Scientific knowledge and the meaning of human life
Technological development and scientific culture in our time
Scientific knowledge represents an extraordinary step forward to understand the world in which we live, compared to other mostly mythical and inadequate interpretations conceived by the human psyche. However, this statement on the scientific and technological cultural trend of our time must be clarified. It is true that technology products have now spread almost everywhere, with the exception of those areas where extreme poverty or natural obstacles restrict their availability: we live for sure in an increasingly technological world. But the same can not be said for scientific culture: not only there are entire areas of the planet where most of the population lack basic cultural instruments to understand scientific knowledge and the method to acquire it, but also in areas like Europe or the United States, large social groups live, think and act without being interested, if not in a very marginal way, in the progress of science, except to use its results in everyday life, when they need it. Actually, most of humankind still lives according to a functioning determined by basic instincts, by emotional reactions to environmental stimuli, by the conditioning acquired through education, social conventions and habits, and by the mental resources at their disposal, without elaborating an adequate in-depth knowledge. We should not be surprised by this: human life is almost always difficult, and everyone deals with it as best they can. The assimilation of scientific culture requires time, dedication, ability to study in deep and a particular form of intelligence that is not given to everyone. At the same time, this culture exerts a remarkable influence on the social orientations of western societies. We expect scientific preparation from doctors, we know that behind each of the technological products we use every day there are the results of scientific research, and that agriculture itself and food products owe their development to the achievements of science, achievements that media show almost everyday, often in a captivating and sometimes not entirely correct form.
Aims of scientific research
Scientific research has as its object all the manifestations, transformations and laws related to that grandiose phenomenon, of extreme and perhaps infinite dimensions, which we call the physical universe, investigated both at a cosmic level (astronomy, cosmology, physics, astrophysics, chemistry, etc.) and at a local level, limited to our planet (chemistry, biology, life sciences, human sciences, etc.). Currently we lack the ability to acquire data on any similar phenomena occurring in worlds located beyond the boundaries of our solar system. As seen in the section on life on earth, the phenomena investigated by science manifest themselves and are perceived by us in the temporal dimension. The transformations occurring within this dimension have been retraced by scientific investigation in the opposite direction to that in which they manifested, starting from the current situation, which shows an extraordinary complexity, differentiated and very rich in embodied information. Scientific knowledge tells us that today's world represents the evolution of a process that began about 13 billion years ago, in an age so remote as not to allow significant references. In its initial phase the state in which the energy of the universe spread itself was practically completely undifferentiated, and the amount of information incorporated was minimal. However, that energy should already have, in the potential state, all the features and laws necessary to allow the subsequent transformations and enrichments of information that would have led to the current complexity of the localized worlds. What we commonly define as matter is nothing but a concept linked to our way of perceiving the world through our senses. In the scientific field, the concept that best defines matter is that of mass, a form of energy transformed according to the well-known Einstain equation.
The scientific method
But how can we be sure that things went exactly this way? What guarantees can science offer us about the conclusions it reaches? To answer these questions we must bear in mind the essence of the scientific method, which proceeds through three phases. The first consists in the observation and collection of data related to each aspect of the investigated phenomena, data that must be quantitatively as precise and reliable as possible, almost always obtained through investigations and instrumental measurements. Today it is taken for granted the importance and reliability of the instruments as a means of recording and also of data processing, and it should be remembered that the dawn of scientific research coincided with the manufacture of the first microscopes, telescopes, clocks and other instruments, ever more precise, for observation and measurement. The collection of quantitative data and observations allows scientists to develop a representative and descriptive scheme of the phenomenon that is as reliable as possible.
The second phase consists in relating the set of collected observations and data with other phenomena or other aspects of the same phenomenon, whose laws are already known, and in the use of intelligence to devise one or more interpretative hypotheses. All useful known laws and proper logical and mathematical tools must be used to allow the elaboration of an interpretative scheme that can explain the studied phenomenon: not an easy task, given that it involves discovering the cause that necessarily leads to the occurrence of that phenomenon in the light of all existing laws. In several sectors the need to proceed backwards has sometimes led to the subsequent revision of previously acquired laws and their integration into more complex laws, and science loyally states that any theoretical validated conclusion must be considered provisional, in the light of the possible availability of new experimental data that can lead to a more complete and satisfactory theoretical formulation.
Finally, there is a third, very important phase, which consists in conceiving and carrying out experiments that confirm and validate a hypothesis and produce the expected results. In other words, an effect must first be foreseen, in the light of a developed hypothesis, and then confirmed by one or more experiments. Only at this point does a hypothesis or theory become validated scientific knowledge, which translates into effective power for humans, enabling them to act more effectively to achieve their goals (be they positive or negative). As we can see, the tests to which scientific knowledge must undergo before becoming such have a binding character, which leaves no room for doubt if the expected results are confirmed. The best guarantee for the validity of scientific research is given by the experimental nature of science, and scientists should always be ready to suspend judgment on any theory not supported by experimental validations. In this respect the scientist is much less free than the philosopher, who can speculate in the field of reason, logic and creativity of thought without having to submit to the burden of experimental proof.
