Tuesday, February 14, 2012

To Live at All Is Miracle Enough

I came across this by chance the end of December and had intended to post it sooner. (You can see the original post by  Faisal Saeed Al Mutar.) It reminds me how lucky I am, we all are, in fact, and is something that I should read every once in a while when I'm feeling stressed about what I'd like my world to be. Doesn't Monty Python have something similar to say?

But Richard Dawkins is eloquent in his observations and everyone should be reminded how unintentional life really is. So many people talk about how much they honestly believe that they should be guaranteed some power and importance in this world. Maybe religion helps alleviate the fear that arises when some of us recognize how unlikely that is: however I can say religion offers me nothing when I consider how brief our time is.

When you think about it, the planet existed long before our consciousness ever sparked and it will go on for a very long time after we're no longer here. Whatever happiness we have is right now and if we're to live fully, we need to embrace the majesty that the natural world provides us. It is fleeting and sometimes very harsh, but it can be so much more if we don't squander it on the illusions modern society pushes on us.


Excerpt from Chapter I, “The Anaesthetic of Familiarity" of Richard Dawkins 1998 book Unweaving the Rainbow

To live at all is miracle enough. ~ Mervyn Peake, The Glassblower (1950)

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.
Moralists and theologians place great weight upon the moment of conception, seeing it as the instant at which the soul comes into existence. If, like me, you are unmoved by such talk, you still must regard a particular instant, nine months before your birth, as the most decisive event in your personal fortunes. It is the moment at which your consciousness suddenly became trillions of times more foreseeable than it was a split second before. To be sure, the embryonic you that came into existence still had plenty of hurdles to leap. Most conceptuses end in early abortion before their mother even knew they were there, and we are all lucky not to have done so. Also, there is more to personal identity than genes, as identical twins (who separate after the moment of fertilization) show us. Nevertheless, the instant at which a particular spermatozoon penetrated a particular egg was, in your private hindsight, a moment of dizzying singularity. It was then that the odds against your becoming a person dropped from astronomical to single figures.
The lottery starts before we are conceived. Your parents had to meet, and the conception of each was as improbable as your own. And so on back, through your four grandparents and eight great grandparents, back to where it doesn’t bear thinking about. Desmond Morris opens his autobiography, Animal Days (1979), in characteristically arresting vein:
Napoleon started it all. If it weren’t for him, I might not be sitting here now writing these words … for it was one of his cannonballs, fired in the Peninsular War, that shot off the arm of my great-great-grandfather, James Morris, and altered the whole course of my family history.
Morris tells how his ancestor’s enforced change of career had various knock-on effects culminating in his own interest in natural history. But he really needn’t have bothered. There’s no ‘might’ about it. Of course he owes his very existence to Napoleon. So do I and so do you. Napoleon didn’t have to shoot off James Morris’s arm in order to seal young Desmond’s fate, and yours and mine, too. Not just Napoleon but the humblest medieval peasant had only to sneeze in order to affect something which changed something else which, after a long chain reaction, led to the consequence that one of your would-be ancestors failed to be your ancestor and became somebody else’s instead. I’m not talking about ‘chaos theory’, or the equally trendy ‘complexity theory’, but just about the ordinary statistics of causation. The thread of historical events by which our existence hangs is wincingly tenuous.
When compared with the stretch of time unknown to us, O king, the present life of men on earth is like the flight of a single sparrow through the hall where, in winter, you sit with your captains and ministers. Entering at one door and leaving by another, while it is inside it is untouched by the wintry storm; but this brief interval of calm is over in a moment, and it returns to the winter whence it came, vanishing from your sight. Man’s life is similar; and of what follows it, or what went before, we are utterly ignorant. ~ The Venerable Bede, A History of the English Church and People (731)
This is another respect in which we are lucky. The universe is older than a hundred million centuries. Within a comparable time the sun will swell to a red giant and engulf the earth. Every century of hundreds of millions has been in its time, or will be when its time comes, ‘the present century’. Interestingly, some physicists don’t like the idea of a ‘moving present’, regarding it as a subjective phenomenon for which they find no house room in their equations. But it is a subjective argument I am making. How it feels to me, and I guess to you as well, is that the present moves from the past to the future, like a tiny spotlight, inching its way along a gigantic ruler of time. Everything behind the spotlight is in darkness, the darkness of the dead past. Everything ahead of the spotlight is in the darkness of the unknown future. The odds of your century being the one in the spotlight are the same as the odds that a penny, tossed down at random, will land on a particular ant crawling somewhere along the road from New York to San Francisco. In other words, it is overwhelmingly probable that you are dead.
