by Eugene Troxell
The major reason I regard the cosmos as worthy of human reverence is because it contains or exhibits characteristics that I used to associate with God when I was a traditional Christian Theist. Those characteristics are creativity and mystery. First to Creativity!
I regard the cosmos as creative because it continually exhibits qualities or characteristics completely unlike the qualities it had exhibited at an earlier time. Of course most of these changes occur during periods of time that make the cosmos seem unchanging to a being for whom 100 years is a long period of time. If we regard the cosmos (or the current version of the cosmos) as originating with the Big Bang, we are saying there was a time when only energy existed. Then there was a fairly long period in which the only elements in the cosmos were hydrogen and helium. At that time the only qualities or characteristics the cosmos seemed to possess were those of hydrogen and helium
Hydrogen and helium are gravitational substances. The gases collected into enormous balls. As the balls of hydrogen became larger, they exerted great pressure on the hydrogen at the center of the balls. This pressure caused the gas to become increasingly hot. Eventually the gas at the center of the balls became hot enough for nuclear fusion to occur and the enormous balls of hydrogen became stars. As the hydrogen of the star fused, its atomic structure altered. In that way the hydrogen changed into other elements, so that the cosmos began to possess the characteristics of oxygen, nitrogen, and eventually all the other elements in addition to the characteristics of hydrogen and helium.
After the stars burned for a few billion years they exploded as super novae. As that happened, all the material of the star, the hydrogen along with all the other elements that had become formed in the star, spread out in space. The fusion that had been occurring in that star stopped as the material of the star dispersed.
Solid elements were scattered about by the super novae and some pieces eventually became large masses of solid material. The gravity of those masses attracted various gases that became their atmosphere. Some of these masses became satellites circling balls of hydrogen that were still burning as stars, so the temperature on the satellites became suitable for other changes to occur. This combination of factors provided a place for gases and other materials to come together and combine into compounds–materials or substances composed of more than one element. As the compounds formed, many exhibited characteristics that were totally different from the characteristics of their original materials. For example, hydrogen could combine with oxygen under the right circumstances to form water. Hydrogen, which is extremely flammable, combines with oxygen, which is necessary for substances to burn, and the end result is something that extinguishes fire. The resultant water has characteristics extremely different from the characteristics of hydrogen and oxygen alone.
The term “emergence” is used when substances come together to form new material with radically different characteristics from those of the individual materials. That type of creativity constantly produces characteristics totally unlike the those of the component materials. There are much more complete accounts of emergence. In particular Chapter 50 of The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science, “The Sacred Emergence of Nature,” by two scientific scholars, Ursula Goodenough and Terrence W. Deacon, presents carefully detailed accounts of these natural developments.
Emergence is sometimes described as “something more from nothing but.” Another example is when matter with only the characteristics of non-living material combines into a form that constitutes an elementary building block of what eventually becomes living material. In this case “life” is the something more. The cosmos began to contain many more characteristics as new materials combined under different circumstances with chemical reactions bringing about billions of new qualities. As living organisms came into existence, they continually changed into more and more complex living beings. Terrestrial evolution built upon the basic living beings to form millions of other types of organisms, each with qualities even more different from the original hydrogen than were the qualities of single celled organisms.
Some varieties of the elemental living beings formed varieties of social systems. Social living provides extremely fertile ground for new developments to occur. For example, in the social systems of the beings that became humans, language, intellect, tremendous amounts of consolidated knowledge, limited autonomy, economic systems, computers, etc., etc. were developed, all due to the fact that humans live in complicated social systems. That does not mean that social living is all that was required for those developments. But it was an essential feature in the sense that the various developments could not have occurred without social living. At that point it is possible to say that some particular configurations of the primordial hydrogen, existing shortly after the Big Bang, had developed the ability to understand what it was doing, along with millions of other behavioral differences.
In my opinion there is no reason whatsoever to think this constant development of new types of characteristics and ways of behaving has come to an end. It seems apparent that a billion years from now parts of the cosmos will be behaving in ways that are so different from the way anything behaves at this time that our infantile intellects could not imagine these new characteristics even if a being from that time tried to explain them to us. Of course one of the features of the present terrestrial evolution that is currently evolving at warp speed is the human intellect. Our present imaginations can come up with thousands of possibilities that would have been unimaginable to Aristotle, unless he were able to go through a whole new developmental process in the reality of the twenty first century. Again, there is no reason to think all the new possibilities have now come into being, and even less reason to think that we now know all the different types of material and forces that have already developed. The idea that it is possible to predict what the cosmos will be like 10 billion years from now is as unwarranted as the idea that one could have predicted that some day that primordial hydrogen would have been able to understand what it is doing. And in ten billion years it is reasonable to expect the existent reality to have characteristics or qualities that are as different from what exists now as our present reality is different from what existed ten billion years ago.
That could be regarded as Creativity with a capital “C.” Yes, it all developed out of the potential of the primordial hydrogen. No, there is no reason to believe intention was involved in the creative process. Support for this statement will be provided later in this essay. The cosmos is every bit as creative as what has been regarded as God. However, the creative cosmos has anthropomorphic characteristics only in the human beings it has produced. And the “natural” creation has taken place over a great deal more time than humans had regarded as required by divine creativity.
