The Valley of Multiple Realities, the sixth that you need to cross, is filled with an almost impenetrable fog. The dense mist blocks your view, so vision is of little use. Sound carries further, but the mysterious sounds you hear are hard to interpret. You are disoriented as you try to progress, following what may be traces of a path, and feeling your way forward. The only certainty is the earth beneath your feet, the physical reality that you are standing on. And that is the challenge of this valley, trying to understand reality, your own and that of the world around you and beyond you.
The problems of the world seem very real, as your experience of the lower valleys has shown. You can understand their origins and see their effects. They are important causes of human suffering, of life and death. You have your own experience of reality. You know when you were born. You are alive. Your body seems very real to you. Other people around you also appear real; you can talk and play, love and fight with them. But their reality is less certain than your own. Do you really know what they think and feel? What if they were just the creation of your imagination like in a dream, a vision or delusion, or perhaps even a ghost or spirit? What about virtual realities, as in films or video games? They are creations of others, and their existence is recreated in your imagination and may be preserved in your memory. What is reality?
This is why this valley is known for its dense mist. You cannot
see far without a guide. It is a wide valley with many
meandering streams and trails that cross back and forth, for the
question of human reality is one that has troubled the greatest
philosophers, mystics and scientists of all ages and epochs.
This is one of those questions for which there is no definitive
answer, but one that you must answer for yourself in a way that
satisfies you and that gives an orientation to your life. It
touches on questions like:
To find your way through this valley, you will need to draw on the two great knowledge systems that are science and religion, as each sheds light on this question from different angles, not contradictory but complementary. In fact, as you will see, they are not so far from each other in many ways. This valley starts with the reality around you, before coming back later to the reality within you.
What does Science Say about Reality?
At a superficial level, reality seems self-evident. Standing on the valley floor, the ground is quite solid. In fact, you take this reality so much for granted that if you experience an earthquake you may be traumatised because your faith in the solidity of the earth is shaken. If you are sitting in a chair or on a bench reading this, it seems quite real because it is holding you up. How is it possible to doubt material reality? But how can you prove that it is real? Is there objective proof that is the same for everyone? Is your own experience objective or subjective? We know that the mind can play tricks on us, as with mirages or optical illusions. How do we know that we are not just an avatar in some programmer's virtual world? Can our senses be trusted? Is anything real? Can we define reality? Can science lift the fog?
Suppose you are a scientist setting out to define reality.104 You might start with yourself. You have a human body that eats, drinks, sleeps, and is reading this right now. It was born, grew up, will age and finally die. You were not real before your conception, although you originated in another reality, your mother's womb, and not from nothingness, and you will no longer exist as a physical body after your death and the dispersal of your molecules. Science gives you concrete tools to define your physical reality. However you might have more difficulty proving that your consciousness is real, your thoughts and feeling that are emergent properties of your living body. And after your death, are the memories that others have of you real, and pictures of you, recordings of your voice, things that you made or wrote? Already at this level, what is real is not so clear.
Next take the chemical perspective on reality. There are a limited number of chemical elements or atoms that combine in various ways to make molecules that make matter in all its various forms. For an atom, the number of protons and neutrons in the nucleus and the number and position of electrons spinning around the nucleus determine to which chemical element it belongs, and how it combines into molecules, but these subatomic particles are very tiny, and most of each atom is empty space. Chemical reality is very different from what you experience.
What about reality in terms of physics, the dimension of reality that physicists study? Einstein showed that energy and matter are part of the same reality and can be converted from one into the other. Physicists have found all sorts of subatomic "particles", including both matter and antimatter that annihilate if they meet, and they see evidence of what they call dark matter and dark energy making up 96% of the universe without knowing what it is. Is this reality, or just theory because it has not yet been proven?
At the quantum level, reality is even more unreal. According to the uncertainty principle, quantum entities can be in superpositions of two states at once, or two places at once, and are only probabilities until they are observed or measured by instruments that we make. Are they only real when they are observed? Is the reality in the quantum entity or the instrument that observes it? Quantum entities are believed to pop into and out of nothingness all the time. They may be entangled so that observing one determines the state of the other even though they are far away and no signal could possibly pass between them.
As instruments become more powerful, our discoveries of what is real become smaller and smaller, far away from what we normally experience as reality. There are scientists who believe there are more than the three dimensions of space and one of time, perhaps ten, with the others rolled up. Some say that the ultimate reality is vibrating strings of energy that make up everything else. Others suggest that time might be able to go backwards as well as forwards. Cosmologists consider that we may be in only one of an infinite number of parallel universes that we shall never be able to observe. Scientists accept, explore and argue about these things as part of reality because they can be expressed mathematically, or account for certain observations, and hopefully experiments can be designed to explore their properties.
