Thanks, universe

Here is a very preliminary list of things we should be thankful for that no one ever thinks about, things that are taken for granted by everyone, yet without which our world wouldn’t exist:

Iron and other metals.
All kinds of other fruits and vegetables.
The coffee plant.
Black tea.
Plants that can be fermented producing alcohol.

On our planet, none of these things (with the possible exception of at least some kinds of stones and metals which one might say were built into the substance of our planet as it was spun off from a second-generation star and therefore shared its higher elements) had to exist. But they do exist. Without them we would not have buildings, houses, sculptures, monuments, tools, weapons, bridges, machines, fabrics for clothing, great varieties of meat and food, and special substances such as coffee that stimulate the human psyche. Without these things, not only would civilization not exist, but beings such as ourselves could not exist. There would have been no plants higher than grass, and no animals higher than grass-eating animals.

Yet all these things exist, given to us as raw materials for us to develop into useful forms that sustain and enhance our lives.

In short, the universe is a vast, hierarchically organized system of provision. From the stone and wood and metal with which we build our houses, to the wool and cotton fibers of the clothing we wear, to the coffee that helps us get started in the morning, to the beer and whiskey with which we relax in the evening, the universe, in the most wonderful, awe-inspiring fashion, has provided for all our needs. And how could it have done so, were it not the expression of a purposeful, benevolent intelligence?

Yet we take it all for granted. In relation to the universe, we are consumers. We have the same ungrateful attitude toward the cosmos and its goods that we have toward, say, computers and operating systems: we simply expect the things we want to be there, and we are highly annoyed if they’re not there, or if they’re not there in the particular form we demand. We never wonder at the fact that they are there.

- end of initial entry -

Rick Darby writes:

What a perfect Thanksgiving message.

We are surrounded by miracles: above and below, from here to the horizon, by day and night. Yet ordinarily it is only the rare mystic who sees them as such.

Your posting put me in mind of something Emerson wrote:

If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.

Steven T. writes:

I read your post out loud to my mother before Thanksgiving dinner, and she was so struck by the sentiment that she hugged me. She rarely shows physical affection. Thank you! You are in my prayers.

Happy thanksgiving.

LA replies:

Thank you for telling me this lovely story. It made my day.

Alan M. writes:

Happy Thanksgiving! Indeed there is much to give thanks for.

The plenitude of the universe organized hierarchically is mirrored in the hierarchical systems that man has created to take the gifts of nature and produce even more of value. Viewed one way, we are consumers (in the good sense of the word, not the bad sense which you described) and, like God, can look at the universe, be thankful, and say “It is good.” Viewed another way, man can use his creativity, energy, and time to take the raw wealth of nature and create more wealth for himself and others. Think of the millions of workers across this country who only co-ordinate through the market to bring something as simple as cranberry jelly to our table. The chain of events and people necessary for such a simple thing is mind boggling that it exists and works. Our attention, creativity, intelligence, energy, and time are no less wondrous and no less gifts from God. In viewing ourselves both as consumers and producers of wealth, we can partake of a little bit of the divine experience in both appreciating what is and was and in creating what will be. In both ways, we can experience a little bit of the joy of God. There is indeed a plenitude and today is a day to remember it and be thankful for it. The miracle of the loaves and fishes is perhaps useful to remember at such a time as this. It is important that this community recognizes what is not working, but by recognizing what is working, we can more effectively fight the battle that must be fought.

Paul Nachman writes:

You wrote:

“In short, the universe is a vast, hierarchically organized, system of provision.”

As far as I’m concerned, the universe simply is. And since I don’t agree that it was designed, I also don’t regard it as “a system.”

Jonathan S. writes:

Orthodox Jews thank God for all His miracles three times a day, during the Amidah or Shmona Esrei prayers:

We give thanks to You that You are the Lord our God
and the God of our fathers forever and ever.
Through every generation You have been the rock of our lives, the shield
of our salvation. We will give You thanks and declare Your praise for our
lives that are committed into Your hands, for our souls that are entrusted
to You, for Your miracles that are daily with us, and for Your wonders and
Your benefits that are with us at all times, evening, morning and noon.
O beneficent one, Your mercies never fail; O merciful one,
Your lovingkindnesses never cease. We have always put our hope in You.
For all these acts may Your name be blessed and exalted continually,
O our King, forever and ever. Let every living thing give thanks to You and
praise Your name in truth, O God, our salvation and our help. (Selah.)
Blessed are You, O Lord, whose Name is the Beneficent One,
and to whom it is fitting to give thanks.

