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The Meaning-Seeking Animal
The first: In the beginning, some 13.7 billion years ago, there was an unimaginably vast explosion of energy, out of which the universe emerged for no reason whatsoever. In the course of time stars coalesced, then planets, then, 4.54 billion years ago, one particular planet capable of supporting life. Seven hundred million years later, inanimate matter became animate. Cells began to reproduce. Life forms began to appear, first simple, then of ever-increasing complexity. Some of these survived; others disappeared. Eventually a life form came into being capable of complex patterns of speech, among them the future tense and the ability to ask questions. For the first time something in the universe became capable of knowing that the universe existed, that it might not have done, and of asking, ‘Why is it here? Why are we here?’
The formation of the universe involved massive improbabilities. Had a single one of the mathematical constants that determined the shape of the universe been slightly different – even by the order of one in a million – there would have been no stars, no planets, no life. Had the evolution of life been slightly different, had the dinosaurs not become extinct, for example, there would have been no Homo sapiens, no self-conscious being and no civilisation. But all of this was accidental, blind, mere chance. It happened. No one intended it to happen. There was no one to intend it to happen, and there is no meaning to the fact that it happened. The universe was. One day it will cease to be. To the question, ‘Why are we here?’ the answer is silence.
We, members of the species Homo sapiens, are wrong to believe that our questions and answers, hopes and dreams, have any significance whatsoever. They are fictions dressed up to look like facts. We have no souls. Even our selves are fictions. All we have are sensations, and even these are mere by-products of evolution. Thought, imagination, philosophy, art: these are dramas in the theatre of the mind designed to divert and distract us while truth lies elsewhere. For thoughts are no more than electrical impulses in the brain, and the brain is merely a complicated piece of meat, an organism. The human person is a self-created fiction. The human body is a collection of cells designed by genes, themselves incapable of thought, whose only purpose is blindly to replicate themselves over time.
Humans might write novels, compose symphonies, help those in need, and pray, but all this is a delicately woven tapestry of illusions. People might imagine themselves as if on a stage under the watchful eye of infinity, but there is no one watching. There is no one to watch. There is no self-conscious life anywhere else, either within the universe or beyond. There is nothing beyond sheer random happenstance. Humans are no more significant, and less successful at adapting to their environment, than the ants. They came, they will go, and it will be as if they had never been. Why are we here? We just are.
The second: The universe was called into being by One outside the universe, fascinated by being, and with that desire-to-bring-things-into-being that we call love. He brought many universes into being. Some exploded into being, then collapsed. Others continued to grow so fast that nothing coalesced into stable concentrations of matter. One, however, so closely fitted the parameters that stars and planets did form. The One waited to see what would happen next. Eventually life formed and evolved, until one creature emerged capable of communication.
The One sent messages to this creature. At first no one noticed. Thousands of years passed during which the creatures invented tools, hunted, developed agriculture, and eventually built cities and constructed cultures. They told all sorts of stories to explain why they were there, fanciful stories to be sure, for this was the childhood of civilisation. But eventually one man, Abraham, a shepherd far away from the noise of the city, listened to the silence for long enough, intently enough, to discern a message, the message. The one heard the One.
It was enough to send him on a journey. Where, why, to do what – of these things he had no more than a dim intuition. But he sensed that he had stumbled on something of immense significance, and he handed on the memory to his children with the instruction that they should hand it on to theirs. Eventually his descendants grew to become a nation, not numerous, not powerful; indeed they had become slaves. This time another individual, Moses, a complex figure who had spent his life among strangers as an Egyptian prince and then as a shepherd among the Midianites, heard the voice again. What it told him changed his life. Through an immense historic drama of liberation and revelation it transformed Abraham’s children, by then known as the Israelites, into a covenanted nation under the sovereignty of God. Eventually it changed the world.
It said that every human being had within him or her a trace of the One who created the universe. Like the One, human beings could speak, think and communicate. They could imagine a world not present to the senses, entertain different scenarios for the future and choose between them. They could change their environment because they could change themselves. They could show that history is not destined to be an endless replay of the victory of the strong over the weak. They could construct a society built on respect for human dignity, equality and freedom, and though they failed time and again, the prophets who came after Moses never gave up the vision or the hope. Somehow they sensed that something of larger consequence was at stake.
And so the journey continued, haltingly, never without relapses and sometimes with terrible failures. The people Moses led, known to themselves as the Israelites, to others as the Hebrews, and to history as the Jews, never lost faith with that original vision even when they lost everything else: their land, their sovereignty and their freedom.
Other people in the course of time were impressed by their message and adapted and adopted it in somewhat different forms, becoming new religions in their own right. One became known as Christianity, the other Islam. Eventually it became the faith of more than half of the six billion people on the face of the planet. It did not fully transform humanity. We remain fallible people, all too often falling short of what we are called on to become.Yet those who followed Abraham’s call gave rise to moments of graciousness that lifted our small and insignificant species to great heights of moral, spiritual and aesthetic beauty.
Thus the One came to be known by the many, obscurely to be sure, in visions and voices that strained against the limits of language, for the words we have to describe things within the universe are by definition inadequate to describe what lies beyond it. The closest the voice ever came to identifying itself was in the cryptic, enigmatic words Ehyeh asher ehyeh, ‘I will be what I will be’. But in striving to listen to the more-than-human, human beings learned what it is to be human, for in discovering God, singular and alone, they eventually learned to respect the dignity and sanctity of the human person, singular and alone. We may be dust of the Earth, the debris of exploded stars, a concatenation of blindly self-replicating genes, but within us is the breath of God.
