By Bill Neenan
You might have noticed more frequent reports in the news about astronomers finding planets with conditions similar to Earth. The emerging scientific consensus, based on observation and statistical analysis, is that numerous stars have planetary systems. Scientists also believe it likely that many of these planets have liquid water, even oxygen, and could spawn life. The discovery of primitive life elsewhere in the universe could lay bare a realm of strange realities. The most meaningful discovery of all would be that some extraterrestrials are not only technically advanced and widespread, but are far more evolved than humans in intellect and morality, as reflected in their values, social organization, and the ethical norms of individuals.
The late astronomer Carl Sagan was well-known for speaking about the “billions and billions” of stars in the universe, and the probable 10,000 technical civilizations calculated to exist in our galaxy alone. Professor Sagan was also famous for saying, “life is made of star-stuff.” This idea, at times repeated facetiously by some, does have a profound meaning because it refers to a profound fact: the synthesis of “star-stuff” (exploded-star remnants) into beings able to understand what star-stuff is.
Think about that for a moment: throughout the universe the remains of exploded stars eventually become new stars; planets form around them, and out of the mix of elements, molecules and light, life evolves. And we humans having arrived at the apex of evolution on planet Earth, end up understanding cosmology and our genesis; we structure materials and the environment; we imagine things like the gods, or the God.
This reality of energy transforming itself via its evolution into self-conscious, technical beings, gives rise to a monumental question: does this transformation strongly imply that the nature of what we term “energy” is actually a “spiritual” reality? In other words, does the way in which energy (the universe), organizes itself, presumably in countless instances of life elsewhere in the universe, indicate that its nature is purposeful and its meaning, somehow transcendent?
Is having a purpose the ultimate truth about our human nature, and about other such beings in the universe, or is all such existence only the result of material interactions, ultimately without meaning and, in the final analysis, the result of random events?
By way of exploration, another question arises: is there something all of us have in common that moves the process of universal transformation forward, and renders as intuitive, perhaps obvious, the actuality and necessity of advanced life having purpose and transcendent meaning (e.g., our consciousness continues somehow with purpose after death)? The answer to this question is the primary focus of this essay.
Professor Sagan and his successor, Dr. Neil de Grasse Tyson make it a point to demonstrate how insignificant we, and our planet, are. We see in the production, “Cosmos,” the image of earth positioned in a spiral galaxy, becoming smaller and smaller, until we are miniscule and finally, too small to be seen.
The reality we call “the universe” is, of course, possibly just a “material machine.” We are certainly not, as Deepak Chopra has said, “spirits having a human experience.” But assuming we believe ourselves to be spiritual beings, or not, either belief ultimately remains a matter of faith, meaning neither belief can be proved to be true or false. I do think, though, that materialism and its creeds (e.g., atheism, agnosticism) are rendered less plausible, less probable, and less attractive alternatives, when it is assumed that highly evolved life in the universe is common.
Absolute certainty or not, I want to understand the meaning of our existence. I want to know if my life has purpose. I want a meaningful answer to the questions: Who am I? Why am I here? Is my consciousness nothing more than a temporary construct, like my dog’s? Just what is it that makes the (universal) transformation of matter/energy into my consciousness possible?
This is the pivotal question that leads us to the matter of our spiritual purpose. I suggest we begin to address it with consideration of a fundamental, persistent element active in biological and civil evolution: hierarchical, or pyramidal, social order.
Imagine us having god-like vision, and we see and understand the essence of each advanced life form in the universe. From what we know about social organization on earth, it seems reasonable to assume that our grand vision would reveal a vast array of civilizations that constitute a graded series, or a hierarchy. This would be a hierarchical, or pyramidal, order of technical, behavioral and, most important for our inquiry, numerous levels of evolved ethical status.
So wouldn’t it be reasonable to conclude that the hierarchical order itself is significant because it engenders the progression of knowledge and skills acquisition needed to attain advanced technical status at the minimum (e.g., bronze-age weapons to machine guns)? But what about the things that make such progress possible, the non-technical requirements that enable individuals to act and work cooperatively, like trust, honesty, and fairness? These are among the crucial elements that constitute ethical behavior, and lead individuals and societies to act for the common good.
