New science meets old wisdom – Q & A
First Round-Common Ground and Major Differences
Questioner 1: I’ll direct this question to the entire panel. Going back to the examples of illusions that were put up on the screen, and the fact that in many ways our brains are actually trained through evolution to perceive things in a particular way, one thing I am curious about has to do with fear of the other. To what extent might racism, in fact, which exists in all cultures towards other cultures, exist at a biological level, through evolution over time? In what way might that be addressed, if indeed it is woven into us at that level?
Torsten Jung: Are you addressing this to Donald Hoffman?
Questioner 1: To him, but also to the other panellists, because I suspect that the answer to the question will not just reside at the biological level.
TJ: Let’s collect the second question.
Questioner 2: I don’t know to whom I should direct this question, as I am looking for both a scientific and spiritual perspective. It’s a very simple question. Does the soul exist?
TJ. OK. So that’s an easy one! And the third question?
Questioner 3: At our table we wanted to ask about creativity. Does that fit into the field theory? Does it fit into the membrane story? Is it a survival thing? Where does creativity fit into this?
TJ: Let’s start with the first question. Donald?
DH: The question was about whether there are neurobiological underpinnings to racism and, if so, what can be done about that at the social level. It turns out that there are neurobiological underpinnings, and it’s quite interesting in a couple of directions.
First, the more simple and tractable aspect is that the face processing system trains up on the faces we are used to. It’s a neural network, so if you live in the mid-western United States and you only see white faces, then your neural networks only get trained up on white faces. If you go to the Orient or to the Middle East, your neural networks simple cannot discriminate because they your neural networks simple cannot discriminate because they have not been trained up. Everybody looks alike and they look foreign. It’s called the Foreign Face Effect.
Its Not What You Know, It’s Who You Know
There’s a story about a Japanese woman who, at 18, came to America for the first time to study at college. All the white faces looked alike. She stayed there for four years, and of course she could then distinguish all the white faces quite well. She went back to Japan, and now all the Japanese faces looked alike. So it’s not a genetic thing, in terms of “if you are Japanese then all the Japanese faces look different”, it’s to do with who you are around.
That’s the easier one, but there is a deeper problem, and that is that there is a structure in the brain called the Emigdala which is involved with our fear, and it also does face processing. It turns out, from studies that have been done recently, that there is an out-group and in-group effect with reactions to faces. You are more likely to have your attention drawn to the face of a member of an out-group if it is angry. Again, this is wired into the Emigdala.
Prejudice is Our Primate Protection
Of course, most scientists would say that this due to evolution. Evolutionarily, those members of a group or a race who were more aware of potential threats were more likely to survive. The problem with that is that the Emigdala cannot listen to rational discussion. It can only be counter-conditioned, it cannot be talked to. The roots of knee-jerk racism are deep, and they are universal. It does not matter how evolved you might be culturally this is your biological inheritance. It is very important for us not to hide this fact from ourselves but to be aware of it, and that this is the knee-jerk starting point that we come from.
I’ll leave it to other people to talk about how to overcome it.
TJ: Wolf Singer, would you like to comment on that?
WS: I would like to give it another twist, which has to do with cognitive schemata. I think you have seen very nicely from Professor Hoffman’s demonstration that processing structures in the brain take signals, work on them, and present them to our consciousness in a very idiosyncratic way.
We tend to agree on all those visual illusions because we have been raised in the same world. This is knowledge based on interpretation and it appears as primary perception, as truth. It is very likely, and there is evidence for it, that the same happens with the perception of social realities, except for the knowledge base that is used by the brain subconsciously in order to interpret a social condition that you perceive and interact with. The knowledge for these interpretations comes from early childhood imprinting.
Now, since our cultures differ, our children are imprinted in a culturally specific way very early on. They have no conscious recollection of this imprinting because of so-called childhood amnesia. Up to the age of three, children have no episodic memory expressed, because the brain structures have not matured yet. The consequence of this is that they learn a lot, but they don’t know where it came from and they are not aware of this knowledge. Still, they use it for the interpretation of what they perceive in the social domain.
So now comes the dramatic situation where children who have been raised in very different social environments can see the same social interaction but interpret it in completely different ways. For each of them, this is truth, this is primary perception that cannot be questioned, because they don’t know that what they perceive is the result of a computation that is based on prior experience.
Now you have the problem that we are facing worldwide, since cultures have moved together, that there is this sense, in what is perceived, that each of the parties sees what he or she perceives as the reality that cannot be questioned. There is no point in trying to convince the respective other that what they perceive is wrong.
