From the merger of a microscopic sperm and an egg in the darkness of the womb arises an entity that gradually acquires self-awareness and an identity all its own. This embodied consciousness reflects and rejoices, creates and communicates, and engages in countless activities for a brief time-span. Then, after a final puff, its non-physical attributes vanish. No thinking mind can remain unimpressed by this remarkable phenomenon that, as far as we know, is unlike any other in the silent stretch of space and time. If anything is mystery, then human consciousness is.
It is difficult to dispose this off as another cause-effect accident of casual chemistry. Niels Bohr once said that if one is not jolted by quantum mechanics, one has simply not understood it. I will confess that the jolt I received from my first encounter with quantum mechanics was not half as intense as what I still feel when I reflect upon consciousness. I cannot dismiss it as yet another emergence like thunder or volcanoes in nature's blind dance. Reading and reflection on religious naturalism has only accentuated this sense of supreme mystery in me.
Four centuries of modern science have thrown much light on the physical basis of this uncommon wonder, which may have parallels in other planetary pockets in the universe. Perhaps some day we will be able to account for it in terms of neurons, microtubules, or some other matter-based principle. But as of now, it remains a fantastic anomaly in the mindless arena of mass-energy. No purely material link has as yet been unveiled between alphabetical permutations and sublime sonnets, nor between molecular structure and meaning and value. Perhaps the tenuous bridge between matter and mind is an aspect of transcendence.
It is quite satisfying to many to regard love and laughter, acts of kindness, and the quest for truth as among the peak performances of neuron firings, as evolutionary upshots of cerebral chemistry, as readable scripts from genetic programming. It may well be that we are essentially sophisticated carnal robots which compose music, write poetry, and make jokes. But it is also plausible that some kind of transcendence is at work in the context of value and meaning and whatever else goes with what we loosely call the human spirit.
Each one of us carries within a totality that is more than the sum of our body's material substrate. Yet, many of the atoms and molecules that make up our anatomy at this hour were not part of us in the not-so-distant past. Moreover, millions of microorganisms thrive and perish in our saliva and alimentary canal. With all that, there is a subtle self that has been illumining every one of us, something that etches the identity of a separate existence even within a hugely interconnected whole. This self has been with us since the first utterance of I and me, and it will be part of us until the dusk of life when, gradually or suddenly, our individual memories will falter and fade away for good.
We cannot deny the biochemical basis in the persistence of personhood. Some day, silicon configurations in plastic casings may acquire feelings and emotions, mimicking the heaves and exhilarations of the human heart. Computers create music today; they may be enjoying it tomorrow. But this is no proof that there is nothing beyond matter and energy in space and time. Who is to say that silicon chips can't experience transcendence?
Nature certainly appears as a tangible manifestation of matter and energy. However, the laws of nature that organize and sustain it cannot be located here or there or anywhere: They pervade the entire span of spread-out space and ceaseless time. From this perspective, transcendence is the intangible principle that breathes life into inert matter. The scientific, philosophical, and religious quest for transcendence may well be more than thirst for a fantasy. Even as a heliotrope is drawn to light, the evolved brain may be reaching out for transcendence. If it is a thirst, the thirst could well be the yearning of the human spirit to remember its own pre-physical origins.
Beauty and colors so pleasing to the eye,
Stars and planets in the dark sky,
The ratio in the circle denoted by pi,
The surging of the seas and the marvel of the fly
The splendor of the flowers that blossom and die:
All these were there as eons rolled by.
But neither plants nor trees, nor beasts nor birds
Described all these in rhymes or in words.
Nature and her laws were occult in the dark,
Till consciousness came, and lit them with its spark.
How did this happen, for what purpose and whence?
Could the answer for this be in Transcendence?
-Varadaraja V. Raman, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of physics at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. This essay was originally presented as a speech at the 2002 Institute on Religion in an Age of Science conference Is Nature Enough: The Thirst for Transcendence.