If Youth Knew, If Age Could 10 — Nature’s on a Roll, or a Rigamarole, or Somethin’: Plural Processes, Dynamic Dynamos, and Good Enough
Dr. Herb Silverman is the Founder of the Secular Coalition for America, the Founder of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, and the Founder of the Atheist/Humanist Alliance student group at the College of Charleston. He authored Complex variables (1975), Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt (2012) and An Atheist Stranger in a Strange Religious Land: Selected Writings from the Bible Belt (2017). He co-authored The Fundamentals of Extremism: The Christian Right in America (2003) with Kimberley Blaker and Edward S. Buckner, Complex Variables with Applications (2007) with Saminathan Ponnusamy, and Short Reflections on Secularism (2019), and Short Reflections on American Secularism’s History and Philosophy (2020).
Here we talk about nature and humans as part of nature, and the relation to life.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Nature appears to have a minimum effort to come to certain paths for life. A lot of compromises come with this. Illness, ‘early’ death, malformations, natural abortions by the female body, cognitive ticks, physical and mental limitations, etc., that’s evolution’s compromise with the world. Coming to terms with the world, the real and natural world, will happen sooner or later, on the promenade of life, people have to step out and dance, eventually. What else is life for, exactly, but to dance — so to speak? Do you see the coming to terms with the world and make compromises with one’s surrounding important for living a fulfilling life?
Dr. Herb Silverman: You certainly express well why it makes no sense to believe in an all-powerful, omnibenevolent god who created a world with the kind of malformations you describe. We are the products of evolution. We were born of risen apes, not fallen angels. Apes had to kill to survive, and human apes have done a lot of killing and committed many atrocities. Yet the issue for me is not how low humans have sunk, but how high humans have risen. Steven Pinker provides evidence for our rise in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Lately we have seen advances in human rights, in part because many people have rejected or re-interpreted some features of biblically-based morality.
Life itself is a once-in-eternity chance to experience the universe like no other living creature can. We accept that animals do not think they have a reason to exist and yet, just because we have a more advanced brain, we seek purposes or reasons to exist. We are the fortunate result of billions of years of evolution that happened to form what we call life.
But I wouldn’t refer to “evolution’s compromise with the world.” Despite the limitations that are placed on us by evolution (we can’t fly or live forever), we can, as you say, “step out and dance.” So better to enjoy life, no matter what, because life can always get worse for you. Each of us will dance differently as we strive to lead fulfilling lives. I think compromises with our surroundings consist of what we can do to improve our environment. We need to find ways to stop or reverse the damage from climate change if we care about what will happen to future generations long after we are dead. It is said that we should think globally and act locally. At the moment, thinking globally about the environment overwhelms me, so I concentrate on acting locally.
Jacobsen: Following from the previous question, nature seems like a plural process. Everything going on at once. Same with our lives, hence the random events running around the house and then pooping on our carpets. Some stains never leave, entirely. How can you take on the blips in life in stride rather than saying, “I tried”?
Silverman: You mention random events, but we are here right now by some stroke of evolutionary luck. We’ve evolved to be able to think critically and dismiss Bronze Age ideas from tribesmen who attributed floods, eclipses, and plagues to punishments from a magical higher power. Rather than focusing on the “poop” in our lives, we should focus on what we’ve accomplished so far, and come up with a plan for what we can accomplish in the future. We all need to be lifelong learners.
I saw a disheartening statistic that 42 percent of college graduates never read another book after they graduate. That reminded me of a clever sign in front of a local library in my hometown of Charleston, South Carolina: “Dinosaurs didn’t read books, and now they are extinct.” If you finish your formal education without understanding your deepest strengths and interests, you have some work to do. Become the author of your life before you go extinct.
Jacobsen: In the midst of life, we can see most of us as good enough. We get along with one another and in our daily lives. Others come as dynamic dynamos, truly incredible souls. The rest — the big mass — of us as rather ordinary, stingy and crummy offshoots. The dynamos get, generally speaking, the best of what life offers due to fortune of Mother Nature’s blessings and the rewards of culture in response to the demands of said talents and special abilities. Even though, the rest of us are the good enough, the trend line of evolution. How can we get the most out of the little we’re given? Even if the time is a brief flicker, we get a life. For those dealing much with the end of life, the good stuff of life seems to come up more, ironically.
Silverman: The conditions into which people are born are due to simple dumb luck. I’m fortunate to have started life without any “blueprint errors,” so I wasn’t encumbered with any special physical or mental limitations. I know that life can be terrible for lots of people with major disabilities. Some families learn how to deal with it well, and others not so well. Attitude is almost everything along with good medical help, and a strong support system is often essential. Though I didn’t have a “silver spoon” growing up, I had a comfortable upbringing. I was also privileged to have been born in a country where I can live safely and prosperously, unlike many people in other countries who risk their lives to escape because of extreme poverty or grave danger to their lives.
In my retirement years, I’m beginning to reflect on how unnatural an act retirement is. It doesn’t exist anywhere else in nature. Have you ever heard of a retired coyote or a retired lion? A hundred years ago, humans didn’t even have a concept of retirement. Some of us are fortunate enough to be able to enjoy retirement, while continuing to try to make a positive difference in our community and on causes we care deeply about.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Silverman.
Silverman: Thank you for the opportunity to spout off.