Tuesday, April 25, 2006
PRECOGNITION OF SPECIES DEATH
Ah, Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind.
The human precognition of death has long had a philosophical-religious counterpart in an awareness of the death of material creation. This came with the same flourish announced by the elevation of a tribal chariot-god, Yahweh, to King over all other gods, King of the Universe itself, Creator-God who had the power to end what He had begun. The Creator ex nihilo brought with Him the escathon.
It took twentieth-century scientific cosmology to flesh this out in terms of linear expectation. The same calculations that have given us astounding accuracy in assessing the age of the universe, 14.5 billion years, with radio telescopes penetrating back now under the first billion years since its birth in the Big Bang, predict the coming end of the universe in several billion years. Long before that, the earth and our local solar system will die with the heat-death of our sun.
I remember my alarm a few years ago when I misremembered the projected death of the earth as half a billion years. "That's too soon," I thought. I was relieved when I reread the book chapter, correcting the date to 4.5 billion years. Death will certainly come, to us and to the earth herself, but we want it to wait as long as possible. The immediacy of the one century that Lovelock gives our species is much scarier (see "Riding the Fearsome Wave of Now", my last post). I look at my new grandson and start calculating the generations left, no longer numberless as the sands, but scant indeed. Now the Damoclean sword of personal death expands to family death, tribal death, national and multinational death, species death. Due to our powers of self-reflection, we are the first species not only to face personal death, but the death of our material form, homo sapiens sapiens.
Material form I say, contemplating Plato's theory of Forms, echoed in the Book of John with Jesus the Word containing the form of man, Adam/Jesus. The more practical Aristotle would say that once extinct, our form is essentially dead. Even Aristotle's famous acorn no longer contains the oak if there is no suitable soil to plant it in. No soil for the oak, no viable earth for the seed of man, the homunculus. No functioning earth-system, no entelechy. Extinct, no form.
Still, I have hope. My hope comes not from aspirations of a transcendent heaven, but from recognizing that Gaia will outlast us. But Gaia, like the rest of material creation, has a finite life, bounded by the limits that Western science's powerful model places upon a universe whose enormous energies are subject to the second law of thermodynamics, the theory of entropy which sentences the whole magnificent dance to ultimate heat-death. Western physics has been superb at taking us back to the Big Bang as point of origin for our universe. But observing its methodical rules, its priests go on to say that this moment, which our radio telescopes are zeroing in upon, was the birth of everything: time and space, as well as the mysterious hidden elusive Driver of the whole dance. Everything is chance. The universe suddenly appeared out of nowhere, is going through it's life cycle and will die. As the Budweiser commercial has it, "You only go 'round once," the trademark of Yahwist, western cosmology.
But Gaian hope, which gives me a huge context to imagine beyond the limits of what our species has wrought, is not the boundary of my hope. For me the mysterious power that created this universe preceded it and will outlast it. And it has the power to do so again and again. The Hindu sage Aurobindo, who lived during the same era in which the basic cosmology of western science was being revolutionized by Einstein, Planck, and Heisenberg, explained the birth and death of countless universes in terms of a divine cycle of introversion and extroversion. During the introverted stage, the divine sinks into its own essential nature, and the universe rests as potential form. During the extroverted stage, e.g. the Big Bang and its aftermath, it displays itself in a magisterial panoply of material forms in evolutionary flux. Aurobindo merely restates what ancient Hindu sages had intuited, but he does it with an elegance that matches the theorems simultaneously being produced in the West (See the Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo). The point of Hindu cosmology, given to us by the same culture which first conceptualized zero and the idea of infinity, is that divine creation is not constrained by the limits that Western science carries like an escathalogical seed, a terminator meme within its elegant, but severely bounded theories.
As the wave swollen by feverish carbon burning begins to break upon us, ending a magnificent geological era in which our species arose and upon which all our earthly hopes rest, my Gaian hope is for complex life to continue to evolve in earth's remaining time. We know that the earth will outlast us and endure until her time, too, ripens. But it took a universe and time to evolve the magnificent Cenozoic. What kind of progeny will an aging earth have who has been blasted by a thankless, reckless child? My hope centers upon Gaia, and if I am faithful to what I know, living with integrity, then I will live as if to sustain the fabric of the Cenozoic, even as it tatters and collapses.
Beyond this field of dharma, Kali Yuga, the end-time of Earth's Cenozoic era, my deepest hope and faith are in the unquenchable and infinite possibilities of the Source of this universe, which even now prepares its rest from the battlefield of cosmic striving. Entropy is a universal law, yet it is matched by limitless Creation, implicit in the very fabric of possibility, even beyond space-time.
But if it is humans that you love, and other mammals, and the wildflowers of spring, and the fishes and frogs, and the birds and magnificent forest remnants of this earthly time, then look upon those faces and forms you love best, with the gaze of a dying man hungry for every moment of consciousness, and commit them to soul-memory. And if the soul transmigrates not only between lives in this bounded universe, but between universes, perduring through the long sleep of Brahma in between, then she will remember, however inchoate the form in the consciousness of another being totally unlike us, and our images will be everlasting in a way the seed of our species can never be.
Rest well, oh Brahma. May your great works continue to prosper, in universe after universe. And you, my loves, my children and grandchildren, live the best life you can, as if this world would always remain in pristine, balanced perfection. As the itinerant rabbi in Palestine said 2000 years ago, the Father's Kingdom spreads out upon the earth, if we would only see.
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