This new webpage begins with a substantial explanation (about 17,000 words) of my atheistic worldview. In it, a Prologue is followed by Consolations One, Two, Three, Four, and Five. After this first long entry, I'll post much shorter additional entries at intervals, always with the aim in mind of showing how a dedicated atheist tries to cope with life at the mundane, day-to-day level and at the contemplative, metacosmic level. My main purpose will be to try to explain to everyone -- theists, agnostics, and fellow-atheists alike -- how someone like me, who sees reality as fundamentally non-human, finds comfort and consolation in being human.
"For whatever lives in time proceeds in the present from the
past into the future, and there is nothing with its existence in
time that can embrace the whole space of its life;... and in your
daily life too you do not live in more than the moving, passsing
moment." -- Boethius
Most people think atheism is cold and comfortless. Even religiously broad-minded men and women in Europe and the Americas find it emotionally repellent. Atheistic best-sellers like Sam Harris' End of Faith, Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell, Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, and Christopher Hitchens' God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything have strengthened the bias, persuading many readers that all atheists are snide and callow. A recent article in Newsweek favoring secularism concludes that "no group is more reviled in American than atheists." Small wonder so few people understand, or want to understand, why or how atheism comforts those who live by it.
I've been an atheist more than thirty years, having taken it up after spending my earlier decades toiling in the Vineyard of Academe and the School of Hard Knocks without thinking a personal worldview through. Now in my seventies, I'm a battle-hardened alumnus of both alma maters -- much-chastened Professor Emeritus on the one hand and, on the other, bruised survivor of several major surgeries, including one for unmestastasized gall bladder cancer that left a sixteen-inch scar across my stomach. Neither career has made me rich or famous, though the disease track did my doctors no financial harm. A bleeding ulcer blackened my bowels two years ago; many of my joints are stiff with arthritis; my prostate gland's the size of a tennis ball; a heart attack in 1995 landed me in open-heart surgery. I no longer worry about Changing the World or Making a Difference. Nowadays, I'm content to know in my heart of hearts that atheism's the light of my life, the fountain of my joy, the bedrock of my strength. How can that possibly be?
Like many atheists, I don't start from the assumption that religion's terrible and must be trashed. I assume instead that the world was not made and is not run by what adherents to the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition have during the past three thousand years come to call Yahweh-God-Allah: -- a single, invisible, supernatural deity who created the cosmos from nothing, who possesses a human-like capacity to think and feel, who made humanity in its image, and who constantly monitors and judges everything that happens. On the contrary, I and most of my fellow-atheists believe that the cosmos has resulted from observable and verifiable physical facts which are neither human nor superhuman but at the core unfeeling, unthinking, and unplannned. The best available evidence, we're convinced, overwhelmingly supports that conclusion.
Such evidence does not, however, absolutely prove it. Absolute proof for or against any big worldview of the kind discussed here will forever elude human grasp. The best we can do is to gather credible evidence supporting our own worldview and contradicting that of the competition. The non-empirical, metascientific postulates of any big worldview are only more or less -- never absolutely -- proveable. In this sense, all atheists and religionists are agnostics, whether they like it or not, which I'll explain more fully at the end of Consolation Five. For now, it's enough to accept Boethius' thought in the opening quotation that no one living in time knows for sure what will happen next. Nor does anyone indisputably know, for instance, whether or not percipience in some way survives death. Nor do we know why nature exists, what it finally is, even how it works. Our answers to such riddles are hunches based on the limited knowledge we have at hand.
That said, there are vast differences in the quality of the evidence used to determine what "knowledge" is. To me, the best evidence comes from careful observation of, and empirically verifiable conclusions drawn from, nature -- in other words, evidence based on scientific study and confirmable by any independent tester. This is the kind I most trust. The least reliable kind for me is private testimony affirming supernatural experiences -- for instance, supernatural visions, conversations with supernatural beings, discoveries or revelations of supernatural texts, and the like, reported by one or a handful of persons. This is the sort of evidence overwhelmingly used to found and propagate religions. It's based not on impartial, repeatable experiences with the natural world but on idiosyncratic communings with alleged realities outside nature. Such communings typically start with an a priori belief in the supernatural and end with inner, ecstatic confirmation that the supernatural does in fact exist. They stand at a pole opposite the scientific method and are in my view untrustworthy except as evidence of mental or physical aberration. Nonetheless, my atheistical agnosticism keeps me from claiming they're absolutely untrustworthy as evidence for a worldview. Most religionists reciprocate the courtesy, conceding that atheists can't be said to be absolutely wrong, however wrong-headed they may be. Unfortunately, religious fanatics refuse the courtesy both to atheists and to fellow religionists alike.
My point is that most of us atheists see religion more as irrelevant than hostile to our worldview. Far more interesting than religion, to us, are the proven facts of the cosmos from which, we're convinced, life randomly evolved -- for example, the billions of stars in each of the billions of galaxies occupying the immensities of cosmic space, all obeying predictable physical laws. Equally interesting are the facts of subatomic reality and its swarms of particles and energies hinting at similarly mind-boggling infinitessimalities. We hold that these big macrophysical and little microphysical facts were responsible for bringing the earth into being and causing its four-billion-year development from a redhot planetessimal into a platform for oxygenated life and the technological, economic, social, ethical, aesthetic, and philosophical complexity that a species of mammals on its surface subsequently invented. We treat these proven and, in the scientific community, universally acknowledged facts as the foundation of our worldview, which we find incomparably more convincing than the legends, myths, and purported revelations of Jews, Christians, Muslims, and all other religionists.
I call my own brand of atheism Materialism in honor of the philosophical tradition founded by the Greek atomists Democritus and Epicurus and transmitted in detail to posterity by the Roman poet Lucretius. It affirms that some kind of energy-rich natural substance precedes, instantiates, and binds together all forms of being. No one as yet knows, nor may ever know, what this ultimate substance is. It may be infinitely divisible or expandable and hence limitless. It may be separable into endless numbers of cosmoses like our own both within every subatomic particle and also parallel to ours in adjoining space-time cosmoses. The likelihood that the substance is either dimensionless or infinitely dimensional simply enhances the spendor and mystery of what we materialists term the All.
Obviously, my materialistic atheism (close cousin to "physicalistic" or "naturalistic" atheism) takes for granted the impossibility of co-existence between anything supernatural and the natural order. Nature is all there is, constituting a material plenum, fullness, or totality in which non-materiality or supernaturalness is not just self-contradictory but meaningless. There simply is no place in the natural All for anything SUPERnatural. Everything that exists is made of the fundamental stuff of nature, whatever it is, all the way down, as philosophers say, and talk of SUPERnaturalness is as idle as talk of non-existence or nothingness. Everything in every kind of being that ever has existed or will exist consists, ultimately, of the same basic ingredient that underlies our cosmos. Non-being or nothingness can't exist in relation to it.
Consequently, atheism itself is little more than an afterthought to us materialists. We're not primarily at war with deities or religions. Like popularized versions of Homer's Iliad or Melville's Moby Dick, deities pale for us in comparison to the real thing: -- the cosmos that really does exist. What chiefly interests us are the ramifications and consequences of living on a planet that is, as Wallace Stevens said a century ago in his quintessentially atheistic poem Sunday Morning, "an old chaos of the sun,/ Or old dependency of day and night,/ Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,/ Of that wide water, inescapable." Stevens' "old chaos of the sun" is our solar system, whirled into being by chaotically intersecting natural forces and shaping us in concert with the earth's rotation. Our lives are physically and morally "free" of supernatural oversight. No higher being "sponsored" us, and we rejoin the ocean of "inescapable" oblivion surrounding the "island solitude" of our lives when we die.
Harsh though these assumptions seem to many people to be, they offer genuine solace -- indeed, much hope and joy -- to me and other atheists, comforting us in at least five major ways. In the first place, atheism frees us from the drawbacks of religion itself, which typically claims to have non-human origins but is in fact an altogether human invention. Second, in asserting that morality is also man-made, atheism strips moral systems of like claims to supernatural authority and makes them justify themselves on purely mundane, natural grounds. Third, atheism affirms that all human communities are human constructs rooted in the biological laws of birth, life, and death and so enjoy no supernatural privileges. Fourth, by tracing human life to purely natural causes, atheism encourages us to love the cosmos we inhabit -- that is, our terrestrial wilderness extended outward to the cosmos as a whole -- as the beginning and end of everything we are. Finally, atheism affirms and celebrates all Being, despite the pain and disappointment Being inevitably entails on those who experience it in human form.
These five consolations presume a reality independent of human perception, one that is absolutely material and natural -- a boundless, multi-dimensional continuum of material fact we as yet know only as the Big Bang cosmos in which we all live and die. That countless kinds of material reality other than that of our own cosmos exist seems very likely to those of us who see the Big Bang as merely one of an endless chain of natural events interlinked in an infinite, eternal, and nonanthropomorphic All of material being. Human consciousness created the religion and morality of my first two consolations and played a large part in creating the complex human communities of the third. But the Wilderness and All of consolations Four and Five unconsciously created human consciousness itself.
CONSOLATION ONE: RELIGION
Much of the comfort that human beings have found in religion through the ages has come from their belief not only that something supernatural exists but that it can be persuaded to sympathize with them. Prayer to supernatural gods supposedly gets their attention. When those we love die, they supposedly transcend nature and await us in a supernatural realm. If we do what religion teaches, we are supposedly rewarded both here and hereafter. Above all, the supernatural supposedly gives its believers an ultimate purpose and meaning. Without it, many assume their mundane lives are pointless. These and other religious consolations have helped millions of people cope with the pain, frustration, and disappointment of life since religion first appeared on the planet. Their belief that religion is not a human contrivance but a gift of the gods has been a tremendous comfort to them.
