Sunday, July 18, 2010

Is there a Cosmic Chill? (18 July 2010)

I have occasionally run across the sentiment that, for those who accept a scientific view of the world, there can be no meaning, ethics or real pleasure in life.  This idea is sometimes summed up in the notion of a "cosmic chill."  This idea can be traced back to the naturalist John Burroughs, who lamented – in The Light of Day (1900) that:

"Feeling, emotion falls helpless before the revelations of science.  The universe is going its way with no thought of us. …  This discovery sends the cosmic chill, with which so many of us are familiar these days."

While this idea has probably been expressed in other sources, later and earlier, this quote evinces well enough what I sense when people talk about how "meaningless" life becomes once you accept the findings of science.  The idea is that the universe is so vast and so uninterested in puny little us, that we can't possibly function in any really humane way; our emotions are "helpless" before the immensity of the universe.  The only option, for Burroughs and others of this opinion, was to be "chilled."  Donald W. Markos said in Ideas in Things: The Poems of William Carlos Williams (1994), that:

"[T]he prospect of an indifferent universe exerted its pressure on subsequent modern writers either as a condition to be tragically resigned to, retreated from, or resisted and fought on grounds other than those laid down by modern science." (31)

Many existentialists, I now suspect, also felt this "chill" in the face of the indifference of the cosmos, and responded by saying that "we create meaning for ourselves," even if we are puny little nothings faced with a big ugly world that doesn't 'care' for us.  _I think this is why existentialism never quite sat well with me; it smacked of surrender or possibly even pessimism in the face of reality.  While the great existentialists have profound things to say and faced life with verve and a resolve not to give in to nihilism, I now think that this sense of a "cosmic chill" colors their contributions.  [I'm open to argument on this – or any point, of course]

I now think – after almost a decade of delving more deeply into science and being transformed by its "revelations" – that this feeling of "cosmic chill" is symptomatic only for people who have been deeply religious and who are moving from a mythological world-frame into the openness of a scientific worldview.  People of Burroughs' generation were still so close to the mythological worldview – especially the Judeo-Christian one – wherein a paternal father figure looked after your every need and cuckholded you toward salvation, redemption and "everlasting" company in his presence – that the discovery of how the universe actually is was a shock to their systems (physical, philosophical and spiritual).  I understand the sense of disillusionment for those who experienced this shock.

However, I would like to argue that this sense of "cosmic chill" is not a necessary concomitant of a scientific worldview.  As a spiritual person, who did in fact sojourn in western religious traditions for 25 years, I find a thrill – rather than chill – in embracing the immensity of the universe!  I feel emotionally enraptured in the act of contemplating the size and age of the universe!  I am riveted with awe and suspense in my on-going discovery of the intricacies and dynamic workings of evolution!  In short, the scientific worldview inspires in me WONDER AND AWE, and, as Awe and Wonder are the foundations of humility and as humility is a deeply spiritual value—I find that the scientific worldview brings me to the trailhead of a naturalistic spirituality.

To practice an earthen spirituality you have to have accepted the universe and our place in it as given, and to be seeking the touchstones, anchors and inspiration possible in the physical universe as Given; as we find it—as we discover it to be.  Awe and Wonder are what initiate spiritual awakening and lead to the search for meaning in life; a search which leads on to value.  To think about our ‘smallness’ and our place in the universe awakens us to what is necessary for genuinely existing in Earth & Cosmos; the potential for vivacious ardency and compassionate agency.  We must also contemplate the uniqueness of our being here, and allow ourselves to feel incredibly fortunate to be able to discern something of the nature of the universe and discover its laws.

Alas, there need be no "cosmic chill" for those who have never suffered from mythological (i.e., religious) or metaphysical illusions about their having a ‘central place’ in nature and the universe.  To be awake in the universe as we find it is to experience exhilaration in the face of Mystery.  Wonder at it, and stand in awe of the universe and of life!  For you are part of this expanding universe, and you participate – with every breath – in this unfolding mystery.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Science and Transcendence (9 July 2010)

         I love a good question; it is like a sudden fire—igniting and then lighting your way as you path possible new horizons.  Good questions provoke thought and dialogue.   From the mess that oft arises out of the initial forays toward 'answers' once the question has been heard, direction is discovered, and then what insight is possible gets rendered or perhaps 'distilled' out.  A good question, asked at just the right time, can become the stimulus for a disciplined process that may result, in time, in a small swig of wisdom's good wine.

An old friend – who asks good questions – recently asked me how I make sense of transcendence from a scientific standpoint.  I was stirred up in the attempt to cull an answer from the sediments of settled thought and the – I assumed – already reasoned-out consequences of my own journey.  I was surprised at what I ended up writing, and my thinking about this has continued for a few days.  If I continue the dialogue here, will I possibly reach new tethers of understanding?

Transcendence is that quality of experience in which we 'feel' ourselves to be 'out of ourselves;' and perhaps 'in touch' with something greater than ourselves.  The Transcendent is a state of consciousness; and as such has long been an object of the spiritual quest and the subject of mystical experience.  At root, ‘transcendence’ names the experience of 'going beyond' ourselves; 'jumping out' of ordinary waking consciousness into a 'something more,' however briefly.

One does not have to believe in a deity to experience transcendence.  It is not so much about a 'something out there' as it is a 'something more' that we are capable of experiencing; because of the way we are ‘wired’ as human animals.  To experience transcendence is to have a moment of transforming union with the 'what is.'

