Take a moment the next time you are out on a clear night to look up at the sky. All those little points of light, the whole immensity of the cosmos spread before your eyes. Spend a minute drinking it all in: the unthinkable vastness of it all, perhaps even infinite in extent. In times gone by people imagined it was the realm of the gods, that those twinkling dots were supernatural beings. But we know now that what we are seeing are planets, suns, nebulae, galaxies and all kinds of other entirely natural phenomena. All of it, no matter how distant, no matter how exotic or alien, made of the same basic stuff that makes us. “We are star stuff,” said astronomer Carl Sagan, and the stars are also us. The chemical compounds, atoms and elemental particles that combine to make plants, animals, people and everything else on Earth are the very same elements that make up stars and planets (and maybe – who knows – even other people) millions of light years away.
It’s a simple idea but one with some far-reaching consequences for our human-centric view of the world. The first is that we are not in any way special: we might like to think we are somehow different, somehow uniquely set apart from the natural world, but we are not. Each of us is a collection of particles just like everything else in the universe. We are part of nature, in no way external to it. There is no special “extra” ingredient needed to make a human being that is not found anywhere else.
Our existence, just like the existence of everything else in the universe, can be accounted for in purely natural terms. We are only just beginning to understand the complex processes at work in the universe, how galaxies and stars and planets form, while our knowledge of how life arose on our own planet is far, far from complete. But one thing at least is certain: these are all the results of natural, physical and evolutionary processes. These is no mysterious Grand Design; nor is any supernatural Designer required to create a sun, a planet or anything else, including us.
There is no such thing as the supernatural anyway. However far our great telescopes roam into space, however deeply our particle colliders delve into the inner workings of the atom, no non-physical, magical or otherwise supernatural beings appear. There are no leprechauns at the end of a rainbow, no angels dancing on the heads of pins, and no gods on the top of Mount Olympus. True, the inexplicable constantly surrounds us – what is Dark Matter? how can gravity and quantum theory be reconciled? what is the nature of Consciousness anyway? – but modern science does not therefore abandon its attempts to solve these problems. Quite the contrary, the inexplicable represents an exciting challenge for the physicist, cosmologist or neuroscientist. Underlying their excitement is the certainty that – since we know the universe to be everywhere composed of the same basic elements – all such questions are at least in principle explicable in purely natural terms. Perhaps the most exciting prospect of all for any scientist is to be the one who – like Copernicus, Newton or Einstein – is able to overturn current notions and come up with an entirely new explanation. But whatever that new explanation might be, it won’t be magic.
And one more little consequence: when you die, you die. The only part of you that is anywhere near immortal or indestructible are those atomistic elemental constituents, the ones forged in the heart of a star billions of years ago. Long after your body has decayed, these are destined to be recycled again and again – as a tree, an animal, one day perhaps, billions of years from now, as another person on a planet that is yet to exist. A humbling, oddly comforting thought that. But there is no supernatural extra part of you (your “immortal soul”) that is somehow magically transplanted to Nirvana, Valhalla, Heaven or Hell. You die when your body ceases to function. And that’s it. Game over.
So, from the basic premise of the universe being made of elemental particles it seems we can reach some pretty surprising conclusions about ourselves. One is that we are physical, mortal beings, part of the natural world and not created or magically set apart. What is the practical result of knowing this? Perhaps a closer connection to the world around us for a start, perhaps an enhanced sense that when we destroy the environment, when we kill other species and wipe out precious habitats, it really does affect us – it literally is the destruction of a part of ourselves. We are not divorced from nature, and what we do to the natural world is not somehow a separate thing from what we do to ourselves. That’s a powerful motive for cherishing and protecting our fragile world.
But (I think) arguably the most important consequence of all is this: we should act accordingly. Don’t treat this life as transitory, don’t wait for a better world in the afterlife, don’t do anything in the hope of rewards from supernatural beings, don’t refrain from doing anything for fear of being punished after death. This is it, this is all you get, use it wisely, be kind to each other, get the most out of it, enjoy it while it lasts.
A good place to begin is the very next time you are outside on a clear night … look up.
* * *
Epicurus: Letter to Herodotus
“The universe consists of bodies and void … Furthermore, the universe is without limit. For that which is limited has an outermost edge; the outermost edge must be seen against something else. As a result, the universe, having no outermost edge, has no limit; having no limit it would be boundless and unlimited. Also, the universe is boundless both in the number of bodies and the magnitude of the void … the number of atoms is infinite.”
“There are infinite worlds, both like and unlike this one. For the atoms being endless … are borne over a very great distance. For these atoms, out of which a world might be born and by which it might be made, have not been used up by the creation either of a single world or of a limited number, nor of however many worlds are alike or however many are different from these. Therefore, there is no impediment to the infinitude of worlds.”
“It is impossible to imagine the incorporeal as an independent existence except as the void. The void can neither act nor be acted upon, but only furnishes to bodies motion through it. For this reason, those who claim that the soul is incorporeal are talking rubbish.”
“We must not suppose that the motions of heavenly bodies … are the result of some being who arranges or has ordained them and at the same time enjoys every blessedness along with immortality … We must believe that it is as a result of the original inclusion of these physical masses in the birth of the world that this law governing their orbits was also ordained.”
“It is the task of natural science to work out in detail the causes of the most important facts; and that happiness in the knowledge about celestial phenomena lies in this, and in the understanding of the phenomena visible in the heavens, and of whatever else is proper to accurate knowledge for this end (being happiness).”
“The chief disturbance in the minds of humankind arises when they think that these heavenly bodies are blessed and immortal … and when they are constantly expecting and fearing some everlasting pain, as happens in myths. Or they fear the loss of sensation itself that comes with death, as if it were something that affected them directly. Human beings are put in this state not by correct judgement but by some irrational impulse. Therefore, since they cannot define or set a limit to the marvellous and strange, they suffer an equally or even more intense disturbance than if they had applied a rational judgement to these matters. But peace of mind means being released from all this.”