Curtain Raiser to Godhead: The brain's big bang
A DEFINING moment came in the prehistory of our humanity when we ceased to be purely animal. Often called the ‘brain’s big bang’, it occurred in the Stone Age about 40,000 years ago. This powerful psychic explosion enabled our ancestors to experience and exploit a newfound questing spirit to understand and manipulate the world: complex languages developed and refined tools appeared, as did exquisite drawings, carvings, paintings, decoration and musical instruments. From that moment on, all these accomplishments were apparent in Europe – and more besides.
We had changed, become quickened by an original evolutionary advance: self-reflective consciousness. Suddenly our forebears found that they could see the world in an entirely new way and respond creatively to it. They could daydream, imagine the future, consciously review memories, deliberately think about the world as it appeared to them and more effectively manipulate what they saw for their own advantage. ‘Intellect’ and ‘soul’ became apparent for the first time: they became aware of being aware. A few of them, perhaps the first shamans, discovered that it was possible to directly experience a
profound feeling of connection to everything else and they set about
uncovering ever deeper and more subtle connections to reality. This
adaptation, however, came at a high price – a much-increased vulnerability
to a range of mental illnesses. How and why this happened, and what it means for us today, is partly what this book is about.
Undoubtedly the brain’s big bang was a spectacular natural event. We are still riding the crest of the creative wave it unleashed – not unlike the way innumerable billions of galaxies still appear to resound from the celestial Big Bang which, 13.7 billion years ago, set in motion, as most scientists believe, the expansion of the Universe. The surviving art and artefacts of prehistoric humans are the well-known indications of this dramatic mental transformation. They place it in time, but they don’t give us direct evidence of the precise nature of the psychological changes that occurred – and those who might have told us are, of course, long since dead.
So big questions remain: what was it like to wake up to a new way of seeing? What survival value did it have? Did it carry new burdens with it, ones that animals and their predecessors did not carry? What exactly happened in their brains in order to make them so creative? How must their thinking and behaviour have changed as a result? And, perhaps above all, do implications arising from this event have relevance today?
Just as physicists examine the properties of physical matter, and from that vantage point peer back through time to unravel the processes involved in the development of the Universe, it is also possible, by using recent discoveries and insights about the evolution of life and the brain in particular, for psychologists to unravel some of these mysteries using the very same mental tools – reason and imagination – that first made their appearance in the Upper Palaeolithic period. In Godhead: The brain’s big bang we look back through historical and prehistorical time to unpick the origins of creativity, mysticism and mental illness, and connect what we find with an analysis of the current state of mind of modern humans to see what it reveals.
In writing it we found ourselves making interesting new inferences about current human behaviour. During its gestation, for instance, a new way of looking at mental illness arose which may carry radical implications for diagnosis and treatment – namely, a previously unrecognised link between mood disorders, psychosis and autism.
A fresh approach to mental health is certainly needed. Many psychiatrists have admitted to us over the years that psychiatry has lost its way. By allying itself too closely to the medical model that focuses on the physical and biological aspects of mental distress and favours chemical treatment over psychotherapy (despite a lack of evidence for biological drivers of the common mental illnesses), it is failing dismally to reduce the sum of human misery. The World Health Organization shows that depression, for instance, is currently among the top four contributors to the global disease burden.1 Psychiatry has always suffered in comparison with other areas of medicine because mental states are, on the whole, less well understood than bodily ones.
