A few weeks back, I received a forward from a friend of mine who lives in Boston advising me of an in presentation and discussion that was going to take place at MIT called “Searching : the Quest for Meaning in the Age of Science : Are we more than atoms and molecules?” As someone who really does contemplate the Big Questions, especially as they relate to what might exist elsewhere in the Cosmos and the philosophical and spiritual issues /contradictions which those questions might raise, I naturally felt like the invitation had my name on it. Imagine my surprise when I checked out the link to find out that it was an in person presentation only and there was no virtual options nor would it be recorded. What–how could that be? Normally, I would just sigh in disappointment and then grumble a bit to my friend, who was also unable to attend at that date and time, even though she lives in Boston. But the subject was too compelling for me to let it go at that and I decided that I would operate on the “nothing ventured, nothing gained” philosophy and I hit the keyboard immediately. I composed a polite e mail to the organizer expressing my strong interest in this topic and my belief in the relevance of these kinds of discussions in our current troubled world. I wondered if they would consider offering it again in the future with a virtual option so interested parties from all over could participate. I mentioned that I would be willing to pay a fee to participate and I would 🙂
The organizer responded and said that she would relay my email to the “Searching ” group, and she did just that. Shortly thereafter, I received a email from Dr. Alan Lightman (although I did not know who he was at the time) the host of this provocative and timely series. He suggested that I watch the 3-part series which is available free online and attached the link. He even got back to me and provided patient guidance when I couldn’t access it the first few times. And the rest, as they say, is history and that is how I got from there to here- I have now completed the series and I cannot recommend it enough. The documentary is funded by a grant from the Charles Templeton group, a foundation that is a leader in philosophical and existential contemplation and debate of the Big Questions. Once you complete the series ( and I hope that you do ) , I cannot promise you that will have any answers, but you will have plenty of information and thought-provoking perspectives from some of the great minds in both science and philosophy. Guided aptly and thoughtfully by Dr. Lightman, an astrophysicist firmly rooted in rational evidenced based so called “hard” science , we are taken on a journey through time and space to attempt to discover what Dr. Lightman , on his own existential journey, refers to “what it means to be human in a rapidly changing world of science and technology.” Are we just atoms and molecules, spewed forth after the Big Bang, evolving over time to eventually becoming conscious or is there something else going on—something larger and more meaningful? Where do we fit in the larger scheme of things? Or is there a larger scheme of things? Or is everything just random??
Dr. Lightman’s series looks at this deepest of existential questions from different perspective and talks to not only scientists but philosophers, religious and spiritual leaders and dreamers–every day people who I am willing to bet have asked this question at one time or another and perhaps more so in these troubled and challenging times.
The series is broken into 3 parts –each one bringing us to another chapter in the human journey and where we might be headed. Part one is entitled “The Stars and the Osprey ” and is where Dr. Lightman starts his own quest. Looking out into a dark star filled sky one night, he was transported and “felt as if I was falling into infinity.” He wondered what was happening to him and although he remained committed to the belief that the Universe is made of atoms and molecules and the world of physical matter, he didn’t know how else to explain what he was feeling which was obviously beyond the realm of atoms and molecules. He talks to scientists like himself along the way and a neurologist shows him what part of the brain was activated, which explains (according to the neurological model) why he had no sense of time during the experience. Seemingly unsatisfied with that answer, Dr. Lightman also turned to iconic spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, for his perspective. The Buddhist leader appreciates the importance of investigation and discovery. “It is good to investigate”, he tells Dr. Lightman, ” a sign of progress” and shows we are keeping an open mind and not holding on to old beliefs. The Dalai Lama also stresses the importance of consciousness, a theme which will come up again in the series as Dr. Lightman struggles with how we define ourselves as human, in particular with regards to the advancing abilities of Artificial Intelligence (AI) . Dr. Lightman (who I will refer to as Alan from here on ) also discusses the importance of Galileo’s discoveries and views which he believed forever changed our understanding of where we fit in the Universe. Episode One choses with a spectacular shot of an eye-to-eye encounter Alan has with a magnificent osprey, the sea hawk who he feels inexplicably drawn to and the bird to him. The beauty and power of nature.
Episode Two is entitled “The Big and the Small “and examines the relationship between the human experience and the physical world of atoms and molecules. Alan points out that some scientists believe that we can create “life” in a lab but can we create consciousness? He looks at where we, as human beings, fit into the micro and macro world and concludes that we are midway between an atom and a star. He takes us on a journey which discusses particle accelerators, the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle in 2012 (sometimes referred to the God Particle–which is a pretty lofty claim when you think about it 🙂 , gravitational physics and the Planck Scale–where time and space no longer have any meaning for us. Pretty heady stuff but Alan keeps with the theme and ties it back to our understanding of consciousness and the human experience. An interview that I found particularly fascinating was with Ruth Faden, a bio ethicist at John Hopkins University who believes that it doesn’t matter how an entity came into being but what one can experience –acknowledging that the human spirit yearns for meaning. But then doesn’t it all come down to how we define and experience our humanity?
It all comes together in Part Three, ” Homo Techno” as we struggle to determine the answer to the biggest Big Questions of all the Big Questions: What makes us human and how do we define consciousness, especially against the backdrop of advancing technology and AI?
We humans are as complex as a galaxy, Alan tells us, and now with the rapid advancement of AI, we are now evolving into something that is part biology and part machine. We need to understand the brain and how it works and what it is capable of ( again–what is consciousness???) As we ponder this, we enter the “moral universe” as we are evolving into something that is beyond biology. The episode tells the story of former gang member, Erik Soto, who becomes completely disabled and is now participating in research where, as the result of brain implants, he is able to move his robotic arm just by thinking about it. Is he now part human, part machine??Has he evolved beyond biology? Erik stressed that he still feels human and he wants others to learn from his story.
Alan talks to both scientists and philosphers as we move into this realm and try to come to terms with what exactly makes us human and where does that begin and end? One of the interviews that I found most intriguing is with philosopher Rebecca Goldstein who describes her field in one of my favourite quotes from this episode: ” Science tells us what is; Philosophy tells us what matters.”
And as we continue to evolve, will our moral universe change, and will the same things matter to us as human beings? The final episode gets into far more detail than I can discuss in this post but basically Alan invites us the continue to ponder the biggest of all the Big Questions. What makes us human? Is it consciousness and if so, how do we define consciousness? And what does the future hold for us as we continue to evolve into Homo Techno? Will we still marvel at the stars, feel love and fear and other human emotions? Will we still feel connected to the cosmos? And the biggest Big Question of all —what does it all mean?
I would encourage you to check out the series and consider the discussion guides that are there. No body has all the answers, but it is so important, especially during these troubled times when so many are feeling lost and disconnected, to start the conversation. Please don’t hesitate to share your thoughts right here and perhaps we can start our own discussion group. See if others share your perspective and point of view —-or not. One thing is for sure –humanity is diverse on so many levels depending on what lens we are looking through but perhaps it we work together; we can find common ground. It’s a good place to start.