Mind the Gap
I think that once one knows this, one has to come to a new concept of tolerance. I think that the tolerance we are practicing now, very much so, is that majorities generously support the world view of minorities – as long they don’t touch us, let them be erroneous.
The majorities assume that they are right, but there is no right or wrong in social realities, because these are man-made realities. Therefore, I think if you want to alleviate the conflicts that we are currently facing worldwide, we need a new concept of tolerance that recognizes that the perception of social realities may be radically different because of prior assumptions that have been seen in a different way, and that there is no way of arguing who is right or wrong, and this requires a complete revision of what we consider to be tolerance. This is not the generous, “Let the others do what they want as long as they don’t touch us, because we are right anyway”, but it requires a different attitude. This is something we will have to work on, otherwise we will run into trouble.
TJ: Thank you. So, moving to the second question – Does the soul exist?
Wolf Singer: Yes, it does.
TJ: OK – a clear answer!
WS: Maybe if I say this it sounds ironical! But no. We have found a word, “soul” as we have found a word, “God”, as we have found a word for moral values. These are social realities that came into the world together with our culture. I don’t think monkeys talk about whether there is a soul or not.
So it is a construct that men have evolved because they observed a phenomenon for which they required a name. Giving a name to something means that it actually exists, but it is a social reality and not something that you can actually touch. It is like a value system that you cannot touch, like God that you cannot touch. But it is still a social reality because it is efficient in its consequences. The concept of God made us build cathedrals. It’s doing something, so it’s a reality.
The question is: What is the substrate of this reality? Why has it come into the world? This is, of course, because we observe the other and ourselves introspectively, and we feel that there is something beyond the touchable, that we cannot grasp – something that makes us fall in love, emotions, and so on. The soul is the envelope, the denominator, of those intangible elements.
It becomes a problem when one interprets it in a more theological context, as something that comes from outside, the spirit let’s call it, that takes possession of us from a certain moment onwards. It then becomes difficult for scientists to decide when that moment is – is it already in the egg, is it in the embryo or the newborn? Does it come only when episodic memory comes and the self says “me”? When is the moment when we become possessed? Does the monkey become possessed? Then it gets fishy again, and I think one needs a very clear-cut philosophical taxonomy, because there is different language used here in everyday and theological contexts. That would be my idea.
TJ: It seems to me that you are saying “yes, a soul does exist” and it is a social reality, a collective construction, and this is something to do with the controversy that we have seen before. Maybe some of you would like to comment on that from your own perspective? Is it only constructed? Is it out there?
Paramahamsa Prajnanananda: The soul exists, and it is a reality. It is the consciousness of every individual.
DH: I have an analogy that might be helpful, from virtual reality. Imagine that you are with a group of friends and you go to a virtual reality arcade to play virtual volleyball. You all put on your bodysuits and your helmets and all of a sudden you are immersed in a beach scene. There’s a sandy beach and a volleyball net and palm trees. You start playing volleyball for a while and then one of your friends decides that he needs to get a drink of water, so he takes off his helmet and bodysuit. In the virtual world, what you see is his icon as it collapses to the sand and is lifeless. He’s not dead – he’s just gone to get a drink of water. He just left the user interface.
If you think of space and time as just a 3-D user interface, then people are just leaving the interface.
Bruce Lipton: Is there something that goes beyond us that is “us”? I’d like to bring up just two points that might be considered. One is a concept called remote viewing. This is an understanding that an individual in a meditative state can describe something on the other side of the world at this moment, exactly what it is, and make an image of it. The United States Government has spent millions and millions of dollars on this and there has been a lot of research on it – by Targ and Puthoff in particular. The relevance of this is – what is it that is seen on the other side of the world that is not physically connected to this body? It really means that because it is predictable, which is very important as a part of science, namely that it is not just an accident there is something that goes beyond us that can see on the other side of the world right now. That immediately opens up the thought that there is a non-physical part of us that is out in the field and able to experience the field.
That is Part 1. Part 2 is that the body is made out of proteins, and proteins are physical molecules. But for proteins to move, and that is where life comes from because life is movement, our life is the action of proteins moving, all proteins respond to signals that will cause them to move. That gives them functionality. A protein that does not respond to an environmental signal really has no basic function. Basically, all proteins by their nature are complementary to some form of environmental signal that exists outside.
