Why does the world exist, and other dangerous questions for insomniacs

William Blake Creation of the World


A few weeks back I wrote a post on how the recent discovery of gravitational lensing provided evidence for inflationary models of the Big Bang. These are cosmological models that imply some version of the multiverse, essentially the idea that ours is just one of a series of universes, a tiny bubble, or region, of a much, much larger universe where perhaps even the laws of physics or rationality of mathematics differed from one region to another.

My earlier piece had taken some umbrage with the physicist Lawrence Krauss’ new atheist take on the discovery of gravitational lensing, in the New Yorker. Krauss is a “nothing theorists”, one of a group of physicists who argue that the universe emerged from what in effect was nothing at all, although; unlike other nothing theorists such as Stephen Hawking, Krauss uses his science as a cudgel to beat up on contemporary religion. It was this attack on religion I was interested in, while the deeper issue the issue of a universe arising from nothing, left me shrugging my shoulders as if there was, excuse the pun, nothing of much importance in the assertion.

Perhaps I missed the heart of the issue because I am a nothingist myself, or at the very least, never found the issue of nothingness something worth grappling with.  It’s hard to write this without sounding like a zen koan or making my head hurt, but I didn’t look into the physics or the metaphysics of Krauss’ nothingingist take on gravitational lensing, inflation or anything else, in fact I don’t think I had ever really reflected on the nature of nothing at all.

The problems I had with Krauss’ overall view as seen in his book on the same subject A Universe from Nothing had to do with his understanding of the future and the present not the past.  I felt the book read the future far too pessimistically, missing the fact that just because the universe would end in nothing there was a lot of living to be done from now to the hundreds of billions of years before its heat death. As much as it was a work of popular science, Krauss’ book was mostly an atheist weapon in what I called “The Great God Debate” which, to my lights, was about attacking, or for creationists defending, a version of God as a cosmic engineer that was born no earlier and in conjunction with modern science itself. I felt it was about time we got beyond this conception of God and moved to a newer or even more ancient one.

Above all, A Universe from Nothing, as I saw it, was epistemologically hubristic, using science to make a non-scientific claim over the meaning of existence- that there wasn’t any- which cut off before they even got off the ground so many other interesting avenues of thought. What I hadn’t thought about was the issue of emergence from nothingness itself. Maybe the question of the past, the question of why our universe was here at all, was more important than I thought.

When thinking a question through, I always find a helpful first step to turn to the history of ideas to give me some context. Like much else, the idea that the universe began from nothing is a relatively recent one. The ancients had little notion of nothingness with their creation myths starring not with nothing but most often an eternally existing chaos that some divinity or divinities sculpted into the ordered world we see. You start to get ideas of creation out of nothing- ex nihilo- really only with Augustine in the 5th century, but full credit for the idea of a world that began with nothing would have to wait until Leibniz in the 1600s, who, when he wasn’t dreaming up new cosmologies was off independently inventing calculus at the same time as Newton and designing computers three centuries before any of us had lost a year playing Farmville.

Even when it came to nothingness Leibniz was ahead of his time. Again about three centuries after he had imagined a universe created from nothing the renegade Einstein was just reflecting universally held opinion when he made his biggest “mistake” tweaking his theory of general relativity with what he thought was a bogus cosmological constant so that he could get a universe that he and everyone else believed in- a universe that was eternal and unchanging- uncreated. Not long after Einstein had cooked the books Edwin Hubble discovered the universe was changing with time, moving apart, and not long after the that, evidence mounted that the universe had a beginning in the Big Bang.

With a creation event in the Big Bang cosmologists, philosophers and theologians were forced to confront the existence of a universe emerging from what was potentially nothing running into questions that had lain dormant since Leibniz- how did the universe emerge from nothing? why this particular universe? and ultimately why something rather than nothing at all? Krauss thinks we have solved the first and second questions and finds the third question, in his words, “stupid”.

Strange as it sounds coming out of my mouth, I actually find myself agreeing with Krauss: explanations that the universe emerged from fluctuations in a primordial “quantum foam” – closer to the ancient’s idea of chaos than our version of nothing- along with the idea that we are just one of many universes that follow varied natural laws- some like ours capable of fostering intelligent life- seem sufficient to me.  The third question, however, I find in no sense stupid, and if it’s childlike, it is childlike in the best wondrously curious kind of way. Indeed, the answers to the question “why is there something rather than nothing?” might result is some of the most thrilling ideas human beings have come up with yet.

The question of why there is something rather than nothing is brilliantly explored in a book by Jim Holt Why the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story. As Holt points out, the problem with nothingists theories like those of Krauss is that they fail to answer  the question as to why the quantum foam or multiple universes churning out their versions of existence are there in the first place. The simplest explanation we have is that “God made it”, and Holt does look at this answer as provided by philosopher of religion Richard Swinburne who answers the obvious question “who made God?” with the traditional answer “God is eternal and not made” which makes one wonder why we can’t just stick with Krauss’ self-generating universe in the first place?

Yet, it’s not only religious persons who think the why question is addressing something fundamental or even that science reveals the question as important even if we are forever barred from completely answering it. As physicist David Deutsch says in Why does the world exist:

 … none of our laws of physics can possibly answer the question of why the multiverse is there…. Laws don’t do that kind of work.

