Saturday, September 17, 2011

Does it Matter?

The common Christian idea that to not believe in a deity is to believe that there is nothing in the universe greater than oneself always struck me as strange.

The idea that the Universe is structured God > People > Everything Else seems nonsensical to me.

After all, had I to dropped dead in the middle of typing this, eight minutes from then, would anything have noticed? But - were the Sun to have gone out during that time, after about eight minutes, I'd have been very (and eventually fatally) put out. So I'm pretty sure that Sun > Me is true. Just like Earth > Me, Trees > Me and Viruses > Me are true. So assuming that a deity has the top spot, I'm nowhere near second place, and so the absence of that deity does not put me into first.

And in a very real way, that makes me irrelevant. In fact, most of us are irrelevant. The Universe does not miss us when we become absent, and neither do most of our fellow humans. But we don't like that; and it makes sense why. Chapter 3 of The Origin of Species is "Struggle for Existence." When Darwin explains this term he tells that he uses it to encompass three different scenarios - the Struggle for Existence within a species, the Struggle for Existence between species and the Struggle for Existence against the environment. All of these would be short-circuited by the failure of individuals to fight to survive, and a general feeling that it doesn't make any difference tends to short-circuit the will to fight to survive. Therefore, it is possible to make the case that our own understanding of our importance in the grand scheme of things is programmed into us by Nature.

And so we create all sorts of mechanisms, designed to tell us that we're important. The idea that God loves us. The idea that all people are equals. The idea that how we behave during life always matters, and there will be repercussions even after we die.

But everywhere we look we are bombarded by indications that, actually, we aren't all that important. As individuals or even large groups, most of us wouldn't be missed, except by those people who know us reasonably well. From 2002 to 2008, how many people were murdered in the United States? Pick a round number. Would you have any clue if you didn't have Google at your fingertips? The answer is a little over 100,000 people. Can you put your finger on what difference it may have made? How the world is any different? We're still here as a nation, let alone a species, and still kicking butts and taking names. Can articulate one thing that we're doing to prevent these deaths? Or perhaps, can you articulate one thing that you're doing?

And I think that this is the source of the uproar over Wolf Blitzer's question to Ron Paul in the recent debate, and the crowd's reaction to it. Where some one may or may not have said "Let him die," what many people really heard was, "He doesn't matter." And even though we often seem to behave as though that were true, we don't normally profess it. And many of us become profoundly uncomfortable when we feel that others do. And I think this is because many of us fear that it is, actually, true.

Look at the abortion debate. Really, it's an argument over who matters more - pregnant women or the fetuses (feti?) they carry. When I was in a parochial school growing up I was taught that the fetus was who mattered. If necessary, the mother was expected to go to her death to preserve it, regardless of the consequences to anyone else. New life trumped those already born. On the pro-choice side, a different argument is made - that the life, health and autonomy of the woman are important and should have weight, rather than simply being cast aside in favor of a conceptualization of women as little more than baby delivery vehicles - unimportant, except for this function that they carry out.

The many facets of the debate over the Affordable Care Act also reflect this. Remember "Death Panels" and "Rationing Care?" Both of those were tropes brought up by opponents of the Act to convey to people the idea that if the ACA were to pass, that their inalienable right to Importance would be, in fact, alienated, and decisions over who was worthy and who was not would be made by "faceless government bureaucrats" - otherwise known as "people who don't understand how important you are." On the flip side, those who support the idea of the government taking steps to ensure access to a certain level of care see critics as advocating a system where people without means are left to fend for themselves when they are in need - unimportant.

But it manifests itself in other ways, too. The Federal government spends a pretty good chunk of change every year making sure that the President of the United States of America is kept safe - and to a lesser extent, that protection is extended to ex-presidents, as well. We're told that the President is a Very Important Person and it would be Really Bad if anything were to happen to them. But there is an entire line of succession, some 17 people long, designed specifically to ensure that the government keeps functioning in just such an instance. This not to say that just because there is a contingency plan in place, that one doesn't guard against the possibility, but realistically, nothing short of a new World War could get through the cocoon around the President, let alone manage an effective decapitation strike against the United States, and so a lot of the expenditure seem more about projecting how Important the president is, rather than protecting him from any sort of credible threat.

In spite of the fact that, really, in the grand scheme of things, we're only temporary, we put a lot of time and effort into convincing ourselves and each other that we matter, that we're relevant - that we're important. Like a lot of things that are baked into us from the start, we're not as aware of it as we could be. In fact, being too aware of it is seen as pathological. We are supposed to matter, and to resist being irrelevant. But the Universe carries on, unaware of our efforts.

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