The Magazine

On Seeing the World

The more we know, the less we seem to understand.

May 7, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 32 • By AARON ROTHSTEIN
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Kugel is fundamentally right that our views about ourselves have changed. Indeed, partly because of our scientific advances and understanding, “the world is generally far less ominous than it used to be, and … we humans are correspondingly bigger as a result.” We know how to administer medical care and plant trees, and we know how to travel into space, which makes the Outside “so much harder to see.” And this manifests itself in the way we relate to death. Kugel cites an example from the Bible, where Jacob tells his son Joseph that he will die but God will take care of him. Jacob then gathers his family and explains to them what will soon happen to them after he dies. It is “an orderly death,” explains Kugel. Today, however, our old and dying are put away in hospitals or hospices before their bodies are buried in coffins so that we rarely see them. “Death has become taboo in America,” writes Kugel, “because it spoils the myth of human control and our new, bigger selves.” And our unrestrained faith in science is partly responsible for this change. Sam Harris tells us, in The Moral Landscape, that science is so powerful that it can determine morality. William Osler, the famous Johns Hopkins physician of the early 20th century, argued that medicine should be viewed as “man’s redemption of man.” This view surely flatters the potential of science, but as prominent as it may be now, the old view of humans as small in the grand scheme of the world has not fully disappeared, nor is it solely the province of the religious and non-Westerners.

The late Christopher Hitchens explained his experience of a cancer diagnosis in this way: “To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?” And Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, makes a similar point about each human being’s relative smallness: “We are staggeringly lucky to find ourselves in the spotlight. However brief our time in the sun, if we waste a second of it, or complain that it is dull or barren .  .  . couldn’t this be seen as a callous insult to those unborn trillions who will never even be offered life in the first place?” These comments suggest that, in the realm of this world, we are small compared with the forces of nature and evolution, at work for millions of years.

But James Kugel does not want to claim that Hitchens’s view, or Dawkins’s view, or the biblical view, is better than the individual-centered view; they are just different: “It is not a matter of right and wrong, but of different perspectives and .  .  . the state of being and the way of perceiving that go with them.” We have outgrown our small selves, he writes, but “our new, big ones have brought us to a rather unreal sense of the shape of our own existence.” We have not outgrown our old selves. The more we know, the more mysterious the world becomes. Now we know that our planet is comparable to a cell in the human body, vastly overwhelmed by the sheer volume of galaxies, solar systems, and stars. Now we understand that there is no real control center in the brain (as Kugel points out), so our consciousness is an amalgamation of different signals of different strengths that are a product of genes and outside stimuli. 

Our world is even more complex, despite having closed many of Seneca’s thousands of doors that open onto death—and this is good. A smaller view of ourselves keeps other doors open, which take us into a world of infinite possibility that cannot always “be seen by the eyes or heard by the ears.”

Aaron Rothstein is a student at the Wake Forest medical school.