Some may object to the reference of this material cosmos as being creative, since no intention was involved in the process. Usually the term “creativity” is used only when something has been produced intentionally. If something comes into being only due to the natural development of material that is already present, that is not usually called creation, even if the resultant material is quite different from what had been there before. I am calling this development creativity because the resultant developments are so radically different from what was already present in the material development of the cosmos. If some object to use of the term “creative” in this manner the defense is that the developments do not seem sufficiently wondrous when they are called simply developments, and the language presently has no other terms for better expression of what is being communicated. The developments did not occur out of nothing, as people regard god’s creation as occurring. But the resultant characteristics are so radically different from what was already there, especially if one compares what was supposedly present at the time of the big bang to what is here now, that the term “creativity” is warranted.
Human beings developed out of the living material of the creative cosmos after life had developed out of non-living material. The non-living material needed a place where water could exist in a liquid form in order to become living material. The living beings originally were unicellular. It was probably only after many unicellular forms had existed for millions of years that the living beings became capable of doing something similar to what we now would regard as sensing. That is, individual living beings began to be able to react to the presence of other individual beings, as well as other changes in their environments. At some time after that happened they slowly became capable of responding to a variety of changes in their environments, including other living beings. Of course, I have no basis for assigning amounts of time for these occurrences, nor any good basis for talking about these conjectures as actual occurrences. But some of these changes occurred over some period of time until the unicellular organisms were able to become organized into multicellular organisms.
Most animals have little, if any, self awareness. Some are able to recognize themselves in certain circumstances. But we have no reasons to believe that most non-human animals realize they will die at some time, or agonize over past mistakes, as humans frequently do. Non human animals live in the present moment much more than humans do. Humans frequently think about what is to happen next, or has just happened, or about something else completely because something in the immediate environment reminded them of it. The fact that we do not live only in the present moment is both a tremendous advantage, and an unfortunate source of personal agony. Some religions regard our inability to live more in the present moment as the major source of human unhappiness, and consequently develop methods of practicing being able to live in the present moment. Nevertheless, the fact that we do not live totally in the present moment is due to the particular way we think. It is due to the fact that we have intellects. And that is what makes possible our tremendous ability to develop elaborate strategies for accomplishing all of what we commonly regard as humanly created aspects of our world.
Because we have such elaborate self awareness compared to other animals we usually regard ourselves as separate beings, not as integral features of an ongoing creative process. That is why death seems so dreadful. It does not seem like we will still exist as different features of the great whole of which we are integral features even now while we are alive. It seems as though death means we will no longer exist. But, as Buddhism has historically stressed, the feeling of separateness is an illusion brought about by our intellects.
We regard the self concept we have unknowingly created as our actual being. So we do not regard our animal nature as a temporary feature of a larger whole. We feel like independently existing separate beings. Consequently we regard death as either the end of our selves, or as a time of transition into a very different type of being. Either possibility makes death into something possibly bad, and thus makes death into something fearful. Possibly a better way to regard death is to think of it as the end of our illusory separateness, with all its joys and agonies, as what constitutes our actual material being continues functioning as different types of integral features of the creative cosmos. Rather than going to some separate place or type of being we simply blend back into the Creative Cosmos, of which we had actually been integral features even while we had the illusory feel of separateness.
The particular configurations of material that become humans can be regarded as the Creative Cosmos’s way of bringing about a new stage of creativity. We can reasonably regard the Creative Cosmos as going through individual changes which open up the possibility of countless new manifestations of its being. Once liquid water became a possibility developments that would not have been possible without it came into being. Once life developed millions of types of living beings developed. And with humans the Creative Cosmos has become capable of creating new types of beings with qualities quite different compared to what was there before humans had developed. When I say only humans can function as humans do, I am not making any claims about possible life forms in other parts of the cosmos. For all we know some other life forms may have developed powers that are far greater than what have developed among humans on the planet earth. But nothing else in the cosmos that we know much about can marshal a huge collection of shared knowledge to make elaborate novel intentional plans and then collectively carry them out.
In my opinion the type of development possible for the materials of the planet earth, which have already developed primarily out of hydrogen, rival the creation I had, in my life as a theist, attributed to god. And if we want to refer to the cosmos as god, we may do so. However, this creativity is no longer “magic.” It is due to the natural development of that primordial hydrogen. And by referring to it as “god” we are not referring to it as a separate being with a separate consciousness or any type of anthropomorphic characteristics. What we can count as “god” is the whole creative cosmos acting as a unit. There is no separate creative feature of the cosmos as far as we know. The cosmos as a whole is creative.
But where did the hydrogen come from, some may ask. It came from the same place the magical, anthropomorphic god that humans used to believe in came from. If we need a further “creation” to account for what we might regard as a beginning for everything, we should need a similar type of creation to account for the existence of a god. If our traditional god does not need a creator to account for its being, neither does the primordial energy that eventually developed into everything that exists now. We accomplish nothing by merely postulating something else as a creative force which we simply declare not to need a further creator.
