Posts Tagged ‘universe’

SERMON: “Will The Earth Die Without Us?” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 30th, 2012

There are times when the obvious slaps you in the face, like that rake you forgot in the yard — concealed in the grass, tines pointed to the sky — that you’ve just rediscovered by stepping on it in that particular way that rather rapidly accelerates the wooden handle’s rise toward your nose.  “Thwack”.

What I’m thinking about today is the end of the world as we most often envision it.

In the Bible, once the human story (that God has created the earth to tell) ends, the earth ends as well, with the promise that God will make a new heaven and new earth, sort of a divine version of that song “If that Earth of mine don’t shine, I’ll burn it up and give you one that’s fine”.

And though coming from a radically different point on the ideological spectrum, the rallying cry of environmentalism has been a similarly dire one: we must change our ways in order to “save the planet!”

What these examples have in common is an underlying notion that our story as humans and that of the planet we live on are the same story.  Like a jilted lover, we seem to find it unbearable to contemplate that our planet might be willing and able to go on without us!

The religious scoff at environmentalists, certain that it is human pride alone that suggests we small creatures could ever harness the power to destroy a planet that God made.  But such a critique is rooted so completely in religious belief that it cannot be taken seriously as a scientific argument.  (Environmentalists, for their part, at least base their predictions regarding the fate of our species on actual science).

But they are both fighting over the hand of the same object of affection: the Earth.

Because our planet is essential to our own existence, we have, perhaps, a natural need to lay claim to its affections.  But the fact is that the Earth was here long before we came along, and it will be here long after we’re gone.  It was no more “attached” to the dinosaurs or the trilobites as it is to us.  If Earth were capable of caring about us at all, it would very likely see us as but one in a long string of short-term lovers.  Yes.  It turns out that Earth is a slut.

And yet our obsession is such that we can’t imagine the Earth continuing without us (at least not in any recognizable, desirable form).  The religious fantasize the earth throwing itself on our funeral pyre, so to speak, having no reason to go on, whereas the environmentalist might see Earth stumbling on as a chronically-toxic dump ruined by our industrial rapaciousness, a cautionary tale to any future suitor.  But to imagine Earth continuing on as a verdant, beautiful shimmering planet, spinning as ever through the cosmos?  It wouldn’t dare!

This is how self-centered we are.  This is how important we think we are to a vast, mindless universe.  On some level, it is almost impossible for us to really accept that humanity was not the (secret) goal of evolution all along, or that God made the Earth so he could delight in our company.  Either way it only stands to reason that when we come to our end so should the Earth!

But what is there in any observable reality that suggests this should be so?  Nothing.  We may want to believe that the universe cares about what we do, but so far all of the evidence strongly suggests that it doesn’t.

But we humans care about what we do (and how we do).  And that is the only point to environmentalism that is worth anything to our self-interest: preserving and prolonging the conditions that support our existence (which naturally extends to the myriad other life forms that are a part of that web of existence).  The religious are right about one thing, even if for the wrong reasons: we will never destroy Earth.  Not — as they believe — because God won’t allow it, but simply because we are not up to such a monumental task.  But they are wrong on the other, for altering the narrow zone of air, water and soil that support life is very much within our power, and we now appear to be well on our way to creating a set of conditions that will alter the earths’ climate in ways that will visit untold misery and destruction of millions of our fellow humans (and other life).

Discussions about the end of the world are lost in a fog of ideas and conceptions of that world.  We are clearly powerless to prevent a new age of volcanism, or the eventual fiery end of Earth as it is swallowed up our Sun.  Such things represent forces of a magnitude that would take no more notice of our presence than a steamroller would of a bacterium.  But it could be that we might be able to use our technology to stave off the next (seemingly inevitable) large asteroid impact, or that we may be able to keep at least one train from leaving the station: the current trend of global warming and sea level rise.

