In heaven, everything is fine

Posted by on December 5, 2009 in Thoughts | 26 comments

“Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.”

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

As you may have read previously on my blog, I’m a big fan of perspective. I like to have an idea of where I am and who I am, what it means to be alive and what it means to be human.

The sun rising over the earth

The sun rising over the earth

I take strength every day from the fact that I fit into the universe just so, and that the universe works in such a way to facilitate my existence. I see around me the laws of nature, the constant battle for survival that all living creatures are a part of, the thriving and dying of plants and animals. I see the daily spin of the earth, the monthly rotation of the moon, the yearly traverse around the sun. These things I can observe, these are thing I can see and verify. I take strength from knowing these tangibles, and use this knowledge daily to inform my life. These are things we can all experience, and are all directly effected by. These are the things that bind us as a species, as a part of the greater whole of nature.

As thinking creatures – and by that I mean creatures that are able to speculate, calculate, invent and create – we often are forgetful of our true position in the scheme of the universe.  As man has evolved to become the dominant species on this planet, we have invented and constructed a myriad ways to better our individual situations, through agriculture, construction, technology, medicine and science. We have invented ways to preserve ourselves, a feat no other creature in the history of the earth has been able to do. Humans have the advantage of truly complex thought, of reasoning, and storytelling, metaphor and observational deduction. It’s through these thoughts that we are able to create such great things as civilisations and space shuttles. Through these thoughts we have discovered that we are in fact living on a tiny pale blue dot in a mote of dust, a dot in a dot in a dot.

But the advent of truly complex thought, while a keystone to the evolution of man, brought with it the unfortunate by-product of self-importance. Because of this we perceive ourselves to somehow be removed form the natural world, our lives to be more consequential than that of others. We seem to have lost our place in nature.

Let us not confuse self-importance with self-preservation. Self-preservation is the underlying principle behind survival, and all species of plant and animal strive to be self-preserving and self-perpetuating. Self-preservation drives us to protect ourselves from harm, and to reproduce. It’s the reason we’re here.

Self-importance however is the reasoning that each of us, while preserving ourselves, is individually more important than another in the scheme of the universe. Self-importance drives us to ignore the world around us, to focus only on our individual selves and those close to us. Through self-importance we cannot see past the present, and we ignore the past. And we do so at our own peril.

It is because of self-importance that the focus of life is on individual perceived interests like money and possessions. It’s all too easy to be absorbed in the products of our minds and the products of our societies. We perpetuate our own self-interests at the expense of others, and whomever it hurts to get what we want is inconsequential to us. Some would say that this is the cost of progress. I wonder if it might be an inherent trait of the human condition.

Religion was invented as a series of parables and metaphors, each designed to tell mankind how to interact best among one another. It was also used to explain away things we didn’t understand. Gods were humanity’s explanation for all things we were at a loss as humans to explain otherwise. These things about religion were very useful tools for humankind to progress past savagery and into a truly civilised species. But this tool, combined with self-importance, has placed man above all other creatures, except for God. And of course, every person’s own personal God is more real than anyone else’s.

One particularly misconstrued metaphor in religious texts has been combined with individual self-importance to create a particularly destructive force, and this is the idea of rebirth, resurrection and afterlife. The story of afterlife served a couple of purposes; originally it was the answer to the question “where do we go after we die”; it was also to show that the memories and genetic legacy of people are not lost after they die, that our individual interactions with the universe never really go away, but remain in the universe forever in some form or another. the idea of an end to physical suffering after death became a physical place, where not only do we not suffer, but we are rewarded with everlasting peace, or 72 virgins, and be reunited with all our loved-ones, or whatever it may be that we wish for in our lifetimes. In many ancient civilisations, although death was then as now a difficult concept to grasp, people had a better understanding of the cycle of life, that death brings with it new life, or new beginnings, and that everything continues through legacy.

When you mistell this idea, and combine it with wrongly told parables, then add self-importance, you invent an afterlife. The self-important human says “It doesn’t matter what I do in this life, for through my belief in the story, I will go to a better place after I die.” It’s the self-important man who thinks that his life is so meaningful in the structure of things that an all-powerful all-seeing all-knowing omnipotent creator is watching him, that his life means enough to the creator of the universe, that once he dies he will be magically whisked away to a better place. The individual is then free to do whatever they want, without thought for others or the world.

The universe is big

The universe is big

But we are small. In the scale of the universe, one man is inconsequential. One planet means nothing. All the wars men have fought, all the civilisations that have grown and decayed, all the individuals in the world’s history, all happen in the blink of the cosmic eye. We could destroy this planet, and it wouldn’t mean anything to the rest of the universe.

We are at a particularly challenging point in human history. In order to overcome, we must come to realise that all we have is right here and right now, that what is important is not whether there’s an afterlife, but what can we do to preserve our little planet. We have a huge capacity as humans to be resourceful, to  be caring and loving, to be productive and innovative. We need to use these amazing traits of humanity if we are to save ourselves from ourselves.

