In the Teeth of Rainbows, Part #2

Humanism and the Need for Wonder

What makes us human? What simply outlines and describes a human being? Whilst I would love to delve more into this, it is not the focus. Rather my point is this: The fact that we can pose such a question is itself something to be awed about. We like to think, arrogantly, we know what “intelligence” is, what “stress”, what “being human” is. We struggle with these concepts all the time. And I find John and Mary Gribbin’s answer the most correct, in their book of the same name: “Being human simply means being one of a variety of animal on planet Earth.” (1)

So should humanism rather be considered along the lines of PETA – that bizarre organisation that has turned into a cult? Why don’t we consider people when we fight for animal rights? We know through evidence that we are animals. There is no ‘seat for the soul’ or any form of Cartesian dualism, through which a spirit can slither and take residence. We are animals – of this there can be no doubt. If you doubt me, investigate our closest cousins, chimps. Helping, sharing, caring all linger alongside warfare, brutality and conquest (2). Our genetic makeup matches theirs 99.8% – the genes are of course exactly the same. People have a hard time realising their cousins are not just swinging from tree to tree but are those daffodils underneath too. That all life on earth reproduces essentially the same way is testament to the awe-inspiring realisation that we are all related. Not just us humans but yourself and your favourite goldfish, plant or flower.

Thus: What separates us from the chimpanzees, animal rights groups are trying to “save”? David Attenborough asked this, too:

Man has credited himself with several talents to distinguish him from all other animals. Once we thought that we were the only creatures to make and use tools. We now know that this is not so: chimpanzees do so and so do finches in the Galapagos that cut and trim long thorns to use as pins for extracting grubs from holes in wood. Even our complex spoken language seems less special the more we learn about the communication used by chimpanzees and dolphins.(3)

It is these sorts of realisations that science affords which spurn people toward more supernaturalist ideologies. We might refer to these as Unweaved Rainbow Realisations, after Keats’ charge against Newton. Once people’s rainbows have shattered into a thousand tinkling shards of painful truth, they are more inclined to seek other, more industrious rainbows (4). Rainbows up in the sky dictating our births (astrology); rainbows too complex for science to demolish (god, theology and the meanings of ‘holy’ books); rainbows that disguise themselves as valid (creationism and intelligent design); and rainbows, which once tasted, heal and help (homeopathy, crystal healing, angel-therapy). The pots of gold, though illusions, are still enticing. People’s yearning for beauty, meaning and wonder are a thirst for the numinous. And, like a man denied water in a desert, the illusion can still be as enticing as the actual: A mirage is no less enticing for not being true.

How then are we to promote humanism in the teeth of “rainbows”? Even by postulating science we seem to tread on our own toes: through science we appear to reduce humanity to simply being animals. There appears to be nothing “special” about us. And science trumps rainbows again and again. Humanity’s flight from reason is beginning to sound like the blur of jet-engines. Science’s answers are breed and breathe, not helpful in defining meaning.

And in the face of this, we know people would choose mirages over empty sand. But why do people choose superstition again and again? Science appears to make life dull, meaningless and utterly worthless. As I’ve said and as is my main point: science does in itself give no answer. It is a tool to discover the world and universe. It is the most powerful tool – so powerful that we have established facts that are true throughout the universe. No superstition can make such a bold claim and justify it.

But with all its power and beauty, science appears to dissolve humans from their core into lifeless husks pushed and manipulated by bacteria and a fragile brain. As Bertrand Russell put it at the beginning of What I Believe: “Man is a part of Nature, not something contrasted with Nature. His thoughts and his bodily movements follow the same laws that describe the motion of stars and atoms.”(5) People’s usual reaction is the sound of a rainbow shattering: No! I refuse to be scientifically measurable and subject to those same laws! I am special!

Yet, if we stop, if we breathe, if we ponder perhaps the rainbow reforms. Consider: a rainbow is no less beautiful in that we know it is a mixture of light and condensation. And life is no less beautiful, miraculous or awe-inspiring just because we are subject to physical laws. In fact we are not subjects, we are discoverers. The word “law” implies prescriptive, whereas Natural Laws are descriptive as the sky is blue. You can not defy gravity, deny germs. That is part of Natural Laws. Understanding these Laws has helped us create a better society (we have eradicated smallpox through our understanding of natural laws, to name a small example; we are able to make crops that help billions of chronically poor thanks to people like the great Nobel laureate Norman Borlaugh).

Yes. We are subject to the same descriptive equations that fit anything. If there is one human here and another human there, that makes two humans. Descriptions do not make it any less amazing that we are around to calculate such a simple matter! I find it incredible that I am “obeying” the same Laws as a entire planets and powerful stars (from where we all came in the first place).