As I've often said before in these pages, science is a method that opens us to the "what is" by revealing the nature of Nature to us.  Science has the power to take us beyond our personal and cultural biases. It shakes the cardboard hut of self-assured belief in which we too easily cocoon ourselves, and awakens us to the objective reality of the world around us.

Many people are threatened by the revelations of science, but fear does not make them any the less revelatory.  If we are to have genuine self-knowledge; if we are really to "know ourselves" [a prerequisite for wisdom] we must embrace and accept what science has shown us to be true.  While scientists are always out on the frontiers of knowledge, either discovering new things about the universe (such as dark matter and dark energy; whether or not these turn out to be 'real,’ the experimental and observational evidence points to ‘something’) or else filling in the blanks in our understanding of something already known [e.g., the history of life via evolution], there is a body of knowledge that science has shown to be true that is not likely to change.  It is in this that we must be immersed if we are to come to a true knowledge of ourselves and each other.

Two questions are helping me explore the issue of transcendence from a naturalistic and spiritual point of view:

*     Does science foster transcendent experiences?
*     Does it enhance our experience of transcendence?
_Let me tarry here, and explore these questions.

I think I would answer both of these questions in the affirmative.  I can see how both the study of science and the practice of science foster experiences of self-transcendence.  Understanding the revelations of science (that body of reliable knowledge about the nature of Nature) enhances those transcendent experiences that we have.  Let me try and explain this in some preliminary way.

Once we learn what the sciences have revealed about the cosmos and we accept it, the world may shift around us.  When going deep into evolutionary biology and paleontology for the first time, I felt myself moving into the real world in a way I had never known before; all prior understanding of the world through evolutionary biology has been vague by comparison!  I was taken 'out of my skin' when meditating on the depth of time and the scope of environments through which life has evolved.  When I reflected on my own existence as a result of this long, deep process of change through time, my perception of myself was irrevocably transformed.  In this way, the study of the revelations of science has fostered a transcendent experience of myself in context with the history and diversity of life on this planet.

Different sciences open me to transcendence in different ways.  

  • I find biology and chemistry opening me up to the world in the 'downward' direction – leading to "subscendence" which is just "transcendence in the 'opposite' direction.’  [To experience the 'beyond' is independent of spatial metaphors; whether you go 'up' or 'down' into otherness is ultimately [or fundamentally] {there we go again!} irrelevant.]  
  • Earth sciences open me to the 'ground' of our existence; revealing our nature as Nature.  Paleontology and Historical Geology open the soul to transcendence in the horizontal direction; that of time.  I often have moments of transcendent 'uplift' while meditating upon myself as one being in the flux & flow of time; a 'moment' in the evolutionary fabric of being in becoming—moving ever onward; life having been here for billions of years before my advent and (hopefully) going on for many more billions of years after my demise.
  • The study of Cosmology and Astronomy seem particularly conducive to experiences of transcendence, carrying me 'up' in the more classic 'direction' of most western mystics.
To study the Universe is to stand in awe at the threshold of the whole of existence; an experience that induces in me a state of self-transforming wonder.  Studying the processes by which the universe has come into existence, evolved, changed and is now unfolding have led to an experience of what I can only describe as 'union' with the whole, however 'imperfect' it was, on at least a dozen occasions over the last decade.  [And what does talk of 'perfection' mean in an 'imperfect cosmos' anyway?)

I have read various accounts of scientists who, in the throes of discovery, have had what amounts to a moment of self-transcendence.  A description of Marie Curie's initial elation and wonder over her discovery of radium, as well as descriptions of Crick & Watson's euphoria at finally getting their model of DNA right, seem to qualify as moments of transcendence.

If you read scientists' accounts of their work and especially the personal and psychological 'rewards' they find in practicing science, it seems that at least some of them are aware that the experiences they have had are at least similar to some of the experiences of mystics.  It's just that instead of the repetition of prayers and the chanting of psalms, their moments of transcendence have been triggered by the repetition of experiments and the focused disciplines of research, prolonged reflective thought on a specific problem, and other behaviors engaged in single-mindedly, as well as the ecstatic ‘opening to the universe’ that oft results from the experience of discovery.

Science fosters transcendent experience; it does this by building upon and enhancing our experience of self-in-the-world; grounding us in the "what is"--i.e., that which cannot be changed just by the way we think about it.  There is a subjective realm in which our experience is 'our own' and in which the way we think about things does have an effect on how we understand those things.  There is also an inter-subjective realm of experience in which our understanding is dependent upon our interactions with others, both those significant and unfamiliar to us.  But then there is "the Given" – that which is what it is and is not changed by us changing our minds; it is the objective dimension of reality.

As an example of the Given, I often ask students if, during the Middle Ages, when people thought the Sun and the planets orbited around the Earth, they in fact did?  Of course not, they usually answer.  And this references that dimension of reality that is 'Given.'  You can believe that Jupiter orbits the Earth as passionately as you like, and yet Jupiter – along with the Earth and the other planets, asteroids and other bodies – will just continue orbiting the Sun as it always has since the origin of our solar system, some 4.5 to 5 billion years ago.  This is not a matter of 'opinion' or belief!

What science reveals is primarily about the Given.  Yet what is Given affects and influences the subjective and inter-subjective dimensions of our existence.  As the experience of transcendence has a subjective as well as an inter-subjective dimension, the better we understand what science reveals, the more our understanding of moments of transcendence will be enhanced within a framework of what is real.  When moments of transcendence are triggered by superstitious beliefs or by immersion in outdated mythological and religious systems, a person may still have an experience of transcendence, but it will be out of touch with what is known to be real.
... Alot more needs to be said about this_ but perhaps I have said enough for now.