November 11, 2007
NOTE: This column is an excerpt from a longer piece with the working title “I Believe.”At the rate I am going, I will likely finish the longer piece when I am 80.
On Valentine’s Day, 1990, astronomer Carl Sagan talked NASA engineers into turning the Voyager I spacecraft around, so it could take a picture of Earth from way out on the rim of our solar system, roughly 4 billion miles away. Sagan later wrote of the resulting photo: “Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives… [on] a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”
I believe that we are biological. Period. I believe we evolved to what we are the same way everything else on the planet has. Genetic discoveries in the past half-dozen years have provided maps of the human genome telling us that the entire 6-billion-member human species goes back 7,000 generations to an original population of about 60,000.
That is roughly the number of, say, orangutans remaining in the world today, or the population of Bayonne, NJ. The DNA of any two humans is 99.9 percent identical. This means that people the world over are much more similar than they are different. Most of the differences are cultural.
I believe that we are biological, but I have trouble believing that is ALL we are. It seems wasteful. Everything we become in our lives, great poets, scientists, artists, thinkers, flickers out to nothing? The most ordinary human is a wealth of experience and even wisdom. Does that blink out? Is all of that mere data stored in three pounds of gray Jell-O under a dome of skull?
My mind tells me yes.
My heart tells me no.
But my heart has always feared the dark. It cannot imagine non-being without quailing in terror, though it ponders its apparent non-being before birth without the least tremor…been there, done that. I find this mysterious. As though a man, used to poverty, finds a dime and then lives in terror of the day he will lose it.
I believe that life is a miracle, though not one necessarily conjured by the action of any outside force. It may be that life, however miraculous, is actually as common as beans out there in the scattered worlds of the vast cosmos.
Matter is energy, dozing, and all life as we understand it is a strange dance of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, potassium and sulfur. I believe that Nature wastes nothing. Matter and energy are really the same things uttered in a different idiom. Death and life, decay and growth, chemicals rising up to a fevered tango only to fall back to dust, all is energy jumping in and out of the shadows. It may mean nothing. It may mean everything.
I believe that our minds are products of our bodies, which are the products of chemical and physical properties. I believe that when I die I am dead, a match burned out. I also believe that I will always act and think as though “I” am separate from, though inextricably linked, to all this bumping, jiggling, wheezing gear in which I travel. I accept that my understanding of the universe consists of contradictions. I believe that this galaxy of contradictions is a basic human condition, a balance of opposition necessary to keep us from tipping over. A human that believes truly that they are nothing but a few decades of chemical fizz is a heartless biological automaton, possibly lacking any moral compass. A human that thinks he is the earthly utterance of God, a thing essentially spirit placed here to have dominion over all things, is a dangerous fool.
At the same time, the idea that life has no intrinsic truth or morality leaves me feeling hollow and afraid. Dammit, I want to believe that there is somebody out there in charge, that this is all for something. And I have a whole list of people whom I would like the Almighty to smite.
I believe that there is much we do not understand. I do not believe in ghosts and the ‘spirit’ world so popular these days. That is to say, I do not believe in the “supernatural,” simply because I believe that there is nothing that is outside of nature. I believe that much that has been reported as ghosts, UFOs, mental telepathy, and predictions uttered by your Aunt Hattie’s tea leaves, whatever else they may be, are events arising from a natural universe, and include large doses of gullibility and coincidence. When the mysteries behind so-called supernatural phenomena are explained, it will be science and reason that explain them, not some reedy whisper from beyond the pale.
I believe that God gave us minds so that we would eventually figure out that he doesn’t exist.
I believe Nature is improvident, and spends itself like a drunken sailor. Profligacy is the rule of thumb. Creatures at the bottom of the food chain rapid-fire their progeny willy-nilly into the world’s myriad appetites. We are here, the end product of millions of years of primate evolution. The fundamentalists say “not so.” Nature seems to say “so what?”
I believe that the growing movement among fundamentalists and “know-nothings” of every ilk may be the most terrible danger our civilization has faced. Attacks by terror and disease destroy our bodies. Shunning real, demonstrable science, rational thinking, and a sense of history, indeed, turning away knowledge for what is more comfortable, will destroy our souls more surely than could any host of fallen angels.
© 2007 Marsh Creek Media,