I find that my connection to the universe is there, literally written in the stars. I do not want to be above the world I want to be part of it. I do not want to be some special being observing animals, I want to be part of a great animal kingdom myself. That we have touched the moon, the stars, the sky, that we all have loves, hates, fears, is testament to our need to belong. We all want to belong to something higher or greater than us – the aspirations for the numinous, by traversing the paths of rainbows – but I think humanism finally launches hooks to pull those rainbows down. Like a great sheet it must tumble. We must bring ourselves back down to earth.

We need only grasp that we are here, alone and dependant upon each other for this to work. Though the rainbows are beautiful, we must not forget they are still people. Whether you see a rainbow or a mixture of light and condensation, we are the same. We want to belong and there is nothing better to belong to than that great ape: Homo sapiens. We must eradicate the fear that science destroys the numinous and show it inspires the grandest connection of all: We are connected to the stars, the planets, the galaxies. All of us. If there is anything greater to be connected to, I have not found it. And I will even make a prediction based on the stars: I do not think there will ever be anything greater than this concurrent connection. Rejoice in your belonging to the cosmos.

And don’t forget to breathe.


REFERENCES

1. Gribbin, J. and Gribbin, M. (1998) Being Human. London: Phoenix Paperbacks.

2. I hate the term “going ape” – I find other apes to be more civil than most humans.

3. Attenborough, D. (1986) ‘The Compulsive Communicators’ in Life on Earth: A Natural History. London: Fontana Paperbacks, p. 302

4. Dawkins, R. (2006) Unweaving the Rainbow. London: Penguin.

5. Russell, B. (2001) What I Believe. London: Routledge

Living In Suspension

We are nothing but extemporaneous matter, dissolved into a fine fluid of prehensile fear, docked between a sea of chaos and a harbour of doubt. Setting our anchors would be dogmatic, to let them float idiotic. Yet, tossed we are on these rough oceans that would permit only the stars’ ebbing reflection to be a form of stability, and nothing but darkness as a dream.

We arise from what we perceive to be nothingness and will return to nothingness. We are suspended between two poles, existing on a trajectory from a high pole of “birth”, which glides down to join the lower one of “death”. We are a tiny droplet of water snaking down from the first pole to the last, reflecting the images surrounding us from the environment, yet distorting it with the refraction of subjectivity.

Evolution – not any deity – has prefigured us with a consciousness: That is, we are aware of ourselves, our existence and the surrounding world. But consciousness, whatever it is, comes with a horrible cost and it is for this reason that if there is a deity, he is surely a cruel one.

The reason I say this is due to the shadow set aflame by the light of consciousness: The awareness of death. The two most horrid combinations one could invest in an entity would be consciousness and transience. Or perhaps mortality. Regardless, what this means is simple: “You are aware to such a great extent that you are aware of your oncoming death.”

Yet, we humans – especially those of us who face up to the fact that there is no truth to the monotheisms’ metaphysical claims  – are not found cowering in corners, spitting at clocks, defacing watches and ignoring our pulse. Our pulse is the slow countdown timer that leads to a flat-line. Everyone has an amount of heartbeats that they will beat in their life time. The average, if you live till you are 70, is 2.52 billion heart beats. The slow countdown is gradual, like drops off the suspended line between the pole of “birth” down to “death”.

But each drop of heart beat lands to make music in the surrounding environment. We do not dismiss each drop, we should relish in it. It will fall into nothing anyway, so why despair when it is, in fact, more reasonable to celebrate.

As Richard Feynman said:

If a Martian (who, we’ll imagine never dies except by accident) came to Earth and saw this peculiar race [sic] of creatures – these humans who live about seventy or eighty years, knowing that death is going to come – it would look to him like a terrible problem of psychology to live under those circumstances, knowing that life is only temporary. Well, we humans somehow figure out how to live despite this problem: we laugh, we joke, we live.

What a waste it would be to slide down that suspension, from one pole to the other, as a blinkered drop. How distasteful to clamour for dispair because there is no celestial hand holding the string to cater for your every snaking move. It would be better to never have been if you take no comfort in being a reflecting drop, in celebrating your movement and your awareness and the “kingdom of infinite space” – as Raymond Tallis calls it – in between your ears. We do not know everything, nor will we. Our knowledge is various lit lanterns placed on the precipice of the external world, which show the extent where the border into ignorance rests. Crossing into that land is exhilarating, since it requires that only place we know which is endless: Our imaginations.

