When you look at the world, what do you see?


Image:  © Basketman23 http://www.fotosearch.com


One of the great joys of living at this time in history is the wide availability of information.  I’ve always hungered for facts — about military battles, about life in the ocean abysses, about volcanoes, about ice age people, about planets and stars.  In junior high school I spent most of my free time in the library.  Now I have a library, a thousand libraries, in my pocket.  It’s heaven.

In a similar vein, I love podcasts and listen to them more than music.  I am a proud citizen of the democracy of knowledge.  I was listening recently to a podcast on astronomy, and the hosts were talking about gamma-ray bursts, unthinkably powerful explosions of unknown origin.  They have been observed in distant galaxies — and a good thing, too, because a nearby GRB could wipe out all life on the Earth or even vaporize the planet.  Cool!

Then one of the hosts started riffing on the many dangers lurking out there in space — earth-crossing asteroids, solar flares, wandering black holes.  She summed up this train of thought with the observation, “The universe is trying to kill us.”  This wasn’t just a humorous aside; it was a proposition seriously asserted, based on evidence.  A professional astronomer, considering the big picture, had come to the conclusion that the threat of annihilation was a fundamental truth to be noted.  

The proposition, while certainly noteworthy, is not scientific, but rather philosophical.  There’s nothing wrong with an astronomer, or anyone else, asserting philosophical propositions.   Far from it.  Stating your philosophy, even privately, is a healthy practice.  We too often accept and live out our philosophies without owning them.  Even people who don’t know Nietzsche from Nathaniel Hawthorne have a philosophy.  Philosophies are the conceptual framework we use to fit in the thousands of facts that present themselves to us.   So, when the astronomer who is at home in the postmodern milieu looks out her window, she sees a dangerous universe that is trying to kill us.  A more phlegmatic colleague might look past these random acts of violence and see instead the vast, cold emptiness.  It’s a waste of time to ask, “Which of them is right?”  They’re both right, in that their observations correspond with the  data.

But when I look out my window, you know what I see?  A miracle.  I see a blue-white jewel of a place, where amazing things abound, such as you and me and goldfinches.  I can’t help thinking that the outer darkness and lurking menaces don’t tell the whole story.  In spite of them all, here we are.  To be sure, natural processes of stellar fusion, gravitational attraction, chemical reactions and so on all preceded our advent.  I don’t suppose that the Earth and the firmament sprang up wholly formed in a moment.  Yet, the proposition that the universe is trying to kill us or even that it doesn’t care about us seems to account for the observable phenomena no better than the proposition that the universe has carefully contrived to bring us into existence, and then nurture us and keep us safe.  It’s just a question of your philosophy.

Atheists tend to bridle when you tell them they have a philosophy at all, much less that their philosophy blinds them to the realities around them.  They like to think that they stick strictly to the facts, and that it’s the religious people whose view is clouded by philosophies and other fairy dust.  But it’s pretty easy to back out a person’s philosophy by assessing their confirmation bias.  Everyone has confirmation bias.  To claim yourself as an exception is to leap right over confirmation bias, straight to narrow-mindedness.  So let’s be broad-minded, and take care to know our own philosophies.  When your philosophy denies the supernatural, you disbelieve the evidence of supernatural events, period.  No amount of evidence can sway you.  Let there be a  mountain of evidence — and there is — but no matter.  You will question the veracity of witnesses, or call for corroboration, or argue about definitions.  

Just so, when you conceive of the universe as cold and dark, you see emptiness.  When your worldview explains the existence of life as an accidental effect of mindless cataclysms, you see violence and annihilation.  But when you sense the centrality of love, recognize it not as a byproduct but as a paradigm, you see — other things.

I’m not claiming that this somehow proves the existence of God.  But it does prove the existence of philosophies.  The atheist’s philosophy is something she choses, not something that is compelled by the evidence.  The belief that atheism is self-evident or self-justifying is a mental trap.  Like all circular arguments, it does not illuminate but only benumbs the mind.  Real life happens outside that circle.