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On this episode of Skeptiko…
Alex Tsakiris: …you’re talking about a deep evolution, a spiritual evolution, and I get that, I just don’t know that we can connect it with the dorky, neo-Darwinistic bullshit that we’ve been fed…
Tim Freke: My approach is look, there does seem to be the fact of biological evolution, whatever the mechanisms, however we come to understand that.. Then a hundred years ago something amazing happened with big bang theory, when we went, “Look, it’s not just life, it’s not just biology which has evolved, it’s the whole universe has evolved over 13.8 billion years.”
… so, this period where we could argue about the biological mechanisms is only the tail end anyway, I mean, clearly evolution can’t be about genetics only because there was no genetics when there was the evolution of basic gases, there was nothing. So the evolutionary process is much bigger than any biological evolutionary process.
Stay with us for Skeptiko…
Welcome to Skeptiko where we explore controversial science and spirituality with leading researchers, thinkers and their critics. I’m your host, Alex Tsakiris, and on this episode Tim Freke joins us to talk about his new book: Soul Story: Evolution and The Purpose of Life
Alex Tsakiris: Let’s give people the basic premise of this ambiguity that you tap into and I think so many people feel and experience between living in a scientific, technology-driven world and yet being drawn to the magical and the mystical part of life, I mean, frame that up, the basic premise.
Tim Freke: Well I think, you know, I became a philosopher when I was very young because I wanted to understand my life, and here I am much older and I’m still trying to do the same thing and I want to understand my life as I actually experience it and the way I experience life is very ambiguous; on the one hand I clearly live in a reality which I need to understand in a cause and effect way. When I drop something, it falls and there’s kind of, almost a brutal causality to the world and there’s a level in which it feels pretty chaotic and meaningless, on the one hand. But on the other hand I also experience life to be intensely magical, full of what people often call synchronicities, but those moments when meaning breaks out, when I explored the awakened state, which has been my preoccupation for most of my life. There’s a profound sense that this journey which we’re on is incredibly important, it has deep purpose and somehow I need to come up with a way of understanding the whole scope of reality, which can incorporate both of those.
For a long time, I think like many people, I’ve just lived with the ambiguity and tried to ignore it, but as a philosopher, over the 10, 20 years I just can’t do that, I’ve needed to go, look, is there a way in which we can understand this, which honors both of those experiences, which incorporates my experience of life in the way that science address it, but also my experience of life in the way that spirituality addresses it?
Alex Tsakiris: I get that in a sense, I get that a lot of people are coming at it from that way. Tap into that need to understand things scientifically and why you were drawn to that. What do you struggle with [it] scientifically? Why do we have to bring science along, I guess?
Tim Freke: Well, I don’t think we need to if you’re happy not to and a lot of people aren’t. But I myself find that, I find the scientific understanding so powerful, it is able to explain so much of its own level, not finally, not in a way that’s complete, in ways that I think need questioning and revising. Nevertheless, that I can sit here in Glastonbury in the UK and talk to you on the other side of the world is because of this incredible understanding, which the scientific method and science has given us. And I can’t help but be impressed by that, which is why it’s become the dominant worldview, amongst the intellectual mainstream anyway, I don’t think generally, but in the intellectual mainstream, certainly in the UK, it’s the dominant view.
On the one hand, I mean I love watching all these documentaries about the wonders of the universe and all the rest of it and it is very wonderful, but there’s a lot of small print and the small print that comes with the mainstream view of science is, “Oh, and by the way, you live in a universe which is accidental, your life has no meaning, you’re here for a few minutes, long enough to go, ‘What the hell?’ and you’re gone,” and it can’t address of these other experiences. That’s the issue.
So in its own terms it feels like we need it to have a complete description of the reality we’re in, and in particular, and this is the thing which the book focuses in on, over the last hundred years especially, it has come up with this incredible evolutionary narrative of the evolution, the emergence of the whole universe, and whether the details are right or wrong, we’ll go on debating that for hundreds of years, I’m sure, but the overall narrative is incredibly powerful and what strikes me from that narrative is it can help us unite the experiences we have of soul or spirituality with the experiences which are much more basic, the way matter works, the way that biology works, which science has been preoccupied with. There is a way in which we can see them as coming together rather than being in conflict, but both need to change for that to happen.