Imagine can be traced to the Greek phainesthai, which means “to appear”, which itself is related to phaos and phos meaning “light.” Thus, our imaginations light the way for knowledge, which is made tentatively and by incremental snaking – though from a pole of ignorance to one of further ignorance. I have always thought it is better to proclaim the extent of ones ignorance than the extent of ones knowledge, since we can change our ignorance but there is nothing much we can do to our knowledge. This might be translated into Confucius’s better phrasing: “Real knowledge is to know the extent of ones ignorance.”

As tiny droplets, there is much wonder to reflect upon. Why should we be sad? We exist and we can not know non-existence, so there is nothing to fear. It is not death but dying that people fear. Rise up with your flame of knowledge and traverse unknown lands with the map of the imagination. It has been suggested that the fact that the majority of our species do believe in celestial beings, ghosts, demons, witches and one or two other supernatural paraphernalia, is testament to humanity’s inherent capabilities to using its imagination. Even if, like myself, you find ideas of religion and other supernatural or superstitious vagaries annoying, distasteful and perhaps the central problem of today’s world, you can still take comfort in this: At least people are using their imaginations.

Both believers and nonbelievers are using their imaginations to fight off the fear of death. The only difference is that we realise that our imaginations is testament to wonder at the workings of nature, whereas the faithful, the superstitious and the overzealous equate their ancestor’s imaginations with knowledge. There is nothing to be terrified about the ties that knot around knowledge and imagination are allowed to loosen. Many religious already do this and it these many call the “moderates”, who allow for ignorance to be a leading focus and drive. It is the dogmatic fundamentalists who believe so strongly in a god that they do not believe in ignorance. It really has become something of a dichotomy.

But there is beauty in ignorance, in wonder and in relishing in the wonder-full universe we are citizens of. To make a propitiation toward an obscure Palestinian deity, when a universe of wonder awaits, seems to me to be worthy of a criminal offence. We are all heading toward that same end, that same nothingness, that same bottom pole.

Would it not be better to be conjoined droplets, making a lasting impact on that line, to reflect collectively the great wonder and achievements of our past and then create a wave that would prevent us from self-destruction? The line is taught and easily broken. Let us slow down, relax our hold and take a good look around us. There is much light to be shone and only a short amount of heart beats for us to do it in.

Perhaps It’s Beauty?

I want you to consider your favourite piece of music, song or artist. Let it waltz, drum, fade-in and ameliorate your current mindset. Be it the clash of cymbals, the baritone voice; the rhythmic pulse of drums or traditional percussion like heartbeats of an ancient era; the rising soprano with the quivering glass; the electric hoorah of the last chord in a guitar; or whatever fits the glove of your appreciation. Grab it, hold it, and shake hands. This, dear reader, is your projected beauty. And only one part!

If our bodies are temples, then longing for beauty is the stained-glass window. It is wonderful to appreciate those things we find beautiful: music, literature, art, dance, movies, engineering, sunsets. The list is as endless as a flowing microcosm. For that is exactly it’s point: It grows and shakes and moves.

Answer the question: How many people do you know who hate music?

I have yet to meet one, but I do not doubt there exists such.

Or perhaps: someone who hates literature?

I do not doubt our extent for hate, but it is my trust in what we can love that rises above the negative. And it is focusing on what we love, what we find beautiful, that often unites us. It is easy to raise our swords and words, our fingers are eager to point at a moving target. We are programmed to be ready with torches and baying hounds to lynch-mob a group, a person, an idea. And too often we forget that it is in fact easier to unite for the opposite reason: To replace the pitchforks with handshakes, the finger with the wide eye.

Who does not have an intake of breath at the awe, mystery and wonder of the universe? Who does not rejoice in our ongoing treatment and fighting of diseases: medical, political, or societal? We are quick to anger at the kidnapped child, yet forget the average happy child growing and living. The incredible network we have stepped into, a realised world awaiting our hands to mold it into something even more beautiful. With our brains and our awareness, we have a responsibility – not just to protect this world, but to love it, to cherish it. Loving is not the same as cherishing: We can all love our lives, but how often do we cherish that we are alive, are in a complex beautiful network of interconnected species?

Literature is my passion. I love asking people of their favourite writers. To be sure, my snobbery from my English degree has made me somewhat disdainful of trite, unthinking literature (Dan Brown, Jackie Collins, etc.) But the question remains and the value is retained. My love lies in Russian literature (Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol) and Southern Gothic American (Faulkner, Morrison, McCarthy), with snatches of French classics (Sartre, Camus, Stendhal) – but it is ever growing. I am in awe of writing and language and the beauty it creates.

But that is my own stained-glass. It is ever shattered and ever remade. When is yours being remade? When do you look through your windows, into a multicoloured world and think: Where else does my beauty lie?