Part III: Living With Limitations

7. Being Human: What are Minds For?

The human brain is the most complex thing that we know of within our own world. Perhaps it is the most complex thing in the universe! Why have we as a species been blessed with such a gift? What is it for?

In this day and age, we live surrounded by complex machines called computers, which have tremendous power, and also profound limits. A computer can solve mathematical problems much faster than a human. Chess games and logic puzzles are also seemingly simple for a computer to handle. But a computer works from the basic design of a program, which was written and installed by a human. Its performance is limited to the capabilities of that program, and although it can "evolve" within the program, it cannot match the creative capacity of the human brain. Proponents of artificial intelligence claim that computers will be able to "think" and create independently of human intervention very soon. Writers like Aldous Huxley and Isaac Asimov have pondered what might become of human civilization if machines were to become capable of thought. There have been many science-fiction movies which have also explored the implications of such advances. Will we one day find ourselves slaves to the technology we have unleashed?

In the 1970's, it was thought that computers would never be needed for individual use. It was also believed that computers would get bigger and more expensive as technology advanced. Of course we know today that exactly the reverse is true. The ideas of the past were limited to what was known at the time. Indeed, the question of limits seems to be important in discussing these issues. Some believe that the mind is not limited except by the constraints of life and time itself. Consider art: is it limited in scope? Has it all been done before, leaving very little that is "new" or "revolutionary"? Can a computer paint a picture, or sculpt a statue? Is this a defining aspect of our humanity? The human brain certainly is responsible for artistic creation, and there seems to be no limit to imagination (we can imagine alien worlds and impossible situations, even if they can never be seen because of the limits within physics). How very amazing we human beings seem to be; are we unique in the universe?

Is the universe naturally symmetric, or do our brains simply look for certain types of symmetry which then become our reality? Why are we symmetric beings? Would an asymmetric intelligent being find a different looking universe here, based on asymmetrical laws of a very different physics? Think about mathematics, which is "pure" and beautiful because of its symmetry. Is mathematics a universal truth? Before you answer, it is useful to consider again the idea of models, and how well they represent reality. Think about the fact that we can say, "What a beautiful red sunset." This statement is NOT the same thing as the sunset itself. It is a symbolic representation of the sunset in our limited language. Mathematics is seen by some as yet another language that simply describes the universe around us. Is it part of our symbolic language, a construct of our complex human minds? In answer to the question of asymmetrical beings, is it possible that they would find the universe distasteful or ugly, because it is symmetric? Would they find laws to fit their asymmetric tastes? Our language and experiences within a symmetric world have necessarily influenced our interpretation of the universe. Is that what our minds are for: to describe the beauty and symmetry of the universe and its wonders? It is a question worth debating, but it is doubtful that we will ever discover the "answer"...

8. Considering Consciousness

If it is not easy to figure out what the mind is for, perhaps we could discuss what it does. Consciousness seems to arise in the mind, and defining it has been the riddle of philosophers and scientists alike for centuries. Religious thought has also attempted to explain the emergence of our consciousness; it has been used as a way to "distinguish" humans from plants and animals. Of course, animals are in their own way conscious, but it is presumed that they do not seek answers regarding the nature of consciousness as we do; nor do they contemplate how best to live their lives. For humans, it seems, there are many puzzling issues and questions that we would like to have resolved. Let us begin by discussing what consciousness is by examining models, which of course cannot convey the true nature of consciousness, but are only representations...

Dualistic Models of Consciousness

These models begin with the assumption that mind and matter are essentially different kinds of essences, each with its own laws and manner of existence. There are three classes of dualistic models:

  1. Epiphenomenalism states that matter is the real substance of the world. "Matter is master; mind is slave."
  2. Animism takes the opposite point of view. It assumes that an invisible spiritual cause lies behind every material motion.
  3. Interactionalism is an evenhanded form of dualism, which asserts that mind and matter mutually influence each other.

Other models of consciousness, which may be called monistic, present different views:

  1. Materialism essentially says that matter is all that there is in the universe. Mind has no specific status; it is just an attribute of matter.
  2. Reductive Materialism states that any mechanical motion results in some kind of inner experience. All particles are seen to possess an "inner life," and even atoms are considered conscious. Reductive Materialism resembles Animism, but here consciousness is a purely mechanical property that we lack the tools to measure.
  3. Emergent Materialism sees consciousness as a wholly mechanical property of matter, but it is only possessed by complex systems like the human mind.
  4. Idealism is another model which says that mind is the fundamental substance of the world. Experience is mental in character. The existence of inner experience is undeniable, but to an idealist the existence of an external world is not certain. The world looks like a dream state. Idealism suggests developing a mental science based on manipulation and observation of states of consciousness, rather than states of matter.
  5. Neutral Monism posits the existence of a single substance possessing both mental and physical attributes. An analogy might be the electromagnetic field, as described by Maxwell, or light.