Mathematics is in fact the next level that science considers as real. It is a language that can express much that we know about the world. Mathematical formulae work. Numbers can be coordinates that tell where something is in space and in time. They can be organized into arrays of sets. At the same time, mathematics is a pure abstraction. Do numbers exist as a physical reality? Mathematicians devote their lives to exploring many forms of mathematics, proving that certain relationships do or cannot exist, and admiring the beauty of mathematical expressions. Our society would be much poorer if we denied the reality of mathematics, even if it is beyond all tangible form. At the same time, is reality confined only to those things that can be proven mathematically?
Science can easily fall into the trap of reductionist thinking, breaking everything down into smaller and smaller entities, but losing sight of the properties of the whole. Systems science explores the emergent properties when everything is put back together, and which often cannot be predicted from knowledge of the parts. Plato already considered things that exist independently of matter or mental entities, or concepts and ideas that exist only in minds. Either what is fundamental is not material, or nothing at all is fundamental. What then should be considered a scientific proof that something is real? Do we limit ourselves to only those things that can be observed and measured with instruments, or described with mathematics?
One recent attempt to explore scientific definitions of reality identified the following:105
1. Reality is everything that exists without us, untouched by human desires and intentions. In this case, languages, wars, and financial crises do not exist.
2. Reality is those fundamental things that everything else depends on: molecules made of atoms which are made of electrons and a nucleus. And the nucleus is made of protons and neutrons which are made of quantum entities (and the other 96% that we do not know like dark matter, dark energy, gravity) which are made of some still unknown foundation. In this case, higher level entities like Mount Everest do not exist. As Heisenberg the famous physicist said: "the ontology of materialism rested upon the illusion that the kind of existence, the direct actuality of the world around us, can be extrapolated into the atomic range. This extrapolation, however, is impossible.... Atoms are not things."106
3. Everything is reduced to mathematical reality. The universe is made of mathematics. But what is mathematics made of? The empty set 0=0, so nesting nothingness produces all mathematics. It does not require a physical origin or form, or space or time. Quantum particles are wave functions. As Galileo said: the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics.107
4. Beyond mathematics, it is possible to consider information processing as the root of everything. Quantum information can spontaneously come into being. Interactions between particles produce binary answers, so the universe can be considered a quantum computer. The universe is ultimately information, held at boundaries or projected like a hologram.108
5. Does consciousness create reality? If nothing is real until it is observed or measured, the conscious mind selects quantum possibilities, making them real. It has been suggested that the emergence of a conscious mind created our universe from the multiverses.109
6. If we know that something is real, what do we know? What do we mean by "know"? Our senses can deceive us. Plato said knowledge is justified true belief. For Descartes, his only certainty was that there is something that is doubting everything; thus one's own consciousness is all that there is. For the dualists, mind and matter are distinct, while in panpsychism, all matter has mental properties. Are definitions of reality just circular reasoning of statements about perceptions and statements about statements?.110
7. With modern technology we can create all sorts of artificial worlds. If we can simulate reality, are we the basement level of reality, or are we in someone else's simulation? How do we know?111
We can in fact follow the above inventory of realities to its logical conclusion. With increasing abstractions from quantum physics to mathematics to information and consciousness, the logical next step would be the ultimate reality of perfect knowledge and perfect consciousness, encompassing all the other levels as less-than-perfect projections of that ultimate reality. Conversely, everything that exists at lower levels must find its perfect expression at this ultimate level. Since we are ourselves imperfect, we have to admit that we can never know or understand such perfection, which would be by definition unknowable by anything below its own level. This would bring an admirable dose of humility to the scientific enterprise, which too often assumes that it will ultimately explain everything and discover all truth. Human knowledge, including science, is inherently imperfect. We can continue indefinitely to explore the unknown and find rational explanations for everything in the universe, getting closer to that perfection without ever reaching it.
This is in fact a scientific truth. No sequence of finite objects can more than roughly approximate an infinite one. Anything short of infinity itself comes nowhere near describing infinity. It follows, then, that ultimate perfection (infinity) is by definition beyond the reach of our finite understanding. In the debate between those who think nature is fundamentally mysterious and those who think that it is fundamentally intelligible,112 both are right. The physical world described by science is fundamentally intelligible, but science itself leads us to acknowledge that our understanding cannot extend beyond a certain limit to encompass absolute perfection. We can acknowledge rationally that there must be absolute perfection without being able to understand it. If this valley is to bring you wisdom, then this is the first step.