HUMANS AND EVOLUTION
But it is not entirely correct to say the traditional idea of an anthropomorphic god contributed nothing more to humans than is apparently contributed by naturally developing energy or hydrogen. Since the traditional idea of god was a being that could act intentionally, it apparently could tell humans how to behave, and what was the meaning of their lives–what they should strive to accomplish in their intentionally lived natural lives. Traditionally humans were supposed to behave in proper ways to be worthy to join god in heaven, or to continue life on earth in a new form of life after having lived in the human form that had enabled them to become self conscious, or something like that. Can our lives have a “direction” or a “meaning” or a “purpose” if we are not intentionally given this purpose by our creator? Yes, they can have a meaning or a purpose. But it is important that we no longer deceive ourselves into thinking that we have merely recognized the purpose god has given us.
We are the first beings on this planet that are capable of living in a completely purposeful manner, though not the first beings capable of acting purposefully. Purpose requires intention. Intention normally requires at least a minimal degree of understanding. It is difficult to postulate a time at which minimal understanding developed among living beings. But we can safely say that the actions and lives of human beings are capable of being intentional to a much greater degree than had been present before humans. Humans can create values and use the values to guide major parts of their lives. It is very questionable whether any other type of animals is capable of creating or recognizing values other than the natural outcomes of their natural ways of being. Certainly nonhuman animals can value their offspring, their mates, and other members of their social groups. But they do not choose these values out of a variety of choices, as is possible for some of the values that humans hold. If we create the values intelligently the values may seem like values that were already present and that we have merely recognized. But humans usually have multiple choices as we create values, whether we recognize the choices or not. We have no reason to believe that non human animals can intentionally or consciously chose certain values rather than other possible values.
At this time humans are major directors of evolution on the planet Earth. Our numbers and powers have enabled us to just “take over” much of the earth, thus taking away habitat for thousands of other plants and animals that had previously depended upon that part of the earth as their habitat. It is now the case that thousands of species extinctions occur every year, virtually all the result of human changes of natural habitats. Of course, as some plants and animals go extinct other species of plants and animals that have depended upon those now extinct species may not be able to continue to live.
At this time humans cannot stop being directors of evolution on the planet Earth. Our numbers and powers are such that we will continue being a major force driving evolution in modern times whether we want to be or not. The only major alternative we have is to continue unintentionally directing evolution as we have been–as the unintended side effects of our various attempts to make ourselves more comfortable–or to acknowledge that we are directing evolution and to make how we direct evolution into a major value in our lives. Then we could make intentionally directing evolution on the planet Earth into one of our major purposes for living.
In the billions of years the Earth has had various forms of life there may have been other times at which individual species have played dominant roles in the evolutionary development of terrestrial life. But this is the first time this has happened on this planet when the species doing the directing has been able to understand that it is doing this. We are the first species that has had the option of attempting intentionally to direct terrestrial evolution. Of course, our own existence as a species also requires us to begin paying much more attention to the ways we are directing evolution than we have been. If we keep going on as we have been, on the belief that we don’t really need to pay attention to the effects we are having on the Earth’s biosphere, it is quite likely that we will unintentionally pass some tipping point that will render the biosphere unable to continue supporting some species of plants or animals that happen to be essential to our own existence on the planet.
Our human ancestors did not face these types of problems. It is not until the end of the nineteenth century that human technology had been developed to the point at which it could have drastic effects upon the planet’s biosphere. It is also at around the same time that modern medicine became much more effective than medical practices had been in the past. A major result was that the infant mortality rate dropped considerably, so that many more births produced people who survived to become adults. And as more people survived more people gave birth to infants with continually higher chances of surviving. The result of that has been that during the Twentieth Century, despite wars that have claimed hundreds of millions of human lives, the human population of the planet has increased by more than five billion people. The size of the increase of the population alone is much, much larger than the maximum number of the human population at any time in the past. Moreover, more and more people are living lives that exceed the luxuries of the royalty of times past. All of this consumes more and more of what we now frequently regard as the Earth’s resources, meaning the features of the Earth that humans primarily need and/or use.
And, of course, the depletion of resources is not the only effect of our constantly increasing population. The unintended by-products of our use of the resources, the various types of pollution we produce, are changing the biosphere in a variety of other ways. The composition of the oceans is being radically altered, and the composition of the atmosphere has already suffered major alteration that is continually being made even worse. These and other changes humans have caused in the Earth’s biosphere have the power to cause so much further change that it is no longer only non-human living beings whose existence is threatened. The continued existence of human beings can no longer be assumed. The Earth’s biosphere must meet certain very general conditions in order for it to support the human species. No other planet in our solar system even comes close to meeting those requirements at this time. If we continue changing the Earth’s biosphere as we have been doing, it will soon be likely that the Earth also will be unable to support human existence.
