I once participated in a public debate with another scientist on issues surrounding science and religion. I was an atheist with sympathies for the sacred character of human experience and he was an atheist without such sympathies. At one point in the discussion I tried to convince him that inclinations to "spirituality" or a sense of "sacredness" (with or without an institutional religion) was a response to the essential mystery that came with being human. He paused for long moment and then replied.
"There is no mystery"
It took me a while to pick my jaw off the floor and find an appropriate response.
I had made it pretty clear that, being an atheist, I was not arguing for a "God" of the gaps. Neither was I arguing that limits to knowledge (if they exist) imply we should be worshiping before some choice of deity. Instead I was simply pointing to that fundamental weirdness, that "stranger-in-a-strange land" quality of being human. I was pointing to that mystery because I think its best part of the whole trip.
We just find ourselves here. With our individual birth we just "wake-up" and discover ourselves in the midst of an extraordinary world of beauty and sorrow. All around us we see exquisite and exquisitely subtle orders played out effortlessly. From the lazy descent of fall leaves to the slow unfolding of cloudscapes in empty blue skies, it is all just here and we are just here to see it.
Day after day we wake again to find the world still here, waiting for us as we play out our own small dramas with their small triumphs and terrible heartbreaks. And then, remarkably, astonishingly, just here just ends.
For me that is the mystery. No amount of explanation, be it a "Theory of Everything" or a religious theology, will reduce the power of its experience. The primitive quality of feeling, the presence of life and its luminosity, is the mystery and I am damn thankful for it.
It is the essential and unalterable question mark saturating the verb "to be" that makes science worth pursuing and gives art its potency. It sets our loves and loss into a context that has no context and somehow makes it all bearable.
I will feel that mystery again as my family converges from across the state and across the continent to gather at the Thanksgiving table. I will feel it, knowing how deeply I love them all and how bound I am to lose them all. I will feel the mystery and be thankful to it, to them and to the world entire.
What else, after all, is there to do?
You can keep up with more of what Adam Frank is thinking on Facebook and Twitter. His new book is About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang.