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Naturalistic meaning and purpose, by Jon Cleland Host

November 27, 2011
Stellar Quake

A new age is dawning in which the universe, through us, has learned to reason and plan.

This week’s piece is special in a couple of ways.  First, Jon is the moderator of the yahoo group Naturalistic Paganism, which may be the community most closely resembling our own.  Second, it’s Thanksgiving weekend for Americans (Canadians had it last month), and Jon shows us what a marvelous universe we have to appreciate.

Understanding the natural world and how we got here from a naturalistic perspective gives my life incredible meaning and purpose.  We are literally made of stars – of stardust, forged in cosmic furnaces, assembled into nanotechnology far beyond what humans can make today!

Amazing ancestors

I marvel at my family tree, which goes back though innumerable life forms, through amazing stories of survival, hope, courage, and parental love. It includes the tiny mammal, surviving through the freezing, year-long darkness after the asteroid impact by eating, and likely hiding in, a frozen dinosaur carcass. It includes the first mother to produce milk, and the first blurry view through a newly evolved eye.

If a depressed child suddenly discovered that she was descended from a long line of Nobel prizewinners, think of how her outlook and actions would instantly change! In the same way, I’ve grown from a long line of survivors – noble creatures of every sort, who conquered deadly challenges billions of times over. I stand on a mountain of love and success, and without winning a cosmic lottery against unbelievable odds, I wouldn’t be here. What other outlook could possibly give my life more meaning?

Dawn of a new age

Through fits and starts, the universe has created in ever more wonderful ways, and it will probably lead to a just and sustainable world. It could happen after centuries of environmental disasters, bloody wars, and untold suffering, or it could happen sooner, through our efforts to build a loving, rational culture focused on this world. It’s up to us to choose when we’ll get there.

We stand at the dawn of a new age, the first time we know of when the universe has become able to reason and plan.

Naturalistic purpose

My family, your family, and all life on earth will live with the consequences tomorrow of the decisions we make today. Seeing my kids, or any kids, reminds me of that.

What could be a greater purpose, and a greater reason to take control of one’s life? What could possibly be a stronger moral basis for ethical behavior – a clearer reason to love my neighbor as myself?

Understanding our incredible universe in a naturalistic way makes my ancestors and our future world sources of meaning and purpose.

The author

Jon Cleland Host

Jon Cleland Host

Dr. Jon Cleland Host is a scientist who earned his PhD in materials science at Northwestern University & has conducted research at Hemlock Semiconductor and Dow Corning since 1997.  He holds eight patents and has authored over three dozen internal scientific papers and eleven papers for peer-reviewed scientific journals, including the journal Nature.  He has taught classes on biology, math, chemistry, physics and general science at Delta College and Saginaw Valley State University.  Jon grew up near Pontiac, and has been building a reality-based spirituality for over 30 years, first as a Catholic and now as a Unitarian Universalist, including collaborating with Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow to spread the awe and wonder of the Great Story of our Universe (see www.thegreatstory.org, and the blog at evolutionarytimes.org).  Jon and his wife have four sons, whom they embrace within a Universe-centered, Pagan, family spirituality.  He currently moderates the yahoo group Naturalistic Paganism.
14 Comments leave one →
  1. Joakim Waern permalink
    November 27, 2011 10:19 am

    A gut reaction.

    I find this piece a bit naive in the same way I Dowd/Barlow and some other UU preachers naive. There is something that is lost in this cosmological view of life. It’s too abstract, especially when compared to the complexities of the human life and how it is experienced in daily life. In one way the Great Story is (of course) beautiful and yes, I too stand in awe when contemplating the universe and the story of life evolving. But making evolution into some kind of naive success story I just cannot swallow. And Jon, your example of the depressed kid discovering her Nobel ancestors, in what way do you think “her outlook and actions would instantly change!”? I guess you mean in a positive way, as if this discovery suddenly will make her another person free from her depression. From my periods of depressions I’ve experienced another result when confronted with positive examples: The depression increases as I feel I cannot live up to those fantastic ancestors nor this grand and beautiful universe.

    • November 27, 2011 10:31 pm

      Joakim, I think that may be selling the big history story short. For me, the marvel is to see an essential continuity flowing throughout the universe, from the simplest forms of matter following the big bag to the most complex organisms of today, including myself. That the universe and the self are one, in this sense at least, is a kind of communion.

    • Jonathan Blake permalink
      November 28, 2011 12:02 pm

      It seems that every human worldview includes a creation story that puts humanity into context. This may not be enough to make us feel that our lives are meaningful. It may actually do the opposite by convincing us that our lives are the product of chance. But it sets the table, tells us where we came from. Within that framework, we go on to create our meaning.

