Saturday, February 10, 2007


Richard Dawkins presents an interesting perspective on life: out of the possible set of genetic and environmental permutations of humanity, more numerous than the atoms in the universe, you got to live. You won the ultimate lottery. You're here. And you, and all the people who have lived or will live, are but a handful of sand taken from a beach that stretches to the horizon in both directions.

Not only that, but if you're reading this, you are probably a well-educated citizen of a first world country living in a time when the benefits of science have yielded the highest life expectancy, highest level of understanding, and the highest standard of living in human history. Furthermore, we enjoy a political system which provides us with the greatest freedom of expression and enterprise, and the greatest freedom from oppression and exploitation, than have ever been enjoyed by any society in human history.

Even if you are lower middle class, you live better than Kings did only two hundred years ago. Yes, this has been quantitatively demonstrated, by measuring the labour equivalent of our household appliances, economic efficiency, and technical competance. You have at your beck and call the equivalent of dozens of servants, provided in the form of mechanical and commercial assistance, public infrastructure, and sheer technical and scientific competence, in your daily life. Chances are that a century or two ago, you would have been dead by now, or you would have lived in abject poverty or under political, economic, or physical duress. Millions have worked, and stuggled, and fought, and even died, for the priveleges that you now enjoy.

We are not done. You live on a planet ideally suited to the sustainment of life, a pale blue speck which forms the basis for the very possibility of all that you take for granted. So far as we now know, it is the only one of its kind. Statistically, we expect that there may be others, but we have never found one, and that should tell you how rare this is. It is possible that there are other environmental configurations which sustain an alternate form of life, but we have yet to find one. The SETI project has not yet found a signal out there that would indicate intelligent life. So far as we know, we're it. And that means that every breath we take is incredibly improbable. In a universe this large, where the only survivable environment that we know of is the one we live in, we find that, far from being ideally suited for the occurrence of life, our universe is overwhelmingly hostile to life. In all but a vanishingly small domain of our universe, we would be dead in thirty seconds or less.

Mercy is breathing. Anyone who takes a breath for granted knows nothing about the reality of this universe. Anyone who takes a breath for granted takes life for granted. To understand the universe that we live in is to be grateful for each breath, and to make each exhalation an Alleluia. If you do not take delight merely in being alive, you are wasting your time on nonsense. And yet, none of this in any way assumes the existence of the divine.

If one assumes that all of this was created for us, that God has loaded the dice specifically for our purposes, that life was inevitable from the outset, than all that we know is to be taken for granted, and we are justified in asking "Why not more?" If God guarantees life, and caters to the individual needs of each believer, then anything falling short of that promise is a disappointment. But to understand our very improbability, the single chance in trillions to the power of trillions that each moment of our existence represents, is to revel in even our most trivial delights as a gift beyond all value.

Yet daily life is taken for granted, for believers expect an eternity to eclipse their lives in the here and now. Indeed, some expect an entirely new world to be built for them to replace this one--the miraculous improbability of this world is simply not enough for them. In service to that imagined eternity, many will turn this life into a living hell, a pinched pursuit of spleen-driven persecution and destruction. What, I wonder, would be enough? Nothing, I suspect. For the one thing that we could never escape in eternity is ourselves--that same ingrateful self which dismisses the delights of the moment in favour of the imagined bliss of eternity. In the end, even eternity would be a dreary burden for these people. Colloquial expression encourages me to say 'Thank God for death and the loss of the self', but God is not necessary for this gift, nor is this loss of self consistent with religious mythology. We can only be grateful that death does indeed bring an end to such madness.