I’m intrigued by, and view as fundamental, the relationship between social hierarchy and the evolution of ethical behavior. That’s because at the root of evolving ethical behavior lies competition, the primordial, ongoing force in human evolution that seeks advantage and survival within the context of family, tribe, environment, etc. Competition (and its lifeblood, conflict) is, firstly, a powerful cause of hierarchical social order (at-peak superior power achieved); competition is also the consequence of this social order (superior power defended/expanded); finally, (but by no means last) competition in the world of natural selection is the primary catalyst for the evolution of ethical rules, principles and behavior. Accordingly, in response to the jungle of competitive forces within and between social groupings, ethical norms have evolved because humans prefer peace to war, stability and safety to stress and fear.
The competitive struggles for influence, sex and love, possession and dominance have produced throughout millennia the myriad pyramidal social orders. These struggles, the aggressive and gentle, daily and sustained patterns of dominance and submission, in all their variety, have evolved throughout the eons—and they have fostered the most essential element that enables life on planets to exist and to survive. That element is plausibly a common thread existing in all civilizations throughout the universe—Why should this be true?
Because this element would be a thread that, more than anything else, enables in the first place the creation and nurturing of life, and facilitates the crucial evolution of beings capable of trust and cooperative behavior. How could we, or any advanced life-form, exist without that as the minimum? We are looking to identify a common thread that transcends in importance any level of technical advancement.
That common thread is “love,” defined here simply as the force of attraction between beings, as distinct from fear-induced repulsion (or paralysis). This elementary and universal force of attraction engenders, in the first place, reproduction; it enables nurturing behavior, cooperation and the formation of cohesive societies, as well as things that guide us to evolve technically. But far more important than technical advancement, our ability to survive in the long run (like our alien visitors) depends upon the evolution of that vital phenomenon, already stressed, as integral to love in its most fundamental, attractive sense: ethical behavior.
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Long before there were stable, encoded, ethical adaptations to aggression, warfare, and daily cooperative endeavors, human consciousness likely had evolved to the point where imagination began to fulfill its transformative purpose in moving the evolutionary process forward. Imagination did this by causing a phenomenon that molded the consciousness, the values, of individuals and civilizations throughout history: belief systems. The evolution of belief systems (primarily “religious”) played a role in late human evolution no less important than the earlier evolution of upright posture, the opposable thumb, language, etc.
This momentous, unique human faculty of imagination enabled us to believe in unseen personalities and forces far greater than ourselves. These imagined external forces became objects of belief, or “faith,” and belief in them played a major, unifying role in affecting the decisions and actions of individuals and tribes, thus creating the routes to becoming highly evolved societies. Here on earth, these forces were given names we still recognize, names like “Yahweh,” “Zeus,” or “Venus.”
Underlying the influence of any religious or mythical belief system, the combination of three abilities, memory, imagination and belief, comprise the biological matrix that facilitates the evolution of creatures into higher forms of consciousness (in concert with upright posture, language, etc.). This evolving consciousness, in the interest of reproduction and survival, also furthers development of the trust, strategies and cooperation required for humans and extraterrestrials to live not only enjoyable lives, but to save themselves from rendering their planets inhospitable through greed, for example.
To summarize, competition, the struggle for survival, advantage and domination, results in hierarchical social order, here, and likely throughout the universe. The forces of attraction and repulsion operating throughout all social pyramids may be viewed as the primordial emotions out of which beliefs are born, and thus the meaning of our perceptions created. This moment to moment creation of meaning through beliefs is what enables individuals and societies to maintain emotional, as well as physical, balance and health; or, to borrow a concept from the science of physiology, “homeostasis.” In this context, the term, “psychological homeostasis” could apply.
So, in our effort to understand the significance of the common thread that likely exists in technical, intelligent societies throughout the universe, and to assess whether or not this thread has an ultimate, spiritual meaning and purpose, it will be useful to discuss in greater detail the role belief systems have played in creating the meaning of our perceptions.
Imagination and belief have always been the “mortar” that held civilizations together (e.g., belief in Pharaoh as god on earth; the European divine right of kings). Imagination is the means through which belief systems in the form of “religion,” or “faith,” are created. For example, we imagine, then believe, “God loves us.” Past and future merge into the present if one: remembers something, then imagines/hopes for, an outcome, such as, “Dear God, I’ve been a good boy all week, so please help me get on the foot ball team!”; or, “O great Zeus, I am thy humble servant and beg for success in defeating the Persians.”
