A few weeks ago, Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, author, science communicator, and director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City tweeted, “The Universe is blind to our sorrows and indifferent to our pains. Have a nice day!”
Comedian and Canadian Norm Macdonald replied, “Neil, there is a flaw in your little aphorism that seems quite telling. Since you are I are part of the Universe, then we would also be indifferent and uncaring. Perhaps you forgot, Neil, that we are not superior to the Universe but merely a fraction of it. Nice day, indeed!”
It’s an interesting conversation and I think it’s important. I looked for the thread just now and it seems like Neil deGrasse Tyson never replied to Norm, which is a shame. But, then again, if it were me I might not have replied on Twitter either. Twitter is just about the worst place in the world to have any kind of philosophical discussion. Maybe they spoke in private.
One of the most famous early Buddhist texts is often titled in English, Questions Not Tending to Edification. In this dialogue, a guy named Malunkyaputta asks Buddha why he never talks about the following questions: whether the universe is eternal, whether the universe is infinite, whether the soul and the body are the same thing, and whether there’s life after death.
The Buddha says these aren’t the important questions because answers don’t help get at the root of human suffering. He tells Malunkyaputta that asking about this stuff is like a guy who gets shot with an arrow saying he won’t let anyone pull the arrow out until he knows the race of the person who shot it, or the person’s height, or what town he was from.
The chief concern of most religions is questions like the ones Buddha rejected. This can lead people to think that Buddhism is materialistic, that it accepts the materialist view of the universe as “blind to our sorrows and indifferent to our pains.”
But that’s not correct. The universe is not blind to our sorrows and indifferent to our pains. There is concrete evidence of this all around us, as much as there is concrete evidence of any of the discoveries of astrophysics. The evidence that the universe is not blind to our sorrows or indifferent to our pains is that we are not blind to each other’s sorrows nor are we indifferent to each other’s pains.
The stuff of the universe doesn’t just manifest as planets and stars and galaxies. It’s not all just gasses and plasmas and rocks. The stuff of the universe also manifests as mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and lovers and friends. We are part of this universe as much as anything else.
Someone recently asked me what I had to say about love. You don’t hear the word “love” a whole lot from Buddhists. I think that’s mostly because the word love can get very sticky. It tends to suggest romance and emotion. Buddhism isn’t very interested in romance and emotion. But that doesn’t mean it’s not interested in love.
You hear Buddhists talk about compassion a lot more than they talk about love. I think that’s because compassion is a less sticky word. It doesn’t have some of the difficult connotations that the word love has. Compassion is a more neutral way to refer to the same phenomenon.
I sometimes wonder if what human beings experience as love and compassion might be something similar to gravity and electromagnetism. Maybe love or compassion is a kind of natural force that attracts things to each other. Maybe what we experience as caring or companionship is a manifestation of the same force that the keeps planets orbiting the sun.
I don’t think I’d get very far with Neil deGrasse Tyson talking about an idea like that. He’s a very smart man, one of my favorite commentators about science. Even though he’s not much older than me, he kind of looks like my dad looked when my dad was his age. Maybe that’s another reason I find him more compelling than a lot of people who talk and write about science.
In any case, it doesn’t really matter that much whether Neil deGrasse Tyson would accept my dumbass theories about love and gravity. It’s not that important to me whether it can be proven scientifically or not. It just seems to me that everything in this universe is much more connected and much more intimately alive than most people think.
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