|Apr/May 2011 Salon|
Photo by Michael K. White
Le silence etérnel de ces espaces infinis m'effraie (The eternal silence of those infinite spaces scares me).
It's not so much the space, the physical space, those "infinite spaces," that keep me awake at night or, more typically, blight the otherwise cheerful start of my days. My mind does not shrink back in horror at the vastness of the universe, at all that unfilled or at least not visibly filled nothingness. I don't worry either about my insignificance, tiny thing that I am, clinging to a terrestrial oasis at the outer edge, the very boondocks, of a very ordinary galaxy, just one of billions of such clusters—a universe far more spacious than anything Pascal ever imagined.
What brings me down (as it also did Pascal), depresses rather than scares me, though maybe fear is at the heart of it, are the vast temporal spaces out of which I and my kind have come, the all-but-infinite duration in which we occupy such a small, recent, and no doubt temporary position.
Even then, it's not the immense evolutionary timeline that distresses. I can accept, even rejoice, in the unimaginable, if not infinitely long stretches of time it took to go from starburst to one-celled animal to Euripides, Isaac Newton, and George Gershwin. It's not quite the same story as in the book of Genesis, but there's a similar Darwinian narrative of an "ascent of man," even if it took two billion years in the one case and just a week in the other. What troubles my peace of mind is the apparent fickleness of the process, the random intentionality the biologists and geneticists talk about with such feckless enthusiasm. They describe a process driven, self-driven rather than by anything that can be reasonably called purpose, by the same forces—"laws" we used to call them—that govern the behavior of stars and atomic particles equally with earthworms and irises. They speak of the imperative of all living things to disperse their individual genes as widely as possible to get a leg-up on the competition. S/he who spreads her/himself around the most prolifically, wins.
But what do they win? A bit of breathing room in the evolutionary scramble? An ephemeral claim to be the best and brightest? Until the process is rudely interrupted by an asteroid or an especially malignant virus or a burst of cosmic radiation, and yesterday's king of the hill is today's evolutionary has-been. And we're not even talking about the roads less taken—those exotic fossils we find in the strata of road cuts through the local landscape, "exotic" because so out of the mainstream as we know it, though they might each have had a run that far surpasses our own puny three or four million years.
If we accept the purposelessness of this tale, combined somehow with a mindless intentionality (it's almost impossible not to speak anthropomorphically) we are left not just with a sense of futility and meaninglessness but of being the object of a great ruse in which we mistakenly believe we are about one thing while the "goal" of the blind, undirected evolutionary process is about quite a different one.
What, after all, does it matter if I write these words or others, if aid workers attempt to alleviate a famine, if democracy succeeds or fails, if my children call me on Father's Day, when my real purpose in being here is just to play a small part in the struggle to make my particular genes and my species' predominate? Do I have any basis to assume that an individual concern or delight matters any more in my case than it does for my cat or the bacteria that reside in our respective guts? A cat or dog, or the animals we kill and eat, may be just as attached to a particular place or other living thing as I am and in a way that is, allowing for our different anatomies, no different from my own experience. Yet, we discount the significance of their sentiments and perceptions—deny their existence, in fact—reserving for ourselves an exceptionalism in the evolutionary process that has no more basis than does that of Genesis. If birds or mice could write and speak they would reserve the same status to themselves, and, I don't doubt for a moment, in their own way do so.
In this scenario my thoughts and feelings, my individual experience as well as that of my kind, are accidental as well as delusionary if I believe those thoughts and feelings are the purpose of my being. My concern for the state of the contemporary novel or my fondness for the view from a particular park bench is no more significant than if I had no such concern or any such fondness—unless these interests advance the cause of my genes and those of my species. Does it matter what a steer has on its mind on any given day? A steer is walking hamburger. It may assume that its love for its calf or the sense of belonging it gets from the society of its kind is the self-evident purpose of its being. But I know anything it feels or thinks is irrelevant. A steer might just as well be a brainless mass of steak and hide kept alive for the sole purpose of increasing its volume to the maximum possible until I choose to ingest it, my dinner being its only raison d'être.
Is our way of seeing animals any different from the way evolution sees us, our personal or even communal experience meaningless except in so far as it enhances or inhibits our chances for survival and predominance? Is what is "meaningful” determined by a blind mindless evolution?
Except that evolution is not mindless. We, and to some extent all living things, are mind, the only mind we know. And mind is as much the product of evolution—in our case matter thinking—no less but no more so than is a meterorite or a bit of swamp gas. Meaning has no meaning outside of us or other creatures with something like a brain. Neither do the concepts space and time. We create with mind—just a word to indicate the functions of the very material organ inside our craniums—not just the significance of our world and the universe at large, we create its essential reality, it's very existence not to say it's "purpose," in any sense that word makes any sense. Our brains do not receive data about the world as it is (there being no such thing), but create a model we experience—humans one way, starfish in another—as first feel, smell, light, sound, then as idea and concept: space, time, ice cream. We can extend the range of the model with our x-ray telescopes and other devices to make visible or at least apprehensible what our sensory apparatus can not make evident unassisted, but we still cannot see x-rays or hear a pulsar.
The more we except ourselves from our embeddedness in everything else and in our strictly secondhand experience of it, the more those espaces frighten. When we were less self-conscious, more rooted in the world around us and subject to it, we knew better—"better" in the quality of our knowledge and better for our peace of mind. But we have made of ourselves a distinction without a difference.
When I hear a geneticist talk about the way genes control every aspect of living matter—who survives and who doesn't, who wins and who loses—the girl, the best branch on the tree, the dominion of the planet—I find it hard to accept his pro forma protest that genes are not acting with anything like conscious purpose. Not when he injects purpose and intention into every sentence he uses. He may as well be a clergyman who sees the work of a creator God all around him, describes that work with wonder, and then insists on denying the existence of that God.
He, the geneticist, doesn't seem to fear the pointlessness of an existence that is not only here today and gone tomorrow, an existence whose petty concerns for the meaning of his or any life only matter to the extent they further or frustrate the imperative of his genes to disperse and dominate. What a brutish, old-fashioned God this is. It makes the Yahweh of the Old Testament look like an old softy.
And yet a vision of purpose seems to sustain that scientist as much as any fickle, vengeful deity of the Bible, even if this more recent god is as much a product of the human imagination as was any of his all-powerful antecedents.
But if everything is the product of mind (or should I write Mind?), all the lonely spaces that distress Pascal and me are no less or more real than the ink on this page or the monster that used to hide under my bed when I was a child, waiting for me to fall asleep so it could bite off my toes. If we make it all up in any case—coming closer sometimes more than others to an accurate model of something—then we have no alternative: We live by faith, inherent, nearly absolute trust in the mental constructs which are all we know or can know of anything.
The good news is the model works most of the time. And when it doesn't our intellect usually can make the necessary adjustments, just as birds flying long distances allow for course corrections en route. In the end, those espaces infinis might as well just be the distance from my backyard to the next or from one breath to another. Or they could indeed be infinite—as endless and eternal as matter and mind, wherever one produces the other.