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In order for us to survive in the long run, the heart of the matter appears to be: how do we ensure that earth’s social organization and values are determined more by love than fear, and the belief in people being “winners and losers,” becomes the trait of ancient leaders at the pyramid’s summit fighting to have and hold power over others, instead of with others (a distinction noted by Gandhi).
The issue of our human society based more on love than fear points to something that is, I believe, actually a universal principle: ethical progress, or the moral nature of societies, varies directly with the power of fear to diminish or destroy love; or, simply, the power of fear to create evil. Central to our quest for a biological, ethical, sustainable way forward, then, is the ancient, bed-rock, debated-to-death question of “good” vs. “evil.”
I believe that evil is essentially fear-based greed and all of its self-serving forms, because it diminishes, divides, or destroys the unity of love and its crucial offspring, trust. But evil is, fortunately, something we own and have the opportunity to be responsible for. Unfortunately, for ethical progress and social harmony, there are powerful forces throughout the world invested in the idea (sincerely and not) that evil is fathered by a supernatural being, one who thrives on turning human souls over to the “dark (disobedient?) side.” Hence, we have widespread belief in the cosmic war between good and evil, providing the justification for hatred, wars and blame galore.
Throughout the cosmic balancing act between the forces of fear and love, the force of attraction brings us children, most of whom grow up certain that they are loved by their parents and others. When these children have problems and experience pain, they place their trust in those who, they believe, love them.
But there’s a matter of deep significance concerning the origin and nature of evil behavior. Unlike the more fortunate children, those placing their trust in others whose feelings are conflicted, may be making a fearful choice. I’m thinking, for example, of the children who are judged to be “dull”, “ugly,” “brilliant but alienated”? For these individuals fear and its offspring, mistrust, are likely to play a greater role in determining choices and behavior. Such individuals, prompted by fear, are more likely to choose secret, deceptive or otherwise harmful means for protection. Our social scientists are certainly engaged in questions about the origin of harmful behavior in those who experienced little or no love in their young lives.
So how might highly evolved extraterrestrials evaluate us? 1) social structure pyramidal with privileged distribution of resources 2) the forces of lateral networking in progress to adjust same, but 3) powerful interests heavily invested in maintaining top-down control, outcome uncertain; the familiar list of problems: environmental degradation, climate change, wars, extreme poverty, etc. The probability of human survival beyond the next 100 earth-years, 50% at best?
In view of a thorough analysis of us by these beings, what are they likely to conclude is the main obstacle to humanity progressing quickly enough to save ourselves from failure? At this point in history, the answer ought to be obvious: the obstacle to humanity finally taking on the greatest collective effort to save itself is whatever obstructs our ability to love one another! This is an incredibly obvious statement, to say the least; but it is, nonetheless, an extraordinarily essential guiding principle. It is the spiritual message of Christ and, arguably, all spiritual masters.
The common thread is the irrepressible force and predominance of love comprising the foundation of highly evolved social organization manifesting throughout the universe. The key idea—the “spiritual” idea—is this: the purpose of highly evolved life in the universe is for its individuals and societies to evolve in their capacity to experience love in all of its forms.
Powerful attraction to each other is the mode of being that leads us, and others in the universe, to the sustainable path of planetary survival well into the future. This means the rise and fall of empires must now yield to species-wisdom, and the idea of planet-as-viable-home needs to be a priority in the extreme. We are warned: beings dominated by the offspring of fear (greed, jealousy, deceitfulness, the lust for power) create poor conditions for advanced life to thrive, or even survive, beyond a certain point (the environment of mistrust, subterfuge, corruption and violence).
The capacity to love ourselves, our alien friends would surely emphasize, and many of us already know, resides in the moment to moment quality of the lives we live. It’s no secret that the unhappiness and misery of the many, here and elsewhere, diminishes the happiness of everyone (as it should)—including the fortunate few who would deny they are brought down even a notch by this dangerous situation. (“I’m happy, and I take pride in my armed fortress!”).