In spite of these odds, you will notice that you are, as a matter of fact, alive. People whom the spotlight has already passed over, and people whom the spotlight has not reached, are in no position to read a book. I am equally lucky to be in a position to write one, although I may not be when you read these words. Indeed, I rather hope that I shall be dead when you do. Don’t misunderstand me. I love life and hope to go on for a long time yet, but any author wants his works to reach the largest possible readership. Since the total future population is likely to outnumber my contemporaries by a large margin, I cannot but aspire to be dead when you see these words. Facetiously seen, it turns out to be no more than a hope that my book will not soon go out of print. But what I see as I write is that I am lucky to be alive and so are you.
We live on a planet that is all but perfect for our kind of life: not too warm and not too cold, basking in kindly sunshine, softly watered; a gently spinning, green and gold harvest festival of a planet. Yes, and alas, there are deserts and slums; there is starvation and racking misery to be found. But take a look at the competition. Compared with most planets this is paradise, and parts of earth are still paradise by any standards. What are the odds that a planet picked at random would have these complaisant properties? Even the most optimistic calculation would put it at less than one in a million.
Imagine a spaceship full of sleeping explorers, deep-frozen would-be colonists of some distant world. Perhaps the ship is on a forlorn mission to save the species before an unstoppable comet, like the one that killed the dinosaurs, hits the home planet. The voyagers go into the deep-freeze soberly reckoning the odds against their spaceship’s ever chancing upon a planet friendly to life. If one in a million planets is suitable at best, and it takes centuries to travel from each star to the next, the spaceship is pathetically unlikely to find a tolerable, let alone safe, haven for its sleeping cargo.
But imagine that the ship’s robot pilot turns out to be unthinkably lucky. After millions of years the ship does find a planet capable of sustaining life: a planet of equable temperature, bathed in warm starshine, refreshed by oxygen and water. The passengers, Rip van Winkles, wake stumbling into the light. After a million years of sleep, here is a whole new fertile globe, a lush planet of warm pastures, sparkling streams and waterfalls, a world bountiful with creatures, darting through alien green felicity. Our travellers walk entranced, stupefied, unable to believe their unaccustomed senses or their luck.
As I said, the story asks for too much luck; it would never happen. And yet, isn’t that what has happened to each one of us? We have woken after hundreds of millions of years asleep, defying astronomical odds. Admittedly we didn’t arrive by spaceship, we arrived by being born, and we didn’t burst conscious into the world but accumulated awareness gradually through babyhood. The fact that we slowly apprehend our world, rather than suddenly discover it, should not subtract from its wonder.
Of course I am playing tricks with the idea of luck, putting the cart before the horse. It is no accident that our kind of life finds itself on a planet whose temperature, rainfall and everything else are exactly right. If the planet were suitable for another kind of life, it is that other kind of life that would have evolved here. But we as individuals are still hugely blessed. Privileged, and not just privileged to enjoy our planet. More, we are granted the opportunity to understand why our eyes are open, and why they see what they do, in the short time before they close for ever.
Here, it seems to me, lies the best answer to those petty-minded scrooges who are always asking what is the use of science. In one of those mythic remarks of uncertain authorship, Michael Faraday is alleged to have been asked what was the use of science. ‘Sir,’ Faraday replied. ‘Of what use is a new-born child?’ The obvious thing for Faraday (or Benjamin Franklin, or whoever it was) to have meant was that a baby might be no use for anything at present, but it has great potential for the future. I now like to think that he meant something else, too: What is the use of bringing a baby into the world if the only thing it does with its life is just work to go on living? If everything is judged by how ‘useful’ it is — useful for staying alive, that is — we are left facing a futile circularity. There must be some added value. At least a part of life should be devoted to living that life, not just working to stop it ending. This is how we rightly justify spending taxpayers’ money endangered species and beautiful buildings. It is how we answer those barbarians who think that wild elephants and historic houses should be preserved only if they ‘pay their way’. And science is the same. Of course science pays its way; of course it is useful. But that is not all it is.
After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked — as I am surprisingly often — why I bother to get up in the mornings. To put it the other way round, isn’t it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be a part of it?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

One of Us

Amid curls of smoke, Christopher Hitchens and
his famous matte of fur from his Vanity Fair days.
“Isn’t that so sad,” I said more as a declaration than expecting someone to agree.

“Well, not really. I mean, it was expected,” said my always witty friend, so matter-of-factly. “It would have been sad if it wasn’t, don’t you think?”

I had to admit, my friend was right and his perspective made me pause to think more about the heartache that was palpable on the web. It would have been stupefying if he had passed away suddenly and without warning. But we had warning and the man I was lamenting had brought us along with him during his final year and a half with his usual critical brilliance and unwavering nerve.