Alex Tsakiris: So this idea of evolution and also I think you used the word emergence there, but those two ideas are threaded throughout this book and I think they’re the vehicles by which you see this merging together, this resolving of the ambiguity.
Tim Freke: Yeah.
Alex Tsakiris: I’d like to dive into that a little bit. I’m not totally sold, I guess, that evolution packs enough punch to really do that. I mean, I feel like when I’m reading the book, you’re talking about a deep evolution, a spiritual evolution that I get. I just don’t know that we can really connect that with the dorky, neo-Darwinistic bullshit that we’ve been fed that we just know isn’t really true at some fundamental level. I mean it’s kind of been proven to be, at the very least, extremely incomplete and at the worst just not really very true.
Tim Freke: I think for me the whole issue about biological evolution and the neo-Darwinism is irrelevant actually, in that what I’m trying to do. It doesn’t make much difference whether it’s right or wrong, because I don’t come up that close; as you know, really there’s not very many scientific ideas in the book. It’s not a book about science; it’s really taking the scientific narrative in its broadest philosophical sense.
Now how the mechanism works for biological evolution, that’s a whole issue. You could write books and books on that, but I’m not the person to do it. My approach is look, there does seem to be the fact of biological evolution, whatever the mechanisms, however we come to understand that, and I think the philosophy – which I articulate – could be used retrospectively to actually question a lot of the assumptions of neo-Darwinism, but I’m not doing that right here. What I do here, well I play really to those coming from a scientific point of view, because I want to address both. I want to go, “Hey, people from a scientific point of view, see it this way. Hey, people from a spiritual point of view, see it this way.”
So from the scientific point of view, the basic way that I’m coming in is to say, “Look, with Darwin and Wallace we developed this idea of biological evolution. Now, we need to keep re-understanding that but this idea took hold and it’s a very powerful idea. Then a hundred years ago something amazing happened with big bang theory, when we went, “Look, it’s not just life, it’s not just biology which has evolved, it’s the whole universe has evolved over 13.8 billion years.”
So, this period where we could argue about the biological mechanisms is only the tail end anyway, I mean, clearly evolution can’t be about genetics only because there was no genetics when there was the evolution of basic gases, there was nothing. So the evolutionary process is much bigger than any biological evolutionary process. But the key thing for me is, look, we see now that we can see these two phases of evolution, which have distinct mechanisms, which have evolved from each other. One is the development of matter, which has seen the elemental table develop and the galaxies and all of that, and then we’ve seen this whole different thing, which is the evolution of life, which is a more emergent phase. It’s emerged from that more primitive phase of evolution.
The thing which I’m suggesting is that we now, having gone back and gone, “Oh, there was a phase of evolution before biological evolution,” now we need to go, “Oh yeah, and there’s another phase of evolution after biological evolution,” and that’s the evolution of soul and that’s what spirituality has been studying all of this time.
Now, I feel like, if you let me run, I need to say something about the word ‘soul’ to make sense of what I mean by that. So what I mean is, the word ‘soul’, I like it because it’s warm but we can use many names actually. The ancient word was psyche and we use that word now.
So what I mean by soul, what the word originally meant is, it’s referring to the fact that right now you and I and everyone listening is experiencing two utterly different dimensions of experience. On the one hand we’re experiencing sensation, of being a body, an animal in the world and on the other hand we’re experiencing a completely different level of experience, which you can call the imagination or the mind or the psyche or the soul and in my view these are all really different words for the same thing which come from different linguistic routes. What it’s referring to is an absolute, indisputable reality and one way I love to get that, because I love the obvious, is to say – as I speak now what you’re hearing Alex and what the listeners are hearing is me make funny noises – that’s what’s actually happening in the world of sensation and yet, what you’re actually experiencing is meaning, but that’s all in soul, that’s all in psyche, there’s no meaning in the funny noises. That’s a different level of reality which we are experiencing and it’s a reality which is not made of matter in our experience. We can look at it right now, it doesn’t exist in space, it has no location and it’s made of mind stuff, it’s made of memories and images and thoughts and imagination and my experiences of an explorer of soul is, if you go off into it – if you explore it with meditation or ayahuasca or whatever you want to explore it with – it’s huge out there; there’s all sort of things to discover in that other dimension.
