(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)
The question of whether there is meaning in the universe is trickier to deal with than the question of the existence of god since meaning is not anything tangible. Since it is usually associated with a god’s plan, the existence of god is a more basic question and eliminating god usually eliminates an externally imposed meaning. But some try to establish the existence of god backwards by arguing that we can infer meaning from the way that the universe is structured and therefore there must be an entity that created this meaning. The fine-tuning and anthropic principle arguments are attempts at this backwards attempt to argue for god’s existence.
What is becoming increasingly clear from all the research in cosmology and biology is that the universe has all the indications that it has no underlying purpose or design or meaning but is evolving according to natural laws in which chance and contingency also plays a role, just as it does for the evolution of life. The universe just is and we just are. As physicist Steven Weinberg says, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it becomes pointless”, later clarifying his words by saying, “I did not mean that science teaches us that the universe is pointless, but rather that the universe itself suggests no point” (quoted in Has Science Found God? by Victor Stenger, p. 333). Richard Dawkins’s conclusion is that “The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” (Scientific American, November 1995, p. 85) Some religious people have seized upon Dawkins’s words (which were purely an inference based on empirical observations on the nature of the universe) to suggest that he is some kind of depressed nihilist, when all the evidence suggests that Dawkins really enjoys life. What they are doing is projecting on to him their own fears about what the lack of an externally imposed meaning would mean to them.
All the evidence points to the conclusion that the universe and life do not exhibit any sign that everything is part of any grand plan. Rather than bemoan this fact, we have to come to terms with it and not indulge in pointless wishful thinking, trying to will into existence that which is not. Otherwise we will be like Peter Pan, the title character in J. M. Barrie’s classic children’s story, urging children to clap to show they believe in fairies in order to save the life of Tinker Bell. Life is not a fairy tale. Wishing and hoping and praying cannot bring into existence what is not there.
The appeal of a cosmic plan as a way to give one’s life meaning eludes me. What would such a plan imply, exactly? Does it mean that my life has been mapped out already, that one is merely a puppet manipulated by hidden strings, just going through the motions of life? Religious people counter this by arguing that god has given us free will but it is hard to reconcile that with a pre-existing plan. If I have genuine free will, why can’t I mess up god’s plan by doing something that was not part of the plan?
The question of whether each one of us thinks that our lives have meaning is a distinct one from whether the universe provides us with that meaning. Atheists think that the universe by itself does not provide us with meaning but it does not follow that they think that life is not worth living or that their own lives are pointless. As James Watson, co-discover with Francis Crick of the structure of DNA, said in response to the question of what he thought we are put in this world for, “Well I don’t think we’re for anything. We’re just products of evolution. You can say, “Gee, your life must be pretty bleak if you don’t think there’s a purpose.” But I’m anticipating having a good lunch.” (The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, p. 100.)
Watson’s response that the anticipation of lunch gives his life purpose might be flip but it is true. There are plenty of things that we look forward to and are worth living for. Whatever our lot in life, we get pleasure from many things: the company of our family and friends, food, books, nature, and all the other things that we look forward to experiencing. The list of things which one can look forward to is endless. I for one eagerly anticipate learning new things and science is always opening up new frontiers of knowledge. There are new telescopes being built and satellites being put into orbit and new experiments being done. I am hoping that I will live long enough to learn at least some of what they discover. I also look forward to positive political changes such as the reduction of was and global poverty and disease and greater access to health care and education.
Atheists know that we have to create our own plan, for ourselves and, in conjunction with others, for the world. People, working together, can create a better world for all or choose to destroy it. Our fate is in our hands. If the goal of trying to create a better world does not inspire you and give your life meaning, then I doubt that religion will do any better. In fact, as I will argue in the next post, the absence of some external cosmically imposed meaning, rather than being depressing, is extraordinarily life affirming and exhilarating.
POST SCRIPT: How to attract more young people to church
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c|
I predict that it is only a matter of time before churches introduce scantily-clad cheerleaders to further liven things up.