Here’s a science-fiction concept for your consideration.
Our universe is something like sixteen billion years old, give or take. Let’s assume that a form of intelligent life appeared a long time before our universe began, in some other universe with different physical laws than this one.
Let’s imagine that individuals of this race, or species, are more like energy than matter — though it’s a misleading metaphor, since “energy” in our universe tends to be dissipative and prone to increasing disorder. So let us say, rather, that they exist as dynamic patterns in their environment, which is a sea of energy; they are a bit like a self-directed whirlwind or a self-aware eddy in a river (though that is a metaphor, not physics), and they can draw in and release energy directly. They breathe in the stuff of their universe like we breathe air, but rather than converting it into something else to extract the energy and then excreting the waste, they simply hold the energy within their pattern until they have no more use for it, then release it undiminished. As they mature, they become denser and more complex, and can thus manage more energy, but they remain incapable of storing more energy than they actively use; nor can even the most advanced among them measurably deplete the energy of their environment.
They can also shape the stuff of their environment into anything they can imagine, limited only by their powers of memory, skill, and concentration, and by their ability to coordinate efforts among themselves. When they lose interest, or coordination, the things they have made flow back into the ocean of energy that surrounds them.
Let’s imagine that their mode of communication is to share the pattern that makes up their essence, by a kind of intimate resonance: we could call it telepathy, but it runs deeper than thoughts or feelings; it is more like two musical pitches tuning to each other, or two melodies adapting themselves into a mutual counterpoint. While sharing can be somewhat selective, allowing individuality and privacy, real deception is extremely difficult — perhaps even impossible.
Let’s posit that these individual beings are, effectively, indestructible and immortal. If they can be destroyed at all, it requires substantially more than being hit by a bus; if they have a natural life-and-death cycle, it spans geological ages, or more. Indeed, individuals who saw the birth of our universe might still be young when our universe ends.
This effective immortality means they cannot breed as we do, geometrically. But they would have no need. Species fecundity is a result of a tenuous hold on a rapidly-changing ecological niche: a species needs to adapt rapidly and fill the niche quickly in the face of competition for scarce resources. Our imagined immortal species does not need fecundity, and if it ever possessed it, would have lost it long ago when they first began to produce immortals. Even so, their numbers could be almost uncountably large after the amount of time they have been around.
Those of you who enjoyed Deep Space Nine back in the 90’s may recognize bits of Odo’s species here. In the interests of storytelling, Odo was more human than not: he was in perpetual danger of being destroyed, so that he could face death with a stiff upper lip as sacrifice for his friends, as befits a heroic character in a human story. His entire species even faced destruction in one sequence of episodes — though they were an old species, compared to humans, they were not that old, and they were still mortal.
Let’s imagine a species far older, still, and free of all the constraints of matter. Their most mature individuals might even pool their efforts to create entire universes — like ours — as something like performance art, or music, or for reasons we find hard to grasp. Perhaps even these demigods are themselves but students, and their elders are engaged in efforts we can’t begin to understand.
Assuming that such beings could somehow bridge the gap between universes and communicate with us, it’s difficult to imagine how a young primate species, like humans, mortal and short-lived, could understand or relate to such an ancient species, born to a different universe with different physical laws.
Unless, of course, we are that species.
(Didn’t see that one coming, did you?)
I’ve been reading a fascinating set of books by Michael Newton, a retired hypnotherapist who started his career using hypnotherapy to help clients quit smoking, lose weight, and decondition phobias — all the usual sorts of thing hypnotherapists do — then, over time, found himself stumbling into the world of past-life regressions.
Like most old-school professional hypnotherapists, he was skeptical of these stories his clients told about previous lives, but he worked with the stories anyway — whether real or fantasized, bringing them to conscious awareness seemed to offer his clients substantial relief from whatever troubles brought them into his office. Over time, he began to notice a consistency in his clients’ stories regarding, not their past lives, but the period in between lives — further, remembering these in-between experiences sometimes had much more therapeutic value for his clients than any of the other work he was doing with them. His curiosity was piqued, and he started to collect these glimpses into another world. Over time, these glimpses built up a fascinating picture, which he has related in his books.
The basic picture he paints is that we humans really do have souls: something that exists before the body is born, joins with the body at or near birth in a fully symbiotic bond, and then leaves the body at the point of physical death and continues to exist, carrying with it memories of its incarnate existence. The souls he describes are very much like the species of our little science-fiction excursion above.
This picture of ensouled bodies is one of the oldest views of the human condition. Human remains buried 40,000 years ago seem to prepare the dead for a journey into an afterlife. The ancient Egyptians made an entire industry of preparing the dead for the journey of the soul into the afterlife, and the Chinese, Native Americans, Hindus, Norse, Celts, Jews, Greeks, Christians, and Muslims have all had concerns for the afterlife and the fate of the soul. The existence of the soul has, in most times and places, been taken for granted — only its origin and ultimate fate were debated.
