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The Progress of the Word

Three Great Questions

Three questions have exercised thinking minds for a very long time:

  1. How did the Universe begin?
  2. How did life on Earth begin?
  3. What makes Humankind unique?

Religions have provided 'answers' to all three. However, the traditional answers are demonstrably incompatible with discovered facts and should therefore be held in doubt. In particular, they should not be taught as truth to impressionable children.

It is interesting to see how the three great questions stand relative to each other. It is well known that the Universe had its origin aeons before the birth of our Solar System, which in turn occurred aeons before the first appearance of life on Earth. But further ages elapsed before our species, Homo Sapiens, first thought to ask the two 'earlier' questions.

There are prerequisites to the asking of such questions. They require a society of people who have sufficiently mastered basic survival to have the time, the luxury if you like, to start pondering greater things. But even more than that, they require a well advanced language to formulate both the questions and the first tentative answers.

Primitive language can be seen mainly as an aid to the survival of a community, for example, to signal danger. But advanced language is very much more sophisticated and is probably the product of self awareness, or sentience. With self awareness comes the need to understand the self and its relationship to its surroundings. The inquiring mind requires language, while language itself is both the fuel and the engine of our whole mental landscape.

In the Beginning was the Word...

"And the Word was with God, and the Word was God". St John, in my view, got that exactly right, but not in the way commonly understood. Questions precede answers, and both require advanced language. The answer to our third question, What makes Humankind unique? is nothing less than the ability to ask such questions, in other words, language (the Word) and the constructs of language, such as reason and abstraction.

As to the first two questions, we are still seeking answers. Some are willing to accept our earliest attempts, formulated when we barely understood the questions. But these early attempts fail to recognise that God is not an answer. It is just an avoidance of the question by feigning knowledge where none exists. Fortunately, some are still seeking better answers, by application of that greatest construct in our mental landscape - Science.

The physical universe around us and life here on Earth are observable phenomena. We did not create them. But we did create every single explanation of them, whether scientific or religious, using as the creation engine our own single greatest creation, language (in which I include mathematics). The concept of God arises from human language as do all the constructs of science and the arts. And in that sense only, we can say: In the beginning was the Word.

The Progress of the Word of Humankind

Language made it possible to formulate ideas, or more accurately, language and ideas nurtured and refined each other through the ages. Also, language made it possible for communities to pass on their knowledge to the younger generations. This no doubt continued through countless generations. But what kick-started our meteoric separation from all other species in terms of our ability to change our world, was the development of written language.

Under the oral tradition, the body of knowledge changed little from one generation to the next, but with writing came the possibility of repositories of knowledge, or libraries, where people could learn from and build on the work of the best minds from other times and places. Written language also made possible the advance of logic and mathematics far beyond what is possible in their spoken forms.

Gradually, we were able to produce a substantial body of what Karl Popper calls Objective Knowledge, a public domain of repeatable observations, refutations of earlier theories, newer tentative theories and hypotheses pending possible falsification. And now there's no stopping the progress of the Word. This progress may not be to everyone's liking. Our science has given rise to technologies that have not always been used altruistically. But there is no denying that all of this is built on the Word of Humankind. We did not create ourselves, but through the bootstrap effect of the language we created, we have defined ourselves and are, in effect, a self-made phenomenon, albeit one that has a long way to go.

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