Saturday, September 10, 2011

Finding Meaning in the Universe

I haven't found a lot of time lately to write, which is unfortunate.  Thankfully, I've done some writing in the past, and I find myself referencing this particular piece a lot.  I've been hanging out at r/atheism lately, and this question popped up recently:

"My entire teen years were spent on philosophical pondering and being REALLY stressed over what world view I could accept. I would form one, think critically on it until it collapsed, modify it, and repeat the process until I arrived at Atheist. I also did a fair amount of reading, most notably of Sophie’s World, which if you don’t know is a really easy primer for most major philosophers. This wide range of thinking has left me with a bit of a problem.
I am now a condescending bitch.

Now when I read things that have been hailed as “brilliant” or “profound” or “mindblowing” I am left with the reaction of “dude, I knew about this when I was 14.” For example,
-I finally read Watchman this year and was REALLY disappointed. I was hoping for something controversial, thought-inducing, worth all the hype it got. Instead I just responded with “this seems kinda trivial, and Ozymandias’ great fix wouldn’t work anyway because we have world disasters all the time and its never brought about world peace.” 
-When my ex-bf had an existential crisis over the idea of what happens after death I wanted to punch him for being so immature because to me, duh, it’s the same as before you were born. 
-I once heard someone I know to be a fairly devout Protestant say “man, Eastern religions will blow your mind, its stuff that I have never even thought about” and was appalled because when I first learned about Hinduism I was amazed at how much it lined up with conclusions I had drawn myself.
-When I hear theists agonizing over some ambiguous religious doctrine, or how a good diety could let bad things happen I am amazed that they didn’t resolve that question in their mind years ago because it seems so core to any belief in God.
Long story short, philosophy now seems really boring, and almost juvenile, to me largely because I learned so much about it when I was younger. Does anyone else have these side-effects from learning to think critically?"

I realized exactly how this person felt, and I wrote up a response.  I thought I'd share it here.

It sounds like you took an evolutionary approach to your philosophy, which is awesome. You're finding yourself at a point many of us reach, and in which I was sitting myself until not long ago. Nothing looks remarkable any more, everything is dull and boring, because all you have is the real world. And what fun is there in just reality?
In college, I took classes in ethics and religion under Dr. David Belcastro, and I expressed to him the thought that the ultimate point of philosophy was to ask "why". He told me that religion, in all of its various forms, has an answer: "Yes." I've been trying to understand that for about 6 years now, and I think I finally do. Oddly, I found the answer outside of religion entirely.
Read some Carl Sagan, particularly Pale Blue Dot and The Demon-Haunted World, or watch Cosmos. Watch the Symphony of Science videos, or any interviews/lectures with Carl Sagan or Richard Feynman. The universe is a wonderful place, it is remarkable in its vastness and complexity, and is enough in itself to inspire awe and wonder. You're seeking spiritual fulfillment, but religion isn't going to help. That same fulfillment can be found in science, by coming to understand the way the world actually is.
We here on Earth think we're amazing beings. And we are, there's no question about that. But we're also tiny, virtually insignificant on a cosmic scale. Take a look at the Pale Blue Dot picture; really look at it. That tiny speck, a small part of one pixel, is us. All of us. A mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam. Everyone you know, everyone you love, everyone who has ever lived, lived on that tiny point of blue light. That should give you the feeling of humility you need.
Then, look at yourself. Think about the things that are going on inside you, every moment. There are trillions of cells, each one made up of tiny molecular machines, inside every human being. Every cell was built through billions of years of evolution, and look at the amazing result: you. And then realize that as you're thinking this, you're using your brain; a three pound mass of jelly that you could hold in your hands, but that unappealing object is capable of contemplating the vastness of space, capable of contemplating infinity, and capable of contemplating itself contemplating infinity.
Finally, those molecules that make up your body are made of atoms of various types. Every single one that is heavier than hydrogen or helium was synthesized during the death of a star, billions of years ago and light-years away. You, and me, and everyone else, and everything you see, are made of stars. We are connected to the universe in the very deepest manner possible. Dr. Belcastro, in his Introduction to Religion class, focused on religion as reconnecting; that's the root of the word, in fact. Its the same root as "ligament." Religion seeks to connect us to the universe, to show us our place in the cosmos. But religions make up connections, they tell stories that have no evidence but that sound comforting until you see through them. Science has the evidence, and it tells us we really are connected. To each other and to every other living thing through biology, to the Earth through chemistry, and to the rest of the universe on an atomic level. For me, I don't need anything else to look at the world and finally, for the first time in years, really say "wow."

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