James Trefil wrote a book called “Why Science?” I was disappointed by it. Trefil focused on the idea of scientific literacy, the idea that you have to know a little about Darwin, a little about Einstein, etc. to be a socially literate person. Fine. All well and good. Also not very inspiring. I was left uninspired.
Joseph Campbell (again) gave me so much better an answer. Of course he wasn’t talking directly about science. Instead he was talking about his subject, mythology. In so doing, he caught me by my soul – quite a trick for an atheist, I think.
In “The Power of Myth,” Bill Moyers asks Campbell:
“Why myths? Why should we care about myths? What do they have to do with my life?”
It’s the question I’ve heard a thousand times, whether spoken or not. It’s always there, waiting to jump out and show its ugly face. This is all well and good, what you’re showing me, but of what use is it? How can it make me richer, prettier, more popular? What good is it?
And Campbell blows it out of the water. Here’s what he says. Savor the words.
“Well, my first answer would be, well, go on, live your life, it’s a good life, you don’t need this. I don’t believe in being interested in subjects because they’re said to be important and interesting. I believe in being caught by it . . .”
How marvelous! How exactly what I wish I had said, what I always wanted to say, what I always meant to say. Then he goes on.
“But you may find, with a proper introduction, this subject will catch you.”
This is teaching.
Joseph Campbell’s “proper introduction” is what I want to do with my own living myth, the story revealed by science. It’s caught me. I want to help others be caught by it, too. Or even if they’re not, it matters little. I have to do what I do, I have to tell the tale, precisely because it has caught me. When you’re in love, you want to tell the world.
It would be silly to deny the usefulness of science in the world today. We are very much like the passengers on the Titanic. Without science we cannot survive on this tiny planet – most of us, anyway. Were science to disappear tomorrow the suffering and carnage that would befall the human race would dwarf even the most bloody and vile of the “holy” books’ worst descriptions.
Yet, like the overcrowded occupants of that tiny boat, ignorance of science can be deadly. Hitting an iceberg is bad. Having watertight compartments dependent upon the idea that you won’t sideswipe an iceberg is worse, particularly if your rudder turns you too slowly to avoid such an event. If we don’t get the message science gives us, we’re in cold water with no rescue in sight.
All that is well and true. It also will never work. Most people will go on living their lives not knowing what’s under the hood, how carbon dioxide heats the Earth, or how misuse of antibiotics leads to unfortunate microbial evolution. The world is a mess and it always has been, and people will keep living and dying surrounded by, and creating, the mess of the world. You don’t have to know anything about science to participate in the mess. Death is not much of a motivator – it’s just too common a thing.
But if you can get caught by science, it can change your life – yes, in all the material and practical ways, but also, mysteriously, in a deeply spiritual sense. You are a way for the universe to know itself. You are the consciousness of the planet. You speak for Earth. Your body is the result of billions of years of evolution, and your deepest ancestors as different from you as they are from a mushroom. You and the mushroom, in fact, are cousins, separated by a common ancestor only (at most) a couple billion years in the past.
We live on a tiny bit of rock circling a thermonuclear reaction almost a hundred million miles away. Below our feet the simmering remains of ancient stars keep the center of our planet so hot that to go only a few miles into this molten cauldron would bring certain death. Only a few miles above the surface the air becomes too thin to breathe and the pounding radiation from that faraway star would fry us in seconds. Yet within this thin envelope we have evolved, overcome enormous odds, and finally become aware enough to understand our perilous condition.
Yet in this thin envelope we are surrounded by life. The trees in the forests from which we came are marvelous machines for collecting sunlight and changing air into wood, for one reason and one reason only. The wood provides a protective scaffold allowing the trees to climb high above their neighbors, collect more sunlight, and, finally, send their own DNA code into a tiny seed that – if it is very, very lucky – will grow into yet another wood-making machine.
And all this activity, all this significance, plays out on the canvas of the universe, as much an event as a place. We think we know how it started, but we don’t really understand what started that start. We think we understand the laws of nature, but we don’t know why they are what they are, if they might ever change, or even if such a question has meaning.
We know that stars make carbon, and that the knife-edged process that creates carbon in stars seems utterly unlikely, and yet (given the laws of nature) completely inevitable. Did it have to be so? We don’t know, but we’d like to find out.
We are a young species on an ancient planet in an even more ancient Cosmos. We don’t know why we’re here, we don’t know where we are going, we don’t know even if such questions can have a meaning. But we, the collective consciousness of the planet, are trying to find out. That’s science. Did it catch you?