Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Flickers of Meaning in a Meaningless Universe?

I recently bought a copy of Michael Novak's No One Sees God, and have been hungrily devouring it in the days since. Though Novak is a Catholic theologian, he strives to bridge the gap between atheists and the religious, believing that all have something valuable to contribute to each other and to the big questions facing humanity. As a man who has spent "long years in the dark and windswept open spaces between unbelief and belief," he aims to remind believers and unbelievers alike of the "fairly common voyage through the dark" that we are all on. I am currently halfway through the book, and I am proud to consider Novak an intellectual and spiritual companion on this journey.

With this blog post, I would like to share a smattering of questions that No One Sees God has inspired in me. I throw these meandering inquiries and thoughts out there, not in the hopes that I will get any answers, but that you can pause (as I have) and think about these things some more. I suspect that it is questions like these that we will spend our lives seeking the answers to, through the give-and-take of our daily grind.

It seems many atheists, especially the hardcore vocal ones, see the universe we inhabit as being essentially random and absurd. Much of modern science supports this, to be sure. We see a vast history of various bits of matter swirling through space, attracting each other, and combining into stars and planets -- it appears to all come together through chance and dumb luck. Other bits of matter, which somehow have developed a sort of autonomy or intelligence, come together and demonstrate behaviors to perpetuate themselves and reproduce, giving rise to the myriad forms of life we see on Earth today -- this, too, is apparently chance and dumb luck.

I'm not saying the universe isn't this way, on the whole. I'm not saying that science is completely wrong or that anything we see was "designed" by a god. I just have questions to ask. Questions to which I do not have a satisfactory answer at the moment, but which I think any thoughtful being will eventually ponder.

In a universe of such seeming randomness, why should there be a tiny sliver of non-randomness -- that is, thinking human beings? How do you get from the random (the probability wave forms of quantum mechanics; bits of matter running into each other and annihilating each other or combining into something new) to the non-random (hairless bipeds that can think, talk, gain knowledge, transmit it, preserve it, etc.)?

In the cold, dark universe of meaninglessness that we see through science, how do we come to have animals (including us) that have a spark of meaning within them? Some high-level animals demonstrate a sort of "moral code" of helping each other, which of course we can explain away through Darwinism and survival mechanisms. But not all animals show that, and none go as far as humans go. Humans formulate codes of morality, debate them, promote or demote moral ideas, talk about "conscience," carry guilt, yearn for meaning, and strive for such abstract purities as truth and justice.

Why does this world of ours, seemingly, look like this:


Amongst the flat landscape of inanimate, meaningless, and (apparently) random bits of flotsam and jetsam that makes up the majority of our visible universe, why is there that little spike? How can the inanimate and meaningless somehow give birth to the animate and meaningful? How can the cold, uncaring soil somehow sprout a verdant orchard of warm, fleshy beings who strive for compassion?

Similarly, in engaging "secular conservative" Heather Mac Donald in friendly discussion, Novak raises further questions of interest:

Heather is close to the mark when she manifests deep respect for human conscience, for the human quest for truth and justice, and for "innate" drives for goodness and concern for others. The metaphysical questions [are], Where did these drives come from? What sort of world is it in which such drives appear? ... The all-too-visible law of the jungle that marks our universe does not seem to her promising for progress in truth and justice...

This opinion leads me to the question, What is it about humans that makes them so different from other animals, fish, birds? Given an irrational cosmos, whence comes the human quest -- Heather's quest -- for the good and the true?

I'm told that scientists estimate the observable universe contains some 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms. Out of those 10^80 atoms, why is it that a relatively tiny handful of atoms should end up comprising human beings? And why, unlike all the other atoms we can see out there, do we have this ability to conceive of such abstract notions as truth, justice, goodness, and compassion? Again, how does a universe of the meaningless give birth to some little spike of the meaningful?

If we temporarily skip over the issue of first causes, there is an inconsistency in how to move on from here. The "secular humanists" (and most other atheists) insist that there is still a moral code worth following. For example, from the Council for Secular Humanism's Affirmations of Humanism:

  • "We believe that scientific discovery and technology can contribute to the betterment of human life."
  • "We believe in supporting the disadvantaged and the handicapped so that they will be able to help themselves."
  • "We believe in the cultivation of moral excellence."

If the universe is heartless and meaningless, why do these things matter? If I only live once, and if I evolved from a huge family tree of animals that, primarily, survive by hunting and killing and cruelly taking whatever they need -- what is the point of "moral excellence?" If I can't take it with me when I die, and if there is no over-arching truth, justice, and goodness to strive for, then why bother? The disadvantaged and the handicapped will die someday, and I will too, and that will be the end of both of us. Why care? In all likelihood, someday there will be no humans left to remember any of us who lived or anything we did, so goodness in an uncaring universe seems rather futile.

I disagree with many of the Secular Humanist affirmations (e.g. "democracy is the best guarantee of protecting human rights"), but I respect their desire to cultivate morality and goodness among all people. Still, the questions must arise: Why is morality desirable? How did we arrive at this point where we value morality, if the other 99.9% of the universe that surrounds us is decidedly amoral and indifferent?

Militant atheists insist they can be "good without God" -- like Michael Novak, I have no doubt about that. There are atheists who are wonderful people, and there are Christians that are horrible people. Atheism is no guarantee of being good or bad, and Christianity (or religiosity) is no guarantee either. But, I ask the hardcore atheists, why should you be good without God? Or to simplify the question, why should you be good? You don't have to believe in God to be good, but why be good at all if the universe is meaningless and indifferent?

I don't have an answer to any of this so far, but it's enough to make a person pause. Atheists say the "non-falsifiable" Christian answer ("It's God's will") is useless hot air; I'd similarly say that the non-falsifiable atheist answer ("It's all random and meaningless") is equally useless. It also flies in the face of the observable evidence sitting right here in the chair I occupy as I type this: I am not totally random and meaningless, as far as I can tell.

There is a chair for me to sit on (something not random or meaningless, but assembled with intention), a computer to type and publish with (equally not random or meaningless), and an established language for me to write in and you to read in (ditto). These facts alone defy the chest-thumping of "militant atheists" like Richard Dawkins. Again, they don't necessarily point to a metaphysical intelligence or a Creator, but they do illustrate some flaws in the atheist insistence on metaphysical meaninglessness and emptiness.

A closing thought: whether the militant atheists are right or wrong, I've always found something distasteful about their means of communicating. They firmly adopt the method "discussion" that is prevalent in the modern West: taking up a position and shouting it at others, ridiculing those who don't agree, with no real give-and-take or mutual respect. Though I am not a Catholic like Mr. Novak, I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment he expresses over and over in his book:

I do not understand why atheists, deists, and Jewish and Christian theists cannot argue calmly and reasonably about such matters. Mapping out the chief differences, and the obstacles in the no-man's-land between one [paradigm] and another should -- with perhaps an additional case of brandy slowly sipped -- be accomplished in a decade or less. Such a discussion need not convert anyone. But it should lead to a much higher quotient of mutual respect among all three parties than we have seen for many generations now.

Amen to that, Michael. I'm weary of the notion of "conversion," whether by Christians or by atheists. I think one of the most beautiful endeavors we humans can undertake is to ask questions, ponder our lives, and respect each other as we try to do it all together.