But the argument is further muddied by the unacknowledged self-centeredness of the human psyche, in our insistence that life revolves around us, even to the extent of thinking that an entire planet will just die if we leave it.  On some level this makes sense.  After all, we are the animals that bring meaning to biology.  Not by being the actual purpose of biology, but by dint of having evolved into conscience beings that are able to contemplate such things.  And since we are the only animals in the meaning game, it makes some sense that we would project our conclusions about significance on the blank screen of the meaningless universe.  But just because we can imagine our world in this way, does not make the world of our imagination real.

(I reviewed a book that was the notable exception to the idea of a shared fate between earth and humanity (“The World Without Us” by Alan Weisman — reviewed this blog).  This book is one long science-based thought experiment in imagining the ways that the products of human activity will decay over time.  It is a rather unsentimental vision, and only for those who are ready to face the fact that earth may not shed a tear for us when we’re gone).

But by the same token, I don’t support the notion that we humans are a cancer on the planet.  This view, too, smacks of a moralistic self-loathing that is unsupported by reality.  We may be like locusts or any historic species whose population exploded at some time and who ate themselves out of existence.  These and many more species have come and gone and the Earth itself has been no worse for the wear.  The damage that we concern ourselves with has always been that which occurs in the thin veneer of biological life that coats the surface of this rocky planet.  The planet itself chugs along, re-melting and re-forming crust along deep cracks in the surface, minor ecological irritants on it’s surface having no impact on it’s molten metallic heart.

And yet, having said all of that, it remains a tragic and sad picture to imagine the Earth after we are gone.  Not because the Earth will miss us, but because we will no longer be here to enjoy our life upon it — because there may be no other animal evolved to a point to engage in the study a star, or experience a sunset as a beautiful thing.  But that is a grieving for our own eventual departure.  That is me as a social animal feeling the full brunt of being alone in a vast and mindless universe.  That is a reminder that whatever meaning we bring to existence will leave with us when we go.  Like a movie projected onto a blank screen, our impression on the Earth will last only as long as our movie runs.  The blank screen may seem to come to life for the lovely moments we watch the movie play, but it does not become the movie itself.

To be sure, everything that is in us will return to the earth and the water and the sky and carry on as long as matter exists.  But our constituent parts will never again reassemble and bring our eyes and ears and minds back to life.  In this is the recognition of the terrible sadness and excruciating beauty of existence.

Let us stop expecting earth to cast itself upon our funeral pyre out of grief.  Instead, let us cherish the life and love and meaning that are within our reach.  For, as Robert Hazen writes in “The Story of Earth” (reviewed here this week):

“If you seek meaning and purpose in the cosmos, you will not find it in any privileged moment or place tied to human existence.  The scales of space and time are too inconceivably large.  But a cosmos bound by natural laws that lead inevitably, inexorably to a universe that promises the possibility of knowing itself, as scientific study inherently suggests, is a cosmos that abounds with meaning.”

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “History in the Making” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

My late dad, born in 1914.

I once talked to my father about the changes he had witnessed in his lifetime.  He remembered when electricity first came to his family home (in the 1920’s).  The first aircraft he saw were a World War One vintage “Jenny” and a U.S. Navy airship.  His father had been witness to the Johnstown Flood of 1889.   My mother recalls being a 12-year old girl walking her grandfather across town, noticing his distinctive limp from the wound he received at the battle of Chicamauga during the American Civil War.  As a child listening to the stories of our parents, history is always the thing that happened to the generations that came before.

This makes sense, as it takes some time for current events to become “history” — years must pass before we can see our own times in any sort of of context.

It is probably a sign of my own advancing age that I now reflect on the history that I have been witness to.  As a boy the long shadow of World War 2 reached into my imagination.  My dad was a veteran of that war, and my mother had lost many childhood friends to it.  What in my youthful experience could compare to a national and global event of that kind?  Vietnam?  Hardly.  The pollution of the planet that became a signal issue of my teens?  Maybe…  But perhaps I’ve looked in the wrong places for the wrong kinds of historical events.

