The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, November 16, 2009

Wonder, Awe, and a Glorious Dawn

One of the things that I find I am often accused of (always by people who don't know me very well, if at all) is that my lack of belief in the supernatural (or, more accurately, my acceptance that most of the symptoms of the supernatural that most people cite are actually easily explained and mundane things) is a clear sign that I lack a sense of wonder and awe about the world. The moment that someone says this, I know that I am speaking with someone who hasn't a clue as to what my views are.

It's true, I don't believe in ghosts, I don't worship gods, and I don't believe that the "ancients" (whoever they are conceived to by the the nit who is bothering me at that moment, from Mayans to ancient Hebrews, from pseudo-historic European tribes to escaped Atlanteans) held the absolute real Truth about the universe. And that is why those who accuse me of lacking a sense of wonder and awe are imbeciles. Belief in these things does not infuse one with a sense of wonder and awe of the world, but instead replaces reality with a safer, more toned-down alternative with which one can play the awe game until it gets scary, and then safely put the thing away. A naive clinging to supernatural beliefs does not suffuse the universe with mystery, instead it places limits on us finding true mysteries by distracting us into thinking that the universe plays by our rules (though we may pretend that these supernatural rules somehow come from elsewhere, they are - and bear all marks of being - products of our own minds).

Getting past these things, however, one is confronted with the very real universe. A place so huge that while our intellects can make the necessary calculations, we can never even truly feel the size of it. A place so old that the age of one planet in it dwarfs our comprehension to the point that many of us go scurrying back to the safety of supernaturalism in order to not have to confront it.

The universe may contain many of the things that our notions of the supernatural hold to. Perhaps there are ghosts, perhaps psychic powers do exist, maybe there are beings powerful enough to be considered gods. While I find these things unlikely, they may be true. The universe is large enough that we have been unable to see even a fraction of it, and we understand even less. But, and here's the key, if these things do exist, odds are that they are just as dwarfed by the vastness of the cosmos as we are here on Earth. Even if they are real, they are only a small part of a much larger whole, and probably no more or less significant than we are. So, again, if the supernaturalists are right, they still are looking only at a tiny corner of the world around them and arrogantly declaring it to be the whole (or at least the most important part of the whole).

And here's the important thing - we have begun to develop the tools necessary to separate what is real from what is simply our perceptions, our wishful thinking, and our arrogance. Obviously, the tools that I am talking about fall collectively under the label of science. It is a curious thing that scientists are often accused of arrogance by the supernaturalists, when the tools that comprise science are all admissions that our own perceptions are limited and fallible and that we need something more reliable if we are to find any sort of truth. Everything from the replicability of experiments to the use of mathematics wherever possible to the requirements of peer review are all admissions of this basic level of humility. Individual scientists can be arrogant, as can any other person, by science itself is only held to be arrogant by those who haven't a clue as to how it works.

And the things that science has shown us - from our early ancestors to the outer reaches of space to the earliest moments of the universe to the inner-world of the sub-atomic particle - are amazing, wonderful, and awe-inspiring. More importantly, science has shown us how little we actually know. The vast majority of stuff filling the universe is referred to as "dark matter", an arbitrary label for a thing or things whose identity we don't know. Likewise, a mysterious force is causing the expansion of the universe to continue accelerating. We call this force "dark energy" because, once again, we haven't a clue as to what it is. Closer to home, we are only now beginning to work out how the brain works, how consciousness functions, and how we think and feel. We are still trying to figure out the paths by which a group of tropical primates spread throughout the world to become the most impactful species on the planet. And the way in which our manufactured tools have become part of our evolutionary path is still unknown.

And you know what, these, and literally millions of other matters both related and unrelated, are real mysteries. I have yet to meet anyone who actually knows of them who hasn't spent a sleepless night pondering the stars, who hasn't had to sit down for a while to consider the mind-blowing fact that they don't contain a single cell that was present in their body at birth, or who hasn't had their mind blown by the realization that within our bodies at the sub-atomic level exist the same processes that exist within every other piece of matter in the universe. Consider further that we would not exist at all had it not been for massive stars converting hydrogen into every other element in the universe before exploding and spreading those materials into the universe.

Mystery? Awe? I have plenty of both, more than any theologian or ghost hunter or self-proclaimed medium. And unlike them I don't have to place topics off-limits to preserve the mystery. I don't have to ignore psychology or brain physiology as the believer in psychic powers or ghosts does in order to preserve my notions about the world. I don't have to declare that the origins of the universe are off-limits (as the Vatican tried to do to a group of physicists including Stephen Hawking) in order to maintain a gap in which a god can hide. I don't have to declare that new data is wrong simply to preserve my pre-existing notions about any topic. The mysteries that I see are real, and when they are solved, they will reveal even more mysteries, like a Russian doll filled with wonder. Arrogantly declaring something to be the truth will not make a bronze-age middle eastern sky diety any more real, not make psychic predictions any more accurate, and won't make pseudo-medicien any less harmful - but putting aside our childish clinging to these things and accpeting that the universe is more amazing than those who have advocated for them has ever imagined will make us better as people, as a species.

The way that we teach science is probably part of the problem. Most non-scientists incorrectly believe that science is the rote memorization of facts, and that the scientific method is a cut-and-dry process rather than the dynamic, amazing, and often messy thing that it really is. We need better communication. Currently, the best people doing this are Neil DeGrasse Tyson (who is, frankly, the coolest scientist ever, that's not my opinion, that's a fact), and Stephen Hawking. In the past, the best was Carl Sagan. But we need more. We need charismatic, intelligent people who can communicate the wonder, awe, fun, and truth of this approach to knowing the world. Who can show why this is both a stimulating and profoundly humbling way of looking at what the universe is, and, as part of the universe, what we are.

In recognition of this, I point you towards this video making the rounds of the internet. It's funny in concept, but actually rather beautiful in execution.


Shawn said...

That's some great writing, there, Matt!

This speaks to exactly what you're talking about, I think, a la wonder and awe:


Anthroslug said...

Thank you for the compliment, Shawn, and thank you for the link. After reading that, I feel amazingly giddy. It is too damn cool!