We are assemblages of ancient atoms forged in stars – atoms organized by history to the point of consciousness, now able to contemplate this sacred Universe of which we are a tiny, but wondrous, part.
While intellectual ponderings were important in my path to Naturalistic Paganism, and these still play a major role, another part of the current topic simply crowds them out in my mind now. You see, the topic also asked about intellect’s interaction with wonder, and that’s a very, very big and compelling topic.
Years ago, Dr. Richard Feynman was told he couldn’t see beauty. As he explains:
“I have a friend who’s an artist and he’s sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say, ‘Look how beautiful it is,’ and I’ll agree, I think. And he says, ‘You see, I as an artist can see how beautiful this is, but you, as a scientist, oh, take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing.”
Dr. Feynman goes on to explain how he sees all the beauty in the flower that anyone else does, and that on top of that, he sees inside, imagining the networks in the petal, then down to the cells themselves, and the complex dance of the many intricate molecules working together, and then, even more! Behind all of that is the deep time history, the long process of evolution which – more than 100 million years ago, drew together insects and plants in mutually beneficially teamwork. He describes how he sees all of this, each level adding to the excitement, mystery, and awe of a simple flower! He concludes:
“It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts”
I know that rush. It’s incredible. I see it unfold, level upon level, in the blink of an eye, time and again in my life, all around me. That tree, this rock, that cloud, a blue jay, this computer, and on and on! And that’s not even getting into seeing other people. I can’t imagine living without it, and for anyone who hasn’t experienced it, it’s indescribable. For someone to suggest to Dr. Feynman, that he sees less beauty in a flower, when he sees so much more, just shows that this friend doesn’t understand what knowledge can do. When I first read Feynman’s flower story, it hit me – Here was someone who sees the world as I do, and experiences that beauty of so many things as I do! Wow, it works with other people too!
I caught glimpses of it in others too. Carl Sagan comes to mind. As does this quote from Charles Sherrington, 1942:
“The brain is a sparkling field of rhythmic flashing points with trains of traveling sparks hurrying hither and thither. It is as if the Milky Way is engaging in a cosmic dance. The cortex is an enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern, always a meaningful pattern though never a lasting one; with a shifting harmony of entrancing subpatterns.”
That’s why I just simply don’t get how anyone could suggest that a Naturalistic worldview somehow decreases awe and wonder, when the opposite has been so true for me. Have they never learned anything about things they see? For me, a Naturalistic worldview, coupled with some knowledge, has taken my awe and wonder to undreamt-of levels, drawing from deep wells of spirituality that I hadn’t known existed.
Any attempt at examples will fall far short of reality, but a few come to mind.
We just saw how someone could describe our brain as an “Enchanted Loom”. How our brains work, on a basic level, isn’t that hard to understand. We can start with our senses that feed into the brain. For instance, well understood cells in our eyes convert light into electrical pulses, sent along nerve cells to the brain. Nerve cells are also called neurons, and each has many long, thin branches connected to other neurons. It takes many electrical pulses from many neurons to cause another neuron to send its electrical pulse, which may then reach many other different neurons. A number of connected neurons make simple “logic gates”, similar to those in computers. Many logic gates linked together can process information like a computer does. But how do they get connected the right way? Our genes, built by trillions of our Ancestors over millions of years of evolution, give us the starting structure, and our history builds the rest, ending up with trillions of neurons, and a hundred trillion connections between them!
The incredible realization here is that this shows how the mind works. These basic chemical reactions and electrical pulses, all working in milliseconds, make up your every thought from “where did I leave my keys?”, to “Yes! I’ll marry him!”. I don’t know about you, but I find that realization to be mind blowing. We are our brains, without a need for the idea visiting ghosts from some imagined supernatural realm. There are no disembodied “minds”, and so any damage or chemical change to our brains affects (or even eliminates) our thoughts. My thoughts seem to me to be the essence of who I am, yet, at the simplest level, they are undeniably made up of basic chemical reactions! And it’s not just my brain that is this amazing, but your brain, or his brain, or her brain, too! We are surrounded by so many of these incredible thinking chemical, biological machines!
And what if we turn our gaze skyward?
As a ball of plasma a million times bigger than the entire Earth, the sun is not a ball of fire – it’s much too hot for even fire to exist! A few numbers can show us nature more clearly, and for a Naturalistic Pagan like me, practically everything about nature is spiritual.
So how can we conceive of the sheer awesomeness of our Sun? Size? Oh yeah, we already did that. Ok, how about power? The energy output of the Sun produces over 18 million times more energy in one second what the entire worldwide nuclear arsenal! Our local star produces that flood of energy by nuclear fusion, turning 370,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (that’s 3.7 X 1038) hydrogen atoms into helium, which by Einstein’s famous E=mc2 equation, directly converts 4 million metric tons of matter into energy each second. If every grain of sand on Earth were instead several whole planet Earths, then the total number of grains of sand on all those millions of quadrillions of Earths would still be less than the number of hydrogen atoms fused every second by the Sun! And all that energy is only just barely enough to keep gravity at bay.
We could go on all day. It’s truly mindbending. I find it even more mindbending to realize that all this energy has caused simple molecules on Earth to organize over millions of years to be able to build cities, sing whalesongs, understand DNA, and even to love a new baby.
OK, that’s it for now. I can’t write anymore….. I see my fingers moving as I type…. Nerve cells firing….. the actin and myosin molecules converting ATP into motion….. motion causing the electron fields of the keyboard to repel……………. the electrical… ………………………………
In addition to writing the Starstuff, Contemplating column here at HumanisticPaganism, Dr. Jon Cleland Host is a scientist who earned his PhD in materials science at Northwestern University & has conducted research at Hemlock Semiconductor and Dow Corning since 1997. He holds eight patents and has authored over three dozen internal scientific papers and eleven papers for peer-reviewed scientific journals, including the journal Nature. He has taught classes on biology, math, chemistry, physics and general science at Delta College and Saginaw Valley State University. Jon grew up near Pontiac, and has been building a reality-based spirituality for over 30 years, first as a Catholic and now as a Unitarian Universalist, including collaborating with Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow to spread the awe and wonder of the Great Story of our Universe (see www.thegreatstory.org, and the blog atevolutionarytimes.org). Jon and his wife have four sons, whom they embrace within a Universe-centered, Pagan, family spirituality. He currently moderates the yahoo group Naturalistic Paganism.
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