The relevance of that is the question of what makes one individual human different from another individual human. The first thing to say is that if I put my cells into somebody else’s body, their body will say “not self” and their immune system will reject it. So cells have an identity. Where is that identity? What we are beginning to find out is that there is a whole series of receptors or protein antennas on the surface of the cell that are unique for each individual person. What we might want to say in our Newtonian mechanistic pattern is that it is the receptors that make “self”. The truth is that the receptors are not functional unless they respond to a signal, so basically this says that the signal is already out in the field and the receptors are responding to it, so if I have a set of receptors that I respond to, and it is a different set than maybe Rupert responds to, then he is responding to a different part of the environment than I am. So, in each case there is an influence of a field that exists outside of the proteins that influence the activity of those proteins. So I am just saying that the identity we see may be a physical identity, but it would have a complementary field influence as well.
TJ: Rupert, I think you wanted to say something on this as well?
RS: I take the question to mean, does consciousness survive bodily death? We would all agree that there is something we could call the mind or the spirit or consciousness or the unconscious mind when we are alive. So the question seems to be principally to do with survival. I’m interested in psychical research, and, for more than a hundred years people, have been trying to find out experimentally whether there is a survival of bodily death.
There have been a lot of results, but the evidence, one would have to say, is ambiguous. Some of it comes from mediums and séances. Some of the information they get from supposedly dead people is accurate, but the question is, did they pick it up by telepathy? Within the field of psychical research, telepathy becomes a counter-explanation of survival. The fact that a medium knows something that she could not have known normally could mean that it is coming from a dead person, but it could also mean that it is coming from somebody alive who knows about them. So it is ambiguous. For people who reject the possibility of telepathy, it is all nonsense anyway. But the evidence is not clear, and despite scientific investigation there is no clear answer.
Let me give you my view. I think that we all have a duplicate body in virtual reality. It’s called the dream body. We all dream and in our dreams we have a body that is not the same as our physical body. We can fly in our dreams or walk around or talk to people or see things, and this is not happening to our physical body. We all have that, we practice it every night. We may forget our dreams but we all have them.
When people are in near-death states, many of them experience going out of the body and seeing their body from outside, as if from another kind of body. That, I think, is the dream body. Whether the near-death experience is a true reflection of what happens after you have nearly died, is another question. Materialists always say, “oh, it’s just anoxia in the brain, it’s just disturbed brain cells”, and you cannot win that argument, but I think it is an indication of what could happen.
My own view is that when we die it’s like dreaming but without being able to wake up any more. We have not got a physical body to wake up in, so we are trapped in some kind of dream state. The kind of dream world we are in depends on the kind of person we are and it’s as subjective as our dreams. It’s real for us, just as dreams are real when we are dreaming them. You could have a nightmare, you could have a wonderful dream and you could possibly go beyond it. That, for me, is the easiest way to think about it and is what seems to me to be meaningful.
TJ: You see what a very simple question can lead to! Wolf, I think you wanted to comment on this?
WS: It makes me extremely nervous, I must say, for a number of reasons. Dreams are fine. We know why we all have to sleep, and there are good physiological reasons why we have to go through sleep phases, why there is reactivation of stored contents, daily experiences and so forth, so we won’t go into that. There is a good physiological explanation of why we dream and this is something that is generated in our brain. Some of our dreams are remembered and others not.
As for near-death experiences, nearly all of the experiences that have been described can be induced by micro-stimulation of certain brain centres. The out of body experience can be very easily induced by electrical stimulation of the parietal lobe. This happens of course when the system decomposes, when functions become uncoordinated, so there is a very nice physiological explanation for virtually everything that is described in the context of near-death experience.
What makes me nervous is, if data that comes, for example, from immunology, where you have this nice distinction between self and other, are mixed up with belief systems, then migrate onwards to a sort of scientific plausibility proof of telepathy, one is going across boundaries that one must not pass, because these are different worlds.
What I have heard here is beliefs. I have not heard any single argument that convinces me, because if this were at all possible I would not waste a fortune on my mobile phone to talk to my wife, I would just talk to her!
None of the experiments that have been reported so far withstand any critical scrutiny. I have had long discussions with Buddhist monks who were life-long expert meditators, and I have asked them “how often could you communicate with someone else, and do you really think that when you sit here it will be beneficial to people who are on the other side of the world?” They just said that it feels good to think about and believe this, but actually they could get away without it.
So why are we sitting here proposing belief systems? Anyone here could say, “I believe that I have a triple existence somewhere” and somebody else could say, “well, since we know that space is n-dimensional, maybe there are five copies of me”. We can say whatever we want. We cannot prove it, we cannot disprove it. So why do we discuss this?
RS: I totally disagree.