Science and Religion
The second challenge in this valley is to find the harmony between science and religion. In Western civilization, science and religion have often been in conflict. Galileo's scientific observations of the solar system conflicted with church dogma. Intellectuals like Voltaire were highly critical of religion as expressed in a church out of touch with its times. Nineteenth century France saw the separation of church and state and the establishment of a secular public school system. Today there are scientists who call for the abolition of religion as a medieval superstition dangerous to society, while on the other hand fundamentalist religious movements attack scientific efforts like vaccinating children against polio, or the teaching of evolution in schools.
But history also shows times when religion and science worked together. Islamic civilization preserved scientific knowledge from antiquity, created Arabic numerals and algebra, and made significant advances in astronomy and medicine. It was from the great Islamic civilization that scientific knowledge returned to Europe during the Renaissance. There is no inherent contradiction between science and religion.
A major part of the fault lies with religions which, though inspired in origin, accumulate over time the same faults as all other human institutions, with irrational beliefs, narrow interpretations and dogmas, a literal understanding of metaphorical texts, and clergies and institutions building and then clinging to power. The social teachings of a religion are also adapted to the time and place of their original foundation, and may no longer correspond to the needs of an evolving society.
Religions were never intended to be permanent; they have all prophesied a time of return and renewal. When the form becomes more important that the substance and spirit, it is time for religious renewal. In fact, from an evolutionary perspective, all the major religions can be seen as one religion, part of a common process of the spiritual education of humanity.
Religions, with the values they bring and the laws they establish, could be compared to the basic operating system of a computer, determining the rules by which all the operations and calculations take place and how they interact. As computer systems evolve and become more complex, it becomes necessary to update the operating system, or else it will hold back further improvements.
Religion in this larger sense, freed of its sectarian trappings, is a necessary complement to science. Science, for all its accomplishments, takes no moral or ethical position. A scientific discovery can be used for good (nuclear medicine) or evil (nuclear weapons). Science serves totalitarian states as well as democracies. Science needs a moral and ethical complement to avoid falling into a narrow materialism, and religion and spirituality can provide that. Religion without the support of the rational tools of science too easily falls into superstition. Both are approaches to the same ultimate truth, and thus have no inherent contradiction. Science helps us to understand and benefit from our material existence, while religion gives us a purpose in life and shows us how to use science for our benefit. Together they can build an ever-advancing civilization. You should feel free to rely on both on your journey through life.
The Limits of Science
One of the barriers that you will come upon in the mists of this valley is the wall limiting the reach of science and questioning what science can establish as real. One scientist, considering another inflationary cosmologist's mathematical description of infinite parallel universes as the ultimate demonstration of reality, asked if this was still science or veering towards something akin to religion, with uninhibited scientific speculation requiring the same leap of faith as believing in a creator. Science involves both speculation about what is rational or possible, and skepticism about what is scientifically proven or established as the best explanation available.113 This raises the question about the boundary between science and other domains of human experience. What do we do with questions that cannot be proven with material data or experimentation? Do we deny the reality of everything that is beyond the reach of science?
Rather than dogmatically limiting reality to only those areas where scientific experimentation can produce material proofs, the tools of rational thought at the heart of science can also illuminate other less tangible domains of human reality. We need, however, to identify other standards of proof, perhaps more abstract or more personal than those of science, but nevertheless within the scope of human reality and rational thought. A purely materialist perspective excludes too much that is real and important in human experience. As is apparent in the efforts of science to define reality described above, there is almost always a leap of faith or belief that accompanies the rational intellectual process, or that underlies the circular reasoning, as Plato acknowledged.
There are two extremes you need to avoid: on the one hand, a definition of scientific knowledge that is limited to material reality and denies anything beyond the human being as a biological entity with only material needs to be satisfied to be happy; and on the other hand, irrational speculations or imaginary constructs of "reality" that fall in the domain of superstition. Both can be equally destructive to the fulfilment of your human potential, leaving you too limited in what you try to do with your life.
What then, are some of the domains of human reality that escape from material proofs? Obviously there is what could be called your intellectual reality, the world of ideas and thoughts, of theories and philosophies, of world views and representations of what you experience. There is also your emotional reality, how you feel about things that resonate with you at some deep level, that can be defined as beauty, love, empathy, and compassion.
Those things called art, whether literature and poetry, painting and sculpture, music, theatre, dance, and other components of culture, usually combine both intellectual and emotional dimensions and communicate with you at multiple levels. These are clearly real, if not universal. Different people react to them in different ways depending on experience, upbringing and personal preference. These things are not beyond rational proof. You can explore how they communicate to you, and why you respond the way you do to them. People can be classified by their response in different ways, say as lovers of classical music as opposed to heavy metal.