Wheeler used to say, take all the best laws of physics and put those bits on a piece of paper on the floor. Then stand back and look at them and say, “Fly!” They won’t fly they just sit there. Quantum theory may explain why the Big Bang happened, but it can’t answer the question you’re interested in, the question of existence. The very concept of existence is a complex one that needs to be unpacked. And the question Why is there something rather than nothing is a layered one, I expect. Even if you succeeded in answering it at some level, you’d still have the next level to worry about.  (128)

Holt quotes Deutsch from his book The Fabric of Reality “I do not believe that we are now, or shall ever be, close to understanding everything there is”. (129)

Others, philosophers and physicists are trying to answer the “why” question by composing solutions that combine ancient and modern elements. These are the Platonic multiverses of John Leslie and Max Tegmark both of whom, though in different ways, believe in eternally existing “forms”, goodness in the case of Leslie and mathematics in the case of Tegmark, which an infinity of universes express and realize. For the philosopher Leslie:

 … what the cosmos consists of is an infinite number of infinite minds, each of which knows absolutely everything which is worth knowing. (200)

Leslie borrows from Plato the idea that the world appeared out of the sheer ethical requirement for Goodness, that “the form of the Good bestows existence upon the world” (199).

If that leaves you scratching your scientifically skeptical head as much as it does mine, there are actual scientists, in this case the cosmologist Max Tegmark who hold similar Platonic ideas. According to Holt, Tegmark believes that:

 … every consistently desirable mathematical structure exists in a genuine physical sense. Each of these structures constitute a parallel world, and together these parallel worlds make up a mathematical multiverse. 182

Like Leslie, Tegmark looks to Plato’s Eternal Forms:

 The elements of this multiverse do not exist in the same space but exist outside space and time they are “static sculptures” that represent the mathematical structure of the physical laws that govern them.  183

If you like this line of reasoning, Tegmark has a whole book on the subject, Our Mathematical Universe. I am no Platonist and Tegmark is unlikely to convert me, but I am eager to read it. What I find most surprising about the ideas of both Leslie and Tegmark is that they combine two things I did not previously see as capable of being combined ,or even considered outright rival models of the world- an idea of an eternal Platonic world behind existence and the prolific features of multiverse theory in which there are many, perhaps infinite varieties of universes.

The idea that the universe is mind bogglingly prolific in its scale and diversity is the “fecundity” of the philosopher Robert Nozick who until Holt I had only associated with libertarian economics. Anyone who has a vision of a universe so prolific and diverse is okay in my book, though I do wish the late Nozick had been as open to the diversity of human socio-economic systems as he had been to the diversity of universes.

Like the physicist Paul Davies, or even better to my lights the novelists John Updike, both discussed by Holt, I had previously thought the idea of the multiverse was a way to avoid the need for either a creator God or eternally existing laws- although, unlike Davies and Updike and in the spirit of Ockham’s Razor I thought this a good thing. The one problem I had with multiverse theories was the idea of not just a very large or even infinite number of alternative universes but parallel universes where there are other versions of me running around, Holt managed to clear that up for me.

The idea that the universe was splitting every time I chose to eat or not eat a chocolate bar or some such always struck me as silly and also somehow suffocating. Hints that we may live in a parallel universe of this sort are just one of the weird phenomenon that emerge from quantum mechanics, you know, poor Schrodinger’s Cat . Holt points out that this is much different and not connected to the idea of multiple universes that emerge from the cosmological theory of inflation. We simply don’t know if these two ideas have any connection. Whew! I can now let others wrestle with the bizarre world of the quantum and rest comforted that the minutiae of my every decision doesn’t make me responsible for creating a whole other universe.

This returning to Plato seen in Leslie and Tegmark, a philosopher who died, after all,  2,5000 years ago, struck me as both weird and incredibly interesting. Stepping back, it seems to me that it’s not so much that we’re in the middle of some Hegelian dialectic relentlessly moving forward through thesis-antithesis-synthesis, but more involved in a very long conversation that is moving in no particular direction and every so often will loop back upon itself and bring up issues and perspectives we had long left behind.  It’s like a maze where you have to backtrack to the point you made a wrong turn in order to go in the right direction. We can seemingly escape the cosmological dead end created by Christian theology and Leibniz’s idea of creation ex nihilo only by going back to ideas found before we went down that path, to Plato. Though, for my money, I even better prefer another ancient philosopher- Lucretius.

Yet, maybe Plato isn’t back quite far enough. It was the pre-socratics who invented the natural philosophy that eventually became science. There is a kind of playfulness to their ideas all of which could exist side-by-side in dialogue and debate with one another with no clear way for any theory to win. Theories such as Heraclitus: world as flux and fire, or Pythagoras: world as number, or Democritus: world as atoms.

My hope is that we recognize our contemporary versions of these theories for what they are “just-so” stories that we tell about the darkness beyond the edge of scientific knowledge- and the darkness is vast. They are versions of a speculative theology- the possibilism of David Eagleman, which I have written about before and which are harmful only when they become as rigid and inflexible as the old school theology they are meant to replace or falsely claim the kinds of proof from evidence that only science and its experimental verification can afford. We should be playful with them, in the way Plato himself was playful with such stories in the knowledge that while we are in the “cave” we can only find the truth by looking through the darkness at varied angles.