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Concerning the matter of our unity, we are at a critical moment in our history and it appears that now is the time to reject the widespread objectification of evil in that greatly imagined person of Satan, who provides the place (Hell) and rationale (sin) for some to condemn others as deserving of damnation and suffering. Thus, we have it: the objectification of “good” and “bad” people, those who deserve Heaven, others Hell, happiness versus suffering. Question: aren’t people more likely to have racist attitudes when they believe certain people deserve eternal damnation?
Pyramidal social order has been with us for millennia. It began with the shaman, the original arbiters of good and bad, right and wrong, in service to their confidants, one’s tribe; and onward through the world’s first civilization, Sumer, with its priests as masters of writing and the keeping of temple records, the cycles of war and peace and the economies of fortune and misfortune these civilizations created.
Our attitudes, habits and behaviors, our social structure itself, all derive from that history—from those gods, from those demons, upon the stony foundations of fear (and love) they helped to create. What can be done to create unity of purpose in such a complicated, fear-entrenched world? A nuclear war with hundreds of millions dead might bring us together, for a while at least. How about the appearance of nasty ETs? That ought to bring us together (and the good ones tear us apart?).
The ugly head of cynicism rises up…Solutions will require the approval and actions of powerful people, some of whom benefit from keeping things exactly as they are, because they feed well at the trough of innocence, ignorance, addiction of every sort.
But, “The Times, They are A-changing” (and “approvals” are growing irrelevant).
Ideally we are joined to the vast realm of highly evolved extraterrestrial life by the common thread of love experienced and destined to ascend in scope and power, beyond the grip of fear and all its challenging limitations. But, and this is probably why the planets are so far apart, we have to find our own way.
Concerning our widespread divisions, and the matter of “what can be done?” doesn’t the path to unity begin with the education of our children? Shouldn’t we teach them that true evil—our greatest divider—is something people do, and not are, and thereby create “hell” for themselves and others? The widespread belief in Satan’s power is an extremely divisive scapegoat that deserves a tomb marked, “Obsolete, But Remains a Danger to Humanity.”
A much more empowering, sustainable belief is needed if we are to overcome our divisions, experience a new dawn for humanity, and survive the long run, like our hypothetical alien visitors. We need to gently, if only for short while, let rest our competing beliefs and concur on the one belief that’s capable of uniting all of us as members of the human family: we are all in essence spiritual beings; we belong to a transcendent reality and upon death we go on somehow…but no one knows how; history shows the arguments to be endless, self-serving and often destructive…better to let them lie still.
For those who reject the idea of our spiritual nature, yet still find themselves in a fog of uncertainty, maybe unsettling, that uncertainty will be eased when the stark idea of our lives as having no ultimate purpose, no continuity whatsoever, is finally faced, clarified, embraced as such, and the ways of living well, and humanely, go on as no less viable.
This brings me to a concluding thought. The dictionary defines the common practice of “worship” as “the reverent love and allegiance accorded a deity, idol, or sacred object.” But why shouldn’t we intend our reverent love and allegiance at least as much for each other? Wouldn’t it be greatly relevant and, we dare to think, not offensive, to gaze into the “windows of our souls,” instead of into the heavens? I believe it benefits us, wherever we look, to embrace, and to herald, the common thread of love that links us all to its sublime purpose.
A suggestion: recall how you felt at a moment of your greatest joy, the birth of your first child, or a wonderful achievement of some sort, where the first thing you wanted to do, and did, was to share the moment with others. Now recall that feeling of sharing, the joy of unity, and multiply its intensity by the trillions, or however far you are able to imagine. That is a rough indication, perhaps, of the love, the spiritual, unified reality of consciousness we are all evolving within, which some may choose to call, “God,” or others, the greatest skeptics among us, the “Singularity.”
About the author:
Bill Neenan is a native New Yorker, currently living in New Jersey. He is a graduate of Queens College, The City University of New York, where he majored in philosophy and psychology. Bill is also a graduate of New York University, where he earned a degree in physical therapy, and works as a therapist in New Jersey. He is married and the proud father of a twenty-two year-old son. Bill is an avid guitar soloist specializing in improvisation, and plays in art galleries in New York City. Besides his interest in writing about his belief in the spiritual nature of reality, and related matters, he’s writing a novel; the hero a mathematical/encryption savant committed to do whatever it takes to stop the launch of weapons into space in the near future.