The Unserious Universe

I am going to put to you, in this essay, a difficult philosophical issue. How serious is the universe? We all know that Malcolm Fraser famously said, “Life wasn’t meant to be easy.” Most of us would reluctantly agree with this statement. But even in the face of this I ask you, “Was life meant to be serious? Seriously!”

Traditional philosophers ponder over such questions as, “Who am I?”, “Where did the Universe come from?”, “Does my essence continue after physical death?” and so on, but I want to put to you a question hardly ever addressed by such scholars – ‘’Is it serious?”

There is an innate tension in us to want to take the Universe seriously but to also want to view it with wonder and joy. Some people, and often influential people in our lives, are more disposed towards the former viewpoint. But if you cast your mind about and try to identify those whose company you most enjoy, it is unlikely that in your list there will be anyone who takes themselves or the Universe too seriously. We thus can exclude most clergymen, many accountants and all quality assurance managers (and according to the Lutheran’s Guide to the Orchestra possibly bassoonists).

The problem is that if you wish to live a life that is more fun than serious, the killjoys always get in the way. For example it always annoys me that when I want to have fun and I use the excuse that “Life is short”, someone curmudgeonly will respond that “It is the longest thing you will ever experience!” (This reminds me of George Burns who in his latter years –  he was very long-lived –  said “If I would have known I was going to live this long I would have taken better care of myself!”

Over the ages many academics, philosophers and theologians have looked upon a lack of seriousness as a moral failure. Yet many have attested to the benefits of humour and laughter. Laughter is said to be therapeutic, speeding the recovery of the ill and bolstering our immune system. Indeed L M Montgomery, author of that famous old classic, Anne of Green Gables , said “Life is worth living as long as there’s a laugh in it.”

Or consider the words of one of my favourite poets, W H Auden, “Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can; all of them make me laugh.”

It is probably God’s fault that we take everything so seriously. The God of the Judaeo–Christian tradition is a rather severe fellow. I am not a biblical scholar, but I suspect there is no evidence in the Bible that God ever smiles, let alone laughs. When Dante suggested that the angels’ hymn of praise to the Holy Trinity sounds like the laughter of the Universe, the redoubtable spiritual scholar Alan Watts, asked the question, “What is the joke?” I could give you a few examples, but I will restrict myself to one.

I suppose that life must be serious if you believe in original sin; that fine piece of guilt inducing theology posits that once our progenitors Adam and Eve were unsullied by sin but then they were tempted, and thus yielding to such temptation, caused “The Fall” resulting in a situation where all their successors are doomed to sin and can only be “saved” by acknowledging that the serious, retributive God sacrificed his son to atone for our shortcomings. (It is incredible that we laugh indulgently when our children express belief in the “Tooth Fairy”!) I wonder that there is not more effort from the fundamentalists, already straining to fly the creationist flag in the face of the evidence of evolution, striving to know how the snake got into the garden!

And of course if you are really serious about doing serious you have to belong to Islam. The God of Islam, Allah, seems to be even more vindictive than the God of the Christians! Allah is also a killjoy in terms of dictating what you must wear and eat, and largely forbidding such amusements as modern music and dancing and nude beaches. The exceptions, of course in Islam, are the Sufis. They might not actually fall about laughing but probably come close! For among their ranks are the whirling dervishes who are able to transport themselves to ecstasy through dancing which I am sure is accompanied by laughter and smiling. This is hardly something the Puritans would countenance nor indeed Muslim fundamentalists.

But for most of us it is all so depressing being faced with a humourless God. We are told in Genesis that man was fashioned in His image (and I presume that meant more than his physical image). It would suggest that those who display a sense of humour are aberrant indeed! (“Forgive them Lord, for they know not what they doeth (when they laugh)!”

The Hindus have a different tradition. They believe that the Universe was created by Brahman, in a playful way. Brahman created a place where he could hide the enduring essence of himself (Atman) in multiple bodies to see what they might make of the Universe. Creation is then an elaborate game where Brahman forgets this essential separation. Some Hindu commentators suggest it is though Brahman plays hide and seek with himself! This sounds a lot more entertaining than creating a son who has to die for our atonement. Or then again it might be symptomatic of the onset of dementia.

One of the more popular icons in the Buddhist tradition is the “laughing Buddha”. Sure Buddhism has a serious side. The first of the Four Noble Truths confirms that suffering is inevitable. But there is no barrier to having fun in Buddhism. In fact to help you gain enlightenment, in Zen Buddhism in particular, (just like Frodo in The Hobbit), you get to answer unlikely riddles, called koans. The joke is maintained by the fact that if you give a rational answer you will probably be given a resounding smack to wake you up!