These changes have come about, in large part, because humans have been unable to understand the types of beings that we are, why we are residents of the planet Earth, and the types of effects we are having on our home planet. Our understanding of all of these important matters has been blocked by our beliefs in the traditional religions that have played important roles in the development of human beings. We have been unable to understand that we are major directors of the course of evolution on this planet, and that we are directing it without paying much attention to what we are doing in that regard. Even as more and more people begin to understand what is happening it is still the case that the majority of humans adhere to beliefs concerning supernatural features of the creative cosmos. In many people’s beliefs those supernatural parts of our existence are able to control the actual consequences of our behavior, so that it seems reasonable to most people to think we would not be able to cause the extinction of our own species unless that is what the supernatural features of our cosmos want to happen. If that were true, our future possible extinction would not actually be the result of our own behavior, because it could not be happening if the supernatural features of the cosmos did not want it to happen.
The belief in supernatural features of the cosmos has been extremely important, possibly essential, to the existence of humans. Various versions of that belief helped different human societies exist when their social systems evolved institutions whose existence required obedience to certain rules of behavior. The members of the social system did not understand why obedience to the rules was essential for the existence of the social system nor did they understand the importance of their social system to their own existence. This was the case when the social systems of our primate ancestors incorporated particular features that went beyond the social behavioral requirements of nonhuman social animals.
As our social systems became more sophisticated the changes in the social system required behavioral changes and restrictions that had not been present before, when the behavioral requirements of basic social systems were, in large part, genetically inherited. Both the existence of personal possessions and complicated methods of communication required social behavioral patterns that were not needed by the very basic social living of nonhuman social animals. Moreover, the addition of personal possessions, which required a rule against stealing, also created considerable temptation to engage in stealing.
The members of the social system did not understand specifically why stealing had to be prohibited. The major reason for the prohibition was that the prohibition was necessary for the social institution creating personal possessions. But stealing was also a type of assault upon another member of the social group and any such behavior had to be discouraged among members of individual social systems. So there were social restrictions upon such behavior, like the rule in the Ten Commandments saying “Thou shalt not steal.” However, as I have said, it turned out that the rule against stealing was much more important than merely discouraging behavior that was unpleasant to other members of the social system. Without the rule against stealing personal possessions could not exist. Without personal possessions nearly all of the developments that have made humans so different from our primate relatives could not have occurred. The existence of modern humans depends upon the existence of personal possessions in thousands of ways that are, in one respect right before our eyes. But in another respect they are so common that we do not usually even notice them.
Belief in supernatural beings provided a major motivation for individuals to avoid behaviors which they believed the supernatural beings wanted them to avoid. One could not conceal one’s behaviors from a god. Thinking all the required social behaviors of the continually more sophisticated social systems were required by all-knowing gods, who would very severely punish those who disobeyed the behavioral requirements, was a major factor in the continued success of the continually more complex social systems of developing humans. As personal possessions became part of the social systems personal possessions became very desirable. One easy method of acquiring possessions was to steal them from other people. However, were everyone to behave in that manner personal possessions would simply cease existing. So the complex systems needed the extra motivation provided by belief that god would severely punish them after they died if they did not obey god’s rules. Those increasingly complex social systems have provided us with the ability to make our social systems into much more pleasant and protected manners of living than are available to nonhuman animals. They have also provided humans with the ability to have much more power to wage deadly wars and to change the earth. Thus, intentionally or unintentionally, humans are now capable of rendering the earth’s biosphere no longer able to support most of the life forms it now supports, including humans.
However, human beings are now capable of understanding the ways in which human behaviors bring about complex features of social systems that provide us with increasing amounts of power, as well as thousands of other apparent benefits. We can understand why we need traffic regulations and laws. We can understand why our legal system needs certain counter-intuitive rules in order for it to provide the best chance for justice. We can understand that every social system, no matter what types of animals are living it, must not have members of the individual system preying upon other members of the same social group. Social systems are such beneficial methods of saving genetic patterns because the members of the social group work together. In order to do this they must be able to trust other members of the same group. Such behavioral requirements are genetically inherited by members of non-human social groups. This was also true of our primate ancestors.
But modern humans are largely free of such genetic behavioral requirements, or have evolved characteristics enabling them to override the genetic requirement against killing other members of their own social group. (FOOTNOTE The Ten Commandments do not mention murder. There is a commandment against killing. But prohibitions against most types of killing are not required for social living. Only that type of killing called murder must be prohibited in order for human societies to exist.) So we have a social rule against murder. Such a rule, or a genetically acquired social constraint, is an absolute requirement for all social systems including those of humans. We could not exist without a rule against arbitrarily killing other members of our own social system, just as we could not exist without personal possessions, which require a rule against stealing. Many of our other behavioral rules may not be required for humans to be able to exist, but they still may provide major benefits to the members of the social group.
