Not Like Humans, They Said
Szczupider, who had been a volunteer at the center, told me: “Her presence, and loss, was palpable, and resonated throughout the group. The management at Sanaga-Yong opted to let Dorothy’s chimpanzee family witness her burial, so that perhaps they would understand, in their own capacity, that Dorothy would not return. Some chimps displayed aggression while others barked in frustration. But perhaps the most stunning reaction was a recurring, almost tangible silence. If one knows chimpanzees, then one knows that [they] are not [usually] silent creatures.”
From/the story behind the photograph at National Geographic
Devious capuchin monkeys sound false predator alarms in order to smuggle out previously stashed food before higher-ranking members confiscate it.
From the BBC documentary “Clever Monkeys”, narrated by the ever brilliant Sir David Attenborough.
A Universe Not Made For Us
I already posted this before, but it felt like an appropriate follow-up to my last post:
Our ancestors understood origins by extrapolating from their own experience. How else could they have done it? So the Universe was hatched from a cosmic egg, or conceived in the sexual congress of a mother god and a father god, or was a kind of product of the Creator’s workshop—perhaps the latest of many flawed attempts. And the Universe was not much bigger than we see, and not much older than our written or oral records, and nowhere very different from places that we know.
We’ve tended in our cosmologies to make things familiar. Despite all our best efforts, we’ve not been very inventive. In the West, Heaven is placid and fluffy, and Hell is like the inside of a volcano. In many stories, both realms are governed by dominance hierarchies headed by gods or devils. Monotheists talked about the king of kings. In every culture we imagined something like our own political system running the Universe. Few found the similarity suspicious.
Then science came along and taught us that we are not the measure of all things, that there are wonders unimagined, that the Universe is not obliged to conform to what we consider comfortable or plausible. We have learned something about the idiosyncratic nature of our common sense. Science has carried human self-consciousness to a higher level. This is surely a rite of passage, a step towards maturity. It contrasts starkly with the childishness and narcissism of our pre-Copernican notions.
And, again, if we’re not important, not central, not the apple of God’s eye, what is implied for our theologically based moral codes? The discovery of our true bearings in the Cosmos was resisted for so long and to such a degree that many traces of the debate remain, sometimes with the motives of the geocentrists laid bare.
What do we really want from philosophy and religion? Palliatives? Therapy? Comfort? Do we want reassuring fables or an understanding of our actual circumstances? Dismay that the Universe does not conform to our preferences seems childish. You might think that grown-ups would be ashamed to put such disappointments into print. The fashionable way of doing this is not to blame the Universe—which seems truly pointless—but rather to blame the means by which we know the Universe, namely science.
Science has taught us that, because we have a talent for deceiving ourselves, subjectivity may not freely reign.
Its conclusions derive from the interrogation of Nature, and are not in all cases predesigned to satisfy our wants.
We recognize that even revered religious leaders, the products of their time as we are of ours, may have made mistakes. Religions contradict one another on small matters, such as whether we should put on a hat or take one off on entering a house of worship, or whether we should eat beef and eschew pork or the other way around, all the way to the most central issues, such as whether there are no gods, one God, or many gods.
If you lived two or three millennia ago, there was no shame in holding that the Universe was made for us. It was an appealing thesis consistent with everything we knew; it was what the most learned among us taught without qualification. But we have found out much since then. Defending such a position today amounts to willful disregard of the evidence, and a flight from self-knowledge.
We long to be here for a purpose, even though, despite much self-deception, none is evident.
Our time is burdened under the cumulative weight of successive debunkings of our conceits: We’re Johnny-come-latelies. We live in the cosmic boondocks. We emerged from microbes and muck. Apes are our cousins. Our thoughts and feelings are not fully under our own control. There may be much smarter and very different beings elsewhere. And on top of all this, we’re making a mess of our planet and becoming a danger to ourselves.
The trapdoor beneath our feet swings open. We find ourselves in bottomless free fall. We are lost in a great darkness, and there’s no one to send out a search party. Given so harsh a reality, of course we’re tempted to shut our eyes and pretend that we’re safe and snug at home, that the fall is only a bad dream.