I don't question the sincerity of those who feel this way, nor do I regard genuinely-felt, non-judgmental religious consolation as weak or silly. Each of us has to cope with living and dying as best we can. Since no one alive knows what dying is really like, we're all justified in dealing with it in our own way. If religion helps you through the deaths of those you love and your own death, by all means use it. For hardcore atheists like me, however, religious consolation just doesn't work. We think the most trustworthy signposts all point away from theism and supernaturalism towards the two great, mundane facts we see, hear, touch, taste and smell around us daily. First and foremost: the natural order is all there is. Second: no organism survives its death except as chemical residues. My aim in what follows isn't so much to expound the scientific evidence for these two facts, abundantly available elsewhere, as to explain how and why they console me personally. Forgive me in advance for talking so much about myself.
While it's true that religion has always comforted many people, it's also true that religion has been a scourge to many others. In return for hoped-for control over natural disasters like disease, drought, and flood, men and women have sacrificed other men, women, and children to the deities they think cause these calamities. In return for the alledged protection and sponsorship of their gods, men and women have waged holy wars of enslavement or extermination against religious -- and secular -- rivals. In return for the promise of divine favor before and after their deaths, men and women have hotly believed in supernatural revelations and have tortured others into professing the same beliefs, as in the Inquisition.
Less viciously, men and women have colluded in magical thinking and closed their minds to more credible alternatives so as to be comforted by familiar ritual. Christmas and Easter are to me relatively harmless examples of this sort of magical thinking. These annual celebrations of the birth and death of Jesus are in my judgment fables. Based on the narratives of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, they consist of clumsy conflations by Luke of the earlier and often contradictory Matthew and Mark versions, themselves written almost a century after the events they claim to narrate and void of trustworthy factual information about the historical Jesus himself, whoever he was.
These so-called synoptic gospels link Jesus' birth and death, perhaps unwittingly, to several sun-god/vegetation myths popular at the time by claiming that Jesus, like the sun-god, arrived with heavenly fanfare at the winter solstice to resurrect a dead world and then himself revivified at the vernal equinox. Equally primitive is Jesus' immaculate birth, a throwback to pre-agricultural religions where sexual reproduction was not understood and women were thought to be impregnated by spirits or winds. The account of Jesus' death and resurrection is an equally transparent fiction, with its cock crowing thrice, its eclipse and stoppage of the sun, its rock rolled from the tomb after three days, its Jesus ascending bodily heavenward, its doubting Thomas confounded, and so on.
While nowadays even many Christians see them as fictional, the Christmas and Easter stories have had a much greater impact on human culture than most such tales of magic and miracle. As modern American holidays, they've become crass and infantile, Christmas more so than Easter. Easter merely encourages little children to believe in an Easter Bunny with eggs and candy that their parents disbelieve and hides stone-age superstitions like eating a god for profit behind rituals of wine-tasting, ash-daubing, palm-waving, and sunrise-watching.
Christmas is a horse of a different color. It has in the U.S. gotten so crazed with spending, re-unioning, decorating, and pseudo-philanthrophizing that during November and December newspapers, magazines, and TV talk shows offer daily advice on how to cope with the resentment, loneliness, desperation, and suicidal impulse it always generates. Based on myths of divine impregnation and incarnation, it apotheosizes humanity as no other religion ever has, raising child and mother worship to pathological levels. Even more infantile than Easter, it pastes Santa Claus and his reindeer atop the myth of the virgin birth of a half-human deity and makes buying presents, especially for children, a pseudo-sacred duty.
Don't get me wrong. I know that most Americans, including many atheists, enjoy Christmas in many ways. The re-uniting of families, despite transportation woes and obnoxious relatives, is cherished by many. I myself like Renaissance and Baroque Christmas music and some kinds of Christmas decoration. But I also like not having to participate in any way -- not giving or getting unneeded and unwanted gifts and not pretending to cherish humanity at the winter solstice because a man-made revelation from a man-made god says I should.
More than two hundred years ago Thomas Paine concluded that the entire Bible story of the fall and redemption of humanity was a human invention. In The Age of Reason he said, "having thus... put Satan into the pit -- let him out again -- given him a triumph over the whole creation -- damned all mankind by the eating of an apple, these Christian mythologists bring the two ends of their fable together. They represent... Jesus Christ to be at once both God and man, and also the son of God, celestially begotten, on purpose to be sacrificed, because they say that Eve in her longing had eaten an apple." Paine's breezy ridicule anticipated more solid subsequent proofs that the Bible, like all purportedly god-written books, is a human artifact from start to finish. Like Paine, I'm consoled by knowing that all supernatural revelations, such as Mohammad's Koran and Smith's Book of Mormon, are also man-made fictions.
Fortunately, religion is at worst a minor annoyance to non-believers in the United States because of our relatively strict separation of church and state and our freedom to think and believe what we want. On the whole, Americans can take or leave Easter, Christmas, and the rest of religion as they see fit. Most American Christians have the wisdom and decency not to try to impose their views on non-Christians, and most of what U.S. Jews, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and other believers do as U.S. citizens benefits U.S. atheists too.
But in many parts of the world, especially the Muslim parts, religion is once again rearing its primordially intolerant, dictatorial, bloodthirsty head. Rarely in human history has it matched the gratuitous cruelty and violence that now, in the garb of Islamic fundamentalism, it's inflicting on innocent men, women, and children throughout the world. It flies hijacked jetliners into buildings full of unsuspecting victims; it plants bombs on trains full of peaceful commuters; it explodes cars and trucks to kill as many blameless Muslims and non-Muslims as possible; and it recruits fanatics to blow themselves up wherever they can wreak the most havoc on defenseless noncombatants -- in markets, schools, funerals, churches, and mosques.
This partial listing of atrocities now being committed in the name of Allah mirrors the pathological zealotry that fuels the movement. Such pathology is part and parcel of the zealotry that has always been spawned by so-called divine revelation, whether vouchsafed through natural phenomena like floods and meteors or through human channels like hearing or seeing gods and angels. Unquestionably, the chilling extremism now afoot in Islam has fed on the repeated insistence of the Koran, Islam's book of revelation, that the prophet Mohammad infallibly transmitted to humankind the divine word of Allah as delivered by the angel Gabriel and that everything Gabriel told Mohammad in the Koran must be believed and obeyed as Allah's will, on pain of eternal death.
According to the extremists, all who question Mohammad's revelations are infidels who must be converted, ignored, rebuked, or destroyed. Though the Koran nowhere commands the outright slaughter of infidels, on almost every page it promises they will be roasted in flames or boiled in liquids after they die, whereas all believers will enjoy endless spiritual and sensual pleasure in an oasis-like heaven of streams and gardens. In treating all non-believers as at best misguided aliens, the Koran has helped persuade extremists to wage a holy war of conversion and/or extermination against not only non-Muslims but tolerant Muslims as well, whose chief infidelity lies in their refusal to murder non-Muslims.
Nothing here is new. The same willingness to credit madmen and knaves touting their own brainstorms as supernatural revelation has typified religion since the earliest days of humankind. As soon as primitive men and women managed to conceptualize nature as something controlled by supernatural beings, much as they themselves to an extent controlled their own environments with crude tools and weapons, they probably began falling under the spell of those among them who reported seeing invisible people and hearing inaudible voices. Dreams and dream interpretation doubtless fed on such gullibility, which eventurally led to elaborate fictions about the origin, destiny, and divine rulership of the natural world and to warfare with rivals who worshipped alien gods. All these early gods embodied the crudity, violence, and selfishness of their human inventors, who lived in a near-feral state of nature. That religious fanaticism flourished in such circumstances is not surprising, providing as it did, among other things, a road to power for every budding prophet and soothsayer in the tribe.
Much of human history since has resulted from this sort of religious fanaticism expressing itself in holy wars of conquest, conversion, and genocide. Greek polytheism, with its seven gods and five goddesses living quarrelsomely on Mount Olympus under the slack rule of Zeus, was the product of centuries of bloody warfare between invading tribes from the Balkans, who worshipped sky gods, and indigenous Greek tribes who worshipped agricultural goddesses. The seven-five split, with Zeus as top dog, shows that even after getting the upper hand, the sky-god priests could not eradicate goddess worship and so certified it in this bizarre way. Although they too adopted the Olympian menagerie of gods and goddesses, the Romans renounced the religious zealotry behind it and permitted freedom of religion throughout the Roman Empire.
This tolerance vanished with the rise of Christianity, which in 325 C.E. became the state religion of Rome and began the relentless series of missions, colonizations, crusades, and internecine holy wars that continue to the present day. First, it subjected all of Europe by Word and Sword to Christianity. Then, after the Muslims had imposed their own religious dictatorship on northern Africa and Spain, Christian crusaders repeatedly tried by force to rid the Holy Land of Muslims. A horrific, many-centuried civil war within Christianity itself followed, in the course of which hundreds of thousands of Protestants and Catholics dispatched each other to heaven and hell, as they have till recently in Ireland. This schism coincided with the discovery, colonization, and conversion of the New World, carried out for the most part by Catholic priests and colonists but in English-speaking North America by Protestants. The violence, brutality, and near-genocide visited on the native peoples of America by these European Christianizers is only too well known.
To an atheist, one of the worst products of this long, dismal process of human religionizing has been the notion that human beings survive their own deaths in some kind of supernatural state of existence. Belief in human immortality is inconsistent with everything we know and daily witness around us in nature. Yet it is apparently so flattering to humanity's sense of its own self-importance and so soothing to its instinctive fear and hatred of dying that it's become the prime test of faith for most revealed religions. Because the human instinct of self-preservation is so potent, even religiously skeptical men and women often want to believe in immortality.
For religious zealots, there's never a doubt. They are taught not only that they must believe they'll live on after they die but also that all their thoughts and actions while they're alive are so important to whichever deity's in charge that they can earn them eternal salvation or damnation. Belief in divine judgment is everywhere demanded of the faithful, page after page, in the Koran. Less obsessive to modern Christians, Judgement Day looms large for many of them too. Even so preposterous a cult as Scientology, with its fantastic doctrines of reincarnation and the 75-million-years-ago Galactic Confederacy, can persuade its devotees that disobeying the cult's leader, David Miscavige, imperils their immortal souls. In a recent New Yorker article, an apostate name Jefferson Hawkins explained cult members' unwillingness to resist or challenge verbal and physical abuse from Miscavige. "If you don't go through Scientology," said Hawkins, "you're condemned to dying over and over again in ignorance and darkness, never knowing your true nature as a spirit. Nobody who is a believer wants to lose that.... [Miscavige] holds the power of eternal life and death over you."