November 23

Terry Morris writes:

A collection of naturally selected random mutations organizing itself into the form of a “Paul Nachman” wrote:

A capital “a” and an “s”, space; an “f”, an “a”, and an “r”, space; an “a” and an “s”, space, a capital “I”, apostrophe “m” (a contraction of “I am”.); a “c”, an “o”, an “n”, a “c”, an “e”, an “r”, an “n”, an “e”, and a “d”, comma; a “t”, an “h”, and an “e”; a “u”, an “n”, an “i”, a “v”, an “e”, an “r”, an “s”, and an “e”; an “s”, an “i”, an “m”, a “p”, an “l”, and a “y”; and an “i”, and an “s”, period. In that “order.”

Which, being interpreted (or organized into an intelligible sentence), reads:

[Quote] As far as I’m concerned, the universe simply is. [unquote]

The next sentence would logically follow, were there any logic to it.

Question: who organized all of those letter-units, spaces, commas, apostrophes and periods, into an intelligible sentence?

Buck writes:

Paul Nachman writes:

As far as I’m concerned, the universe simply is. And since I don’t agree that it was designed, I also don’t regard it as “a system.”

My God. Believe in Him as little as you will. The idea that there is no system is simply blind denial. If one could not even conceive of the concept of a creator, you couldn’t explain nothin’. You wouldn’t even know where to begin.

LA writes:

Paul Nachman wrote:

As far as I’m concerned, the universe simply is. And since I don’t agree that it was designed, I also don’t regard it as “a system.”

Would Mr. Nachman say that the earth’s ecology is not a system?

Would he say that the Milky Way galaxy is not a system?

Would he say that the atomic structure of the elements is not a system?

For that matter, would he say that the solar system is not, hmm, a system?

LA continues:
Would Paul Nachman say that the lymphatic system is not a system?

Would he say that the circulatory system is not a system?

Would he say that the nervous system is not a system?

Kidist Paulos Asrat writes:

It was the “oranges and apples” that made me realize the beauty of your poem. I try to have one or the other each day, otherwise it doesn’t “feel right.”

Also your period after each element shows its independent importance.

Well done!

November 24

M. Jose writes:

You wrote:

We have the same ungrateful attitude toward the cosmos and its goods that we have toward, say, computers and operating systems: we simply expect the things we want to be there, and we are highly annoyed if they’re not there, or if they’re not there in the particular form we demand.

I would argue that this should read:

We have the same ungrateful attitude regarding the cosmos and its goods that we have toward, say, computers and operating systems: we simply expect the things we want to be there, and we are highly annoyed if they’re not there, or if they’re not there in the particular form we demand.

There is no reason to feel gratitude toward the cosmos, anymore than you feel gratitude toward a gift someone has given you. The gratitude should be to The One Who provided the cosmos.

I would also argue that the title should be “Thanks for the Universe.”

LA replies:

Your point is valid, and I when I was drafting the entry I considered writing it in the way you suggest. But I felt it wouldn’t work. While I say in the entry that such a universe could only have been created by a divine intelligence, I didn’t want to make that idea the primary idea. My focus here was on our experience of the physical universe itself, on the primary, amazing fact that it contains all these goods, rather than on the theological thoughts to which that fact leads us. If I had made the entry mainly about thanking God, it would have drawn attention away from the experience that inspired the entry—an experience, I said, that people don’t have, but should have. So, on this occasion, departing momentarily from orthodoxy, I said, “Thank you, Universe,” rather than “Thank you, God.”

Kristor writes:

This thread reminded me of another from a couple years ago, in which also there was a discussion of the systematic rationality and intelligibility of the cosmos being possible only in the event that God exists. In that thread, I said of an atheist who took part in that discussion:

I had been working on [my response to him] for a long time before I realized how exactly E. [the atheist] had nailed it. His one sentence summarizes almost everything we theists at VFR have said in critiquing atheism. “If you need … reason …, then you need … God.” That about says it, no?

Then, further down in the thread, you wrote:

Mr. W[arshawsky]’s view of Western civilization reminds me of Woody Allen’s monologue near the end of “Manhattan,” after his girlfriend leaves him and he’s feeling very sad, in which he lists the things that make life worthwhile to him: Willie Mays, Mozart, Louis Armstrong, Flaubert, Chinese food, his list goes on and on. These items are just there, reduced to cultural commodities, lacking any connection to any larger meaning. In this list of what makes life worthwhile, Allen has inadvertently revealed the emptiness of his own view of existence.

