The Mysteries of Life

Felix wrote:

In his introduction to The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin describes the subject of his book as ‘that mystery of mysteries’. Of course, by the end of the book the mystery has been solved. This is how we usually use the word in modern parlance. Something is a ‘mystery’ if we don’t have an explanation for it. Once we find an explanation, then it ceases to be a mystery.

Since Darwin’s time, science has developed an ever more detailed account of the history of life, repeatedly answering questions and then posing new ones, so that over the years ‘mysteries’ have come and gone. One of the most obstinate is the question of how life started in the first place, but there are many others, some of which have been ‘solved’, while others still retain their ‘mystery’ status, at least for now. These mostly involve the sudden emergence of radically new forms of life or of new kinds of coordinated activity between individuals.

One such example is how simple ‘prokaryotic’ cells of very different kinds teamed up, sacrificing their individuality, to form bigger and much more complex cells, called ‘eukaryotes’. Other examples include: the appearance of multi-celled organisms like animals and plants, of sexual reproduction, of animals which could move of their own volition by swimming, burrowing, crawling, walking or flying, of ever more complex means of communication between animals, of social behaviour and of parental care.

When our human ancestors arrive on the scene, scientists recognise another kind of transition. This seems to involve the coordinated emergence of three distinctive traits: language, the ability to make and use tools (the making is important – other kinds of animals can use tools) and, underlying both of these, the ability to think in the abstract. Apparently, this transition is no longer considered a ‘mystery’, because scientists believe they have a pretty good idea of how it happened, at least in outline.

It may seem as though the word ‘mystery’ is being used here purely in the Agatha Christie sense – a puzzle to be cracked, or an unanswered question – but this is not entirely fair. When Darwin used the phrase ‘mystery of mysteries’, he was describing something so perplexing that for most thinking people up to his time a supernatural origin seemed perfectly plausible. It was a ‘divine mystery’. To turn a divine mystery into a puzzle which can be cracked by science, you need to be able to pin it down; it needs to be turned into a question which can be precisely formulated in words.

This is the great strength of science, but also its great weakness, because there are questions which it can never ask, for the simple reason that they can never be adequately put into words. One summer evening a couple of years ago I heard the following words:

I wish to be myself

Never mind who said them or why – somebody spoke them and I heard them. No other animal wishes to be itself, because it already is itself. Only in our ancestors, deep in the origins of our race, did this new quality, this new kind of incompleteness, appear. Why?

The question only makes sense in the rare moments when that wish – not necessarily those precise words, but their sense – is your wish. That’s why there will be no research projects to solve this particular mystery. The mystery is in you and in me, our common inheritance, but unique to each one of us.

Geoff replied

This article raised many questions in me. Is it not extraordinary that the single greatest difference between living organisms on our planet is not between species of animals but between prokaryote cells (Greek – Pro meaning “before” and karyote from the Greek meaning “kernel” or “nut”) and eukaryote cells (from the Greek “Eu” meaning good)? The 2 main differences between Eukaryotes and Prokaryotes is the presence of a cell nucleus containing DNA and mitochondria – which produce energy for the cell. As far as I’m aware (and this is something I would like to look into) there are only theories about how the change happened between prokaryote and eukaryote cells.

The article suggests (correctly in my view) that science as it is today cannot ask the right question. However, I’m not sure if it is just because real questions cannot be translated adequately into words. There have been a number of occasions when someone has articulated precisely the question that I was feeling when trying to listen to others. In modern science the question under investigation is never related to the questioner, and secondly, science (with the possible exception of quantum physics) does not accept the idea of different qualities or levels of energy which determine what can be perceived by a human being, in spite of overwhelming experiential evidence. Taking music as an example – this can range in quality from rap/hiphop to the most profoundly affecting music which resonates with a far deeper part of the human psyche, rendering people silent with open gratitude and a sense of being more alive.

Scientists separate themselves from the object under investigation, and yet it was barely 100 years ago that Einstein’s theory of relativity predicted that a real “observation” of an object would change the object.

In earlier traditions, science and spiritual search was integrated into one holistic teaching, for example the Islamic scientists such as Ibn Sinna (Avicenna) who combined extraordinary scientific learning with spiritual poetry. Somehow, the holistic approach has been preserved in India in the Ayurvedic tradition. However – the principle of scientific enquiry can still be applied to an individual’s inner search. It seems to me that at the heart of every real traditional “Way”, a man or woman is invited to verify for themselves certain truths, without coercion. To try and test certain ideas and validate them by one’s own experience – perhaps that could be said to be a “science of being”?