A debate over psychiatry has simmered, largely under the public radar, for some 200 years.2 It concerns whether the medical profession should have any special role in managing people who were considered to be ‘mad’. As one participant, University College London consultant psychiatrist Joanna Moncrieff, recently put it, “Psychiatric problems are not fundamentally medical problems and I think that a lot of the difficulties and contradictions that psychiatry throws up are to do with its claim that they are.”3 Conditions such as depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, Asperger’s syndrome and personality disorders have proven difficult to diagnose with precision. In a 2009 New Scientist article, science writer Peter Aldhous notes: “Doctors can only question people about their state of mind, observe their behaviour and then classify their distress according to the most obvious symptoms.”4
The title of that article, ‘Psychiatry’s civil war’, is one way of summing up this situation.5 The current battleground is the psychiatrist’s bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM for short, and the influence of drug companies on research and diagnosis. The DSM is what psychiatrists turn to when diagnosing distressed people. It is currently in the midst of a major rewrite, a process that has highlighted just how vulnerable psychiatry is to exploitation by vested interests. Aldhous reports one eminent psychiatrist as going so far as to warn that the rewrite “will extend definitions of mental illnesses so broadly that tens of millions of people will be given unnecessary and risky drugs”.6 A particular concern is that the next DSM will include new categories to capture milder forms of illnesses such as schizophrenia, depression and dementia. The result of this, according to the same psychiatrist, “would be a wholesale ... medicalisation of normality that will lead to a deluge of unneeded medication”.7 Not just ‘a pill for every ill’, but a pill for every one of life’s ups and downs.
Psychotherapy generally is in no less a confused state, as Moncrieff
also points out:
In attempting to improve psychological interventions ourselves, we sought to widen the vision of psychotherapists and teachers to include the idea that what causes mental distress is always whatever is stopping someone from getting their innate emotional needs met. We called these innate needs ‘human givens’, and created the human givens approach to psychotherapy to incorporate techniques and skills from the various models that have proved helpful and set them within a larger overarching set of ideas about human functioning.9 By doing this we hoped to address the type of problem raised by Moncrieff with regard to what the psychotherapy available to the public usually offers: a focus on the individual.
The new direction does not offer that focus through analysing past relationships and attempting to dig up forgotten traumas (psychoanalysis), or trying to change the way an individual thinks and behaves (cognitive behavioural therapy). Neither is the human givens approach solely ‘person centred’, in the sense of ignoring the wider context of an individual’s life. Rather, it looks to see what factors are preventing someone from getting their innate needs met and then actively showing them how to use their reasoning power and imagination to get their life working in balance again.
Evidence for the effectiveness of the human givens approach to therapy was recently published in a leading peer-reviewed journal. The results of a 12-month study of 120 patients treated by human givens therapists in a GP’s surgery in Luton in the UK were reported. The results showed that more than three out of four patients were either symptom-free or reliably changed as a result of the therapy. This was accomplished in an average of only 3.6 sessions.10 The data were shown to be significantly better than the recovery rate published for the UK government’s flagship IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies) programme. Not only that, unlike the IAPT programme (which uses therapists trained in cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT), the same consistent results have been obtained from outcome
measures from multiple sites across the UK for more than 3,000 patients. This later data is being prepared for publication by leading independent researchers.
After observing for many years that our approach was highly effective we were able to delineate the three main reasons that prevent children and adults from getting their innate emotional needs met. Any one of these is sufficient to generate unhealthy levels of stress in an individual, which, if maintained, poses the very real danger that anxiety or anger disorders will develop, depression set in, psychotic symptoms appear or addictive behaviours take hold.11
The three factors are:
One: The environment the person lives or works in is ‘sick’ and prevents them from getting one or more of their emotional needs met (as in having to endure an abusive and dysfunctional family, living in a threatening neighbourhood, not having meaningful work to do, working for a bully or having autonomy restricted).
Two: The person doesn’t know how to operate their internal guidance system to get their needs met (as in learned helplessness when a person is conditioned to have low expectations of themselves, or when they don’t know how to challenge unrealistic expectations with universal reasoning, or when they are misusing their imagination by worrying – which precipitates depression – instead of using it to solve problems).
Three: The person’s innate guidance system is damaged in some way, perhaps through faulty transmission of genetic knowledge (as in caetextia, the inability to read context that’s seen throughout the autistic spectrum), poor diet (not getting proper nutriment to the brain), poisoning (drugs, alcohol, etc), physical accidents to the brain, or psychological trauma (including post-traumatic stress syndrome or PTSD) which is usually easy to treat quickly using psychological methods.
