The universe can be a scary place, as terrible as it is beautiful. So is it right to express gratitude toward it? Jonathan Blake challenges us to rethink how we relate to the cosmos.
Gratitude begins with the recognition that something we value or enjoy could have been different. For a practically infinite number of reasons, I might never have been born, ranging from cosmic circumstances like if the Earth had formed a little farther away from or closer to the Sun, to details like if my parents had decided “not tonight.”
Gratitude begins with the ability to imagine the world counterfactually.
I can easily feel this kind of gratitude when regarding the cosmos. I feel “lucky” that I’m alive, but is that gratitude?
When I think of gratitude, I usually think of it as something more than just feeling lucky. I think of it as warm feelings for someone else for doing something that I value that they didn’t have to do. They could have done something else, but they didn’t, so I feel grateful to them.
I feel like I owe them something because it is human nature to try to reciprocate good or ill that comes our way. If nothing else, I give them my feelings of gratitude.
Gratitude toward the universe?
My life exists on a razor’s edge. As I mentioned, there are so many reasons why I might never have been born. There are almost as many reasons why I might have died since then. So I feel grateful that I exist at all, but my gratitude is not directed to the universe.
As far as I can tell, the universe is impersonal and therefore indifferent to my existence. The universe hasn’t conspired to give me life and sustain it. Life for me and my ancestors has always been a hard fight against an indifferent universe to eek out a living. If anything, I feel like I have everything I value in spite of the universe.
Yet I wouldn’t have the things I value without the universe.
However unwitting, the universe is the ground in which the beauty of my life has grown. So I feel grateful for the universe, but I don’t give any gratitude to the universe.
This is one reason that even though I can see myself as a pantheist, I don’t see in myself a perfect reflection of the devotion that theists express to their gods.
I feel more awe and fear toward my god than devotion, and yet I still feel gratitude for the cosmos.
Jonathan Blake: Born into a Mormon family who had followed railroad work to the Mojave Desert, Jonathan Blake struggled with religious doubts from early childhood but went on to serve as a Mormon missionary in upstate New York and to marry his first love during a secret ceremony in a Mormon temple. With the birth of his two daughters and a growing sense of responsibility for their welfare, he sought greater certainty about his religious beliefs and more knowledge about Mormon history. What he learned caused his faith in Mormonism to fall away and his eyes to be opened to a world with more freedom and beauty than he had imagined. He now seeks to live according to the dictates of his own conscience and to learn as much as humanly possible about the cosmos. Still living in the Mojave, he recently completed a Master of Science degree in computer engineering and earns his living as a data warehousing professional.
This work published under a Creative Commons license
Do we owe gratitude to the universe? by Jonathan Blake is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.