Between Atom and Star

Peter H. Samsom, Minister, The First Unitarian Church of San Diego, California
The great lesson of life is to believe in what the centuries say as against the hours. — Emerson

"What is man, that thou art mindful of him?" asked the unknown writer of an ancient psalm. "What is man?" uncounted centuries of religion and philosophy have asked. And the philosophers today are asking the same question as they try to trace a meaning and direction in the course of human history. Man has been eternally questioning himself and the heavens above him to learn his own nature, and where he stands in the universe — and as we look back over the ages each period of human thought comes forward with an answer that reflects its own current dogmas in religion, its own intellectual fads, and the social crises that mark the period. Only now and then do we catch the sound of a really questioning thinker trying to appraise our human nature and destiny in the light of what we actually know as the facts about ourselves.

It would seem that our thinking comes and goes in waves of fashion. From age to age, the pendulum swings from one extreme to another, as men react away from one excess only to commit its opposite. We have in our contemporary religious thinking a revealing example of this see-sawing of thought. Several of America's most gifted religious leaders today seem to be completely sold on one of these extremes, and are telling their publics that man is doomed by reason of his evil nature, that the biblical legend of the fall of man in the Garden of Eden is true after all, and that we are all wretched sinners, deluded by our false pride in ourselves, able to be saved only by embracing some variety of supernaturally revealed truth.

Of course men of the ability and perception of a Fulton J. Sheen or a Reinhold Niebuhr are not utterly wrong, any more than the Spenglers and Schweitzers, with their predictions of the downfall of civilization, are completely without justification. Well-read and thoughtful men who view the modern scene with all its tragedy, hatred and nationalistic lust, warn us that the blithe optimism of the past century was in error, that man is not by any means progressing onward and upward forever on a spiritual escalator, nor is man really a Little Lord Fauntleroy at heart. But what after all are the social pessimists doing but swinging back to the opposite extreme, just as mistaken as the one they reject? In a way, these long centuries of religious discussion about man's nature and his future sound somewhat like the noisy argument between two grade-school children wrangling about the merits of Buck Rogers or Superman: "He's the best of the lot!" "Ahhh, he's terrible!" "He ain't!" "He is too!"

This sort of argument, when transposed as it has been into learned theological phrases, is not likely to advance our thinking. Actually it is no more than a futile contest between rival dogmas, each fact-proof and airtight — one, the medieval dogma that man's heart is evil; the other, the modern dogma of automatic, inevitable progress. If we are to achieve any light at all, we shall have to move to another level altogether, and try to get at the truth about ourselves in another way.

We must explore the "long view" on human affairs, a view that takes into account not merely this century or this civilization, but the whole fantastic human story — a really long view, one that goes back even beyond the first imaginable human events. Let me quote a few sentences which at first hearing seem to have nothing to do with our question, but which may possibly turn out to offer us some helpful clues. They are from Eddington's fascinating book Stars and Atoms:

Our sun belongs to a system containing some three thousand million stars. The stars are globes comparable in size with the sun — that is to say, of the order of a million miles in diameter. The space for their accommodation is on the most lavish scale. . . . But this is probably not the limit. Evidence is growing that the spiral nebulae are island universes outside our own stellar system. It may well be that our survey covers only one unit of a much vaster organization. . . . A drop of water contains several thousand million million million atoms. Each atom is about one hundred millionth of an inch in diameter. Here we marvel at the minute delicacy of the workmanship. But this is not the limit either. Within the atom are much smaller electrons pursuing orbits, like planets round the sun, in a space which relatively to their size is no less roomy than the solar system. Nearly midway in scale between the atom and the star there is another structure no less marvellous — the human body. Man is slightly nearer to the atom than to the star. . . .

Man, Eddington goes on to point out, is almost exactly half-way in size between the atom and the largest bodies we know. Then, to give us an idea of the enormously vast scale by which he is measuring man, he reminds us that of course there are much smaller units than atoms and much larger units than stars. If we include the very smallest things we know and the very largest, then man is found to occupy a position nearly two-fifths of the way up the cosmic scale from the electron to the all-embracing scope of the universe. Two fifths of the way — 

but so vast is the scale that to be half-way up he would have to be as big as a million big trees rolled into one. Even if we were to take the two billion people now inhabiting the globe as constituting but one single organism, this would still be more than ten times too small. Individual man is nearly half-way between an atom and a star, humanity entire stands in about the same position between an electron and the universe.