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26 Comments

  1. Adams is a great tie-in to this idea, too. One of my favorite takeaways from his writing is the total perspective vortex that Zaphod is shoved in. I like to look out at the night sky or a larger-than-life landscape and think about it. Sometimes it makes me nauceous (literally) when I consider how small and accidental I really am, but then I remember that that is what also makes me so breathtakingly unique.

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  2. Good stuff!

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    • Really interesting read! The first image is stunning. I love reading about cosmology & I find it particularly interesting when there are daunting/challenging things going on in my life. Sort of puts life back in perspective like the pale blue dot. Maybe my religion is cosmology :)

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      • yeah that image is my desktop at work. Keeps my head level. People forget theire place in the universe all the time. Other worries take precedence over what’s real. I find people so frustrating sometimes.

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  3. I really like the distinction between self-preservation and self-importance. Too often, the two concepts are hopelessly confused.

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    • Thanks Shine. Glad you liked it. Thanks for stopping by. I hope to write further on this topic.

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  4. Excellent blog, Marty. You make some very salient points. It’s very true humans place themselves above and beyond the world around us. Religion is an example of this. Religion places us at the centre of the universe, the purpose for existence. This has made us grossly iresponsible in so many ways.

    We all need to acknowledge finally that we are just one speck of very lucky matter in an unimaginably huge universe. Humility wouldn’t hurt us at all. – Wayne

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    • Thank you Wayne, for your input. Yes this is something that bothers me a lot about humanity. I will write further on it.

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  5. Another excellent posting – loved it. I’m forwarding this one on to my brother :)

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  6. “Self-importance drives us to ignore the world around us, to focus only on our individual selves and those close to us. Through self-importance we cannot see past the present, and we ignore the past. And we do so at our own peril.”

    Loved it. Very nice blog post. I’m sharing it with my friends on facebook. I think you make your points very well.

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  7. Thank you all for your comments, I’m glad this resonated with you all.

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  8. Nice post. Best so far. A single human is just a leaf in the wind. May I [mis]quote ‘Q’ from Star Trek TNG? “..Your species has potential..”

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  9. Thanks for the thought. I found it interesting. However, may I take issue with one of your comments? You imply that for a Christian (or other religious person), having a sense of their worth in God’s eyes will lead to irresponsibility: “The individual is then free to do whatever they want, without thought for others or the world.” My very wide experience of Christians leads me to believe that precisely the reverse is true. The vast majority find their faith humbles them and drives them to “love their neighbour”, often with considerable self-sacrifice. I write as a Christian.

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  10. “The self-important human says ‘It doesn’t matter what I do in this life, for through my belief in the story, I will go to a better place after I die.'”

    There are at least 2 other responses I can think of. Some believers reason ‘Because I go to a better place, I will work as hard as I can to help others because I don’t need riches or comfort in this world.’ Hence a lot of altruism is born.

    Another possible response from one kind of atheist: ‘I go out like a lightbulb after this life, so I will grasp and take as much as I can for myself even at the expense of others’. I don’t know how many atheists are nihilists, but it’s a possible and reasonable response.

    Nice writing in this post.

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  11. Wonderfully concise and on the money. Thank you.

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  12. Martin,
    This reasoning is exactly what should take you further and help you realize how imposible is the idea of the non-existence of God.

    “But we are small. In the scale of the universe… all the civilisations that have grown and decayed, all the individuals in the world’s history, all happen in the blink of the cosmic eye.”

    Ironically there was man who loved God and was used by God who agreed with you in that we are very small:

    “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
    You have set your glory, above the heavens.

    When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,

    What is man that you are mindful of him,
    the son of man that you care for him?

    You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
    and crowned him with glory and honor.

    You made him ruler over the works of your hands;
    you put everything under his feet:

    O LORD, our Lord,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Psalm 8)

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  13. Let’s really talk about the things we don’t understand…
    Where were we when God laid the earth’s foundation?

    (Job 38-40)

    “Who is this that darkens my counsel
    with words without knowledge?

    Brace yourself like a man;
    I will question you,
    and you shall answer me.

    “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
    Tell me, if you understand.

    Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
    Who stretched a measuring line across it?

    Have you ever given orders to the morning,
    or shown the dawn its place,

    Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea

    Have the gates of death been shown to you?
    Have you seen the gates of the shadow of death?

    Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth?
    Tell me, if you know all this.

    What is the way to the abode of light?
    And where does darkness reside?

    Can you take them to their places?
    Do you know the paths to their dwellings?

    Surely you know, for you were already born!
    You have lived so many years!

    Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him?
    Let him who accuses God answer him!”

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  14. I came to this website to view the Hubble Telescope Deep Field Images, however, since you asked, let me tell you how I see my place in the universe.
    I’m a non-religious Jew. I call myself agnostic, since the idea of athesism is almost as problematic for me as deism is. Still, I believe that ever last atom in my body has existed since the beginning of time, i.e., since the Big Bang, and that ever cell in my body is a descendent of a cell that once swam free in a primordial sea 3 billion years ago.
    Do I believe in an afterlife? I do in a way. That which constitutes me has existed since the beginning, and so I see no reason to believe that my death will represent the end of the material that constitutes me, but I will have been transformed in some way in which I cannot know or imagine.
    As for consciousness, without this corporal form, my consciousness is impossible, but whether any other form of consciousness will replace, I cannot say, but I do have my doubts.

