Monday, January 19, 2009

A new sunrise

Is the universe going nowhere in particular? Or is there a built-in destination, one which includes our own preordained fate?

This is of course the central question of philosophy. And religion. Made particularly decisive in our own time by two great discoveries of science. 1. Evolution by natural selection, which has a random element that precludes any precise formulation of future developments. Run the history of life on Earth over again, and there is no reason to assume that anything exactly like ourselves would emerge. 2. The discovery of cosmic space and time. The human habitat is typical of a virtually uncountable number of galaxies, stars, planets. And human life is the briefest tick in the long calendar of cosmic evolution.

These deflating discoveries after millennia of believing that our place in a human-scaled cosmos is central and decisive, and that the universe and human life are contemporaneous.

How do we respond? With despair? With self-delusion? By plugging up our ears? Like all of us, the Jesuit scientist/mystic Teilhard de Chardin struggled with this question, seeking some reason to remain optimistic in a world that increasingly seems insensitive to our fate. He latched onto the fact that "within the domain of our experience" humanity is at the edge of two great waves of cosmic evolution -- life and intelligence -- and that we hold in our hands the fate of at least our own domain. Embracing this fact with courage and hope, we can turn our face fearlessly and creatively "to the grandeur of a new sunrise."

In The Phenomenon of Man, he wrote: "Man has every right to be anxious about his fate so long as he feels himself to be lost and lonely in the midst of the mass of created things. But let his once discover that his fate is bound up with the fate of nature itself, and immediately, joyously, he will begin again his forward march."