Posts Tagged ‘human curiosity’

Josef Sadil: The Moon and the Planets

January 7, 2021

     I have been interested in astronomy for most of my life, going back to my childhood days in the primary school playground where my best friend and I devised adventures involving travel through space; we both hoped that we might one day be the first men on the moon… today I’m a retired teacher and when I last had news of my friend he was a priest in the Russian Orthodox Church. I can remember the early probes to the Moon, Mars and Venus mentioned in this book, and the excitement with which we looked forward to the grainy monochrome photos in the newspapers.

I must have been ten or so when this book turned up as a Christmas present from my father. It’s a production from Czechoslovakia, translated into English. I was fascinated by the pictures, which in those remote days were painted artists’ impressions – in colour! – of scenes of what the planets might look like, and they set my childish imagination on fire. Now, more than half a century later we know so much more about the solar system, and of course astronauts have been to the moon; in this book the trip is merely ‘projected’ – as are flights to Mars in the 1980s! It really is a reflection of the excitement and intensity of space exploration in the 1960s, in the years leading up to the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969.

I went back to it, wondering whether the time had finally come to part with a relic. Clearly it’s a museum-piece: far more is known now, far more planetary satellites have been discovered, and the dearth of information about the outer gas giants Uranus and Neptune, or the (non)planet Pluto is rather a shock. What I got was a clear picture of how science progresses by advancing hypotheses and checking them out against increasing amounts of information and evidence as these are gathered. And even more, a renewal of my sense of awe and wonder at this aspect of our human search for knowledge about our universe, a search which is inevitably politically neutral, and which benefits and enriches us all. It’s this idea that, because it’s there we want to know about it, that renews my shrinking faith in the worth of our species…

The myth of the Fall

August 7, 2015

Thinking further about forbidden knowledge and dangerous knowledge took me back to the myth of the Fall of Adam and Eve, which I don’t believe in any literal way, but which I am convinced serves some deeper purpose somewhere in our species’ consciousness and warns us about the dangers of knowledge.

The basic outline appears in Genesis, and is elaborated on in such texts as The First Book of Adam and Eve, and, of course most significantly, in John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. Within a fairy tale is presented a core philosophical question central to our understanding of ourselves: how do we deal with the knowledge (illicitly) gained?

Humans have the ability to reason; this enables us to make choices, and allows us a certain measure of free will. Religions take particular stances on this question, which I don’t think it’s necessary to go into here. In the Hebrew-Christian version of the Fall, firstly it is Lucifer who says ‘I will not serve’ thus rebelling against God (and becoming Satan in the process), and who subsequently, in his disguise as the serpent, tempts Eve with the notion of becoming like a god if she eats the forbidden fruit. The knowledge of good and evil attainted through this rebellion is, arguably, what makes us human. A similar story also exists as the Prometheus myth, incidentally.

So, for better or worse, we have access to knowledge: but can we cope with it? We are necessarily a curious species: we want to know things, and we can’t stop learning. Thus eventually we invent dynamite, nuclear weapons, genetic engineering and a whole host of other things that we aren’t convinced are wholly good things, at least, under our shaky control. But we can’t put the genie back in the bottle, as I pointed out in my last post.

But it is this original sin – if we briefly use the religious terminology – that makes us the humans that we are. Adam and Eve are far more interesting after they have fallen: they argue, they enjoy sex, they become conscious of themselves as individuals. They are us. I’d never really thought about the significance of Adam’s saying to God ‘I saw that I was naked’ – there is the ‘I’ for perhaps the first time as Adam becomes someone different from what he was before…

In Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve do not seem human before the Fall. Similarly, in Huxley’s Brave New World, although the inhabitants of AF 632 seem happy enough, they are not human as we know it, Jim – and this was the position my students and I inevitably reached when we studied that novel.

Our fallen-ness is explored in literature and evidenced by our history over several millennia; we may be humans, but we are perhaps not a very intelligent species. We are unable to balance the needs and desires of the individual – me – which exists because of our self-knowledge and ability to reason, and the needs and desires of the collective or group.

For me, the issue becomes even more complicated if we then look at the – purely Christian, because found in no other religion, I think – consequence of the Fall, which is the redemption that allegedly follows. What exactly are we to be saved from? What are we being offered instead? If we are to be saved from our inabilities to cope with our free will, if we are to be saved from our inability to see the consequences of our actions, perhaps I could be in favour of that, but would I still be human? And would that be any great loss? And then we shade into the realm of the utopian, the perfect worlds of which so many writers have loved to dream, and which we must admit are unattainable, or, if attainable, then at the cost of our human-ness…

I’m not sure where all this gets me…but I do have a framework into which this ancient story now fits, and a message about myself and my species which does speak to me…

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