Biochemical Soul Musings on Nature, Science, Evolution, Biology, and Education

5Aug/08Off

NPR This I Believe: Hope in the Black Void of the Unknowable

Update: This essay can now be found on the NPR "This I Believe" website.

Recently, I wrote an essay for This I Believe, an NPR radio series that asks Americans to answer this simple question. My essay has not yet been reviewed; however I doubt my chances of getting selected on the radio program. It is a bit too impersonal, too “what I don’t believe,” and not nearly as eloquent as many of the best essays (for the absolute best – see below mine). My essay is actually a shorter and reworked version of another essay I wrote on the same subject.

Note: If you find that you believe in something strongly and have a story to tell around that belief, I highly recommend you submit your own essay to NPR This I Believe.

This I Believe: Hope in the Black Void of the Unknowable

As a scientist studying the development of the brain and as a student of all scientific knowledge, I find it highly probable that all life and human experience is devoid of inherent meaning or purpose. The Universe seems nothing more than an enormous cosmic accident – an accident that will be corrected in due course as the Universe and its inhabitants are eventually destroyed in an equally pointless cataclysm. At least this is the view of my Universe as seen through the eyes of empiricism, the only eyes through which I know how to look. My morals, my accomplishments, my feelings and thoughts, and my connections to others and to the world in which I live are apparently no more than blips of energy in an inconsequential cosmic blink. However, underlying all of my knowledge and all of science I hold one major faith, one prime assumption. This is the assumption that my senses and experiences are relating real information about reality. That I am not merely in “The Matrix.” There is simply no philosophical workaround to this argument – it is impossible for me to absolutely know anything.

Thus, I cannot conclude anything definitively about my ultimate creator. I cannot absolutely believe in anything. I can only think from within the pragmatic view of science – that my senses work and my experiences along with the collected experiences of my brethren explain my reality better than any other means of purported knowledge. I can only decide to educate my future children about where we as a species come from, though I cannot guess where we may be going. I must make them understand that our science, our knowledge, is the closest thing to an explanation of our Universe we will likely ever have. However, just as importantly, I must admit where this knowledge can never reach, and allow that place to be inhabited with hope – a hope that maybe, just maybe, in that dark void of unknowability lies a meaning to my existence, a meaning I can never know or comprehend.

I must make them understand that although the fables passed down from our ancestors are no longer useful as a defining belief, the true possibilities of our meaning and our worth may be infinitely larger than I ever imagined. I believe that if we take into consideration the grandness of nature, the mind-boggling array of galaxies in our Universe, and the insanely complex biology and chemistry within ourselves, the unknowable creation of our Universe will seem only that much bigger and infinitely more awe-inspiring. I have seen but a glimpse of this awe in the intricate networks of neurons speaking to each other in unintelligible chemical languages, and I can almost fathom an entity setting it all in motion with a mere equation.

Almost.

As the philosopher Karl Popper once said, “Our knowledge can only be finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite.” I believe that it is in this infinite ignorance where my only hope for greater cosmic meaning may lie.

The Best "This I Believe" Essay Ever:
NPR This I Believe: I Am Evolution

by Holly Dunsworth, a physical anthropologist at Penn State.

I believe evolution. It's easy. It's my life. I'm a paleoanthropologist. I study fossils of humans, apes and monkeys, and I teach college students about their place in nature.

Of course I believe evolution.

But that is different from believing in evolution.

To believe in something takes faith, trust, effort, strength. I need none of these things to believe evolution. It just is. My health is better because of medical research based on evolution. My genetic code is practically the same as a chimpanzee's. My bipedal feet walk on an earth full of fossil missing links. And when my feet tire, those fossils fuel my car.

To believe in something also implies hope. Hope of happiness, reward, forgiveness, eternal life. There is no hope wrapped up in my belief. Unless you count the hope that one day I'll discover the most beautifully complete fossil human skeleton ever found, with a label attached saying exactly what species it belonged to, what food it ate, how much it hunted, if it could speak, if it could laugh, if it could love and if it could throw a curveball. But this fantasy is not why I believe evolution — as if evolution is something I hope comes true.

After all the backyard bone collecting I did as a child, I managed to carve out a career where I get to ask the ultimate question on a daily basis: "Where did I come from and how?"

If our beliefs are important enough, we live our lives in service to them. That's how I feel about evolution. My role as a female Homo sapiens is to return each summer to Kenya, dig up fossils, and piece together our evolutionary history. Scanning the ground for weeks, hoping to find a single molar, or gouging out the side of a hill, one bucket of dirt at a time, I'm always in search of answers to questions shared by the whole human species. The experience deepens my understanding not just about what drives my life, but all our lives, where we came from. And the deeper I go, the more I understand that everything is connected. A bullfrog to a gorilla, a hummingbird to me, to you.

My belief is not immutable. It is constantly evolving with accumulating evidence, new knowledge and breakthrough discoveries. For example, within my lifetime, our history has expanded from being rooted 3 million years ago with the famous Lucy skeleton, to actually beginning over 6 million years ago with a cranium from Chad. The metamorphic nature of my belief is not at all like a traditional religious one; it's more like seeing is believing.

So I believe evolution.

I feel it. I breathe it. I listen to evolution, I observe it and I do evolution. I write, study, analyze, scrutinize and collect evolution. I am evolution.

Amazing, no? If you enjoyed this beautiful and poignant essay, I highly recommend you read the interview with Holly Dunsworth on the excellent Forms Most Beautiful blog (one of my favorite blogs on the internets).

10Jul/03Off

Alfonso and the Sandwich-Making Robin

I just had an immensely weird and mildly amusing experience, and I thought I'd share it.

I was just outside the lab sitting under this short tree. I was kneeling down leaning against the tree. There was a chipmunk (Alfonzo – I’ve seen him about once a day for two years) digging for nuts and whatnot about 15 feet away. All of a sudden a robin flew down about five feet away, and while cautiously watching me proceeded to catch an earthworm from the mulch around the tree. There was a large crust of bread about ten feet away that had been there all morning (between the bird and the chipmunk) and the Robin flew straight to it and, I shit you not, he began making an earthworm and bread-crust sandwich. Actually, it was more like a salad. But he would break up the bread, then tear the worm, then pick up a piece of the worm with a piece of the bread and eat it. I was just sitting their mouth agape at this freaking bird reinventing the sandwich.
It was disturbing I tell you.

But there is more.

About five seconds later Alfonzo the chipmunk stands on his hind legs (as they are wont to do) and looks directly at me. He then runs to about 2 feet away from me, stops and looks at me again. I tried to be relatively still to see how close he would come (I assumed he didn't realize I was there). After staring at me a few seconds he walks up to my foot (keep in mind I am kneeling close to the ground) and he puts his front paws on my shoe, flattens his body to the ground, looks up at me, and begins waving his tail in this methodic left-right fashion while staring right at my face. He does this for about five seconds before slowly sauntering off to look for more nuts. I swear to god he was trying to tell me something (probably something like "hey you - I know you", or "why the hell are you always hangin’ round my crib?" or maybe he was saying "damn you're one large fine-ass specimen of a man - for a chipmunk"). He could have been saying that - really - maybe he's retarded and doesn't know the difference.

I'm still not sure if all this really happened or I'm just going insane. Or maybe God is just screwing with me. It would be a pretty funny joke. I'd be doin' all sorts of crazy shit like that if I were God.

Imagine walking around a corner to find three raccoons playing jump rope.

Anyway, I hope you've enjoyed my tale.