We can now understand why we need such rules. However thinking these rules are god’s laws means we continue to believe they are required even after our living conditions have significantly altered. Such changes in our living conditions may render social rules that were beneficial under previous living conditions now harmful. Rules favoring large families are a prime example. Possibly the most serious problem humans currently face is that of overpopulation. Modern living conditions have made it much, much easier for humans to survive. Modern living conditions require thousands of energy consuming devices that were not features of the living conditions of our ancestors only a hundred years ago. That means we are continuously radically changing our biosphere in order to secure this energy, and further changing the biosphere as we make use of the energy along with other features of our biosphere. A human population of over seven billion is turning out to be more than our biosphere is able to continue supporting. Yet we continually encourage population growth by means of ancient rules against the use of contraceptives, against early abortions of accidental pregnancies, and against allowing terminally ill people to select their own means of bringing about their own death. All of these rules are due to prior living conditions, but they are now among the rules threatening the continued existence of humans as a species, along with the existence of thousands of other species of plants and animals. We continue to live by them because we continue to believe god wants us to obey these rules. Since we do not understand the functions of such rules, we believe we have no other intelligent bases for selecting our behavioral rules. But understanding of the functions of social behavioral rules is now possible to those whose can release themselves from the belief that they are following rules that a god has commanded them to follow.
A NEW PATH
Selecting an intelligent set of values, setting intelligent purposes for our individual lives, and consciously designing intelligent social systems can provide bases for requiring and selecting intelligent social rules. The social rules of the past were not consciously selected. They slowly became required as the social systems evolved. Others were based upon groundless beliefs about how things ought to be. It seemed natural to ancient people for women to be subject to men. Men were stronger and the stronger tended to be the rulers. It also seemed disgusting to many people for certain people to engage in sexual behaviors with other members of the same sex. Consequently it seemed natural to regard those types of behaviors as wrong behaviors that were forbidden by god, as were other types of wrong behaviors. As I have already explained, many of those beliefs about “god’s rules” were extremely important for those rules to have their beneficial effects upon human social/evolutionary development. However, now that we can understand why some of these rules are required, and others are simply due to prejudicial human thought, it is very important that we spend much more time understanding why we need certain behavioral rules but not others.
First, however, let’s spend a bit more time positioning ourselves in this Creative Cosmos of which we are tiny parts. To say that we are very small parts of a very big whole almost seems comical when we try to get a perspective on the size of ourselves and the size of the cosmos. Scientists are presently saying that the whole cosmos contains billions (with a “B”) of galaxies and each galaxy contains billions or trillions of stars. No estimate on the number of planets. Our galaxy alone is extremely large. But to think of it as only one of at least a billion of such galaxies just makes my mind spin. We are tiny features of something extremely large. On the other hand our bodies and brains contain billions of other living creatures, billions of synapses, billions or millions of cells, and trillions of atoms. So relative to that dimension we are extremely large.
If this Creative Cosmos has a stable state of being, we can only characterize this stable state as being one of constant development. Humans have been features of this constantly developing cosmos for only a very short time, depending upon what we might want to call the beginning of humans. As far as we can tell the species development that has become human has been in the process of immediate development for less than a hundred thousand years. But that is only one way of thinking of it. It would make as much sense to say that the species development leading to humans began with the beginning of life or even with the evolutionary developments that led to the development of life.
Unless we cause our extinction fairly soon, we will continue developing until the intelligent beings to which our distant progeny give rise will consider us to be something like what we regard as primitive humans, at least culturally and possibly also genetically, with approximately the degree of understanding of our world and ourselves that we would ascribe to our ancestors of a few thousand years ago. The world those future beings will inhabit will be extremely different from the world we now inhabit.
Does the existence of this future version of humans make any difference to us? We will be long gone by that time. Or will we? That depends upon how we define ourselves at this time. If we are intact spirits/souls inhabiting physical bodies, that happen to be occupying this world for a short time, we apparently will cease existing on this planet or continue existing in some other manner. We are mere visitors of this planet. But if that self concept that we consider to be our actual self, is indeed an illusion, something we merely project as a separately existing being, then our “death” is only the end of the illusion. After our bodies’ deaths we would remain being integral features of the Creative Cosmos. What composes our bodies would become merged with the larger whole while this particular state of a larger whole, this planet, remains temporarily distinct from the entire Creative Cosmos. What our collective minds have produced likely will continue as features of the mind inherited by our offspring.
Of course, If our species goes extinct then it will not give rise to future intelligent species. The type of beings that we are will have turned out to be both too smart, too faithfully conservative, and too short sighted for our own good. That tragedy has not happened yet, however. So we should go on continuing to expect our offspring to be able to continue to live and continue having offspring, while we do whatever we can to help that desirable scenario become an actuality.
Religions have given meaning to our lives while we have been discovering more about our true selves. We are now in a position to understand that religions based upon belief in an anthropomorphic being are very likely illusory. This is in part due to the fact that none of the characteristics of an anthropomorphic being make sense when they are projected onto an infinite being, as we have imagined our anthropomorphic god to have been. Humans are finite beings, quite limited both temporally and in our abilities. Consequently our characteristics are all consistent with our limitations. Does this lack of an anthropomorphic god to give meaning to our lives mean our lives must now be meaningless? Not necessarily. The meanings our lives have had have actually been created by ourselves, even though we imagined them to come from an almighty being. We could continue creating meaning for our lives and actually accept responsibility for the creation of the meaning.