So in that thread, too, there was a list of the good things that the universe provides to us. I responded:

Your description of Woody Allen’s essentially empty recitation of the items that fill his good life, that he values? That sort of empty recitation is the sort of good life which an atheist may blithely attain. He can enjoy Louis Armstrong and Chinese food, but there can be for him no transcendent cord binding it all together. “Transcendent cord binding it all together”—is this not almost a literal aetymological translation of “religion?”

You replied:

Yes, that’s exactly how that monologue in “Manhattan” struck me when I saw it in … 1979. 29 years ago? As he was giving that list, the immediate meaning was, these are the good things in life, that make life worth affirming, life is good. But there was something deeply off about it, and I don’t know if Woody Allen the screen writer, as distinct from Woody Allen the character in the movie, was aware of it. Instead of his treating, say, Mozart as this great thing. it was more as if Mozart, Willie Mays, and the other worthies he mentioned were cultural commodities, cultural consumer items, in a world without truth. And that’s nihilism. Nihilism doesn’t deny values. It just denies that they’re tied together into anything.

Back then to the question Paul Nachman raises in the current thread, of whether the world is a system. If it isn’t, then clearly it isn’t “tied together into anything.” It isn’t causally coherent or regular, or therefore intelligible or orderly, or therefore amenable to scientific inquiry or philosophical query. It’s just a brute set of facts thrown together into a pot, and that’s about all you can say about it.

LA writes:

There was a further point I wanted to make in the original entry but I couldn’t fit it in. Even if there had a been a world pretty much like the one we know, a world of rocks and metals and vegetables and animals, there was no reason why the cotton plant had to exist, enabling the production of cotton. There was no reason why sheep had to exist, with their amazing hair with which human beings make this amazing substance wool. Try to imagine our world, our lives, without cotton and wool. Yet wool and cotton do exist.

November 25

Keith M. writes:

I am new to your website. I watched one of your talks and was impressed, not only by the content of your presentation but also the calm way you delivered it. Furthermore, after reading the past comments left by your readers I find them nearly all articulate, sensible and just the kind of people I would want to spend with. It’s really unusual for any kind of website. I will make a point of coming back more often.

I hope you won’t mind that my first comment disagrees with something you say, and then with something that Terry Morris says. I’m assuming that atheist views are welcome here.

Here is my comment:

I think you are here putting the cart before the horse. You feel awestruck and grateful that the universe is so well knitted-out for all our needs. However, the universe was here before we were and would have looked precisely as it does now, even if we had never evolved.

Think of a fish. If it could, it would also wonder at the miracle of water and how this element couldn’t be better suited to the life it leads. Somehow the universe knew to provide two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen plus some food, precisely what a fish needs! It doesn’t occur to the fish that his ancestors had to adapt to water. It wasn’t given as a gift; fish had to make it their element.

So neither a happy coincidence, nor a designer, is required to explain how the universe provides just the things humans need. It couldn’t logically be otherwise!

Terry, I can’t believe you went to the trouble of typing all that out, simply to make a point that has been refuted many times! It does not follow from the fact that humans design things (like a post on a blog) that everything in the universe is therefore designed. There are many things, even in our daily lives, that have the appearance of design but are not designed: crystals and the internet being just two that immediately spring to mind. If you want to believe in a designer of our universe that’s fine, but the fact that the universe exists and that we fit nicely into it is not evidence for this belief.

Keith M. continues:

I’ll understand if you would rather not include too many contrary views on your site. When they become too frequent the commenter should perhaps simply go to a site that is more in tune with his own views. It’s just that you social and political views are in tune with mine! It’s only the “universe as agent” that I find unbelievable.

Anyway, in case you don’t mind posting it, here is my comment:

Lawrence, you are surely not claiming that sheep grew wool and cotton plants came into existence for the benefit of mankind? You don’t explicitly state this but I think that is what you are driving at. You feel that these are luxuries the universe didn’t need to provide but provided all the same. This must be a sign of beneficence.

Do pigs exist so we can eat them? And horses so that we can ride them? The list could go on indefinitely. Yet doesn’t it make more sense to say that every animal makes use of what is to hand and hoof? Should the hermit crab think that snails were put in the oceans for the express purpose of providing hermit crabs with pre-fab homes? Or should cheetahs think, “There was no reason for gazelles to exist, yet they do. We could have survived on wild boar yet somehow, miraculously, the universe has provided us with the luxury of gazelles. It was not necessary but we are grateful that it did so. Someone up there must like us.”

I personally find the evolutionary explanation more compelling than the “universe as beneficent agent” explanation. I think Paul Nachman was write in saying that the universe “just is,” though he was wrong on the smaller, rather trivial point that systems have to be designed.