Once we overcome our fear of being tiny, we find ourselves on the threshold of a vast and awesome Universe that utterly dwarfs—in time, in space, and in potential—the tidy anthropocentric proscenium of our ancestors. We gaze across billions of light-years of space to view the Universe shortly after the Big Bang, and plumb the fine structure of matter. We peer down into the core of our planet, and the blazing interior of our star. We read the genetic language in which is written the diverse skills and propensities of every being on Earth. We uncover hidden chapters in the record of our own origins, and with some anguish better understand our nature and prospects. We invent and refine agriculture, without which almost all of us would starve to death. We create medicines and vaccines that save the lives of billions. We communicate at the speed of light, and whip around the Earth in an hour and a half. We have sent dozens of ships to more than seventy worlds, and four spacecraft to the stars.
To our ancestors there was much in Nature to be afraid of—lightning, storms, earthquakes, volcanos, plagues, drought, long winters. Religions arose in part as attempts to propitiate and control, if not much to understand, the disorderly aspect of Nature.
How much more satisfying had we been placed in a garden custom-made for us, its other occupants put there for us to use as we saw fit. There is a celebrated story in the Western tradition like this, except that not quite everything was there for us. There was one particular tree of which we were not to partake, a tree of knowledge. Knowledge and understanding and wisdom were forbidden to us in this story. We were to be kept ignorant. But we couldn’t help ourselves. We were starving for knowledge—created hungry, you might say. This was the origin of all our troubles. In particular, it is why we no longer live in a garden: We found out too much. So long as we were incurious and obedient, I imagine, we could console ourselves with our importance and centrality, and tell ourselves that we were the reason the Universe was made. As we began to indulge our curiosity, though, to explore, to learn how the Universe really is, we expelled ourselves from Eden. Angels with a flaming sword were set as sentries at the gates of Paradise to bar our return. The gardeners became exiles and wanderers. Occasionally we mourn that lost world, but that, it seems to me, is maudlin and sentimental. We could not happily have remained ignorant forever.
There is in this Universe much of what seems to be design.
But instead, we repeatedly discover that natural processes—collisional selection of worlds, say, or natural selection of gene pools, or even the convection pattern in a pot of boiling water—can extract order out of chaos, and deceive us into deducing purpose where there is none.
The significance of our lives and our fragile planet is then determined only by our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning. We long for a Parent to care for us, to forgive us our errors, to save us from our childish mistakes. But knowledge is preferable to ignorance. Better by far to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable.
If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.
– Carl Sagan (1934–1996)
Losing My Religion
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours. Now and for ever. Amen.
As most Danes, I was raised a protestant Christian by default. I was baptized. I was (and still am, by virtue of my laziness) a member of the Danish People’s Church. I went to readings on Christmas Day and other occasions. I said the Lord’s Prayer more times than I can remember (every day in elementary school.) At 13, I was confirmed. I believed in God—at least the all-loving and forgiving one described by the priests.
I don’t know exactly what turned me away from religion. The contradictions and inconsistencies had always bothered me. I hated arguments from authority whose basis I did not understand, and I loathed that everything divine was, at best, relayed by a fallible human proxy. Maybe it happened because my parents never pushed me toward either end of the (a)theism spectrum, letting me make up my own mind. (In one of the only conversations I had about religion with my father, he mentioned off-hand that he wasn’t a member of the People’s Church, and I remember thinking that that meant he was kind of crazy.)
After a little consideration, I can think of three major reasons why I no longer describe myself as religious:
The god described by the Bible—and in the Old Testament in particular—is not loving and gracious, but omnipotent and artfully cruel. He created you in his image, with free will, yet defers your soul to an eternal session of flaying and immolation in the chambers of hell lest you follow all of his numerous and often primitive commandments. He plants false evidence such that he may test your faith and expects you to ignore what you see with your own eyes or think with your own mind.
My sense of empathy is indifferent to the religious orientation of my fellow human beings. If I see a person in distress, I will help them to the best of my ability. It does not matter if they worship one god, two gods, many gods, or no gods, or whether their god’s name is Yahweh, Allah, or the Sun. In this sense, the Christian god’s “good” commandments are redundant. I would not sleep with my friend’s wife because I would hurt him as well as my own wife, and that would make me feel very bad. I would not steal because the owner of whatever I stole would become sad, and of course I could go to jail—and jail isn’t nice. The reason that I do not exhibit this kind of behavior is not that I fear eternal damnation. I am this way because it makes me happy to see other humans become happy as a result of my actions, and because I don’t want to upset people I care about. (The rejection of the concept of an afterlife only means that I take these principles more seriously, as my time is severely limited.)