These perceptions, and practice based on them that uses innate human resources, such as imagination, well, are influencing psychiatric practice. As the UK-based consultant psychiatrist Dr Farouk Okhai wrote recently, “Having worked with the human givens approach for several years, I have found it far more useful when face to face with a patient, to set aside any possible diagnosis, ignore categories and clusters and subtypes and appendices, and ask, instead, ‘What does this person need to live a full life?”12
Our effort to improve psychotherapy practice also gave us glimpses of what Nature could require of our species if there is to be any further evolutionary development for it – an understanding of which we suspect is of increasing urgency in this age of tumultuous change. As Jalaluddin Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet, said, “Things which have to be tackled have to be done at the right time. That time is generally soon.”
It is now widely accepted that we are confronting global problems of such a magnitude that civilised life could soon become untenable.13 Almost all writers and pundits agree that without significant changes in the values that we hold and the way that we organise our societies, disaster will loom. Selfishness, lack of empathy for strangers, consumerism and the piling up of massive financial debts in exchange for shortterm advantages are the powerful forces fuelling the various crises we face. They have become the leitmotif running through almost all modern commentaries analysing the situation.
Without doubt, a more powerful and inspiring motivation than greed has to take hold for the human species to find the will it needs to make the effort to save itself. In this book we hope to offer an approach that could hearten and enthuse enough people to develop a greater capacity for cooperation and service at a level beyond the one that political and religious ideologies have achieved to date.
We strongly believe that for the human race to cooperate more intelligently, a shared vision is needed between individuals, families and organisations – one that draws out of the collective psyche a greater capacity for caring about what reality requires. In the first instance this means a ‘waking-up’ process has to happen so that more people come to think that this might at least be possible. (The tough social, financial and environmental times ahead may well prove to be part of that process.) Certainly, given the bleak alternative, no one has anything to lose by at least considering that this might be so. But where is such a vision to come from?
In looking for inspiration, most people’s instinct is, naturally enough, to turn to one of the three great traditions: religion, spirituality
or science. But for this to be a meaningful exercise, we ought to
ask ourselves what worthwhile vision emanates from each of these
Religions undeniably bring comfort and solace to millions, but we nevertheless see arising from them a growth, on the one hand, of ever more strident fundamentalism, in some instances so extreme as to promote intolerant behaviour and violence, including torture and killings; and on the other, a growing outpouring from some religious intellectuals of arguments attempting to maintain religion’s hold in the world by justifying it in the face of those scientists who argue there is no need for a belief in the supernatural at all.
The preaching and writing of religionists often has a pleading quality to it – “science hasn’t totally eliminated God because there are still mysteries in our world that science hasn’t explained”. This position is known as the ‘God of the Gaps’: whatever we currently cannot explain, the hand of God explains it. The risk proponents of this view take is that as soon as a rational explanation develops for what hitherto had seemed mysterious, their God is again in retreat. It is a less than convincing argument, and far from inspiring.
Then we have those who regard themselves as not being religious per se, but as being ‘spiritual’. This means, one supposes, a lack of commitment to any specific ideology, an open-mindedness to the transcendent dimension of life, and a faith more personalised, less structured, more receptive to new ideas and myriad influences, and more pluralistic than the doctrinal faiths of religions.
But when one looks at what’s been written in the last few decades to rationally justify why the natural basis of spirituality is important, what we almost always find is a strong tendency to limit the effort to reconciling physics with consciousness. Spirituality is concerned with the universal but invisible interconnectedness of everything, but books on the topic invariably cover experiments in extrasensory perception and precognition, and enquiries into various other paranormal areas, which are, for the most part, highly contentious because the effects they cite are so small, or are often not experimentally repeatable. So the study of the topic gets sidelined. Even more soul-destroying is that, because this approach mainly focuses on expanding conscious awareness and exploring the extent that consciousness might survive after death, it doesn’t address what is most significant to us when we are alive: our own individual consciousness, our living relationship
with people, ideas, art, our work and the beautiful objects and places we treasure, and our experience of love.
