Tuesday, May 16, 2006

the indifferent but infinitely amazing cosmos

Several days ago I finished reading Cosmos, the well-known bestseller by the late Carl Sagan. It's a wonderfully engaging text just like its sequel, Pale Blue Dot, which I completed a few months earlier. I was so impressed with Carl Sagan's message in Cosmos that I purchased another of his books, the much acclaimed The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark this past weekend.

As you have probably gathered from a few of my earlier posts, I have some issues with the invocation of God to explain some of the events of this world. This, of course, is a product of my own experiences which have shaped my journey through life. Some others will naturally feel differently about this matter, because of their own unique experiences in life. In both cases, our conclusions are deeply personal and I can attest to that most surely. Religion and faith are topics that I have wrestled with for many years. At one point in the past, I dabbled in a little bit of this before I'd change shortly afterwards to a little bit of that. I was exploring, seeking, asking so many questions about the why's, how's, who's, and what's. And today is not very different. I continue to explore, asking some of those same questions. I think at heart I'm a explorer not just of the physical world that we inhabit but the mental and spiritual realms as well and this raucous ride of a life that I have led has been a testament of that surely. I have been wanting to write about Cosmos for several days, but this topic is so large that I didn't know how quite to start let alone finish. The thoughts surrounding Sagan's observations and ideas coupled with my own makes this writing exercise a bit challenging.

The spark for much of this recent episode of self-reflection and thus, the spark for my thoughts here was the news from my opthalmologist two weeks ago. It's as if cancer doesn't cause enough introspection that I needed glaucoma to come along. It seems like the drama never fails to end. But it's best, of course, that I'm aware of any potential health issues. No one wants blindness to sneak up on them. God, no. I'd rather be informed and know the risks beforehand. Yet it has been only three months out from the hospital and I learn about my risk of glaucoma. Where's the respite I wondered. And then, it dawned upon me. There isn't any. It is what it is. Life, the world, the cosmos is wonderful and infinitely amazing, but indifferent to human suffering. Yes, it's cold I know but that's how I feel.

Again, many of the thoughts that I'm bringing to the fore here have been jostling in my noggin for some time. It wasn't like I read a passage somewhere and then, instantly I reached a certain conclusion. It's just that in Sagan I found an eloquent voice for my reflections. He merged my incongruous ideas into one persuasive and eloquent voice. Thoughts and questions concerning the nature of life and the apparent lack of justice that this world welcomes to each new generation surfaced during my travels abroad, for example, where I saw firsthand the lack of political freedom and the prevalence of economic and social inequality. Reading about and watching the domestic and international news exposes more of the global suffering. What am I to think about the numerous children and kids, who are born and live with threatening illnesses? What about the tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004? Or the devastating earthquake in Pakistan last year? Thousands and thousands killed or injured in seconds. When I was at the Young Adult Post-Treatment group two weeks ago, I couldn't but help think about the human suffering that I was hearing in each participant's story. Just so many young and progressive folks striken with cancer. Every day, respectable, decent people receive the call of Death, but the heartless and rapacious live another day. To say that a Judeo-Christian-Muslim God who is all powerful and all-knowing and all-loving tolerates all of this makes little sense to me. How can that be? Original sin. I don't buy that either. Rather it makes a lot more sense to acknowledge that life, the world, and the cosmos are as just as they are and that they have been that way for billions and billions of years, long before humans were on stage. The cosmos is the way it is, not as we'd like it to be. And as Sagan says, this can be a very difficult thing for us to come to turns with because it challenges so much of what we have been taught and believe.

But this isn't the complete story. Just because life and the cosmos are indifferent to our little blue dot of a planet doesn't mean life or we humans are meaningless. Sagan argues that the immensity of the universe and the possible diversity of life forms out there almost guarantees that our species is one of a kind. The evidence suggests that there aren't homo-sapiens anywhere else out there. Each one of us represents a being, a creature that was never before and will never be again. This is an awesome, humbling thought to reflect upon. Our species is most precious and fragile and perhaps its most awesome gift is its self-consciousness. No other living creature is cognizant of its own existence and in addition, has the ability to change its environment. As a species perhaps our greatest legacy will be that in light of our natural weaknesses and the challenges (some of which we created ourselves and others that life happened to throw us), we continued to press ahead again and again despite every obstacle in our way.

