Monday, September 7, 2015

The Universe Through Godless Eyes

"The world is an enchanted place, we just got used to it." - Moshe Orman

A peculiar thing happened to me when I left religion. When my belief in all things supernatural dissipated, I found myself wondering, for the first time, about the nature of the universe. I became thirsty to know the mechanics of the natural world. I attempted to comprehend the staggeringly large universe and peer into the intricate world of the microcosmic. I started to care, in other words, about science.

I suppose my sudden interest in science came from the void left in my life when God vanished. When I was believer, how God made the world didn't really interest me; it only mattered that he did, in fact, create and control it. Of course there are religious people who are drawn to science, for to them it is the language of God. To them, the magnitude of the universe, the complexity of living creatures, the "laws" which seem to govern the universe, all testify to his greatness. Hence William Paley's often cited "Watchmaker Analogy." This is not the place, however, to discuss this fascinating, albeit slightly antiquated, argument. I only mention it here to show that for many theologians, science is a way of knowing the mind of God.

Paradoxically, I had never had such an interest, until I left religion. Of course, the "mind of God" I am now interested in revealing is more closely related to what Stephen Hawking meant when he said:
"Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we would know the mind of God."1 
Once on the outside, no longer covered by the blanket explanation called "God," I became mystified by the sight of the stars above me. I knew very little of scientific discoveries, less than I do now, which is still lamentably less than I ought to know.

In a way, my ignorance of science allowed me to experience what it must have been like for our ancestors when they began to learn about the Cosmos. I was awestruck as I learned more and more "magical" concepts that were common knowledge to most teenagers in high school.

Many today are taught science in grade school. As they grow up and the necessities of life stifle their intellectual curiosity and childish wonder, they are no longer intoxicated (if they ever were) by the fact that our sun is one of around 100 billion stars in our galaxy, many of which are much larger than our own humble star, the circumference of which is 2,713,406 miles. I had the experience of learning all this only a little while ago, as an adult. My school days far behind me, I was free from the distractions of the classroom and the pesky schoolyard social hierarchy that makes learning almost impossible if one is concerned with adolescent social status. Diligent students are seldom also the popular ones.

In my school days I had convinced myself that I was "bad at science." This is no doubt, in part, since the heroes the cool children worshiped, never seemed to be scientists. The image of a scientist, to a kid in school, is generally that of a middle-aged, pale-faced man, with poor hygiene and big glasses. Needless to say, those worried about climbing the social ladder will do best to distance themselves from such people and their passions. Far better to emulate, are the muscular billionaires playing basketball for a living. Science also scared and confused me. Two emotions cool kids didn't seem to be having. I, therefore, accepted that I was bad at science as a sacred truth. I was so thoroughly not present in the science classroom, that I honestly cannot recall whether or not the teacher was inspiring.

Years later, upon leaving religion, I fell in love with the universe. I became amazed by her, humbled before her, and infinitely curious to learn all I could about her. I have traded in the burning bush and splitting seas for Red Giants and black holes. I have replaced myth with method, dogma with critical thinking. When the God door closed, another door, that of the universe, opened.

I have a close friend who upon leaving religion felt himself stripped of wonder. To him, the world had lost all its color, all its spectacular majesty. If the Wizard of Oz wasn't real, Oz was no longer beautiful. If the universe had no meaning or purpose then all that we see is simply an ever-decaying transient accident. If there was no Author, the words of the book become incoherent nonsense.

I feel deeply for him, but I cannot empathize. The world has more beauty to me now than it did in the presence of God. In fact, while religious, I looked past this material world to the spiritual realm that was said to lie beyond it. I believed that we were condemned to live a life here, in this Earthly realm, in order to rise at the appointed to time, into heaven, into eternal bliss. "This world is like an antechamber, to the eternal world;" the Mishnaic sage wrote, "prepare thyself in the antechamber that thou mayest enter into the banquet hall."2 This became my attitude towards the physical; it was something to be endured, dealt with, until such a time as I could be free from it.

Since my deconversion, my attitude toward this life has radically changed. Without God the universe may have no ultimate meaning, but I will not let future transience ruin what is now cast before my eyes. And though the words of the Author-less book have indeed become harder to understand, it is precisely the job of curious humans to decipher it. Indeed, where would humankind be, if we had been too afraid or too indifferent to try?

For the task of acquiring knowledge about the rock on which we live, the galaxy in which we hurtle through space, and the universe in which we are only an infinitesimally small part, the scientific method stands head and shoulders above any other method that has preceded it. It forces us to look at the Cosmos with pure wonder, stripped of superstitions and suppositions. We are to remain humble yet daringly curious, admit our ignorance while making strides toward knowledge. It compels us to doubt our most cherished myths and our most deeply held convictions and accept the feebleness of man's faculties while simultaneously sanctifying them. Science is a tool we use to learn about our place in the Cosmos, and it has proven itself a most worthy tool indeed.

For those of you who have grown too accustomed to our world to notice it, for those who no longer feel the awe the universe invokes, for those who have forgotten what it means to be childishly curious, I challenge you to look up at the starry night, stare deep into the black cosmic ocean, and remember the most amazing thing, in my opinion, science has ever taught us: "...the Cosmos is also within us. We're made of star stuff. We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself."3

1 Stephen Hawking: Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays (1993)
2 Ethics of our Fathers, 4:21
3 Carl Sagan, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage

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