Limits in the full application of the method to all areas of knowledge
Can we then say that everything that is part, or considered as an object, of scientific research has been subjected to the validation of the three phases described above? No, not because of a limit of science, nor for lack of correctness on the part of scientists, but because of the extreme complexity of many of the phenomena studied. The purpose is always to use the scientific method in all its extension, but the more complex the research is, the more time will be needed to make progress in the first phase and to carry out the second phase. In this respect, science is still young and must travel a long way. Basic physics and chemistry, having as object of study the substances and forces of the physical universe in their relatively simpler manifestation, have developed their investigations to a deeper level, being able to account not only for the laws that regulate the phenomena, but also for some of the relationships of cause and effect that are at their base, in the light of the interpretative models devised. Today's physicists are not content with having discovered the laws that govern gravity or that link mass to energy, but wonder why mass and gravity must exist in this universe. The level of theoretical representation elaborated must be able to account for each of these aspects, and must be in accordance with all the subsequent developments that lead to the complexity of the world as we know it. Precisely these needs have made so that from the relatively simple model, also from an intuitive point of view, of the late 19th century atom, we have reached the current complexity, much more advanced and not at all intuitive, of the physics of subatomic particles. But when the object of scientific investigation becomes the complexity of life as we know it, the descriptive phase is still ongoing. It is an in-depth description in many respects, which gives an account of the way in which the phenomena take place, but offers a still uncertain image of the relationships of cause and effect that connect them. For example, the description of chlorophyll function in plants provides a complete picture of every single chemical reaction by which solar energy transmitted by photons is stored within the substances produced. Or else, the decryption of the genetic code allows us to deepen the knowledge of the way in which individual genes determine the constitution and functioning of parts of the body. However, the reason why things should work this way, and not differently, largely escapes us.
The film of the history of life on Earth
Regarding the history of life on Earth, we can represent it as a film composed of many single frames, at whose beginning a lifeless planet is represented, while in the end we see the life of our time, including humankind. Many of this movie's frames are obscured, while in some parts the interpretable frames are more frequent. The closer we get to the end, the more frequent the series of clear frames. We have the impression that the film tells a story that has, so to speak, a plot, but the interpretation of this plot is unsatisfactory for now. The content of the single frames was not arbitrarily established, but was determined by scientists on the basis of the interdisciplinary connections and observations available in the current world. A frame traced back to three billion years ago does not correspond to a photograph of the Earth taken at that time, but it is a reconstruction, as far as possible coherent and convincing, of a set of phenomena based on current evidence and knowledge. In order to be coherent, the picture must agree both with all the previous frames and with the following ones: each of the previous frames must have in itself the premises that allow the potential development of a condition that will lead to one of the following frames, each of which must be able to be interpreted on the basis of what is contained in previous frames.
The work done so far by scientists investigating the past to rebuild this film is excellent. The investigation has arrived at a state of accuracy that in some cases is extraordinary, made possible not only by the fact that many traces and clues of the past have come down to us in the form of fossil finds that can be dated with good approximation, but also from the coexistence, in the current world, of a certain number of living forms (from bacteria to algae, from protozoa to sponges) which represent, in the frames of the past, the highest level of organization achieved by life at that time. However, the more we go backwards in time, the more the frames become rare or blurred. As already described in the page on the origin of life, there is especially a period in which the absence of frames leaves us unsatisfied, and it is the one related to the transition from the phase of non-living substances to that of unicellular living organisms. Just the lack of reliable traces, and the presence of an environment very different from the current one, entail that at present the different degrees of transition from simpler organic substances to those already endowed with a high degree of organization (contained within of a membrane of protection and interaction with the external environment) and of the ability to increase and self-replicate by means of an informatic code, are the subject of hypotheses yet to be verified on an experimental level.
What is most surprising in the perception of these initial phases of the film is the fact that each degree of transformation becomes an indispensable element for subsequent phases: a series of chemical transformations that occur within an environment, precisely because of the actual environmental conditions (in terms of substances and energy cycles), transforms the environment itself, making it suitable for a series of new transformations that could not have occurred in the primitive environment. As we have seen, this means that the substances are able to store information: according to this requirement, the results of certain chemical reactions produced by temporary energy events do not fade away with the loss of the causes that induced them, but become stable by permanently modifying the initial environmental conditions. The physical universe therefore had to be arranged from the beginning so that these increasingly complex transformations could occur at the time and place where suitable environmental conditions were present. Indeed, time is the fundamental factor in the transformation of the universe: it is the essential element thanks to which the film of the history of life on Earth shows us different frames as the centuries pass.
