Wednesday, April 15. 2009
One last elevator in our city still requires a human operator. I rode to the third floor in it, exchanging a mere pleasantry with the man who closed the door, operated the control to go up to the third floor, then opened the door; I casually mentioned I’d be back in a couple of minutes.
I concluded my business in the accountant’s office, walked out and pressed the button for the elevator—the operator obviously had a few ups and downs in the meantime (a pun too apparent to avoid). A stool in the back corner of the elevator, used by the operator when no one needed the elevator, held an open book, face down. The title, something like “Where is God?” intrigued me, and I remarked that it looked like serious reading. The operator, a somewhat elderly gentleman, said “Yes, I’d just been thinking, if there isn’t a God, what is the difference between a man and a cockroach?” We exchanged “Have a good day”, and I went on my way.
We live on a world where six, almost seven billion other human beings live. There surely are more cockroaches, but such huge numbers have to give each of us pause as we contemplate our own place in the universe. To the best of our knowledge, we are the only species on earth, arguably the only species in the universe, that could actually think about such abstract ideas.
What really is the meaning of any human’s life? Hold a human skull from some archeology dig in your hands. What can you say about the human of which it was a part? It was borne of a mother; it lived, and it died. Such will be the fate of each of us, ultimately. Some of our names will be known for a longer period of time than others, but most of us will be soon forgotten, a fate even Hamlet could lament.
If that seems so, it gives us all the more impetus to wish for, hope for, pray for, dream about, scheme about a life that goes on after our earthly body dies. Most religions make an important point of promising a life after death, each one setting its own conditions for who will actually live afterwards. Any thinking person, studying some of the religions in depth, has to conclude that no one knows anything about any form of life after death. Every religion so inclined, claims on the basis of a once live human being’s authority, that some “spirit” or “soul” lives on after the human body dies. I don’t think anyone claims that cockroaches have souls, though perhaps some Indian religions might make claims for cows and such.
Scientific study of the brain provides no evidence of a “soul”, and little understanding of what is actually cognition, though doctors (anesthesiologists) can to a pretty good degree start and stop it. The best understanding of thought I have run across is from William Calvin, in his book “The Cerebral Symphony: Seashore Reflections on the Structure of Consciousness“. I highly recommend a reading of this book, and Amazon has many used and inexpensive copies available.
The human brain is a miraculous organ, having perhaps ten billion neurons, each connected to other neurons by many synapses, multiplying the complexity. Was this a natural creation? When you think about a number like that for your brain, it might give you a big head. But consider how vast our solar system is about one star—and a CNN story reports Australian astronomers have estimated that there are 70,000 million million million total number of stars in the known universe. The figure–7 followed by 22 zeros or, more accurately, 70 sextillion–was calculated by a team of stargazers based at the Australian National University
It’s also about 10 times as many stars as grains of sand on all the world’s beaches and deserts.
We can be awed by the complexity and structure of us, of the human animal with an absolutely amazing brain, but it pales into inconsequentiality when compared to the immensity of the universe we inhabit.
Does this mean our lives are insignificant? Is my place in the universe, my time on earth and beyond in the expanse of humanity, simply as insignificant as a grain of sand, or as a cockroach?
So, based on only hope or faith totally without evidence, that something of us may live on after we are borne, have lived, and died, we recognize that it may be a possibility, but if we take a stance that evidence of some sort is required for a belief, such an afterlife can seem very improbable. Therefore, we contemplate what else there might be that will give our lives significance. Actually, the “we” probably is much too inclusive, perhaps many people never think about such things.
What other thoughts, besides an afterlife, may give us a reason to regulate our lives? Perhaps only this: whoever, whatever, created the galaxies, the stars, the sun, the earth, the oceans, the beaches, and us, made each person, each being, each grain of sand, individual and unique, fitting into one place in the universe. As some particles of sand on the beach glisten like black onyx with unique striations, and other particles sparkle in the sunlight, so each of our lives at any given time may sparkle in interaction with our fellow human beings. And when our time on earth is over, and the oceans have washed away our remains, it will not have been in vain, for we will have fulfilled our place in the universe for our given allotment of time. Some numbers of other people—what number is unimportant—will have memory of the form and shape of our place, and will create their own form and shape fitting around what we have left, where we have been. In the vastness of creation, our space may have indeed been small, but to those around us, it is not insignificant.
I heard somewhere: What we do for ourselves, dies with us. What we do for others lives on.