Written by Richard J. Severson
What is the Big Picture? Every human society that ever existed has wrestled with that question. As self-aware creatures who thrive upon the creation of meaningful projects, we need a Big Picture in order to make sense of our own existence. What is our place in the universe? In a nutshell, that’s what the Big Picture tells us. It gives us the necessary perspective to cope with the death of loved ones, and every other belittling circumstance of life.
Typically, we convey the Big Picture in grand narratives, or myths, about how we got here. In America, for instance, we tell the story of the revolutionary war as a pivotal event in the creation of a new nation. The book of Genesis opens with the memorable words, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
In the entire history of our own species, we only achieved universal agreement about the Big Picture twice.1 It is a startlingly rare and durable accomplishment. The first such grand synthesis, called animism, was achieved by our Stone Age ancestors. Everywhere they looked, early humans saw a world teeming with vitality. Unlike us, they had no conception of an inanimate universe. Life was the sole basis for their sense of reality, and, consequently, the greatest mystery to them was death. How is death possible in a world so animated by life? That was the puzzle they could not explain. Death was some sort of mistake, or lie: a transition to another form of life, not a bitter ending. Prehistoric funereal rites attest to this animistic worldview. The dead were honored with a burial that committed them to another life somewhere else, typically in the sky or beneath the earth where their spirits congregated. Food and other essentials to life were buried alongside the dead so that they would not go hungry or find themselves ill prepared for what awaited them. In an environment completely ruled by life, death had no place; it made no sense at all.
The second instance of universal agreement regarding the meaning of life and death (the Big Picture) is represented by the materialism of our scientific age. It is the antithesis of animism in practically every respect. Whereas our forebears observed nothing but life when they cast their gaze upon the horizon, we observe a vast universe of mostly empty space. The great mystery to us is not how death could infiltrate a system pervaded by bountiful life, but how life could have emerged on a planet composed of “dead” (inanimate) matter. We look around us and see only a fragile toehold of organic life on this blue planet in a vast galaxy of stars. To date, we have scant evidence of life existing anywhere else. For us, therefore, life is the puzzle that needs to be explained, not death. The spirits and invisible places of our animistic past have been largely banished from our experience. They don’t make sense in a cosmos that is mostly devoid of life. When we die, we find it natural that our bodies should decompose and return to their inanimate state. We survive death only in the sense that our trace elements might someday be recycled into the vegetation growing underfoot, to be ingested by foraging animals, and so on up the food chain.
Separating animism from scientific materialism in the mortal adventure of human existence is a series of dualisms that stretch back to the rise of ancient civilizations. In the Neolithic period, we began to view the earth as something less than a sacred canopy of living spirits. The barren ground was tilled and mined for our own purposes, something a true animist would be reluctant to do for fear of spiritual reprisal. That marked the beginning of dualism: the conviction that we live in a world that is only partly vested with living spirits. The sacred parts of the earth were gradually winnowed down as the requirements of civilization began to assert themselves across land and sea. Much as we have set apart dwindling samples of untrammeled wilderness in our national park systems, ancient people avoided the exploitation of special places because of their spiritual significance. Sometimes they built temples nearby so that visitors could seek the guidance of local spirits and gods. It marked the beginning of religious institutions as we understand them today.
Some version or other of Platonism eventually came to dominate Western dualisms in particular. In Plato’s vision, reality has two realms: a higher realm of perfect forms, and a lower realm of mere appearances. Earthly life belongs to the lower realm, with one crucial exception. The human soul was viewed as the only true remnant of the higher, eternal realm. Upon death, the soul is released from the “prison” of its ephemeral body so that it can return to its eternal origins. Only the human soul was able to retain the original sacredness that our distant ancestors had bestowed upon the entire earth. Most of the world’s religions—none of which existed in the Stone Age—subscribed to something akin to Platonic dualism.
Physics and chemistry were the first natural sciences to reject Platonism and stake a claim to the new grand synthesis of materialism. In the Platonic view, the form of things was more important than the materials they were made from. Plato’s theory of the forms exploited an instinctive mental bias that suggested the cause of something is greater and more perfect than its outcome. From perfect forms we get imperfect replicas; the original is always the best version. Perhaps that prejudice still survives with regard to creative works of art, otherwise it has been completely reversed by modern science. Rather than being eternal and essential, the “form” in which things appear is seen as an accidental byproduct of natural processes. From the humble building blocks of atoms and molecules, more complex objects—including planets and stars—are constructed. The building blocks are the most significant aspect of things, not their form. Nor is there an ideal world somewhere else that is more real than the material world we see around us. On the contrary, there is only one reality, one material universe, and it behaves according to the strict laws of nature. Atoms and molecules might be invisible, but they are not alive or capricious like the mysterious spirits and souls of our animistic past. Even unpredictable patterns of complex systems such as the weather are not endowed with the agency of a living organism.
Interestingly, the last natural science to subscribe to the new materialistic cosmology was biology. It was more difficult for biology to reject the old Platonic view because species actually appear to be unchangeable forms of nature, particularly from the perspective of reproduction: Parents serve as the form from which offspring are generated. Eventually, the theory of evolution demonstrated how the process of natural selection could slowly change one form of life into a different one. Species are not fixed forever, like Platonic forms. They are only temporary waystations in an ongoing process of vital change.
Biology might have been the last natural science to subscribe to materialism, but it is leading the way toward a more ecologically nuanced understanding of the scientific Big Picture that shares some similarities with animism. For one thing, there is no hard and fast distinction between life and “dead” matter. The evolution of life is intimately connected to the evolution of the 4,500 minerals that currently exist on earth.2 Their stories are intertwined, not separated by the artificial categories of our geology and biology. Nor is life an alien presence in the grandest narrative of them all, which we call the Big Bang.
Over a period of billions of years, untold numbers of stars expired in massive nuclear explosions that seeded the universe with the elements and other raw materials from which life emerged. We are just beginning to fathom the seamless immensity of existence, and the interdependency of life on earth with the starry heavens above. The Big Picture of scientific materialism is still evolving, and most of our favorite distinctions are proving to be ephemeral. That goes for the penchant for assuming that only human beings have souls, or feel pain, or deserve to exist. The earth itself is a living system that we must learn to honor and respect once again. The world might not be animated by spirits, as our distant ancestors believed, but it is animated by living systems that exceed the boundaries of our parochial understanding.
What is the Big Picture? It is simply this: we must learn to treasure every aspect of this living planet if we want to continue to exist.
- Hans Jonas made that argument in The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology (Harper and Row, 1966).
- Robert Hazen, The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, From Stardust to Living Planet (Viking, 2012).
Text © Richard J. Severson
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