There are many beautiful ideas in science. We see them as beautiful because they seem to have some sort of unifying force. Or because they’re simple and elegant. Or because some talented writer put words to them that are so perfect that they ring in our heads as we go about our day to day life. But most importantly, they’re beautiful because they’re true.
The idea that strikes me as the most beautiful is one that has been said by many, many scientists, in many many ways.
As Carl Sagan said, we are all star stuff.
As Neil deGrasse Tyson said, the elements that make up our bodies were formed in the crucibles of stars.
As Darwin said “[F]rom so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
The writing is beautiful and evocative, but it is the underlying idea that is even more so.
I am an atheist. Many people assume that means that I live a directionless life, not seeing beauty and wonder. Not caring what happens to myself or others. Not living purposefully. They assume that my atheism is a temporary and unfulfilling state of being, and that eventually I will find my own fox hole and have a belief in their god ignited by the bombs of pain.
What they don’t realize is that I have been in my fox hole. I have been at lows of suffering, both physically and emotionally, and the thing that has sustained me is the fact that “I am in the universe and the universe is within me.”
The anger with a god who is unfair. The questioning of why an omnipotent power would allow such pain in the world. The uncertainty of whether I am living my life in a way that will cause a capricious and moody deity to reward me. These are not parts of my life. Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là.
Science is not my religion, but the understanding of science centers me. It graces me with a connection to a truly astounding universe. It is a universe that does not have direction, but it’s one that doesn’t need direction.
But just because the universe does not have a caring creator, that does not mean it doesn’t care. For I am a part of the universe. And I care. My brothers and sisters on this planet are part of the universe. And they care. And I am made from the same cloth as them. Not just the small subsection of humanity with which I choose to ally myself, but everyone. Every human who lives, who has lived and who will live. Every creature. Every plant. Every rock. Every star.
We are not an omnipotent force, but we are a force. And we are one that requires no justification for the evil that happens. Because we aren’t omnipotent. We have no superpowers to be able to see and prevent all evil, and this is not a failing. It is a fact of our interconnected and autonomous universe. There is evil. There has been evil. There will be evil.
But for every evil, there is good. For every choice that is made to cause pain and suffering, there is a choice that is made to help. For every pain caused by nature, there is a lesson learned. Our collective knowledge of how to prevent suffering increases. This does not mean that we are inevitably heading somewhere good, or inevitably heading anywhere. But it means we have the power to take pain and turn it into growth. The fact that we do so, even though we don’t have to is the greatest thing to me. For where there is no one telling you what to do, your choices become yours. Your accomplishments are that much greater because you decide to do them. Your small acts of kindness that much larger.
The universe has no meaning. But we do. You and I. Through our actions we create beauty and joy. We give the weak a hand and stand up to the strong. We don’t need to be told what to do or what is right, because we create the right.
We create the meaning in the universe. Because we are part of it. And it is part of us.