So, what I’m postulating is, I think anyone who, even the most mainstream scientist would agree that the latest thing to arrive in the evolutionary process is psyche, is soul. The problem is that for mainstream science they go, “Yeah, but it’s just a side effect of a piece of meat.” But that’s like saying the fact that you and I are alive is a side effect of a load of chemicals with carbon, but it’s much more than that. If you took a pile of chemicals that make up my body it would be very different meat in my body, even though the constitutes would be the same, it’s an emergent thing.
So what I’m suggesting, in essence is, we need to understand the emergence, the evolutionary emergence of soul, the place where we are functioning now, the place where we’re having this conversation, as the emergence of a whole new level of reality and that that level of reality has come through first matter, then life, biology and now this more emergent level, soul and it’s in that more emergent level that we can make sense of experiences like magic, meaning and immortality, all the things which spirituality is concerned with.
Alex Tsakiris: Tim, you have a lot of creative and interesting ideas about the after-death aspect of our existence, of consciousness if you will. So lay those out and tell us where you came up with some of that, because I think some folks will take it and will just be drawn to it and other folks will be, “Wait a minute, what authority is he saying this stuff of what’s happening after death?”
Tim Freke: Yeah absolutely, and just to be clear Alex, I’m not saying this on any authority at all in any direction. I say this as an explore of life who has some insights and is often confused and is doing his best to create the best narrative and the most expansive narrative and to also experience life in the deepest way that I can and share it with others. That’s all it is.
Alex Tsakiris: Absolutely, great.
Tim Freke: So in that spirit I’m very concerned with death, I’ve worked with people who are dying, a lot of people I know have died, I’ve nurtured a lot of people through death including a lot of people close to me and it always feels to me something really important is happening. I’ve had experiences of people after death. I’ve met an awful lot of people who’ve had near-death experiences and I can’t just dismiss all of that.
So for me, as an individual, the question is not, do we survive death, it’s how the hell can I explain the fact that we do? Now, I know a lot of people aren’t in that situation and I respect them completely, but for me it’s more like that, how can I understand this, how can this be right? And the way that I framed it is to talk about the evolution of this other level.
When I talked earlier about [how] we exist as subjects and object, one of the things which I think is important, one of the things that physics has come round to is that nothing exists in the three-dimensional solid way that we think it does; one of the ways that we understand it therefore is everything is a type of information. It’s pretty vague, but it’s enough, which means that we can see information as existing on the physical, biological and soul level and information on a soul level, which is where you’re understanding the meaning of these words, is different to information on the biological or physical levels.
So, somehow we can understand… Well, let me try this analogy, it’s a very quick way of trying to say what I’m exploring but as a simple analogy maybe it helps.
For me, when I wrote my book, it looked like all that information was just on my computer and if I dropped my computer or spilled coffee on it, I’d lose my book, it would die. But actually, all the information that made up my book was actually going straight to the cloud, which meant that if my computer died, the information was still all there on a completely different level of information and could be accessed in a different way.
In a kind of comparable way as a simple analogy, something like that is what I’m suggesting, is that the information has arisen on a level which is non-material, which is like the cloud, compared to just being locally contained within my body, which is where it’s linking in some way with the brain. A whole load of questions about what that means, but leave those aside for a moment.
So, then what I’m suggesting is that with the arising of soul, with that other dimension, the dimension of images, has arisen a realm which we can go into, at least for a while, after death, which is why I think, if you listen to people’s near-death experiences, they sound like dreams. Why? Because they are, but they’re not unreal, they’re real dreams, they’re real on that level, they’re real on actually a more emergent level, which is a level in which we can experience as images, images that we’ve gained from our sensual experience take on a life of their own in soul, again we experience that all the time. Now, when we sleep we can just go deeper into it.