Aside from Scientologists and suicide bombers, I suspect most yearners for immortality are consoled and comforted mainly by the hope they'll rejoin their loved ones after death. I also suspect they picture this future state as pleasant and familiar. But since the mundane empirical evidence against such yearnings is so overwhelming, no sane person can be dead sure immortality exists. Moreover, in Judeo-Christian-Muslim lore, immortality is potentially horrible. Hell awaits the damned. While liberal Christians dismiss hell as a fiction, more fundamentalist types aren't so sanguine. Some Islamic radicals, for instance, blow themselves up as insurance against danmation. And what if the future state is not as advertised by most religions but instead, as an example, a trance-like spell like that of the dead in Homer's Odyssey, which only the drinking of animal blood can break?
I find atheism's insistence that death is total and irreversible a comforting antidote to all this morbid longing for everlasting life. It is genuinely consoling to me not to have to pretend that something in me called a soul or spirit will live on after I die, not only because, at age seventy-four and frosted with disease, I have no wish whatsoever to outlive my own death but also because I look forward to the painless peace and quiet dying will bring me. To see death as the permanent, oblivious sleep that, on the basis of the best available evidence it cetainly seems to be, is far more comforting to me than any supernatural alternative.
Besides, I'm as sure as I can be that I have no soul or spirit in the traditional religious sense anyway. Everything I know, feel, think, imagine, or dream is the result of processes in my brain and body no less natural than my body's mechanisms for absorbing food and water. The world I apprehend outside and inside me is the product of billions of simultaneous electro-chemical events in my brain and body that, collectively, cause everything I consciously and unconsciously know, feel, and do. My soul or spirit is the sum total of these fantastically complex and numerous neural processes, each in itself as unknowing and unfeeling as the firing of a spark plug, which occur inside me every moment of my life and collectively provide me with whatever percipience I have. They, and with them my conscious and unconscious self, will end the moment I die. I will then consist solely of the leftover molecules and atoms that once comprised me and will truly experience the peace that passeth all understanding.
I don't say this sarcastically. I'm in fact much moved and comforted by those passages in religious rituals of burial that stress the finality of death -- for instance, the Christian liturgy's magnificent "earth to earth, ashes to ashes, and dust to dust." They acknowledge what all human beings emotionally deny but rationally surmise: when we die, we cast off forever the pain and sorrow -- and, less happily, the exhilaration and joy -- of human existence. We'll be unaware of and indifferent to the All around us and, like the planets, stars, and galaxies in their orbits, feel nothing, know nothing, want nothing. We will, in short, be planets, stars, and galaxies, or at least a sampling of their elements, and will continue voyaging through the cosmos as serenely as they. This much moves and comforts me.
I'm also moved and comforted by the affirmation of immortality at Christian funerals, but in a totally reverse way. Christianity's cry to Christ for rescue from death, like all such cries (Brahms' agnostic affirmation of immortality in the Requiem is another), is an acknowledgment of the core dilemma of human existence. On the one hand, much of our success as highly-evolved organisms depends on our valuing ourselves above all else and consequently doing everything we can to keep ourselves alive. On the other hand, all such self-prizing and self-preserving inevitably fails. The gap between our instinct to live and the harsh fact we must die can't be bridged. As Melville said in Pierre, death "is the last scene of the last act of man's play; -- a play, which begin how it many, in farce or comedy, ever hath its tragic end; the curtain inevitably falls upon a corpse." All great art, I think, tries to bridge the gap between living and dying but likewise always fails.
Yet the effort itself seems to me as noble and worthy of respect as anything we do, and as an atheist I take comfort from it and the great religious gropings toward immortality in church liturgy, music, statuary, painting, and architecture. I likewise admire and sympathize with the Bible, the Koran, the Book of Mormon, and other so-called holy books even as I flatly reject their supernatural claims. Though helpless to solve the riddle of mortality, they at least sense its tragic dimensions. And sometimes, as in Job and Ecclesiastes, they acknowledge its insolubility.
In sum, though I'm much comforted by my freedom from religion, I know religion offers those who believe in it great comfort at a hard time like dying. So long as the comforting doesn't entail proselytizing, bullying, or killing anyone, I'm for it. Each week I spend hours sitting what used to be called the death watch with patients diagnosed as being within hours of dying. While most are semi-comatose and unresponsive, some are not. Standard procedure for us death-watch hospice volunteers is not only never to contradict our patients but always to corroborate whatever they say, see, or want. If a patient hallucinates that long-dead relatives are standing by his bed, I say, That's great. If a patient asks me if she'll go to heaven, I say, Of course. Yesterday I helped a Catholic priest give extreme unction to a devout patient by first putting the patient's finger on the cross in the priest's stole and then helping him hold the priest's crucifix. I was happy to. I want to help all my patients through their final ordeal any way I can.
CONSOLATION TWO: MORALITY
To me, the fundamental premise of Consolation Two is a self-evident truth: -- all morality, like all religion, is man-made. Yet I'm continually surprised by how few people agree. Human morality is either god-given, they say, or, if not god-given, somehow universally valid. God-given? A meaningless assertion to an atheist. Universally valid? My imagination pictures thousands of distant planets, none remotely like our phyically or morally -- if such civilizations do in fact exist. We on earth may be the only morally conscious beings in the cosmos, and, if so, our morality is of course ours and ours alone. If not, it will remain the only morality we know until we make contact with our purported neighbors. When, then, did our man-made morality originate, how does it work, why do I as an atheist find it consoling?
All reasonable people agree that the natural order itself is profoundly amoral. Our knowledge of the way the universe began and developed is now so full and proven that almost no one still tries to claim that the sun, the moon, the stars, the galaxies, or other inorganic objects in our cosmos exhibit moral purpose. We know that space-time predictably expands and vanishes into black holes, galaxies coalesce and collide, stars ignite and burn through nuclear fusions, planets form and disappear -- absent plan or design. Driven by energies unleashed billions of years ago in a single flash, every atom of matter and photon of light in the cosmos unerringly obeys natural laws that do not know or choose but instead ride rails laid down by the Big Bang. So symmetrical, featureless, and supercharged was the initial instant of Big-Bang, Planck-era time that human thought and feeling cannot comprehend it. It did not then have, nor have its chrystallizations into inorganic matter since had, anything resembling a mind or heart. Yet everything we human beings are and do is its product.
What we call morality probably first appeared on earth when complex molecules, after randomly forming, dissolving, and reforming in earth's primordial oceans for a billion years, genetically mutated into self-enclosed, replicating, cellular organisms. Before this mutation, the molecules had no existence apart from the water around them and hence no buffering from its heat, light, motion, and chemistry. In accidentally enclosing themselves in membraneous sacs, they walled themselves off from their surroundings and developed internal norms and processes critical to their survival and reproduction.
More importantly, with cellular self-enclosure came self-definition. Each of these cellular sacs now had an identity separate from its chaotic environment and capable of crude responses. These initial responses gradually evolved into more and more sophisticated perceptions and judgments of the world. After countless generations and mutations from cell to plant to animal, light sensors on skins became eyes, and other kinds of sensors and chemical mechanisms became equally useful organs of discrimination. Since the ability to distinguish light from dark, heat from cold, food from poison, and friend from foe was a huge survival advantage, organisms that developed it and other kinds of perception flourished.
Throughout this billion-year evolutionary process, the ability of these organisms to discriminate among the particulars of their world obviously coincided with -- and was indistinguishable from -- their ability to evaluate those particulars. Determining what kind of plant or animal faced you equalled determining whether it was good or bad for you. Recognizing and judging your surroundings in this way meant, among other things, the difference between eating and being eaten. At least to me, nothing in the history of life on earth seems more obvious than the fact that perception and judgment are and always have been simultaneous and identical gut instincts. Although humanity has greatly refined and socialized these gut instincts since the days when molecules accidentally walled themselves inside sacs, recognition and judgment remain what they then were -- the indispensable and inseparable ingredients of everything we now call morality.
To understand human moral instinct or intelligence in this way is deeply satisfying and comforting to me. In the first place, it lets me dismiss supposed revelations of supernatural morality as the human inventions I take them to be. While much of the morality taught by revealed religion is sound and useful, whatever soundness and usefulness it has stems from its altogether mundane roots -- that is, from the collective social experience of human beings a-borning, co-existing, and dying together for hundreds of thousands of years on the surface of the planet. Divine injunctions either against murder and theft or for compassion and honesty are nothing but everyday, common-sense social wisdom writ large by human religionizing. And many other features of religious morality are man-made tools for manipulating the gullible, including promises of eternal salvation or damnation for believing or not believing in given deities, commands to exterminate the followers of rival deities, supernatural rules for clothing, diet, sex, hair style, word choice, and so on. Such claims hurry my thoughts toward the comfort and safety of mundane justice and equity like dogs chasing foxes or rabbits to their burrows.
In my final analysis, all human morality boils down to this safe, comforting, mundane justice and equity. Although people hurt by bad luck, by other people, or by themselves are often lured by religion into believing in, or at least hoping for, supernatural redress, such hopes are little more than tokens of the tragi-comic gap between what humanity feels it deserves and what it actually gets. Only in fantasy is virtue routinely rewarded and evil punished. In the real world, crime often pays, virtue often loses, chance mostly rules, and the Grim Reaper always wins, as religionists themselves never tire of pointing out. Ecclesiastes tells us all is Vanity; Augustine tells us Original Sin ruined the world; Calvin tells us humanity deserves to be damned. Only sentimental optimists like Jean-Jacques Rousseau argue that human beings are inherently good to each other in the best of all possible worlds. The truth of the matter is that human justice and equity emerged from the quotidian meatgrinder of human social history, a meatgrinder that eventually produced Roman secular law and after that the democratic rule of law, humanity's best moral construct to date.