Does Holt think there is a reason the world exists? What is really being asked here is what type of, in the philosopher Derek Parfit’s term “selector” brought existence into being. For Swinburne  the selector was God, for Leslie Goodness, Tegmark mathematics, Nozik fullness, but Holt thinks the selector might have been more simple, indeed, that the selector was simplicity. All the other selectors Holt finds to be circular, ultimately ending up being used to explain themselves. But what if our world is merely the simplest one possible that is also full? Moving from reason alone Holt adopts something like the mid-point between a universe that contained nothing and one that contained an infinite number of universes that are perfectly good adopting a mean he calls  “infinite mediocrity.”

I was not quite convinced by Holt’s conclusion, and was more intrigued by the open-ended and ambiguous quality of his exploration of the question of why there is something rather than nothing than I was his “proof” that our existence could be explained in such a way.

What has often strikes me as deplorable when it comes to theists and atheists alike is their lack of awe at the mysterious majesty of it all. That “God made it” or “it just is” strikes me flat. Whenever I have the peace in a busy world to reflect it is not nothingness that hits me but the awe –That the world is here, that I am here, that you are here, a fact that is a statistical miracle of sorts – a web weaving itself. Holt gave me a whole new way to think about this wonder.

How wonderfully strange that our small and isolated minds leverage cosmic history and reality to reflect the universe back upon itself, that our universe might come into existence and disappear much like we do. On that score, of all the sections in Holt’s beautiful little book it was the most personal section on the death of his mother that taught me the most about nothingness. Reflecting on the memory of being at his mother’s bedside in hospice he writes:

My mother’s breathing was getting shallower. Her eyes remained closed. She still looked peaceful, although every once in a while she made a little gasping noise.

Then I was standing over her, still holding her hand, my mother’s eyes open wide, as if in alarm. It was the first time I had seen them that day. She seemed to be looking at me. She opened her mouth. I saw her tongue twitch two or three times. Was she trying to say something? Within a couple of seconds her breathing stopped.

I leaned down and told her I loved her. Then I went into the hall and said to the nurse. “I think she just died.” (272-273)

The scene struck me as the exact opposite of the joyous experience I had at the birth of my own children and somehow reminded me of a scene from Diane Ackerman’s book Deep Play.

 The moment a new-born opens its eyes discovery begins. I learned this with a laugh one morning in New Mexico where I worked through the seasons of a large cattle ranch. One day, I delivered a calf. When it lifted up its fluffy head and looked at me its eyes held the absolute bewilderment of the newly born. A moment before it had enjoyed the even, black  nowhere of the womb and suddenly its world was full of color, movement and noise. I’ve never seen anything so shocked to be alive. (141-142)

At the end of the day, for the whole of existence, the question of why there is something rather than nothing may remain forever outside our reach, but we, the dead who have become the living and the living who will become the dead, are certainly intimates with the reality of being and nothingness.

The Danger of Using Science as a God Killing Machine

Gravitational Waves

Big news this year for those interested in big questions, or potentially big news, as long as the findings hold up. Scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics may have come as close as we have ever ever to seeing the beginning of time in our universe.  They may have breached our former boundary in peering backwards into the depth of time, beyond the Cosmic Microwave Background, the light echo of the Big Bang- taking us within an intimate distance of the very breath of creation.

Up until now we have not been able to peer any closer to the birth of our universe than 300,000 or so years distance from the Big Bang. One of the more amazing things about our universe, to me at least, is that given its scale and the finite speed of light,  looking outward also means looking backward in time. If you want to travel into the past stand underneath a starry sky on a clear night and look up.  We rely on light and radiation for this kind of time travel, but get too close to beginning of the universe and the scene becomes blindingly opaque. Scientists need a whole new way of seeing to look back further, and they may just have proven that one of these new ways of seeing actually works.

What the Harvard-Smithsonian scientists hope they have seen isn’t light or radiation, but the lensing effect of  gravitational waves predicted by the controversial Inflationary Model of the Big Bang, which claims that the Big Bang was followed by a quick burst in which the universe expanded incredibly fast. One prediction of the Inflationary Model is that this rapid expansion would have created ripples in spacetime- gravitational waves, the waves whose indirect effect scientist hope they have observed.

If they’re right, in one fell swoop, they may have given an evidential boost to a major theory on how our universe was born, and given us a way of peering deeper than we ever have into the strobiloid of time, a fertile territory, we should hope, for testing, revising and creating theories about the origin of our cosmos, its nature, and ultimate destiny. Even more tentatively, the discovery might also allow physicists to move closer to understanding how to unify gravity with quantum mechanics the holy grail of physics since the early 20th century.

Science writer George Johnson may, therefore, have been a little premature when he recently asked:

As the effort to understand the world has advanced, the low-hanging fruits (like Newton’s apple) have been plucked. Scientists are reaching higher and deeper into the tree. But with finite arms in an infinite universe, are there limits — physical and mental — to how far they can go?

The answer is almost definitely yes, but, it seems, not today, although our very discovery may ironically take us closer to Johnson’s limits. The reason being that, one of the many hopes for gravitational lensing is that it might allow us to discover experimental evidence for theories that we live in a multiverse- ours just one of perhaps an infinite number of universes. Yet, with no way to actually access these universes, we might find ourselves, in some sense,  stuck in the root-cap of our “local” spacetime and the tree of knowledge rather than grasping towards the canopy. But for now, let’s hope, the scientists at Harvard/Smithsonian have helped us jump up to an even deeper branch.
For human beings in general, but for Americans and American scientists in particular, this potential discovery should have resulted in almost universal celebration and pride. If the discovery holds, we are very near to being able to “see” the very beginning of our universe. American science had taken it on the chin when Europeans using their Large Hadron Collider (LHC) were able to discover the Higgs Boson a fundamental particle that had been dubbed in the popular imagination with the most inaccurate name in the history of science as “the God particle”. Americans would very likely have gotten there first had their own and even more massive particle collider the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) not been canceled back in the 1990’s under a regime of shortsighted public investments and fiscal misallocation that continues to this day.

