Thursday, September 10, 2009
After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color, 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?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.
People frequently ask Richard Dawkins: "Why do you bother getting up in the morning if the meaning of life boils down to such a cruel pitiless fact, that we exist merely to help replicate a string of molecules?" As he puts it: "They say to me, how can you bear to be alive if everything is so cold and empty and pointless? Well, at an academic level I think it is - but that doesn't mean you can live your life like that. One answer is that I feel privileged to be allowed to understand why the world exists, and why I exist, and I want to share it with other people."
"It's about why I think science is one of the supreme things that makes life worth living," he says. "We are fantastically privileged to exist at all, but then we also have the privilege of understanding this beautiful world in which we find ourselves. that should make us all the more eager to soak up as much as we possibly can of understanding our world and our place in it before we die." Or, as the book puts it: "Mysteries do not lose their poetry when solved. Quite the contrary: the solution often turns out more beautiful than the puzzle... " He brilliantly berates those of us (all of us, probably) who succumb to the "anaesthetic of familiarity," by which he means allowing yourself to stop noticing that the world around you is coruscating with wonder: "Just think," he enthuses, "instead of reading the football results you can read about distant galaxies!"
Posted by pangeaprogress