I came upon the following passage in a little book called The Meaning of It All, by the physicist Richard Feynman:
It is a great adventure to contemplate the universe, beyond man, to contemplate what it would be like without man, as it was in a great part of its long history and as it is in a great majority of places. When this objective view is finally attained, and the mystery and majesty of matter are fully appreciated, to then turn the objective eye back on man viewed as matter, to view life as part of this universal mystery of greatest depth, is to sense an experience which is very rare, and very exciting. It usually ends in laughter and a delight in the futility of trying to understand what this atom in the universe is, this thing-atoms with curiosity-that looks at itself and wonders why it wonders.
This is a simple and beautiful description, I think, of an experience many of us have had at one time or another. Feynman goes on to suggest that the mystery and awe he’s describing is so deep and impressive that conventional religious explanations—for example, that our presence here on earth has been arranged by God for his own glory, or so that he can watch the struggle between good and evil—are simply inadequate.
I would agree. Perhaps we could go further, and argue that such explanations are not merely inadequate, but misleading. The experience Feynman is describing is immediate, intuitive, and profound. Conventional religious explanations commonly posit an overload whom we seldom, if ever, meet, and have difficulty limning the contours of. This shadowy figure, quite unlike the intuition being described, tends to drag us down into a muddle in which exuberance and wonder compete with a sense of personal inadequacy and conscience. The laughter and delight diminish.
All the same, it seems to me that such notions of deity serve a purpose, and contain an element of truth. They reflect a reality that Feynman’s intuition doesn’t go quite far enough to include. For when we posit the inanimate universe from an “objective” point of view, following his advice, and then reverse our attention back to ourselves, we don’t see “man.” We see ourselves. More specifically, I see me. Unique, sentient, curious, mysterious, precious … and fraught with contingency.
This is the source of the frisson Feynman is describing. It’s important to remove the abstraction “man” from the equation, and it also might be just as well to remove the references to matter and atoms. Everything is made out of atoms, I guess. So what? The question is, How is it made? What is its structure? What makes it interesting, excellent, unique? Calling a sentient being “atoms” is like calling a soufflé “flour and eggs.”
A second element needs to be added to the experience, I think. For when we turn from the remarkable universe “out there” and refocus our attention on the no less remarkable “whatever-it is” in here, we find ourselves face to face not only with personal awareness, but also with our own drives and interests. After all, I don’t merely see and feel, I also scheme and plan. I have feelings, desires, and projects, all of which cavort in an unruly pen we sometimes refer to as the “ego.”
The negative connotations that haunt the word “ego” are nearly the opposite, perhaps, of those that can bring an element of unpleasantness to the word “God.” If we tend to see God as unduly portentous and dour, we too often see the ego as unduly crass and shallow. These effects, both of which are superficial, are also complimentary and to some extend intertwined. They work together to form the very common, yet wrongheaded, notion, that to enjoy oneself is evil, to give selflessly with obsequious deference to the Almighty is right and proper.
It seems to me there is a healthier and more fruitful way to set these elements against one another. A more complete inventory of the emotions associated with the “existential awareness” Feynman describes, might include not only wonder and delight, but also a vague sense of obligation to exert ourselves on behalf of the greater world in the midst of which we find ourselves. The two feelings don’t conflict. Rather, they support and fuel one another.
In another words, conscience is a natural result of self-awareness, and it becomes stronger yet when we begin to contemplate the beings who surround us on all sides, each of whom have different, but similarly unique, “windows” on the universe.
But conscience isn’t everything. The universe is fueled by exuberance and delight, self-aggrandizement and over-weaning pride, no less than by fellow-feeling. In any case, conscience itself is often governed to a large degree by personal affections and preferences, rather than by an indiscriminate urge to love our neighbors. For that matter, much of what we love about our family and friends has less to do with their selfless generosity than with their liveliness and complexity as people.
Such concepts are difficult to articulate, and I suppose I’ve made a hash of it here. The rituals and revelations of the world’s religions expose a variety of public responses, enshrined by tradition, exalted by art, and defiled by superstition and politics, to the same situation.
Less widely recognized, by of equal importance, I think, is the long tradition of rational inquiry into these same matters, of which Feyman’s refreshingly brief peroration is a classic example. The other day I hit upon another such effort when I took a look at Plato’s early dialogue Euthyphro. Though the dialogue ends inconclusively, as is typical of Plato’s early work, along the way Socrates asks two questions that are germane to the issues we’re discussing here. The first is designed to highlight the distinction between what can be measured and what can’t be measured. We’ll leave that critical distinction for another time. The second asks the question whether the gods love something because it’s good, or whether something is good because the gods love it.
Translated into religious terms, we might ask whether we’re being good when we do the things God tells us to, or whether the injunctions we’ve been given by religious authorities are designed to help us clarify and aid the natural bent of the human spirit toward what is right, good, and proper. Reduced to essentials, it’s a distinction between obedience and conscience.
But no sooner does the word “bent” appear than I’m reminded of Kant’s remark, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.” That’s a grim statement, and also an exaggeration, but it points to one aspect of the issue that I’ve been neglecting. Some people don’t seem to have much of a conscience. And even the best among us are often wracked by guilt when reflecting on things they might have done better, or perhaps should have done but never did at all. Besides, our actions are usually guided not only by what our conscience tells us is right, but by what other people expect, and the injunctions of religious doctrine, almost by definition, falls into the latter category.
When we examine the night sky, on the shortest day of the year, this is not, in all probability, the direction our thoughts will take. Something far simpler is likely to surface—white snow, jingling bells, wonder and delight, and a vague sense of gratitude, perhaps, that we’re actually standing here in the dark with a trillion miles of empty space in front of us, pretty much alive and well.