There is another phenomenon, present since the initial stages of the expansion of the universe, which interests the observer and creates many problems for scientists: we could define it as individuation. Living beings present themselves as individuals, each distinct and separate from others, whether they are single celled or multicellular organisms. But also celestial bodies, stars and planets, present themselves as individuals, separated from each other by enormous half-empty spaces, and their features, including the reciprocal distances, become the elements necessary for the environmental conditions leading to life development may exist on some of them. So, in the hypothesis that in the initial phase the entire universe was characterized by an undifferentiated energetic condition, some form of discontinuity was necessary, which represented a sort of initial fundamental information. At this point two questions are spontaneous. The first is: where does the information necessary to produce a process as complex as life come from? And the second: why can we human beings ask ourselves the first question? (I do not know if, in his own way, a horse can ask the same question, but I doubt it). These questions are completely appropriate in the field of knowledge, but at present science is not able to give them satisfactory answers. Perhaps the answers to many questions will be given in a distant future, far beyond our earthly adventure, but if science were to remove certain questions, declaring them irrelevant to its purposes, it would demonstrate not having the resources to achieve exhaustive knowledge.
Origin and organization of information
Answering the first question, we hypothesized that all information should already be contained at a potential level in the energy that constituted the initial phase of the universe. Alternatively we should believe that information has been gradually and progressively introduced into the physical structure present in a certain era, once the conditions suitable for its encoding and its preservation were present. Without wishing to deal here with the question of what name (that is, what label) to give to the source of information, it is important to recognize that the creative quality of the universe lies precisely in information. Hence the need, advanced by some scientists, to elaborate theories that consider the universe as a single immense interconnected system, or as a hologram, and in any case as something in which each phase, space and time included, is connected to all other phases.
The second question arises from the fact that at some point in the evolution of the process of life, the consciousness (and self-consciousness) of certain living organisms makes its appearance. Who poses the question? It is posed by the conscious Ego, through my brain, or through the brain of another living human. As we have seen in the page on the origin of mankind and consciousness, every person is a conscious organism who can be able to process information in a creative way. It is true that in our age the evolution of knowledge can proceed only through the exchange of information between human beings, and a single individual, however intelligent and gifted, could do little if left on a desert island without means of communication. His brain and intuition would certainly allow him to make some individual progress in processing of the information he already has, but the impossibility of being informed about new data acquired by other researchers and the lack of technologically advanced research tools would prevent him from keeping up with the evolution of scientific knowledge. However, he could successfully engage in some typically mental activities, such as the development of some philosophical theory or a branch of mathematics. The individual contribution to information processing is always essential, and it is thanks to the genius of a few that knowledge makes decisive steps forward, but the continuous increase in the complexity and quantity of information to be managed makes so that the progress of science is increasingly entrusted to interconnections, to networks of brains (and nowadays also of computers), rather than to single individuals.
The information processing and the physical support of the brain
At this point our second question takes a new form: does this human faculty that determines consciousness and the ability to creatively process information reside exclusively in the brain or does it also require the presence of something different? The fact that brain is crucial and essential for the processing of information and the activation of mental programs is incontestable but, as we have already seen, information is something different from the physical medium that contains or transmits it, and also an information processing program is something distinct from the medium through which it works. These two aspects, one physical and the other non-physical, are intimately connected, and none of them can work without the other. And it is certainly not the existence of our brain, per se, to give us knowledge: if so, human beings would have had an extraordinary knowledge already for thousands of years. What matters is information, data, new processing, intuitions and even choices. But to date, given the complexity of brain and the difficulty of studying its functioning, we do not yet have sufficient elements to give answers to these questions. Moreover, as regards the meaning of life, if in case of less evolved living organisms the absence of a conscious and self-conscious function does not pose problems in evaluating each individual existence as a necessary piece or gear in the whole scheme of the phenomenon, things change when consciousness makes its appearance in the life of higher animals. When we arrive at the Ego of human beings, elements of evaluation and judgment intervene that can not be eliminated or silenced: even science, sooner or later, should deal with that.