Some things elevate you and bring out your best qualities, while others play on your animal emotions and can inspire violence or aggression. However the scientific method does not tell everything about them. A mathematical proof can be beautiful even if it says nothing about material reality. The Mona Lisa's expression speaks to each viewer at some deep level beyond the paint on canvas.
It is the third level of human reality, spiritual reality, that is the most difficult to define, and that challenges those with a more materialistic perspective. On the one hand, most people in the world belong to some kind of religious or spiritual tradition and would never question the existence of their spiritual reality. On the other hand, many scientists for whom material proof is an absolute requirement, and others who have rejected a religious tradition as irrational superstition (often with good reason) will deny the existence of anything "spiritual". The issue can raise strong emotions on both sides. You need to look rationally at what is behind spirituality.
As explored at the beginning of this valley, science and religion can be considered as two complementary knowledge systems. But first you need a clear vision of what religion really is or should be. While the advantages of scientific knowledge are well understood, there are more doubts about religion, which today is mostly associated with division, strife and repression, if not terrorism, rather than a source of knowledge.
Much of what is presented as religious knowledge is not in harmony with science, and much of what is presented in the name of science denies the spiritual capacities cultivated by religion. It is important to remain free of simplistic and distorted conceptions of science and religion, with an imaginary duality between reason and faith. Reason should not be confined to the realm of empirical evidence and logical argumentation, and faith only associated with superstition and irrational thought. Our understanding of spirituality should be reasonable, and science must recognize the need for a moral framework for its proper application.
Any process has to be rational and systematic, using scientific capabilities of observing, of measuring, of rigorously testing ideas, and at the same time deeply aware of faith and spiritual convictions and their role in motivation. Faith and reason can best be understood as human attributes through which insights and knowledge can be gained about the physical and the spiritual dimensions of existence. They make it possible to recognize the powers and capacities latent in individuals and in humanity as a whole and enable people to work for the realization of these potentialities.114
Religion has for many become a negative word, associated with the rise of fundamentalism, intolerance, superstition, terrorism and violence. Unfortunately today, there are movements that call themselves religious with all these characteristics, often created to pursue political or ideological ends. Science has also been misused to pursue political ends, as in Nazi Germany.
Setting aside all the labels and asking what is universal about religion as a phenomenon of human society, there are a number of defining characteristics: the acceptance of a spiritual dimension to human reality, which can be cultivated through education and individual effort, and which, being immaterial, persists after death; a set of moral precepts about what is right or wrong (thou shalt not kill), and ethical principles to guide social interactions (do unto others as you would have others do unto you); and belief in a higher reality, absolute truth or unknowable essence, variously called God, Allah, Jehovah, etc. to which we owe allegiance and which we must learn to love. These will emerge again as you move up this valley.
Is spirituality another dimension of human reality, and religion an educational process for cultivating it? It cannot be proven the way carbon atoms can be proven, but it produces effects in human behaviour and the building of civilization, just as dark matter is assumed to exist because of its gravitational effects on the behaviour of galaxies. Is there a rational basis to establish the reality of human spirituality? For the religious believer, its existence is a matter of faith, just as for an atheist, its non-existence is often equally a matter of faith or belief. One can take a historical or anthropological perspective, and say that the persistence of religion and other forms of spirituality across many epochs and cultures proves that it represents a significant part of human experience. Even today, those that deny its reality are in the minority.
A second way is to look for people who have followed a religious or spiritual path and see if they have qualities that others do not have. Is their spirituality expressed in the values they live by, the way they relate to others, their personal example? Of course many people say they are believers or claim some spiritual station, but do not practice what they preach, or even use their declared position to acquire a following, collect money or seek political power. It is not always easy to distinguish a genuinely spiritual person from an impostor. True spirituality is reflected in humility and self-effacement, so it does not broadcast its presence. You have to search it out.
Perhaps the most direct approach is to use your own personal experience. While you may be born with a potential capacity for spirituality, just as you may have a capacity for athletic performance, it must be cultivated. You can learn about it through sacred texts or scriptures, and develop it through exercises like meditation, prayer and fasting. You may find role models in people who are further along in their spiritual development than you are. Obviously, if someone has always denied the existence of spirituality, and never tried to discover such a potential in themselves, it is easy to say that it is a superstition without any basis in reality. The objective way for you to test the reality of spirituality is to try it with an open mind and heart.
One feature that is common to almost all spiritual and religious traditions is the struggle between your lower material or animal nature, and your higher spiritual nature, symbolized by hell and heaven, the Devil and the Angel, egoism and altruism. Religions provide role models and examples of people with exemplary spiritual development as saints, gurus, elders, or those more recently admired for their self-sacrifice in service to others, such as Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, or Gandhi. Religions teach that our true reality is spiritual, and our purpose in life is to cultivate that reality. Our spiritual reality, or soul, while taking form in this existence, is not limited by it and continues after death in ways you cannot imagine because you have no experience of an existence without time or space.