The democratic rule of law consists of clearly stated and widely disseminated rules for human behavior that are subject to review and revision by those they govern. These rules may be local, national, or international constitutions, codes, treaties, or other binding agreements which in some way embody the will of the majorities they encompass. The democratic rule of law rests on concepts like universal literacy, fixed terms of office, scheduled and monitored elections, an independent judiciary and judicial review, governmental protection of minority groups and opinion, and freedom of speech and thought. In it, written laws rather than monarchs or priests govern.
But because it was a by-product of the evolution of simple cells into complex animals, the rule of law often exhibits the incoherent self-contradictions of nature itself. It too evolved from inflexible natural laws randomly colliding in an unplanned cosmos. It's nothing more than collective human experience trying to "soften," as Henry Adams put it, "the severity of natural process," a hard task indeed for fragile organisms on the surface of a ball of molten lava spinning blindly through space-time. Often unfair and unjust, it is, despite its many faults, the best moral system yet devised by humanity.
One of its more consoling features is its acknowledgment that human beings are potentially no less amoral than the natural order out of which they emerged. They are by nature neither moral nor immoral, it presumes, but so non-moral that they will always tend to favor and preserve themselves at the expense of others, like feral animals protecting a kill. The rule of law sees humanity's anti-social impulses as no less normal and natural than its social impulses. To discourage breaking and encourage obeying its rules, it has devised many shades of penalty for many shades of misbehavior, such as those that punish different misdemeanors with different fines, different felonies with fines or jail time, and different capital crimes with jail time or death. Paying in this way absolves the wrongdoer in the eyes of the law. He has both exculpated and rehabilitated himself, though he may also have been in some way permanently stigmatized or even (worst case) executed.
In other words, the terms and conditions of the rule of law are practical, contractual, commercial. Like Hail Marys meted out in Confession, they are fines to be paid rather than crosses to bear. The democratic rule of law ignores melodramas like sin, evil, purity, and holiness. Taking for granted humanity's primordial brutishness, it frees people from obsessing over guilt, conscience, and moral perfection by laying mundane, mostly pecuniary, penalties on them for their misdeeds. It comforts them by acknowledging their inherent animality and by subjecting them to practical, time-tested social rules for getting along together.
Yet it also acknowledges that human animality is not completely feral. The human capacity to ponder and resolve the complex moral issues that saturate all social intercourse is radically non-feral and has made the rule of law the tough, fair, canny moral system it is. On the one hand, our rationality, which is responsible for every code, treaty, constitution and moral principle comprising the rule of law, is one of our best consolations in an irrational cosmos. On the other, it teaches us how absurdly amoral and ephemeral we are. Despite my sense of its cosmic irrelevance, I'll defend the rule of law with my life, if need be, because of its matchless moral value to me while I remain alive.
The crown jewel of the rule of law, also solely a product of human experience and reason, is the so-called golden rule: -- do to others what you want them to do to you. Unnatural and counterintuitive, the golden rule contradicts almost every self-preserving and self-aggrandizing impulse of our viscera. It asserts that our best chance for safety and well-being lies not in selfishness but in self-sacrifice for the safety and well-being of our fellows. In recommending we compromise and cooperate for the common good, it makes the rest of the rule of law work.
Yet it also takes for granted that all such communal effort is voluntary. Everyone is free to choose to be socially responsible or not -- to do or not to do to others what she wants them to do to her. If she chooses not, she of course risks being punished, though as everyone knows many laws are easy to break and many law-breakers go scot free. Be that as it may, most citizens who can choose to live by the rule of law do so, chiefly because their reason tells them they benefit more with it than without it.
Often, of course, the residue of primodial amorality in the human animal makes efforts to establish a global rule of law seem quixotic. Fanatics and criminals seize power and impose their dogmas and whims on millions of people. Even in law-abiding nations, disgruntled individuals and groups often try to subvert the commonweal to their own ends. The ancient Adam in all of us -- the amoral chaos from which we emerged -- contradicts our moral reason, sucking us backwards towards a brute state of nature. Human pride, vanity, cruelty, and craziness stand ready to help in any way they can.
Yet as an atheist I'm much reassured and comforted by our capacity to reason morally. Odds are, no such capacity should have developed from the inorganic stuff we're made of. Evolving it was an incredible, perhaps unique, stroke of luck. It enabled us to choose not merely how to interact with our fellows but whether to interact with them at all. In this sense, our moral freedom is absolute. We can opt to cut ourselves off from humanity in part, through crime or misanthropy, or in full by committing suicide.
For those who, like me, opt to live with humanity under a rule of law, the need for moral reflection and judgment never ends. Do I confront the teenage louts at McDonald's whose obscenities I and my grandchildren must endure, or do I just get up and leave? Do I in some way protest the prayer that opens the graduation exercises at the public university where I teach? Do I contest the $300 fine for driving nine miles an hour over the speed limit on a deserted highway (except for the trooper manning the speed trap) at two o'clock in the morning?
The advantage atheism gives me in answering these and more serious moral questions is my certainty that I'm answering them myself, guided only by my own worldly knowledge and experience. But since in my view all human beings, atheists as well as non-atheists, base their moral decisions on worldly knowledge and experience anyway, whether or not they know it, I find it unsurprising that atheists and non-atheists often agree on moral questions. It would be hard, I think for anyone to infer I'm an atheist from many of the moral choices I've made, as the following list may suggest.
I support licensing private citizens to store locked rifles, shotguns, and pistols in their homes and, in special cases, to carry concealed weapons outside their homes for self-protection. I oppose selling private citizens any kind of rapid-fire, military-style firearm. I support family planning and a woman's right to choose abortion. I support the death penalty for heinous capital crimes, especially those against children or police officers. I oppose legalizing currently illegal drugs. I support a free-market capitalism robustly regulated and fairly taxed by the state. I oppose racial prejudice -- and preferences. I support mandated, universal health care. During my lifetime, I've voted in presidential elections for John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr., Robert Dole, Albert Gore, John Kerry, and Barack Obama.
Though responsible men and women could disagree with every one of these choices, they would probably accept them as honest efforts on my part to uphold and further a global rule of law. A global rule of law is in my view the moral system humanity most needs. It would abrogate the idiosyncratic, parochial moral systems that dominate much of the world today and would enforce standards of public behavior based on humanity's hard-won scientific knowledge and social experience rather than on its prejudices and gullibilities. While vulnerable to moral grotesqueries like Hitlerian Nazism or Islamic theocracy, the rule of law may ultimately prevail, I suspect, because of its deep roots in human evolution. Humanity may eventually outgrow its need for supernatural morality, but it will never outgrow its need for the rule of law.
CONSOLATION THREE: COMMUNITY
Consolation Three is more complicated than Consolations One and Two. Because human communalization seems to me even more instinctive and natural than religion and morality, it occupies in my mind a middle ground between human creativeness and createdness. Hence its middle slot in my five consolations.
In my judgment, what most tightly binds human beings together is their shared biology. The genetic coding that evolved over billions of years into the human species is the source of all our communal life and moral behavior, including the rule of law. To me, a major consolation of atheism is its premise that all communities, like all moralities, are products of the natural order, without a trace of anything SUPERnatural in them. In cosmic terms, no human community is privileged over any other collection of beings or objects, a fact that should hearten those who favor curbing human self-indulgence in face, say, of global warming. Humanity hasn't been divinely chosen to plunder this or any other planet.
But unlike the genes of ants, bees, geese, alligators, or beavers, which also dictate communal behavior, those of human beings have evolved complex reasoning to supplement instinct as a major motivator for cooperation. Originally, when the human brain was a third, quarter, or tenth the size it now is -- that is, before it developed the capacity to reason sequentially and so to create religion, philosophy, politics, literature, law, mathematics, science, and the rest of human civilization -- human beings, like all animals, bonded from blind instinct. Their sexuality produced offspring who needed food, protection, and, as brain size increased and maturity took longer to reach, years of nurturing. This in turn produced complex families, tribes, and nations. The shift from pure instinct to partial reason caused by this evolutionary process was as tedious and random as the process itself.
To this day, human beings remain fundamentally irrational throughout their lives. They have no say in being born and can't think complexly for years afterwards. By the time they begin to ratiocinate, they've already been irreversibly preconditioned by the linguistic, parental, georgraphical, and socio-economic facts of their birth and by the genes they've inherited. As infants, they are mere eating, sleeping, and excreting machines and never fully outgrow this instinctive state. Thoughtout their lives, they are compelled by the billions of years of evolutionary chance that shaped them to feel first and reason afterward. Their instincts to reproduce and preserve themselves are thoughtless to the core. Their will to live and their joy in living are feelings which no amount of reasoning can -- or need -- ever justify.
The irrationality of humanity's love of life and fear of death is confirmed, ironically, by reason itself, which relentlessly concludes that no living thing outlasts its own death except as dispersed molecules. If we were fully rational, we might accept this fact and live, not as immortals-in-waiting, as most religionists claim to do, but as though we were the ephemera we truly are. If we were fully rational, perhaps we would, as 20th-century existentialism said we should, see deciding whether or not to commit suicide as the only important choice of our lives. Life would probably then seem much more gloomy and unhopeful than it now does to most of us.
But we're not fully rational. Instead, we live inside cocoons of longing for an afterlife, or we hope for happiness or fulfillment in this life, or we picture life as tragi-comic and write essays on the consolations of atheism. Viewed rationally, the cosmos we inhabit seems so chaotically ordered, meaninglessly meaningful, emptily full, purposelessly purposeful, and meanly majestic as to reveal no coherence whatsoever. It is a senseless jumble of mathematically describable patterns, wrapped in impenetrable mystery. On the other hand, viewed humanly -- that is, irrationally --, it can be whatever we want it to be. It can be a drama of deific punishment and salvation, or of the rise and fall of civilizations, or of moral and social progress or regress, or of countless other fictions. Common to all such fictions is some humanly invented notion of community.