Harvard and even more so the Smithsonian are venerable American institutions. Indeed, the Smithsonian is in many ways a uniquely American hybrid not only in terms of its mix of public and private support but in its general devotion to the preservation, expansion and popularization of all human knowledge, a place where science and the humanities exist side- by- side and in partnership and which serves as an institution of collective memory for all Americans.

As is so often the case, any recognition of the potential for the discovery by the scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics being something that should be shared across the plurality of society was blown almost immediately, for right out of the gate, it became yet another weapon in the current atheists vs religious iteration of the culture war. It was the brilliant physicist and grating atheists Lawrence Krauss who took this route in his summary of the discovery for the New Yorker. I didn’t have any problem with his physics- the man is a great physicist and science writer, but he of course took the opportunity to get in a dig at the religious.

For some people, the possibility that the laws of physics might illuminate even the creation of our own universe, without the need for supernatural intervention or any demonstration of purpose, is truly terrifying. But Monday’s announcement heralds the possible beginning of a new era, where even such cosmic existential questions are becoming accessible to experiment.

What should have been a profound discovery for all of us, and a source of conversations between the wonderstruck is treated here instead as another notch on the New Atheists’ belt, another opportunity to get into the same stupid fight, with not so much the same ignorant people, as caricatures of those people. Sometimes I swear a lot of this rhetoric, on both sides of the theists and atheist debate, is just an advertising ploy to sell more books, TV shows, and speaking events.  

For God’s sake, the Catholic Church has held the Big Bang to be consistent with Church doctrine since 1951. Pat Robertson openly professes belief in evolution and the Big Bang. Scientists should be booking spots on EWTN and the 700 Club to present this amazing discovery for the real enemy of science isn’t religion it’s ignorance. It’s not some theist Christian, Muslim or Jew who holds God ultimately responsible, somehow, for the Big Bang, but the members of the public, religious or not, who think the Big Bang is just a funny name for an even funnier TV show.

Science will always possess a gap in its knowledge into which those so inclined will attempt to stuff their version of a creator. If George Johnson is right we may reach a place where that gap, rather than moving with scientific theories that every generation probe ever deeper into the mysteries of nature may stabilize as we come up against the limits of our knowledge. God, for those who need a creating intelligence, will live there.

There is no doubt something forced and artificial in this “God of the gaps”, but theologians of the theistic religions have found it a game they need to play clinging as they do to the need for God to be a kind of demiurge and ultimate architect of all existence. Other versions of God where “he” is not such an engineer in the sky, God as perhaps love, or relationship, or process, or metaphor, or the ineffable would better fit with the version of  reality given us by science, and thus, be more truthful, but the game of the gaps is one theologians may ultimately win in any case.

Religions and the persons who belong to them will either reconcile their faith with the findings of science or they will not, and though I wish they would reconcile, so that religions would hold within them our comprehensive wisdom and acquired knowledge as they have done in the past, their doing so is not necessary for religions to survive or even for their believers to be “rational.”

For the majority of religious people, for the non-theologians, it simply does not matter if the Big Bang was inflationary or not, or even if there was a Big Bang at all. What matters is that they are able to deal with loss and grief, can orient themselves morally to others, that they are surrounded by a mutually supportive community that acts in the world in the same way, that is, that they can negotiate our human world.

Krauss, Dawkins et al often take the position that they are administering hard truths and that people who cling to something else need to be snapped out of their child-like illusions. Hard truths, however, are a relative thing. Some people can actually draw comfort from the “meaninglessness” of their life, which science seems to show them. As fiction author Jennifer Percy wrote of her astronomy loving father:

This brand of science terrified me—but my dad found comfort in going to the stars. He flees from what messy realm of human existence, what he calls “dysfunctional reality” or “people problems.” When you imagine that we’re just bodies on a rock, small concerns become insignificant. He keeps an image above his desk, taken by the Hubble space telescope, that from a distance looks like an image of stars—but if you look more closely, they are not stars, they are whole galaxies. My dad sees that, imagining the tiny earth inside one of these galaxies—and suddenly, the rough day, the troubles at work, they disappear.

Percy felt something to be missing in her father’s outlook, which was as much as a shield against the adversity of human life as any religion, but one that she felt only did so by being blind to the actual world around him. Percy found this missing human element in literature which drew her away from a science career and towards the craft of fiction.

The choice of fiction rather than religion or spirituality may seem odd at first blush, but it makes perfect sense to me. Both are ways of compressing reality by telling stories which allow us to make sense of our experience, something that despite our idiosyncrasies,  is always part of the universal human experience. Religion, philosophy, art, music, literature, and sometimes science itself, are all means of grappling with the questions, dilemmas and challenges life throws at us.

In his book Wired for CultureMark Pagel points out how the benefits of religion and art to our survival must be much greater than they are in Dawkins’ terms “a virus of the mind” that uses us for its purposes and to our detriment. Had religion been predominantly harmful or even indifferent to human welfare it’s very hard to explain why it is so universal across human societies. We have had religion and art around for so long because they work.

