Last month my school, Stevens Institute of Technology, hosted a “debate” called “Souls or Selfish Genes?” The Stevens Christian Fellowship, which organized the event (along with Veritas), billed it as “a discussion between two professors (a Christian and non-Christian) in search of truth about what makes us human.” I was the non-Christian and David Lahti, a biologist at City University of New York, the Christian. The moderator and most of the audience (according to a show of hands) were Christian too. Lahti and I had a hard time finding things on which to disagree. I nodded along when he objected to the “souls or selfish genes” dichotomy, arguing that faith and evolutionary theory are compatible. I didn’t oppose religious belief so much as I defended disbelief, toward scientific as well as religious explanations of who we are. Below are things I said, or wanted to say, at the event.
For as long as I can remember, the world has struck me as improbable, inexplicable, just plain weird. I have felt estranged from everything, including other people and myself. Psychiatrists call these feelings derealization and depersonalization. I yearned for a revelation that could dispel the weirdness and make me feel at home in my own skin.
As a boy I took comfort in my parents’ religion, Catholicism. Priests, nuns and my parents assured me that I am a child of God with an immortal soul. If I obey the Ten Commandments, confess my sins and go to church, I will ascend to heaven, where I will hang out with God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit (which a mural in my church depicted as a dove emanating laser beams).
By the time I was 11 or so Catholicism stopped making sense. Why, if God loves us, would He inflict hell on us, just for skipping mass now and then? That doctrine, which hard-eyed nuns taught in catechism, seemed awfully harsh. Also, I couldn’t imagine how heaven could fail to be boring.
Like lots of young people in my generation (I graduated from high school in 1971), I began checking out more exotic religions. I became intrigued by enlightenment, the goal of Hinduism and Buddhism. I envisioned it as a state of supreme bliss and wisdom. It’s like heaven, except you don’t have to die to get there.
Seeking enlightenment, I learned meditation and yoga and ingested psychedelics, and I read Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley and Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. Far from enlightening me, my forays into mysticism deepened my sense of weirdness.
Eventually I decided that science represents our best hope for understanding ourselves. In the mid-1980s, when I started writing for Scientific American, Stephen Hawking and other big-shots were proclaiming that science was on the verge of solving the riddle of existence and revealing “the mind of God,” as Hawking put it.
This possibility thrilled me, but eventually I concluded that science, for all its power, cannot give us a genuine theory of everything. Science is bumping into what may turn out to be absolute limits, and it will never tell us why there is something rather than nothing. So I argued in my book The End of Science.
Hoping to be proved wrong, I kept tracking efforts to answer big questions, and especially the biggest of all, the mind-body problem. Narrowly speaking, the mind-body problem focuses on how matter generates mind, including consciousness and free will, but in a broader sense it asks what we are, can be and should be. Prophets, philosophers and poets have peddled answers to this question for millennia. Only recently have scientists gotten in on the action.
The trouble is, scientists can’t agree on a solution to the mind-body problem, or even on an approach to a solution. Theorists I interviewed for my most recent book, Mind-Body Problems (which I dedicated to my students), advocate dizzyingly diverse mind-body models. We are nodes of information, clusters of Bayesian algorithms, egos trying to keep a lid on our ids, genes blindly striving to replicate, wave functions in an infinite quantum field.
Some researchers defend their views by citing Buddha. That’s like physicists citing the ancient Greek hypothesis that the world is made of earth, water, air and fire. Prominent theorists are even challenging materialism, the assumption that matter is the foundation of reality. They argue that consciousness may be as fundamental as matter, or more fundamental.
So where does this leave me, in terms of my search for answers? I’ve given up hope that science can give us a single, objectively true solution to the mind-body problem, one true for everyone. Disbelief, I’ve decided, is the only rational stance to take toward alleged solutions, whether religious or scientific.
I no longer crave a revelation that will dispel my sense of weirdness, because I’ve accepted that we really are weird. The weirdness isn’t just a function of our ignorance, it is intrinsic to reality.
As much as I love some mind-body ideas (like Douglas Hofstadter’s self-generating strange loops), I don’t really believe any of them, not like I believe in the atomic theory of matter or the genetic code. I think of mind-body theories as stories, works of imagination, of art. Some are more compelling than others—more meaningful and comforting--but none really solves the mind-body problem, any more than The Inferno or War and Peace do.
Those who yearn for certainty about who we really are might find disbelief unsatisfying, even frightening. You have no ground on which to stand, no assurance that God or science will take care of us, that everything is going to be okay.
But if history teaches us anything, it is that our craving for certainty can get us into trouble. It has led to genocide, slavery, crusades, inquisitions, wars. This is true not only of religious mind-body solutions but also of supposedly scientific ones, like Marxism and social Darwinism. We are never more dangerous than when we know what we really are, can be and should be, and we insist that others share our belief.
Disbelief can protect us from our desperation for answers. And in exchange for certainty, you get the exhilaration of confronting the unknown with no preconceptions. You get the freedom to be whatever you imagine yourself to be, to create your own identity and destiny. You can see yourself as a pack of selfish genes, bundle of algorithms, immortal soul or all the above. You just can’t insist that your answer to the mind-body problem is The Answer.
My main advice to people of faith, whether Christians or hard-core scientific materialists, is to doubt yourself. Be open-minded. Consider the possibility, even probability, that your beliefs are a matter of taste, not truth. And remember that if we cannot solve the mystery of ourselves, we can keep exploring ourselves forever.