November 18, 2011 | 21
“Does aught befall you? It is good. It is part of the destiny of the Universe ordained for you from the beginning.”
– Marcus Aurelius, Stoic Philosopher and Emperor of Rome, in Meditations, circa 170 CE
“’He said that, did he? … Well, you can tell him from me, he’s an ass!”
– Bertie Wooster, fictional P.G. Wodehouse character, in The Mating Season, 1949
People have been arguing about the fundamental nature of existence since, well, since people existed. Having lost exclusive claim to tools, culture, and self, one of the few remaining distinctions of our species is that we can argue about the fundamental nature of existence.
There are, however, two sets of people who want to shut the argument down. One is the drearily familiar set of religious fundamentalists. The other is the shiny new set of atheists who claim that science demonstrates beyond reasonable doubt that our existence is accidental, purposeless, and doomed. My intent is to show that both are wrong.
I do not mean to imply a false equivalence here. Concerning the fundamentalist position, my work is done. Claims of a six-day Creation, a 6,000-year-old Earth, a global flood, and so forth have been demolished by science. It has not only amassed evidence against particular claims but has discovered laws of nature that exclude whole classes of claims. To the extent we can be certain about anything, we can rest assured that all supernatural claims are false.
The “New Atheist” position, by contrast, demands serious consideration. It has every advantage that science can provide, yet it overreaches for its conclusion. The trouble with the “New Atheist” position, as defined above, is this: it commits the fallacy of the excluded middle. I will explain.
But first, if you’ll pardon a brief diversion, I feel the need to hoist my flag. You may have inferred that I am a liberal religionist, attempting to unite the scientific narrative with some metaphorical interpretation of my creed. That is not so.
I am a secular humanist who is agnostic about many things — string theory, Many Worlds, the Theo-logical chances of a World Series win for the Cubs – but the existence of a supernatural deity is not among them. What’s more, I am one of the lucky ones: I never struggled to let go of God. My parents put religion behind them before I was born.
I tell you this not to boast but in hopes that you’ll take in my argument through fresh eyes. The science-religion debate has bogged down in trench warfare, and anyone foolhardy enough to leap into the middle risks getting cut down with no questions asked. But here goes.
Science indeed excludes many possibilities. The conservation laws rule out ghosts who deploy photons to be visible, electromagnetic force to hurl objects, and kinetic wave energy to moan. Miracles are bunk. Like LaPlace, we’ve no need for a Creator to explain how the world works. But we might in searching for our ultimate origins.
The claim I aim to rebut is that science forces us to conclude that life is accidental, purposeless, and doomed. It’s a stance with quite a claque.
The A Team
In the vanguard are its Four Horsemen: neuroscientist Sam Harris, philosopher Daniel Dennett, zoologist Richard Dawkins, and lion of letters Christopher Hitchens. Other notables in the New Atheist ranks include physicists Victor Stenger, Lawrence Krauss, and Sean Carroll, and biologist PZ Myers. Plenty of intellectual heft there.
They have been joined by the world’s best-known living scientist. After decades of soft-pedaling “the mind of God,” Stephen Hawking came out as an atheist last year. The Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, author of A Brief History of Time, and cameo Simpsons star famously wrote: “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”
Fine. Let us add that theory seems to imply a multiverse — an infinite card table where the deck of laws is continually shuffled to deal out every conceivable hand. It may be that the Totalitarian Principle — “Everything not forbidden is compulsory” — demands our presence in a biophilic bubble somewhere in the multiverse. But it ain’t necessarily so.
Until some evidence arrives, the pursuit of truth through science obliges us to entertain multiple hypotheses. When it comes to cosmic origins, that must surely include consideration of the idea that our Universe was deliberately created with a purpose in mind. Yet little authentically secular effort has gone into it.
Indeed, any talk of teleology seems to infuriate Dawkins: “What is the purpose of a mountain? What is the purpose of a tsunami? What is the purpose of bubonic plague? Surely you can see that these are just silly questions? Same with the universe.”
They are indeed silly — if you assume that a supremely powerful and virtuous deity created the Earth. But that hardly exhausts the possibilities.
