I seem to be running behind, so I’ll just repost an earlier thread on days I don’t get a new post together for Tuesdays. Sorry>
Here is a photo of the whole planet Earth taken from Apollo 17, the last moon mission http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/imgcat/hires/a17_h_148_22727.gif]. At about the same time this was taken the Gaia Hypothesis was beginning to be discussed. For those who have never heard of the Gaia Hypothesis, the short version is that planet Earth is a living entity. It was originally posed mainly as a model through which we could better comprehend both the life processes interacting here on this planet and the whole concept of life. The former has served well to guide environmental policy, or at least thinking. The latter was originally intended to assist us in our efforts to identify life from other planets.
Be that as it may, the Gaia Hypothesis has undergone considerable evolution since first introduced. Many have come to truly regard planet Earth as a single living thing.
Fact of the matter is that we know not what life is. We don’t even know what an individual is. Is a beehive, or a termite nest, or an anthill, an individual or is it the hill, hive, or nest that is the individual? Our concept of “individual” may actually be a large part of our problem in trying to understand “life” itself. We ourselves cannot survive without the support of most of the billions of bacteria that live in our system. We would starve to death without their help.
We have many tests which we believe any life form must pass. But we also have many examples of things which virtually everyone agrees are life forms, but which fail one or more of those tests. I would maintain the Earth passes every meaningful test we can pose for whether something is alive. It is, after all, an object so different from every other life form we know as to humble the imagination.
Whether something is a “meaningful test ” clearly is an immensely difficult question when applied to an entity which, if it is alive, lives on an entirely different scale than anything we have tested prior hereto. Perceiving whether or not it passes the tests may very well be rendered almost impossible due to the extraordinary difference in size alone from those objects with which we are more familiar. Add in the scale of lifespan and you truly have a problem.
For example, one of the usual tests is whether or not the entity reproduces. Well, we are certainly not long-lived enough to say whether or not the entity Gaia reproduces. Or even whether she has reproduced. Our history doesn’t go back far enough, and our science has hardly even raised the question. When the potential “life span” of earth is in billions of years, our ability to see what has happened from our tiny window of a life span of fewer than 100 years is highly occluded, to say the least. The test becomes meaningless.
As another example of the potential difficulty, how does one evaluate an organism’s growth potential when that organism is, first, so much larger than the entity trying to make the evaluation, and, second, quite probably so mature that it may be physically far beyond the growth stage associated with youth? The problem is essentially equivalent to asking a single skin cell to evaluate whether or not the person in whose body it resides is alive.
Which is not nearly so large a tangential comment as it might at first appear. We as individuals are in a relationship to Gaia almost exactly as an individual skin cell is in relationship to the person in who’s skin it resides.
The hyperbole may well be in anthropomorphizing the cell. But, then, on what basis are we to make that judgment? We are, after all, in precisely the reverse relationship to Gaia as we, ourselves, are to the skin cell. And we’re all sure we think, aren’t we? Well, at least some of us, some of the time–right?
We know no more about the capabilities of an individual cell than we do about Gaia’s. Anyone who thinks we know that cells do not think in ways parallel to the degree and manner that we do as individuals is simply speculating as rampantly as one who thinks they do. We simply have no better definition/concept of what thinking is than we do of what life is.
A big part of our difficulty lies in how little we know, or can know.
But the title of this piece alludes to God, not Gaia. Have I no editor? So what if Gaia is alive? What am I going on about? What’s any of this got to do with God or Nietzsche?
I’m not merely so radical as to suggest that cells might think, I’m willing to claim God is, and always has been, Gaia. And it makes a great deal of difference if Gaia is God, for if that is the case, then God is alive. Not in the Nietzsche sense of alive in our minds, but in the physiological sense of “alive.”
Think about it. Every religion of any stature has existed for millennia. We’ve only had scientific tools such as the telescope for a few hundred years. What it amounts to is that, in talking about God, we were attempting to describe natural phenomena. Unfortunately we were trying to explain what was then totally incomprehensible to us.
We’ve marveled for eons while looking at nature over “how wonderful is the work of God.” Yet the idea that we were, all along, actually looking directly at God, seems shocking in the extreme. It challenges every dogma invented and perpetuated by men in their efforts to explain God and, simultaneously, control other men. What is new in this view, really, is the recognition that, with no tools to do the former, the religions that triumphed did so mainly through their success in the latter.
Trichinosis runs through an ancient culture, and religions with prohibitions against pork gain a leg up.
Smallpox, introduced by the invaders, wipes out most of an indigenous population. God must favor the European immigrants over the heathen Indians, and Christians hitch their pants up just a little higher.
Vesuvius blows it’s top. The gods must be angry, and Roman mythology puts one more foot in the grave.
Lightning strikes wherever it wants. When the water rises you get wet, or worse. Mars wanders around the sky at random. Sometimes it rains, sometimes it doesn’t.
The invulnerability of “God,” His omnipresence, His immortality-His virtually everything-derives purely and simply from our attempts to understand nature without having the tools. Then Galileo looks through his telescope and, for the first time, we realize the heavens are not as we had always been told they would be. Later the microscope allows us to look down at the small things, not just up at the large. Suddenly the source of infection is visible.
The rational mind becomes more valuable than the incantation.
With the Whole Earth Photo, and the many others taken from space, especially from deep space, we were able, finally, to view the entire planet as a single entity. What the Gaia Hypothesis does is, quite simply, state the obvious. Although we do not know what life is, Gaia is clearly, if you truly look, a living being. And, although I do not pretend to understand it at all, we are merely cells in Her body.
And, finally, if our attempts to define nature is at the root of our beliefs in God, then God is actually better identified as that creature which animates the forces of nature than it is as the creator of the universe. Our real universe is not nearly so large as “the universe.” Still incredibly large, granted, but considerably more personal.
From this new prospective Gaia is God and God is Gaia.
Here’s a link to a wonderful slide show NASA released on the occasion of Earth Day this year [http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/earthday/], Be sure to view the captions for best enjoyment.
Next time: views of the tumor.