The great Russian Novelist and essayist Fyodor Dostoyevsky knew the importance of laughter and humour. He wrote, “If you wish to glimpse inside a human soul and get to know a man, don’t bother analyzing his ways of being silent, of talking, of weeping, of seeing how much he is moved by noble ideas; you will get better results if you just watch him laugh. If he laughs well, he’s a good man.”

In considering the philosophical question of whether the Universe is serious we have now explored some of the theological viewpoints. Perhaps we should now look at what science has to say on the subject. Mind you we should be aware of the limitations of science. We must always look at the scientific approach but be cognisant of how it is ameliorated by evolution. Scientists are striving to describe the Universe in terms that even fools can understand. Evolution on the other hand seems hell bent on producing ever more ignorant fools. Statistics prove conclusively that evolution is winning!

Modern particle physics keeps dissecting the world into smaller and smaller bits. The conclusion that such scientists have come to is that matter is largely nothing at all but a multitude of tiny, buzzing bits of something imbued with such qualities as “charm” and “spin’’ which to me smacks of being put together by a public relations expert. Now how could you take that seriously?

Or if we move on to quantum mechanics we are told that the Universe at the level of quanta is just an indecipherable mush spread about probabilistically. It is the action of an observer that collapses the probability function into something discreet. Now how could you take that seriously? It sounds like it was conjured up by Tom Waterhouse in between race days!

Perhaps we should listen to the viewpoint of an Astrophysicist – some one more likely to see the “big picture”. One such person was Sir James Jeans. Jeans wrote, “The concepts which now prove to be fundamental to our understanding of Nature seem to my mind to be structures of pure thought …………the universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine.”

(And of course the idea of the physical world as a “great thought” is in fact, a central concept in esoteric wisdom.)

Assuming that the Universe is a “great thought,” why does the thought have to be serious? I know mine often aren’t. I often have very unserious thoughts, like fantasising that Australia might win the Ashes, imagining the pope addressing the faithful at the Vatican naked, contemplating a future where politicians were always honest, and so on.


Thus from my exhaustive study, examining the question from a theological, scientific and a practical point of view, I have concluded that the Universe should not be taken seriously.

5 Replies to “The Unserious Universe”

  1. he he, very good Ted….that splendid quote wasn’t actually George Burns, a black jazz singer from the 20’s is generally credited, but it is a good line, I’ve used it myself.

    Now: yesterday in the City was a big party for Buddha’s birthday; didn’t you tell me a month or two ago that it was Buddha’s birthday back then? And also, the Chinese were out in force at Southbank yesterday, but wasn’t Buddha like Indian? Or a Ceylonese guy once told me that Sri Lanka is the traditional home of Buddhism…..what’s the story Ted?

  2. Oh and about Original Sin, may I help you out there: it’s a concept that’s been around for a very long time and has been manifest (and still is)as the prejudice that parts of society have for what they perceive as lower caste people (like poor or blacks or poor blacks, or lepers, or alcoholics or Collingwood supporters or Catholics even). Society has traditionally viewed these peoples as having afflictions that are passed down by heredity. Leprosy was a stand-out example of this. Wrong of course, but staunchly believed. So the Church at the time (St Augustine in particular) set out to name this travesty, calling it Original Sin, and to ritually remove this so-called transmitted sin by a ritual washing (as many cultures have done for hundreds maybe thousands of years, and still do). St Augustine (about 500AD) naturally linked the ritual/ceremony to religion as people have been doing for a very long time, and to his own religion as you might reasonably expect, and called it Christening.

    It’s about ceremonially (or sacramentally)declaring each child or person so baptised a new creation, washing away the prejudies that it inherited from its parents – like colour or religion or deformity.

    It was very convenient for the theology of the day too because it fitted in with the concept of redemption.



  3. Wow, I have just realized Malcolm Fraser was quoting one of the four noble truths of budhism. Just goes to show the depths of our leaders.

    Harping back to last weeks blog Ted. Management is very serious stuff. A manager takes his job light heartedly at his peril. I have actually been accused of not taking things seriously enough. I think that is when I realized management and I are not compatible. I am much happier keeping necessarily serious managers smiling. A challenge I am much more up for and it makes me feel good as well.

    Life is definitely not a serious thing. You die at the end of it for starters. If we have a creator he certainly had a sense of humor. As for the universe, all the greatest minds throughout history have finally concluded that it is probably a thought made of nothing with a limited probability of even existing. What’s more it could cease to exist at any instant. Doesn’t sound like a very serious thing to me.

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