Chet Raymo on Santa Claus, Hot Stoves, and the Blooming, Buzzing Confusion

We cannot live without some sorts of make-believe in our lives. Without made-up maps of the world, life is a buzzing, blooming confusion. Some elements of our mental maps (Santa Claus) satisfy emotional or aesthetic inner needs; other elements of our mental maps (a hot stove) satisfy intellectual curiosity about the world out there. We get in trouble when the two kinds of maps are confused, when we objectify elements of make-believe solely on the basis of inner need.

The passage is from Chet Raymo’s book Skeptics and True Believers: The Exhilarating Connection between Science and Religion (1998). Raymo is Professor Emeritus of Physics, raised as a Catholic, with a religious sensibility alongside a firm skepticism. He recently stopped posting on his blog, Science Musings, but the inspiring archives remain open.

We all carry around mental maps of the world—images and words that guide us—that should not be confused with the real world itself. Raymo writes about the two kinds of entries on our maps. Some entries reflect our neediness, since we were children, for emotional comfort, simple explanations, and a sense of our own importance. Santa Claus is on the map for many children. When we’re adults, other superstitions, miracles and astrology often take Santa’s place. Such beliefs help many of us make sense of the world. They also help us feel we have a place in it, for there is nothing worse than thinking that we are only insignificant specks.

As Raymo puts it, these are beliefs about what we yearn for. In contrast, we also put on our maps more objectively realistic items that we learn about. These include the facts that stoves can burn us and that dinosaurs and humans did not walk the earth at the same time.

Artificial island in the Maldives, in the Indian Ocean (pinterest)

An artificial island in the Maldives, in the Indian Ocean
(pinterest)

But—and here’s what makes the book so valuable—Raymo is not saying simply that we should value the learn items and let go of the yearn ones. For a person who values only objective knowledge runs the risk of becoming cold and arrogant. We need a mix of worthwhile knowledge along with an appreciation of what we don’t know and yearn to understand.

Raymo’s central metaphor for all this is that our map resembles an island in a sea of mystery. The island is our knowledge and the sea is the actual, mysterious, and infinite universe around us. On our island, “We dredge up soil from the bed of mystery and build ourselves room to grow. And still the mystery surrounds us. It laps at our shores. It permeates the land.” When such thinkers as Galileo and Einstein illuminate some of the mystery, that mystery sweeps in on a tidal wave and overwhelms much of what we thought we had known for sure. So we rebuild.

As we expand the island and extend its shores, the border between the land and the sea, instead of shrinking, grows longer. That is, the more we know about the objective world, the more that the mysteries of existence beckon the scientists, artists, and other creative people who are open to them. Raymo’s book appeared in 1998, but his metaphor of this extended shoreline fits well with recent discoveries of the many planets circling other stars and with the neuro-imaging of the brain. Both advances in knowledge have, instead of dulling our sense of mystery, excited and extended it.

Where on the island, Raymo asks, do we find the best and most creative work being done? At the shoreline. “We are at our human best as creatures of the shore, with one foot on the hard ground of fact and one foot in the mystery of the sea.”

The stance describes Raymo himself. And it reminds me that to relish both our knowledge of living things along with our sense of the mystery of being alive is a good place to be.

What Is the “Nature” In Naturalism?

Religious or spiritual naturalism (I’ll use spiritual for both) is a subject dear to my heart. But sometimes I wonder about what exactly we have in mind when we use the word nature. In what I read and even in what I’ve written, the meaning of nature seems prone to being shifted or narrowed to suit the discussion. I bring up the topic with some trepidation because nature is at the core for groups I am happily part of. But maybe that’s a good reason to raise it.

Virtually everyone values nature in the form of the woods, the fields, the mountains and ocean, the animals, plants, the air and water around them. But if asked for a definition of nature, spiritual naturalists offer up a generally accepted definition that is much broader than any of this earthly scenery. Nature as spiritual naturalists conceive of it is all that would not be considered supernatural. Nature refers to the universe of materials and forces that we perceive with our senses and that scientists infer from their observations.

But the breadth of this definition may take us places we had not planned on going. We often reiterate, for example, that we humans are part of nature. But many people might be reluctant to include our cities, cars, computers, pollution and other human products as part of nature, even though all of these fall within the category of things in the universe.