Returning to considerations on processing and transmission of information, we humans, through our consciousness, have the opportunity to decode the message about life evolution of which we are recipients. That this happens through the activity of our brain should not surprise us, nor can it be considered in conflict with other hypotheses. Brain, in fact, is the indispensable tool which allows this kind of information, along with many others, to reach our dimension. As we will see better dealing with human psyche, the programs of which we can be recipients and conveyors are the most diverse and depend not only on the functioning of our brain, but also on the stories of our lives: therefore on all inputs, stimuli, information and conditioning that we have received and which have been elaborated by our brain from the beginning of our life onwards. It happens, in some cases, that human mind is also subjected to programs of hatred, rage, violence, nonsense and madness, but precisely in relation to this state of affairs it is necessary to separate the consciousness of us human beings from the absurdity of an experience in which a person can be involved for causes that they do not know and are not able to control.
Conscious experiences and their meaning
Let's open a parenthesis: if we examine particular experiences, such as NDEs (see the section dedicated to them), we can find a set of information relating to a condition that in many respects is almost antithetical to the human one. In these experiences there is often a luminous being that radiates a love of a power that goes beyond any human experience, an unconditional love that conveys security, immense happiness and a sense of belonging, a love that finally makes one feel at home. Another aspect that sometimes occurs is the revision of one's life in the company of this being of light. There is never the feeling of being judged, and less than ever condemned. Instead a sense of understanding and comfort prevails, not disjointed in some cases by a benevolent humor. If anything, are the experiencers themselves who, in perceiving what has been disharmonious in their life, especially in relation to the suffering caused to others by their actions, feel sorry for the inadequacy of their ability to positively control such a difficult condition as that of human life.
In their majority, the experiences narrated by those who went through an NDE are not perceived as fantasies or dreamlike adventures, but have the depth and impact of a real lived experience, which sometimes shows a quality of reality perceived as superior to that of our normal waking state. Also the recording of such events in the memory is profound and lasting, equal or sometimes superior to that of the episodes of our life that have determined the greatest emotional and sentimental involvement. Therefore, always in the light of the importance of processing and transmission of information, we can state that through the NDEs we get an informative message that should not be underestimated, a message which differs from those coming from the scientific observation of the evolution of life on Earth and that is often felt as a representation of our fundamental and deep essence.
The question of whether such messages should be considered in all cases an elaboration due to the brain activity, as various researchers think, or can sometimes be received in the absence of brain activity, as someone claims, is undoubtedly important, but it is not the essential aspect. At present the scientific knowledge on how the brain processes information, and especially a type of information such as that present in various NDEs, is insufficient to be able to deal with this topic with adequate security: even if it was proved that the NDEs are in any case due to brain activity, this kind of swan song of the brain would be an experience of the utmost importance, which could involve phenomena such as the exit from time and space, the reception of satisfying and comforting information on the meaning of life, and an emotionally intense and ecstatic involvement in a wave of infinite and all-encompassing love. These phenomena can be considered fundamental also in relation to a possible state of transition of consciousness, so as to take into account the meaning of the conscious Ego's life.
Once again it should be kept in mind the information theory framework, according to which information itself, however elaborated, always has a recipient who must be able to decode it. All the efforts of science are oriented in this direction. If this were not the case, the universe would be an absurd and illusory system, and such would be our efforts towards its knowledge (a thesis, after all, coherently maintained by some philosophers). If we were not able to decode the information present in the universe, our human condition would be that of defenseless victims of an illusion, a colossal deception with no way out: a condition that could lead to the more complete despair. But the very existence of the possibility of decoding information has as its unavoidable premise the fact that it has been codified and transmitted, also through the elaboration made by human brains generation after generation. We must thus hypothesize, by logical consistency, a source, a transmission and processing system, and a recipient: otherwise, there could be no meaning in decoding information. Since the brain is the receiving and processing device we have in this physical dimension, there are no elements in the current scientific knowledge that force us to exclude the possibility of the existence of other systems for transmitting and processing information in different dimensions. Physics itself not only does not exclude but rather hypothesizes the existence of other parallel universes different from the one in which we live, but coexisting with it. We can also imagine that death implies a transition from one to another of these universes, and the future evolution of scientific knowledge might reserve some surprise even in this respect.
Scientific culture and the survival hypothesis of individual consciousness
That said, a reasonable defense of possible hypotheses concerning the survival of the conscious Ego after its brain's death must be meant in the sense of being able to consider, in a non-conflictual way with what science has established up to now, the possibility that individual consciousness could be tuned to other dimensions without losing the continuity with the life spent by the conscious Ego on this human plane. This does not imply any claim to be able to scientifically demonstrate the survival of the conscious Ego to brain death, but only the possibility of verifying whether this hypothesis conflicts with current scientific knowledge. If we decided to avoid such confrontation, while remaining free to believe in anything, we would rely on an act of faith consisting of an uncritical subjection to a particular psyche's nucleus. Faith can afford to ignore science and even to oppose it, but in doing so it goes against the reasons of the intellect, since scientific knowledge consists in the exercise of intelligence at its highest level, in search of the laws that rule the physical dimension and life.