If anything marks our age it is the growth of our technology.  The hints of it were there in my father’s boyhood home (that had gas for lighting and cooking and heat, but no electricity).  But by the time my father was born, electricity was already on its way and would soon arrive in nearly every home.  With electricity came the radio, and from the radio came the television.  Then, in my lifetime, came the personal computer and the silicon chip, which seems to have multiplied every other invention of humankind:  the computer became something that we shake like salt into our diet of technology, from a telephone in my pocket to the jet streaking across the sky.

And the computer has helped propel scientific discovery: we can see deeper into space and deeper into ourselves.  And this is where the stunning discoveries that have occurred in my fifty-plus years living are thrown into relief.

I remember as a school boy hearing that the theory of “continental drift”, once popular, had fallen into disrepute.  I looked with fascination at the depiction in National Geographic of the brutish Neanderthal, and the charts that showed a steady, linear progression of ancient ape to man.  And I sat with my schoolmates in the cafeteria to watch, together, the flickering image on a single, small television screen, of a man walking on the moon for the first time.

But a lot has changed since I was 10 or 11 or 12.  We now know that “continental drift” is really “plate tectonics”, which is now understood as the primary force behind the creation and renewal of the earth’s crust.  We have grown in our understanding of Neanderthals, realizing that they were not our ancestors after all, but only the last of who-knows-how-many evolutionary dead-ends on our ever-branching hominid evolutionary tree.  And, though I didn’t realize the significance of it at the time, the moon landing answered the most basic unanswered questions about where our grey cosmic companion had come from.  (Before we brought those moon rocks home we did not know, truly, that the moon had been blown out of a young earth by a cosmic collision).

But there is more.  In my lifetime scientists have arrived at startling conclusions about our universe:  For one, they figured out that the universe was still expanding and accelerating, and this knowledge led to establishing the age of our universe (something that had not been firmly established before); we began to understand that dinosaurs were not quite as we’d imagined them, but some could have been warm-blooded and covered in protofeathers.

Continued discoveries and analysis has given us a much deeper appreciation for both the majesty and complexity of our evolution.  The mapping of the genomes of living creatures (including humans) has opened up an indisputable window into the relatedness of all living things.  Theories that have guided scientific exploration for centuries have been tested, refined, discarded or dramatically proven.  Our knowledge of just how much “we know that we don’t know” has exploded in exponential ways.  We stand before creation better informed than any previous generation of humans, and yet even more deeply awed at what we see and who we are.  Well, at least some of us do.

I find myself impatient with my fellow humans, particularly those who continue to actively resist the knowledge of science.  I see tribalism, fear, and a retreat into mysticism that can be frightening to behold.  We humans appear to be a mix of the most modern minds and the most ancient atavistic reflexes against anything new or novel.  But taking a wider view, it is hardly surprising that everyone is not on board with science.  The pace of discoveries has been so fast — as fast, it seems, as the advances in our technology  — that it is perhaps asking too much to expect the average person (who must still see to his or her own survival, if only in economic — not animal — terms) to keep up with it all.

By the incredible good fortune of being born into a literate and affluent society, I am able to choose to devote a certain part of my time and energy to increasing my understanding of reality.  And for this I rely a great deal on a steady stream of well-written books and articles on science and my own observations.  This information is available to anyone who wants it, yet it penetrates only so far into our culture at large.  Some of that is due to economic and educational factors, but among all of those who have the same access and resources that I have, I have to recognize that I am an individual that has made certain adjustments to his brain: I have worked to “reboot” my perceptual software beyond a system of religious belief and into a more scientific framework.  I find that this change brings me closer to a view of the world that I can rely on, even as it infuses me with an awareness of the limitations of my own cognitive and perceptive tool kit.  But this sort of awareness would appear to be that of a minority of my fellow humans.