We are integral features of a wondrously creative cosmos. During all the time we have any actual understanding of this cosmos it has been continuously creative in ever new ways. By giving rise to humans it has opened enormous new pathways to give rise to extremely novel possibilities of creativity. We are quite distinct from all the other creative novelties the creative cosmos has so far produced and upon which we depend. Our self consciousness and our tremendous collective intellect have given rise to entirely new types of creativity, that we do not know to exist in any other part of this creative cosmos. We could continue functioning in our recently developed creative mode to give rise to new types of creativity not possible, as far as we know, in any of the other ways the creative cosmos has of being creative. We could consciously move in the same creative direction in which the creative cosmos, with and without us, has always been moving. We could simply realize we are unique features of the creative whole and make further intentionally selected creativity be the conscious meaning of our lives.
Throughout all known human history humans have always regarded themselves as a special “species.” Actually, until fairly recently humans did not regard themselves as animals, and consequently not as a species of animal. But we have always regarded ourselves as special. In the days of old time religion humans were the reason God created the world. Everything else on the planet was put here for human use. Today many people still think basically that way about humans and the rest of the world.
More scientifically oriented people now regard humans as one of the species of animals that have developed on this planet. So a common modern attitude is that humans are merely one species of animal, not necessarily better than any other species of animal. Nevertheless since we who are judging what is better or special are ourselves human, it is natural for us to favor our species. Thus humanism is a common substitute for theistic religion among people who have rejected the idea of a god. But we still regard it as important to continue reminding ourselves that we are just another species of animal–nothing particularly special.
I would like to challenge that idea that there is nothing particularly special about humans. As we have seen, a major way of regarding the cosmos, and one of the reasons I regard the cosmos as a type of “god,” is because it is so extremely creative. Not only has that original hydrogen changed itself into all the other elements and into millions of compound materials, thus acquiring the characteristics of all these very different types of being, it has also changed itself into living beings. As living beings, under the right material conditions, the original hydrogen has changed into millions of different types of living organisms, thus acquiring all the characteristics of those types of beings as well as the characteristics of different types of non living material. Living organisms are capable of entirely new types of creativity. Moreover, living organisms are capable of social living, thus bringing about types of creativity that are not possible by individual organisms. Social living makes it possible for honeybees to produce honey, for example–a type of substance found nowhere else than where bees are present. Honey is the only type of food that does not turn “sour” or decay no matter how long it remains unconsumed by a living being.
There are many other types of substances that are found only where a particular type of social animal is present. This is particularly the case if that social animal is human. Everything that we regard as “manmade,” as opposed to natural or “nature made,” is obviously among the items produced by humans. However, human creativity is quite different from the creativity of any other animal. Of course humans are capable of individually creating magnificent pieces of art, wonderful poems and other kinds of writing. But that is not the type of human creativity upon which I want to focus. I want to focus upon items that are not created by individuals, like automobiles, computers, television sets, etc.
Most human creativity arises out of group cooperation along with a type of cooperation that might be called something like social/species cooperation. When I am talking to a group of people I sometime pull a ball-point pen out of my pocket and show it to the people. “How many people do you think played a role in the production of this pen out of the completely raw materials of the earth?” I personally would guess it is in the thousands, and possibly hundreds of thousands, depending upon exactly how we think of “out of the completely raw materials of the earth.” There had to be people who knew how to select and procure the necessary materials for the different types of metals in the pen. By the time we would move from those raw materials to the different types of metals required for the pen, many different types of machines with different people running the machines and guiding the work would have been required. There also would have been other individuals involved in moving the materials from one set of machines or factory to another. Raw materials for the plastics would also need to be collected, transported to some type of factory, with the material from the first factory then going to other factories. Different people with different types of knowledge and skills would be needed at each level of the production process. Other types of machines and workers would be needed to press the metals into the necessary shapes and put them all together. And this is what would be needed if we used humanly created machinery at every stage of the work. Were we to consider what would be required to make all of that machinery out of the raw materials of the earth, along with figuring out what type of machines would be needed, how to build those various types of machines, etc., etc. the number of people involved would certainly approach the millions. Then we might considered the roads, the trains, the airplanes, the ships involved in moving the materials from where they are taken out of the earth to where they are processed into different types of substances. Of course, all those workers need to eat and sleep while they are doing all this, so farms and farmers are needed along with people to build roads and railroad tracks, etc., etc.
The social cooperation of all these different people is required in order to manufacture this very simple ball point pen out of the dirt of the earth. No one individual was essential to the process. But many individuals were required. No other types of social animals produce substances that require the consolidated work of so many different individuals.
What other social animals produce is limited to what is immediately required for the animals to be able to live. Humans have the ability to make far more choices than other types of animals. Consequently we can consciously decide to cooperate on various types of production. Or, as in the old days of pyramid building, we can obey a king or queen who makes the decisions concerning our cooperative work. Only humans are capable of such extensive types of cooperative effort, making use of types of types of knowledge and skills that have slowly developed over thousands of years.
