Saturday, December 24, 2011

It's a Wonderful Life

Over the next day or so, many people will be watching the classic Christmas film It's a Wonderful Life.  From the wiki: "Released in 1946, the film stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a man whose imminent suicide on Christmas Eve brings about the intervention of his guardian angel,Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers). Clarence shows George all the lives he has touched and the contributions he has made to his community."  I think it's important to remember just how much we touch the lives of others, that's true.  But as an atheist, I am often asked "if you don't think there's a divine purpose to your life, why don't you just kill yourself?"  The question is rather silly, and I'd like to take a little time to point out why.  Because it is a wonderful life.

To begin with, life itself, the living things that fill our planet so abundantly, is wonderful.  A recent video from the BBC brings several things together to show this: David Attenborough, some of the great footage from the BBC's nature documentaries, and a jazz classic.

We live in a world full of wonders, and far too many people miss out on just how amazing the presence of the 10 million or so species of life on Earth really is.  In terms of geological time, life appears to be ridiculously easy to make; after the Earth cooled and the Late Heavy Bombardment ended (it wouldn't be fair to count before that), and it was possible for living things to survive, life arose almost an eyeblink later.  Earth stopped being slammed by objects that would have sterilized the surface about 3.9 billion years ago, and the earliest fossils we have of microbe-like objects are 3.5 billion years old.  It took less than half a billion years, probably significantly less, for life to arise once conditions were right.  In fact, life may have arisen before the Late Heavy Bombardment; some scientists theorize that life may have survived deep in the oceans next to volcanic vents, or possibly arisen multiple times and just been wiped out over and over until things calmed down.  Regardless, from the simple replicators that existed on the early Earth, diversification and natural selection immediately began to fill the niches in which life could exist.  Nearly four billion years later, after the loss of 99% of the species that have ever lived, we come to the beautiful world we have today.  Through the transition to an oxygenated atmosphere, ice ages, global warming events, meteorite impacts, and countless other trials, life has persisted.  To believe that life as we know it today was simply "poofed" into existence is to miss out on a beautiful, sweeping story, one which I think Richard Dawkins rightly called The Greatest Show on Earth.

And then, there is our species.  We humans have survived many of the same trials that all life has had to face, and our intelligence and ingenuity have seen us through.  Its likely we've suffered two major population bottlenecks, in which the population could have been reduced to about 50,000 people, or 15,000 people, or even as low as 2,000.  What caused these catastrophes is not entirely known; it could have been a global warming event, or whatever happened to the environment after the eruption of a supervolcano.  But we lived, we moved to warmer or cooler latitudes as needed, we left our ancient home on the African savannah and spread across the globe.  People who were functionally identical to you and me survived an ice age; our species overcame numerous other competing species, such as the Neanderthals, to become the only surviving hominids.  And look at the things we've managed to accomplish.  From a genetic standpoint, we are little more than singing, dancing, mostly hairless apes.  And yet, we've peered back to a moment in time a few million years after the Big Bang.  We've discovered the basic particles and forces that make up everything we see, and figured out that most of the universe, about 99% of the universe, is made of stuff we can't see.  We've gone from rubbing two sticks together to smashing protons into each other at close to the speed of light.  We have flung ourselves and our machines into interplanetary space, sent our robot emissaries to dozens of worlds, and created two spacecraft that are on their way to the stars.  Just this past week, we've found evidence of worlds that may be much like our own, although they're too hot for life, orbiting a star 950 light years away.  The things we've accomplished are truly extraordinary, and they seem to just keep getting better.

Of course, the discoveries we've made about life on Earth tell us that we're newcomers on the scene, that we are merely one species of the 10 million or so on the planet, and that those 10 million are a mere 1% of the species that have ever lived.  Our discoveries about the universe have shown us that not only is our species not the center of everything on Earth, but Earth isn't the center of the Solar System.  Our sun is just another star among 400 billion in our galaxy, tucked away in the boondocks of one of the spiral arms, nowhere near the center of the galaxy.  Our galaxy is one of 100 billion galaxies, and it isn't exceptional in its placement in the universe, or in size, or in shape, or anything.  And all of those galaxies, everything in the universe that we can see, despite its immensity, constitutes about a 1% bit of "pollution" in a universe that is about 30% dark matter and 70% dark energy.  Wipe out not just us, but everything we can see in the universe, and the universe would remain virtually unchanged.  This is not a universe made for us; this is not a universe that cares about us.  This is a universe that wouldn't even notice if our entire species were gone, much less any one member of it.  With that in mind, is there no point to living?  Are the critics of atheism right?

No.  They are not.

Just because we are tiny, that doesn't mean we aren't special.  Just because we are not important to the cosmos, that doesn't mean we aren't important to each other.  Without a "grand plan" into which we fit, we are not without purpose; we simply have only the meaning and purpose that we put into our lives.  We are free to pursue our own goals, to do what we find valuable.  Our species is young, but we show great promise.  If we do not destroy ourselves, we will inevitably venture to the stars, and in so doing avoid the destruction of our planet (which is certain no matter what we do, given enough time; we need to preserve our environment as long as we can, but the sun will destroy us one day).  The universe can probably support life for another 30 billion years; we can do a lot of good in that amount of time.  And if the cosmos doesn't care, so what?  We care.  We are not simply "in" the cosmos, we are part of the cosmos.  We are the universe, and we are a self-aware, intelligent, thinking, feeling part of it.  

During the holidays, we often feel somehow more connected to other people, more aware of the wants and needs of others, their joys and pains.  We do touch each others' lives in very deep, meaningful ways.  We are a species that cares not just about ourselves, and not just about our close relatives, but about the whole species.  We're the first to recognize that we are a species.  We also care about other species, and about our planet, and indeed about the universe.  Very importantly, we are more than our biology; with our ability to change ourselves, to be conscious and aware and intelligent, we have built a society unlike anything else on our planet.  Not only do we have a society, we're getting better at having a society; no matter what anyone might tell you, the truth is that violence has declined, and our empathy, our reason, the "better angels of our nature" are winning out.  But it only works if we keep trying, if we continue to fight for a better world, a decent world, a world where all people can live in freedom and harmony.  In Luke 17:21, it is said "behold, the kingdom of god is within you."  We have the power to bring about great goodness for each other, for everyone; that potential is within us all.  That is what I have to live for, that is why I care, that is why I don't simply give up and die or submit.  And so, with the love of humanity in my thoughts today, I wish you a Merry Christmas and a joyous holiday season.  

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