Saturday, August 6, 2016

Cosmos

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"At Riobamba, the town about a hundred miles south of Quito where the disastrous earthquake of 1797 had been centered, the travelers stayed for a few weeks.... Here Humboldt had the opportunity to inspect some sixteenth-century manuscripts written in a pre-Inca language called Purugayan, which had been translated into Spanish.... [T]he manuscripts related the dramatic story of a volcanic eruption and the religious and political significance that the local shamans had ascribed to it....

"The priests of those ages [Humboldt wrote to his brother] possessed sufficient knowledge of astronomy to draw a meridian line and to observe the actual moment of the solstice."

--From Humboldt's Cosmos, by Gerard Helferich




Plenty of people still believe that natural phenomena like floods and earthquakes are some sort of divine retribution for their sins (or someone else's sins). And we can't just write off such belief as a mark of stupidity, as evidenced by Humboldt's shaman astronomers who could ascribe religious significance to an eruption on one hand and calculate the solstice with the other. There is something deeply human about our sense of connection with the world, a connection that has both physical and psychological dimensions.

How do you feel when you're alone in nature? Do you feel invigorated and at ease, or constrained and anxious? Physically, the environment is the same whichever way you feel about it, but psychologically, your thoughts are busy coloring the landscape. These colorations, or projections, seem real, and we believe the place itself has attributes that exist only in our imagination. One place makes us feel at ease and happy, while another makes us feel anxious and troubled. We believe our "sixth sense" -- or maybe even our so-called common sense -- is telling us something true about our surroundings.

I like to do a little test when I have these feelings. I try to let go of whatever I've been thinking about. Just be there with my senses alert, letting the world inform me rather than coloring it with my own thoughts and ideas. Nine times out of ten, whether I'm in nature or in the city, I find the sense of foreboding was a projection of my own thoughts or bias, that my anxiety was unfounded. 

Once I was in a wilderness skills class where we were going to kill a couple of chickens by wringing their necks. We had only two chickens, so only two of the dozen or so students were going to do the deadly deed while the rest of us observed. It was a sunny day in a rural part of Santa Cruz. Birds were calling in the woods. Down in front of my feet, ants were hauling grass seeds toward their subterranean nest. A gentle breeze blew. I wondered if nature would react to our killing of these chickens. 

The killing time arrived, and the chickens' necks were broken. Their bright, beautiful combs faded and wilted as they perished. But the breeze did not change. No cloud obscured the sun. Songbirds did not fall silent. The earth did not tremble. The ants marched on with their seeds. Nature did not pass judgment. It neither condoned nor condemned our killing. If nature inflicts moral judgments on people, it does so simply and without malice. Over-consumption of natural resources leads to depletion and scarcity that affect human lives. Injecting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere changes climatic regimes that can turn cities into swamps and bread baskets into deserts.

As for my sixth sense, I sometimes wonder if it is actually a subconscious awareness of physical phenomena rather than some sort of supernatural communication. So much is always happening around us that we can't possibly put our mental finger on it all. Our sixth sense alerts us to some danger, whether small or great, that we then manage to avoid, and we believe we have been favored by supernatural means. 

It might have been luck, but it doesn't feel that way. We feel like we were tipped off -- and I believe we were tipped off, but I believe what happened is that we became subliminally aware of physical cues. Sounds that vibrated our eardrums, light that struck our retinas, molecules that sailed into our nose. And all of it acted upon by a body that wasn't about to wait around until it could put the whole thing into words for the benefit of consciousness. Interrelatedness happens.

You could say I'm a strict materialist. But if you look at what we know about material these days, you find that trouble abounds. The more deeply we probe into matter, the less "material" it becomes. That pair of jeans you like? It's just atoms, subatomic particles, and forces. And according to our own modern mythology, before there was any material, there was an infinitely small "thing" called a singularity. A singularity cannot be imagined. How can we imagine that the germ of 100 billion galaxies, including the one we're riding on right this minute, was once an invisible little speck? Even if you do away with the mathematical concept of a singularity (since infinities are generally taken to be errors), or trade it in for "space-time foam," you are still left scratching your head about how "all this" -- the entire cosmos -- came from basically nothing.



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