Another complication in labeling the whole universe as nature is that this natural vastness possesses almost none of the characteristics that we often attribute to it. The light at sunset shines in various wavelengths, but without humans to admire those sunsets, they would not be so famously gorgeous. Similarly, while the universe may resemble organic life in its evolution and its cycles, the universe—nature in its totality— is not “alive” in our usual sense of the word. In short, apart from certain principles of physics, nature has no universal characteristics at all, no living qualities, no values.

(dsarichphotography.com)

(dsarichphotography.com)

Still, so many of us seek meaning and understanding from nature at large or from some piece of it. We take strength from our traditions of gratitude and reverence for the universe. In doing so we select from nature according to our spiritual needs. We value the land, sea, and sky for the transcendence they offer from our rough-and-tumble society (even though that society too is natural). And we cherish the cooperation and interconnection that we find in the cosmos and among living things—even though such collaboration is not always benign, for animals and humans often cooperate in order to prevail over others. We find in nature what we need and we set other parts of it aside.

Up into my middle age, I was intrigued by accounts of how the universe began and how it unfolded. But for the last couple of decades, that question has faded and others have moved to the foreground. These are questions related to reviewing my life, anticipating death, and trying to grasp the flow of daily life. Today, the universe story no longer raises the hair on the back of my neck. But the history of living things still does. I too have sliced nature my own way.

Loyal Rue has written, “Nature is enough.” I sometimes think that “nature is too much.” It is big, it is both unchanging and in constant transformation, and it is easy for us to read into it without realizing that we are doing so. Perhaps inevitably, we carry a double vision of nature. We need to hold in mind the totality of nature that is beyond easy description at the same time that we revere the portions of it that move us.

 

 

Is the Universe Alive?

Is the universe alive? What about the earth? Or nature as a whole?

My belief is that the universe along with earth’s mountains, oceans and atmosphere are not alive but that we feel they are living because we respond to them so strongly. Many persuasive writers,  though, seem convinced that they are alive—not merely similar to living things but animated by a life of their own. I’m trying to clarify my thinking about that.

The living earth? (headstuff.org)

The living earth?
(headstuff.org)

The literature dates back to the Greeks. The philosopher Thales, for example, wrote around 600 B.C. that a magnetic stone attracts iron because the stone has a soul. The 19th century naturalist Alexander von Humboldt believed that one could not understand nature unless one understood the interaction of all its parts, including human society, because nature as a whole was a living thing. In his 2007 essay “Earth in Eclipse,” David Abrams refers to humans evolving in “intimate rapport with the other bodies—animals, plants, mountains, rivers—that compose the shifting flesh of this breathing world.” And Bart Everson, in his essay “Awakening to Gaia” in the new collection Godless Paganism, writes, “To awaken to Gaia is to recognize other animals and plants as our distant cousins, to recognize that our kinship extends even to rocks, to the sea, to the atmosphere” (273).

In such statements, it’s difficult to know where personification and metaphor leave off and the belief that nature is literally alive begins. But collectively they show how easily we think of inorganic stuff as living or lifelike—lifelike not just in the way of simple bacteria but lifelike in the way of humans, with complexity and awareness.

I think that one reason people believe our environment might be alive is that we are constantly pouring and projecting ourselves into it. We are hypnotized and soothed by the ocean, so we say that the ocean is hypnotic and soothing. We feel enlarged and humbled in the presence of mountains, and we call them inspiring. In this way, our responses become their qualities, and their qualities make them seem alive.

In addition, people worry that we are out of touch with nature and think that by viewing the seas, the wind, and sunlight as alive, we might grow closer to them. I’m not so sure. I think we might feel more in touch with nature if we saw more clearly the differences between its living members and its inanimate materials and forces. We—all living things—may be inextricably linked with the earth and the sun, but we are also very unlike them. We are unusual, reproductive, self-modifying, enclosed mini-systems. Rocks, water, and stars are not.

It even, I think, smacks of vanity for us to see the oceans or the stars as versions of ourselves. Many marvels arise in nature, and life is only one of them. We see nature in our image because doing so comes easily to us. But we have great difficulty understanding the quantum oddities of nuclear bits and the dynamics of the unfolding universe. We—most people—are best connected to the rest of nature, I believe, by valuing the story of life on earth, managing our power over nature more responsibly, and standing humbly before the mysteries of non-living matter and energy.

As humans, we can’t help but radiate our energy out to the mountains, the oceans, and the sky. Doing so is our way of feeling fully alive and of seeking connections with what is greater; it’s a form of love. The glow, the seeming “aliveness” that shines back at us from inanimate nature is, I think, only our own reflection, but it helps fulfill us.