As you saw in the valley of individual discovery, the struggle with the ego is never over. It is part of your lower or animal nature that is always lying in wait, looking for some new way to express itself. In many cultures and religions, it takes on the traditional symbolism of the devil or evil whisperer, the malign spirit that takes possession of a soul. It is reflected in many things that were classified as sins before modern society gave them commercial value: pride, jealousy, envy, greed, selfishness, narcissism, hedonism, seeking power and wealth, corruption, and lying, among others. Notice that these are things that divide people, that prevent healthy social relationships, that undermine trust and confidence, and that prevent the building of a solid community and society. They are counterproductive in achieving a collective human purpose.
Religion provides the tools to master the ego. It emphasizes love as a positive force of attraction, love of other human beings, love of your enemy, love of God, universal love. It shows the potential of love to counter the ego, to replace hate with a stronger feeling of love. It can help in all the stages in the development of love: from love of self to love of family, friends, spouse, children, culture, nation, all humanity, and ultimately the unknowable essence that we call God.
The ego cannot be mastered without an alternative focus of attention and effort outside ourselves. Self-love needs to be turned in some other direction. This cannot be other people because we are all full of faults and not very lovable. For your growth to be unlimited, you need an unlimited point of focus or direction. This leads us to another essential concept and challenge on your path, at the heart of most religion, generally termed "God".
The concept of God provides this essential external focus for our evolution, individual and collective. Once you accept that there are other realities beyond material reality, you can naturally ask how far these realities go. This opens the potential for endless realities, and then, given our limited minds, it is natural to ask if there is an ultimate reality. You saw above that science has taken the same path, and has stopped just short of an absolute, ultimate reality that encompasses all others.
Religion is the domain of human experience in which to ask such questions, and it provides a source for this evolving concept. Depending on the religion and culture, it has been given multiple names: God, Allah, Jehovah, Nirvana, Dieu, Gott, Dios, Deus, etc., each with a baggage of depictions and interpretations. It is important to recognise that the concept is inherently limited by our own understanding and by the available language at different stages in our own cultural evolution. Since these interpretations always fall short, it is easy to reject them and to claim that "God is dead" or be agnostic (refusing to take a position on the issue of God) or atheist (denying the existence of God).
The rational solution is to accept that the term "God" or its equivalents applies to absolute perfection, the unknowable essence, which is beyond names and attributes, coming and going, time and place, physical existence and non-existence. No words that we use can describe such an absolute, no idea or conception of our mind can encompass it. Like infinity which is beyond numerical representation, God is beyond any kind of representation, while symbolising the perfection in all of them.
Since no effect in the reality that we know can exist without a cause, God could be considered the ultimate cause. Every characteristic that we can observe in the universe or ourselves, including abstractions such as love, knowledge, forgiveness and questions must find its absolute expression in the attributes of God. We are forced by our language to personify "Him", and must acknowledge that it is the language that falls short, and not God.
While we are inevitably frustrated by our inability to conceive of or define God, we can nevertheless try to love and worship this absolute, as this draws us out of ourselves towards limitless possibilities. This is perfectly scientific and rational, since science also acknowledges a perfection that is unattainable and potential realities beyond scientific understanding (before the big bang, beyond quantum reality). Science can imagine or theorize about a material perfection while acknowledging that it can never exist in practice and thus be unmeasurable. The idea of spiritual perfection is a rational extension of this. The concept of God in this sense is not unscientific, although it can make materialists uncomfortable.
It is part of human nature to want to imagine (create an image of) anything we think about, including God. It is hard to admit that something is unknowable. It is even harder to love something that is unknowable and forever beyond reach. "Ye shall be hindered from loving Me and souls shall be perturbed as they make mention of Me. For minds cannot grasp Me nor hearts contain Me." (Baha'u'llah)115 Yet, love, the ultimate force of attraction, is at the heart of spiritual reality. Our existence as created beings is a result of God's love for us, which we must return. "Love Me that I may love thee. If thou lovest Me not, My love can in no wise reach thee." (Baha'u'llah)116 Love becomes pure when it is detached from self and all limited conceptions, and it finds its ultimate expression in the love of God.
You will probably go through many ways to conceive of or "define" God or a path to God that will be constantly evolving and expanding throughout your life. These concepts are highly personal, as each one must investigate independently within the limitations of our experience and the expressions available in our language. In religious texts, the approach is often to use symbolic and metaphorical language for your relationship with God: the lover and loved one; being near to or far from God. There are metaphores that God is "closer than your life vein" and referring to "the ocean of My Presence". The process of spiritual development, of coming closer to God, is sometimes described as "walking the Mystical path" or "passing through Seven Valleys". An unknowable God is beyond all of this, but your spiritual purpose is fulfilled through it. You must have the humility to accept that you cannot know or understand everything, that you can evolve and seek greater perfection only in your own condition, but awareness of and love for that ultimate perfection can motivate you to improve.
