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.

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