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Month: July 2013 (Page 1 of 2)

Introspection # 19: “The Written Word: Humanity’s Most Powerful Tool”

The written word is arguably the most powerful and most influential tool humanity has ever created. Writing allows for the sharing of ideas, memories, events, stories, and other facets of the human experience in a manner completely unparalleled by anything else. By aiding in the recording of people, places, and events, writing allows us to recognize and understand our history and our past. It allows for the communication of complex ideas and concepts, a communication vitally necessary for the development and growth of our now complex, diverse, and sophisticated cultures, governments, philosophies, sciences, and technologies. Yet perhaps more importantly, the written word connects humans to each other in ways nothing else can. By putting down directly our thoughts, stories, and memories, we are creating an immortal record of ourselves and our experiences. The written word traverses time and space; by reading the words recorded by someone in the far distant past or in a far distant land, we are instantly transported into their mind and thoughts, intimately connected to their life, their ideas, and their experiences.

Without writing, ideas cannot be recorded. Prior to the invention and proliferation of writing, they were instead passed down through oral histories and stories. While this form of idea communication served its purpose, as we can see by the present existence of early oral stories such as The Iliad, it lacked any permanence. One person recalling and describing information could be prone to altering it in a fashion similar to the game of “telephone”.  Ideas are always changing, but without having a record of the original idea, there was no idea of what had changed. Progress might be being made, but it was progress without direction. Recording ideas down with the written word, however, has an immortal sense of permanence. These words, unless rewritten, will always remain the same. As such, the ideas they convey are clearly laid out, and can always be revisited.

This has had enormous implications on human development. By allowing for us to record our progress, and by allowing us to see our roots, writing has enabled us to learn from our past and plan for our future. It has allowed for the communication and proliferation of new ideas based around a single, permanent concept. Through books and other literary mediums, writing has made accessible ideas in a much wider fashion than the oral historians and storytellers, who were few and far between. By doing so, it has spread knowledge and fostered intellectual growth in ways unmatched. It is no small coincidence that the printing press and the internet, two of the most revolutionary and important inventions developed by our species, do little more than disseminate and reproduce the written word.

The written word has been vital for our species’ development. Yet it also serves a much more intimate and personal role. Writing connects us, the reader, intimately to an author regardless of who they are or where and when they lived. By reading a book, we are given a firsthand account of an author’s ideas, perspectives, feelings, circumstances, and more. We can read about the ideas of a person writing thousands of years ago and connect to them as though that person was sitting right across from us. The words we read, after all, are the same exact words that they wrote. Reading accounts of different places or different times transports us to them and exposes us to those settings. Similarly, we can record our own ideas which will be read by people thousands of years from now, and they too will be transported into our thoughts, place, and time. Writing thus allows us to experience human life from throughout the world and throughout history. It exposes us to, and helps us try to understand, completely different human worlds. There is nothing else which is capable of doing so.

Introspection # 18: “Exploring the Universe to Discover Ourselves”

For most of human history, we knew very little about the universe and our place in it. The Earth was a vast and boundless domain, continually revealing new horizons and new discoveries. Knowing nothing about the great extent of outer space, human societies literally regarded the Earth as the center of the universe. In turn, they considered themselves to be the masters of it. After all, they reasoned, the universe must have been created to produce and sustain us. There was no evidence available to the contrary.

The investigation and exploration of our sky gradually revealed to us, however, the presence of a vast universe beyond the Earth. There were points of light which traversed the night sky, appearing at different points at different dates and times. These were recognized to be the planets, and it was reckoned that these must be other worlds, perhaps places similar to our own. The more distant and static points of light in the night sky were known as the stars. Over time, it was calculated that the planets and our Sun didn’t revolve around the Earth, but rather that the Earth and the planets revolved around the Sun. Our belief that we are the center of the universe could no longer be defended.

Observations of the multitudes of stars in the night sky also demonstrated the enormous breadth of the universe. Those stars, it was discovered, are very much like our own. Our star became one of hundreds of billions in our galaxy, a completely insignificant place compared to the true scale and size of our universe. The galaxy, too, was discovered to be just one of billions of other galaxies. As we explored the universe further, we have learned that we are very, very small, indeed. More recently, we have discovered other planets orbiting the stars in our galaxy. This, along with our other discoveries, has revealed to us the truth about our planets position in the universe: it is an entirely ordinary world, orbiting a run-of-the-mill star in an entirely average galaxy.

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The exploration of our own solar system, too, has revealed much about us. We have discovered evidence of water on the planet Mars; evidence which leads us to believe that it was likely a world similar to our own at one point, perhaps even able to sustain life. We have learned much about Venus, a world whose parameters are close to ours but whose surface is a hellish, global-warming decimated wasteland. The magnificent outer planets have been found to dwarf our own in size, but we can recognize on them weather patterns and systems very much like those we encounter on Earth. The moons of these outer planets have also provided startling discoveries, such as active volcanoes on Io, an under-the-surface ocean which might sustain life on Europa, and an atmosphere and liquid methane on Titan. By comparing these worlds to our own, we found that our Earth is very unique in its ability to sustain and produce life, but not at all unique in its features, the elements and resources found on it, and the natural processes occurring on it. We have learned that it is much more similar to the rest of our solar system than we before believed.

Finally, we turned our cameras back on Earth. Astronauts looking at Earth from space consistently comment on how thin the atmosphere hangs above its surface, and how no countries or borders are visible on the contiguous stretches of land which warp around our planet. Through the photos of our planet taken from distant spacecraft flying into the darkness of space, too, we can finally recognize the true nature our planet. These photos reveal to us a small speck suspended in space. No countries, not even any continents, are visible. The whole Earth, with every human on it, is a tiny dot dwarfed by the enormous expanse of the cosmos.

apollo-8-earth-rise1What is the importance of these discoveries? What has exploration brought us? Through exploring the cosmos, we have discovered ourselves. Our expanded understanding of the universe has provided us with a fresh perspective about the Human species and the planet Earth we live on. No longer can we consider ourselves special or important in this vast, indifferent universe. By acknowledging that life, and intelligent life, managed to spring up on our regular planet orbiting a regular star tucked away in a normal galaxy, we can perhaps conclude that life is indeed abundant and common across the universe. There is nothing special about Earth or Humanity that would cause us to be the alone. Further, seeing our planet dwarfed by the vastness of space reveals the true fragility of our planet. Our world is not for us to destroy, and destroy it we can easily do. There are many examples of worlds strewn across our solar system and our universe that perhaps one day looked like Earth, but are now dead and desolate worlds. Ours too can become so, and we are especially capable of causing it. We must protect our precious planet.

Perhaps, however, the most important way exploring the universe helps us discover ourselves is how it draws into question the way us Humans approach our problems and interact with each other. Living on a tiny planet in a vast universe, we are very, very small. Without any knowledge of other intelligent civilizations, we are alone. It is upon ourselves and our neighbors that we must rely. Why, then, do we spend so much energy and time killing and destroying each other? Is the conquest of this tiny speck really so important? Faced with the enormous difficulties confronting us and armed with a perspective that realizes how small and alone we are, we should instead be utilizing and pooling the entirety of our resources and cooperating for the benefit of all mankind. Perhaps the astronomer Carl Sagan put this best when discussing the ‘pale blue dot’ picture of Earth taken by Voyager 1 as it left the Solar System:

“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves”

Introspection # 17: “Humanity’s Commonality”

There is a universal, unbreakable bond that every human shares: their humanity. Regardless of the circumstances of their birth or the environment in which they were raised, every person alive on the Earth began their life as a human and will live that life as a human. The human ‘experience’ is the only one that any of us are familiar with. Unfortunately, we live in a world deeply divided by perceived differences in race, religion, and politics. We reject and fight each other over our differences, while ignoring  our commonalities. We fail to recognize that even the things which divide us are uniquely and distinctly human, and are shared by every human alive. In order to reverse the plight of violence which so often arises from our perception of differences in other humans, we must embrace our common human heritage. Instead of disdain, our differences should be given embrace: they make us more similar than we may initially recognize.

It is natural to distrust differences between ourselves and others. This is a result of our ancestry, of the tribal nature of our species. Early humans retained the aggressive tribal characteristics of our evolutionary ancestors, the sort which we still see in other primates such as chimpanzees and orangutans. Other tribes and groups, strangers, were seen as mysterious and dangerous, and their presence was made aware by their physical or cultural differences. Even though we have moved away from these early tribal times and conquered many of the natural behavioral tendencies our species has, we have not yet been able to conquer our distrust of the ‘other’. Groups of people with different cultures, different skin colors, and different beliefs are still seen as unfamiliar, mysterious, and dangerous. It is because of this perception that modern humanity still engages in destructive and violent behavior against itself.

Yet distrust and disdain of the ‘other’  disregards the extreme unity present in the human experience and the human species. The very things which divide us, such as philosophies and religions and politics, are human creations. They are entirely and absolutely human. Though we may differ in the specifics of our religion or in the ideas we have, we are similar in having a religion and ideas. Though our governments may be formed and ruled differently, they are both human attempts to govern themselves. Our culture, for example, is not unlike another culture; though their specifics may be entirely different, both are still ultimately the same thing. These things which are seen as divisive and which cause us to destroy ourselves should instead bring us together, for they are a common heritage and experience witnessed across the entire globe and the entire human population. Other factors which divide us, such as race and nationality, should also be seen as factors to bind us. Though there are many different races and skin colors of Humans on the Earth, they all belong to Humans. There is no non-Human race. Letting things such as color divide us completely disregards the powerful reality that all humans have a skin color.  This is a reality which reveals the commonality of all mankind.

Eventually, as our world gets smaller and intolerance continues to wither away, the unbreakable bond that connects us all, our humanity, will be recognized. The Human species has yet to break away from its most base and violent tendencies, but one day it will. The differences which divide us will be disregarded and the overwhelming similarities across our species’ civilizations and cultures will bring us together like never before. In order to arrive at this point, however, we must begin to recognize how similar we are in our humanity, not how different our politics, philosophies, or skin color may be. We must begin to consider ourselves ‘humans’ as opposed to ‘Americans’ or ‘Africans’ or ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’. Once we see all other humans living on this planet as ‘human’, we will begin to sympathize with and treat them as such.

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