Looking around, the universe seems to be flowingly interconnected, a seamless web of smoothly functioning laws of nature.
Sure, there are lots of nasty things we humans find distasteful -- earthquakes, diseases, tornadoes, and such -- but even these have causes. They're just often extremely difficult to discern or predict, given our lack of knowledge about the details of how things operate in the world.
But there's another way of looking at the cosmos. Here's an excerpt from the jacket on Marcelo Gleiser's "A Tear at the Edge of Creation," a book that I blogged about before. (Subtitle: a radical new vision for life in an imperfect universe.)
For millenia, shamans and philosophers, believers and nonbelievers, artists and scientists have tried to make sense of our existence by suggesting that everything is connected, that a mysterious Oneness binds us to everything else.
People go to temples, churches, mosques, and synagogues to pray to their divine incarnation of Oneness. Following a surprisingly similar notion, scientists have long asserted that under Nature's apparent complexity there is a simpler underlying Reality.
...Overturning more than twenty-five centuries of scientific thought, award-winning physicist Marcelo Gleiser argues that this quest for a Theory of Everything is fundamentally misguided, and he explains the volcanic implications this ideological shift has for humankind.
All the evidence points to a scenario in which everything emerges from fundamental imperfections, primordial asymmetries in matter and time, cataclysmic accidents in Earth's early life, and duplication errors in the genetic code.
Imbalance spurs creation. Without asymmetries and imperfections, the universe would be filled with nothing but smooth radiation.
I used to find the notion of Oneness deeply compelling. But like Gleiser says, there's something fundamentally off-kilter about the appeal of unity.
After all, that longing for the One takes place in the psyche of beings who are, obviously, separate entities -- since we don't yearn for something that we already possess, or are.
Modern science swings both ways on the lawful/accidental front. For example, relativity theory is all smooth and connected; the space-time continuum is just that: continuous.
Then we have the herky-jerky realm of quantum mechanics, where particles pop in and out of existence unpredictably, manifesting here from there without any apparent connection between those states of existence.
Reading the final chapters of Gleiser's book this morning, I learned the lessons for our living that he draws from the strong evidence for an accidental universe. The book jacket sums up his thesis:
All life, but intelligent life in particular, is a rare and precious accident. Our presence here has no meaning outside of itself, but it does have meaning. The unplanned complexity of humankind is all the more beautiful for its improbability.
What if life here on Earth truly is as rare, precious, and unlikely as Gleiser argues? What if we Homo sapiens are the only self-aware conscious beings in the galaxy, or even the universe?
True, with 200 billion or so stars in our galaxy, and 100 billion or so galaxies in the universe, it certainly seems like we must have sentient company in the cosmos. However, there is no evidence of this. So until there is, we can't say "We are not alone."
Life on Earth is astoundingly precious. Both for each of us as individual humans, and for the planet as a whole.
Yet all too often we take life for granted. In part, because religions promise that there will be an afterlife (much better than this one!), and God has a plan for our planet, so why worry? (about extinctions, pollution, resource depletion, disastrous climate change).
Gleiser's thesis -- which I mostly agree with -- is that when we understand where we stand in a incomprehensibly vast and uncaring cosmos, we should recognize the imperative of finding meaning in our lives by caring for what has been improbably bestowed on us.
We are soulful creatures in a harsh cosmos. This, to me, is the essence of the human predicament. The gravest mistake we can make is to think that the cosmos has plans for us, that we are somehow special from a cosmic perspective.
We are indeed special, but not because the cosmos has plans for us, or somehow is just right for life. The cosmos couldn't care less for us. Think of the billions, probably trillions, of barren worlds in our galaxy alone. I can't read the message "just right" for life written in so many dead worlds.
...If the constants of Nature are so fit for life, why is life so difficult to find? We are special for being rare, for being alive and conscious of it. The communion we must establish is much more immediate and urgent: it is with our planet and its rapidly dwindling life forms and resources.
Our mission is filled with the epic spirit of the chosen, but this is not because we are mythically connected with a purposeful cosmos. Rather, it is because we are dramatically and irreversibly connected with our planet, the only harbor for life that we know.