Vital Dust: Life as a Cosmic Imperative

By Christian De Duve | Go to book overview

in one of hundreds of billions of galaxies, a speck lost in the vastness of the universe. The most stunning blow came with Darwin. Humankind was displaced from its self-appointed peak position to the tip of a twig among millions of other twigs sprouting from the tree of life. It has been a lesson in humility, engendering distrust of external authority and of internal certainty. We have become skeptics.

The lesson can be overstressed. It should not be converted into "human-bashing," calling on science to downgrade the human species and to vindicate the view that we humans have no place in the scheme of things. That there is, in fact, no scheme of things for us to fit in. The philosopher William Barrett, America's major expositor of European existentialism, has denounced what he views as "one of the supreme ironies of modern history: the structure that most emphatically exhibits the power of mind nevertheless leads to the denigration of the human mind."33 Before him, the Hungarian-born British scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi had written: "It is the height of intellectual perversion to renounce, in the name of scientific objectivity, our position as the highest form of life on earth and our own advent by a process of evolution as the most important problem of evolution."34

If the universe is not meaningless, what is its meaning? For me, this meaning is to be found in the structure of the universe, which happens to be such as to produce thought by way of life and mind. Thought, in turn, is a faculty whereby the universe can reflect upon itself, discover its own structure, and apprehend such immanent entities as truth, beauty, goodness, and love. Such is the meaning of the universe, as I see it.

What is important in this view is not absolute truth, probably inaccessible at our level of development, but the search for truth. In the same way, there is no absolute beauty, but a shared yearning for beauty; no absolute good, but a shared striving after goodness. Just see what different peoples have held or hold for beautiful or for good in different parts of the world and at different times. To me, the main message should be one of tolerance for others, and of humility for oneself. I have tremendous faith in modern science and have devoted my life to it. But I feel that science should not be arrogant. The human mind may be only a link--perhaps even a side branch--in an evolutionary saga that is far from completed and may well some day produce minds much more powerful than ours. According to the predicted lifetime of the sun, on our planet alone the thinking biosphere has another five billion years to go, one thousand times the duration of the step from ape to man. We must bow to mystery.


EPILOGUE

I have opposed two paradigmatic personalities, Monod and Teilhard; two philosophies, one featuring absurdity and the other meaningfulness. It is up to each of us to

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