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Harvard Professor Worries 'Is Life Cosmically Irrelevant?'

Harvard professor James Wood, in a New Yorker article "Is That All There Is?" tells of a friend, a philosopher and a convinced atheist, who sometimes wakes in the middle of the night haunted by the following angst: "How can it be that this world is the result of an accidental big bang? How could there be no design, no metaphysical purpose? Can it be that every life—beginning with my own, my husband's, my child's, and spreading outward—is cosmically irrelevant?"

Wood, who is a secular man himself, admits that "as one gets older, and parents and peers begin to die, and the obituaries in the newspaper are no longer missives from a faraway place but local letters, and one's own projects seem ever more pointless and ephemeral, such moments of terror and incomprehension seem more frequent and more piercing, and, I find, as likely to arise in the middle of the day as the night."

What is this "incomprehension" that can suddenly grip even secular persons? Wood's friend's questions reveal more an intuition than a line of reasoning. It is the sense that we are more and life is more than what we can see in the material world. Steve Jobs, when contemplating his own death, confessed that he felt that "it's strange to think that you accumulate all this experience ... and it just goes away. So I really want to believe that something survives, that maybe your consciousness endures." It seemed to Jobs untrue to reality that, for something as significant as the human self, death would be just an "off switch," so it is merely "Click! And you're gone."

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