      • Joakim Waern permalink
        December 3, 2011 12:01 pm

        My comment was a bit harsh, calling Jon’s post ‘naive’, I have to admit that. What I should had written instead was:

        Even if the Great Story of the Universe is true I cannot see how it gives my life any meaning. It figures as a backdrop in my life as something I contemplate while watching the stars or while listening to the ice singing, but in my daily life, it gives me no meaning.

        When I wake up to yet another day of unemployment, growing a little bit fatter, feeling a little bit more unnecessary in this society, the Great Story doesn’t help me out. On the contrary I would say as it shows my insignificance in a story that doesn’t even have an end.

        What gives me meaning are things on a much lower scale: Watching my kids play together, reading books, listening to music, playing games and sharing laughter with my friends, making love to my wife, doing something I didn’t believe I could and so on. What glues all these examples together are other human beings – i.e. community. Even my last example proves this point as it is when sharing the happiness that it becomes meaningful.

        Sean Penn’s movie “Into the Wild” sums this up in a beautiful way.

        I don’t write this to prove you’re Jon is wrong, not at all. I’m just sharing my thoughts and feelings on this topic.

        • December 3, 2011 2:21 pm

          That makes sense. For me it is a little different, as I like to look at it more like a never ending story, where you can decide what happens next, where you have purpose in being part of creating the future, this next chapter in the Great Story. :)

        • December 4, 2011 7:38 am

          Understandable. I don’t know of many science writers yet today that are effectively portraying the continuity from cosmic history to daily life. But when they do, that is what is truly mind-blowing for me – that there *is* all this continuity between what happens in the remotest regions of time and space and what is going on at this very moment right in front of me as my experience.

          Loyal Rue is one writer (philosopher) who does this fairly well. I’m reading his Religion Is Not About God right now. Even though his subject is religion, he takes a huge chunk of the book to embed it concretely within natural systems, so that no division is felt. He nests systems within each other in the order (from most basic to most complex): physics > chemistry > biology > neurophysiology > psychology > culture (with religion being a subset of culture).

          Another writer who does it well is Ursula Goodenough in her The Sacred Depths of Nature (excerpt coming up as part of Winterviews).

          And yet another is the husband-wife team Michael Dowd & Connie Barlow, with whom Jon collaborates (see Jon’s bio).

  2. November 27, 2011 5:29 pm

    This is very beautifully written Jon. I’ve always enjoyed the line that “we are made of star stuff”, that we are literally made from stars. How inspiring is that! Reminds me of another line, “as we are of the universe, when we look at an object, it is the universe looking at itself.” This one always gives me a bit of a brain boggle.

    Hope everyone enjoyed their Thanksgiving!

  3. November 29, 2011 9:48 am

    You mean to say that our host at NP is actually named Host? That is just too perfect. Nice to see Jon’s face at last.

  4. December 5, 2011 5:24 pm

    Joakim’s original comment that the cosmological view feels too abstract for him has me thinking… This is a common feeling. Many complain of cosmic history or even science in general as feeling too distant, abstract, and removed to be of relevance to their daily life.

    This reminds me of the concept of the deus otiosus as employed by Mircea Eliade in comparative religion. It’s a situation where a god becomes increasingly exalted and impersonal until it feels so distant that a new god steps in to mediate between humanity and that alien-seeming abstraction. Thus the Sumerian sky god An was replaced by the more immediate air god Enlil; the Vedic Indra was replaced by Vishnu and Shiva; the Greek Uranus and Gaia was replaced by Cronos and Rhea, then by Zeus and Hera; etc. The Abrahamic God mediated by the figure of Jesus, Catholic saints, or Mohammed may also be examples or related phenomena.
    (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deus_otiosus)

    In the case of the current scientific cosmological story, the view of the universe has become about as impersonal and abstract as possible (at least, at first glance). The feeling of many that the scientific view of the cosmos is too distant seems to echo that of religionists in the situation of the deus otiosus. Yet the crucial difference is that the examples above all use a god-as-person metaphor, whereas naturalistic science now operates under a nature-as-mechanism metaphor, or a god-as-nature-as-mechanism metaphor for Pantheists and many Spiritual Naturalists.

    I would not like to go back to the god-as-person metaphor, as I think it inhibits clear understanding of how the universe works. That leaves the question, what could serve as an effective mediator between humanity and the cosmos in a naturalistic context?

    • December 5, 2011 6:10 pm

      Good Points. My first thought, and what satisfies me, is the fact that we are all interconnected. Often this is overshadowed by the immensity and geological/cosmic timescale. But even with this immensity and vast time span, we are at the same time connected to it and cannot separate ourselves from it. We are the universe conscious of itself, we are made from the stars, that made the earth, that made life, that made us, and we can now look at that long line of events and say that we are born of that. Just to say that thrills me.

Trackbacks

  1. Upcoming work « Humanistic Paganism
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