Of the Earth

In his book, The Saviors of God, Nikos Kazantzakis writes: “Earth rises up in your brains and sees her entire body for the first time.” Taking into account that the idea has been made poetic and personified, the idea presented here is not only compatible with Naturalism, but is implied by it.

The soils and waters of the Earth, aided by sunlight, have over the eons self-organized and evolved into living forms, into sensitive nervous systems, into awareness, and with us humans, into verbal consciousness. When we look out on the Earth, we are seeing that which has brought us forth; and what has brought us forth, is seeing itself. 

This is an unorthodox way of thinking about our origin and what we are. Our Western culture has a very different story. In the predominant Judeo-Christian version of creation, the Earth was created by God and we, separately, were placed here. In this view, our deepest self is of the heavens, not of Earth. We are only wayfaring strangers on this planet, our true home is some intangible elsewhere. 

Even with the rise of Western science, this view of things remains entrenched. I suspect that most scientists, deep down, accept some kind of mind/body dualism, some sense that what we most essentially are, is different from what the Earth most essentially is. 

If we really take the scientific view seriously, however, we cannot take the Judeo-Christian creation narrative as anything but myth. We certainly can appreciate the grandeur and humanism of that myth, but we cannot accept it as fact. The scientific view implies that we are fully children of the Earth. 

We are each an actualization of the Earth’s potential, but the Earth itself is the actualization of a potential that must have existed at the beginning of the universe, or existed eternally. 

Why the universe had this potential and the space and time to actualize it, is a mystery. And inside of that mystery, is the question of whether all this actualization was purely an accident or some intrinsic teleology, or possibly something else that we can’t even conceptualize. Whatever, we’ve been billions of years in the making and now We Are Here! I think that’s a fact worth spending at least part of our brief lifetime contemplating. I mean really, doesn’t that make all those nagging problems seem rather trivial?

* * * * *

I feel a deep love for the Earth. As long as I can remember, I have been curious about and attentive to that which is happening on the land. One part of this has been a love of and an aesthetic appreciation for the beauty of wild nature. But the other part has been an equal curiosity and desire to know about people and their comings and goings, about geography in the broadest sense.

Perhaps this has something to do with where I grew up. I was raised in a small town in central Minnesota. From my front porch I had a view of the Mississippi River, and beyond that the tracks of what was then the Northern Pacific Railroad, one of the early transcontinental railroads. In front of the house was U.S. highway Ten, a major route, at that time, running all the way from Detroit to Seattle.  All the coming and going of the river, the trains and the highway made me keenly aware that there was a much bigger world out there than the little burg I inhabited. I wanted to know more about all those other places to which we were connected.

It may seem a bit odd, but in my love of the land I felt a sense of holiness. There is a primitive belief that people all over the world have held, that God somehow needs something from us – sacrifice, worship, blood offerings, and such. I remember thinking, when I was still quite young, that if God wants anything from us, perhaps it is only that we appreciate the beauty of the creation. Perhaps this feeling of holiness, this joy I felt in my love for the creation, was the reward for giving God what she/he wanted.  I didn’t take that idea seriously, but it seemed rather right to me that a God such as the Christians believed in would feel particularly kindly toward those capable of really appreciating the marvelous handiwork that the world is and that we are.

Appreciating the world as it is, with its beauty and cruelty, and appreciating the self as it is, with its pettiness and grandeur, still seems to me the most appropriate prayer we can offer to that great mystery that some call God. 

* * * * *

That we are material beings and nothing more seems implausible to many people. This isn’t surprising. In so many ways we are unlike the simple matter of Earth. But do we really understand simple matter?

According to Einstein’s famous equation, E=MC2, lurking in a small quantity of dirt is an unthinkably large amount of electro-magnetic energy (EM). A few pounds of dirt contains enough energy to supply humanity’s voracious energy appetite for centuries to come, if it could be completely converted to its energy equivalent. 

EM has some very interesting properties. It is both a particle and a wave. As a single particle, a photon, it exists in a quantum universe where it apparently can move between two points without really occupying the space between them. It travels at the speed of light, which of course is a form of EM, and the speed of light, is also, apparently, the speed of time. Thus a photon always occupies an absolute present. 

EM is the basis of all chemistry. It is what holds the particles of an atom together. It is what binds atoms into molecules, including the organic molecules that comprise our body, and the DNA that contains the information about how to structure our body. It is the elan vitale, the force of life. All of this, I think, makes the idea that we are composed of mere earthly matter more plausible.

In the paragraph above, I introduce the word “information,” and that throws a little twist into what it means to be a material being. Information is not another kind of matter, yet, to the best of our knowledge it can only exist in a physical medium. It is an organization of matter, and something that can organize matter, as genetic information organizes the proteins of the body, and verbal information organizes our thoughts. There is nothing supernatural about information, but there is something rather mysterious about it. Just what is it?

The standard idea is that information is an emergent property of matter/energy, but some physicists think that what we call matter is, at base, a form of information – the entire world is composed of mathematically determined relationships. Thought of in this way, the distance between “matter” and ideas is not so great after all if both are forms of information.

Actually I don’t know much about any of this stuff. I am just an outgrowth of the Earth with a brain capable of awareness and curiosity and love. So I give loving attention to the Earth and do my best to understand and appreciate it.

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