One challenge is personification, the natural tendency to assume that God is like us, and to use a personal vocabulary to describe Him. The negative effect is our tendency to bring God down to our own level, which is contrary to any concept of absolute perfection, and ultimately results in the logical rejection of that personification, which is not the same as rejecting God. Personification can be positive symbolically in that it helps us to relate to the need to grow towards that perfection, to fulfil our own highest purpose through a better knowledge of our own selves and our potential to develop. When we ascribe attributes to God, like All-knowing, Forgiving, Generous, they do not really describe God, but remind us of our need to acquire knowledge and to be forgiving and generous. It is only important to remember this limitation, that everything you think, say and do falls short of this absolute perfection.
One collateral effect of the personification of an all-knowing God "conscious" of everything we do is its role as the perfect enforcer in keeping us honest. Research shows that people who know they are being watched are more honest. Knowing that God is always watching you and will ultimately confront you with your wrong-doing is a strong incentive to do what is right. Believing that the punishment of wrong-doing is not limited to this world thus contributes to building healthy social relationships and communities, and to the progress of societies. While this function can be replaced in part by strong institutions of law and justice, they are less effective for "hidden crimes" that go undiscovered. This is in addition to the other roles of religion in inspiring ethical behaviour and a constant effort at self-improvement. It reinforces the fear of punishment, and inspires good behaviour that would be pleasing to God.
Returning to the issue of human purpose, if your purpose includes acquiring good qualities and virtues and refining your character, then learning to know and to worship God means turning towards the ideals of human perfections which are attributes of God with love and appreciation. Love is a two-way process of giving and receiving. Learning to love the unknown and unknowable absolute perfection helps to turn positively to the unknown in yourself (your hidden potential), the unknown in others (overcoming prejudice), and the unknown in the world, which is the impulse for scientific research and exploration.
A related issue is the immortality of your individual spiritual consciousness, often labeled your soul. Is consciousness just an emergent property of neuronal processes in the brain, or can it conceivably have an existence independent of the physical body, and thus with the potential to continue to exist after death? Materialist science still hopes to prove the former. The great majority of religions and forms of spirituality accept the latter.
While your body is the instrument for your soul to acquire divine attributes that achieve your human purpose in this life, those attributes are intangible, and nothing requires that they disappear on the death of the body. If there are realities beyond this physical reality, and endless spiritual worlds beyond this world, then your emergent properties like consciousness cultivated with divine attributes have the potential to continue to evolve towards that absolute perfection that is God. Acceptance of a concept of God and acknowledging forms of existence (worlds of God) beyond this material plane (in what might be called a Divine cosmology) are simply a higher form of reality.
Since science already hypothesizes multiple universes and multiple dimensions beyond those we experience, it is equally logical, or at least rational, to consider that higher levels of consciousness can lead to higher planes of existence beyond the physical dimensions of space and time. While these are beyond the present reach of the great knowledge system that is science, the best evidence comes from that other great knowledge system, religion, with the founders of those religions providing the evidence in their writings and example of the existence of these higher levels of perfection, including God. You can understand the purpose and utility of belief in God and in immortality, while acknowledging the limitations of rational scientific approaches.
The soul can be considered as that dimension of human reality with the capacity to become conscious of the ultimate reality that is God, to accept the truth of spiritual existence and to turn to it in love, reflecting in turn Divine qualities. Just as it has the potential to mirror these perfections, so can it equally become a victim of self and passion and sink to the lowest levels of human existence. There can be many stages in the development of the soul on its journey of spiritual growth towards higher realities, starting with its recognition of the latest manifestation of Divine reality and the acceptance of the spiritual principles and laws relevant to our own time. The soul grows through its efforts to put these into practice.117
The rational faculty that produces consciousness is intimately linked to your sense of place and movement, your perceptions of seeing and feeling, your will and purpose, your thoughts and speech, all of which depend on its association with your body and end immediately if that relationship is cut. That rational faculty is the link to acquiring the higher perfections that are attributes of God, which means that you can never fully understand its operation and potential. It is in a sense the presence of a reflection of that ultimate reality within you. The more you think about it, the more you must acknowledge your helplessness to understand it, and that acknowledgement in humility is in fact the ultimate aim of your spiritual development.118
Manifestations of God
The gulf that separates you from the unknowable essence and absolute reality that is God is so great that it may seem impossible to fathom. Fortunately, religion also provides an intermediary between God and humanity in what can best be called Manifestations of God. The founders of the great religions (Krishna, Zoroaster, Moses, Buddha, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, the Bab and Baha'u'llah) are the ideal form of personification, in that They mirror the absolute in our own human reality and provide a model to follow, just as a mirror can reflect the attributes of the sun, its light and heat, when we never could experience the sun directly.