Conversely, the Bible places many restrictions, often ludicrous by modern standards, on how I must live my life, or consents to behavior that the set of morals that I just described would never allow: Exodus 21:7 lets me sell my daughter into slavery if I’m cash-strapped, and Exodus 35:2 encourages me to put my friends and family to death for working on Sundays. I should stone my friend to death for planting different crops side by side, and burn my mother for wearing clothes made from two different kinds of thread. 1 Timothy 2:11-12 says that a woman should learn in quietness and full submission, and that no woman is permitted to teach or to assume authority over a man—she must be quiet.
(This is not exclusive to Christianity, of course. All religions are products of their time as we are of ours.)I lose most of my respect for a god who is so in love with himself that he makes it nearly impossible for you, something he created, to lead a life without banishing yourself, by that act alone, but the straw that breaks the camel’s back for me is this:
- 22,000 children die each day due to poverty. And they die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world. Being meek and weak in life makes these dying multitudes even more invisible in death. And yet he does nothing.
- Around 27-28 percent of all children in developing countries are estimated to be underweight or stunted. And yet he does nothing.
- Some 1.8 million children die each year as a result of diarrhea. And yet he does nothing.
- 10.6 million died in 2003 before they reached the age of 5. And yet he does nothing.
- The universe, as revealed by careful observation, is much more beautiful, radiant, awe-inspiring, intricate, and even violent than the Heaven, Earth and Hell described in the anthropocentric narratives of many religious books. This may be attributed to a god, but to claim that we are at any form of center stage in a universe so vast we struggle to comprehend even the distance to the nearest star is a flight from and lack of respect for the truth and, indeed, the universe itself. A person who simultaneously refuses to believe the findings of countless empirical experiments and acknowledges that humans have flaws—and thus may have made mistakes in the passings-on of the holy word—cheat themselves out of much happiness and wonder:
(I shall make no comment about people who happily use their smartphone to find the nearest restaurant, but reject science in its entirety, wholly unappreciative of the amazing accomplishment that is listening to the radio signals transmitted by multiple man-made robots orbiting our planet, and inferring a geographical location in a few seconds or less—or people who accept quadruple bypass surgery from a surgeon who has studied half his life to be skilled enough to perform such a thing, yet thank a god for their survival.)
- If there is a creator, then I should expect them to be the kind of all-loving god that would forgive me for not putting most of my family to rest, or forgive me for playing with a ball made from the skin of a dead pig. I should expect them to forgive me for believing what I see, for acting based upon reason, and for following the dictates of my own heart. If they are not such a god, then I should neither want to worship them nor obey their commands.
If there is a god, and they are the sort of gentle, kind god that I used to believe in, that would be lovely. I find it highly unlikely considering that even though we’ve tried for thousands of years, we’ve still found no evidence of such a being. Still, I cannot reject the possibility outright as I cannot prove an absence.
I will be happy to live my life not knowing, to strive to learn more about the universe, and to work toward enriching the days of as many fellow Earth-beings as I can in this life. I do not need a god or the promise of an afterlife to do this passionately and earnestly.
For now, it looks like we’re floating through space alone, and that this is all we get. Better to make the best of it than to wait and see whether the god(s) really are caring, or wait and see nothing at all.
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed. It was the experience of mystery — even if mixed with fear — that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds: it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity. In this sense, and only this sense, I am a deeply religious man… I am satisfied with the mystery of life’s eternity and with a knowledge, a sense, of the marvelous structure of existence — as well as the humble attempt to understand even a tiny portion of the Reason that manifests itself in nature.” — Albert Einstein
“I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers, and possible beliefs, and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here, and what the question might mean. I might think about it a little, but if I can’t figure it out, then I go to something else. But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell, possibly. It doesn’t frighten me.” — Richard Feynman
“If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.
If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time." — Bertrand Russell
“But mortals deem that the gods are begotten as they are, and have clothes like theirs, and voice and form. Yes, and if oxen and horses or lions had hands, and could paint with their hands, and produce works of art as men do, horses would paint the forms of the gods like horses, and oxen like oxen, and make their bodies in the image of their several kinds. The Ethiopians make their gods black and snub-nosed; the Thracians say theirs have blue eyes and red hair.” — Xenophanes, circa 540 BC
The Only Lasting Fame
In man’s life his time is a mere instant, his existence a flux, his perception fogged, his whole bodily composition rotting, his mind a whirligig, his fortune unpredictable, his fame unclear. To put it shortly: all things of the body stream away like a river, all things of the mind are dreams and delusions; life is warfare, and a visit in a strange land; the only lasting fame is oblivion.
— Marcus Aurelius (121–180)
Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180 AD