The metaphor that people writing about spirituality come up with again and again is that, when we die, our individual consciousness is lost, like a single grain of salt dissolving in the ocean. In other words, our personal sense of self is reabsorbed … gone forever. There is something hugely unsatisfactory about this position too because the net result is that, in the endlessly convoluted analysis of how physics and consciousness are somehow intertwined, all reference to the real nature of emotions and relationships is ignored. Our humanity disappears. Everything personal, warm-blooded and loving about human relationships is missing. This suggests to us that this approach to spiritual matters is the product of the left-brained type of temperament, those systems thinkers who have difficulty appreciating the deep context of the interrelatedness of personal relationships. It is, in its own way, as unsatisfactory as the God of the Gaps argument.
A further approach to spirituality appears in those of a very ‘right-brained’ temperament. This largely consists of making endless associations between random events and attaching personal ‘spiritual’ significance to them.
What’s left is the third, and youngest, of the major traditions: science, and particularly reductionist science. Many scientists and science advocates hold strong beliefs about the superiority of the approach, as exemplified by British philosopher Bertrand Russell’s famous statement: “Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.”14 His imperious and limited view of what is possible discounted all that humankind had discovered by other means over the tens of thousands of years before the scientific method was adopted. When science encompasses a set of rigid practices – hypothesis, experiment, data, evidence, modified hypothesis, theory, prediction, explanation and so on, and excludes other methods of knowing – it can have the tang of fundamentalism about it, leading some to claim that it is itself a religion of sorts, with adherents tending to believe that the Universe is impersonal and has no deep significance, and that, ultimately, all living things are just a chance production of inanimate matter born out of chaos.15
This worldview has left many, such as the American ‘longshoreman philosopher’ and author of The True Believer, Eric Hoffer, aghast. They observe that many intellectuals throughout the 20th century had done all in their power to denude the human entity of its uniqueness.
Reductionists, because of how and where they focus their attention, easily get seduced into the simplistic belief that complex systems can be completely understood in terms of their components; so they try to break everything down into its smallest parts to understand how things work. They are behaving like the little boy who wanted to understand how a fly could fly. He ripped off its six legs, its wings and antennae one by one, then separated the thorax from the abdomen. But he remained puzzled: where had the fly gone? He had yet to learn that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Not all scientists are reductionists: the great scientific minds nearly always aren’t. But the methodological reductionist approach to scientific investigation is not just borderline pedestrian; it can be dangerous. The American-born David Bohm, considered one of the best quantum physicists of all time, recognised this. He said:
Bohm is spot on. Yet hard-nosed secular scientists still noisily claim that there is nothing exceptional about human life. In his Astonishing Hypothesis, Francis Crick, co-discoverer of DNA’s molecular structure, put it like this: “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased it: ‘You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.’”17 In other words, our sense of self is just an epiphenomenon of a cold, mindless Universe.
The trickle-down effect of this miserable worldview is seen all around us, from the largely uninspiring university education young people receive, to tedious science articles spewing out more and more statistics of less and less consequence, to TV’s dumbed-down ‘science as entertainment’ programmes. Self-styled progressive thinkers who cling to the position that humanity is unexceptional as an unquestioned truth contemptuously dismiss those who suggest they might be wrong.