These models of the mind also form core assumptions of the world's great religions:


Judaism, Christianity, and Islam consider the human soul to be separate from the body. The body is seen as inferior to the soul, and is often portrayed as "evil."


Materialism is a part of the scientific enterprise. Atheistic materialism is the lack of a belief in God, soul, and afterlife

Neutral Monism:

Taoism believes the world consists of one substance, called Tao (meaning The Way). Mind, matter, the self, and external objects are seen as incomplete aspects of the single Great Way, and are used to discover the presence of this Way.


Idealism is the foundation of Hinduism and Buddhism. The world is viewed as an illusion. Ultimate reality is mental, called Braman in Hinduism. Consciousness in Buddhism is called Big Mind. The Vedic Scriptures say that the vibration of pure universal consciousness produced the soundless sound of OM. This created the five elements and developed further into our world. Since everything derives from this vibration, everything is considered conscious. Everything is connected through Braman, or God, the invisible life energy, which is transcendent.

From a phenomenological point of view, consciousness begins with our own experiences in the world. From this, all other activities are possible, including science. Like the soundless sound, OM, consciousness comes from nowhere. At times it is focused, and yet it may also be mindless, as our own breathing; constant and present, but not within the sphere of our immediate attention.

Consciousness is also not limited to human beings, as stated earlier in the chapter. All creatures are aware. We are certainly able to recognize consciousness or awareness in a dog or a cat, for example, in the way they respond to us and to each other. Some people claim that animals have no form of consciousness, only an "awareness." But how can we distinguish between the two? It may not be possible to prove or disprove whether animals have consciousness, except through analogy with ourselves. In fact, this is the only method by which we can infer that other HUMANS have consciousness! (For an elaborate discussion, see the book entitled The Elemental Mind.)

There was once a theory, perpetuated in scientific circles by men like Rene Descartes, that animals were like machines, and did not possess consciousness or a soul. Animals suffered many cruelties because of such notions, but fortunately things have changed. St. Thomas Aquinas was a great voice for animals in his time, and he and others helped to correct society's view of animals as unfeeling, "clockwork" organisms. Many people now own pets who become part of the family and are almost treated like children. Vegetarianism is on the rise today, in part because more people realize that animals are indeed conscious, feeling beings. Here is an interesting question to consider: are any other beings (besides humans and animals) conscious? What about trees and other plants? Are stones aware, perhaps in a way that we are not able to understand? Is consciousness a special gift reserved for more "advanced" organisms? Or might every tiny protozoan possess some form of inner awareness? Would we look at our world differently if we believed these things were true?

Yoga and meditative practices are ways to explore and to experience "deeper" states of consciousness. Through them, many people realize the inner connection to self, which is simultaneously a connection to the outer self. This "greater connection" is thought to be a greater awareness, and beginning meditative practices is often seen as a way to journey toward an understanding of Ultimate Reality. From a mystic point of view, this Reality is God, or the Oneness of the Universe.

How can we "test" the experience of this Reality, as attained through meditation? In science, reproducible and reliable results must be shown conclusively before a theory is accepted. So how can we "prove" our consciousness and awareness really exists? The dualistic nature of light could be considered as an analogy, or a "yoga of science." The photoelectric effect and interferometry are apparently self-contradicting results of two different methods of inquiry into a single phenomenon. The uncertainty of quantum phenomena, and our inability to predict their effects, are also interesting aspects of science. They are as full of mystery as the workings of our own consciousness. When we lose our ability to predict and prove, we become unsure. We are compelled to ask ourselves, "Is it real?" Is it possible to question the existence of our own consciousness simply because we cannot prove it?

9. Deep Limits

As we explore more deeply and discover more wonders in the universe, it is necessary to keep in mind the fact that we have limitations. This perspective will help us remember that we as human beings are a part of the universe, not somehow placed "above it" in a position of omnipotence and omniscience. And we sometimes have difficulty in accepting our limits. Many philosophers and scientists have written about their experiences and understandings about limitations; often the acceptance of limitation can bring a sense of freedom, as we become more "centered" and grounded in our knowledge of ourselves as part of a whole. And so it may be instructive to examine some thoughts about limits, which may help to expand our understanding through a different point of view.

There are three theories of the universe worth considering here, since each one presents a different view of our limited human ability to predict:

1.) The universe is complete and understandable through mathematics, although we do not yet understand completely. Such a universe is predictive, which leads to a conflict with the idea of free will. Are all of our "choices" and decisions already laid out before us? What about the "random events" of evolution? Are all of the happenings of the universe predetermined, waiting to be described by mathematics?

2.) The universe is incomplete, and we will never understand it through mathematics. Explain this one to all of the theoretical physicists out there! To accept this theory unconditionally is tantamount to admitting that the labors of mathematicians and scientists are in vain. Could all of our advances and discoveries in mathematics and physics really be that futile? On the contrary, most people believe that there is some worth in studying the universe through mathematics, and that the pursuit of science is not destined to end up in a blind alley universe...

