Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, August 03, 2007

The Spirituality of Reason

Why are Americans, uniquely among the wealthy and well-educated nations, so inclined to cower from the reality that shows itself to observation and reason, and hide in the superstition, fantasy and magical thinking of primitive forms of religion? For some reason, human culture has started to grow up in Europe, yet we have a pervasive developmental disorder.

I haven't come across any good analyses of this question, indeed I haven't found many efforts to grapple with it at all. It's just something we observe. A majority of Americans do not believe in biological evolution, and a substantial proportion reject the very existence of the physicist's universe. Questions such as whether adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere causes it to become warmer, whether burning coal deposits organic mercury in bodies of water and contaminates fish, or whether instructing teenagers not have sex causes them to be celibate are treated not as empirical questions, but as propositions to be answered by faith and resolved through political power.

This situation is obviously extremely dangerous. In fact, unlike al Qaeda, which shares this basic philosophy, it poses an existential threat to our society, because we are already fighting it over here (and we aren't fighting it over there, either). But why are we like this? I don't have any very good ideas about why Americans are different from Europeans in this regard, but at least I have some idea of the appeal of unreason.

Scientific explanations for the world can be inconvenient, of course, as in the cases of global warming, pollution, and sex education, because they might mean we have to do something we would prefer not to do such as drive our cars less, use less electricity, or accept the fact that our kids might have sex whether we like it or not. But the big questions such as the origin and nature of the universe, and the evolution of life and human consciousness, pose graver threats to the ego. In the universe so unimaginably vast in space and time, into which we emerged by accident, we mean absolutely nothing. In Andrew Marvell's words,

. . . for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

There is, after all, something deeply fearful in our nature. I believe this is the same impulse that makes us behave as cowardly bullies in international affairs. Every problem is an existential threat to be met by overwhelming military force. Only if we swagger and bomb and shoot our way around the world can we ever feel safe. But if we can't even confront a rag tag band of fanatics holed up in remote mountains 8,000 miles away with equanimity, proportionality, and a rational strategy, how can we confront the indifference of the universe?

I don't know why Americans are such cowards, but I do know how to be brave. The way to thrive in this ancient, immense, cold dark universe is to believe in ourselves, celebrate ourselves, and take comfort in the meaning we have to each other. Who cares that there isn't a God who loves us or looks after us? We have each other, and eternity is before us as a species. We can work together to survive, grow, learn, and reach out to the planets and the stars. The universe may seem pointless, but it is far more awesome than some old codger who lives in the sky. Discovering it, understanding it, and learning how to live in it are enough to give meaning to any life.

Marvell's verse began with some words I omitted: Ah, love, let us be true To one another! Well, we aren't always faithful to our romantic partners, but that isn't what he meant.


Joseph said...

I don't think that Andrew Marvell wrote that poem; rather Matthew Arnold "Dover Beach"

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I'm always wondering why the universe keeps creating spheres in every creation, been a supernova, galaxy, planet, star, it is always a sphere, maybe we should pay attention to the sacred geometry that the ancient cultures use.

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