During the press conference on Jan. 16 that followed his announcement as the 17th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, President Russell M. Nelson was asked how to attract millennials to the faith and retain them.
His answer to the question was, perhaps, not exactly what some might have predicted. First, he said, we must stress that each individual is a child of God. Then, elaborating on that point and drawing on his decades as a surgeon, he expressed his amazement at “the structure and the function of the human body, how it can defend itself, how it can repair itself.” We should, he continued, “help them to appreciate eyes that see and fingers that feel and ears that hear. That’s not an accident. That’s a gift from their Creator. So I would start right there.”
President Nelson was encouraging us to contemplate the sheer miracle of our physical embodiment.
The overwhelmingly dominant theory in cosmology today is that of the so-called Big Bang, which occurred nearly 14 billion years ago and from which everything in the visible cosmos exists. According to current scientific understanding, the Earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago. Had a “casual observer” been looking on in those days, he or she would have seen little if anything that hinted at the arrival of life, let alone of humanity.
Yet here we are. We have hands that can, at least potentially, play Rachmaninoff or ragtime, embroider, pet a cat, cast a pot, perform surgery, paint a sunset or lift weights. Our bodies, sometimes compared to machines, far exceed any machine that we have ever created: They’re able to ward off invasive enemies or diseases, to repair and even to reproduce themselves. No human-built factory is as complex as even one of the nearly 40 trillion cells in our bodies.
Our minds, however, are endowed with intellectual power far beyond what’s needed for survival and reproduction. Cockroaches, iguanas, lemurs and sea urchins are superbly adapted to their environments, fully competent to live and to propagate themselves. But, so far as we know, they don’t compose symphonies, write or enjoy novels, devise mathematical formulas or discover sub-atomic particles. They don’t contemplate the purpose of their lives or ponder ethical dilemmas.
Somehow, Aristotle, Michelangelo, Kepler, Bach, Shakespeare, Dante and Einstein emerged from the original “quark soup” of the primitive universe, following the coalescence of our planet from cosmic dust.
The most complex object in the known universe — far more intricate than any star, galaxy or nebula — is the human brain, which contains somewhere between 85 and 100 billion neurons. Often compared to a computer, it is, nonetheless, distinctly different from any computer that we’ve ever been able to build or even, really, to conceive. Why? Because it’s conscious, self-aware. Computers don’t have subjective experiences. They may calculate, but they take no satisfaction in solving a complex equation. They may be programmed to generate music, but they derive no enjoyment from it.
No brain scan, no electronic monitor, can sense joy, sorrow, love, disappointment or exultation. Such experiences are uniquely personal. We have no idea how to explain consciousness naturalistically, and a number of prominent philosophers (most notably Colin McGinn, but also Thomas Nagel and Jerry Fodor), linguists (such as Noam Chomsky), and scientists (including the eminent British physicist Roger Penrose, the American psychologist Steven Pinker and the “New Atheist” neuroscientist Sam Harris) argue — in a position sometimes called “mysterianism” — that such an explanation is in principle and forever beyond our reach.
But consciousness, including the ability to be subjectively aware of the perceptions of “eyes that see and fingers that feel and ears that hear” — to enjoy them, learn from them or take warning from them — is at the absolute core of our nature and our experience. To recognize it as a profound mystery can reasonably and justifiably serve as a step on the path to faith. It’s scarcely unreasonable to feel that they do, indeed, seem to be gifts from our Creator.
“What a piece of work is man,” exclaimed Shakespeare’s Hamlet in "Hamlet," Act 2, Scene 2. “How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an Angel, in apprehension how like a god, the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals.”
Contemplating that fact, stepping away from distractions and actually reflecting on it truly is a good place to start.