Unlike the religious, Percy’s beloved fiction is largely free from the critique of New Atheists who demand that science be the sole method of obtaining truth. This is because fiction, by its very nature, makes no truth claims on the physical world, nor does it ask us to do anything much in response to it. Religion comes in for criticism by the New Atheists wherever it seems or appears to make truth claims on material existence, including its influence on our actions, but religion does other things as well which are best seen by looking at two forms of fiction that most resemble religion’s purposeful storytelling, that is, fairy tales and myths.

My girls love fairy tales and I love reading them to them. What surprised me when I re-encountered these stories as a parent was just how powerful they were, while at the same time being so simple. I hadn’t really had a way of understanding this until I picked up Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales As long as one can get through  Bettelheim’ dated Freudian psychology his book shows why fairy tales hit us like they do, why their simplification of life is important, and why, as adults we need to outgrow their black and white thinking.

Fairy tales establish the foundation for our moral psychology. They teach us the difference between good and evil, between aiming to be a good person and aiming to do others harm. They teach us to see our own often chaotic emotional lives as a normal expression of the human condition, and also, and somewhat falsely, teach us to never surrender our hope.

Myths are a whole different animal from fairy tales. They are the stories of once living religions that have become detached and now float freely from the practices and rituals that once made them, in a sense, real. The stories alone, however, remain deep with meaning and much of this meaning, especially when it comes to the Greek myths, has to do with the tragic nature of human existence. What you learn from myths is that even the best of intentions can result in something we would not have chosen- think Pandora who freed the ills of the world from the trap of their jar out of compassion- or that sometimes even the good can be unjustly punished- as in Prometheus the fire bringer chained to his rock.

Religion is yet something different from either fairy tales or myths. The “truth” of a religion is not to be found or sought in its cosmology but in its reflection on the human condition and the way it asks us to orient ourselves to the world and guides our actions in it. The truth of a faith becomes real through its practice- a Christian washing the feet of the poor in imitation of Christ makes the truth of Christianity in some sense real and a part of our world, just as Jews who ask for forgiveness on the Day of Atonement, make the covenant real.

Some atheists, the philosopher Alain Botton most notably have taken notice that the atheists accusation against religion- that it’s a fairy tale adults are suckered into believing in- is a conversation so exhausted it is no longer interesting. In his book Religion for Atheists he tries to show what atheists and secular persons can learn from religion, things like a sense of community and compassion, religion’s realistic, and therefore pessimistic, view of human nature, religions’ command of architectural space and holistic approach to education, which is especially focused on improving the moral character of the young.

Yet Botton’s suggestion of how secular groups and persons might mimic the practices of religion such as his “stations of life” rather than “stations of the cross” fell flat with me.There is something in the enchantment of religion which resembles the enchantment of fairy tales that fails rather than succeeds by running too close to reality- though it can not go too far from reality either. There is a genius in organic things which emerge from collective effort, unplanned, and over long stretches of time that can not be recreated deliberately without resulting in a cartoonish and disneyfied, version of reality or conversely something so true to life and uncompressed we can not view it without instinctively turning away in horror or falling into boredom.

I personally do not have the constitution to practice any religion and look instead for meaning to literature, poetry, and philosophy, though I look at religion as a rich source of all three.  I also sometimes look to science, and do indeed, like Jennifer Percy’s father, find some strange comfort in my own insignificance in light of the vastness of it all.

The dangers of me, or Krauss, or Dawkins or anyone else trying to turn this taste for insignificance into the only truth, the one shown to us by science is that we turn what is really a universal human endeavor, the quest to know our origins, into a means of stopping rather than starting a conversation we should all be parties to, and threaten the broad social support needed to fund and see through our quest to understand our world and how it came to be. For, the majority of people (outside of Europe) continue to turn to religion to give their lives meaning, which might mean that if we persist in treating science as a God killing machine, or better, a meaning killing machine, we run the risk of those who need such forms of meaning in order to live turning around and killing science.

Finding Our Way in the Great God Debate, part 2

Last time, I tried to tackle the raging debate between religious persons and a group of thinkers that at least aspire to speak for science who go under the name of the New Atheists. I tried to show how much of the New Atheist’s critique of religion was based on a narrow definition of what “God” is, that is, a kind of uber-engineer who designed the cosmos we inhabit and set up its laws. Despite my many critiques of the New Atheists, much of which has to do with both their often inflammatory language, and just as often their dismissal and corresponding illiteracy regarding religion, I do think they highlight a very real philosophical and religious problem (at least in the West), namely, that the widely held religious concept of the world has almost completely severed any relationship with science, which offers the truest picture of what the world actually is that we have yet to discover.

In what follows I want to take a look at the opportunities for new kinds of religious thinking this gap between religion and science offers, but most especially for new avenues of secular thought that might manage, unlike the current crop of New Atheists to hold fast to science while not discarding the important types of thinking and approaches to the human condition that have been hard won by religious traditions since the earliest days of humanity.

The understanding of God as a celestial engineer, the conception of God held by figures of the early scientific revolution such as Newton, was, in some ways, doomed from the start predicated not only on a version of God that was so distant from the lives of your average person that it would likely become irrelevant, but predicated as well on the failure of science to explain the natural world from its own methods alone. If science is successful at explaining the world then a “God of the gaps” faces the likely fate that science at some point eventually explains away any conceivable gap in which the need for such a God might be called for.  It is precisely the claim that physics has or is on the verge of closing the gap in scientific knowledge of what Pope Pius XII thought was God’s domain- the Universe before the Big Bang- that is the argument of another atheist who has entered the “God debate”, Lawrence Krauss with his A Universe From Nothing.

