The Pale Blue Dot
Adrian Jones muses on a famous photo.
Most of us will recall the NASA photo of the Earth from space.
This photo was taken in 1990 from the Voyager spacecraft as it was leaving the solar system 6 billion kilometres from the earth.
The earth is the pale blue dot in the brown band, about halfway down. That's where we live and love and worry and hope, but we're really just a speck on a speck, aren't we. Until you think of the image in another way. Our little specks of brains can imagine and explore vast distances, can send a spacecraft beyond the solar system, ordering it to turn around and take a photo as it leaves, and can calculate the distance it travels. We have traced the universe's origins to the Big Bang, the moment of Singularity, and we have extended our knowledge of the expanse of the cosmos to unimaginable distances.
But we know there's more to existence than what we can measure and weigh. We know there's no real beginning or end, even if we conceive of a first cause, and that is an impossibility. We know that a cause must of necessity itself be an effect, even if the effect is just a decision (to create) caused by whatever gave rise to that decision.
We are not "small" just because we live on a pale blue dot in infinite space. We are huge, because we can grasp such vastness. Our "smallness" resides in the fact that existence for us is visibly and tangibly real, but at the same time is absurd. We cannot grasp the concept of actual infinity even if we can play with mathematical forms of it. Yet if there is no first cause, then existence must be necessary, and if necessary, must have no boundaries in time or space. There is no time and space in Infinity, just relations between temporal and spatial points within it. No wonder the Vedas conceived time and space as circular.
Infinity reduces all things to absolute meaninglessness, though we find meaning for ourselves in relativities. Zen and Mahayana Buddhism generally seek meaning in an absolute sense by acknowledging the essential unity of all things and denying duality in favour of absolute interdependence of always contingent entities. Furthermore, each entity lacks any essential substance; all forms are empty, though they arise from and give rise to other forms. Hence the saying: Form is emptiness; emptiness is form. All is process. Strangely, the radical reductionism that leads to acceptance of the essential emptiness of form and the never-ending play of inter-dependent origination through causation is very calming. Without being able to explain why - or even attempting to - an acknowledgement of and engagement with this view of reality seems to settle the mind and the emotions that otherwise cloud it, producing a clarity that was not there before.
Atheist spirituality as awe and wonder is very reasonable, but really only romanticism.
Seeing the beauty of snowdrops in isolation from the sometimes violent natural forces that give rise to weather conditions is rather selective. One could also reflect on another atheist, Schopenhauer's equally valid view of the natural world as one in which thousands of screaming animals are being torn apart. Perhaps it's better simply to acknowledge that existence just is what it is and things are the way they are. Human beings are equally capable of good and evil, of stupidity and genius, and sometimes it's hard to know which, in the long run, is which.