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W.E. Gutman: Neither ape nor angel

The Long View

Posted: July 3, 2010 7:18 p.m.
Updated: July 4, 2010 4:55 a.m.
 

Not long ago, when fate still ruled the world, when providence, not scheme, molded man’s destiny, two groups vied for the truth and both held it for a while.

Fat and sated like iguanas basking in the sun, Darwinists made no bones about it. Evolution makes sense. One by one, the pieces of the puzzle fit into place with such perfection as to make some transcendental “first cause” not only probable but essential. They just didn’t call it God.

Flummoxed by Darwin’s irreverence, aghast at the thought that they might be descended from great apes, not angels, creationists kept invoking God as though evolution were not in itself a wondrous feat of magic. And life went on.

Recently, cosmologists everywhere began splitting cosmic hair. With the Big Bang versus the steady state debate well behind them, they now asked each other: Is the universe “open” or “closed?” Does intergalactic space extend indefinitely and in all directions, or do as yet undetected boundaries mark its final frontiers at some inscrutably distant point? If so, what lies beyond?

What is space, anyway, they mused. Is it a circumstantial realm without intrinsic dimension, without a reality of its own other than that fancied by man in his mystical ruminations? Is space a byproduct of human consciousness, like time, which “passes” but in fact goes nowhere?

Some insisted that space is not only endowed with quantifiable form and volume, but that it is measurable by a timeline that includes a starting point, a first cause — or alpha — or “singularity.”

Others retorted that something that has no boundaries cannot possibly have shape. After all, probes sent out on scouting missions to the farthest reaches of the inky void had gone on one-way odysseys, and no one knew for sure what they would run into, or when. Something that has no shape or computable dimensions, however keenly one may try to comprehend it, they added, has no being.

Unable to agree, lacking a unifying theory with which to bolster their respective positions, cosmologists reached an impasse — and a compromise. They agreed that perpetual space-time and cosmic confinement is one and the same. The choice, they offered, lay in the mind’s eye of poets and stargazers and dreamers and a science-fiction writer or two. It was, pardon the irresistible pun, pretty much an open and shut case.

And then it happened, not unexpectedly perhaps, but with devastating finality.

“WE ARE ALONE!” a banner headline screamed in the science journal Annals of Extra-terrestrial Research. “Humankind is an accident.”

Unadorned, brutally prosaic, eloquently detached, igniting passions in its wake, provoking outrage or apoplectic stupor, clouding the mind and freezing the spirit, the article stated: “An international team of astrophysicists has released details of a study which confirms that ‘intelligent life’ is confined to planet Earth, and that the odds of a similar biogenic manifestation occurring elsewhere in the universe are nil.

“Dismissing critics who charged that such view smacks of ‘cosmic egocentricity,’ the study recommends that the search for extraterrestrial life be halted and that resources and funds be refocused on heretofore neglected earthbound priorities such as overpopulation, hunger, injustice, disease ... and beliefs that owe their existence to blind faith.

“The study asserts that, ‘life is the aftermath of a spontaneous and unrepeatable paradox,’ and that humankind, is ‘an experiment gone wrong.’

“Alluding to Albert Einstein’s celebrated rebuff, ‘God does not play dice with the universe,’ a spokesman for the group said that ‘God had indeed played dice with the universe and lost. Perched atop a speck of dust in the limitless void,’ the study concludes, ‘aided by providence and propelled by natural selection, the human race is an occurrence — a calamity — the result of an endless succession of unpremeditated chance events, all of which continue to unfold as we travel through time and as the present conjugates itself forever and ever and ever.’

Supporting the scholarly magazine’s conclusions, a joint communiqué issued by the world’s spiritual leaders upheld the scientific findings. In an extraordinary gesture of humility and conciliation, and quoting Boethius — “As far as you are able, join faith to reason” — the communiqué acknowledged that “God, the essence of perfection,” had let his imagination run wild when he fashioned humans, and that unlike humans who never seem to learn from past mistakes, “he had been mindful not to repeat such abomination elsewhere in his domain.”

W. E. Gutman is a veteran journalist, author and unrepentant iconoclast. This column is excerpted from his novel, “Nocturnes.” His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.

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