With the ability to reason thus debilitated, they become intellectually impotent, as the journalist Bryan Appleyard described in his book, Understanding the Present: “Unable to create a solidity for himself, liberal man lapses into a form of spiritual fatigue, a state of apathy in which he decides such wider, grander questions are hardly worth addressing. The symptoms of this lethargy are all about us. The pessimism, anguish, skepticism and despair of so much of twentieth-century art and literature are expressions of the fact that there is nothing ‘big’ worth talking about anymore, there is no meaning to be elucidated.”18
Scientism has admittedly generated many significant material benefits, in medicine, engineering and technology. And it has found new ways to entertain us and deluge us with avalanches of fact and opinion – infinitely more so than in any previous age, thanks to the Internet. But the more information we amass, the less relevant it all seems to our lives as we live them.
It is because it attaches no significance to our lives that scientism cannot lift the spirit: it fails completely to address human yearnings for answers to questions about meaning and destiny, and is incapable of leading us to a deeper relationship with reality.
As a result, it doesn’t provide us with worthwhile reasons to ask more of ourselves. This is not, after all, just an issue about meaning. Our physical survival as a species is at stake. It seems clear to us that the three means of enquiring into how humanity fits in to the universal scheme have failed to bring about the appropriate changes in human behaviour that will be necessary for preserving life on this planet. This is one reason why we have attempted to provide a more fulfilling vision, one that acknowledges and recognises the warmth of human affections and the driving need for relationships, and that satisfies the feeling we share with many others that human life is somehow significant.
Such a vision must also offer answers to the fundamental questions that arose in humanity after the brain’s big bang, once enough human beings had sufficiently evolved to access a level of reason and insight to ponder them. The need for answers to the big questions is not delusional, yet any that are offered must be compatible with our best scientific findings and somehow extend them. If human consciousness is significant, it must fit in with how the entire cosmos has evolved, because everything is connected.
Reductionists, by definition, do not attempt the big questions. To them it is pointless asking how consciousness and spirit, the fundamental animating properties of human life, are directly connected to the rest of the Universe because they view humanity as insignificant products of indifferent material processes. And, on the face of it, human life, in comparison with the almost unimaginable vastness of the cosmos, does appear insignificant, which in many people inevitably fosters a sense of unimportance. That thought, however, should be counterbalanced by an awareness that, whatever we have learnt about the immensity of the Universe and its laws, all the discoveries made about its nature, all the knowledge of its vastness and complexity, are contained and occur within the field of human consciousness. As this book unfolds, we hope to show that consciousness has a vital role to play in the existence of everything and that the quality of our relationship with it lies at the heart of physics.
Throughout much of recorded history, it was clearly often risky to investigate such questions openly, especially if the answers gained were deemed heretical by the prevailing religious and scientific orthodoxies. Not surprisingly, such endeavours and the discoveries they produced were communicated with great secrecy so that their brave proponents could avoid what were often painful, or lethal, consequences imposed by the establishment. This inevitably gave rise to the formation of secret societies which carefully transmitted their dangerous ‘occult’ knowledge to a select few who were deemed worthy and reliable.
There are now many excellent books that show the not inconsiderable influence of such clandestine groups throughout the pages of our cultural history right up to modern times.19,20 The Royal Society, for example, which today plays an important role as scientific advisor to the British government and acts as the UK’s science academy, began life as an extension of one such ‘hidden college’, through secret gatherings where the occult sciences were discussed by the intellectual and scientific luminaries of the age. (The word occult itself comes from the Latin word occultus, referring to ‘knowledge of the hidden’.)
“Mysticism,” wrote Evelyn Underhill in Practical Mysticism, “is the art of union with Reality. The mystic is a person who has attained that union in greater or less degree; or who aims at and believes in such attainment.”21 Historical study shows us that the nature of our relationship with the Universe and its importance was always understood by an enlightened few, those men and women who managed to tune themselves to it. Some of them, overtly or in secret, looked for other sincere seekers and taught them how to connect up to the greater reality. Genuine mystical groups were not concerned with indoctrinating people or encouraging cult behaviour but in education. There is a golden thread of information about this precious hidden activity that is traceable among historical records and the literature of
all cultures as far back as we can go. This esoteric, or ‘inner’, teaching has had many names: Tao, the Way, the Path, ancient wisdom, the Secret Doctrine, Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, Hermeticism, alchemy, the Hidden Tradition, Sufism.
