The Scientific World View
The earth will digest us all. The worms and microbes will eat our bodies, and the rest will become dust. The worms and microbes will also pass away, be digested and become dust. The digested material will become the nutrients for new plants and animals. Other bits of dust and material will become sedimentary rock. Some will be washed out to the ocean and dissolved into its basic chemicals. Some will be sucked under the earth and melt. Some will remain on the surface as rock for billions of years. The future will be built on our remains, but in unrecognizable form.
In that time the courses of rivers will have changed. Mountains will have disappeared and new ones emerged. Ice will have carved new valleys and retreated. New ecosystems will arise on large continental shelves where the oceans have retreated, and the oceans will swallow them again. Deserts and steppes will overtake what is now forest and the forests will return. But not the same forests, because most of the old species have disappeared. It will be a forest of new plants and animals. The continents themselves will have moved. Perhaps even the seasons will change, as the earth wobbles on its axis. Perhaps the chemical composition of the atmosphere and oceans will entirely change. All of those things that seem so large and important and filled with tradition–Stonehenge, the golden coffins of pharaohs, Beijing, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the venerable lineages of zen masters, popes and presidents–will have long disappeared with barely a trace.
But some traces will persist: ruins, rubble, remains. It will become buried within the shifting physical world, part of the infrastructure. Some parts of our physical bodies may persist in almost recognizable form. By some chance conditions of time, place and event, some bones and teeth will be caught in the rocks, undergoing a chemical change that makes them last longer. Even a few skins and hairs will be preserved under ideal circumstances. Some of the worms and microbes that have eaten us may even leave their traces in the sediments. But some pollen, seeds and shells are most likely to have such an immortal fate. Or perhaps some new flora or fauna that we can not yet imagine? We are but part of a process of eternal digestion and transformation—a process that not even the earth, the sun, and probably the universe will escape.
And this is only from the perspective of our mundane, mid-level scales of time and space. With current technology will probably never travel to the nearest star. Yet our sun is one of just one of tens of billions of stars in an insignificant corner of one of the tens of billions of galaxies in the universe—a vastness we can barely conceive. And that pales next to the vastness within our own bodies, which contains at least a billion billion billion atoms, and even more subatomic particles that make up those atoms. And, like the universe, our body is still primarily made up of unused space despite the teeming population within.
The familiar patterns of time and space no longer hold at these more distant scales. Time speeds and slows. Extra dimensions may be curled into little balls. Matter can only be defined by its probability of being somewhere. And even these patterns start to change when matter and energy are packed ever more densely. And all of these patterns and scales are also part of us. For me, this pulsating vastness is the only vision that even comes close to realizing something I would want to call “spiritual” or “mystical.”
How should we live in light of this vision? This is where the scientific worldview that took us out to infinity suddenly turns face and fails us (just like all the other institutionalized faiths). It fills us with fears about climate change, radiation, aging, epidemics, cyberterrorism, toxic chemicals and proper development paths. It yanks us violently out the eternal and into the claustrophobic confines of our visible bodies and trivial lifetimes. And the more we are filled with fear that the bodies will decay and our environments change, the more we huddle within those confines in a futile attempt to deny the eternal process of digestion and the vast spaces beyond.
At most the scientific worldview asks us to think over the span of a few generations in a desperate attempt to preserve the world as we know now it. More rarely, it talks about the preservation of a species, as if a species could possibly survive the constant digestion and evolutionary process. The broader calls to save the earth can hardly be taken seriously, given that the long-term history of the earth shows that it is one of the greatest threats to the existence of ourselves and our species. Our survival and destruction has barely the significance of a rash on the surface of the earth. Instead of trying to expand us out into this great, mystical universe, it circles the wagons in a futile attempt to protect us from the eternal digestion.
The scientific worldview draws our attention to our consciousness, its mystery, and the amazing practical things we have done with it. But science refuses to take consciousness out with it on its explorations of the farther reaches. Instead, it tries to ground our consciousness in the limited material of our brain. This is the same materialism that has been so successful in building bridges and airplanes, but quickly appears as a localized process when we explore the farther reaches where matter takes on so many unforeseen forms. As a result, consciousness remains totally opaque to scientific understanding (which is to say there is nothing close to consensus, only wild speculation). But I suppose it can not be otherwise. It would be so much harder to bind ourselves to our claustrophobic, short range fears if we knew that our consciousness transcended that and was part of the mystic fabric of the universe.