WS: I would assume so!
RS: I would say that you [i.e. WS] have a belief system and an exceptionally strong one. So it is not a question that you have totally true science and everyone else has a false belief system. I would say that you have a materialist belief system that would exclude a whole range of phenomena from being possible.
That means that you would probably think that telepathy was impossible in principle and therefore no evidence for it would be convincing to you. The question is, for things like that we would have to look at the evidence and we would have to carry out experiments.
It is a ridiculous argument, if you don’t mind me saying so, to say that if telepathy exists you should be able to communicate with your wife without using a telephone. That is like saying, “if telepathy exists, it should be able to do anything”. It is like saying, “if medicine’s any good, why can’t it cure every disease?” Nothing is without limits. Modern medicine is very good, but it cannot cure many kinds of cancer, there are many things it cannot do but that does not prove that it does not exist. So that argument is irrelevant.
WS: I would agree that that argument was intended to make the audience laugh a little bit, just to make the point.
I have had such experiences in my own life, and they make you wonder of course about certain things.
I think we grossly underestimate the likelihood of events, given the frequency of occurrence of such events, and we grossly underestimate the immense knowledge that is stored in our subconscious of which we have not the faintest idea. We utilise this knowledge all the time, to find places, to orient ourselves, and so on, and then comes a sudden, unexpected, highly statistically improbable event, but what we don’t know is whether we were guided towards this event by our subconscious, and not by telepathy at all.
Give me an example of where telepathy really worked. The United States Navy and the Russian Army invested an enormous amount of money in researching telepathy, at the time when they had no satellites, so that they could talk to their submarines, and there were experiments performed in Stanford and published in Nature (three papers) and by the IEEE. Those papers were looked at by referees and the research was double-blind and looked very nice to begin with. There were some statistically significant results. However, later on, with some more sophisticated statistics, people have been able to prove that the original work relied on poor statistics even though it was state of the art at the time. Therefore, the research has not been pursued, although it would have saved them a lot of money!
TJ: Maybe one observation is that since we are searching for common ground, it is not surprising that differences come up, and we are discussing those differences. I therefore appreciate the discussion we are having.
Maybe we can wrap this up and move to the third question, although Willigis wishes to offer a further remark.
WJ: [in German]
DH: I wanted to say a little bit about consciousness as the soul, and brain activity, and their relationship, as they seem to be at the centre of this question as well.
Modern neuro-physiological research has shown hundreds of very tight correlations between brain activity and various conscious experiences. In area V4 of the brain, if you stimulate it on the left, you will see colour experiences in the right visual world. If you lesion it on the left you will lose all colour in the right visual world and will only see black and white and shades of grey. There are hundreds of such deep correlations that have been found.
It is undeniable that brain activity and conscious experiences (the soul) are very deeply correlated. The question is: Does the brain cause the conscious experiences? 99% of scientists, as Wolf has pointed out, believe that brain activity causes these conscious experiences, and therefore causes the soul. But the remarkable thing about this, speaking as a scientist looking at the field, is that there is not yet a single theory that does not involve a miracle.
Francis Crick was, up to the day he died, working on trying to understand how consciousness and the brain are related. He had an idea that the claustrum was involved – there is claustrum activity, and then a miracle occurs and you get consciousness.
The Daily Miracle of Conciousness
Nobel Prize-winner Gerald Edelman has a theory concerning re-entrant thalamo-cortical loops. There is all this brain activity, then a miracle occurs and there is consciousness.
The state of the field in science today is that we have hundreds of correlations between brain activity and consciousness and not a single theory, not even a remotely plausible idea, about how the brain could cause consciousness. The data is the data – I’m not going to throw that away, I’m a scientist – but this has led me to explore the possibility of going the other way. We have no idea how to get a causal theory that goes from brain activity to consciousness. Maybe we can, within a scientific framework, try to have the causality go the other way. Can we start with consciousness – that’s why I’m developing this user interface theory – and think of the brain as just a symbol in the user interface? Maybe we could then get a theory that would explain the correlation and actually have a scientific causal theory for the first time?
TJ: I find it interesting that you say that 99% of the scientific community believe that the brain causes consciousness, but 75% of this panel believe something else, so we are not in line with overall pattern here!
RS: I don’t think that 99% is a good statistic. The official world view is a materialist world view within science. That does not mean that everyone believes it, any more than everyone in Brezhnev’s Russia believed in Communism. The world of science is full of closet holists, closet psychics, and so on, but most of them don’t dare mention it to their colleagues in the laboratories. I think that once there is a kind of liberation movement that sweeps through science and people dare to come out of the closet, the figure won’t be anything like 99%. I think it is probably more like 50%.