Of course, Eddington is talking merely about the size of the human body, comparing it with the rest of the universe great and small, and we know that size in itself has nothing to do with quality or character or destiny. Man could be utterly insignificant or overwhelming in size, and still we would know nothing of the kind of being he was, the quality of his mind and heart. Yet there is something in this scientific approach to man which appeals to the imagination.

So man is half-way between a star and an atom! In the language of science, this means one definite thing, but think what a poet could do with that phrase! He could lift it out of the realm of statistics and transform it into an exciting symbol of the nature of man himself and his position in the life of the universe! Of course, scientists do not enjoy having poets messing around with their precise concepts and turning their careful statements into dreamy metaphors. But the suggestion in Eddington's phrase is so tempting that we just cannot leave it alone, whether we are poets or not. Does it not suggest something to our minds about the age-old question of where man stands in this mysterious universe and what his chances are?

Immediately we see that to say that man is half-way between an atom and a star helps us to correct a false but quite popular notion — the idea that man is utterly insignificant and puny in comparison with the universe as a whole (and here we are still staying with science's meaning). How often have we heard it said: Beside the vastness of the universe we now know about, we are as a mere driblet in the ocean of existence! [image]And with this usually goes some doleful reflection about the unimportance of our human concerns and problems because we are so little in the universe. Actually, when the whole picture is taken into account, man is not tiny at all. If we remember to include in our picture the infinitely small as well as the infinitely great, man turns out to be quite a respectable distance up in the size scale, if it is size we are concerned about. Indeed, if Eddington is correct, man is almost as much greater than the electron as the total universe is greater than man.

Our final judgment on man, however, does not rest on his measurements. What appeals to us in Eddington's placing of man between a star and atom is this: that just as man is a midway point with respect to his size, he may also be in a midway position in other, more important and interesting ways! Let us look at the matter of our knowledge — of the earth, living things, the human body and mind and its workings. Would anyone seriously claim that we have attained no really significant knowledge as a race? Would anyone seriously contend, on the other hand, that we are anywhere near the limits of our possible knowledge, that we have achieved all we need to? These appear to be ridiculous claims stated thus baldly — yet they are being made by men who ought to know better, by those who have never reflected that we are still in the making as intelligent creatures, with a long past of magnificent growth behind us and in all probability a very long productive growth ahead of us.

Our religious and historical pessimists are fond of claiming that what we know about ourselves and our universe is very little, that even though it should fill whole libraries and though millions of dollars worth of laboratories be devoted to its extension, still it is insignificant, and we remain weak creatures groping about in the darkness of our ignorance and the evil of our hearts. Our modern optimists, on the other hand, with a reverse twist, talk as though we have practically arrived, as though we have just about achieved the pinnacle of progress in wisdom, and in a few more years we will know all there is to know, with cultural salvation just around the corner. We do not say it in so many words, of course, but we often act as if we believed it. The past century of scientific advance has produced results so amazing and revolutionary that it is easy to understand how we can jump blithely to the cheerful conclusion that there cannot be much more for man to learn.

But in the perspective of the infinitely long past behind us and the inconceivably long future ahead of us as a race, such pessimisms and optimisms become pathetic and even ridiculous. Both assume that man is more or less ready-made, a finished product, without much either of a past or a future, and the myths of the Christian religion have done little to correct these mistaken views. Our conventional religious myths, with their Day of Creation and Judgment Day, leave no room for recognition of the profound fact that, just as man stands between the smallest and the largest units physically, so does he stand in mental and spiritual growth somewhere between the past and the future, between what was and what is yet to be, between a primitive and a fully developed creature. Once the artificial walls of our too-narrow imagination are broken down and we appreciate man's true position, between an atom and a star literally and figuratively, then the creative truth of our lives at last can become real for us.

