I have written before about the conundrum that the universe poses us. Its history commenced spectacularly fourteen billion years ago with the big bang and out of that history evolved our own, the history of humankind. And of course the story of humankind and its earlier hominid relatives is a very recent one. Creatures somewhat like us evolved around two million years ago, in just the last blink of the evolutionary eye (in fact just 0.01% of the assumed cosmic history).
The dilemma we face in trying to understand all this is difficult to enunciate but I’ll try to give my version of it in what follows.
Most scientific explanations are objective, usually deterministic, with a little probability thrown in to discourage us from believing we can ever accurately predict our futures with any degree of certainty.
Whilst this might seem an unduly anthropocentric point of view, the universe would seem pointless without someone (or something) to be aware of it. But once we have sentient beings the universe can never be fully understood from an objective viewpoint. There are now subjective experiences to contend with that science seems ill-equipped to explain. Is evolution just about more effective arrangements of atoms and molecules improving the survival capability of organisms? Most of us would hope it was something more meaningful than this.
This opens up the space for a religious explanation.
Now I won’t insult your intelligence by mounting a critique of the fundamentalists and the literalists. People like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have easily knocked over these straw men. (And I must admit I have had a tilt at these easy targets myself.) Many believers are far more sophisticated than the more naïve reactionaries that the antagonists rail against.
(Although I must confess I was more taken with Hitchens’ polemic rather than Tony Blair’s when they came together in Toronto last November to debate whether religion was a force for good in the world. And of course Blair is no intellectual slouch. As part of his argument Hitchens quoted the American physicist, Steven Weinberg.
“In the ordinary moral universe the good will do the best they can, the worst will do the worst they can, but if you want to make good people do wicked things, you need religion.”)
Despite their dire prognostications for non-believers, most religions hold out hope for those who would believe their essential tenets. Science, on the other hand, seems to offer little optimism for the long-term for anybody. Take, for example, the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It holds that the most probable future state of the universe is one in which the available energy to produce and sustain such remarkable emergent phenomena as life, is irreversibly lost.
As John F Haught, the Christian scientist and theologian has written, “The universe is subject to entropy. Like a clock spring winding down over the course of time, it keeps losing the power to do work, including most notably the building up of organic complexity. And science knows nothing that will wind it up again.”
Our current understanding of science suggests that at some point in the future the enormous reserves of energy within the universe will expire completely. As a result all biological life would perish, supposedly eliminating consciousness and subjectivity. The universe would resort to being a decayed, unobserved, entirely physical and therefore relatively uninteresting phenomenon.
The British physicist, James Jeans in support of this hypothesis claimed that science has uncovered a universe hostile, or at least indifferent, to life and humanity. Jeans asks therefore, whether there is any more to life than strutting for a brief moment “on our tiny stage” armed only “with the knowledge that our aspirations are all but doomed to final frustration, and that” our achievements must perish with our race leaving the universe as though we had never been.
Or listen to the words of the renowned philosopher, Bertrand Russell.
“Brief and powerless is man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for Man, condemned today to lose his dearest, tomorrow himself to pass through the gates of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day; disdaining the coward terrors of the slave of Fate to worship at the shrine his own hands have built……”
Religion then offers a solution to the inexorable decay of the physical universe. It offers up hope to us in the face of the unremittent decline of the big bang’s spectacular creation. Whilst there are some variants to the theme I will in this essay consider the hope that Christianity offers knowing that there is little difference in the fundamental underplay of its alternatives.
Christianity offers new hope that the universe will be redeemed with the new coming of Christ. But I have reservations about this prognosis. This is a belief that came from a tribal interpretation of the way of the universe derived from the traditions of a small nomadic group of people ensconced is a semi-arid region of a small planet of a mediocre sun in a nondescript part of the universe.
I know their adherents believe it so, but it is a rather improbable outcome. If there were to be a divine revelation, and assuming there are more sentient beings than those that appear on this earth, or even knowing that others have a different view of what allows access to everlasting life, this would be a rather discriminatory revelation. This notion is reinforced by the dogma that it is only that those who believe in this rather arbitrary set of beliefs could possibly be offered access to a meaningful continuation of spiritual existence after physical demise. And it seems to fail a basic test of fairness that those who, from no fault of their own, have not been exposed to Christianity are then denied access to the benefits bestowed upon believers.
This seems to me a basic incongruity because religion is generally invoked because of its ability to render justice in the long term – those who have suffered in this life but maintained their faith are guaranteed reward in the next. It does not seem to make provision for those who because of an accident of birth (due either to geographical or temporal factors) have not had exposure to the dogma that purports to give them access to eternal life.
So we are then faced with an unhappy dichotomy between science and religion.
Science deals well with the objective and is deterministic, extrapolating the past into the future, building predictive models that largely work, and benefitting society in many ways that have improved our standard of living. There have been downsides of course, but not because of the science, which is value neutral, but by its inappropriate application. But science has largely failed to help us in any significant way in providing us with a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. (As outlined in previous blogs, this is what we crave, in order to meet our spiritual needs.) Science, however, except for a few irrational outliers, has been generally accepted by all nationalities and those of all belief systems.
Contrast this then, with religion. No religion has universal acceptance, nor is there any such likelihood in the foreseeable future. And certainly in the developed world our societies whilst tolerant of multiple religions are becoming more secular.
Christianity has its roots in a set of beliefs cobbled together some 3,000 years ago but augmented with the interpretation of some events that seem to have little historical authenticity purported to have taken place some two thousand years ago.
Whilst a religion based on an understanding of God should be timeless in its values and laws it is difficult to believe (and most theologians will agree) it is not impacted by its own historical context.
If we were to take a branch of science, say perhaps like medicine, we would surmise that the underpinnings of human health have not changed over the millennia but medicine has evolved with our greater scientific understanding.
Religion should also be prepared to envelop the greater understanding we now have of the universe. And indeed some theologians have tried to make allowance for this additional knowledge. However, most believers are firmly tied to the Biblical accounts written in ancient times.
Another problem we have explored in previous blogs is the tendency of many believers to take the writings literally when often the authors are using parables and metaphors to exemplify timeless truths.
But there is one feature of the aging universe that is intriguing me. Whilst as we saw above under the Second Law of Thermodynamics entropy is increasing resulting in a long term loss of energy and dispersal of matter, evolution is resulting in more complex organisms. In this respect creation is still occurring.
The Jesuit, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called this process “complexification”. He believed that the universe was purposeful. And rather than just emanating from the big bang it was being inevitably drawn to an end which he called the Omega Point.
As I have stated before, it is my belief that the essential “stuff” of the universe is consciousness and indeed matter and energy are secondary manifestations of consciousness. If The Ground of Being is the universal consciousness then matter complexified by evolution is the vehicle for the dispersal of consciousness. Perhaps the Omega Point occurs when the universal consciousness has been reassembled and organic consciousness has evolved sufficiently to know directly its Source. Once that point is reached evolution has no further purpose, nor does science or religion!
If consciousness is the essential “stuff” of the universe then science, as we now know it, is ill-equipped to understand it. Most religions, as we now know them, are too parochial to understand it.