To name just one, it may be that the fundamental property of the Universe is information, and that life, the Universe and everything amount to a program running for an obscure purpose. That conceit is captured with mordant humor here.
Why are such secular ideas bruited only by cartoonists and humorists? To be sure, physicists have better things to do. But the deeper reason, I suspect, is social. Scientists adopt methodological naturalism — the working assumption that all phenomena can be explained in terms of impersonal laws and materials. To stray from that assumption is to risk ridicule and loss of credibility — as responses to this essay will no doubt show. Yet, it can legitimately be done. The SETI project’s search for a signal from ET is proof of that.
When it comes to cosmic origins, however, religion predisposes nearly everyone to commit to impersonal naturalism or theistic creation. Thus, in opposition to the New Atheists, we find a handful of scientists who are Creationists of varying religious stripe: biochemist Michael Behe, physicists Frank Tipler and Gerald Schroeder, and geneticist Francis Collins, to name a few.
Please do not suppose that in raising these names I salute them. It would be unjust to link my argument with religious Creationism of any calibre. If you’re looking for a proper pigeonhole, park me with the SETI scientists.
I am precisely as agnostic about the existence of intelligent life beyond the observable Universe as I am about its existence within it. That is to say, I stand in equipoise ‘mid skepticism and hope. And so, in the spirit (if you’ll pardon the expression) of T.C. Chamberlin, allow me to sketch an alternative hypothesis for our existence.
Life Is Good
Take the mainstream scientific narrative of cosmic evolution, abiogenesis, and biological evolution as given. Assume, for argument’s sake, that humanity will navigate the rapids of history through which we are passing and establish a peaceful, sustainable global civilization.
Darwinian evolution compels most of us to act as if the persistence of life into the future is good. In fact, for those of us in advanced nations, life has become really good in just the last few generations. (Consider how few of us starve to death, lose a child to infectious disease, or risk enslavement.) Assuming that civilization persists, it is reasonable to infer that life will be even better in the future, and that our descendants will want to keep it going.
In the long run, that will require moving beyond Earth (Brace yourselves, Trekkies!), and eventually into the kind of galactic colonization whose absence Fermi famously noted. (“Where are they?”)
But in the very long run, as John Maynard Kenyes wryly observed, we are all dead. Everything we know about the Universe, with its dark energy and its goshdarn Second Law, tells us so.
Faced with this inevitability, what will our descendants do? If possible, they will follow the Darwinian imperative: Keep life alive! They will attempt to create a Baby Universe capable of giving rise to life like us.
Swell, you may think, but what has this to do with secular creation? Simple: the Principle of Mediocrity. It tells us that when we have only one data point, we should assume that it lies near the middle of the distribution curve. That being so, if we take the above as granted we would be foolhardy to assume that we will be the first proud parents of a Baby Universe. The ability to procreate a Universe would suggest that ours was so created, and for a similar reason: to keep life alive.
The extravagance and imperfections of the Universe are just what you might expect of imperfect creators doing the best they can with the materials on hand. SETI’s failure to date suggests they were none too extravagant! Indeed, nothing of which I am aware counts as evidence against this hypothesis.
All the same, it is falsifiable. I can think of at least two ways it might fail. Perhaps demographer Eric Kaufmann is right: the maximal reproduction rates of fundamentalists in an era of contraception may mean that by the end of the century they will swamp all others. In that case, we can expect that one prophecy, at least, will be fulfilled: Armageddon.
It may also be that new knowledge in physics will conclusively demonstrate that it is simply impossible to create a baby Universe. That day has not yet arrived.
Perhaps I’m an ass, but until it does I remain a hopeful agnostic — hopeful not that some ancient religious myth happens to be true but that life is a gift given in trust that we will pass it on.
Read the response to this post here:
Physics and the Immortality of the Soul
Forgotten dreams? A call to investigate the mysteries of humanity
What does it mean that a nation is ‘Unscientific’?
Dubitable Darwin? Why Some Smart, Nonreligious People Doubt the Theory of Evolution
The deity by any other name: Army resilience program gets a thumbs down from atheists