LA replies:

I’m not exactly saying that God, like a human artificer, said to himself, “Well, I want to create man, and if man is to have an existence worthy of man he will need, among other things, fine clothing, so I’ll create the cotton plant and wool-growing sheep to provide for human needs.” Rather, I’m suggesting that the universe as created by God and as an expression of God’s infinite being is a complete package, a hierarchically ordered series of levels that all fit together, from the universe as a whole, to our galaxy, to our solar system, to the earth, to rocks, to metals, to vegetables, to lower animals, to higher animals, to man.

As a roundabout way of approaching this issue, I will quote the December 2011 entry, “Was pre-historic man dirty?”:

[A]s I have written before, there are certain human biological features that by their very existence require human toolmaking ability, and thus culture. Meaning that humans did not slowly evolve the ability to use tools. Human beings had to have had the ability to use tools from the moment they came into existence as a species. Among all other mammals, for example, the hair on the head is a pelt; it reaches a certain length and then falls out. Only with humans does the hair on the head keep growing, which in turn requires the cutting and grooming of hair. Which means that as soon as Homo sapiens appeared, they already had to have the intelligence and ability to cut and groom their hair….

… Without blades for cutting hair or some technique for binding and tying it, continuously growing hair would get in people’s faces and eyes and become an impossible burden. Like Ann Coulter, they would have had to keep pushing their hair out of their face every few seconds, leaving them no energy for anything but snarky comments, and they would quickly have gone out of existence.

… The various unique human features, such as continuously growing hair, require that humans also have the unique human ability to make and use tools, such as tools or materials to cut or groom their hair. Similarly, one of the things that gives the human body greater dignity than that of other species, that the anus is hidden away between the buttocks instead of being exposed on the surface of the body, also requires that humans develop ways of cleaning themselves after elimination, which animals don’t have to do. Similarly, the fact that only human females bleed during menstruation requires that humans develop ways of staunching the bleeding, which other mammals don’t have to do. These unique “inconveniences” of the human body make it necessary for humans to have tool-making and culture-making intelligence. The inconveniences, and the tool-making intelligence, had to appear TOGETHER. Man comes as a package, not as an animal who by a slow series of genetic accidents that were naturally selected slowly acquired human intelligence.

[end of 2011 excerpt]

Well, just as man (as I argue) came as a “package,” I’m suggesting that the universe itself came as a “package.” The universe is a mysterious, multi-leveled unity which we can only partly grasp, but we grasp enough of it to know that it is a unity.

Terry Morris writes:

In the initial entry you lamented that we take for granted those elements and productions that the earth, through the universe, has provided for us in abundance. I am convinced that this would not be the case were schools to teach Geographical Science as an independent subject in the school curriculum. Were the following book adopted as a primary textbook for the teaching of geographical science throughout the grades, and its teaching methodology followed, pupils could in no way grow to adulthood seeing the earth and its natural productions as anything less than a “grand organism, perfect in all its parts and conditions, and the definite plan of an all-wise Creator.

The book is Physical Geography, by Arnold Guyot, c. 1870s. I have several copies of the book in paperback edition, all of which I’ve cut the binding off of, hole-punched the pages and put into three-ring binders. The book is also available in electronic (pdf or plain text) form at Google Books.

Casey T. writes:

You ask: “Is it legitimate to thank the universe?”

No, and to do so reminds me of Richard Dawkins’s emptily projected gratitude:

When I lie on my back and look up at the Milky Way on a clear night and see the vast distances of space and reflect that these are also vast differences of time as well, when I look at the Grand Canyon and see the strata going down, down, down, through periods of time which the human mind can’t comprehend … it’s a feeling of sort of an abstract gratitude that I am alive to appreciate these wonders, when I look down a microscope it’s the same feeling, I am grateful to be alive to appreciate these wonders.

The universe in itself cannot serve us; the Logos continues to fill that role. Chesterton wrote that thanks are the highest form of thought. I believe this is true, especially since Eucharist means “thanksgiving,” and that even when we “thank” the universe, deep down we perceive the Second Person’s presence, for through Him the universe was created and its law exist. We know the atheist is without excuse, and thus we must always acknowledge the source of all things—God.

LA replies:

You wrote:

even when we “thank” the universe, deep down we perceive the Second Person’s presence, for through Him the universe was created and its law exist.

But that’s exactly what I was saying. My point was that in this entry I put the awareness of the universe and its goods in the spotlight, rather than immediately jumping to standard thoughts of God and so losing that experience of the universe itself, which was what I wanted to emphasize.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at November 22, 2012 02:54 PM | Send

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