The man I’m referring to, of course, is Christopher Hitchens who died in December. And his death, while talked about openly by Hitchens himself, nevertheless made many of us entreat (dare I say pray) that death would spare him for as long as possible.

One night a week or so after his died, I found myself wide awake and fitfully dozing and drifting as is often the case when dawn is close. After rolling through my standard litany of minor worries (that always seem worse in the dark and cold), I found myself thinking about Hitchens and was astonished at how quickly my eyes were welling up. After a few minutes, my cheeks were wet and I whispered to myself, “…just what brought that on?”

I was genuinely sad and mystified because it seemed embarrassing on some level. I didn’t know the man and, while I followed his progress since he announced his illness, I had assumed he would be here for several more years yet. We lost a couple of his books to the Katrina floods, so maybe it was my sentimentality getting the best of me. But when I saw the video of him at an atheist convention in Texas in October, the limitation of a cure and the cancer’s persistence had made it impossible to pretend that he could have gone on much longer, much less beaten it. He was a mere slip of himself, but the thrill he could still evoke in the crowd was manifest. I wish I’d been in that crowd.

When these same tears occurred again a few weeks ago during another sleepless night, I realized that maybe I should write my own version of a tribute, since all secular websites worth anything have posted something about this lost horseman of non-belief. I can start by saying that, while his death wasn’t unexpected, the finality is what gripped me and made me mourn openly someone I have never met.

A fond memory of Hitchens that makes me smile every time is his strange and glorious observation that appeared in one of his early columns for Vanity Fair in September 2010 when he candidly talked about his June diagnosis. “The Topic of Cancer” was a bold and fierce examination of cancer and, while I could never hope to pull off such vulnerability and acute descriptions with as much defiance, Hitchens made it a cerebral partnership for us all.

His comments on the side effects of chemotherapy: “Or for the way that my newly smooth upper lip would begin to look as if it had undergone electrolysis, causing me to look a bit too much like somebody’s maiden auntie. (The chest hair that was once the toast of two continents hasn’t yet wilted, but so much of it was shaved off for various hospital incisions that it’s a rather patchy affair.)”

Chest hair! I have no doubt that it was enjoyed by many admirers on two continents (maybe more). My brother said while he was dealing with prostate cancer, which uses estrogen therapies to combat its progression, mentioned that he also noticed the loss of body hair and he joked heartily at how smooth it made his skin. Humbling to the core, it’s refreshing that Hitchens could remind us how damning and precious those memories are.

Another interesting tidbit is my own "one degree" of separation. A colleague I used to work with at a weekly publication (and to whom I was once tethered during one of those arduous team building adventure/climbing courses) wrote about having drinks and conversation with Hitchens one on one. “J.” was at an industry convention and won a category in which his writing had been judged by none other than Hitchens himself. He was also a featured speaker that day and while J. had tried to edge close enough to speak with him afterwards, the adoring onlookers made it impossible.

In what may be one of the most spectacular feats of daring that I’d like to think I would have done if I’d been in his shoes, J. decided to call Hitchens at his home to request a few moments to express his appreciation. That Hitchens’ home phone number was listed in a Washington, D.C. phone directory is like something out of a Hollywood script, don’t you think?

To his astonishment, Hitchens returned the call and suggested that J. come on over. Let me repeat that slowly. A personal invitation to Hitchens’ house! What a splendid memory to have. (Things like this make me consider that even as a non-believer, if this had happened to me, I just might start believing there was a God after all.) It seems Hitchens was every bit the over-the-top drinker and intellectual that we’ve been led to believe. And J. was there to soak up every minute that he could. It was truly momentous that Hitchens could still entertain mortals; it's possible that one day, J. may return the favor to an unsuspecting writer himself.

When my father was dying of lung cancer, I remember my brothers and I discussed that a parent’s death, at whatever age you are when it happens, makes you very aware that you are next. It might not happen for another 50 years, but you are mortal and here’s the proof. One thought that kept popping into my head was that Hitchens’ was one of us and now he is gone. He was an unlikely guardian for those of us who enjoyed and needed to hear his thoughts on being an atheist. In spite of the criticisms that he probably deserved, he made us proud to call him on of the tribe. And he slipped away, but not before he moved us with his humanity and intelligence.

If you missed the final tribute in Vanity Fair by his long-time friend, Salman Rushdie, here it is. I think we all want to be loved by our good friends as much as Rushdie clearly did Hitchens.

I still wonder what provokes my tears for him even today. But I'm at an age where I wantonly hate that we're all mortal. I like to think that Hitchens made our movement, if I can call it that, stronger and more invincible, just like the man himself.
“Tho' much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;”
~Ulysses, Alfred Lord Tennyson