I’ve often heard “<Insert fantastically complex and mysterious thing here> is just <insert banal and allegedly well understood thing here.” “We’re just mammals.” “Did you know that atoms are just 99.9999999999996% empty space? So for the most part, we’re just empty space!” “The earth is just a tiny speck of space dust.” “We’re all just One Thing.” “We’re all just a bunch of bits shuffling around in a matrix.” “Love is just a chemical addiction.” “What was mistaken for closeness was just a case of Mitosis. (~Andrew Bird)” “Your brain is just a biological computer and you are just a biological robot.” “This physical reality is just an illusion.” “Life is just a dream.” “Myths are just the projections of man’s psyche.” “Religion is just the opiate of the masses.”
Why do we repeat and ponder these words among ourselves? Is it arrogance? Perhaps a bit of hubris combined with a bit of fear? The darkness, the unknown, and the unfamiliar strike fear in the cautious side of man’s nature yet man’s courageous and creative nature longs for mystery, adventure, and a harrowing dramatic plot enlivened by uncertainty. With the rise and fall of societies and civilizations there is a corresponding ebb and flow in the concentrations of these two opposing qualities in the character of the people. The cautious side of man’s nature is necessary for his short-term physical survival and comfort. The more adventurous side of man’s nature is necessary for his spiritual progression. Very often it is the young who are most adventurous, fearless, idealistic, and unimpeded by physical discomfort or peril. With age comes pragmatism, conservatism, the desire for physical comforts, and an aversion to adventure. It is a difficult challenge to keep the spirit of adventure alive as one ages. Societies follow this same pattern. In an old and rich society, the majority of people do not want to be bothered with mystery and adventure in any real sense. They want to know that everything is business as usual and everything is all understood – no surprises and no losses. Eventually such a society loses its spirit and deteriorates. Unfortunately, in our old and rich society we have reduced and deconstructed the mysteries of existence with an endless number of “it’s just” statements. Science as an institution began in the spirit of adventure and discovery but now sits old and fat upon its achievements like a Pharisee waving away all sincere seekers with a cold canned demystifying “it’s just” mantra. “It’s just Beelzebub!” “It’s just dead matter!”
On the other hand, I believe paradigms should be shaken – regularly – and some types of “it’s just” statements can sometimes be effective and appropriate for the task. I think the issue lies in getting stuck on them and following the trend of demystifying existence to make it something beneath us and manageable by us. The scientific method is a wonderful tool that supplies us with the facts and we supply the mythos and interpretation. Science as an old unadventurous institution too often supplies only the facts or the facts with a singularly materialistic interpretation. There is no wisdom in facts alone. Wisdom lies in both the exploration and balancing of extreme mythic interpretations of those facts to both maintain equanimity and promote the mystery of existence. Every scientific fact used to justify a banal deconstruction can and should be counterbalanced with a further deconstruction back into mystery.
For example: citing the scientific fact that we are 99.9999999999996% empty space is just a mind trick! What is the effect of this statement? We generally think of our existence as being confined to our bodies and we think of our bodies as solid (or flabby) material. We want to have solid bodies. We want to be real and have a significant presence. To ponder the fact that our perception of dense matter is in reality mostly empty space somehow seems to defeat our egocentric elevated view of the nature of our existence. If we have big egos it might be appropriate to spend a good while pondering this scientific fact with this negative connotation. Likewise it might be good to ponder the relative smallness of our blue-green “speck of space dust” that is our home planet until our ego has shrunk by the same relative amount. But when these negative truths have done their positive work on us, we have to deconstruct these deconstructions and restore the mystery to existence. Let’s deconstruct the fact that we are 99.9999999999996% empty space. “We” are beings composed of a nature that is not completely understood and our existence here is still unexplainable. No one knows why there should be something rather than nothing or why this something should be conscious, dynamic, and dramatically interesting. “Empty space” likewise is not well understood. It has been posited that empty space is not empty at all, but rather contains a thick soup of vibrating particles and anti-particles carrying out well-balanced multi-dimensional annihilations known as “zero-point energy” such that a mere tablespoon of empty space contains more potential energy than the entire material universe. Considering that the average human body contains 4,490 tablespoons of “empty space”, it could be said that the average body contains the potential energy of 4,490 universes.
Science as an institution is not the only old rich man who waves away the adventurous mystery seekers with banal deconstructions. Religion of course does this as well. The universe can be perceived as a dark scary place and certain “adventures” can be too much for even the stoutest soul to suffer. Religion with its timeless truths and myths and its air of final absolute divine authority calms and comforts us with soothingly solid simplifications. “Our years of pain and toil are just a drop in the ocean compared to eternal bliss!” “Life is just a wheel.” “Death is just a doorway.” I am not saying religion tells us all lies to comfort and pacify us. It tells us many truths assembled in such a manner that we can stand on them and feel that we are above them as if it’s all understood now. The darkness is pushed back for the moment so we can rest easy through the night. This is no different than science telling us the precise amount of empty space in the atoms that compose our bodies.
It is important to remember that all human knowledge is just a parsing of the Whole into arbitrarily defined bits of information and sewn back together with threads of logic. It is just a collection of analogies by which we compare things incomprehensible to sensible experience. We can play with the stitching of these words and analogies to create the desired stylish effect on our model of reality. For the past century it seems the trend has mirrored the trend in modern art towards banality. It has been used to demystify existence to the point where the life of the average person feels terribly empty and the spirit of man formerly glowing brightly is now dying leading to societal decay and possibly civilization’s collapse. But we can also practice our intellectual stitching to restore mystery and savory poignancy to experience. At this moment, this moment is all we have, and the experience of being is the only thing that cannot be further deconstructed. Existence is and always will be the supreme mystery from which springs infinite mysteries. To restore the vital nature to man’s spirit and society as a whole, we must recall the mystery of existence and deconstruct the demystifying deconstructions.