Road to Nowhere

The Eternal Sugarbowl

Throughout history, mankind has been intent upon attaining the Eternal Sugarbowl. Though immediate or future material wants and needs occupy many people much of the time, the awareness of death has spurred the human species to wonder about the ultimate.

Since ancient times, humans have grappled with their fears of death and attempted to deflect anhiliation through various systems of belief and action. Consider the time and resources the ancient Egyptians poured into their mummies and the tombs that housed them—for instance, the beautifully glowing colors of the wall murals and the glittering artifacts of gold, alabaster, lapis lazuli, carnelian, quartz, obsidian, and turquoise collected in King Tut's tomb. The hieroglyphic funary texts adorning the walls of such tombs were magical incantations that assured eternal life for the souls of the deceased. People could take comfort when every ritual and every word of the incantation had been properly executed. From The Book of the Dead (translated by E. A. Wallis Budge):

O ye who give cakes and ale to the shining ones, grant ye to my soul to be with you. May he come into being upon your thighs. May he be like one of you forever and forever. (1895, p. 239)

In the Twenty-first Century, people no longer believe in the efficacy of those ancient texts to insure eternal life. But even in ancient times, there were without doubt skeptics who felt that eternal life was not obtainable.

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the tale of a king of the city-state of Uruk in Mesopotamia, Gilgamesh sets out upon the search for the secret of eternal life after the death of his friend Enkidu, but returns empty-handed. Gilgamesh is told, "You were given the kingship, such was your destiny, everlasting life was not your destiny." (Sandars, 1972, p.118)

In this day, there are new religions, new formulas for for obtaining eternity, which some believe in, and others doubt. It is human nature to raise cathedrals of thought aimed toward the ultimate. Some of mankind's theories of everything continue to be built upon the worldview of bygone ages, much as was Thomas Aquinus' Summa Theologica. Others make use of the latest scientific discoveries.

Physicist Sean Carrol, in his book The Big Picture, asserts that "The laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely known." (2016, p. 177) He goes on to describe Core Theory (a subset of quantum field theory) and the corresponding equation that encompass all of the universe relevant to humans.

Core Theory says nothing about immortality, but immortality is the stated goal of futurist Ray Kurzweil. Kurzweil contends that human consciousness will be uploaded to computers:

Using nanotechnology-based manufacturing, we could recreate your brain, or better yet reinstantiate it in a more capable computing substrate.

Sean Carroll does not believe that such schemes will result in eternal life:

But eventually all of the stars will have exhausted their nuclear fuel, their cold remnants will fall into black holes, and those black holes will gradually evaporate into a thin gruel of elementary particles in a dark and empty universe. We won't really live forever, no matter how clever biologists get to be. (p. 2)

Kurzweil predicts that human intelligence will expand exponentially, filling the universe, but whether that will result in a reversal of entropy, he of course cannot know. I imagine that the universe-filling intelligence would be told, as was Gilgamesh, "Everlasting life was not your destiny."

Kurzweil is not the first to pursue eternal life along rational, non-religious, lines. Emperor Qin, the unifier of China, searched for an elixer of immortality and was told by the best minds of his age that ingesting mercury would grant his desire. Following their counsel, he poisoned himself.

These quests for the Eternal Sugarbowl, ancient and modern, religious and scientific, have a common theme. All assume that the ultimate lies within the human grasp.

But some of humanity's greatest thinkers have seen the quest for knowledge as one that has no end. Isaac Newton mastered the scientific knowledge of his day and launched a new era with the formulation of the laws of motion and the law of universal gravitation set forth in his Principia. And yet he wrote of his work:

I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

In The Undivided Universe physicists David Bohm and Basil J. Hiley discuss moving beyond quantum mechanics:

[W]e do not expect to come to the end of this process of discovery (for example, in a form that is currently called the "Theory of Everything"). Rather our view is that nature in its total reality is unlimited, not merely quantitatively, but also qualitatively in its depth and subtlety of laws and processes.... Our knowledge at any stage is an abstraction from the total reality and therefore cannot be expected to hold indefinitely when extended into new domans. (1993, p.321)

Albert Einstain saw the Eternal Sugarbowl not a fount for personal immortality, but as quintessential mystery and wonderment. He writes in Mein Veltbild, translated by Alan Harris as The World as I See It:

An individual who should survive his physical death is ... beyond my comprehension, nor do I wish it otherwise; such notions are for the fears or absurd egotism of feeble souls. Enough for me the mystery of the eternity of life, and the inkling of the marvellous structure of reality, together with the single-hearted endeavor to comprehend a portion, be it never so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature. (1949, p.5)

The believers in absolute answers, religious or scientific, differ from each other only in the details of their formulas: in the language of their incantations and in the nature of their elixirs, for the religious tend to rely more on symbolism and miracles and less on mathematics and chemistry. But the difference of the absolutist mindset from the mindset of those who see the quest as a neverending journey is profound.

Einstein describes a "cosmic religious feeling" as the driving force behind all of mankind's most creative endeavors:

It is very difficult to explain this feeling to anyone who is entirely without it, especially as there is no anthropomorphic conception of God corresponding to it.

The individual feels the nothingness of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvellous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. He looks upon individual existence as a sort of prison and wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole....

The religious geniuses of all ages have been distinguished by this kind of religious feeling, which knows no dogma and no God conceived in man's image; so that there can be no Church whose central teachings are based on it.

... I maintain that cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest incitement to scientific research. Only those who realize the immense efforts and, above all, the devotion which pioneer work in theoretical science demands, can grasp the strength of the emotion out of which alone such work, remote as it is from the immediate realities of life, can issue. What a deep conviction of the rationality of the universe and what a yearning to understand, were it but a feeble reflection of the mind revealed in this world, Kepler and Newton must have had to enable them to spend years of solitary labor in disentangling the principles of celestial mechanics!
(pp. 26-28)

These two divergent ways of looking at the world, the absolute and the unbounded, reflect David Bohm's description of reality as existing both as an explicate order and an implicate order. The explicate order is our familiar world of classical physics, of particles and forces interacting against a backdrop of spacetime. But this order is enfolded by an implicate order, in which the universe exists in unbroken wholeness, in which time and space and other phenomena familiar to the human mind are not manifested. The implicate order is like a hologram; it paints the entire universe into every portion of the explicate order that unfolds from it. Humans are adapted to the explicate order, which contains the things they depend on for their survival. Some minds remain unaware of the implicate order, although it underlies all of reality. Fixation upon things of the explicate order and the belief that nothing beyond them exists leads to the formulation of absolutes. Glimpse of the implicate order gives rise to the cosmic religious feeling that Einstein wrote of.

Sometimes a mind previously unaware of the implicate order can be opened suddenly to a new vista of understanding. Thomas Aquinus left off the dictation of Summa Theologica (a classical absolutist opus) after a mystical experience during the celebration of mass made all he had written seem like "straw."

The Eternal Sugarbowl glimmers in the implicate order. It is not a thing; it is not anything that a human hand or mind can grasp, and therefore mankind's search for personal immortality is doomed to failure. And yet, in glimpsing its wonders, the mortal mind becomes part of the timeless wholeness of the undivided universe with its everlasting sweetness.