fellow travelers…

On or about Sept. 28, 1991, Dr. Carl Sagan and Tenzin Gyatso (བསྟན་འཛིན་རྒྱ་མཚོ།) met. I am neither a scientist nor a theologian but both of these men have my respect. The former is most broadly known for Cosmos: A Personal Voyage and the latter as the 14ᵗʰ Dalai Lama. The approaches to the subject of understanding the universe they each took are different but the mission are one and the same. The meeting was recorded, at least in part, and while the video quality is poor but the message is strong and can be found here.

Whether we have any formal training in the fields of science, religion, or philosophy or not, all of us share the goal of comprehension. What is the cosmos and why do we find ourselves in it? There are pragmatic, non-philosophical answers to pursuit of this knowledge.

In one of the final interviews of Dr. Sagan, he was asked to comment on the consequences of science and technology on human civilization. In part, this was his answer:

“And if we don’t understand it, and by ‘we’ I mean the general public, if it’s something that – ‘Oh. I’m not good at that. I don’t know anything about it.’ – then who’s making all of the decisions about science and technology that are going to determine what kind of future our children live in?”

Two years before his death, Dr. Sagan gave a lecture at Cornell University and included a philosophical reflection on an already well-known photograph taken of Earth by the Voyager 1 space probe. This is often called The Pale Blue Dot speech. It is truly worth a listen. Essential.

Just a phrase or two might offend some but, if so, it might be among those who have decided they can learn nothing from science or scientists. Nevertheless, the message and emotional tone of Dr. Sagan’s plea should be universally held – regardless of any other ideology at least in the opinion of this author. In very few words, relatively speaking, this stands as a summary of what being human means and could mean. From the moment I first heard them they also stood as something of a miracle.

To paraphrase a definition of miracles I once read, they’d be inexplicable events that inspire us to do more/better. Put this way – science, religion, and the individual quest for meaning with which we’re all involved might all include a miraculous experience along the way. With this two-part formula for a miracle each of us is able to define and find our own.

Earth and Song

As far as is known, the Dalai Lama hasn’t commented directly on this almost poetic prompt for humanity to acquire an improved perspective. However, the following opinion from him seems ample cause to presume the two scholars would be in agreement.

“Whether one is rich or poor, educated or illiterate, religious or nonbelieving, man or woman, black, white, or brown, we are all the same. Physically, emotionally, and mentally, we are all equal. We all share basic needs for food, shelter, safety, and love. We all aspire to happiness and we all shun suffering. Each of us has hopes, worries, fears, and dreams. Each of us wants the best for our family and loved ones. We all experience pain when we suffer loss and joy when we achieve what we seek. On this fundamental level, religion, ethnicity, culture, and language make no difference.”

As a miracle results – by this definition – from an inexplicable source, it is the effect on our motivation that matters more and whether and how we allow ourselves to be moved and motivated. I don’t see any conflict between religion (“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”) and science (“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”). I don’t see any reason why they can’t both have their share in the miraculous. It’s a big universe.

all together now…

handshakeThe desire for diversity to be respected is understandable and vital. Identity is not defined by region, race, or religion alone. We are, each of us, defined by our thoughts and our experience. This need not isolate us but it does mean we are each the ultimate minority – a minority-of-one.

“No man is an island entire of itself;…”
John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII (1623)

We require society and we all contribute to it as a state. Until 1956, the unofficial motto of the United States was E pluribus unum (meaning Out of many, one). Diversity was, at least tacitly, understood as a strength for 174 years. In the same breath, so was Unity. We’re having trouble with both these days. It wouldn’t be scientific to claim that the change of motto was the sole cause but it might mark the beginning of a decline that’s lasted 59 years and counting.

The sociopolitical climate of the United States has become too fertile a soil for the notion that liberty means absolute freedom from having to follow the dictates of any authority. A very recent example involves a Texas man who literally jumped to fatal encounter with an alligator. He is reported to have said, “[Expletive deleted] that alligator.” after seeing a sign that warned against swimming in Adams Bayou. It seems very likely that he was metaphorically saying, “[Expletive deleted] the Man.”

Signs like the one he ignored exist for a reason. But they’ve all become metaphors for why Liberty does not mean do anything you want, anywhere, at any time.

“Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.”
George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman (1903)

Liberty is a much more complicated concept than seems commonly supposed. It is meant as a process by which we establish and maintain freedom of the individual from interference or coercion. Intrinsic is a duty of respecting the equal rights of others and just laws expressive of just powers designed to safeguard the equal rights of all individuals. The mechanism of this specific freedom includes self-respect as a spiritual virtue, self-reliance as an economic virtue, and self-discipline as a sociopolitical virtue.

On Sept. 24, 2013, at 8:04 (EST), Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) read Dr. SeussGreen Eggs and Ham during a filibuster on the Senate floor. It would have been more constructive had he chosen to read both Chicken Little and the Little Red Hen; the sky may indeed be falling and we all have to pull together.

I am a minority. I am a Self. The same is true of you. A community is a union of interdependent Selves who work best as a whole when each is possessed of self-respect (the spring of respect for others), self-reliance (the well of an economy that benefits all), and self-discipline (the fount and foundation of most other civic and civil worth).

alliesOr, to use a more famous quote…