The Age of Sandcastle Builders
Gazing up at the night sky reveals a stable and majestic order. But that's only an illusion fostered by the tiny spans of our lives. What is 80 years to a universe over 13 billion years old? A blip. A snapshot. We look around in awe at nature's beauty, and well we should. Still, that beauty conceals an immense and utterly indifferent power that should mix some unease with that awe.
No doubt the pea-brained dinosaurs would have pondered, if they could have pondered, that the world was made just right for them. Much warmer than today, it was a place where reptiles ruled and our mammal ancestors scurried for cover. This alien Earth teeming with life seemed destined to go on forever, just as it had for tens of millions of years already. Then one day, an asteroid hit, wiping out almost everything, including those pondering dinosaurs.
Could it be that, even if it turns out that life is ordinary in the cosmos, it never lasts long enough before some unstoppable cataclysm turns it all back into dead matter again?
So what will finally get us?
Perhaps another asteroid, proving our big brains were no better suited to long-term survival than those of the pea-brain dinosaurs?
Will Mother Earth inoculate herself against the fever-inducing virus (us) that is currently making her sick? Maybe fighting back with a virus of her own?
Could we end up destroying ourselves with the weapons we create? We've come a long way from the swords and spears of Homer. Those tore only flesh. We can now destroy thousands of cities in an hour and with it our world. If I may commit the cardinal writing sin of mixing my metaphors, we've made our own asteroid and it now hangs suspended in the air like a thermonuclear Sword of Damocles. Will the future bring even more destructive weapons devised by our innate ability to invent better ways to destroy ourselves and the world we live in? If we can build it, I guarantee you someone will eventually try.
In any case, it all ends for us somehow, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It's only a question of whether it will be sooner or later.
The chaos comes for everything.
How then to describe our place in the cosmos?
Precarious, that's how.
On the surface, the human mind is just an evolutionary reflection of the universe that created it, a microcosm of what seems like cosmic anarchy. Our thoughts stream by in jumbles, little more than a confused mass of appetites, urges, and desires. Our dream worlds, where we spend about a third of our lives, are realms of bizarre fantasy. This is a world of symbols, bubbling up from the depths of our unconscious minds when reason and logic slumber. The raw mind, the one without the thin trappings of civilization, without language, literacy, education, or culture, is more snarling beast than homo rationalis.
Our great religious and philosophical traditions understand these things about human nature, even if the coping mechanisms they came up with vary widely. Religion is an attempt to find order and meaning in a world that is terrifyingly beyond our control, a worthy attempt to transcend the profane world we find ourselves lost in. I can respect that.
Buddhists, for example, believe the mind is a prison of chaos operating in a world of decay and rot. There is no easy way out. Existence is suffering; the self is an illusion, and everything is impermanent. For sentient beings like us, impermanence means death and eternal annihilation. Suffering is, in part, knowing this inescapable fact. Buddhism teaches that the ultimate goal is Nirvana or non-being, but only after countless life cycles of misery, imperfection, and suffering.
That karma ain't paying for itself, my friends.
The way to Nirvana ultimately comes through detachment. In other words, if the chaos of the natural world is a brute fact we cannot escape, then our only defense is through the detached acceptance that everything will eventually go to shit. If we don't care, we can't be hurt.
For Buddhists, however, the only way to escape from the misery of being is by embracing non-being. Detachment shouldn't mean apathy or indifference to the plight of our fellow creatures, but the empathetic awareness that we're all in the same rickety boat adrift on the same stormy sea.
Christianity sees things very differently. Unlike the godless metaphysics of Buddhism, Christianity claims we live in a divine universe governed by a Supreme Being. Like Buddhism, Christianity sees the physical world as a vale of tears, where our natural urges lead us into temptations (sins), which in turn cause pain and suffering in ourselves and others. The doctrine here is a noble attempt to impose order in the universe by virtue of God.
By turning the universal chaos we perceive into a divine, lawful order we cannot fully grasp. Life may look hopeless, the chaos may seem real, but God has everything under control. We need only to obey his commandments to win an eternal life of bliss. Whereas Buddhists pay for their "sins" through karma and the grind of repeated reincarnation, a Christian must face the daunting prospect of divine judgment after a single life, earning either eternal salvation in heaven or eternal damnation in hell. The stakes here are terrifyingly high: one life to get it right or wrong, forever, and ever, amen.
Hinduism takes yet another approach, viewing chaos and order as part of an existential duality. In the polytheistic Hindu pantheon of gods, mighty Shiva personifies this dual nature of existence. He is both the bringer of chaos and order.
Hinduism unites in Shiva the existential paradoxes mankind faces. Shiva is a lord of medicine, but also poison; he is a creator and its destroyer. He is sometimes even she, half male, half female, androgynous, representing both fertility and family, as well as saintly asceticism at the other extreme. Shiva, in short, embodies the dialectical contradictions of existence.
