Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Natural World

The long and tiring move is over, and we are finally getting settled in to our new house. It is a log house on two acres with a terrific view right out of the big glass doors to my home office area. We've traded the sounds of traffic and sirens to birds and cows. Indeed, while I frequently listened to music while working, lately I've been keeping the music off and just enjoying the birdsong. When we are out driving, it is not traffic we are weaving around, it is mountains. I can look up at night and see more than twenty stars. Thousands, on clear nights. Our house, at night, actually gets dark! There are no street lights outside the window, just moonlight. In short, we are living in nature, and nature is spectacular.

So why ... ruin it by making up stories about a creator that fiddled around and whipped up the whole thing in six days? That makes it sound so trivial. So mundane. So ... disenchanting. My nature was the product of several billion years of refinement. It has matured, like a fine wine. It is mysterious and wonderful because I don't assume that it happened for a reason, or at the hand of a master designer. Because I don't assume that human beings have lived on this planet but for a fraction of a percent of its existance.

I love driving in rural areas, especially ones that are new to me. I frequently get urges (so far unmet, but one of these days...) to stop the car and run up a hill to an isolated spot. I want to sit down right there, and wonder if any other human being had ever sat down right there before, or was I the first? And to think of all of the animals that had been right there, and what kind of lives had they lived, and sights they had seen. To think of all the strange plants and creatures that had been right there, but have long been extinct. Wouldn't the concept of somebody actually creating that spot ruin that feeling? Wouldn't the unconscionable brevity of the creation story of existence minimize the wonder of the ages past?

We are not the product of evolution, of course. Evolution doesn't work like that -- there is no destination. But we are undeniably part of the same wonderous device that is evolution, and therefore part of the same wonderous machine that is our universe. In the vast set of equations that are silently being perfomed every time two people fall in love, or whenever the weakest antelope falls prey to the lion, or when baby sea turtles fight their way across the beach, or as the tree with the strongest roots survives the storm, or when a butterfly flaps its wings in Tokyo...we are part of the system. What is more, we are only particularly special because we are aware of the system, and we are slightly more influential in the system than most of the other creatures on this planet. Which is to say, completely ineffective on a solar scale, much less universal.

In the immortal Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, Douglas Adams (an atheist, thanks to Richard Dawkins) envisioned that the perfect punishment was to be given awareness of how small and insignificant one really was in the universe. I don't believe this would effect many atheists. Myself, I rather like feeling that I am only a tiny part of the universe, because it means there is so much else out there to learn. But for many theists, this might indeed be the perfect torture. After all, theist mythology was born from a world that was very small, from the point of view of its inhabitants, and it hasn't developed as much as it might have since then.

But as humanity and human knowledge has grown, so has our awareness of the world. Believing that the universe was created by one being, let alone within a week, and that all of the animals on the planet could co-exist, much less fit, on a boat for more than a year, is shrinking the amazing universe we live in to an unappreciably small existance. Would the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel be nearly as awe inspiring if it was painted on the head of a pin? No.

The only way to truly appreciate the grandeur and splendour of the universe is by not taking it for granted. By explaining away our existence in just a few of pages in Genesis, we are making up answers to questions that deserve a lot more attention. A lot more ... reverence.

10 comments:

CHADMAC said...

Very nice blog David.

I constantly think about such things, but whenever I consider writing something about it, I can't get my words to come out as eloquently as you do here. My writing tends to be very analytical and scientific in nature, which is what happens when you're an engineer.

The ability to go and sit somewhere in nature where another human may never have sat before is one of things I really liked about growing up in a very small and remote town surrounded by boreal forest.

Again, nice work! It has inspired me to give something similar a go..... maybe next week.

bscheftic said...

Very nice article. I've always thought that if you think about the world for more than a few minutes you realize how much the creation story seems to cheapen the world.

Pedro Timóteo said...

As the other said: very nice. Reminds me of this Carl Sagan quote.

DocMike said...

Amen, Brother! Welcome to the Atheist Blogroll--DocMike

Brian said...

Wow, you're really living the dream now. It must be hard to concentrate on work with all that great scenery around though.

When I was a kid we moved out to the country. I remember that first night sleeping in the new place, how dark it seemed and the sound of the crickets was overpowering.

Intergalactic Hussy said...

Nice post. I am also annoyed by the simplifying of life and nature. Nature is beautiful and awesome; why do they have to simplify by creating a divine creator? :\

Naomi said...

A great quote: Science knows a lot. What it DOESN’T know, it does not fake an answer for.
Martian.Anthropologist

I'm glad you're settled in. Your new situation sounds like paradise! And I half-envy you - I have the rural solitude and the stars, but without the view. I live on a large ridge, part of the Tennessee Hydrological Divide, specifically Robinson Ridge. I have to drive several miles to see down.

Aren't the Smoky Mountains one of the oldest ranges? I think I read that somewhere; it seemed odd, being in the New World...

David W. said...

The Appalachians altogether are one of the oldest ranges in the world -- you can tell by how rounded they are from erosion. This is in stark contrast to the sharp peaks of the Rockies or Himalayas, which are fairly 'new'.

Even cooler about the area I'm in is the New River, paradoxically named considering it is one of the oldest rivers in the world, if not the oldest. You can tell that because the river doesn't follow the terrain of the Appalachians, signifying that it existed before the mountains did!

Mikayla Starstuff said...

Wow that was one of the most elequent statements about evolution I have ever read. Bravo!

Naomi said...

If you live near the New River, are you near Dublin VA? That's where I-81 crosses it...

Jeebus, I know this country's highways! When I realized that America was just one big county to me, I felt I was a real "truck driver"...