The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

What's Wrong With the Natural World?

I'm off to Portland for a few days, but in the meantime, I thought I'd leave you with this - an essay by my friend Dave - see the link on the left-hand side of the page for his amazing puppet shows. As so often happens, Dave has written an essay that corresponds with my own ideas, but is far more eloquent than I could have written. Enjoy:

What’s so Bad About the Natural World?

There are lots of various reasons that people give for believing in gods or the supernatural. It's neither my purpose nor desire to coerce anybody out of their beliefs provided they are not using these beliefs to cause harm. However, I do think that there is a spectrum of quality for these arguments for belief, and that while I personally subscribe to none of these arguments, I can concede that there are some arguments which are better than others.

There is one particular reason that people give for believing in the supernatural that I have always found spectacularly bad. Unfortunately, it is one of the more common reasons that people give for their faith. The reason is this:

"I believe in ______ because I just can't imagine that this is all there is."

If people mean by this that there has to be more to life than just waking up, going to work, paying your bills, growing old and dying… well, yes. There's a great deal more to life than that, I wholeheartedly agree. But if you're saying that there has to be more out there than just the natural world… well, frankly, I'm a little bit stumped. Are people even looking at the natural world?

On this planet right now there are an estimated 5-10 million species of animal life on the planet – that's animal life, not counting flora. We live on a planet with naked mole rats and anglerfish and venus flytraps and kangaroos - and yet the current state of Earth's species is the briefest snapshot of the planet's four billion year history of life. Four billion years! Can you imagine it? We've had a history of life so incredibly diverse that the human imagination, when trying to invent mythological animals, can do little more than rearrange the wonderful designs that nature already gave us.

And that's just Earth! The Hubble telescope once took a deep field image which showed approximately ten thousand galaxies. The average galaxy can have anywhere from a few million to one trillion stars. That photo represented only one thirteen millionth of the night sky – and that's only the observable universe!

So when I hear people say things like, "Well, the natural world can't be all there is," it positively boggles my mind! The horizon of the natural world is so vast, that the word 'infinite' seems so shamefully inadequate as to seem insulting. How can people look at that, roll their eyes and say, 'is that all there is?' (Unless, of course, you happen to be Peggy Lee, in which case, you can do it because you're awesome)

I suspect that for some people, the vastness of everything is part of the problem. I fear that for a certain type of person the belief that 'there has to be more than just this' really means 'there has to be more than just this for me.' The universe has to have a plan for me. There must be an underlying meaning that involves me. My spirit and my soul and my ego have to survive death. I can't imagine the universe could work any other way.'

I like to think that particular outlook is the minority position. Not to be unkind, but the perception that we have to have a cosmic plan involving us really is rather childish. The universe does not owe us some grand importance, no more than it owed importance to dinosaurs, trilobites or amoebas. Our lives can certainly have meaning or importance, of course, but they are the meaning and importance that we ourselves choose to strive for; a freedom that sounds far more appealing than being pawns in a cosmic chess game. We cannot expect to be handed our significance.

I'd like to think that childish entitlement towards the universe is rare. I hope that most people are simply unaware of the wondrous complexity of the universe around them, or that in their day-to-day activities they tend to overlook it. It's easy to do. When you've got a splitting headache at work, you're not thinking about how amazing your circulatory system is. When your boss is yelling at you, you don't marvel at the gradual development of human language. But it is all still amazing. Even when we take it all for granted, or get distracted by trivial minutiae's, the natural world is still more brilliant than anything that any mind could ever imagine.

I can almost understand people who say that they have to believe in the supernatural because the universe is so beautiful and amazing that it must certainly have a loving intent behind it. I don't necessarily agree with the sentiment, but it can still resonate with me – a belief in the supernatural based upon awe for the natural.

The point of this essay is not to try to discourage people away from their faith. But if I can be so bold, I would like to make a humble suggestion. This is a suggestion for non-theists and theists alike. Every once in a while, just stop and really pay attention to the natural world. Take a moment to put aside both your day-to-day life and the afterlife. Try to take the time to look at the world, not as something to transcend, not as something to shuffle off when you go to your perceived heaven, but as an amazingly beautiful thing in and of itself. Don't blow off the universe.

After all, that's one of the things the Wiccans get right.

"Life is but a momentary glimpse of the wonder of this astonishing universe, and it is sad to see so many dreaming it away on spiritual fantasy"
- Carl Sagan

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