So what I’m suggesting is that ‘heaven’, if you like, has itself evolved and one of the things that I noticed when I wrote a book on people’s ideas about the afterlife, years and years ago, was you can see this kind of evolution of it, whereby it starts as something quite [full of] shades, something nebulous like the Greeks, which suggests that this, what I call the imagnos, the dimension of images, is only just coming into form and then it starts becoming a reflection, an idealized life, the Drinking Halls Of Valhalla or The Happy Hunting Grounds, that kind of image and then you start getting with the big religions coming in and then it’s populated by thousands of Buddhas or saints and choirs. And now you get these huge vistas, incredible experiences that people have in near-death experiences, which are multicultural now of course, and full of varieties and all sort.
So what I’m suggesting is, hey, this other realm is itself evolving and what we’re doing now is moving between these realms. That’s what spirituality has been saying for a long time, it’s just that it somehow saw that other realm as pre-existent, because it had no idea about evolution. Now we understand evolution, here’s an interesting thing: it itself has evolved.
Alex Tsakiris: You know Tim, one of the things that keeps gnawing at me is, how do you factor in time in this? I’ve spoken with a couple of folks who have mediumistic talents, who’ve told me… The first thing they tell me is, our whole conception of time is way off and this idea of this life/next life/past life is just blown away, it’s not the way it is. This is what they’re telling me.
Tim Freke: Yeah.
Alex Tsakiris: We are constantly being reincarnated, multiply into multiple lives that we’re living and this idea of how we experience it, which is very linear, is not at all what’s really going on. I mean, how does that factor in?
Tim Freke: I don’t relate to that at all. I mean, I’ve heard it said of course. I live in Glastonbury which is a center for all sorts of spiritual ideas and I respect people have their experience and whatever, but also I’m looking…
Alex Tsakiris: But this is basic science, science would not like this linear time thing at all.
Tim Freke: And science is the same. It is very popular in both science and spirituality to say that time is an illusion and I think both are wrong. I myself have said it, many times, you’ll probably find it in my books, but having meditated on it long and hard, right now I’m here wanting to say: I think that’s wrong, and here’s why. Because when I look at the moment, when I look at reality as it actually presents itself to me, the thing I can’t dispute because it’s now, I see time, I see a flow of changing experiences. So rather than it being an illusion it feels like we should start with the premise that reality is time, we just need to re-understand what time is. So that rather than seeing things as things, some sort of slice called ‘the moment’, we see that everything is a process in time, everything is what I call a time stream; me, you, the desk in front of me, the computer, everything, the plants I’m looking at out of the window, everything actually is a process and that time is fundamental.
Then I want to make a big suggestion about the nature of time, which is I want to say we’ve got the wrong analogy. We say that time passes, most of the time we don’t even notice it’s an analogy, but it is. What I want to suggest is a better analogy, which is that time accumulates, so there’s more past now than there was when we started this conversation, there’s more past now than when you invited me, when we both grew up, when we both learned to speak, more time now than when the big bang happened, when human beings first evolved, all of that. I want to suggest that the past hasn’t gone anywhere, that the past is implicit in the present, that implicit in this moment is everything that’s ever happened before and if it wasn’t it wouldn’t be this moment. Implicit is you and me, first talking, implicit is us learning language, like I said, implicit is everything, everything, everything that you have been and everything that I have been and everything that’s happened is implicit in this moment, which enables us to do history and which enables us to even have this conversation.
Everything requires that, so that what’s coming to form has come into form forever, because we can re-understand it, put it in new context, see it in a new light, but this conversation has happened now and it will have always happened. I will have said that. What I meant by that can be questioned blah, blah, blah, but it has happened. So that what this moment is the meeting of everything that has happened and everything that could happen. The past and the possible, everything which is fixed and everything which is unfixed.