In his book Krauss offers a compelling picture of the state of current cosmology, one which I find fascinating and even wonderous. Krauss shows how the Universe may have appeared from quantum fluctuations out of what was quite literally nothing. He reveals how physicists are moving away from the idea of one Universe whose laws seem ideally tuned to give rise to life to a version of a multiverse. A vision in which an untold number of universes other than our own exist in an extended plane or right next to one another on a so call “brane” which will forever remain beyond our reach, and that might all have a unique physical laws and even mathematics.

Krauss shows us not only the past but the even deeper time of the future where our own particular Universe is flat and expanding so rapidly that it will, on the order of a few hundred billion years, be re-organized into islands of galaxies surrounded by the blackness of empty space, and how in the long-long frame of time, trillions of years,  our Universe will become a dead place inhospitable for life- a sea of the same nothing from whence it came.

A Universe from Nothing is a great primer on the current state of physics, but it also has a secondary purpose as an atheist track- with the afterword written by none other than Dawkins himself. Dawkins, I think quite presumptuously, thinks Krauss will have an effect akin to Darwin banishing God from the questions regarding the beginning of the Universe and its order in the same way Darwin had managed to banish God from questions regarding the origin of life and its complexity.

Many people, myself included, have often found the case made by the New Atheists in many ways to be as counter-productive for the future of science as the kind of theologization and politicization of science found in those trying to have Intelligent Design (ID) taught in schools, or deny the weight of scientific evidence in regards to a public issue with a clear consensus of researchers for what amounts to a political position e.g. climate change. This is because their rhetoric forces people to choose between religion and science, a choice that in such a deeply religious country such as the United States would likely be to the detriment of science.  And yet, perhaps in the long-run the New Atheists will have had a positive effect not merely on public discourse, but ironically on religion itself.

New Atheists have encouraged a great “coming out” of both fellow atheists and agnostics in a way that has enabled people in a religious society like the United States to openly express their lack of belief and skepticism in a way that was perhaps never possible before. They have brought into sharp relief the incongruity of scientific truth and religious belief as it is currently held and thus pushed scholars such as Karen Armstrong to look for a conception of God that isn’t, like the modern conception, treated as an increasingly irrelevant hypothesis of held over from a pre-Darwinian view of the world.

Three of the most interesting voices to have emerged from the God Debate each follow seemingly very different tracks that when added together might point the way to the other side. The first is the religious scholar Stephen Prothero. Armstrong’s Case for God helped inspire Prothero, to write his God is Not One (2010.) He was not so much responding to the religious/atheist debate as he was cautioning us against the perennialism at the root of much contemporary thought regarding religion. If the New Atheists went overboard with their claim that religion was either all superstitious nonsense ,or evil, and most likely both, the perennialists, with whom he lumps Armstrong, went far too much to the other side arguing in their need to press for diversity and respect the equally false notion that all religions preached in essence the same thing.

Prothero comes up with a neat formula for what a religion is. “Each religion articulates”:


  • a problem;
  • a solution to this  problem, which also serves as the religious goal;
  • a technique (or techniques) for moving from this problem to this solution; and
  • an exemplar (or exemplars) who chart this path from problem to solution. (p. 14)

For Prothero, what religions share is, as the perennialists claim, the fundamentals of human ethics, but also a view that the human condition is problematic. But the devil, so to speak, is in the details, for the world’s great religions have come up with very different identifications of what exactly this problematic feature is ,and hence very different, and in more ways than we might be willing to admit, incompatible solutions   to the problems they identify.

God is Not One is a great introduction to the world’s major religions, a knowledge I think is sorely lacking especially among those who seem to have the most knee-jerk reactions to any mention of religious ideas. For me, one of the most frustrating things about the New Atheists, especially, is their stunning degree of religious illiteracy. Not only do they paint all of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam with the same broad brush of religious literalism and fundamentalism, and have no grasp of religious history within the West, they also appear completely disinterested in trying to understand non-Western religious traditions an understanding that might give them better insight into the actual nature of the human religious instinct which is less about pre-scientific explanations for natural events than it is about an ethical orientation towards the world. Perhaps no religion as much as Confucianism can teach us something in this regard.  In the words of Prothero:

Unlike Christianity which drives a wedge between the sacred and the secular- the eternal “City of God” and the temporal “City of Man”- Confucianism glories in creatively confusing the two. There is a transcendent dimension in Confucianism. Confucians just locate it in the world rather than above or beyond it.

For all these reasons, Confucianism can be considered as religious humanism. Confucians share with secular humanists a single minded focus on this world of rag and bone.  They, too, are far more interested in how to live than in plumbing the depths of Ultimate Reality. But whereas secular humanists insist on emptying the rest of the world of the sacred, Confucians insists on infusing the world with sacred import- of seeing Heaven in humanity, on investing human beings with incalculable value, on hallowing the everyday. In Confucianism, the secular is sacred. (GN1 108)

Religions, then, are in large part philosophical orientations towards the world. They define the world, or better the inadequacies of the world, in a certain way and prescribe a set of actions in light of those inadequacies. In this way they might be thought of as embodied moral philosophies, and it is my second thinker, the philosopher Alain de Botton who in his Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion tries to show just how much even the most secular among us can learn from religion.

