May 3rd 2014

Hidden Wonders: What Nature Teaches Us About Ourselves

by Jeff Schweitzer

Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst; Ph.D. in marine biology/neurophysiology

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

Few among us do not find awe and wonder in nature's magnificence and complexity. But in spite of that commonality among folks from all walks of life, an important divide quickly reveals itself when we seek to interpret the significance of nature's many miracles. Some see causality, believing that only an invisible controlling agent could explain such wonders. Others see randomness, with no direction, purpose or meaning.

In the face of nature we reveal to ourselves two very different world views, one with god, one without. Perhaps this grand divide is a consequence of humanity's insignificance as we orbit in the enormity of space on our tiny "pale blue dot." How so? Humans can see only a small fraction of the natural world both grand and microscopic. The limitless cosmos is almost entirely beyond the reach of our narrow vision. Even if we could somehow see all of the visible universe, we would still miss the 94% hidden from us as dark matter. We cannot see atoms, DNA or viruses. We miss the colorful world seen through the filter of ultraviolet light. Unassisted by technology, the five senses with which human beings are endowed are woefully inadequate to the task of seeing anything but the smallest fraction of reality. But we have evolved a cruel paradox; our brains can imagine an infinite world far beyond the severe limits of our senses. This combination of endless thought constrained by the restricted reach of perception is fertile ground for fantasy and easy explanation for that we cannot see or readily understand.

Philosopher David Hume noted long ago: "We hang in perpetual suspense between life and death, health and sickness, plenty and want; which are distributed amongst the human species by secret and unknown causes, whose operation is oft unexpected, and always unaccountable. These unknown causes, then, become the constant object of our hope and fear."

Hume suggests that the first ideas of religion likely derive from mundane concerns for the events of everyday life and how the vast unknown of nature affected daily existence. The human brain is extraordinarily adept at posing questions, but simply abhors the concept of leaving any unanswered. We are unable to accept "I don't know," so when the miracles of nature remain mysterious, we fabricate explanations for that which we cannot grasp. In a world largely opaque to our senses, almost entirely veiled by our limited reach, we develop elaborate creation myths, sun gods, rain gods, war gods, and gods of the ocean. To allay fears of disease, death, starvation, cold, injury and pain, we solicit the aid of greater powers. We communicate with our gods and influence their behavior to impose some order on the chaotic mysteries of the hidden world. By making up answers to dull the sting of ignorance and limitation of our senses, we fool ourselves into thinking we explain the world. Hope and fear combine powerfully in a frightening world of unknowns to stimulate comforting fantasies and myths about nature's plans. Religion was our first attempt at physics and astronomy.

Which brings us to a second paradox. With advances in science and technology, we peer ever deeper into the secret world of nature; yet the more we know the better we understand how limited is our ability to lift the curtain on nature's hidden miracles. Greater knowledge leads to a grander sense of the vastness of the unknown. But instead of despair we embrace a mounting optimism that what we do not know now we might in the future, with no appeal to any divine oversight. But, but... religion robustly endures. Why?

Probably because we have a short evolutionary history, which has endowed us with a large brain that for most of our existence struggled with the mysteries of a hidden world we are only now beginning to glimpse with the application of reason rather than faith. We are early in our journey to accommodate the uncomfortable reality that we know that we don't know much, but know enough that we should not create myths to fill in the gaps. As those gaps diminish with growing insights into the hidden world we simultaneously become more comfortable with what we still cannot yet see. Becoming comfortable with the unknown is a process, and we are not done. Religion hangs on as a transitional state between a primitive mind seeking to explain the mysterious and a more enlightened insight that nature's grandeur is even more awesome in the absence of any guiding hand. Carl Sagan said in 1994, "A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge." Sagan contemplated the idea of religion replaced eventually by a deep awe of the natural world revealed through processes guided by nothing but beautiful undirected randomness. Certainly, such a future is by no means ensured because religion holds a mighty and tenacious grip on the human psyche. How this battle between faith and reason eventually plays out depends much on our endless quest to witness nature's many hidden miracles.




  

 


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