Whatever it was called, it was the inner inspiration that formed the foundation of all major religions, though this was often unsuspected by the exoteric (‘outer’) functionaries who followed in their wake.
The ancient commonality of this perennial wisdom has been pointed out by many writers, including Max Gorman in his recent book, Jesus Was a Sufi: The lost dimension of Christianity, in which he quotes from one of St Augustine’s letters: “That which is called the Christian religion existed among the ancients, and never did not exist from the beginnings of the human race.” In parallel with this, Gorman also quotes the modern Sufi authority, Idries Shah, as saying that “Sufism has been known under many names, to all peoples, from the beginnings of human times.”22
The beginning of truly human times we take to be when the brain’s big bang occurred and our minds could escape the confines of space and time making direct perception of a massively larger context possible.
Esoteric knowledge, under whatever name, is never an ideology designed to make people believe or act in a certain way, but instead is “an art or science that can exert a beneficial influence on individuals and societies, in accordance with the needs of those individuals and societies”.23 As we shall see, there is reason to believe that when new knowledge is needed, individuals with the ability to access it become available and, sometimes with the help of others, use it to stabilise, benefit and maintain the wider human community. To students of history, the writer Robert Richardson notes, “a pattern of individual names and esoteric movements appears on the canvas of time like a sudden flash of light, then just as quickly vanishes. A group of disparate people – sometimes famous, sometimes obscure, sometimes solitary, sometimes united, but always engaged in some amorphous activity – spontaneously surfaces. Just as suddenly their traces evaporate, their true purpose and the scope of their actions never comprehended. Understanding their reality seems to be beyond our grasp. Further study may grudgingly yield information – but it is inconclusive, incomplete, perplexing.”24
Nevertheless, the result of this often-mysterious activity bears fruit over succeeding generations, as witnessed by the growth of civilisations, religions, social movements or cultural and scientific advances.
The almost mythic founders of the world’s early civilisations in Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and China are one indication that this has always happened, but it is easier to see it in the appearance of Taoism, Buddhism, the Hindu Vedas, Greek philosophy, the Torah, Gnosticism, Christianity, Islam, Catharism, Sikhism, the Baha’i Faith and so on because we have more written information about the actual individuals involved. Those religions for which we have knowledge of their beginnings arose because a person received inspiration – guidance exerted directly on their mind and soul – and went on to project it to others in ways that added deeper knowledge to the collective consciousness.
All the great innovators achieved what they did by reaching for the truth beyond material form. They stretched themselves to produce the great ideas, art, poetry and technological advances, often at the cost of great personal suffering. In medieval Europe, the romances and music of the troubadours, chivalry, courtly love, the Grail legend, the Pagan symbolism coded into the decoration of great Gothic cathedrals, and the work of craft guilds and so on, performed an evolutionary role, influenced by esoteric knowledge from as far away as India, Egypt and North Africa. It was a mingling of cultures that exposed Europe more explicitly to new ideas, art forms and technologies from further afield and, perhaps not surprisingly, to the teachings of the great mystics of non-Christian religions, predominantly Islam.
Ideas always travel well with goods and chattels, and Italy, surrounded by the Islamic lands of Anatolia (present-day Turkey), Palestine, North Africa and Moorish Spain, was at the hub of lively sea traffic in the late Middle Ages. And it was in Italy where a fresh cultural upsurge began: the opportunity was there. With the publication of his Divine Comedy, the poet Dante Alighieri broke the Roman Church’s imposition of Latin as the main means of learning.25 He wrote in the vernacular (the Florentine dialect, which is the origin of modern Italian) and thus started the process of bringing literature and learning to the general public in a way that had not been possible when it was kept within the confines of the Church.
