concern ourselves over future generations. This was shown in the blue area of the graph where we indulge, versus the green area where we accommodate now for the future of Life and Earth.
Probably the most obvious real-life example of whether we should concern ourselves over the survival of future generations is with climate change. If humans are indeed the primary cause of climate change, should we ignore the risks and let future generations deal with it? Or should we take steps now to be preemptive. In 2017, the U.S. government, under new leadership, had a significant shift in policy whereby the new government wanted to encourage economic development at the cost of preemptive climate action. The question of how we proceed when dealing with climate change becomes an ethical choice. If the government had taken note of scientific laws, it might have interpreted the reality of climate change differently, and possibly concluded that there were significant consequences related to climate change. On the other hand, if non-scientific beliefs triggered by ego, patriotism, fear, and selfishness, govern beliefs, then a government might tend to ignore the repercussions of climate change and indulge in more immediate protectionist benefits. This type of action might be more beneficial in the present, but it might also put future generations in jeopardy.
My point to the previous example is that some individuals, and countries, do care about the welfare of Life and Earth outside of ourselves, and some do not. Our choice to protect the survival of future generations is an ethical choice that touches on the core issue of cooperation versus competition. Ultimately, the best choice will be that which ensures the longevity and welfare of Life and Earth. As mentioned in previous sections, I have expressed a bias toward the need for a more cooperative approach, versus a competitive, protectionist approach, given the impact that future technologies are going to have upon all Life and the planet.
It has been suggested that the universe may continue to expand infinitely hence losing its energy, or contract one day to how it originated before the Big Bang. Regardless, this suggests that it would no longer exist in a condition that would support life as we know it. This, of course, would be a virtually infinite amount of time from now, but let us consider another hypothetical situation. What if we could no longer live in our human form because our galaxy could no longer support life?
In such a case, consider that our only chance for survival was to use our ultimate technology. We would place the consciousness of all life on a computer chip that would operate from an almost infinite energy source.
Assume that in so doing, all of us would feel no difference in our existence. We would all have our families and feel pain and pleasure, no different from our lives that we had lived, but we would all be on the computer chip. The computer chip would be insulated with the strongest element imagined, impermeable to any energy or matter in the universe that might disturb it.
So you have the choice. You can stay on the Earth and face an imminent end to your physical existence, or send your consciousness to the chip to live virtually forever. Essentially you become not so different from a computer program. Ultimately, is survival all that matters? Or is there more to our lives than just surviving. One might suggest that if all those who did not go on the chip were gone, then only those on the chip whose consciousness lived on would be able to answer this question. Would those who went on the chip really want to live out their lives in such a world? Fortunately, this is not a question we must ask ourselves because we currently live on a planet already abundant in the many ways that we could ever desire.
I have discussed survival and reality. In choosing to exist and survive it is implied that we must interpret reality accurately. Not only do we want Life and Earth to endure as long as possible, but also in a way that gives us the greatest pleasure and happiness. Even though we may disagree in our interpretations of reality, we can agree that we want to survive and endure. We all must understand that there may be times that we need to question our beliefs, even the slightest bit, so that we can find our way to the best route to survival in this rapidly changing world. We must care for, and protect all that we have, because it is all that we have. We must protect our world, its colours, all the sensations that bring us those good moments that we live for, and all the goodness that rests on this fragile Earth. We must interpret reality in whatever way works in order to ensure that we protect all those things that cause us to say to ourselves, "I choose to live".
I have emphasized just how important it is that we interpret reality accurately. One of the best tools we have available to do this is science, hence it is the topic of the next section.