"Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is."
Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
As you may have read previously on my blog
, I'm a big fan of perspective. I like to have an idea of where I am and who I am, what it means to be alive and what it means to be human.
I take strength every day from the fact that I am fit into the universe just so, and that the universe works in such a way to facilitate my existence. I see around me the laws of nature, the constant battle for survival that all living creatures are a part of, the thriving and dying of plants and animals. I see the daily spin of the earth, the monthly rotation of the moon, the yearly traverse around the sun. These things I can observe, these are thing I can see and verify. I take strength from knowing these tangibles, and use this knowledge daily to inform my life. These are things we can all experience, and are all directly effected by. These are the things that bind us as a species, as a part of the greater whole of nature.
As thinking creatures - and by that I mean creatures that are able to speculate, calculate, invent and create - we often are forgetful of our true position in the scheme of the universe. As man has evolved to become the dominant species on this planet, we have invented and constructed a myriad ways to better our individual situations, through agriculture, construction, technology, medicine and science. We have invented ways to preserve ourselves, a feat no other creature in the history of the earth has been able to do. Humans have the advantage of truly complex thought, of reasoning, and storytelling, metaphor and observational deduction. It's through these thoughts that we are able to create such great things as civilisations and space shuttles. Through these thoughts we have discovered that we are in fact living on a tiny pale blue dot
in a mote of dust, a dot in a dot in a dot.
But the advent of truly complex thought, while a keystone to the evolution of man, brought with it the unfortunate by-product of self-importance. Because of this we perceive ourselves to somehow be removed form the natural world, our lives to be more consequential than that of others. We seem to have lost our place in nature.
Let us not confuse self-importance with self-preservation. Self-preservation is the underlying principle behind survival, and all species of plant and animal strive to be self-preserving and self-perpetuating. Self-preservation drives us to protect ourselves from harm, and to reproduce. It's the reason we're here.
Self-importance however is the reasoning that each of us, while preserving ourselves, is individually more important than another in the scheme of the universe. Self-importance drives us to ignore the world around us, to focus only on our individual selves and those close to us. Through self-importance we cannot see past the present, and we ignore the past. And we do so at our own peril.
It is because of self-importance that the focus of life is on individual perceived interests like money and possessions. It's all too easy to be absorbed in the products of our minds and the products of our societies. We perpetuate our own self-interests at the expense of others, and whomever it hurts to get what we want is inconsequential to us. Some would say that this is the cost of progress. I wonder if it might be an inherent trait of the human condition.
Religion was invented as a series of parables and metaphors, each designed to tell mankind how to interact best among one another. It was also used to explain away things we didn't understand. Gods were humanity's explanation for all things we were at a loss as humans to explain otherwise. These things about religion were very useful tools for humankind to progress past savagery and into a truly civilised species. But this tool, combined with self-importance, has placed man above all other creatures, except for God. And of course, every person's own personal God is more real than anyone else's.
One particularly misconstrued metaphor in religious texts has been combined with individual self-importance to create a particularly destructive force, and this is the idea of rebirth, resurrection and afterlife. The story of afterlife served a couple of purposes; originally it was the answer to the question "where do we go after we die"; it was also to show that the memories and genetic legacy of people are not lost after they die, that our individual interactions with the universe never really go away, but remain in the universe forever in some form or another. the idea of an end to physical suffering after death became a physical place, where not only do we not suffer, but we are rewarded with everlasting peace, or 72 virgins, and be reunited with all our loved-ones, or whatever it may be that we wish for in our lifetimes. In many ancient civilisations, although death was then as now a difficult concept to grasp, people had a better understanding of the cycle of life, that death brings with it new life, or new beginnings, and that everything continues through legacy.
When you mistell this idea, and combine it with wrongly told parables, then add self-importance, you invent an afterlife. The self-important human says "It doesn't matter what I do in this life, for through my belief in the story, I will go to a better place after I die." It's the self-important man who thinks that his life is so meaningful in the structure of things that an all-powerful all-seeing all-knowing omnipotent creator is watching him, that his life means enough to the creator of the universe, that once he dies he will be magically whisked away to a better place. The individual is then free to do whatever they want, without thought for others or the world.
But we are small. In the scale of the universe, one man is inconsequential. One planet means nothing. All the wars men have fought, all the civilisations that have grown and decayed, all the individuals in the world's history, all happen in the blink of the cosmic eye. We could destroy this planet, and it wouldn't mean anything to the rest of the universe.
We are at a particularly challenging point in human history. In order to overcome, we must come to realise that all we have is right here and right now, that what is important is not whether there's an afterlife, but what can we do to preserve our little planet. We have a huge capacity as humans to be resourceful, to be caring and loving, to be productive and innovative. We need to use these amazing traits of humanity if we are to save ourselves from ourselves.
Read this blog post on Atheist Climber to see the comments