No, it will not be automatic. Such progress will not fall into the laps of our distant future descendants, any more than it fell into the laps of Socrates, Galileo or Darwin. Progress of any kind is painful and effortful, and lays stern demands upon us. It demands that we keep a growing edge to our minds, that we remain flexible, alert and even skeptical of all that seems most certain at our present state of development. No, progress is never unearned or automatic — but it is possible of achievement, and has taken place even in our so brief experience, despite all our doleful theologies, our gloomy philosophies of history, and the easy complacency with which we so often tend to view our present achievements. For we are somewhere between our beginnings and our destiny, somewhere between our least and our greatest capacities as a race.

We have been speaking of the growth of man's knowledge, and figuring that there is no good reason to place any boundaries around its future. But knowledge is not necessarily wisdom or goodness, and there is quite a difference between knowing what is good and doing it in practice. With the aid of his unique new weapon of knowledge, and the ability to apply intelligence to the solution of his problems, man has become the dominating species of animal life. In the course of a few thousand years, a mere fleeting moment in the immensity of geological time, man has survived and outwitted all his opposition. And now he holds a position which was once held successively by fishes, reptiles, and the mammalian titans of past epochs. This has been a stupendous achievement, not to be casually depreciated or belittled by any temporary, short-scaled pessimisms. This is the miracle of evolution.

But withal, marvel as we may at man's astonishing survival value and his ability to outwit the forces about him by his nimble intelligence, his capacity to change and adapt himself, and his lack of protective armor, it does not take a wise or very learned person to realize that man has won only part of the battle — and perhaps the easier part. Having developed the marvelous weapon of intelligence, he has found himself handling a double-edged sword that can cut both ways. Armed with knowledge of every conceivable aspect, man is now potentially able to shape a more abundant, secure and satisfying life than his ancestors — but by the very same token, he is also able to destroy, with a new and dreadful precision, and spread havoc on a scale he has never before known.

This situation, unparalleled in recorded history, has led many to form some extremely unhappy conclusions about man and his future. Little wonder, for our knowledge seems sometimes to have outstripped our ability to use it for social good or world unity, or even for personal peace of mind. But once again we can see what happens when theologians and philosophers despair of man's hopes under these modern conditions. When they are in such moods, they seem to forget the all-important element of time.

How old is the earth? Possibly a thousand million years. How long has life existed on the earth? About 350 million years. When did man appear? Anthropologists say only about one million years ago. His known, recorded history conventionally begins about four thousand years ago — a mere fraction of the age of man himself, while science in its modern form is only four centuries old. Thus, in relation to the time man has been in existence, this historical period of civilization about which we are so worried is a mere moment — yet on the basis of what we have achieved or failed to achieve in that tiny instant of time, we are naive enough to turn cartwheels of joy or throw up our hands in despair about man's future! It simply does not make sense, this short-term appraisal of human life and destiny.

The patience of the long view! This is what a realistic perspective can give us. It can remind us that the age of man is but a moment on the clock of time, that there lie before man in all reasonable probability many eons of such moments — time to correct his errors, time to outgrow his childish superstitions about himself and the universe, time to flex his social and spiritual muscles and time to begin to fulfill his immense possibilities as a creature who has developed intelligence and a sense of human fellowship.

It is fortunate indeed that there exist in our present world and our immediate future certain serious threats, dangers and challenges which will not permit us to relax too comfortably in the assurance that there is time aplenty within which to correct our mistakes! There are untold ages ahead for the future evolution of human society, yes — but we know with fair assurance that unless we tend resolutely to the present business of ridding the world of war, hunger and inequality, the business of learning to live together on our shrunken little apple of an earth, there may not be very many or very healthy human beings around to enjoy that infinite future on the earth!

But even this danger can be seen in sensible perspective, for man has faced annihilation before, he has faced what has seemed at the time certain destruction at the hands of some catastrophe he could not seem to cope with — and somehow he has survived.

Slowly we learn that the dogmas of human weakness and of human perfection — the pessimisms and optimisms — are but half-truths and dangerous ones at that. We become aware of our infinite past and rich heritage, and bit by bit we become conscious that the little moment of time within which we enact our life-drama is but a flick of a motion in the eternal epic that has no beginning and no end so far as our groping minds can see. Our world seems so old to us who now live, but in time's wise perspective it is a world but recently begun, a world well started — with dangers, challenges and promise enough to absorb all our devotion.

(From Sunrise magazine, June 1954; copyright © 1954 Theosophical University Press)

Theosophical University Press Online Edition