Because human communities evolved from the need to nurture offspring during longer and longer childhoods as brain size increased, they assumed the wide variety of form and content typically resulting from complex evolutionary histories. Like those of many animals, human families may have been dominated early in the evolutionary process by alpha males and /or females whose parents, siblings, and offspring may have lived with them and helped feed, house, clothes, and defend the clan. The sexual mores of such clans probably varied from promiscuity to polygamy or monogamy and were sooner or later reinforced by habit, custom, and religious myth.
All such commuinties were human inventions with the same instinctive goals they had from the start: -- self-presevation and propagation. Just as all human morality evolved from sensory appendages that enabled primitive organisms to scan and judge, all human community evolved from the gut need of these organisms to prosper and procreate. And just as human morality reached its apex in devising the rule of law, human community reached its apex in adopting the rule of law.
I'm consoled by the thought that all human communities, like all human moralities, are at bottom voluntary and optional. Every adult man and woman on earth is inherently free to choose his or her communal commitments and associates. Although many are blocked at least in part by the customs, ideologies, tyrannies, or impoverishments into which they are born, not to mention the worldwide legal maze of birth citizenship we're all trapped in, every adult of sound mind has the inherent ability to enter into or refuse relationships with other people. We can choose to have or not have friends, amuse or not amuse ourselves socially, join or not join whatever groups we want. And some people, among them the poorest and most tyrannized on earth, break their inherited chains and either escape to other parts of the world or die trying. Every family squabbles over questions of family obedience and commitment as offspring seek and are forced to leave home. Children often choose to communalize very differently from their parents and from each other. A few members of almost every family on earth make communal choices that cut them off from most of their family forever.
The idea that membership in any community is voluntary for those capable of choice, as most adults are, is to many people disturbing. For them, the thought that communities have no more authority than they themselves have as individuals is frightening. Such people want friendships, memberships, or communions that transcend the heartless sowings and reapings of biological process. They want from communal life assurances that surpass mere survival. They want their relationships with their fellows to reflect cosmic fairness and a friendliness in the stars. In seeing the universe as a family nurturing its members, they are projecting an idealized version of themselves onto the natural order. They are sentimentalizing their own flawed human families -- families flawed not only by natural selection but by the inevitability of death and the possibility of betrayal.
Family betrayal is common enough. Fathers or mothers abandon their spouses and children for many reasons. They may hate their mates and/or children or prefer other sexual partners. They may be bored with the humdrum or overwhelmed by the burdens of family life. They may be suicidal and choose to kill themselves. They may kill their families first and then themselves, depending on their psychosis.
To me, such hatreds, irresponsibilities, and insanities are tragically unavoidable facts of human life. Too many human beings come off the biological assembly line with too many flaws for anything else to happen. They may have inheritied genes that make them bad parents. They may have been poisoned in the womb by alcohol or drugs or abused as children. And, of course, they may be vicious by choice or nature. One needn't have grown up among farm children, and seen how much some of them liked torturing and killing animals for sport, to acknowledge such viciousness -- but it helps.
Obviously, human imperfection, self-contradiction, and villainy has permeated not just nuclear families but every human community since the human race began. Anti-communal and anti-social impulses lurk in the viscera of every man, woman, and child on earth. Although most people repress most of these impulses because of social conditioning or conscious awareness of the advantages of cooperating, many do not. These anti-socialists spend their time preying on others as best suits them. They may steal, cheat, bribe, assault, kill singly or serially, assassinate individuals or groups in the Columbine or Islamic manner, and so on. Their indifference to the misery they cause is not unique to them. All human beings have the potential to commit or condone such crimes and do so constantly. In many places throughout the world, crimes against humanity and the rule of law are deliberately ignored by almost everyone but their victims.
The root of all is the selfishness in our genes. We can't change or eliminate it except through dying or perhaps some kind of genetic re-engineering in a future dystopia. Essentially irrational, human egotism relentlessly bends human reason to its will. If threatened, it rationalizes flight, surrender, betrayal, and countless other forms of self-preservation. If flattered, it transforms humbug into high-octane judiciousness. If choosing which communities to join, it picks those which serves its own self-interests best.
All this consoles me. By acknowledging how inherently selfish human beings and their communities are, I'm freed from whatever obligations to them my own instinct and reason make me question and, in many cases, reject. I can feel as I do that American democracy is worth defending to the death yet at the same time find its crudeness, hucksterism, and imbecility appalling. I can grant the need for chain-of-command discipline in war yet still hate its mindlessness and brutality in general.
To me, no human organization, commuity, or society is more cosmically meaningful or worthwhile than I myself am, a conclusion that presupposes my own cosmic insignificance and helps me deflate my own delusions of self-grandeur. This cosmic egalitarianism consoles me the way my breathing does. No one has much of an atmospheric advantage over me. We all breathe pretty much the same air, without which we'll all die fast. So too with the sun. Though indispensable to our survival, it's also capable of vaporizing us all instantly. In short, no community gains or loses more than each of its members does from nature's implacable even-handedness.
Despite its drawbacks, adult humanity's freedom to choose how or whether to communalize comforts me in several other ways as well. In the first place, it de-sacralizes and de-sanctifies human social behavior and subjects it to the wholesome acids of skepticism. The absurdity of political institutions like the Electoral College may not elude reason forever. Nor may the insanity of allowing almost any American teenager or adult access to military-style weapons. The mindless upsizing and stuffing of American houses with credit-bought gadgets, furniture, and gas-guzzlers has waned, thanks to the Great Recession. Americans may now accept, grudgingly, a less grandiose way of life. The ability of individual men and women to give up stupid and self-destructive habits like these has always improved the nitty-gritty of the human condition and will always displace whatever "higher" authority it challenges.
Second, human reason is often extremely truthful despite its bondage to emotion. One of its best results in this respect has been its exploration and understanding of nature, which has proven invaluable in countless ways. Human beings can rationalize or deny many things but not gravity. Falling from the top of a skyscraper is always fatal; water always flows downhill. Grasping both this kind of quotidian fact and counter-intuitive astonishments like the Big Bang, black holes, and quantum mechanics has certified human intelligence as so reliable an engine of discovery and verification that the myths, superstitions, and pseudo-explanations of earlier ages concerning who, where, and what we are no longer matter. I'm consoled -- and thrilled -- by humanity's self-impelled comprehension of the natural order.
One extraordinary community, the community of science, has made this comprehension possible. To me, the scientific community seems less susceptible to human selfishness and irrationality than any other, however egomaniacal and unreasonable its individual members often are. This is in part because, collectively, scientists share the fundamental aim of establishing natural truth. Their basic goal is not to better, worsen, or in any way change their own or other people's lives but rather to understand how nature works. Like the rest of us, they're mostly driven by emotion in their personal lives. But their ultimate communal standard of success or failure is unambiguously objective: can they prove their claims to their peers? Here non-scientific laymen don't count, lacking both the expertise and, more importantly, the commitment to proof that are the scientist's sine qua non.
Some find the objectivity of science cold and inhuman. They reject it, much as they reject atheistic materialism's premise that life ends irreversibly in death, as implying so bleak and comfortless a view of the world that no one with a heart could possibly prefer it to more "humane" worldviews. To such people, I would say that the truth of the human condition is indeed, from a non-scientific point of view, harsh. But the scientific point of view avoids philososophizing or moralizing about the human condition and tries instead simply to determine the facts of nature. Unconcerned with what human beings hope or want the cosmos to be, it tries to define what the cosmos is. In this effort, it has succeeded beyond pre-scientific humanity's wildest dreams, giving us astounding insights into past, present, and future cosmic reality.
Of course, in explaining the once-inexplicable, it has also opened fresh mysteries like the origins of the Big Bang, the physics of black holes, the asymmetries of matter and anti-matter, and so-called dark matter and energy. The All itself remains as enveloped in mystery as it was when humanity first marvelled at the sun, moon, and stars and wondered how and why they moved. Consoled by what science has already proved and not proved, I'm confident it's done immeasurably more than any other human community to help me understand who, where, and what I am.
I take more practical comforts from science as well. I survived a heart attack fifteen years ago and have since had a rich and active life because open-heart surgery unheard of at the time I was born replaced three of my coronary arteries with healthier ones from elsewhere in my body. I and all my contemporaries have greatly benefitted from this kind of scientific betterment of life on the planet. And every such improvement has been the result of communally-organized effort. Without social, economic, and political cooperation, no scientific discovery could ever have influenced human affairs or happened at all. Admittedly, scientific "progress" has had many negative results, among them nuclear warfare and global warming. Yet such results are more attributable to human ambition, greed, self-delusion, and folly -- that is, to human irrationality -- than to science, which I see as by far the most rational community humankind has ever devised.
I'm also thankful for countless lesser communities that enhance my health and well-being. Among these are the networks that feed and shelter me, including the mines, farms, and factories that produce what I eat, wear, and inhabit and the outlets where I get it. The educational communities that helped me read, write, and rithmetize, and later to try to understand the universe, comfort me. The medical communities that tend me when I'm sick or injured, the financial communities that invest on my behalf, the police and military communities that protect me from crime and foreign aggression, the artistic communities that soothe and divert me: -- these and many other cooperative human ventures have helped me remain improbably happy in the inhuman cosmos where I was born.
I'm not at all troubled that almost all of these communities (indeed almost all that work best) are money-driven rather than love-driven. I prefer hard-eyed, professional self-interest to tender-hearted altruism when arranging my own affairs, as I did in joining a well-run assisted-living community at age seventy rather than waiting for my children to bail me out. I love my children, but in my old age I'd rather be taken care of by people I pay. To indulge this preference, I've saved sufficient cash, having been orphaned at thirteen and forced pretty much to make my own way, though with the incalculable help of two honest, capable women -- first my wife and then my partner. As a Depression baby, I've always lived frugally, eschewing all debt after paying cash for my third house when I was forty and having never bought another thing on credit. In short, money not only makes the world go round but also makes most of its communities work as well as they do.