The House of Medici, along with other great families, such as the Visconti and Sforza of Milan, the Este of Ferrara, and the Gonzaga of Mantua, all grew rich through commerce, and from the early 14th century became major patrons of the arts and sciences.26 By supporting the most creative people that appealed to them, they made possible the Italian Renaissance, which reawakened Europe to the profound Greek and Roman Pagan ideas that had their origin in ancient Egypt, and the richness of Moslem poetry, music, crafts, technology, science and philosophy. The great men of the Renaissance, including Giotto, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Botticelli, Giordano Bruno, Galileo, the philosopher Pico della Mirandola, and the architect Filippo Brunelleschi – all drew upon the achievements, mythology and Hermetic symbolism prevalent in the dynamic periods of Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Islamic culture.
The Golden Age of medieval Islam from the mid-8th century to the mid-13th century spanned a geographical area that stretched from Spain, across North Africa and Southwest Asia and into Central Asia. Its hallmark of a profound love of learning and investigation of the natural world produced not only artists, scholars, poets and philosophers, but also geographers, navigators and traders. Agriculture, architecture, law, science, engineering and all manner of crafts flourished at that time providing a secure ground for those connected to the esoteric stream to serve and teach humanity. But in the 1400s when this period of Islamic cultural greatness began to wane, the
esoteric teachings of Islamic mysticism, Sufism, had spread further afield, east to the Far East where it revitalised Buddhism, and west throughout Christian Europe. That the Italian Renaissance flourished, for example, was due in considerable part to the impact of Islamic learning and culture. Science and art were very much intermingled, exemplified by the work of polymaths such as da Vinci. Strange sages like the physician and botanist Paracelsus wandered from one European capital to another spreading new ideas and questioning established beliefs. And inspirational literature woke people up.
In England, Geoffrey Chaucer’s writings, borrowing as they do stories from Rumi, Fariduddin Attar – the Persian poet whose masterwork was the allegorical Conference of the Birds – and others, were a channel for esoteric ideas. Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, a compilation of chivalric tales about the legendary King Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot and the Knights of the Round Table, also contributed to the civilising process. As of course did the work of Shakespeare, whose plays are rich in Sufi tales and aphorisms indicating that he, or whoever wrote his plays, was also connected to a source of knowledge beyond the reach of institutionalised Christian teaching. And John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, incorporated Pagan and classical Greek references within its Christian mythology.
The dynamic impulse that vitalised Europe also stimulated the great minds that founded our scientific outlook: along with Galileo, a group that included Roger Bacon, Copernicus, Kepler, William Gilbert, Leibniz and the physicist, mathematician, astronomer, natural philosopher, alchemist and theologian Isaac Newton. All these scientific luminaries contemplated Hermetic and Sufi concepts, as did the German poet and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, widely considered as one of the most important thinkers in Western culture. Goethe was closely associated with the Enlightenment, a movement that encouraged critical questioning of traditional institutions, customs and morals, and a strong belief in the power of rationality and science. His work spanned the fields of poetry, drama, literature, theology, philosophy, and science. He was also a freemason.
Freemasonry, whose mysterious origins are still hotly debated, was a secret brotherhood bound together by ideals of fraternity, equality, tolerance and reason. It undoubtedly played an important role in liberalising thinking in Europe and America. It was a group of freemasons, members of a hidden college, who founded the Royal Society, for example, and many famous leaders of the Enlightenment in Europe and the fledgling United States were also members, including Montesquieu, Voltaire, Pope, Horace Walpole, Christopher Wren, John Locke, Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, Robert Walpole, Mozart, Frederick the Great, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington.27 Throughout these centuries all these creative, productive and influential people strove to connect to a greater reality and did so by drawing inspiration from the largely hidden river of wisdom that has nourished humanity for thousands of years.
This of course leaves open a question: where did this knowledge come from in the first place? This is essentially the same question as that which is now seen as the major stumbling block that is holding up progress in physics and biology: how did the information for matter to form and life to arise come about? As we shall see, many scientists now realise that it has to be solved before they can make major theoretical advances in their various disciplines.
