If I say, “The reason the hawk circled over me nine times and headed East was to tell me to begin my return journey,” does that sound scientific to you? Or am I projecting meaning onto a world that is essentially random?
Do the events of our lives have any meaning, or do they just happen to us? Do we create the reality we experience, or is reality something already out there, that we move through? Which answer seems more “scientific"? The difference between these two belief systems is more than a mere matter of philosophical opinion. Each actually corresponds to its own distinct state of being.
The scientific view says that the hawk circling above me had nothing to do with me. It was looking for food and just happened to be there. The fact that it circled nine times, and not eight or ten, is also a random result of whatever, its neural circuitry or the air currents or something like that. I might imagine the world is communicating with me, but it is not. The universe is indifferent to me, blind, unfeeling, inert. The scientific person realizes this and lives rationally; the religious person denies it in the face of all evidence. I love to quote Richard Dawkins: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”
Read that again and feel your heart sink. If your heart does not sink, that probably means you have inured yourself to the despair that it implies; it means we’ve gotten used to the denial of our original child’s wonder. A child lives in a giving world. A child looks awestruck at the stars, and knows they are there for her. A Stone Age hunter comes across a deer, and knows that the forest has provided it for him. Seeing life as a gift, the recipient of life lives in a state of gratitude, and naturally devotes his or her existence to the honoring and transmission onward of that gift.
In the objective universe, life is not a gift but something we must take. This is the foundation of Darwinian biology—the struggle to survive whose winner is he that more effectively controls the resources of the environment. It is also the foundation of modern economics. Conditioned by these ideologies, when we plan our careers we rarely think first, “What can I give” but rather, “How can I best take as much or as securely as possible?” Usually we translate this question into financial terms. How can I make a living? How can I take what I need from the world?Today we are in the midst of a scientific paradigm-shift. The study of ecology suggests a world best understood as a vast gift network, in which cooperation and symbiosis drive life’s development, and in which competition is but a means propelling each species and organism toward the perfection of its gifting function. In human terms this translates into the pursuit of excellence, or better yet, the consummation of one’s gifts.
If ecology is a gift network, then we can say scientifically as well as spiritually that life is a gift. As Lewis Hyde observes in his classic book, The Gift, it is in the nature of a gift that it must be passed on, in one form or another, or it will stagnate and eventually corrupt the bearer. Modern society is based on the keeping and hoarding of nature’s gifts, their conversion into property.
We need to begin giving back to the rest of creation, and to do that we must understand the real purpose of the unique gifts of the human mind and hand. What are they for?
On a personal level, we can ask the same thing. What is the purpose of this gift of life that we are given? Why am I here? How might we fulfill our unique, personal gifts and in so doing, return with gratitude our gift to the world?
Everybody knows on an intuitive level that this question has an answer; in other words, that there is a reason for our existence. All of us have had moments of knowing that we are connected, that events are meaningful, that our lives have a purpose. If our indoctrination is thorough we reject these moments as delusions, wishful thinking, primitive projections that modern, rational people can dispense with. But no matter how heavily indoctrinated we are, the sneaking suspicion, reduced in the extreme to a forlorn hope, still persists that life is meaningful.
My indoctrination in the scientific mode of thought was thorough. I once fully accepted that we live (to paraphrase Jacques Monod), in “A world that is deaf to our music, just as indifferent to our hopes as to our suffering or our crimes.” Now I know differently, though this knowledge has yet to suffuse my entire being. Part of me still believes it. Going along with this belief is a whole state of being, a mentality of control, an un-appeasable anxiety, a bottomless despair.
But when I choose to live in the opposite belief, that the hawk had a message for me, that the stars shine for me, that the world gives me food and that the plants wish to give me their medicine—and that these statements are literally true and not mere poetry—then I experience a wholly different state of being. A state of wholeness, gratitude, empowerment, and serenity, in which I can afford to give and afford to love.
Which state of being would you rather live in? The choice is yours.