What the secular, according to Botton, can learn from religions has little to do with matters of belief which in the light of modern science he too finds untenable. Yet, the secular can learn quite a lot from religion in terms institutions and practices. Religion often fosters a deep sense of community founded around a common view of the world. The religious often see education as less about the imparting of knowledge but the formation of character. Because religion in part arose in response to the human need to live peacefully together in society it tends to track people away from violence and retribution and toward kindness and reconciliation. Much of religion offers us tenderness in times of tragedy, and holds out the promise of moral improvement. It provides the basis for some of our longest lived institutions, embeds art and architecture in a philosophy of life.

Often a religion grants its followers a sense of cosmic perspective that might otherwise be missing from human life, and reminds us of our own smallness in light of all that is, encourages an attitude of humility in the face of the depths of all we do not yet and perhaps never will know. It provides human beings with a sense of the transcendent something emotionally and intellectually beyond our reach which stretches the human heart and mind to the very edge of what it can be and understand.

So if religion, then, is at root a way for people to ethically orient themselves to others and the world even the most avowed atheist who otherwise believes that life can have meaning can learn something from it.  Though one must hope that monstrous absurdities such as the French Revolution’s Cult of the Supreme Being, or the “miraculously” never decomposing body of V.I. Lenin are never repeated.

One problem however remains before we all rush out to the local Church, Temple, or Mosque, or start our own version of the Church of Scientology. It is that religion is untrue, or better, while much of the natural ethics found at the bottom of most religions is something to which we secularists can assent because it was forged for the problems of human living together, and we still live in together in societies, the idea of the natural world and the divinities that supposedly inhabit and guide it are patently false from a scientific point of view. There are two possible solutions I can imagine to this dilemma, both of which play off of the ideas of my third figure, the neuroscientist
and fiction author, David Eagleman.

Like others, what frustrates Eagleman about the current God debate is the absurd position of certainty and narrowness of perspective taken by both the religious and the anti-religious. Fundamentalist Christians insist that a book written before we knew what the Universe was or how life develops or what the brain does somehow tells us all we really need to know, indeed thinks they possess all the questions we should ask. The New Atheists are no better when it comes to such a stance of false certainty and seem to base many of their argument on the belief that we are on the verge of knowing all we can know, and that the Universe(s) is already figured out except for a few loose ends.

In my own example, I think you can see this in Krauss who not only thinks we have now almost fully figured out the origins of the Universe and its fate. He also thinks he has in his hand its meaning, which is that it doesn’t have one, and to drive this home avoids looking at the hundreds of billions of years between now and the Universe’s predicted end.

Take this almost adolescent quote from Dawkins’ afterword to A Universe From Nothing:

Finally, and inevitably, the universe will further flatten into a nothing that mirrors its beginning” what will be left of our current Universe will be “Nothing at all. Not even atoms. Nothing. “ Dawkins then adds with his characteristic flourish“If you think that’s bleak and cheerless, too bad. Reality doesn’t owe us comfort.  (UFN 188).

And here’s Krauss himself:

The structures we can see, like stars and galaxies, were all created in quantum fluctuations from nothing. And the average total Newtonian gravitational energy of each object in our universe is equal to nothing. Enjoy the thought while you can, if this is true, we live in the worst of all possible universes one can live in, at least as far as the future of life is concerned. (UFN 105)


Or perhaps more prosaically the late Hitchens:


For those of us who find it remarkable that we live in a universe of Something, just wait. Nothingness is headed on a collision course right towards us! (UFN 119)


Really? Even if the view of the fate of the Universe is exactly like Krauss thinks it will be, and that’s a Big- Big-  If, what needs to be emphasized here, a point that neither Krauss or Dawkins seem prone to highlight is that this death of the Universe is trillions of years in the future and that there will be plenty of time for living, according to Dimitar Sasselov, hundreds of billions of years, for life to evolve throughout the Universe, and thus for an unimaginable diversity of experiences to be had. Our Universe, at least at the stage we have entered and for many billions of years longer than life on earth has existed, is actually a wonderful place for creatures such as ourselves.  If one adds to that the idea that there may not just be one Universe, but many many universes, with at least some perhaps having the right conditions for life developing and lasting for hundreds of billions of years as well, you get a picture of diversity and profusion that puts even the Hindu Upanishads to shame. That’s not a bleak picture. It one of the most exhilarating pictures I can think of, and perhaps in some sense even a religious one.

And the fact of the matter is we have no idea. We have no idea if the theory put forward by Krauss regarding the future of the Universe is ultimately the right one, we have no idea if life plays a large, small, or no role in the ultimate fate of the Universe, we have no idea if there is any other life in the Universe that resembles ourselves in terms of intelligence, or what scale- planet, galaxy, even larger- a civilization such as our own can achieve if it survives for a sufficiently long time, or how common such civilizations might become in the Universe as the time frame in which the conditions for life to appear and civilizations to appear and develop grows over the next hundred billion years or so. See the glass empty, half empty, or potentially overflowing it’s all just guesswork, even if Krauss’ physics make it an extremely sophisticated and interesting guesswork. To think otherwise is to assume the kind of block-headed certainty Krauss reserves for religious fanatics.  

David Eagleman wants to avoid the false certainty found in many of the religious and the New Atheists by adopting what he calls Possibilism. The major idea behind Possibilism is the same one, although Eagleman himself doesn’t make this connection, that is found in Armstrong’s pre-modern religious thinkers, especially among the so-called mystics, that is the conviction that we are in a position of profound ignorance.

