â€œWe are a way for the universe to know itself.â€ â€“ Carl Sagan
This quote is perhaps one of the most important that I have ever heard. I had heard it many times and even understood it as a boy but, not until the past few years did I truly come to comprehend what it meant.
Hidden in this brief line of eloquence was a profound observation of our universe that encompassed everything from astrophysics to what it means to be human.
A Popular View
I am an atheist. Depending on the socio-cultural circles that you move in, you may not care for that statement very much or, you may be pleased to hear it. It does not define me entirely as a person but, it is a very important aspect of who I am and how I approach the world. When I say that I am an atheist, a popular image of me is immediately cast in the minds of many people; that of a cynical, mean-spirited and, immoral science zealot. I was recently told by a family friend that it is not possible to be a skeptical person and maintain a healthy imagination because, someone who is constantly questioning and looking for empirical evidence of everything will miss the loftier human angles of the question.
Essentially the sentiment was that if I am not willing to take things at face value then I will never understand the warmth, wonder and, magic of the human experience. I could launch into a tirade here about how this represents a false dichotomy and demonstrate that the two are not mutually exclusive but, I feel that my point may be better served by presenting my position in a deeper, warmer and, more human manner.
In the Beginning
Our universe is infinitely beautiful in its intricacies. It exists as an ever changing, ever deepening well of information for us. On the surface, it functions according to natural laws that describe how its contents exist and interact with each other. These laws, in an intriguing mirror of the things that they describe, seem to break down into infinite minutia.
After the ‘Big Bang’ these laws would eventually produce great, glowing objects known to us as stars. At the heart of these stars, hydrogen atoms would fuse together and create new atoms of carbon, oxygen and, helium as well as all other heavy elements in the universe. By the function of the natural laws that governed them, these stars would eventually run out of fuel, swell to a great size and explode in what truly must be the most beautiful of sights.
They would cast the fruits of their grand labor into the depths of the void. Across the universe, some of these atoms would meet and coalesce due to their mass. Â Over the millennia these atoms would form larger objects with more mass and more pull; swirling together in a chaotic, violent and, beautiful dance.
Over time these object would become the planets that orbit the multitude stars of our universe. By the natural laws some would settle into a comfortable and delicate orbit around a warm and welcoming star. Over time some of these atoms, in the presence of others, on a fledgling planet would begin to form molecules. Due to the laws of chemistry, these molecules, under the right conditions, would begin to recreate themselves from the matter around them.
These new molecules would eventually form nuclei and become the first cells, which would then divide themselves and form small multi-cellular organisms.
The universe has just created life.
This was not predestined or made to occur. It simply happened as a natural function of the universeâ€™s existence. These organisms would reproduce and evolve; improving upon themselves with each successive generation. The combined forces of the natural laws would blindly select the best of these offspring to survive and reproduce, ensuring that they would be able to sustain and grow.
Their dead would nourish the planet, providing their stored energies to other organisms. These organisms would soon evolve further and differentiate, creating by their very existence, new laws that would govern themselves. Some would be predators, feeding off of each other and, some would be prey, feeding off of vegetative life; all in a fragile balance of power. The strongest of these would, by their nature and the delicate hand of natural selection, reproduce and evolve.
Some would rise above others in the chain of life and begin to evolve more rapidly. They would soon develop the ability to consider and understand. The eyes and hands that they evolved would feed them information about the nature of their existence. As they would gain more information they would gain more understanding.
The universe has just learned to see and feel.
It has become sentient due to the very nature of its existence. It has become able to consider itself and to understand itself; able to marvel at itselfâ€¦ through us. We are literally born of the stars that were themselves born of the moment in time when all matter began to exist and, it is very probable that each of us contains at least one atom that was created during the birth of the universe.
I am an atheist and a skeptic. I do not put stock in fantastical concepts of magical beings that created all we see. I believe in verifiable evidence and the natural laws of our universe. This does not make me dispassionate. I look at the reality of our universe and my heart swells to imagine it. I can think of no higher place, no greater knowledge, than knowing that I am a child of the stars and a way for our universe to look upon itself and weep with joy at its own magnificence.