Yet if money moves the world, love conquers all. Self-interest and its daily scramble for self-preservation are no more comforting a fact of human community than the genuine love that binds many people together. Husbands, wives, children, and many other family relatives, more often than not, sincerely love each other. Friends often bond for life. Less intensely, many people love the institutions that school or employ them. Many love the homes, towns regions, or nations where they live. At least in countries with a rule of law, most people cooperate more out of trust and affection for others than out of raw fear, insecurity, or selfishness. Even the probability that all human love is at bottom self-love consoles me because, if true, it proves how potent and instinctive our love of life and the world is. Though cosmically unrequited, human love is requited by other human beings.
CONSOLATION FOUR: THE WILDERNESS
We come finally to the two areas of consolation that humanity had no hand in creating but that instead created humanity. These I call the Wilderness, the subject of this section, and the All, the subject of Consolation Five.
By "Wilderness" I mean everything that has existed, now exists, and will exist in the cosmos we inhabit. While we have learned a great deal about our cosmos in recent centuries, we still have a huge amount to learn. We know, for instance, that it originated some thirteen billion years ago in a cataclysmic burst of energy and then expanded and evolved into the immense debris-field of galaxies that now dot the billions of light-years of space-time it comprises. Invariable physical laws determine every aspect of this expansion and evolution, from the birth and death of stars to the birth and death of organic life on our planet and perhaps countless others. Subatomic particles ruled by electromagnetism, gravity, and the strong and weak nuclear forces cause everything to happen, cosmically speaking, from galaxy formation to human daydreaming.
On the other hand, we don't know how, why, or whence the Big Bang occurred, what dark matter and dark energy are, whether our cosmos will always expand or at some point gravitationally contract, or what kind of physics governs so-called singularities like black holes and the Big Bang itself. On balance, one cosmic fact does seem certain: -- life is wholly the product of natural law and process.
This comforts me in several ways. In the first place, simply to be able to appreciate the sheer spectacle of the cosmos is both thrilling and consoling. Most inorganic objects, among them galaxies, suns, planets, mountains, and oceans, have no idea what they are or what surrounds them. Moreover, most organisms are either, like flora or microbes, oblivious of the world or, like fish, birds, and animals, conscious only of their own narrow survival environments. They lack the brain function to question and think that drives human beings to ponder and appreciate the cosmos as a whole. Tragic though human existence may be, we're rather well compensated for it by our ability to comprehend and interact with the magnificent panorama around us.
As science and technology have probed it more and more deeply, the panorama has grown more and more stupendous. We now know that our sun is one of some four billion stars in our own galaxy, which is about a hundred thousand light-years in diameter. Measured against our solar system, the galaxy's size requires that light like that from our sun, which takes eight minutes to reach earth, will have to make seven million consecutive eight-minute journeys in order to cross the galaxy. After an hour of travel, the light will have gone less than a billion and a half miles, or one eight-hundred-and-seventy-six millionth of the distance. After a year, it will have gone one one-hundred-thousandth of the distance, which means that if it began its journey from one side of the galaxy at about the time Neanderthal Man succumbed to Homo Sapiens, it will reach the other side some fifty thousand years hence.
Yet the vastness of our galaxy, with its innumerable stars (and, as seems increasingly likely, planets) separated by thousands of light-years of space, seems miniscule in terms of the cosmos as a whole. Millions of galaxies and galaxy clusters have already been catalogued, most spiral-shaped like our Milky Way, fewer globe-shaped. Save for a five-mile-thick film of atmosphere around our planet, none of these galactic or stellar systems may be capable of producing or sustaining human life. Outside earth's envelope of air, a human body explodes in the vacuum of space like a popped balloon. Out there, it's too cold and radiationally toxic for a human being without shielding to survive more than seconds.
Yet this immense, inhuman flux of billions of galaxies aimlessly circling and colliding, and probably chained by gravity to immensely powerful black holes, consists of the same handful of atomic elements that comprise every living thing on earth. Like all these galaxies, we human beings are entirely the offspring to the Big Bang. All our molecules are combinations of atoms that began forming a million years after the Big Bang, when radiation had cooled enough for simgle protons and neutrons to fuse into atoms of hydrogen and so start the process that ultimately produced the hundred-odd elements of the Periodic Table. The sense of kinship with the cosmos that this fact gives me is the second great comfort I find in being wholly a product of natural law and process. Far from alienated or estranged from me, the cosmic wilderness is my primal parent.
Yet I know that my kinship with it is hopelessly one-sided. I can admire and love it all I want, but it will never admire or love me back. Except (maybe) on other planets like ours, it lacks the capacity to think and feel that makes us human. Though sensitive, high-reasoning beings like us may have evolved elsewhere in the cosmos, they have done so as accidentally as we and enjoy no more of an emotional or intellectual bond with the inorganic stuff of their planets and solar systems than we do with ours. At bottom, the cosmos is an unfeeling, unthinking maelstrom of motion and matter whose metacosmic origins we don't understand and whose effects we suffer in the mortal cycle of our human existence. In other words, to be human is to be an inessential byproduct of an essentially inhuman reality.
But this fact implies not only the consolations I've already mentioned but a further balm as well. Far from the bleak and demeaning insult many seem to see it as, the emergence of humanity from inorganic matter is a truth proven by countless empirical facts, which to deny, as all but the incorrigible grant, is intellectually indefensible. No one, of course, is born knowing the following facts: electromagnetic force is always inversely proportional to the square of the distance between two charged particles; the gravitational force is always inversely proportional to the square of the distance between two massive bodies; the strong nuclear force always binds the protons and neutrons in the nucleus of an atom until the number of protons approaches a hundred, in which case the electromagnetism of the electrons paired with each proton overwhelms the nuclear force, making large atoms unstable. Facts like these were teased from the wilderness by centuries of scientific observation and experiment.
On the other hand, everyone knows from daily life that lightning, disease, flood, earthquake, tsunami, and countless other natural events can kill and that, once dead, plants and animals do not revive. Moreover, all moderately informed people understand that the laws of nature randomly interact to produce natural events, and they regard facts like the formation of our earth from aggregating planetessimals and the planet's subsequent wobbly, axial spin as no less accidental than the shape of clouds in the sky. You don't need advanced degrees in physics to gain such knowledge. All you need are reliable senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste and enough time living to accumulate a modicum of adult information.
In other words, a counter-intuitive comprehension of quantum mechanics and a commonsense comprehension of gravity's pull on water are both capable of appreciating not only the splendor but the indifference of the cosmos. Both types of understanding reveal what reality is. Both seek to know what really exists outside the perceiver, no matter how painful or unpleasant it may be, and both see proven truth as incomparably valuable. Establishing such truth is for those who crave it the greatest satisfaction and consolation they'll ever know. I say this not to tout philosophical veridicality but in response to my own gut hunger to know what is. Even as the wilderness stabs me with its indifference, it soothes me by being so reliably, undeniably, and gigantically there.
To this point, the wilderness consolations I've described have been pretty much cerebral. I know intellectually, that is, that the cosmic wilderness lies out there beyond the atmosphere, but I can see and feel the sun only by day and see the moon and nearby stars only on clear nights. But the wilderness of the earth itself has been viscerally known to me my whole life. I grew up in the Vermont backwoods on a farm ringed with hills and linked to the nearest stores by fourteen miles of dirt road. A hundred feet behind our farmhouse lay a thirty-acre stand of hemlock that I spent hours as a boy exploring, along with the hundreds of acres of wood and hills beyond it.
The solitude of uninhabited woods, mountains, and deserts has calmed and soothed me ever since. I love to be alone outdoors, far from human contact, where I always have the contradictory feelings of kinship with and alienation from the wilderness that dominate my worldview. Every rock and plant is my brother and sister, yet none knows or cares about me at all. Wild animals avoid me like death, though some would like to kill and eat me. In short, I deeply love the wilderness, but it never reciprocates. To be alone anywhere on the earth's surface symbolizes who, what, and where I truly am in the cosmos as a whole and puts in clear perspective my own and all human affairs. But solitude doesn't require large areas of uninhabited land. It can be found in cities or wherever else people live. An hour alone watching trees swaying in wind, clouds passing overhead, or bees working flowers can generate a sense of wilderness peace and quiet in me anywhere.
I've lived much of my life outdoors. As a teenager I canoed the Connecticut River, hiked the Green and White Mountains, skiied much of New England, worked one summer at a gold mine in the Alaska wilderness, and often drove back and forth across the continent, usually camping in the wild. The climax of my camping career came in the early 1970s, when my family and I spent much of my year in Germany as a Fulbright professor camping throughout Europe.
After that, I did the wilderness more from beds than sleeping bags. This phase climaxed in the mid-1990s, when I bought a cabin in the Tahoe National Forest with backdoor access to the high Sierras. These I began exploring by trail and bushwhack and in fall 1995, after arranging a teaching exchange at University of Nevada-Reno in order to live full time at the cabin, started some serious wilderness probes. One of my goals was Devil's Peak, a granite dome fifteen miles west of Lake Tahoe and 2,000 feet above the Rubicon Valley and the Desolation Wilderness.
I was determined to reach Devil's Peak, climb it, and see what the Desolation Wilderness beyond it to the west looked like. After weeks of approaching the Rubicon Valley from gravel logging roads, I finally found the only route to the base of Devil's Peak not blocked by cliffs or gorges. After working my Geo Tracker a half mile down an abandoned logging trail, I bushwhacked through a quarter-mile of Douglass fir forest to descending glacial granite fields sprinkled with firs, lakes, and manzanita brush, at the bottom of which meandered the Rubicon River. A raging torrent in spring, the Rubicon now trickled brook-like through fields of smooth granite, groves of pine and fir, and ponds linked by waterfalls and rock-walled channels. One of these ponds lay directly below Devil's Peak. A half-acre of icewater bordered by firs, it's the most beautiful wilderness campsite I've ever found, though I've never actually camped there. To honor it, I named it Matter Pond.