As this book unfolds, our attempt to solve this issue in a scientifically acceptable way will become apparent.
It is currently unfashionable in the secular political, scientific and educational communities to consider that esoteric wisdom traditions might have something to contribute to human understanding. The remarkable artistic, philosophical, social and technological achievements that stemmed from them, and their ability to raise human aspirations and give meaning to people’s lives, tend to be glossed over or ignored. Nevertheless, like Theseus following the thread out of the dark labyrinth, this book’s journey will hold on to this wisdom theme, for we believe it could help free humanity from the limitations of conditioned thinking – something that is needed now more than ever. Our journey will also allow key human givens organising ideas to
unfold in greater depth so that they might shine a revealing new light on the great questions of human and universal existence in a way that is acceptable to scientists as well as the spiritually inclined.
Whatever inspires the next stage of human evolution cannot be impersonal. It must not only make human beings feel truly at home in the physical Universe but also show how our lives are significant in relationship to the whole. For science to have a meaningful place in our lives it should hold out a role for what is most valuable and significant to us all: relationships, serving others and love. If these aspects of life don’t fit into the overall pattern, then science is not properly pursuing the questions it needs to answer.
Among all the sciences, we must give most credit to physicists, who have recognised that to make further progress they have to reconcile human consciousness with the laws of physics. Indeed, some even suspect that the presence of human beings in the Universe may be essential. For instance, Martin Rees, the cosmologist and president of the Royal Society, expressing this view, said: “In the beginning there were only probabilities. The Universe could only come into existence if someone observed it. It does not matter that the observers turned up several billion years later. The Universe exists because we are aware of it.”28 If Rees is right, something odd is certainly going on. Freeman Dyson, another physicist, wrote that, “As we look out into the Universe and identify the many accidents of physics and astronomy that have worked together for our benefit, it almost seems as if the Universe must in some sense have known we were coming.” 29
The world population today has nearly reached 7 billion and continues to rise. That’s about 3,000 times more people than were on Earth just 2,000 years ago. More than half of us live in urban areas: vast cities, many containing tens of millions.30 The undoubted benefits of city life – such as economies of scale, political freedom, and social and technological innovation – come with a heavy toll because supplying these huge conglomerations of people means our beautiful planet is being seriously overgrazed and polluted. The essence of our ecological crisis is that we are rapidly using up Earth’s finite resources.
Whatever form scientific progress takes, and whoever the creative minds are that will inspire it, Nature requires this problem to be addressed. This is a matter of good housekeeping – and we must assume the house is not beyond repair.
The questions arising over our continuing survival are forcing us to resolve the ecological and psychological crisis we have created over the last 8,000 years or so. The pressure will increase until a new evolutionary development occurs that stabilises our species’ consciousness. The pioneering American psychologist Robert Ornstein put this very well: “Our biological evolution is, for all practical purposes, at its end. There will be no further biological evolution without human ‘conscious evolution’. And this may not happen without first we have an understanding of what our consciousness is, what it was originally designed to do, and where the points of possible change may be.”31
In Godhead: The brain’s big bang we cover many topics, but ultimately they boil down to investigating one question: why do we exist? In this curtain-raiser to our exploration of the evolution of creativity, mental illness and our connection to reality, it seems apposite to quote from the end of Stephen Hawking’s bestseller, A Brief History of Time:32 “If we do discover a complete theory it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists, then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we in the Universe exist. If we find the answer to that it will be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we should
know the mind of God.”*
*In his latest book, The Grand Design, Hawking embraces string theory and says that he no longer sees the need for a ‘God hypothesis’ to account for the Universe. We feel, however, that he has taken a retrograde step and the above quotation was prescient and is apposite for our theme. We can all take part in a meaningful discussion on the question of why it is that we exist without needing to tie ourselves up in knots with ‘string’.
REFERENCES in this article are included in the book.