DH: I agree.
Bruce Lipton: Here’s an interesting fact that I found in an article in the journal Science. I think the article title was “Is the brain really necessary?” It reported a study by a medical doctor, John Lorber, who examined a graduate student in mathematics, who was obviously very proficient intellectually, but when he underwent a brain scan it was found that he was hydrocephalic. This meant that he had virtually no brain at all, just a very thin layer, about two millimetres or so thick, that went around the inside of his skull. The rest of the brain was all fluid. The significance was that he a high-functioning graduate student of mathematics, which raises the question, “is there a relationship between the activities of the brain and the meat of the brain?” The reality says, “no, there isn’t”, so I think this begs us to go back and consider another understanding of the nature of the brain, because if you can create that kind of high functioning with that very small quantity of cerebral material, that becomes something that we must look at.
Just one last point. Science is really wonderful, I love it, it is what my whole career has been about, and yet scientists only own what is real and what they can measure. Scientists over time learned to identify things that they had not been able to see before, by developing new instrumentation and new ways of looking at the world. Things that never existed all of a sudden showed up when the instrumentation and techniques made them available. However, I am of the opinion that science is limited now by its inability to see the entire field, and that when we have an opportunity to develop better technologies and other ways of looking in, then we will expand what science can see.
Science itself becomes limited because scientists make the limitation that says, “if I can’t see it, then it doesn’t count in my story”, and yet we can go back over history and say, “look, science evolved by starting to see things that we never saw before”, and then incorporating them in the story. We are currently at a stage where we do not see everything but we are on the way to seeing a lot more.
So, what is invisible to us right now is probably very palpable and very real, except that at present we do not have the technology to enable us to see it. I hold open the future that those invisible things, those communications that occur over great distances, all the kinds of phenomena that Rupert talks about, are present in a reality that our instrumentation and current science is unable to detect, but that does not mean they are not there. That is just due to the limitation of science. If I only believe what I can see, that is not a very good vision for a scientist because that says that the other things do not exist.
I believe that if science was really open, it would allow that there are things out there that we may not be able to explain right now. This would not mean that we were being unscientific, but just recognising that at the current moment we do not have the technology to see everything.
WS: If anything has expanded our view of the world, from the quantum world to astrophysics, it was science. It was not intuition. It was not introspection. Can you tell me of any discoveries that have been made since ancient times that have come into the world because people were just speculating, imagining and theorising? No – everything that is new and has expanded our world view is what science has brought forth.
I would at least like to give this credit to science – no scientist would ever claim that what he cannot find does not exist. But scientists are modest and economical people. They will not engage in investing a lot of money, time and cerebral effort in something that they know they cannot tackle. They go where the light is, step by step, and thereby expand the range of knowledge.
If somebody comes up with a real breakthrough, evidence that there is something of the kind that you have discussed, of course scientists will go there and try to understand that. We try to understand – this is what we want. I think we are very careful to say that there may be things that are beyond the realm of science – I hope you did not misunderstand my talk, as I was saying this explicitly – but it is pointless to postulate all sorts of things, which anybody can do. The Greeks postulated a whole swarm of Gods but others are now monotheistic. Yet others have another world view. Some claim to have a triple personality. Everyone can do whatever he wants. What`s this got to do with science?
TJ: I think it is clear where the major difference is. Perhaps a viewpoint from a spiritual perspective would help us to move on to the field of creativity.
TJ: I sense that this is a very controversial and emotional debate, so this would be a good time to move on the question of where creativity fits into these various disciplines.
RS: I think that the evolutionary world view that I was talking about this morning, the Big Bang theory, shows us that creativity has to be part of Nature at every level. It is not just a human problem and not just a biological problem, as it accounts for the whole of Nature. I would see the whole evolutionary process as interplay between habit and creativity. There is creativity in the chemical realm when new crystals are forming there is creativity in stars and planets, creativity in the biological realm and in the human realm.
In all these areas, it seems to follow very similar principles. Many possibilities come up. Most mutations in living organisms are useless. Most new human ideas are useless – the patent offices of the world are full of patents that have been filed but have never come to anything. There is a lot of creativity at all levels of Nature, but only some creative thins survive and get repeated, and that is really like the principle of natural selection on a more cosmic level. I would say that, through repetition, they become habits, and the whole of Nature is interplay of habit and creativity.