Two rival views, each coherent and consistent, each simplified to be sure, but marking out the great choice, the two framing visions of the human situation. One asserts that life is meaningless. The other claims that life is meaningful. The facts are the same on both scenarios. So is the science that explains the facts. But the world is experienced differently by those who tell the first narrative and those who tell the second.
We can imagine them arguing. The first says to the second, ‘What hubris to imagine that there is a Being for whom we matter.’
The second says to the first, ‘What hubris to think that what we can see and prove is all there is.’
The first says to the second, ‘What abasement to believe that there is someone else who tells us what to do.’
The second says to the first, ‘What abasement to believe that, given the tragic, destructive history of humankind, we know best what is best for the world.’
The first says to the second, ‘Do you not recall the words of Xenophanes, that we make God in our own image? “Man made his gods, and furnished them with his own body, voice and garments.” If a horse could worship, he would make his god a horse. If an ox had a god, it would be an ox.’
‘You forget,’ says the second, ‘that Xenophanes used this argument to refute polytheism and argue for monotheism. Xenophanes was not an atheist but a believer.’
The argument is interminable, but though it is usually portrayed as an argument between religion and science, that is not what it is. The science is the same in both stories. The difference lies in how far we are willing to push the question, ‘Why?’ The first story says there is no why. The second says there is. If the universe exists, and there was a time when it did not exist, then someone or something brought it into being, someone whose existence is neither part of nor dependent on the universe.
If so, why? The most economical hypothesis is that it did so because it willed so. But why would a being independent of the universe wish to bring a universe into being? There is only one compelling answer: out of the selfless desire to make space for otherness that, for want of a better word, we call love.
Such a Being would create precisely the kind of universe we inhabit, one that gave rise to stars, planets, life in endlessly proliferating diversity, and eventually the one life form capable of hearing and responding to the call of Being itself. The existence of the universe from the perspective of God, and the existence of God from the perspective of human beings, is the redemption of solitude. We exist because we are not alone. Religion is the cosmic drama of relationship.
The second story stands to the first as poetry to prose, music to speech, worship and wonder to analysis and experimentation. It has nothing to do with science, the observation and explanation of physical phenomena, and everything to do with human self-consciousness, freedom, imagination, choice, and existential loneliness, the I that seeks a Thou, the self in search of an Other. It is about the question that remains when all the science is done. When we know all that can be known about what happened and how, we may still disagree on the meaning of what happened.
There will be those who say, beyond the facts and the explanation of the facts, there is no meaning. There will be others who say there is. The universe does not come emblazoned with its purpose. To fathom it has taken much wisdom and humility and the experience of humankind over many centuries. To express it may take music and art, ritual and celebration. But to say, ‘What is, is, for no other reason than it is,’ is to halt prematurely the human tendency to ask and never rest satisfied with the answer, ‘It just is.’5 Curiosity leads to science, but it also leads to questions unanswerable by science.
The search for God is the search for meaning. The discovery of God is the discovery of meaning. And that is no small thing, for we are meaning-seeking animals. It is what makes us unique. To be human is to ask the question, ‘Why?’
Scientists of a certain type seem to take perverse pleasure in declaring that life is in fact meaningless. Here, for example, is Jacques Monod:
Man must at last wake out of his millenary dream and discover his total solitude, his fundamental isolation. He must realise that, like a gypsy, he lives on the boundary of an alien world, a world that is deaf to his music, and as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his sufferings or his crimes.
And, more bluntly, Steven Weinberg:
It is almost irresistible for humans to believe that we have some special relation to the universe, that human life is not just a more or less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes, but that we were somehow built in from the beginning . . . It is very hard to realise that this is all just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe . . . It is even harder to realise that this present universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless.
Such sentiments are not new. You can find them in the Hebrew Bible, especially in the book of Ecclesiastes:
says the Teacher.
Everything is meaningless . . .
Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless.’ (Eccl. 1:2; 3:19)
As a mood, most of us have experienced times when that is how the world seems. In the midst of crisis or bereavement, the fabric of meaning is torn apart and we feel strangers in an alien world. Yet a mood is not a truth; a feeling is not a fact. As a general statement of the condition of the universe, there is nothing whatsoever to justify Monod’s or Weinberg’s conclusions. To grasp this, listen to perhaps the most eloquent account of atheism ever given, by Bertrand Russell in ‘A Free Man’s Worship’:
That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins – all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s salvation henceforth be safely built.
C’est magnifique. One can scarce forbear to cheer. But one can produce almost exactly the same peroration in praise of faith:
That man, despite being the product of seemingly blind causes, is not blind; that being in the image of God he is more than an accidental collocation of atoms; that being free, he can rise above his fears, and, with the help of God, create oases of justice and compassion in the wilderness of space and time; that though his life is short he can achieve immortality by his fire and heroism, his intensity of thought and feeling; that humanity too, though it may one day cease to be, can create before night falls a noonday brightness of the human spirit, trusting that, though none of our kind will be here to remember, yet in the mind of God, none of our achievements is forgotten – all these things, if not beyond dispute, have proven themselves time and again in history. We are made great by our faith, small by our lack of it. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding hope, can the soul’s salvation be safely built.
I never understood why it should be considered more courageous to despair than to hope. Freud said that religious faith was the comforting illusion that there is a father figure. A religious believer might say that atheism is the comforting illusion that there is no father figure, so that we can do what we like and can get away with: an adolescent’s dream. Why should one be considered escapist and not the other? Why should God’s call to responsibility be considered an easy option? Why should the belief, held by some on the basis of scientific determinism, that we have no free will and therefore no moral responsibility, not be considered the greatest escapism of them all?
There is absolutely nothing in science – not in cosmology or evolutionary biology or neuroscience – to suggest that the universe is bereft of meaning, nor could there be, since the search for meaning has nothing to do with science and everything to do with religion. We now need to see why.