Science has taken us very very far in terms of our knowledge of the world and will no doubt take us much much farther, but we are still probably at a point where we know an unbelievable amount less than will eventually become known, and perhaps there are limits to our ability to know in front of us beyond which will never be able to pass. We just don’t know. In a similar way to how the mystics tried to lead a path to the very limits of human thought beyond which we can not pass, Possibilism encourages us to step to the very edge of our scientific knowledge and imagine what lies beyond our grasp.

I can imagine at least two potential futures for Possibilism either one of which I find very encouraging.  If traditional religion is to regain its attraction for the educated it will probably have to develop and adopt a speculative theology that looks a lot like Eagleman’s Possibilism.  

A speculative theology would no longer seek to find support for its religious convictions in selective discoveries of science, but would  place its core ideas in dialogue with whatever version of the world science comes up with. This need not mean that any religion need abandon its core ethical beliefs or practices both of which were created for human beings at moral scale that reflects the level at which an individual life is lived. The Golden Rule needs no reference to the Universe as a whole nor do the rituals surrounding the life cycle of the individual- birth, marriage, and death at which religion so excels.

What a speculative theology would entail is that religious thinkers would be free to attempt to understand their own tradition in light of modern science and historical studies without any attempt to use either science or history to buttress its own convictions.

Speculative theology would ask how its concepts can continue to be understood in light of the world presented by modern science and would aim at being a dynamic, creative, and continuously changing theology which would better reflect the dynamic nature of modern knowledge, just as theology in the past was tied to a view of knowledge that was static and seemingly eternal. It might more easily be able to tackle contemporary social concerns such as global warming, inequality and technological change by holding the exact same assumptions as to the nature of the physical world as science while being committed to interpreting the findings in light of their own ethical traditions and perspectives.

Something like this speculative philosophy already existed during the Islamic Golden Age a period lasting from the 700s through the 1200s in which Islamic scientists such as Ibn Sina (Avicenna) managed to combine the insights of ancient Greek, Indian, and even Chinese thinking to create whole new field of inquiry and ways of knowing. Tools from algebra to trigonometry to empiricism that would later be built upon by Europeans to launch the scientific revolution. The very existence of this golden age of learning in the Muslim world exposes Sam Harris’ anti-Islamic comment for what it is- ignorant bigotry.

Still, a contemporary speculative theology would have more expansive and self-aware than anything found among religious thinkers before.  It would need to be an open system of knowledge cognizant of its own limitations and would examine and take into itself ideas from other religious traditions, even dead ones such as paganism, that added depth and dimensions to its core ethical stance. It would be a vehicle through which religious persons could enter into dialogue and debate with persons from other perspectives both religious and non-religious who are equally concerned with the human future, humanists and transhumanists, singularitarians, and progressives along with those who with some justification have deep anxieties regarding the future, traditional conservatives, bio-conservatives,  neo-luddites, and persons from every other spiritual tradition in the world.  It would mean an end to that dangerous anxiety held by a great number of the world’s religions that it alone needs to be the only truth in order to thrive.   

Yet, however beneficial such a speculative theology would be I find its development out of any current religion highly unlikely.  If traditional religions do not adopt something like this stance towards knowledge I find it increasingly likely that persons alienated from them as a consequence of the way their beliefs are contradicted by science will invent something similar for themselves. This is because despite the fact that the Universe in the way it is presented by the New Atheists is devoid of meaning this human need for meaning, to discuss it, and argue it, and try to live it, is unlikely to ever stop among human beings. The very quest seems written into our very core. Hopefully, such dialogues will avoid dogma and be self-critical and self-conscious in a way religion or secular ideologies never were before. I see such discussions more akin to works of art than religious-treatises, though I hope they provide the bases for community and ethics in the same way religion has in the past as well.

And we already have nascent forms of such communities- the environmentalist cause is one such community as is the transhumanist movement. So, is something like The Long Now Foundation which seeks to bring attention to the issues of the long term human future and has even adopted the religious practice of pilgrimage to its 10,000 year clock– a journey that is meant to inspire deeper time horizons for our present obsessed culture.

Even should such communities and movements become the primary way a certain cohort of scientifically inclined persons seek to express the human need for meaning, there is every reason for those so inclined to seek out and foster relationships with the more traditionally religious ,who are, and will likely always, comprise the vast majority human beings. Contrary to the predictions of New Atheists such as Daniel Dennett the world is becoming more not less religious, and Christianity is not a dying faith but changing location moving from its locus in Europe and North America to Latin America, Africa, and even Asia. Islam even more so than Christianity is likely to be a potent force in world affairs for some time to come, not to mention Hinduism with India destined to become the world’s most populous country by mid-century. We will need all of their cooperation to address pressing global problems from climate change, to biodiversity, to global pandemics, and inequality. And we should not think them persons who profess such faiths ignorant for holding fast to beliefs that largely bypass the world brought to us by science. Next to science religion is among the most amazing things to emerge from humanity and those who seek meaning from it are entitled to our respect as fellow human beings struggling to figure out not the what? but the why? of human life.

Whether inside or outside of traditional religion the development of scientifically grounded meaning discourses and communities, and the projects that would hopefully grow from them, would signal that wrestling with the “big questions” again offered a path to human transcendence. A path that was at long last no longer in conflict with the amazing Universe that has been shown to us by modern science. Finding such ways of living would mean that we truly have found our way through the great God debate.