Dance of Life
My point is that we have to see creativity operating through all of Nature. The entire cosmic evolutionary process has been a creative process. All chemicals, all atoms, have been created. At one time there were no zinc atoms, no uranium atoms, no lead atoms, not even hydrogen atoms at the Big Bang – all these have come into being. The same is true of methane molecules and water molecules – at one time the first one happened. None of these things were there to start with.
WS: It’s great – we agree! If I had been asked the question I would have said very much the same thing. Nature somehow is tuned to create variability. The genome has mechanisms that make it as different as possible, changing all the time, and the same happens in the brain. There are mechanisms in the brain that make it prefer to recombine the un-combined, to make models, to probe, to experiment. Children do this, kittens do this when they play – they find a solution and the reward systems come into play to make them feel good when a solution is found. We do not know what the signature is for this, but there is definitely such a pattern.
Dynamic Interplay of Representational and Conceptual Systems
There is a good evolutionary reason for this, because if you do not play around and recombine things that have not been combined – dreams are an example for such a process – you will not be able to create anticipatory models in case something happens. So there is a good reason to be creative and there is no problem in seeing creativity in terms of neurobiology, because a system like the brain, with its non-linear dynamics, has absolutely no problem in exploring entirely new states – we call them attractors in high-dimensional state space – so here we agree.
DH: I would agree, but I think that the advances in quantum computing may completely change some of the ways in which we think about creativity and intelligence. The big gold rush is on right now to build the first really usable quantum computer, and the best and brightest minds in the world are working on quantum computers.
It has been shown that once we get a quantum computer, problems that are intractable via a classical computer, like that of the size of the universe in billions of years, can be solved with just a few thousand atoms that you could not even see. A quantum computer will solve problems that could not be solved by our current technology.
What quantum mechanics makes very clear is that there is interplay between our representational and conceptual systems, that we can use to set up the quantum bits and their states, followed by the quantum gates, but then when you start the computation you are not allowed to look. In quantum computation, if you try to look at the computation as it proceeds, you destroy all the power. But if you don’t look at the computation, then – the mathematics is quite clear – you get essentially unlimited horsepower.
This is not just a theory. It sounds almost metaphysical, but it is so real that companies are rushing to build the first computer that will do this. The U.S. government is spending billions of dollars on this, and Israel is spending a billion a year. The horsepower, the intelligence, the creativity, comes when you let go of your conceptual system. We don’t understand what happens, but we do know that when it’s all done you can then read, from the state of the bits, a trickle from this torrent of computation that went on.
Let Go & Jump In
There is therefore a connection between meditation, letting go of your conceptual system, and the power that happens. There is an analogy here that I don’t want to push too hard, because it has not been scientifically validated. However, the science and technology of quantum computation is very clear – infinite horsepower and infinite creativity, but only when you don’t look and you let go of your conceptual system.
Selective & Specific Stress Solutions
BL: Because I’m a cellular biologist I’ll reduce it down to the cellular level. There’s an interesting insight into how cells are creative. John Cairns published the first paper on it in 1988 in Nature – it’s a concept called adaptive mutation. What they found was that when an organism like a bacterium has a defect in an enzyme so that it cannot digest lactose, and you put these bacteria in a culture dish where the only food is lactose and they cannot digest it, this causes great stress on the system.
It was found that the bacteria have a creative capacity because they can identify where the stress is affecting the genome, and then the cell can engage a special DNA-copying enzyme that actually makes errors. It is not used in normal situations but only under stress, and, in that case of stress, what happens is that the bacteria copy the gene where the stress has been identified and make many different versions of it. It is called hyper-somatic mutation, and basically what it does is like brainstorming. It makes a whole bunch of different versions of the gene with the opportunity of identifying one of those variations that will help the organism to get out of the stress.
So basically, in the most primitive organism there is a mechanism to selectively modify genes that are causing stress. It is a creative mechanism that is saying, “This blueprint doesn’t work, let’s make copies of it”. Each copy is a variation of a previous copy and, when eventually a copy turns into a functional gene that will overcome the stress they then select that gene and incorporate it into the chromosome after cutting out the gene that was stressful.
At a biological level we always perceived that evolution was initiated by random mutations. It turns out that it is actually specifically activated by the system to mutate only those genes with which stress is associated. There is a system that was built into Nature to become creative at a time of stress in order to overcome that particular stress. It is a fabulous understanding when you really get to appreciate what it means, because there is a mechanism of evolution that says that when we do hit a wall of stress, the system is able to actually rewrite the genome very specifically to create a solution to survive and thrive in the world. Interestingly enough, in bacteria that creativity is already present in the system.