This idea is a very ancient one, it actually goes back to Pythagoras who talked about the meeting of the limited and the limitless, the past and the possible and that what’s happening is that time is expanding, so information is accumulating and because the past is constantly expanding, there’s tendency towards evolution and greater and greater emergence, so that more and more emergent possibilities are arising through the evolutionary process as the past accumulates, so that the universe, far from time being an illusion, the universe is made of the past, that’s what it’s made of, that’s what you and I are made of. Right now, everything that I’ve been is meeting everything that you’ve been, that’s what we are.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay Tim, what about what parapsychology has to day about that, because they’ve looked at that, right? And in the book Soul Story you do touch on psychic abilities a little bit and you just a tiny bit dabble into that. Parapsychology has tried to study this in the lab because so many of us experience, like you said very early on, these experiences, these little time shifts that we have, these synchronicities, these looking ahead and looking behind in this timeline that we’re in and low and behold, when they put it in the lab they say, “Wow, there is this precognitive effect that’s going on. There is this presentiment effect that our biology is even aware of a shift in this timeframe.” Does that butt up against what you’re saying?
Tim Freke: No I don’t think so and again it’s because we need to understand the nature of soul, what I call narrativity. I’ve made up a lot of words as you will know having read the book and I’ve done that because the concept doesn’t have a word. So, what I wanted is to say, “Look, what defines this level of soul that we’re experiencing?” Well, it’s concepts, it’s ideas, it’s memories but above all it’s story, it’s a narrative. I am above all a story, I’m Tim’s journey through life and when I meet other people I go, “How’s your story?” and they say, “I am like this, how’s your story?” because that’s how we experience ourselves.
Now, the traditional wisdom, certainly in science is, oh well that’s a kind of a mental byproduct, it’s nothing. Whereas what I’m saying, no, evolution has led to the evolution of story, which is its own level, a bit like in a computer game, you can have the ones and zeros, which are probably fascinating and then you’ve got the computer system, which is like the biological level and that’s interesting, but really it’s all about getting to the story and that’s what it’s been about, is playing on the level of story and that’s where we’re playing right now, playing on the level of story.
So what I’m saying is that that level of story is not a passive thing, it’s interacting all the time. So just as on the level of biology or physics, I can predict the future, I’m not always right, but I can predict the future, which is how we can make this internet work, because people have been able to predict that if you do this and this and this with physical matter it behaves in these ways, and in the same way we have the facility to see, oh this is where the story’s going, but it doesn’t mean it’s definitely fixed, it just means that’s the way the story’s going, which is why sometimes it’s not right.
But I think we can start to explore how all of those experiences, the fact that we connect non-locally, the fact that I just met an old friend of mine while I was writing the book and I’d been contacted by a mutual old friend and they just knew, I don’t know how they knew, they knew their name, they just went, “Oh, you’ve been contacted by…” All of that strange, mysterious stuff which we all experience, well not all of us maybe but I certainly do and I’m sure you do. That gives us a vehicle where we can start going, ah, this is how this can fit into this other world, this is how they can fit together, as different levels of emergence in one spectrum of experience, all of which is operating at the same time and interacting and not any one level of which is absolute. All is relative to each other.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, we’ve spent a good deal of time talking about the science side of this ambiguity that you’re trying to wrestle and merge and find resolution for; the other side of course if the spirituality side. Very early on in the book you say spirituality is outdated, prerational and this religious mindset is something that we cannot tolerate, most of us in the scientific world that we live in. At the same time when it’s all said and done, can we step back and say, “Hey, wait a minute, maybe these wisdom traditions, looking at the whole, have been pretty darn close to the big answer,” the same answer that you come to, that it is all about love, it’s about connection, it’s about this deep truth that we share with one another. Are we being a little bit too harsh, are you being a little bit too harsh on religion, in terms of it coming to the right answer?
Tim Freke: Possibly, I mean one’s always more critical of the things that you’re involved in personally probably, and I’m much more ready to criticize spirituality because I know it so well and I feel I’m criticizing it from the inside and with affection.
For me, it’s like what I want to see is a form of spirituality which is all encompassing. So I want that, nothing is more important to me than the deep center of awakening and oneness and above all love. That’s the most important thing, but I also want it to be able to deal with questions in a rational rather than prerational way.
Now, if people don’t, that’s fine, that’s up to them, but I need to and I want to see if it’s possible and I believe it is. I believe that we don’t have to dismiss rationality in order to devote ourselves to love or dismiss rationality in order to believe in life after death. I think we can have a robust intellectual defense of these things which we intuitively know.