Reading Cosmos and now The Demon-Haunted World have opened my eyes a lot. I have always enjoyed learning about science (though I was never very good at it). Astronomy was and remains a favorite interest of mine. And cancer has strengthened my interest in the sciences more than ever.

I wish everyone could read these books. If anything, they should make one reflect deeply. Reading Sagan, I was reminded of a NPR audio essay by Penn Jillette (of the comedy act Penn and Teller) in which he explains quite eloquently why a life without God is sufficient enough. (Read Penn's essay here.) God, to paraphrase Penn, simply makes things more confusing. Rather than take it for granted that God does exist (as many people do), Penn argues that it makes more logical sense to first prove that he does in fact exist at all. There are so many wonderful, tangible things that this world and indeed, this universe, gives us and we can see their beauty, power, and intelligence every single day. Believing that one will never find more than that which he or she is so fortunate to enjoy on Earth, Penn states:

I have love, blue skies, rainbows and Hallmark cards, and that has to be enough. It has to be enough, but it's everything in the world and everything in the world is plenty for me. It seems just rude to beg the invisible for more. Just the love of my family that raised me and the family I'm raising now is enough that I don't need heaven. I won the huge genetic lottery and I get joy every day.

Interesting perspective, I think.

Rather than go on and on, since I don't know where and when it'd end, I think it's best if I just list some of the many passages written by Sagan that struck me below:

And yet the monuments and cultures of each of our civilizations merely represent different ways of being human. An extraterrestrial visitor, looking at the differences among human beings and their societies, would find those differences trivial compared to the similarities. The Cosmos may be densely populated with intelligent beings. But the Darwin lesson is clear: There will be no humans elsewhere. Only here. Only on this small planet. We are a rare as well as an endangered species. Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not fiind another.

Finally, at the end of all our wanderings, we return to our tiny, fragile, blue-white world, lost in a cosmic ocean vast beyond our courageous imaginings. It is a world among an immensity of others. It may be significant only for us. The Earth is our home, our parent. Our kind of life arose and evolved here. The human species is coming of age here. It is on this world that we developed our passion for exploring the Cosmos, and it is here that we are, in some pain and with no guarantees, working out our destiny.

Those afraid of the universe as it really is, those who pretend to nonexistent knowledge and envision a Cosmos centered on human beings will prefer the fleeting comforts of superstition. They avoid rather than confront the world. But those with the courage to explore the weave and structure of the Cosmos, even where it differs profoundly from their wishes and prejudices, will penetrate its deepest mysteries.

We are, in the most profound sense, children of the Cosmos. Think of the Sun's heat on your upturned face on a cloudless summer's day; think how dangerous it is to gaze at the Sun directly. From 150 million kilometers away, we recognize its power. What would we feel on its seething self-luminous surface, or immersed in its heart of nuclear fire? The Sun warms us and feeds us and permits us to see. It fecundated the Earth. It is powerful beyond human experience. Birds greet the sunrise with an audible ecstasy. Even some one-celled organisms know to swim to the light. Our ancestors worshiped the Sun, and they were far from foolish. And yet the Sun is ordinary, even a mediocre star. If we must worship a power greater than ourselves, does it not make sense to revere the Sun and stars? Hidden within every astronomical investigation, sometimes so deeply buried that the researcher himself is unaware of its presence, lies a kernel of awe.

Science is far from a perfect instrument of knowledge. It's just the best we have. In this respect, as in many others, it's like democracy.

Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or of acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutally exclusive does a disservice to both.

I might not have been as eloquent here as I would have liked. I have so many ideas floating around in my noggin at this moment. Like I said in an earlier post a few days ago, I'm exploring this and that and so much in between.


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