“Our time is burdened under the cumulative weight of successive debunkings of our conceits: We’re Johnny-come-latelies. We live in the cosmic boondocks. We emerged from microbes and muck. Apes are our cousins. Our thoughts and feelings are not fully under our own control. There may be much smarter and very different beings elsewhere. And on top of all this, we’re making a mess of our planet and becoming a danger to ourselves.”
Over the past few hundred years, science has proved an extraordinarily humbling practice for humanity. From our conceited belief that we were placed here on a globe in the center of the universe by some supreme being to the realization that we are in fact a result of a collection of physical processes, we have progressively realized our insignificance. From a divine purpose to purposelessness, we have seemingly lost our way by finding the truth. It is a scary proposition that we could be entirely alone and are portraits painted by the unfolding of physical events. I understand; it seems to strange that it could be true. If life is truly so pointless, then what is the worth in living? Before I address this issue to reinstate your place or rather replace it with something more justified, I want to address one of Sagan’s statements above.
What exactly does he mean when he says “Our thoughts and feelings are not fully under our own control,” and how is that statement justified? Unfortunately for humanity’s arrogance, I am not going to argue against him and instead I will go so far as to say nothing is under our control. We are as destined as a billiard ball.
The concept of fate has been tainted by supernatural nonsense for so long that it may be beyond repair. But I will, for the sake of our language, attempt to restore its meaning. Fate is the force that determines events and prohibits alternatives from occurring. This idea is rejected so harshly by so many people because they want to cling to the last bit of belief that we are important. If we have a choice and a say in our destiny, then maybe we do have a purpose. But unfortunately, we don’t have a say, we don’t have free will, and there is no empirically validated argument that we are not predetermined. We all were, from the beginning of time, beaten around on a map laid out by destiny. Reject this reality if you so desire. If you do, you were predetermined to do that. Everything happens for a reason but that reason isn’t beyond comprehension.
When you play pool, you expect the balls to be predictable and behave in a predictable manner. When you hit a ball on the right side, you expect it to head left at an equal angle deviating from the midpoint. When you hit a ball head on, you don’t expect it to leap into the air and fly away. If you did, you’d likely be admitted to a mental health ward. But that is exactly what nearly everyone on this planet does believe. They believe that those balls are perfectly capable of leaping into the air and flying away.
Atoms behave like billiard balls. There is no question that, without a metaphysical being, atoms do not defy the physical laws to which they are bound. At this point, true, we are incapable of accurately measuring that and most likely we always will be. But simply because we cannot predict what an atom will do does not mean that they do not behave deterministically. For similar reasons this is why meteorologists give us approximations of what temperature it will be or the path of a hurricane or the inches of rain rather than definite answers. Our inadequacy is summarized in the physical science, quantum mechanics, and the mathematical theory, Chaos Theory. Chaos theory is the principle that things are so dependent on every variable that any slight and potentially unobserved alteration to a scenario could lead to an entirely different outcome. However, Chaos theory acknowledges that if everything were to be held perfectly constant, the outcomes would be the same. Two entirely identical atoms in two perfectly identical settings would behave exactly the same. Determinism stills holds water. This isn’t philosophy though. It’s physics. When you atomize the human body, you understand that we are simply a collection of deterministic entities. Not one single bit of our being from the most basic constituent has the ability to choose.
This leads to a potentially daunting reality for us: we are simply a result of physical laws like those that guide a billiard ball into a pocket. Every decision you made or will make, every breath, every heartbeat, every girl or guy you ever dated or will date, every grade you ever received, every meal you ever ate, everything has at minimum been decided since an incident that occurred 13.8 billion years ago.
I know it is hard to believe this. It is hard to believe that we evolved from bacteria. It is hard to believe that we are on a fragile spaceship floating in a cosmic bath with no father to look out for us. But to deny any of these statements is to deny evidence. When someone chooses to deny evidence, they are abandoning everything that our judicial system and scientific method are based on. They are abandoning logic and reason and therefore abandoning any legitimacy to their beliefs or validity to their arguments. By abandoning and refuting evidence, you are implementing the same train of illogical thought that I could just as legitimately use to argue for the existence of unicorns and the flying spaghetti monster.
So how, rather than attacking the reality and assuming ignorance, do we assume knowledge and maintain happiness? I don’t have some brilliant answer for you. If you can’t handle the unpalatable nature of your situation, I guess you could create a dad in the sky. But instead, I recommend you truly give it a shot. I recommend that you attempt to understand your place here. I know I don’t have any cosmic purpose, so purpose isn’t what gets me excited every day. What gets me excited is the ability to observe. The ability to witness and interact and alter this environment puts me in awe. That it is all because of some microscopic collisions makes no difference to me. That is not to say that your beliefs on free will do not matter. That is not the case at all. Instead, I think they matter enormously. If we can all acknowledge our true place here, we’ll establish protection from other bullshit that someone may throw at us. In addition, we’ll be open to discovering what we really want to do. I understand that when, where, and how I will die and everything i between is already determined. If we were more complex than this universe then we would potentially be capable of predicting that. For better or worse, however, we’ll never perfectly predict the future because we are components of the equation. But that doesn’t change things for me. I’ll ride life like it’s a brand new roller coaster and watch it like it’s a trailer-less movie. It’ll be a blast. I guarantee you that because I’m not in denial of my reality, I’ll be able to attain much more than ignorance ever could.