Repost: The Age of Wonder

[Author's Note: I'm reposting some old favorites while I'm away on vacation this week. This post was originally from November 2008.]

If you search the internet, it’s not hard to find New Agers and others who think that the dawning of the age of reason was a mistake. They envision a more “holistic” approach, one that properly pays heed to the mystery and complexity of existence, and castigate science for being cold, unfeeling, heartless in its probing, reductionist scrutiny of the natural world. For example:

The reason things are advancing so slowly… is that science has neglected the (spiritual) indications necessary for its efficient performance – “with all your heart and all your soul….” — indications that govern higher creativity and exist for the specific purpose of breaking the cosmic bank. The upshot is that science has become excessively expensive, bureaucratic and materialistic. The integration we need, external and internal, requires an incomparably more intense confrontation between the spirit of the researcher and the natural phenomena he is contemplating than what is currently practiced by even the most zealous of researchers.

And yet, the age of reason is also an age of wonder. The devotees of superstition and pseudoscience do not know what they are missing. In grasping after fool’s gold, they have missed the true vein. The universe is a grander, more majestic and more beautiful place than any human being has ever imagined, or can imagine. The unsubstantiated and anthrocentric claims and inventions of people can never compare to the wonder and mystery held by reality as it truly is, and now that we truly have begun to understand how the cosmos works, we are at last getting a glimpse of that awe and wonder.

Consider what we witness when we peer into the cosmos with our telescopic eyes. We see light born billions of years ago in the crucible of dying stars, shining out across the cosmos and becoming ever more diffused, until at last our telescopes captured the lonely few photons that arrive bearing news of stupendous, ancient catastrophes. We see colliding galaxies, matter swirling into the abyss of black holes, and stars exploding with titanic force, sending out jets of energy visible across the known universe.

Our astronomy bears witness to births as well as deaths. We sift invisible light and see the ripples in the faint microwave glow that bathes all of space, distant echoes of the incomprehensible cauldron of heat and density in which the universe itself was born. We see dense nebulae where new stars are being born, burning away the dusty cradles of their formation like sunrise through fog. We see young planets circling their parent stars, their gravity cutting clear swaths through the veils of gas surrounding them. Most of the planets we have detected are hot Jupiters, but perhaps in some of these systems lurk embryonic Earths, awaiting their chance to cool and condense and one day become cradles of life of their own.

Turning closer to home, our emissaries have explored the solar system and brought back news of the other shores that await us. We have seen the shadows of the setting Sun creep across the mountains of the satellites of Jupiter, and we have seen the Earth rise in the night sky from the surface of the Moon. We have traveled the surface of Mars with our robot rovers, and sent landers parachuting down to the methane seas of Titan. Our age, for the first time ever in our planet’s history, has sent ambassadors voyaging so far beyond our own shores that they could look back and see the Earth itself, our one and only home, as a pale blue point of light drifting in infinite dark.

Closer still, we have turned our gaze back upon ourselves, exploring our world in all its complexity. We have learned of the web of evolutionary kinship that connects all life on Earth. Everything – from human beings to redwood trees, from the lowliest cyanobacterium to the fluorescent tube worms on the ocean bottom – is a branch of the same family tree, every living creature a cousin, however distant, to every other.

We have delved down to the molecular roots of life itself, glimpsing the intricate choreography that turns inanimate molecules into living, growing cells, and the equally intricate assemblage that builds living cells into living beings. We have begun an effort to survey the tree of life, discerning the family relationships among countless species living and dead, and mapping the vast, frozen structure branching multidimensionally through those sections of design space that evolution has so far explored.

Traveling down into Earth’s history, we have learned to read the record of the rocks and the chronicles they tell. We have retraced the multimillion-year drifting of the continents and learned of the planetary convulsions that wiped out whole branches of the tree of life and ushered in new ones in their place. We have glimpsed primordial eras long before humanity and envisioned the strange landscapes that once existed where we now place our feet.

All these findings far exceed the most fantastic imaginings of ancient mythology or modern pseudoscience, not least because they are true. In what other age of human history has anyone been able to look on a shooting star or a volcano and know what it really is? In what other age have we known the true age of the planet or understood the power source of the sun? These wonders and countless others, most of which are familiar and mundane to us, would have made people of past ages gasp in awe.

Out of the entire span of human history, these breathtaking discoveries have been made only in the last few hundred years, when we began to think and explore rationally. It was not crystals or prayer or Tarot cards that brought us these things. It was not superstition that was responsible, nor mysticism, nor credulous acceptance of extraordinary and unverified claims. It is the scientific method – institutionalized skepticism, rigorously and comprehensively applied – that has given rise to these wonders of understanding and accomplishment. As long as we human beings were willing to blindly accept the claims of others, to be meek and easily led, to believe without questioning, we remained frightened, brutish, short-lived and ignorant. There are some today who would gladly have us return to that state. Worse, there are some whose methods would inadvertently lead us back to that state, even as they hypocritically seek to take credit for the fruits and innovations of science while rejecting its rules.

But as for me, I remain a skeptic. I am proud to call myself a rationalist. And I will always fight against the proponents of darkness and unreason, because I believe that humanity has barely begun to tap its potential, and that if we continue the path of science, we may some day create wonders we currently lack the ability even to dream of.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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