Our current fad of rational materialism — which claims that there is no soul without the body — is the exception, even the aberration in history. It’s always been interesting to me that, despite its claim to be the scientific view, based on logic and evidence, it seems to create more logical and evidential problems than it solves.
For instance, the weighty tome, Gödel, Escher, Bach, by Douglas Hofstadter, was (among other things) a beautifully-written and extremely dense treatise on how the soul might appear to exist, without actually existing — which presumes, of course, that the appearance of a soul is self-evident, and must somehow be explained away. Past-life memories must be written off as delusions when they can’t be verified, or deliberate fraud when they can. “Ghosts” cannot exist. Psychic phenomena are the result of observer bias and wishful thinking.
Carl Sagan’s famous quote, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” was coined in precisely this vein. I’m not in the habit of disagreeing with the late Dr. Sagan, but speaking scientifically, his statement is nonsense. There is no such thing as “extraordinary evidence.” There is only evidence, of varying quality and relevance. What Dr. Sagan is actually saying is, “To shake my belief (in the non-existence of these phenomena), you are going to have to be extraordinarily convincing.” Or perhaps a bit less charitably, “My mind is already made up; don’t try to confuse me with mere evidence. I require extraordinary evidence.”
My beliefs are not as firm as Dr. Sagan’s, and I don’t require nearly as much extraordinary convincing.
That said, there are some caveats in the material Dr. Newton presents, most of which he himself brings up. All of his clients are (or were, at the time) alive, meaning they were born sometime in the twentieth century and were exposed to twentieth-century thought and culture. Most were US Americans, all were English-speaking. Most came to him because they had problems they thought a hypnotherapist could solve. That means nearly all of his information came from a small, homogeneous, self-selected group of troubled people.
Dr. Newton’s cosmology is very similar to what appears in Jane Roberts’ books, published in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, derived from material channeled from a discarnate entity who called himself Seth. I read these books as a teen-ager, and it’s likely many of Dr. Newton’s clients had encountered them as well. The actress Shirley MacLaine popularized these concepts in her book, Out On a Limb, in 1983, as did Albert Brooks in his 1991 comedy film, Defending Your Life. These were concepts that were “in the wind” during the period Dr. Newton was practicing hypnotherapy, and most or all of his clients would likely have picked up these ideas without knowing it, regardless of their explicit religious or philosophical beliefs.
Further, if we take Dr. Newton’s material at face value, the souls that incarnate on Earth are only a tiny subset of all souls, and almost all of them are young and inexperienced: Earth is presented as a training ground for young souls. As they grow older and more experienced, they stop incarnating on Earth altogether. So the stories he’s collected are the testimonies of soul-children and soul-adolescents, and are subject to those souls’ limited knowledge and childish (for them) misunderstandings.
Then, there is the issue of hypnosis itself. It’s an altered state of consciousness, like channeling, and one thing we certainly don’t understand well is altered states of consciousness: or, for that matter, “normal” states of consciousness. As humans, most of us have two arms that end in fingers and thumbs. As humans, most of us have brains with identifiable structures and layers that have certain pre-defined functions. In a state of hypnosis, we might be reporting subjective experiences that arise from our brain chemistry and structure, and the similarities of reports might merely reflect similarities in brain structure. There are many reasons we could discount the testimony of Dr. Newton’s patients as something other than what it appears to be.
Finally, though it is churlish to bring this up, there is the question of Dr. Newton’s integrity as a writer. While souls may be incapable of lying, humans certainly are not. Especially when paid to do so. There are certainly plenty of New Age authors who fit this description. Newton does not seem to me to be one of them, but the possibility remains.
Still, there are things about Dr. Newton’s material that do strike me as unexpectedly plausible and quite interesting.
War and warlike conflict are presumably not a part of the afterlife, not so much because of the inherent “goodness” of souls, but because there is simply no point to war in their realm. There are no resource shortages; energy is everywhere, so no soul can withhold resources from other souls as a way to compel obedience. Souls have no pockets for hoarding any kind of wealth for themselves. Merely communicating with another soul shares their essence, so deception is difficult and offers no benefit. There is nothing to fight over, and no one to fight against.
Any society that such beings would form would likely be based entirely on cooperation, communication, empathy, and trust, and this is the consistent report that appears in Dr. Newton’s material. The afterlife is filled with love and support from all quarters. Unlike the (modern) Christian Heaven, in which warlike humans are inexplicably transformed into harp-slinging paragons of peace, Newton’s afterlife of love and support arises naturally from the basic nature of the soul.
That we should have souls that come from such an environment also explains many of our contradictory desires, both as individuals and as a society. The human penchant for war is not surprising — our penchant for peace and altruism is the surprise. Being “of two minds” in this literal sense of symbiosis not only explains this, it aptly describes our individual inner conflicts over practical and ethical matters.
Immortality would make the soul both patient — compared to human temperaments — and slow to change. Newton reports that some souls have been incarnating repeatedly on Earth for upwards of 40,000 years, through hundreds of incarnations, and have not yet moved on to the things that the more mature souls do.