It seems to come down to this:  those that see science as a threat to their beliefs, and those that see it as an antidote to them.  Clearly, I am happy to be rid of the virus of irrational belief (which is what I consider most religious belief to be).  Or, I should say, free from most of the debilitating effects of this most natural of diseases.  Because I will always carry the tendency toward belief that has been hard-wired into my cognitive functions by evolution and natural selection.   I will never transcend this natural condition of the human mind.  (But even here I must thank science for giving me the awareness that I am a purely physical, bio-mechanical being).

That being said, we have also discovered that aspects of our physical being are plastic — meaning that we can affect our physical condition through specific actions.  And nowhere is this more true than in the cognitive functions of our brain.  We now understand that the terrible problem of addiction comes about because of the way in which brain chemistry adapts to the hyper-stimulation of drug use (to use that example).  Our brain chemistry and behavior actually change because of our feeding it something refined and potent.  Because of the brains plasticity we can alter our responses to other stimuli, and find ways to moderate our dramatic animal responses in ways that make our lives (as social animals living together in modern, interdependent communities) more pleasant for all involved.

But, perhaps oddly, the more interconnected we have become by technology the greater the implications of our personal responsibility.  Suddenly each individual is expected to be a sort of mini-specialist in their own behavioral psychology, the physiology of their digestion, immune system, and overall physical health (as examples) — each of us a sort of an amateur self-contained scientist.

To a large extent, we have managed to absorb a vast amount of data from science.  Even the most religious will cite science as support for their ideas about how one should live (even if they deny the science that says, for example, that the earth wasn’t created ten-thousand years ago).  We manage to steer the complex machinery that is a car or motorcycle at high speeds down narrow strips of road.  We figure out every new machine or device that comes into our hands, and we consume loads of news from every corner of the world every day.

That we are, in fact, pushed by all of this data into a near constant state of cognitive semi-overload is rarely discussed.  Because of technology, science, and population growth, life has just plain sped up a lot over the last couple hundred years.  We don’t realize how fast we are going because the acceleration has not been from a dead stop: each of us joins the rat race already in motion.

In a funny way, it seems like it could be this mixture of the acceleration of the demands on our primate brains — and the physical limitations of those brains — that could bring things to a screeching halt.  I wonder how much of this we can really take?  I wonder if we will all become aware of the “wall” before we smack our foreheads into it?  Science, of course, studies such things closely.  So do designers.  After all, what is the use of one more amazing function in a fighter jet if the best and brightest young pilot is too overwhelmed with inputs and alarms and distractions to utilize it effectively?

Most of us are not cognitively challenged to the level of a fighter pilot.  But compared to our Cro-magnon ancestors, we might as well be fighter pilots.  True — our cave-dwelling ancestors faced a daily threat of death in many toothy and tusked forms that do not trouble most of us in a modern society.  But I would argue that their brains were more accurately tuned to the environment that challenged them every day.  We modern humans are actively testing the limits of our brains in ways no other generation has in this, the largest human experiment ever conducted.

Interesting times, interesting times.

I wish that humankind as a whole would just sort of get with the program and at least agree to a common understanding that science is the best thing we’ve got for understanding reality.  But humankind is not much different than a microbial mat clinging to a seashore: a collection of individual life forms that is ever renewing itself — a spectrum of the very young, the mature, and the dying that will never be all of one mind at one time.

This is the tug at the heart that is an awareness of history.  History is the shape that the entirety of human experience takes in a given time frame, but it is mainly a conception — a way of thinking about our place in the endless parade that is that history.  It’s likely that earlier “change” epochs challenged the human brain and forced its evolution from lizard to mammal.  Perhaps our time is just the latest dramatic punctuation of the Ice Age equilibrium that has carried us until now.  I know I that feel challenged.  In thought, at least, if not in my ability to avoid the gnashing fangs of a sabre-tooth in the brush.

t.n.s.r. bob