I’ve been contemplating the picture of deep space recently provided by NASA’s WEBB space telescope. We live in an age of remarkable images, but this might be the most remarkable of all. I’ve heard the number 100 billion given as answer to the question “How many galaxies are there?” The WEBB image provides concreteness to that outrageous number. We can see what it means, even if we still really can’t fathom it.(1)
When I was younger, the thought of the immensity of space and time filled me with a cognitive dissonance. I felt meaningless and insignificant against it. That dissonance resolved, however, with the realization that I am fully a part of the universe and thus a part of its immensity (an idea I discussed in a recent article, “Getting Comfortable with the Vastness of Time”).(2)
A different dissonance struck me the morning I first looked at the WEBB image. As I sat with a cup of coffee contemplating it, the monstrous old question “Why” welled up in me. Why this immensity? Indeed, why anything at all?
It is a hopeless question, of course. Hopeless, not only because there is no way to answer it, but also because one can’t be sure the question even makes sense. In raising the question, I felt just how pathetic it is for a being like me, a mere scintilla within the vastness of space and time, to think I could know. Yet, to ask “why” is an all-so-human response to the phenomena of the world. So there I was, stuck with the dissonance of that old, unanswerable question.
Contemplating the hopelessness of my question, I began to wonder if other beings – past, present or future – in the hundreds of galaxies shown in the WEBB image gaze into the heavens and ask the same question. It seems likely, and yet we don’t know. And that question led me to another.
Anyone vaguely familiar with philosophy is familiar with the old query “if a tree falls in the forest and there is nobody to witness it, does it really fall.” I couldn’t help asking a similar question: “If a universe came into existence and during its entire existence never produced a being aware of its existence, would it really exist?”
I can’t help but feel that the answer is no, even though I have no basis for that conclusion. But it’s what I feel. And if there is any basis to that feeling, then it would suggest that the universe exists to bring about awareness.
I can think of no rational argument that can lead to the conclusion that the universe exists to bring about beings with awareness, but one thing we do know as a direct experiential fact is that this universe has brought into existence beings capable of awareness, capable of the remarkable technology behind the WEBB telescope, capable of wondering why.
As a matter of logic, since the universe has done this, it must have had the potential to do it from its earliest existence. Why it had such a potential, where that potential came from – just more hopeless questions. But that it did so is a remarkable fact about our universe; a fact that the grand interpretations of cosmology often ignore.
For whatever reason, this universe has produced beings capable of witnessing its existence. And with this thought the dissonance of my question “why,” melted into the simple joy I felt in being such a witness.
* * * * *
The idea that our awareness is the awareness of the universe, is perhaps only poetic cosmology. And it’s certainly not the way most of us think of ourselves. But it brings to mind a well known phrase from the Chandogya Upanishad: “Thou Art That.”
In the Upanishads the “That” of which “Thou Art” is God (though a vastly different notion of God than the one portrayed in the Old Testament of the Bible). From a naturalistic perspective, “That” is the great process of the Universe, producer of the galaxies, producer of life. In either case, the message is that we are contingent beings, contingent upon something much greater than our little ego imagines.
To really experience one’s self under the aspect of this something greater, to really experience “Thou Art That,” is pure mysticism. But that this something greater is nothing less than the great process of the universe, is an idea justified by what science has revealed about the workings of the processes of Nature.
* * * * *
Hopeless questions and mystery, not much of a day’s catch, but all-in-all a beautiful morning’s contemplation stimulated by an amazing image. How far we have progressed in our knowledge of the heavens since Galileo discovered, with his simple telescope, that Jupiter had moons. But behind all our progress and knowing, the same deep hopeless questions and the same deep hopeless mystery, remains.
I find both the progress in our knowing, and the persistence of the deep questions and mystery, wonderful.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
SNS strives to include diverse voices within the spectrum of naturalistic spirituality. Authors will vary in their opinions, terms, and outlook. The views of no single author therefore necessarily reflect those of all Spiritual Naturalists or of SNS.