Thursday, October 29, 2015

Deep Time

Oliver Sacks died recently. In memory of him, Neil DeGrasse Tyson replayed an episode of his show about him for Star Talk. You can look that up, I’m trying to cut back on linking things for people.

One of the stories that Sacks tells is about his mother when he was a kid. They were walking around in their yard and she told him about bees fertilizing flowers. A bit later,  they saw a Magnolia tree that was being fertilized by beetles. Why would one thing be fertilized by bees and another by beetles? Her answer was one that most mothers couldn’t provide, particularly at the time Oliver was a boy. She said it’s because that tree evolved 80,000 years ago when there were no bees, and it stuck with the beetles as its pollinator.

Upon hearing that, it gave him a rather profound experience of deep time. It’s difficult for human beings to comprehend the space of their own lifetime, let alone the lifetimes of ancestors they know about. Imagining beyond a few hundred years or into the thousands is almost impossible. We can demonstrate that things happened, show evidence for it, but keeping it straight in our heads, we just aren’t wired up for that.

The experience Sacks had is one that few people his age could have had, due simply to lack of knowledge. Most mothers didn’t know this. Fathers either. Even parents today would have trouble googling the answer, if they even noticed the beetles on the Magnolia tree. And if you go back just to your great grandparent’s time, no one knew this. No one was trying to comprehend a 13.7 billion year old universe, because we didn’t know it was that old. We didn’t even know where bees came from.

When I’m asked why I prefer science over religion, I’m sometimes asked why I prefer knowing all the answers over mystery. Well, I don’t have that preference. I don’t know all the answers so there is plenty of mystery. The question is then fine tuned to why I only accept things that are proven. Well, I don’t do that either.

I wake up in a universe full of unknowns every day. I navigate an uncertain future. I assume the sun won’t explode today, but I can’t prove it. I trust someone is keeping an eye on that and would let me know if they thought it would happen anytime soon. If we discover something today that no one expected, then I’ll work on including that in my point of view and deal with all the new questions I’ll have because of it.

More recently, a pastor from my last church put this quote on facebook:

Church never made me aware of evolution and the amazing series of unlikely events that led to a tamarack tree turning golden brown then dropping it’s needles in the Fall. At best, someone would occasionally remark on the beauty of a tree or something else amazing about “God’s creation”. I never saw how wonder is inspired by assigning nature a role of simply part of God. That puts an end to wonder. It only shifts wonder from the many discoverable details happening in front us to something that can’t be found. I’m using their definition here, gods are defined as something you seek, but you can never know or understand them completely.

Eventually it came to seem like a trick. Something to draw me in. Something I was supposed to get closer to if I read the next book or attended the next retreat, but like a radio play that always has a cliff hanger, it was more important to create a question than to seek an answer. Why do we need a god to cause us to wonder anyway? Aren’t we doing that already? We can see curiosity in other animals. We can see in artifacts when humans started to make idols and honor their dead. We went from primitive religions to the complex. We weren’t haplessly bumping around not wondering about anything until a shaman came up and told us to.

In Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, the man seeking enlightenment sits on a bridge and stares at the river flowing under it for days. He does this after living a long life with successes and failures. As a young man, Malidoma Some was told by his elders to stare at a tree for hours until it talked to him. Neil DeGrasse Tyson attended a planetarium when he was young and it inspired a life long love of understanding the cosmos. There’s nothing like that in the Bible. If anything, these fit Biblical descriptions of witchcraft or the dangers of philosophy. If learning by observing nature, by wondering what it can tell us, if that’s witchcraft, get my broom. 

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