Thursday, March 10, 2011

More than the sum of the parts.

I was raised as a Catholic.  It didn't work out.  The parts I agree with are common sense about being a half-decent person, and the parts I don't I really don't.  One can't easily avoid Catholicism in Ireland though.  Today, for example, is Ash Wednesday.  And one minor thing I take issue with is the instruction to
Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.
I believe this is meant as an instruction in humility - don't go thinking you're so great, you will wither and die and vanish.  This is certainly true regardless of whether you're religious or not.  But what does that have to do with anything?  The fine details don't matter - meat and chemicals and a calcium-based frame are a little more complicated than 'dust', but it's still just stuff, so no big deal.

Whether I care about this or not depends really on whether "You" addresses the individual or all members of the race.  I will live for about sixty more years, then I will die and in a hundred years few people will know my name.  Less, if I don't have children.  If it's the race, though, that's just silly.  These bundles of stuff can think and feel and know.  They can fall in love and burn with hatred and get their hearts broken.  They can create purpose and meaning and gods.  They can care and they can pretend it matters and they can try and try and try.  And I don't understand how that is cheapened by the fact that we're stuff.  I really and truly don't.   I think that's quite an achievement for dust or chemicals or whatever you attribute life to.  I mightn't be much as an individual, but as a phenomenon, I'm pretty fantastic.

Darwin put it much more aptly and more achingly beautifully than I could:

There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having originally been breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone on cycling according to the fixed law of gravity, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Physics happens and geochemical processes happen and life happens.  Just how it goes.  Being everyday doesn't make any of them any less beautiful. 

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