TJ: Brother David and Jonathan Wittenberg, you have been observing these discussions with a great opportunity to take a “helicopter” view. Jonathan, I would firstly like to hear your impressions before we arrive at our closing statements.
JW: Thank you. And also thank you to Waldzell – where else can one go in the world where so many disciplines, and so many people of imagination and courage and spirit, and also young people who are developing a future through their courageous projects, can meet? There’s just isn’t anywhere else, and I am full of gratitude to be invited here.
I have been listening and trying to pick up some of the themes. There are three broad themes that I want to talk about. One is about synergy and creativity, one is the theme that we have had of deconstruction, and one, that we haven’t said so much about, is about values.
To bring together so many disciplines in creative interaction is fantastic, and certainly around the table I was sitting at, one of the conclusions was that it is not enough to say that we need science for our future, and it is not enough to say that we need the resources of the spirit, but we need them both. However, I think we should not be trapped into the idea that everything can be part of one kind of unity of discourse.
There is a famous saying from the second century, in Jewish tradition, which says that arguments for the sake of Heaven are destined to be continued. It is counter-intuitive – you think that arguments ought to end, but with the real ones, it is actually the vitality of their continuity that is so important. Also, not everything can be put under the same heading.
I am mindful of a story. A congregant of mine was on a plane, sitting next to a Catholic priest, when the plane suddenly lost a thousand feet, which frightened the life out of her. She turned to her neighbour and said, “someone in your profession ought to be able to do something about that”, and this man answered, quick as a flash, “no, no, I’m sales – that’s management”.
We need to respect the differences between what we have to contribute as well as the creativity of this exchange.
The second thing I want to talk about is deconstruction and iconoclasm. I felt that coming through in many people’s presentations. Bruce, it was very prominent in your presentation when you related that you had had the courage to say, in an interview indeed, that the person who says that genes control everything is a fundamentalist. That was an amazing moment of challenge. Donald, you challenged us in the way we construe images; as did you, Rupert, in your history of the two dominant ideas.
By the way, as a Jewish person who has worked in a Jewish institution for 25 years, and endeavoured to establish some minimal change, the idea that we as a people are responsible for the principle of evolution came as a liberating shock.
Deconstruction as The Source of Creativity
The moment that this kind of deconstruction reminds me of is the Jewish tradition of Abraham, before he sets out on his journey, smashing the idols. If he had not smashed the idols there would have been no journey.
I thought that came up again when Donald said that creativity comes when you let go of your conceptual system. I felt that this was driven, for many of us, out of the desire to create space for creativity, and for responsibility, in systems which might be presumed to be deterministic. This effort is to say no, actually how we frame perception is not just determined by a materialistic sense of the world. How our organism functions is not determined by our DNA.
This was about liberation – liberation for the sake of purpose. I relate to that very much in my field and I can bring in two areas where deconstruction is so important. One is to do with the personality. In Hebrew, the word that means “me” is deconstructed by the mystics who turn the letters round to make the word that means “nothing”. Do we, as we conceive ourselves, exist? What are our boundaries? That has been an implicit question here, but is more radical, because I am terrified of the way religions also structure their world, sometimes to be the opposite of being loving and inclusive.
Everyone is familiar with the customary translation of the first words of the Bible, “In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth”. These are not actually a grammatically accurate translation of the Hebrew, so I shall offer another non-grammatically accurate translation which the mystics love – “The beginning provoked the creation of God”. In other words, our very religious systematization imposes form, name, structure, sometimes unwanted structure, on the absolute. So to reach creative space, we need to deconstruct.
But then I felt, in what was being articulated, that there is a very strong language of values here, and there is a very strong language of values behind the whole of Waldzell. I’ve already said that I felt there was an anti-deterministic bent to what we said, because a question a lot of us struggle with is, “what is the role of freedom of choice if we live in a deterministic world?”
(As it happens, we are now entering a period of some crucial anniversaries of Darwin – the bicentenary of his birth in February, the 150th anniversary of the publication of the “Origin of Species” in November 2009.)
So what is the space for freedom of choice? For if there is no such space, in what way do we make decisions to act responsibly? That we, here, desire responsible action is obvious from the fact that, rightly, Waldzell celebrates, most of all, its Architects of the Future. I am reminded of what Rabbi Akiba said, 1,900 years ago, namely “everything is foreseen, but permission is given”.
How do we articulate the space where we choose, in the name of responsibility and action? Beyond that there are further values. We wish to use that responsibility for the sake of tolerance, love and change.