I could go on: there is the resignation of the Stoics, the unconditional submission to God of Islam, the materialism of the Epicureans, the stubborn antiquity of Judaism, and the mystical paradoxes of the Tao. Religion, myths, and philosophy, all are examples of human minds collectively trying to impose order amidst the chaos.
To put this in perspective, an Englishman living in 1450 would have lived a life entirely contained within the Catholic conception of reality. Life, death, afterlife, suffering, happiness, purpose, ethics, existence, the universe - everything would have been explained through Catholic myths. The veracity of those truths we mostly scoff at today. Still, it cannot be dismissed how thoroughly this worldview imbued Medieval life with a stable cosmology.
In contrast, we live in an open society offering a smorgasbord of beliefs. We have the freedom to choose what we believe, thus giving everyone the option of picking identities to match tastes.
The flip side is that nothing is true when everything is. Relativism, nihilism, hedonism, egotism, diet fads, shallow life hacks, all these epistemological midgets are trying to step in to fill the gaps left by the grand old faiths.
No one is to blame, per se, for these changes.
We are born into a world so full of human myths that we have no choice but to make our own. These myths are passed on through language, at first spoken and later written. Language, more than anything, defines and limits how we articulate our experiences. We can change our views a little bit over time as we mature. But we're still locked into a narrow range of possibilities. Those underlying assumptions (myths) and cultural inheritances (language, ethics, beliefs) that we are born into are with us our entire lives, no matter how much we may come to despise some of them. There is no escape. Our horizons are hopelessly limited.
They are like our skin, offering a thin, but useful psychological protection from the harsh realities of life. And while we have the freedom to clothe ourselves however we like, our skin remains the same. Such is the cultural inheritance we inherit, the baseline we cannot discard. Viewed this way, the latitude of our freedom is actually quite narrow when you remember how much of our perspective is already pre-programmed by accidents of birth. However, unlike the rest of life on Earth, which lives and dies in an ever-present now, the collective accumulation of human intellect over thousands of years amplifies our power as a species to carve order out of chaos.
That gives us godlike potential.
Does that sound like Hubris begging for Nemesis? It shouldn't.
Humanity is on the cusp of controlling the destiny of the entire Earth's ecosystem. Nothing can escape our influence. Billions of sentient creatures live and die every year solely to fill our bellies. Others are casualties simply because they get in the way of the dogmatic imperative to promote perpetual economic growth, at all costs.
That is terrible godlike power, but don't think that it's automatically a force for good. We're more like capricious Greek gods: decadent, powerful, unpredictable, selfish or benevolent, depending on our whims and appetites.
If we have the potential to finally live like gods on this world, there is also every likelihood that we end up just another dead end in our planet's evolutionary history, like the mighty dinosaur before us, and like just about every form of life that has ever lived on this planet. We may end up no exception, godlike potential or not.
Game over, thanks for playing, back to dead-matter we go.
But could it go otherwise?
I'm skeptical. Could it be we are just children building elaborate sandcastles at low tide? Are we any better than our predecessors, only placed more precariously by our own devices? We're just as trapped in our worldview as that Medieval Englishman, but with so much more power to sustain or corrupt the planet we live on.
Think about it: we have laws, constitutions, money, smartphones, airplanes, air conditioning, hydrogen bombs, plastic surgery, chemical weapons, space exploration, heart transplants, boob jobs, and even now gender reassignment surgery. Some of those are real things that actually exist because we created them. Others, like money and laws, only exist because we collectively believe them to exist.
Our electronic faith today has dethroned the old gods.
Science is now our God, Technology is our Christ, and Progress is our Holy Spirit.
While the future stirs some anxiety, our childlike faith in progress and the superpowers of science and technology comfort us. Technology is the new opiate that Science gave us to dull the pain, to veil the chaos, to soothe us into opiate dreams of decadent wonder.
It will be okay, our Lord and Savior S&T will save us, and all will be right in the world. Progress will win, trust me. We'll finally conquer both the evils in our base nature and the cold world that birthed us into such animal squalor. We're better than that!
So praise technology! Give in to it. Come, my friends, it's easy! Thanks to it, we have pills to keep us going and endless entertainment to make us placid and docile. The old faiths still feebly persist, and resist, and insist, and so on, but they also bow and scrape to this new holy trinity.
Resistance is futile.
We spend our time worshiping the new Trinity and we love it. True believers may pray to the God of Abraham for a cure to a wasting disease, but they'll take advantage of the magic our modern shamans of medicine provide. Antibiotics and vaccines, not prayer, are what we put our faith in now. Our wisdom no longer comes from the Ecclesiastes or the Bhagavad Gita, but from inspirational online memes and self-help books. The future belongs to this new Trinity. Our new gods serve us, and we serve them. The symbiosis is complete.
You know I'm right.
We'll have our paradise, one way or another, goddammit!