By Marcus Loane
13th May 2010
We humans have big brains and our scurrying around for food, shelter and mating is not enough to satisfy us. Often we want to be part of something larger and more meaningful than ourselves. This is a gap that religion may have filled in the past and for many today it still does.
What if you cannot believe the claims of religions or the idea of anything supernatural? Many will find meaning in other arenas such as politics, improving human conditions, music, art, science or philosophy.
My sense of transcendence has come from my interest in science. I appreciate the history of it as one long noble endeavour to find out more about ourselves and the universe we are a part of. The scientific endeavour spans many lifetimes and will continue to do so down the generations and, like philosophy (the Great Conversation) it has a continuity with discoveries being built upon, tweaked or overturned and this will continue into the future long after I am gone. The endeavour is noble in that it is honest and not afraid to say we don’t know. It also touches on profound questions and gradually, step by step, comes up with answers.
The picture of the universe which science has brought us also contributes to transcendence. The sheer scale, age and strangeness of the universe when compared to us and our earthly environment are enough to inspire awe and wonder and take us out of the mundane concerns of our everyday lives. This does not negate our lives. It gives us a context or backdrop within which we can live them.
I am also fascinated by the frontiers of our scientific knowledge, the areas where we do not have all the answers and where we are chipping away trying to learn more. This is the most exciting part of science and scientists are most stimulated when there is a puzzle, or something that does not fit with existing theory.
An example is physicists have proposed “dark matter” and “dark energy” to explain some of the movements of galaxies which we have observed. This is not very satisfactory and suggests that we are missing something and not seeing the whole picture yet. It could be that there are other universes interacting with ours or that this exotic matter does indeed exist. Another idea is that our 4 dimensional universe (3 spatial dimensions and 1 time dimension) is embedded in a higher dimensional structure whose effects may be detectable. The answers may come with ever better telescopes and particle accelerators and advances in mathematics. The very large (the galaxies and large scale structure of the universe) is intimately related to the very small (the sub atomic particles studied in particle accelerators). It is a dream of many to come up with one unifying theory which brings it all together in an elegant solution which explains any anomalies. If you are interested in this it is an exciting time to be alive. Another area which science is tentatively tackling is the thorny issue of human consciousness and some small steps have been made.
The transcendence comes from the long integrated history of the group effort that is science. The transcendence also comes from science giving us our most realistic model of the universe as a context within which we live our lives. We can compare our paltry life spans to the 13+ billion year age of the universe and we can compare our size to that of galaxies and that of the sub atomic world. We are either insignificant little specks or we are great lumbering giants depending on what you compare us with. I can also see myself as a biological entity embedded in the incredibly long and complicated evolutionary epic. It is the evolutionary process which has created minds and meanings and purposes.
I can revel in all of this, and feel privileged and grateful to be conscious of it, unlike other species whose concerns are more local and immediate. I can feed my curiosity by keeping abreast of the latest findings at the frontiers, anticipating more within my lifetime. We just might get our Grand Unified Theory in the next 40 years and if we don’t I will have been stimulated and entertained by the attempts of others to crack it.
Anyway, that’s what does it for me. Each to their own.
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