3.) The universe is complete, but not completely understandable through mathematics. This theory is perhaps the most palatable, from the scientific point of view. Goedel's Theorem is instructive here, because he was the first to clearly show that we cannot prove everything in mathematics; indeed, the very axioms upon which the foundations of mathematics are built cannot be proven. For example, a line is described as a set of points in space, but can we describe what the points are made up of? This does not undermine our faith in mathematics, but it does force us to realize our limits as imperfect human beings.

In an ancient religious myth, it is said that a man holds up the Earth. What does the man stand upon? He stands upon a great elephant, who in turn is supported by a giant turtle. What does the turtle stand upon? In the words of one respected religious scholar, "It's turtles all the way down." Again we see the limits of our knowledge, which have been acknowledged in stories like this, told throughout the history of our civilization. Religions of the world teach us that there is a Great Other, whether it is called God or Buddha or the Tao, which we can never know with our finite minds. We must learn to accept our limits. The axioms or precepts of the universe cannot be proven using our limited tools and resources, no matter how hard we try. Maybe some mysteries are better left for the turtles to figure out...

Discussing Limits

The story of humanity is fraught with struggles, strife, and the perpetual hope of our species. Religion and science have encouraged us in our advances, and have brought us face to face with our limitations. One student in the Cosmology class wrote a summary called "Deep Limits," which discusses our finite knowledge from a perspective which leans toward a profound love and respect for God. From a religious point of view, this summary provides an interesting and beautiful reflection of the largely scientific theories we have been discussing thus far:

"Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made." Romans 1:20

The Limits of Reason

"We go as far as we can and smack right into God." (P. Brockelman) In reading scientific and theological texts which argue about the existence of God, it is often surprising how little is said with so many words. The use of obscure language, particularly on such an intimate and integral subject as the nature and existence of what we have called God, seems to presuppose the validity of collective and individual experience. Often that experience is "face to face," or in the moment. It seems that the more we talk about the God of religion, the more obvious it becomes that we do not know what we are talking about. Regardless of what we think we know or do not know about this God, this force, this spirit or ultimate reality behind the Big Bang, we may find that through signs and wonders, moments of ecstasy and revelation; through the ordinary experience of ordinary things--through living life--including what we find through the microscope and the telescope, we experience and know all that we will ever know about God.

Limits of Science

In humanity's apparent desire to know the face of God more intimately (and hopefully come out with a balanced, numerical law--something that really adds up), we have looked behind the form of things, what Goethe called "looking behind the mirror." We have looked into composition and origins only to find that there is something unquantifiable. we cannot create or quantify the breath of life. We can copy and know its form, we can imitate it, but there are limits beyond which science cannot go. We cannot summon life or bring back the dead. For now, we cannot find the beginning of the beginning of the cosmos, though we look back through time itself. We can only go so far; we have reached a barrier--a limit beyond which our science cannot take us.

Limits of Experience and Understanding

We reach "places" in thought and imagination which are beyond the limits of our ability to experience. These places have a commonality. We cannot know the "something" or "no-thing" that exists within love, birth, or death. The creative force that calls all life and form into being, and the evidence all around us and within us of a sublime order both "feel like" the same unknowable force or ultimate reality that established the universe. We experience this sense of commonality more than we realize. Our proof is experiential, sometimes an inner knowing experienced through individual revelation. Sometimes we feel it through mystic literature or meditation. This "something" or "no-thing" that began the Big Bang could have created many other universes that we do not know about. This "whatchamacallit" is beyond the limits of our understanding. There is a line from a poem that says, "Who has seen the wind?" We cannot see the wind, but we can see the results of its power. Likewise, we cannot see ultimate reality, but we feel that we are a part of it. At the limits of our human understanding these experiences we feel awe, wonder, and "mystery."

Limits of Morality

Science does not tell us how to behave, or give us our rules of morality and our values. And yet science is raising all sorts of value questions because of its tremendous power. Should we clone, or not? Is genetic engineering ethical, and should we apply it to human babies? Should life be saved at any cost? It would be simple if the rules of morality clearly pointed toward an answer, but again we are faced with limitation. How ought we to live?


"Wherever substance is at all, the whole of substance must be; and because substance is omnipresent, the whole of universal substance must be present at every point in space at the same time." (Butterworth, Spiritual Economics)

Mystery and faith are encountered at the edge of all limits. We stay open, focused; take the leap of faith and tap into the bountiful substance that is God, or ultimate reality. All of the arts open us up to feel this wonder and thus experience God: the art of science, the art of the written word, the art of living through human experience--all provide us with meaning, and are yogic mantras that keep us open to divine possibility; the divine, bountiful substance of life.

These thoughts are worth considering as we peer into the depths of the universe, struggling to find the answers to fundamental questions. Why is there something, and not nothing?

(Summary by Stephanie Burns)