Scare Away Self-Fear
I very much appreciated the few words we heard about tolerance, and particularly the sense that Donald brought forward, that seeing that our perceptions are conditioned, prior even to our being able to remember, we need to be highly alert not to be racist and prejudging. Beyond tolerance, the word “love” was used prominently as the ultimate reality.
Perhaps the whole values direction of the move to create non-deterministic space is a move towards a world model less rooted in the notion that we are destined to compete to the death, being a model in which we are able to create a sense of cooperation by not being driven by self but by a wider perspective and a wider vision.
It seems to me that that notion of a wider vision and perspective has been what this discussion has been all about.
Audience member 1: Our sentence could be – what we need to look at is stopping the separation of the world into science or mysticism or whatever, with each defending its own corner, but we should instead start looking at what we have in common and how we can bring these two fields of knowledge together instead of each denying that the other is knowledge.
Audience member 2: Our sentence is – don’t believe what you see, understand that there is a lot more we cannot see, but still we feel fine, life goes on, and this is a very nice conference.
Audience member 3: Our sentence is – interpretation gives everyone a chance to live in a world of facts. What this means is that in a world of facts with no common ground we have to have the freedom of interpretation. With different interpretations of the same facts we have a chance to live together on this planet.
Audience member 4: First of all, if I was ever to sit in a helicopter of mindfulness I would like to have Rabbi Jonathan and Brother David as pilots! Our sentence is – how we perceive our world depends very much on where we set our own boundaries.
Audience member 5: We just tried to find some words that worked for us in trying to find common ground, and these were – acceptance, tolerance, openness to what is different between yourselves, curiosity and composure.
Audience member 6: We have two sentences. The first is – whenever one has an either/or choice, the answer is almost always both. The second is – understand the differences and act on the commonalities.
Audience member 7: We tried to find a sentence, but that became overwhelming, so we looked for one word, and that got overwhelming too, and then we asked “what did we feel?” We therefore came up with what we feel as a result of that dialogue, namely that we feel lost, we feel possibility, and we feel hopeful, thankful and inspired.
Audience member 8: I’m not sure if this is a conclusion, but we talked about how we had heard a lot of positions and answers from the speakers today, and we would like to hear some questions from you to which you do not have the answers right now.
Audience member 9: Perception creates reality, and reality is richer than the scientific materialistic world.
Audience member 10: We discovered that we don’t know and we are fine with that. Knowing that we don’t know and knowing at the same time that we would like to let go, is what we know.
Audience member 11: The conclusion was confusion.
Audience member 12: We came up with this phrase – if we like it or not, or if we can prove it or not, it remains a big mystery.
TJ: Thank you for all those thoughts. I would now like to ask the panel for their sentences to wrap everything up – the essence of your thoughts in a nutshell, if you can, please.
BL: At a time of concern and crisis, I think we have great opportunities ahead of us in the new sciences that will help us in the world, as long as those new sciences bring us all together by understanding the spiritual realm as well as the material realm.
RS: I think the way forward is through debate and dialogue, and we have had a good bit of that today. The culture of science is sadly lacking in debate, I’m afraid. In many other areas we are used to it, but I think we need more debate and more dialogue.
DH: I think the biggest obstacle between science and religion is the ontology of materialism on the part of the scientists. Science is a wonderful methodology, but most scientists identify science with an ontology of physicalism and the two need to be pulled apart. We need scientific method. We can get rid of the ontology of physicalism, and when that happens I think science and religion will have a most fruitful dialogue.
PP: Gandhi said that science without spirituality is lame, and spirituality without science is blind. Both together make it beautiful.
WS: I would say, let’s explore and appreciate all sources of knowledge, be they spiritual, belief systems, religions or science, and take them for what they are good for, but every time you say something, say what your source of knowledge is, and don’t let us mix those up.
WJ: [via interpreter] Rationality and personality are downright positive, as well, and still there is a level of perception that goes beyond that. It’s like the young man who writes a letter to his beloved every week to say that he will marry her as soon as he comes home and at one point she writes back and says she will marry the postman. Science is married to the postman. We need to get to know the letter-writer.
TJ: Thank you all very much. Brother David, a final remark?
BD: What I admire is our fearlessness in discussing things. The greatest problem in our world is fear. If this Waldzell meeting strengthens our fearlessness I think it will have a very important effect.
JW: Some words from the Book of Psalms. “The search for truth (which is science) and the search for understanding (which is religion) – they are able to love each other”.