Sunday, January 26, 2014

The indifferent stars - More musings about the meaning of life

A friend just posted on Facebook about how stars had to die for us to exist at all.  This stimulated a question in me:  should we worship stars because they died so we can exist?  After all, at least one popular religion worships a deity-figure who supposedly died on their behalf.  A modern physical understanding is that all the atoms that give us existence were cooked up in stars and released by supernovae.  Star stuff come to life, as the late Carl Sagan described us, contemplating our place in the universe.  Apart from notions that what we call 'reality' is simply an illusion, there can be no argument that stars are real.  There's abundant evidence that the core of scientific understanding about stars is in fact a valid interpretation of our star observations.  Those born in the 20th century and after are the first humans to have any understanding of what the stars actually are and how they work.  Our sun is a star, of course, and given that there have been sun-worshippers, why not star-worshippers?

But if stars aren't conscious beings, so far as we can tell, then how could they serve as deities for us, even as they surely are in a very real sense our creators?  We surely were not the product of a conscious intent of stars.  The stars are simply matter and energy, going about their star 'lives' following the laws of physics.  As they are born, mature, and decay, matter and energy flow through them, the atoms now constituting a star aren't the same atoms that made up that star when it was born.

Allow me a diversion into personal experience.  Many years ago, I had a revelation about thunderstorms.  Thunderstorms are not objects, in the sense that they represent a fixed collection of atoms and energy.  Rather, they are processes.   Atoms and energy flow through that process, producing the observations we can make.  Ignoring all the microscale events (quantum fluctuations, etc.), an object  (or, thing) is predominately made up of the same matter from one moment to the next.  A wooden stick, or the water in a sealed container are examples of "things".  If we burn that stick or allow the water in a container free access to its surroundings, there will be changes to the matter and energy distributions.  The stick or the water will be transformed and subject to various processes by which the atoms and energy will be re-arranged, re-combined, and re-distributed.  The stick or water will no longer be in its original form, but the sum of its energy and matter will still exist (remember E = mc2 and the conservation of energy?).  A thunderstorm is a process and there's no clear boundary separating that storm from its environment - how does one draw a bag around a process by which atoms and energy flow through a process?  Where does that process begin and the environment end?

Curiously, we humans can be thought of in very similar terms; i.e., as processes.  The atoms and energy enabling everything we are and everything we can do change with time.  We're not made up of the same atoms and energy that made us up the day we were born, or even conceived.  Although we often think of ourselves as fixed entities, but our consciousness deceives us - it's part of a process that continues throughout our lives within us.  That process includes memories of earlier existence, obviously.  Only lately have we begun to plumb the depths of the connection between our consciousness and the matter that constitutes the framework of our consciousness, a lattice upon which our thoughts are operating.  We have much to learn about that but we do know that our consciousness doesn't survive the death of our bodies.  The existence of something else - call it a soul - that is claimed by some to live beyond our physical existence is unobserved and evidently unobservable, as well as unlikely.

Although stars have matter and energy flowing through them, like we do, I have no way of knowing whether or not stars have consciousness and can think of themselves as entities.  I rather doubt it.  In any case, our physical existence (and the existence of all living entities) is very similar to the existence of the nonliving part of the universe including the stars:  processes going about their business, necessarily obedient to the laws of the natural universe.  One could easily go from this vision of the universe to a sort of pantheism:  We are one with the universe, not man apart from it - a feeling that many have shared as they stared at the stars in the night sky.  Star worship would not be a completely absurd point of view, as the deaths of stars mark the beginnings of our creation in a real way, somewhat analogous to conception.  Science has  connected us inadvertently to something profound (as it often does):  we and the universe are one at a deep level.

The thing about the stars is that no one has a basis to argue that the stars had conscious intent for parts of their matter and energy to be transformed into human beings.  The stars, like all the rest of natural world insofar as we can tell, are absolutely indifferent about our existence.  The stars existed long before us, and will exist long after the human race is gone.  We could worship stars, but the stars can't reciprocate or benefit in any way from our worship.  Our lives have no meaning to the stars, any more than the lives of most particular stars have no meaning to us.  If a nearby star goes supernova and the Earth is bathed in deadly radiation, it will not be the stars punishing us for our transgressions.  Stars are neither good nor evil - but their existence was necessary for us to contemplate ourselves in the context of the universe.

Stars are far closer to us in spirit than some collection of late Bronze Age/early Iron Age mythology, for which zero tangible, credible evidence exists.  If someone feels they must worship something large and powerful, stars make more sense to me than the imaginings of ignorant barely-civilized people thousands of years ago.  If we're inclined to see a meaning for our existence, it's not at all obvious that if you reject Abrahamic religious mythology, there is any meaning to it whatsoever, outside of any meaning you might make up for yourself.  I'm fine with that.  What about you?

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