Most of this “cooperative work” is accomplished without our realizing we are cooperating in the hundreds or thousands of different ways we have learned to cooperate. In order for this work to be done humans have created an elaborate social environment within which thousands of different types of “social constructs” exist. Social constructs have been defined in a variety of ways. The definition I prefer is to say that social constructs are entities or features of our world whose continued existence as distinct features of the world depends upon human thought. Humans must “cooperatively” think in certain ways in order to bring social constructs into existence. A few examples should help to explain what I am talking about. An easy example is to think about the way we (all the sane people in the whole world) think of days. Our days have individual names. Monday is different from Thursday, and both are different from Saturday. Our days come in groups of weeks, months, week-ends, etc. None of this exists independently of humans. Without humans the earth simply rotates on its axis so that at different times different parts of it are facing the sun. When we are on a part of the planet that is facing the sun, we are aware of the light of the sun. We call that a day. And the next day is tomorrow, etc. And each of those days has a name, and is part of a week and a month. Without humans there are no weeks nor months, nor any dates, nor any specific times during the days. This is being written in the year 2014. That year exists only because people have been taught to think a certain way. Where I am on the planet it is now about 2:30 in the “afternoon.” Morning, evening, afternoon all exist as separate times because we think a certain way, along with the particular way we have of “telling time.”
We are not aware that our thought processes are cooperative in this manner, nor that the thought processes themselves are what produce the weeks, times during the day, etc., etc. All of those ways of thinking of time are a major part of what enables humans to cooperate in the millions of different ways we engage in elaborate creative processes. Everybody knows (or can know) when they are supposed to be someplace, how to determine when that time has arrived, along with what they are supposed to do once they get there. And none of all that they know in that respect is part of nature. It is all a product of human cooperative thinking.
This is only one tiny feature of the socially constructed world we all inhabit. In the case of time, the ways of dividing up the time are uniform across the whole world. In other cases the social construction varies somewhat from society to society. In America we use miles to measure distances. Miles are not part of nature. They are products of human thought, as are yards, meters, acres, kilometers, pounds, liters, gallons, etc., etc. All have very important purposes in terms of enabling humans to remain coordinated in their relationship to what they are doing to some feature of the world.
Whole books have been written about our socially constructed world and there is certainly a great deal more I could say here. But I think this little bit is enough to open up an awareness of another way that human cooperation enables humans to be so amazingly creative. The fact that we can create a ball point pen depends upon this elaborate social “reality” that is purely the product of a type of unconscious “group-think.” We have no reason to think any other animal lives in such an elaborate social reality.
There is a sense in which items that are man made are not actually made by individual human beings. Rather the knowledge of how to make thousands of different types of items, knowledge collected and refined over thousands of years, resides in societies and different individuals can, at different times, cooperatively make use of the knowledge to produce different “man made” items. The knowledge of how to build something is what is particularly important, along with the ability to cooperate in order to produce the required results. Although some individual like a Thomas Edison may have finished putting some collected bits of knowledge together in order to produce something particularly useful, he was working with knowledge that had been collecting for thousands of generations.
Human social living has created the possibility of types of creativity that would not even have been dreamed about only a thousand years ago. Particularly during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries human creativity has gone completely beyond the types of creativity that was possible before modern humans came on the scene. And we certainly have no reason to think human creativity has stopped or even slowed down. If anything it is now expanding at ever more rapid rates of expansion. But the type of creativity that we now regard as producing what is “man-made” is not performed by individual humans. No individual human could create a ball-point pen out of the raw materials of the earth even if the person tried for an entire life-time just to do that. And it takes even many more people to build something like a powerful computer out of the raw materials of the earth, even if we don’t talk about all the people involved in producing all the various type of factories and machinery involved in the production of that type of item. Perhaps human types of creativity exist elsewhere in the cosmos. Perhaps other types of creativity exist among other social beings on individual planets that are so different from what exists here that we might not even be able to imagine how a certain type of creativity comes about. But nowhere else in the cosmos that we know about is the type of creativity produced by humans present. Humans are part of nature. But what humans have become is very far removed from most of what we regard as nature.
I have two major reasons for placing so much emphasis upon the differences between human creativity and the creativity of any other animal. One is simply to establish that there is something very special about human creativity and consequently about humans. However a major problem with the type of creativity that humans have developed is that humans are very close to rendering the biosphere incapable of supporting future generations of humans as well as generations of millions of other types of living creatures. Even if we do not make it impossible for humans to continue inhabiting this planet there is little reasonable doubt that humans will need to go through some major very painful changes in order for the extinctions not to happen. Our powerful creativity is a different order of creativity than had been present on this planet (or, as far as we know, anywhere else in the Cosmos) before the development of humans. Humans are not just another animal species.
One contribution traditional religion makes to many people’s lives is to give their life a sense of purpose, or meaning. This involves my second reason for placing the stress upon human creativity. For most traditionally religious people the meaning is a matter of what happens after life. There are different possibilities and one’s purpose in life is to live so that one will be granted a desirable situation as opposed to an undesirable situation. Heaven and hell are prime examples here. Heaven is to be in a very desirable state with God. A companion of god perhaps. Hell is a very undesirable place where one suffers for all of eternity.
Or perhaps what happens after death is that one is reborn as another type of animal. In that case I am not sure what would be the most desirable animal. But those who believe this think how they live this life will make a difference in that regard.