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    • Thank you for stopping by, all are welcome, and your comments only add to the breadth of experiences from my readers.

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    • alright, I understand conciousness as the ability of being aware of oneself. Althought its a nice thought, I really can’t think of any other “thing” capable of such self-awareness: the struggle between self-preservation and self-importance.
      I think I get your point of afterlife as the worms that would eat us at our graves, and so on.
      My point? Well, I am happy to be a self-aware tiny pale dot in a dot in a dot, rather than a huge Betelgeuse or even a M101, as I believe an unexamined life is not worth living.
      Thanks for your sharing.

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  15. I also wandered here looking for the Hubble Deep Space images. Many of your observations/insights resonated, and I don’t find a speck of it incompatible with the ineffable, mysterious and unknown force that some people refer to as “God.”

    I’m with Zaldy Jack, individuated consciousness is hard for me to imagine… and self-importance? Yeah, it’s so easy to fall into that. It’s a balancing act, right? As you say, we are the most wonderful of creatures by so many measures, yet we are dust, space debris, over-evolved amoeba, nothing. That whole nothing/everything/nothing thing. Deep breath. Life feels like one of those secret three-dimensional magic eye posters that proliferated for a while before we invented the internet: you stare and stare and nothing and then WHOA I see it! I see it! It’s a dinosaur, and a-where’d it go again?

    Space has a way of flipping us all out of the self-important mode pretty fast. The second half of that NOVA series on the history of the telescope? Incredible. How can we get our heads around 100 Billion galaxies with 100 Billion stars? How can a species that evolved based on our ability to deal with the here and now simultaneously hold in our heads the infinite?

    That’s what I think those myths/stories are best for. Not socializing human behavior, not for the creation of an unknowable afterlife, but for informing how we get through this thing, helping us make sense of our position, this dichotomy between being an inconsequential and essential blip – “I fit in just so”…

    Thank you for your post. Speaking of self-importance, the internet/blogosphere has its share of worthless gasbaggery- mine included – and lately, the more time away from the computer the better for me – but I found myself enriched and provoked by your comments. Best to you from Portland, Oregon, USA.

    Jelly Helm

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  16. Had to add this. Just heard this poem by James Agee on my classical station…

    Sure on This Shining Night

    Sure on this shining night
    Of star made shadows round,
    Kindness must watch for me
    This side the ground.
    The late year lies down the north.
    All is healed, all is health.
    High summer holds the earth.
    Hearts all whole.
    Sure on this shining night I weep for wonder wand’ring far
    alone
    Of shadows on the stars.

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  17. It’s funny, I got here by the same means as the many other people before me, just looking for some nice Hubble pic’s, and I was pleasantly surprised. It’s not often where I live that I find rational minded people have these discussions without getting so out of hand that they resort to senseless name calling. Also, Zaidy Jack gets his comment saved into my list of quotes. Although I am quite content with the thought of no “afterlife”, I know many agnostics and new atheists who aren’t, and I feel this may help shed some perspective for them.

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    • It seems the biggest drawcard to my blog is not my writing but in fact the Hubble Deep Field photograph. However I’m glad some of you have stopped by and enjoyed my writings! I have a heap more stuff on this blog in a similar vein. Go check it out! And thanks again for your awesome comments, it makes it all seem worthwhile, and makes me know I’m not writing in a vacuum! :D

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  18. Hi all,
    I feel the same as some of you. What is our place in the universe?
    I don’t have the slightess idea. What I do know is what some of you have stated, and that is, we are mere care takers of this planet. If we were visited by our celestial neighbors I would be embarassed to be apart of this humane phyciophant society sucking the very marrow of our exsistant.
    We are but petty creatures that have yet to understand our roles. We quibble over the minutae that has no place in our universe. Please don’t cross our boarders. OUR BOARDERS!!! Do you know it take a hundred thousand light years to travel from one end of our galaxy to the next and your concerned about a pretend line to not cross on this microbe of a planet. We would be laughed out into the next universe. People look at me with this instant look of, I never looked at it that way. They then say what a way to put things into perpective with an analogy like that. I just smile and walk away leaving them to digest what I’ve just shared.. I love it!!! Talk about a paradigm shift.

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  19. There are some days when I think I’m going to die from an overdose of satisfaction. Salvador Dali

    =)

    So I likely pinged you back, as I stole your HUDField pic link for my blog. I love your stuff.

    http://www.edternet.com/unclefishbits/2010/09/28/atheists-agnostics-know-more-about-religion-than-the-religious/

    You will like that post.

    You will also like this:
    http://youarenotrational.tumblr.com

    Cheers, I will be reading a lot for some time…. not sure how often I will comment. But awesome blog, you good person.

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