By late November I was ready for my assault on Devil's Peak. Underway before dawn from the cabin, I reached the end of the logging road by sunrise and Matter Pond by nine. The first part of the climb up Devil's Peak was brush-clogged and steep, but gradually the slope of the polished granite flattened and groves of Douglass fir, looking from afar like miniature Christmas trees, towered past overhead. When the granite underfoot levelled, I knew I'd reached the summit. But I could see only open sky through a final fringe of fir branches.
Then the earth vanished. I was standing fifty feet from the edge of a thousand-foot cliff that fell straight down beneath my feet to a stunning vista of lakes, firs, and glacial granite undulating westward as far as the eye could see. This was the Desolation Wilderness, in which by law no human structure can ever again be built. I stared and stared. Finally I roused myself, knowing I had to reach the Tracker by dark. Finding a secure perch on the edge of the cliff, I ate lunch and lit a celebratory cigar. It didn't taste right, so I threw it off the cliff and headed back to Matter Pond.
By two o'clock I reached the pond. Fishing an apple out of my backpack as extra fuel for the three-mile bushwhack up to the Tracker, I paused to urinate in a grove of firs next to the pond. Simultaneously urinating and biting into the apple, I went faint. I caught myself from falling only by slumping down onto my left knee. The faintness stopped, but my body was shaking. I stood up and took a step, heart pounding. Eying the first part of the climb ahead, a quarter-mile of steep granite, I thought to myself, I'll never make it.
With that, all the charm of the landscape disappeared, replaced by the bitterest moment of wilderness alienation I've ever known. That grey, smooth rock, moments ago so picturesque, now bulged and glittered with menace. It was going to grind me to pieces, as it had itself been ground smooth by millions of tons of ice. I would die here alone, and nothing and no one would know or care.
Then just as quickly my will to live took over. Lifting one foot and putting it down in front of the other every two or three seconds and trying not to think about where I was or had to go, I found I could make slow, steady progress. Every four or five steps I stopped to catch my breath. I never sat down, afraid of not being able to get back up.
That first quarter-mile was the worst. When it was over, I rested a long time, looking down at Matter Pond and up at Devil's Peak, marvelling at how lucky I was to have survived, alone in the wilderness, whatever physical breakdown I'd just had. I felt strong enough to negotiate a couple of steep ravines, then increased my speed slightly for the last two miles. I reached the Tracker just before dark.
To say I was glad would be the understatement of my life. I was euphoric. An oddly comforting thought kept occurring to me: if I had died down there, I couldn't have found a better place to do it. The Desolation Wilderness I'd just seen had already become my prime image and symbol of cosmic wilderness as a whole. By dying there, I would have rejoined the magnificent desolation of the natural order that created me, in one of the most beautiful wilderness areas on earth.
When in subsequent days I learned I'd had a heart attack at Matter Pond because three of my coronary arteries were blocked and needed bypass surgery, I asked my children to scatter my ashes there after I do die. Irrational, of course: -- Democritus' request to leave his body out for birds to eat as repayment for the pleasure they'd always given him made far more sense. But I have followed Democritus to an extent by letting organ harvesters, medical students, and scientists carve me up, cremate me, and return me to my kids. Knowing that the only existence I'll then have will be scattered at Matter Pond is the final consolation I take from the wilderness.
CONSOLATION FIVE: THE ALL
The word "all" denotes comprehensiveness, totality, inclusion. Materialist philosophers have traditionally used it to describe everything that exists, which in their eyes includes everything, period. Since the teaching of Parmenides in 6th and 5th centuries B.C.E., materialists have rejected the notion of non-existence, nothingness, or non-being, arguing that all reality, including human percipience, ultimately consists of some kind of primordial stuff.
What the stuff may be has been guesstimated more and more cunningly in recent centuries. Epicurus in the 4th and 3rd centuries and Lucretius in the 1st century B.C.E. theorized it consisted of atoms of irreducible matter colliding randomly in what they called Void. It took humanity twenty centuries to improve their concept appreciably. Einstein sed the way with relativity theory and its mass-energy equivalencies and transformations, followed by the quantum theorists, whose predictions concerning the behavior of sub-atomic particles have proven to be the most accurate in the history of science.
These predictions underlie Big Bang theory and the process of symmetry-breaking it postulates. During the initial instant of the Big Bang, known as the Planck Era and lasting 10 to the minus-forty-third of a second, all the components of the impending cosmos were symmetrical. Matter did not yet exist as a separate entity, nor did space or time. Gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces were indistinguishable during an instant of infinitely hot, featureless radiation. Then in quick succession the cooling of the Bang to a billion billion degrees broke the symmetry between gravity and the rest of the burgeoning fireball, then between the strong nuclear force and weak-nuclear electromagnetism, and finally between the weak nuclear force and electromagnetism. The process lasted a billionth of a second and caused Higgs bosons to break their symmetry with the electroweak field, chrystallize into the so-called Higgs field somewhat like water freezing, and become the foundation of all cosmic mass.
Obviously, cosmic mass is not at bottom hard matter but some kind of stuff compatible with the infinite heat and energy of the Planck Era and the unimaginable conditions that preceded it. These conditions must have contained the mechanisms of the symmetry-breaking triggered by the Planck Era. Further, they point backwards from the Big Bang to an even more unfathomable chain of consecution, interdependence, and interconnectedness unifying them ultimately, I believe, with the All.
I extrapolate this ultimate consecution, interdependence, and interconnectedness from my experience with the Big Bang cosmos we inhabit. Neither I nor anyone else has direct knowledge of the All itself. We can only infer it from the empirical facts of physical nature, unless of course we believe it can be divinely revealed to us by books, angels, visions, and the like. Since I regard all such revelations as products of human fraud or self-delusion, I find them unhelpful for serious metacosmic speculation, much preferring my own atheistic-agnostic principle, first, that no one has direct access to absolute knowledge and, second, that everyone must base their speculations about ultimate reality entirely on the empirical evidence of our own cosmos. When we extrapolate and speculate as I'm about to, we must always grant that we cannot absolutely know whether what we're saying is true. We can only guess in drections wrranted by the proven facts of the natural order we experience every day of our lives.
I start, then, with the proposition that our humanness -- our capacity to feel, think, and know -- is a chance byproduct of the space-time asymmetries caused by the Big Bang. Scientific evidence has proven that everything we're made of, to the last electron, proton, and neutron, came from that primal event, which means in turn that all our sentience and percipience came from the physics, chemistry, and biology of cosmic evolution.
My next proposition is that, since we know that none of the elements in Periodic Table comprising every galaxy, star, and planet in the cosmos can think or feel, it's extremely probable that whatever precipitated the Big Bang can't think or feel either. Extrapolating from the cosmos to the All, that is, I infer from the fundamental non-humanness of the natural order here an equally fundamental non-humanness throughout the All. The All's possible infinities and non-dimensionalities are surely no more human at the core than our own crazy patchwork of natural laws. Obviously, the All has the potential to produce conscious human life, because it's done so here. The All contains this and every other potential, though why it does and how and why such potentials are realized is now, and may forever remain, a mystery to humankind.
Even more mysterious are the hows and whys of the All itself. It seems to have no beginning or end. Since its essence is probably absolute material Being, nothing can exist apart from it. Mathematical theorists have speculated that its basic component, at least in our cosmos, is a one-dimensional string of primordial energy that can either remain open or loop shut and whose vibrations determine all our micro- and macrophysical structures. Such strings may have chrystallized from whatever caused the Big Bang, as Higgs bosons chrystallized during the post-Planck cooldown.
Or the strings may have been the basic ingredients of an infinitessimally tiny singularity of ten, eleven, twenty-six, or more dimensions from which the Big Bang itself burst. Or they may be key components of a metacosmic force field that generates countless virtual cosmoses, somewhat as electromagnetic fields have been theorized as generating virtual photons that become real photons when light waves propagate. If so, our cosmos may be one of countless parallel cosmoses caused by multidimensional "branes." Or strings may be the fundamental stuff of the All itself. Or string theory may be wrong. Some other stuff (loop quantum gravity?) may unify everything. In any case, sentience and percipience seem no more fundamental to the All than to our own natural order. Cognition is probably accidental wherever it happens, if indeed it does happen elsewhere.
Assuming, then, that the All may be somehow materially analogous to or cognate with our cosmos, it might consist of many one- or multidimensional energy fields capable of causing four-dimensional cosmoses like ours and likewise dominated by gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. The Big Bangs that produce these cosmoses might obey the laws of symmetry-breaking that forged ours and produce analogous space-time cosmic wildernesses filled with innumerable stars and galaxies. But because the physical laws of our cosmos are only implicit in whatever precipitated our Big Bang, they are not, I think, likely to govern the All itself. On the other hand, if the supposedly infinite heat and radiation of our Planck Era was in truth infinite, it might well have contained something of the All's fundamental stuff. Our atoms might have a touch of the infinite in them too. Everything human in us -- for example, our thoughts and feelings -- would thus be inessential offshoots of these All-tinged atoms.
If time, space, gravity, matter, thought, feeling, and the rest of our cosmos aren't essential to the All, what then is? The All's essence is almost certainly not the predictable and measurable physical lawfulness we know. It's far more likely to be some kind of unlimited power capable of realizing itself as anything but non-existence or non-materiality. It's probably as random as quantum uncertainty yet not bound by our laws of quantum mechanics. It seems to have no self-awareness. It may be some kind of infinitely self-regenerating force-field. It will almost surely remain closed to human understanding forever: -- no human being can visualize or intuit what one-dimensional existence is like or make sense even of the Planck Era. Infinity, eternity, non-dimensionality, and even cosmic planlessness are all radically non-human possibilities.
While the All probably initiates everything, it seems to predetermine nothing. Predetermination implies either mechanical necessity or conscious design. Neither seems to characterize the All. Though patterned enough to have resulted in the natural laws of our cosmos, the All appears to be, like quantum reality, fundamentally unpredictable. It may of course, in expressing itself, average out, like quantum mechanics, to an orderliness and stability that counteracts the disorder and instability of its basic stuff, like the actuarial tables used by insurance companies to price their premiums. That is, the All may generate a statistical coherence that its essence, like the individual deaths comprising an actuarial table, does not reflect. At bottom, the All does not seem to plan.