On the other hand even people who believe in old time religion sometimes see their purpose in life as accomplishing something in this life. That could be as general as achieving happiness, or accumulating a great deal of wealth, or bringing forth wonderful children, or promoting world peace. Unfortunately that can also include promoting the values they think god has laid out in his plans for all the people in the whole world. Usually people who attach life’s meaning to some value in this life do so because they think that value is particularly important. It may even be what they think god wants them to do. Exactly what makes one value more important or more valuable than another may not be very clear. Many people think living an ethically good life is what god wants them to do. They particularly may think this is true if they believe god is the source of true or correct values. Many people think that all “real” values come either from god or are natural values of the natural world. If that is true then the important thing is to be able to recognize what is a real value and what is not. Values cannot be something humans create, they think, because such values could have no real standing as values. Humans, they think, could regard anything as a value, so that humanly created values must be “relative.” They must be oriented somehow to something that only seems important to the person who created them, so they are “relative” to that person’s wishes or beliefs.
However suppose we see ourselves as this essay has been attempting to position us. We are integral features of an ongoing creative cosmos. We have already explored the various reasons for regarding the cosmos as creative. It begins as something that is apparently very simple. Then, little by little, it continually becomes increasingly more complex as different major features of it develop which open up entirely new directions for it to be creative. Something as simple as liquid water opens up tremendous possibilities. Then the development of living material out of nonliving material opens up major new ways of being creative. As the living material develops under different circumstances, and also as it becomes social still greater possibilities of creativity develop. Then some social animals develop language and intellects, and that opens up tremendous new possibilities of creativity.
Humans are different from all other animals in that human culture develops knowledge of how the world “works.” We develop knowledge of what to expect next after certain events occur. We also develop knowledge of how to bring various events, entities, characteristics about. And we use the knowledge that has already been developed to develop more knowledge of how things work. This enables humans to develop artifacts that are constantly more complex and capable of acting and of changing other features of our environment into more and more sophisticated types of entities. Humans today are capable of traveling to the moon. Such sophisticated knowledge arose out of very basic knowledge of how to make fires, how to plant and grow plants, how to linguistically express more and more sophisticated types of ideas etc., etc.
The ability to make use of this type of knowledge and work is passed from generation to generation in humans due to our language and intellects. Our ability to produce extremely sophisticated computers, along with uses to which we can put those machines, as well as thousands of other types of sophisticated machinery means that humans are a completely new type of creativity in the cosmos. Of course there may be other animals or living creatures in other parts of the cosmos that would make our level of sophistication look to them like the cooperation of ants looks to us. But relative to our actual knowledge humans engage in a level of creativity that is so different from that of any other terrestrial living being that comparing humans to non-human living beings is like comparing living material to the non-living material from which it developed.
We have no reason whatsoever to think that there was any intentionality involved in our development. So we have no reason to think we developed for any “purpose.” But it does make perfectly good sense for humans to regard our extremely sophisticated level of creativity as making it possible for humans, and thus the creative cosmos, to engage in constantly more sophisticated levels of creativity. We have an ability to appreciate hundreds of different forms of beauty. We also have the abilities to be amazed, to be full of wonder, at the sophistication of the different levels of creativity we see both in what we call the natural, or pre-human environment, as well as in the creativity that humans make possible. This realization provides us with a perfectly sensible way to make our lives meaningful. We are integral features of a constantly developing creative process. We are the first beings with the ability intentionally to influence the creative process to develop into the ability to produce constantly more new and constantly more beautiful and wondrous forms of being. Or we could cause our own extinction, along with the extinction of virtually every type of living being on this planet, thus bringing the wonderful forms of creativity we have developed along with other forms of creativity on this planet to an end.
We are integral features of a constantly creative cosmos. We provide radically new ways to push the level of creativity forward, making it possible for the cosmos to be creative in completely new ways that, as far as we know, would be impossible without the special features that we provide to the creative whole. We are the first known creatures to provide intentionality to the new directions in which we push the creative process. We are also capable of using our special abilities to appreciate the different features of different types of creativity to understand new directions to make the our new methods of creativity even more beautiful and wonderful. Exactly how we would intentionally direct evolution on the planet in order to make sure it remains capable of supporting millions of different types of living beings is something we do not understand very well at this time. But it is something we could learn, were we willing to develop full awareness that we are the current major directors of evolution on the planet Earth. And we are the only directors the Earth has ever had with the capacity to understand what we are doing in this regard.
We have already been playing this productive role throughout our entire lives, probably without understanding that it is what we have been doing. How we individually make our contributions to the creative whole of which we are individual features could become a conscious feature of our lives. This would obviously be a perfectly suitable way for us to establish purpose and meaning in our lives. We are cosmic artists occupying a very special place in this creative cosmos of which we are integral features making unique contributions to the creativity of the cosmic whole. Reflecting on this does not make us individually so special since we are temporary features of the magnificently creative cosmic whole. But it does further bring out the fantastic creativity of the Cosmic whole that has created us as another feature of its creative potential.