Science advances through brilliant men and women who have a clearer understanding of physical reality, design and undertake experiments to explore it, and describe it for the rest of us in scientific principles and laws. Religion advances in the same way with spiritual principles and laws. Take, for example, the law of attraction. In physics, it is gravity or magnetism. In human terms, we talk about love: love between people, love of nature, and at the highest spiritual level, love of God and God's love for us. The laws of attraction are complementary, not contradictory.
Periodically down through history, unique individuals have appeared with an understanding of spiritual realities beyond physical reality, often termed "worlds of God", through a process which they themselves term a "revelation" that is not the result of their own intellect, but a received inspiration of what humanity needs at a particular point in its evolution relative to that ultimate perfection.
These individuals manifest God as they translate that absolute perfection into the relative perfections of our own plane of existence. Since our human limitations prevent us from knowing the ultimate reality of God directly, They manifest the qualities of God to make them accessible to us. They are the intermediaries between God and humanity, the source of perfect knowledge for our time and place in the evolution of human reality, and become our Divine educators, providing the path for us to free ourselves from ego and to take a further collective step in our human evolution. They also provide principles and laws that we must obey to fulfil our potential and to take civilization forward, and set an example of how these principles should be applied.
The religion they found provides instruments and institutions to help society advance at a particular stage in its evolution. As society progresses, these laws and institutions need to be adapted to the changing requirements of each succeeding age. All religions are part of the same process of human social and spiritual evolution, periodically renewed through progressive revelations as our needs change. Religion evolves and goes through cycles of what systems science calls a punctuated equilibrium, with a creative impulse producing rapid innovation followed by consolidation towards equilibrium and then decline just like the rest of nature. As history shows again and again, this process of religious renewal, as with any major change, tends to be rejected and denied at first. It takes humility and detachment to accept the Manifestation of God in His new form, with a new name. Our egos, attachment to the past, to power and status, and to prior knowledge, are barriers to acceptance.
What, then, is the rational evidence for the reality of this process of religious revelation? Materialist intellectuals find it easy to discount the evidence behind religious traditions as dimly reflected in history and buried in generations of interpretation and mythicization. What can we really know about the life of Jesus, for example, if the stories of that life were only written down generations later? As in archaeology, where we try to understand the reality of an ancient civilization from the ruins of some settlements, the trash in ancient rubbish pits, and the occasional burial, it is easy to dismiss the evidence of something as intangible as an ancient revelation or set of spiritual teachings.
This is one reason why religion has to be renewed from age to age. While the persistence of old religions is one evidence of their residual power, the real proof of the process of religious renewal should be sought in the most recent and best documented example of this in action. If Jesus lived less than 200 years ago, it would be much easier to believe in His teachings and example.
There is, in fact, such a recent example that is well documented and that you can rationally study and investigate independently, and that is the Baha'i Faith and its founders, the Bab (1819-1850) and Baha'u'llah (1817-1892). This is not the place to go into detail about this example, but many sources are available for those who are interested (http://bahai.org). It is sufficient to say that their lives and teachings are well documented and renew religion for the needs of the modern world. Understanding the positive role of religion is another important step forward in your journey through this valley.
Well-being and Happiness
With this new perspective on the complementarity of science and religion, what are its implications for a broader definition of your human reality and purpose? Why are you here, and what should be your goal in life? For your physical well-being, you need to live in a healthy, sustainable and preferably beautiful environment, and science is your best guide for this, even if contact with nature has a spiritual dimension. For your social dimension, both science and religion have essential things to say about justice, equity and social organisation. You surely want to live in a peaceful society where everyone has a role and place in supportive communities united in all their diversity. To redesign our economic system, you need a society that starts with spiritual principles of justice, cooperation, and altruism, giving everyone the opportunity to work, and eliminating extremes of poverty and wealth, as the design principles for new economic mechanisms and structures. The world has now been unified for the first time by science and technology, especially in transport and communications, leading to a global economy. You are challenged to accept the oneness of humanity, living with everyone in a global community. Religion shows you the path to live in peace and unity as a global family and calls on you to consider the well-being and true happiness of every human being as a trust of the whole.