My first guess would be that true immortals would be incapable of any change at all: they would exist forever exactly as they were born or made. If they can, indeed, change, and learn, and mature, I would expect it to be an extremely slow process within the perfection of their womb-like environment, so I can understand why they might go so far as to create new universes and seek out symbiotic incarnation to accelerate that process.
The nature of incarnation itself is somewhat tricky, according to Newton’s clients, and one of the biggest problems souls face is being overwhelmed by the emotional nature of the body they join with. This includes its powerful lusts for power, wealth, sex, and violence; but it also includes passions for justice, loyalty, and love. They can screw up, sometimes epically. A human lifetime can leave a soul bruised and battered and in need of healing, just like someone who practices extreme sports. Some souls are so overwhelmed that they never venture back after their first incarnation.
However, they all reportedly have experienced guides: these are more mature souls who have “come up through the ranks” through many incarnations, and the most consistent message that comes through all of Newton’s clients is that every soul who incarnates, chooses to do so, with tremendous love, support, and patience from other souls, many of whom will incarnate with them to play roles in their lives, and to simultaneously work out their own maturation.
The mixture of free-will and determinism that Newton describes is complex, and souls will often choose a life because of hardships — illness, poverty, conflict — that can be foreseen in the mortal life they choose. Even in the midst of these hardships, the soul offers as much calming influence, hope, and optimism as the body will accept: they seem to be quite fond of their mortal bodies, short-lived though they are, even the unruly bodies that offer them a rough ride.
Despite this, sometimes everything goes to absolute shit, and souls get flung around by their body like a rat by a terrier. It may take a very long time for them to deal with their experiences and choices after such a life, and there are sometimes long convalescent gaps between incarnations.
The “veil of amnesia” that incarnating souls experience is deliberate, and is intended to help souls break free of past patterns, as well as live freely without a burden of too many memories.
I think I can understand this. There’s a point in most of our lives when we wish we could go back to being twenty, knowing what we know now. I seem to have personally moved past that, and I’m guessing most people do: I’m glad I knew as little about the world as I did when I was twenty. I’m glad that the world was fresh and clean and new for me. Were I to go back and relive my twenties with my current memories, it would be unfair to my twenty-year-old self, and everyone else around me. Were I to try to live through my twenties with clear memories of a thousand lives and deaths, I don’t know that it would be bearable.
There’s a lot of room for further speculation and thought in this material. As always, however, one thing continues to ring true for me: whatever our metaphysical nature, we’re here to live this life, not to wallow in past lives or future lives or some period of memory and reflection in-between.
I’d like to close this by going back to the science-fiction theme, and something called the Fermi Paradox.
This was a paradox attributed to the physicist Enrico Fermi, who totaled up all the stars in all the galaxies known at the time (a number that has increased a lot recently), made some rough guesses as to how many of those stars might have habitable planets (also a lot larger, now) with intelligent species, then scowled, and asked, “So where is everyone?”
There should be a lot of intelligent life out there, and at least some of it should be broadcasting some alien version of I Love Lucy into space, near enough to us and with a strong enough signal for us to detect. We might not understand the punch lines, or even be able to decode the signal, but we should be able to detect patterns that tell us this is an artificially modulated signal. We should see a lot of these signals.
We don’t: our SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) projects have seen nothing. Zip. Nada. So where is everyone?
The link to the article by Tim Urban has a wonderful analysis of the paradox, and a fairly extensive selection of possible answers to why we don’t hear anything on our radio telescopes. It’s an interesting read.
What I find especially interesting, however, is that the soul-symbiote scenario above explains the Fermi paradox in ways that aren’t represented by any of the alternatives Mr. Urban proposes. Since his list includes the silly possibility that intelligent life has already contacted us and the evidence is being suppressed by the government, it seems odd to me that one of the oldest and most persistent views in human history doesn’t even show up.
The reason this possibility doesn’t show up is that the Fermi Paradox itself relies upon something called the “Copernican Principle,” which grew from Nicolaus Copernicus’ observation that the motions of the heavens made a lot more sense if the Earth were not the center of the universe. This has been generalized to state that humans are not privileged observers of the universe: i.e., we are not special. This is a central dogma in the formation of scientific theories.
The Copernican Principle implies that intelligent life and technological societies are, likewise, not special: they are random accidents which, if they crop up somewhere, could crop up anywhere. If they crop up randomly, we can compute the probability of seeing evidence of an interplanetary version of I Love Lucy out there.
If intelligent life and technological societies have a purpose, however, then there is no reason to assume they will appear randomly at all. In fact, they could each be one-of-a-kind, and the reason could be aesthetic: the same reason we don’t see Eiffel Towers or Statues of Liberty popping up randomly around the world. Or, like begonias in a garden bed, they could be deliberately planted far enough apart so as not to interfere with each other.
In other words, the most obvious explanation for the unexpected radio silence around us is that our existence is not a random, spontaneous occurrence, and that the Copernican Principle simply isn’t true. It isn’t extraordinary evidence, but it is suggestive.
Ensoulment could be one reason that the Earth is quite special.