To most religionists, the idea that a limitless, material, insentient, and nonanthropomorphic All accidentally jumbled human life in our cosmos into existence seems not only demeaning but downright wrong-headed and wrong-hearted. How, they ask, could any right-minded, right-feeling human being find solace or comfort in such an inhuman worldview? As always, I'll try in answering not to proselytize for atheistic materialism but simply to explain how and why it consoles me personally.
In the first place, the All's indifference, like that of the cosmic wilderness, is strong evidence that death will bring me absolute peace and quiet. I will no longer be so oddly out of step with nature as I now am. Sleeping a deeper sleep than before I was born, I'll be fully in tune with the rest of cosmic matter, hustled and bustled about without a care in the world. Conflict, dissatisfaction, ambition, hope, fear, pleasure, pain, and all other human sensations will never trouble me again. I won't miss the good times I had when I was alive, because I won't remember them. Consisting of nothing but the material parts that comprised me, I'll float in blissful ignorance into whatever existence awaits me, wherever in the All it may be. Confident my consciousness won't survive my death, I anticipate the shutdown and stoppage of all my bodily functions, followed by a sleep as profound as that of the twinkling stars. What could be better than rejoining those stars in perfect rest?
Furthermore, my death will preclude any weirdness, uncertainty, or horror of survival into some sort of postdeath state of consciousness. I'm as sure as the evidence I most trust can make me that I'll never by a ghost, zombie, or bodiless spirit in some heaven-hell-limbo afterlife. I won't wake up from the cessation of all my bodily functions in an inconceivably strange, yet somehow recognizable, supernatural state of being. The idea that human beings, given all we know about their life-cycle evolution from simple cells to sentient mammals, could suddenly awake from death in an utterly foreign realm of personalized existence has struck me since childhood as repugnant. I'll never suffer the grotesquely comic muddle of the Poe character who, asked just after he dies how he's feeling, answers bewilderedly, "I - I think I am dead."
I will, however, continue to exist in non-human form. The material building-blocks of my human life -- the strings, loop quantum gravity, or whatever else may connect my molecules with the All -- will outlast my death. This primal stuff is probably as insentient as the electrons balancing the protons of my atoms, which probably have some unknown link to primal matter. What will persist after I die will not be my humanity but the material bits and peices it was made of. And those bits and pieces may be, despite the countless permutations, symmetry-breakings, and transformations that may have taken place in the great chain of material being stretching from me to the All, true sparks of the All itself. If so, I look forward to a natural immortality more cheering, heartening, and reassuring to me than any so-called supernatural immortality could ever be.
My material remains, which are all there will be, will embody the All's basic stuff -- its absolute, material Being -- at least as well as I myself now do. They'll be no less infinite and eternal than I myself now am. Again, I have no idea what this basic stuff is or how it links me to the All. The symmetry-breaking that cooled the heat and energy of the Planck Era from immeasurable to measurable levels suggests analogous leaps from indefinable cause to definable effect throughout the All. That is, metacosmic natural events may be constantly occurring that are random in origin but orderly in result. How or why this should be is no more understandable to me than quantum unpredictability is to the scientists taking the collective predictability of quantum mechanics for granted in all their work. Nature is impenetrably mysterious to us all.
I make personal sense of this possibly ultimate contradiction between order and disorder by assuming that the All is essentially chaotic -- an infinite, non-spatial flux of absolute Being which nonetheless somehow exudes countless kinds of more orderly, subsidiary being. The All is probably at its core nonrational, unpredictable, lawless. It is absolute potential without plan or purpose. Stabilizing and organizing it is its constant, inexplicable extrusion of its own absolute Being into contingent being. In so expressing itself, it somehow counterbalances its chaotic shapelessness against the infinitely various orderlinesses of the contingent being it becomes, as it did, for instance, in throwing off the mass and energy of our cosmos. The result may be a universal parity or balance between the All's infinite, creative Being on the one hand and its self-realization in finite, created being on the other.
The natural parities and balances we've discovered in our own cosmos suggest some such asymmetry at the heart of everything. Positive and negative charge as well as opposites like matter and anti-matter point to such a conclusion. Although entropy in our cosmos always degrades energy irreversibly, the All is probably not subject to entropic law. The absolute Being it transforms into subsidiary being may somehow return to it unreduced. It may, in other words, recycle itself in accord with our thermodynamic law of energy conservation without suffering any entropic loss in the process. But how or why the All exists and transforms its disorderly being, if it in fact does, into more orderly being, which then it may somehow recapture, are questions beyond my and everyone else's pay grade. All I can do is speculate, from inferences based on the best science I know, that I'm linked to the All in some ineluctably material way.
Science has proven to me beyond the shadow of a doubt that the cosmos I inhabit is an incomprehensible battleground between order and disorder. A few invariant natural laws spewed out in the Big Bang have since randomly collided in space and time to form billions of galaxies. These galaxies are littered with black holes and infernos of nuclear fusion called stars, which under certain conditions will simultaneously implode into neutron stars and explode into supernovae. On our obscure little planet, all this aimless, inhuman violence has fortuitously boxed itself into an unlikely corner from which human life has chanced to evolve. Yet after the sun burns its way through all its fusionable elements, human life on earth will end. I find it reasonable to infer from these incomprehensible rigidities and accidents in our own cosmos that order and disorder just as blindly oppose -- and complement -- each other everywhere.
The glue between me and the All may be, as mentioned, some primal, elemental, non-dimensional kind of absolute substance -- some sort of ultimate building-block. I think that my material existence, which is the only kind of existence I now have as an animal or will have as inorganic matter, is directly or indirectly derived from and connected to the All. Some primal, elemental thing in me, I think, echoes the All's absolute Being. It may be a non- or multidimensional, infinitely expandable or contractable stuff found in every kind of existence. It may have gone through countless transformations and permutations on its way from the All to me, though I feel I'm as significant a part of the All as anything ever has been or will be. Whatever else this spark of being in me is, I genuinely believe it confirms my Big Bang ancestry, my close kinship to the All, and my material immortality.
Wait a minute. How can I "genuinely believe" in an infinitely material, non-human All of absolute Being? I've said repeatedly that no one can know for sure whether belief in any ultimate reality is tenable. I've argued that we can infer from cosmic evidence no more than an inkling of possible extra-cosmic realities. I've dismissed all claims of supernatural revelation as fabrications, useful only as evidence of fraud or mental aberration. The atheistic agnosticism of my whole approach to the All suggests I shouldn't be able to "genuinely believe" in anything metacosmic no matter how much I want to. If I can't know whether an All exists, how can I "genuinely believe" in it?
The answer lies in correcting the misleading way "agnostic" has come to be used in informal philosophical parlance. Nowadays, being "agnostic" means being unable and unwilling to conclude anything about metacosmic reality because of insufficient information. While theists credit divine revelation, natural theology, or personal feeling as grounds for religious belief, and atheists credit scientific fact or sense experience as grounds for religious disbelief, self-styled agnostics credit neither theism nor atheism with enough informational muscle to justify any metacosmic conviction whatsoever. Typically they'll say they can't know whether or not one or many gods exist or even what a god is. Lack of data prevents them, they insist, from even guessing, much less concluding, anything along such lines. They say their ability to explore the unknowns of their own existence is utterly paralyzed by want of proveables.
How or why such a misleading use of the word "agnostic" made its way into philosophical jargon isn't important, though 19th-century conflicts between religion and science and 20th-century relativism doubtless helped. What is important is that my use of "agnostic" be clearly understood. To me, the word denotes a hard fact of human existence. From moment to moment, one never knows in this cosmos absolutely or for sure what will happen next, as Boethius says in the quotation prefacing the Prologue. Stroke, lightning, or falling orbital debris may kill you, as may earthquakes, tornadoes, or tsunamis. You may find a bagful of money or have your identity stolen. Everything in our space-time is unknowable in advance, including tonight's skyful of stars or tomorrow's sunrise. In effect, we're all "agnostic" every moment of our lives.
Yet all of us constantly come to and act on genuine beliefs about everything we experience existentially. We infer or extrapolate from what's already happened to us genuine beliefs about countless things we assume will happen to us. Among the most genuine is that when darkness falls this evening the stars will reappear as they have since sentient earthlings first noticed them on clear nights. Equally likely is that the sun will rise tomorrow morning. Though there's no absolute certainty these events will occur, the likelihood of their occurring is based on millions of years of observation, which now includes detection of the tiniest deviations in celestial patterns. In other words, we genuinely believe the planet and the solar system will continue their customary movements despite our agnostic awareness they might not.
Getting killed by stroke seems more likely than being hit by lightning, both of which seem more likely than dying from falling orbital debris. The chances of getting caught in an earthquake, tornado, or tsunami depend to some extent on how much time you spend in areas where such things regularly happen. Finding a bag of money depends more on pure luck, like space debris, while having your identity stolen depends more on how carefully you guard your personal information. Calculating all such odds always involves my kind of agnosticism. Your belief in whether or not such events will happen to you is based entirely on inferences and extrapolations you've drawn from when, where, how often, and to whom these kinds of events have already happened: -- in a word, on deducing the unknown from the known , which is precisely what I've done in concluding that atheism is the worldview most justified by the available evidence.
The major choices most of us make in life are based on very imperfect information. When we decide what college to attend, most of us have only the sketchiest notion of what we'll find. When we choose a vocation or career, most of us are driving at night with our headlights off. When we pick a spouse, hope usually overwhelms proven data hands down. For these and most other life-changing decisions, we often have no clear -- much less sure or absolute -- knowledge of what we're getting into. Yet we're typically able to generate a genuine belief that what we're about to do is right and will succeed. The fact that as often as not it is right and does succeed is proof of how well my kind of agnosticism works in daily life. It works just as well, I submit, beyond daily life and the boundaries of our cosmos. If my existential, atheistic agnosticism can lead to genuine belief here on the planet's surface, it can also lead to genuine belief about what lies beyond the farthest stars. This is a major consolation I've found in reaching for the All.