The world is too much with us, late and soon. Before long, it can begin to seem reasonable. I have my doubts. The usual always seems reasonable.
For example, existence seems reasonable. We wake up every morning and there it is. Actually it isn’t reasonable. It’s just customary. We avoid thinking about this so as not to become anxious. Or so, anyway, think I.
The sun, we are told — and I have no reason to doubt it — is a roaring ball of hydrogen fire in apparently infinite darkness, an inexplicable void endlessly lonely, frigid, meaningless, speckled with outposts of violent nuclear fusion. That’s reasonable? We hear of this on droning nature shows and say, “Yes, interesting, but what is on the movie channel?”
As we watch Lucy reruns we ride around the central conflagration on a small ball of mud and rock, which we call a planet, and see nothing curious in this. It is very curious.
Believing that the recurrent is reasonable probably keeps us from going mad. It is the principle underlying particle physics, as otherwise it would be impossible to believe that a thing can be a wave and a particle at the same time. If we thought too much about such matters, we would need massive amounts of Xanax to quell the anxiety. Alice in Wonderland is more plausible than this odd world in which, somehow, we find ourselves. So we check the movie channel.
Humanity has invented various ways to give itself a sense of understanding what it does not understand, thus maintaining inner tranquility. Today we favor the sciences to do this. Astronomers tell us of the speed of light and the red shift and remote galaxies at millions of light years of distance and, confusing description for understanding, we feel that the mystery of things has been abated. Why, it’s just physics. That’s all it is. Of course we won’t know the current state of a galaxy at a million light years for another million years, by which time it will no longer be the current state. For all we know, those stars may have turned into giant tube roses or ice cream cones. We have no way of knowing.
The sciences are fascinating, but they have a pedestrianizing and soporific effect. They make weirdness piled on improbability poured over the incomprehensible seem as ordinary as breakfast. How did the stars get there? Well, there was the Big Bang. We know because the 4K background radiation. But … why the Big Bang? Well, you see, the question has no meaning within physics, so let’s talk about the state of the universe 10-45 seconds after the Bang, and then about the formation of electrons. All right, but why electrons? Why not cream cheese? Well, you see, it’s just the nature of Big Bangs.
It all works, or seems to, provided that you focus on the how and not the why. Given diffuse clouds of hydrogen, it can be shown mathematically (I do not know the mathematics of this, but will take it on faith) that gravitation will lead to coagulation and compression and rising temperatures and ignition and away we go. But why gravitation instead of repulsion? Why does this seem to make sense? Because we are used to it.
The philosophical principle of the sciences is that It Just Is. One planet does not attract another for a reason. It just does. There is nothing mysterious about T. Rex and those walking horrors of the Cretaceous. They just were, the inevitable result of physics and chemistry. What else could you expect? It’s a simple matter of starting conditions.
In fact there is nothing mysterious about anything. Everything Just Happens. That’s all.
Gaping holes exist in the scientific understanding of existence, which the sciences answer chiefly be ignoring them. They do not mention purpose (there is none), the possibility of an afterlife (there is none), free will or determinism (we have freely determined that there is no free will), or Good and Evil (evolutionary traits evolved to further cohesion within the pack). Minor omissions, these.
The purest form of this approach is atheism. To me the most tedious thing about atheists is how proud they are of themselves, but I have never understood just what it is that they believe or don’t. They reject Yahweh, Allah, Shiva, and Zeus, which is not unreasonable, but do they not wonder about death? Nothing comes after, they say. How do they know?
Which brings us to that other classic mechanism for the avoidance of anxiety, religion. While the sciences avoid questions of death, morality, human destiny and the afterlife if any by ignoring them, the religions focus on them, allowing the questions but mistaking assertions for answers. Of course if you want to be convinced earnestly enough, you can believe anything.
Religion consists more in fervent hope than observation. There is in most religions the idea that Good is rewarded and Evil punished, that if we are kind and compassionate and just, then God (or gods, according to taste) will reward us. There is no evidence for this. In fact cancer strikes the good as often as the bad and the intelligently amoral, not the virtuous, prosper. It does not seem likely that babies born with horrible birth directs are being punished for sins committed in utero. In most places and most times, people have lived in misery and died in agony. Why they have deserved this is not clear as divine justice.
Nor is there support for the Christian notion of a loving God in the natural world. When a young giraffe is attacked by hyenas, disemboweled and bled until it collapses and the hyenas begin eating it while it is still alive, I for one cannot see much loving kindness in it. Just a giraffe, you say. It probably seems otherwise to giraffes, agreeable creatures who eat leaves.
But then, what choice do the hyenas have?
Yes, the universe has its appeal. I have never lived in a place more eerily beautiful and complexly implausible. Perhaps we really are just pond scum on a minor planet in the middle of everywhere. Or maybe something is going on that is way above our pay grade. But between the sciences that describe much and explain nothing, and religious faiths that seem exercises in wish fulfillment … What’s on the movie channel?