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what the thunder says

What the thunder says
Random thoughts on being human
By George A. Ricker

This happened more than half a lifetime ago. The image has stayed with me through the passing decades.

I stood on the back porch of my home in South Florida and watched the advance of a thunderstorm moving in from the north. The clouds, massive and ominous, were dark, purpling bruises that filled the horizon. There was a faint rumbling of thunder, like the muttering report of a distant battle moving slowly, inexorably in my direction.

Suddenly, a metallic glint alerted me to the presence of an intruder in the path of the storm. A jetliner moved from east to west. The plane seemed small and fragile, as it flew to escape the threat of the storm. I thought of the people trapped in that metal cocoon. Were they frightened? Were they white-knuckled, some of them praying, others meditating and still others watching with interest and wondering what would happen next?

It is commonplace for people to draw messages from such sights, and one of the most common inferences is that of human inadequacy in the face of nature. Another is the arrogance of our species to think we can ignore natural forces, that our science and technology can somehow confer immunity from such things as we ride an unstoppable wave of human progress into the future. There is enough truth in these observations to give them the ring of credibility, but they are not the whole truth. They suffer from a fundamental flaw, a failure of perception that plagues many.

Now I would be the first to agree that the plane did look tiny, toy-like, in the path of the storm. I also would agree that the forces at work in such thunderstorms could easily destroy any such aircraft with ease. In that sense, the airplane clearly was no match for the natural phenomenon that was moving in its direction. Framed against the backdrop of the looming thunderheads, it appeared to be a fragile, silver bauble.

However, to me it was much more than that. It seemed a streak of silver laughter in the glowering face of the storm, a statement of what it means to be human. We are the species that tries to understand the forces at work in the development of thunderstorms and other natural phenomena. It is our understanding of such things that allows us to manufacture and fly jet aircraft and a host of other things. It is not the mastery of nature that we seek. It is the desire to understand that drives us.

We are not in a competition with nature. That’s the failure of perception I referred to earlier. Those who speak of our species conquering nature or ruling it still have not grasped a fundamental reality that is part and parcel of everything we do.

We are not apart from nature. We are a part of it.

Although we often refer to human enterprise as unnatural or artificial, there is a sense in which it cannot be so. If an anthill is a part of nature, then so is a condominium. Each serves the same essential function for the species that creates it. While it is certainly true that we don’t want condominiums dominating the landscape, it is also true that we would not find a landscape that was overrun by anthills to our liking either.

Of course, our efforts to understand thunderstorms and other natural phenomena have evolved as our species has evolved. There was a time, not really all that long ago, when we would have cowered in our caves and viewed the oncoming storm with very different eyes. We might have seen the face of a god in the lightning and heard its voice in the thunder. We probably would have regarded the storm as a malevolent thing to be propitiated with sacrifice and supplication. Primitive humans saw a landscape filled with supernatural forces, populated with gods and demons and all manner of beings. Some still do.

What the thunder says depends very much on how one listens.

I was reminded of all this while driving to dinner with my wife recently. We had just turned north and saw a huge column rising into the sky. It was topped by the Space Shuttle Discovery, just launched and heading into low earth orbit and a rendezvous with the International Space Station. Included in its cargo were a Japanese laboratory module and a spare part for the station’s malfunctioning toilet. Such sights are commonplace in these parts—it is, after all, called the Space Coast for a reason. Rocket launches produce their own kind of thunder. It is different from but not entirely unrelated to the first.

The relationship between the two events is not the result of the noise produced by thunderstorms and rockets but is the consequence of that most human of characteristics, our ability to ask questions. It is because we have the capacity to ask questions (and all such an ability implies) about natural phenomena like thunderstorms that we have the ability to do the science and create the technology that leads to rockets and space ships.

Certainly, we ask questions to find answers, to form conclusions and act on them. But the process begins with questioning. If we, as a species, simply accepted the natural world and asked no questions about it, then we would have no human culture at all. Our human narrative would never have begun. We would be something other than human beings.

Reading A. M. Sperber’s definitive biography of Edward R. Murrow, Murrow: His Life and Times, one passage in particular jumped off the page at me. Speaking of the legendary newsman, Sperber writes: “As for truth in the abstract, he preferred to turn on its head the biblical injunction of St. John—i.e. ‘Ye shall know the truth’—believing rather that truth, once accepted as such, had very often enslaved man and that doubt had often set him free.” *

Think about that for a moment. Is there, can there be, anything more quintessentially human than our ability to doubt? Is it not that capacity that leads directly to the questions we ask? Is it not doubt that has provided the spark for virtually all human progress.? Is there any other species that doubts, that asks questions? The subject here is not simple investigation of one’s surroundings, but the ability to doubt one’s perceptions, to challenge the prevailing wisdom, to change the narrative by asking questions others may fear to ask.

Of course, it stands to reason we had to develop some capacities before we could begin to doubt. We needed these larger brains. We needed the ability to form and speak words, to develop language, and so on. So I’m not saying doubt is the only thing that makes us human. What I am suggesting is that it is the ability to doubt and to ask questions which has fueled our progress as a species. The most stagnant periods in human civilization have been those periods when most of humankind simply acknowledged accepted truths and did not challenge them. We have advanced when we have been willing to challenge the status quo, to doubt what we were being told, to ask questions and seek new answers.

We atheists often get accused of worshipping science or attempting to make a religion of it. It is an accusation that is used as a straw man to discredit our criticisms of religions and ideas about gods with the claim that we, too, have a religion, and its name is “science.”

But even the most strident atheist recognizes that science is not infallible. Most, if not all, atheists understand this reality. Science, at its very best, can never claim absolute certainty. All any scientist can ever claim is “This is what we think we know based upon the information we have right now. However, it is subject to change depending upon what we learn next.”

What most atheists do believe is that science offers us the best method for understanding the universe we occupy. And at the very core of all science is not certainty but doubt, not answers but questions. Regardless of how doctrinaire some scientists may be—and there is no denying there are some of those—science itself is all about asking questions. It is not about accepting received wisdom but about challenging it.

Science is how we humans actually began to translate and comprehend the thunder, how we came to understand the forces at work and to use that knowledge. We could have chosen not to doubt the stories that said the thunder was the voice of a god or the product of the actions of gods. We could have turned away from the questioners—as I am sure many did—and insisted on respect for the status quo. We could have silenced our doubt and silenced the questioners. But, in the last analysis, it would not have been very human to do so.

For we are the species that seeks to understand the lightning and the thunder and all the other phenomena of the natural world. It is in our nature to do so. It is a very important part of what it means to be human.

What the thunder says also depends upon who is listening.

*A.M. Sperber, Murrow: His Life and Times (Fordham University Press, New York, 1998) p. 113. (This is the biography to read if you are interested in Murrow. It is a marvelous piece of work. GR)

© 2008 by George A. Ricker

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