As we all grow older, the span of mortality left to us becomes smaller and smaller. This shrinkage naturally makes us think about immortality. The possibility of surviving death lies at the heart of almost every religion, yet it would be comforting if factual evidence existed, not simply the reassurance of spiritual guides. I was so deeply affected by my father’s death a few years ago that I wrote an entire book to consider if life after death can be proved. I emerged from that project with a good deal of comfort and reassurance. And all of it was rationally based.
I won’t repeat the many arguments in favor of the afterlife (the book is called Life After Death if you are deeply interested). Most people have heard about near-death experiences and on the other side the scoffers who reject such experiences. It’s hard to get believers and skeptics to agree even on basic points, so wide is the gap between the two camps. But gradually science has had to confront the possibility of immortality — not yet for the soul but for the basic fabric of the universe.
It’s a given in physics that matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed. In recent years theorists have extended this notion to information. We began to hear about information fields that are as basic to the cosmos as energy fields. Why? Because as simple molecules grew into more complex ones, they kept moving into even greater complexity. You’d think that once it reached thousands of individual atoms, an organic chemical would break apart instead of building itself into an even more complex molecule. Yet life has evolved inexorably. blue-green algae, a very primitive life form, is still with it, but it no longer rules the scene. without wiping out the lower forms of life, evolution kept adding on.
Some kind of invisible glue is at work, and for the moment, information is favored as that glue. If the information invisibly holding a molecule together has its own integrity, then striving for a creation like human DNA, with its three billion individual codons, seems more plausible. It’s like having a vocabulary that you build on. The tendency is to add more words, not to randomly lose the early ones as you go. Just as you may have to remind yourself of old words, Nature reminds itself of earlier life forms, which is what happens in the womb as a human fetus develops from a single fertilized ovum, passing through stages that repeat the biology of fish, reptiles, lower mammals, and so forth on its journey to being fully human. Ultimately, nothing valuable is forgotten.
The bald fact is that DNA exists, whether or not a theory can explain it. Another bald fact is that every person is already a field of information containing trillions of data, each one related to an experience. As billions of pieces of raw data bombard our senses every day, the information field shifts, changes, and grows. No mechanical notion of randomness makes sense here. What we observe in ourselves is that information has a life of its own.
Some scientists believe that information can only be transformed; it cannot be created or destroyed. That sounds convincing for molecules, but the implications for human immortality are also striking. It’s too easy to palm off the afterlife as something incidental to human comfort, a way of not being frightened by death or a primitive reaction to the unknown. Atheists and skeptics, who are astonishingly glib as a group, constantly fall back on the primitiveness of sacred beliefs, disregarding that they are talking to people who are not primitive, afraid, or myth mongers. (Some believers, in fact, are quite a bit less primitive than the usual run of atheists and skeptics.)
Let’s say that we stop condescending to sacred belief and take it seriously.Then we find that reincarnation, for example, fits rather well with the idea of constantly transforming information. The soul fits rather well into the notion that information can organize itself into a coherent, contained structure, the way DNA organizes billions of chemical bits into a coherent, contained structure. I’m not saying that information is enough to explain the soul. We must account for consciousness, too. It’s very nice if my memories survive my demise the way a computer’s hard drive survives when the machine is turned off. But what we really want is that “I,” the self, survives.
I think that wish, basic as it is, blocks our vision. This limited self that is encased in a physical body stands for much more — it stands for consciousness as a whole. No one contains all the possibilities of the mind, which are infinite. Yet the field of consciousness, like the field of information, does contain the whole. That’s how a field works. The electromagnetic field contains all the electromagnetic energy in the universe,even though a compass or an electric toaster manifests only the tiniest fraction of the field.
Immortality got a boost when science realized that fields are the source of everything that exists, and since a field isn’t solid, visible, perceived by the senses, or contained by a single brain, the whole solid, visible world was called into question. In short, the immortal came first in Nature, the mortal came second. All change must be explained against the background of non-change. Immortality is just a synonym for wholeness. I know that sounds very abstract, and we haven’t even touched on the details of relating advanced physics to consciousness.
But at least we can keep an open mind about immortality without dividing into outworn camps of religionists versus scientists. By recognizing that the really big things like mind, consciousness, the origin of life, and the birth of the cosmos remain very open questions, we won’t fall into the simplistic close-mindedness that scoffs at immortality. The scoffers should be running for cover, because science is undermining them more and more every day.
Published by San Francisco Chronicle