In complex evolutionary systems, achieving each level of integration opens the possibility of new higher levels. A certain level of functioning at lower levels is necessary but not sufficient to fulfil higher levels. The measures of success are different at each level. There are certain optimum values for performance and efficiency at each level, and going beyond these to an extreme can be damaging. Human well-being is the same. You need a certain level of physical well-being to have the means to invest fully in social, cultural and spiritual well-being. However an excess of wealth and material well-being can reinforce the ego and make spiritual well-being more difficult. Life in fact includes unavoidable problems like illness, bereavement and ageing that help you to become detached from material and social well-being in order to strengthen your spiritual qualities even more.
True happiness comes from fulfilling your higher purpose by refining your character and acquiring spiritual qualities, and by contributing to advancing civilization. This can exist both in this life, and by being even more conscious in the afterlife of what you have accomplished in this life. This complex evolutionary progression continues towards higher levels of perfection (towards God), but in ways that are beyond your ability to comprehend.
Religion in its pure form, then, is the organized system that channels to all of us the knowledge of that ultimate reality that is God and that gives us the laws that we must follow to respond to that message and to achieve our higher purpose. It renews those universal principles at the heart of all religions, and provides the social laws necessary for our further collective evolution. Religious truth is relative to a particular time and place, and to humanity's stage of development, which is why it becomes harder to find fulfilment and happiness in old religions that have outlived their usefulness. The world of today is as far from the world of Moses, Buddha, Jesus or Muhammad as the airplane is from the chariot.
Cultivating Spirituality in Society
Religion not only provides a definition of higher human purpose and a model to follow, it also furnishes tools to help you to cultivate your spiritual qualities, some of which for individuals you encountered in the previous valley. Religion also provides collective tools to support your spiritual advancement in unity with others.
One feature that religion brings to social organization is some form of worship, or collective turning towards that absolute reality that we call God. Making devotion a social act adds a spiritual dimension to social relationships. When you share something so deep within you, it strengthens your bonds with others and reinforces your sense of community. The specific forms that worship may take vary with the religious tradition, and with time may become formalized in rites and rituals that can lead to disagreement and separation, when their essential purpose is to reinforce unity. Simple worship in community devotional gatherings can easily create ties across different forms of spirituality. Returning to this simple form of shared spirituality can be an important part of community transformation.
In the previous valley you learned about the challenge of mastering the animal side of your nature in order to grow spiritually. One powerful practice for learning the benefits of material sacrifice is through financial giving, Zakat or tithes, where material wealth is turned to a spiritual or social purpose. If you truly believe that your spiritual side of life is really more important, than it is only consistent that you share your wealth in support of that dimension of life and society, preferring others to yourself.
It is part of human nature to want to express your feelings, and words are often poor vehicles for this. So you may naturally turn to music, song, dance and art for a more complete expression of your deepest emotions. The result has been a rich flowering of culture through music, art and architecture. Music in its most refined form can be the language of the soul, lifting your spirit and giving wings to your prayers. Our houses of worship may also aim to be places of beauty, visually uplifting and inspiring. Creating a work of art that touches the souls of others is a wonderful service to humanity.
In fact, service itself is an important path to spirituality. This is not the time to withdraw to a monastery and cultivate spirituality in isolation. True growth comes from serving others. Even work, when performed in a spirit of service, aiming to do the very best of which we are capable, is a form of worship. A life of service to others is a path to spirituality. A community in which everyone serves others will advance to higher and higher levels. The highest aim of religion is to empower an ever-advancing civilization. What better way to cross this valley and to climb up to the heights of individual and collective spiritual fulfilment.
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September 2012, pp. 35-47, including:
Westerhoff, Jan. 2012. Defining reality. p. 35. Is matter real? pp. 37-46.
Jamieson, Valerie. 2012. The bedrock of it all. p. 36.
Gefter, Amanda. 2012. Is everything made of numbers? pp. 38-39.
Brooks, Michael. 2012. If information... then universe. p. 41. Does consciousness create reality? pp. 42-43.
Holderness, Mike. 2012. How do we know? p. 45.
Webb, RIchard. 2012. The future of reality. p. 47.
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Jamieson, Valerie. 2012. The bedrock of it all. p. 36.
Gefter, Amanda. 2012. Is everything made of numbers? pp. 38-39.
Brooks, Michael. 2012. If information... then universe. p. 41. Does consciousness create reality? pp. 42-43.
Holderness, Mike. 2012. How do we know? p. 45.
Webb, RIchard. 2012. The future of reality. p. 47.
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107. Gefter, Amanda. 2012. Is everything made of numbers? pp. 38-39. In New Scientist special issue: Reality, 29 September 2012.
108. Brooks, Michael. 2012. If information... then universe. p. 41. In New Scientist special issue: Reality, 29 September 2012.
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