Here is the First Lesson, and the Last
Each of us can determine what we want to learn in between, driven by curiosity and rewarded by joy of learning. We must understand our universe as much as possible. We must understand our place in the universe, if we want to guide our behavior to align with the evolution of the universe. What if ⇒ ( in NM → M ⇒ NM) is the next step of the evolution? Think! Create pleasure for our soul. Give love.
(Can you imaging what would happen if everyone in the world listen to this voice at the same time?)
Carl Sagan: Pale Blue Dot – Chapter 1: “Wanderers” —
There’s Antarctica at what Americans and Europeans so readily regard as the bottom, and then all of Africa stretching up above it: You can see Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Kenya, where the earliest humans lived. At top right are Saudi Arabia and what Europeans call the Near East. Just barely peeking out at the top is the Mediterranean Sea, around which so much of our global civilization emerged. You can make out the blue of the ocean, the yellow-red of the Sahara and the Arabian desert, the brown-green of forest and grassland.
And yet there is no sign of humans in this picture, not our reworking of the Earth’s surface, not our machines, not ourselves: We are too small and our statecraft is too feeble to be seen by a spacecraft between the Earth and the Moon. From this vantage point, our obsession with nationalism is nowhere in evidence. The Apollo pictures of the whole Earth conveyed to multitudes something well known to astronomers: On the scale of worlds—to say nothing of stars or galaxies—humans are inconsequential, a thin film of life on an obscure and solitary lump of rock and metal.
It seemed to me that another picture of the Earth, this one taken from a hundred thousand times farther away, might help in the continuing process of revealing to ourselves our true circumstance and condition. It had been well understood by the scientists and philosophers of classical antiquity that the Earth was a mere point in a vast encompassing Cosmos, but no one had ever seen it as such. Here was our first chance (and perhaps also our last for decades to come).
… the way to find Earth.
IF YOU LIVED two or three millennia ago, there was no shame in holding that the Universe was made for us. It was an appealing thesis consistent with everything we knew; it was what the most learned among us taught without qualification. But we have found out much since then. Defending such a position today amounts to willful disregard of the evidence, and a flight from self-knowledge.
Still, for many of us, these deprovincializations rankle. Even if they do not fully carry the day, they erode confidence—unlike the happy anthropocentric certitudes, rippling with social utility, of an earlier age. We long to be here for a purpose, even though, despite much self-deception, none is evident. “The meaningless absurdity of life,” wrote Leo Tolstoy, “is the only incontestable knowledge accessible to man.” Our time is burdened under the cumulative weight of successive debunkings of our conceits: We’re Johnny-come-latelies. We live in the cosmic boondocks. We emerged from microbes and muck. Apes are our cousins. Our thoughts and feelings are not fully under our own control. There may be much smarter and very different beings elsewhere. And on top of all this, we’re making a mess of our planet and becoming a danger to ourselves.
The trapdoor beneath our feet swings open. We find ourselves in bottomless free fall. We are lost in a great darkness, and there’s no one to send out a search party. Given so harsh a reality, of course we’re tempted to shut our eyes and pretend that we’re safe and snug at home, that the fall is only a bad dream.
We lack consensus about our place in the Universe. There is no generally agreed upon long-term vision of the goal of our species—other than, perhaps, simple survival. Especially when times are hard, we become desperate for encouragement, unreceptive to the litany of great demotions and dashed hopes, and much more willing to hear that we’re special, never mind if the evidence is paper-thin. If it takes a little myth and ritual to get us through a night that seems endless, who among us cannot sympathize and understand?
But if our objective is deep knowledge rather than shallow reassurance, the gains from this new perspective far outweigh the losses. Once we overcome our fear of being tiny, we find ourselves on the threshold of a vast and awesome Universe that utterly dwarfs—in time, in space, and in potential—the tidy anthropocentric proscenium of our ancestors. We gaze across billions of light-years of space to view the Universe shortly after the Big Bang, and plumb the fine structure of matter. We peer down into the core of our planet, and the blazing interior of our star. We read the genetic language in which is written the diverse skills and propensities of every being on Earth. We uncover hidden chapters in the record of our own origins, and with some anguish better understand our nature and prospects. We invent and refine agriculture, without which almost all of us would starve to death. We create medicines and vaccines that save the lives of billions. We communicate at the speed of light, and whip around the Earth in an hour and a half. We have sent dozens of ships to more than seventy worlds, and four spacecraft to the stars. We are right to rejoice in our accomplishments, to be proud that our species has been able to see so far, and to judge our merit in part by the very science that has so deflated our pretensions.
It might have been otherwise. It might have been that the balance lay elsewhere, that humans by and large did not want to know about a disquieting Universe, that we were unwilling to permit challenges to the prevailing wisdom. Despite determined resistance in every age, it is very much to our credit that we have allowed ourselves to follow the evidence, to draw conclusions that at first seem daunting: a Universe so much larger and older that our personal and historical experience is dwarfed and humbled, a Universe in which, every day, suns are born and worlds obliterated, a Universe in which humanity, newly arrived, clings to an obscure clod of matter.
The significance of our lives and our fragile planet is then determined only by our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning. We long for a Parent to care for us, to forgive us our errors, to save us from our childish mistakes. But knowledge is preferable to ignorance. Better by far to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable.
If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.