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 The sacred universe

Even as our science-driven world seems to be telling us the universe is mindless, indifferent and accidental, elite scientists argue that there is a meaning to life -- and it might
actually be life itself.

 A little philosophy inclines a man's mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy brings men's minds to religion. --Francis Bacon, On Atheism


By Robert Sibley     December 27, 2008



Even as our science-driven world seems to be telling us the universe is mindless, indifferent and accidental, Robert Sibley writes, elite scientists argue that there is a meaning to life—and it might actually be life itself.

 The Hubble Space Telescope has photographed three sections of the Veil Nebula -- the
shattered remains of a supernova that exploded some 5,000 to 10,000 years ago. 'Why
worry when there's every likelihood that asteroids will obliterate the planet's life forms?
Makes you wonder, what's the point?'                                        - Photograph by : NASA




The future appears to be a grim place. Scientists tell us that someday the sun will balloon and consume the Earth before dwindling away to a cosmic cinder. Someday the universe will undergo "heat death," as all energy dissipates in a cold and dark miasma. But why worry about that when there's every likelihood that asteroids will obliterate the planet's life forms?

Makes you wonder, what's the point? Are humans only bit players on the universal stage? Is the universe hostile to the human presence, or merely indifferent? Are we, as some contend, mere bundles of cells at the service of selfish genes? Is human existence all sound and fury signifying nothing, as Shakespeare asked?

Once upon a time, religion told us that humans were indeed valued and valuable participants in the cosmic order. This belief was once the predominant influence in the West, informing our laws, politics and social orders, for good and evil.

Today, science shapes our self-understanding. We have in the past century largely ceded authority over our lives to the scientific worldview. The old certitudes about God, nature and morality no longer claim our unqualified attachment. Science's monopoly on how we "know" the natural world determines whether we look upon the world with hope or despair, stoicism or nihilism. Indeed, with its notions of "heat death" and "selfish genes," science has worked like acid on religious and philosophic ideas that provided the bedrock of the West's hard-won moral and political achievements. But many, it seems, have decided that science's break with these long-held ideas, particularly notions of human purpose and "final causes," warrant the claim that health, wealth and entertainment are the singular purpose of our social and political arrangements.

No rational person would deny the material benefits of the scientific method -- more food and less starvation, medicines that ease the ancient scourge of disease, a world of light and heat instead of cold and dark. Yet, science also has its dark side.

"Science may have alleviated the miseries of disease and drudgery and provided an array of gadgetry for our entertainment and convenience," says physicist Paul Davies. "But it has also spawned horrific weapons of mass destruction and seriously degraded the quality of life."

At the extreme, scientism -- that "quasi-religious faith in the sufficiency of modern science to give a complete account of the world," as bioethicist Leon Kass puts it -- reduces thousands of years of thought, feeling, hope and aspiration to nothing more than electrochemical impulses in the brain, with no meaning or purpose beyond the organism's capacity to survive and reproduce.

Consider, for example, the views of biologist Jacques Monod. "Man must at last finally awake from his millenary dream; and in doing so, awake to his total solitude, his fundamental isolation. He lives on the boundary of an alien world." Or those of physicist Steven Weinberg: "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless."

The theory of evolution leads to the conclusion that humans are little more than "survival machines -- robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes," says zoologist Richard Dawkins. Such a world is amoral, devoid of the benevolent God imagined by the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, he contends. "The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference."

If the neo-Darwinian view doesn't get you down, there's the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which postulates that everything -- stars, mountains, motors and minds -- will eventually run out of energy. Entropy is the fate of the universe, and someday, a dozen billion years hence, the universe will reach maximum entropy and be reduced to lifeless chaos.

Admittedly, the fate of the universe is a ways off, and a lot could happen between now and then. So thinking about our place in the universe may seem irrelevant to our daily lives. Who cares about cosmic fate when you've been laid off, the bills are piling up and the car needs snow tires? But many do. Despite the secularity of modern society -- or, perhaps, because of it -- large numbers of people are reengaging the life of the spirit. Some of this "return to religion" is not necessarily good, particularly when, as in the case of Islamist terrorism, it is motivated by an irrational desire to turn back the clock on modernity. Still, many who rediscover a religious sensibility, whether of the New Age variety or the more traditional forms of Judeo-Christianity, are responding to their dissatisfaction with the moral relativism and spiritual nihilism of the postmodern scientistic age.

"More and more of us are looking for spiritual direction," says Leon Kass. "It seems like only yesterday that the Enlightenment overthrew the rule of religious orthodoxy, promising an earthly paradise of human fulfillment based solely on scientific reason. Yet today, the enlightened children of skeptics are discovering for themselves that man does not live -- or live well -- by bread alone, not even by bread and circuses, and that science's account of human life and the world is neither adequate to the subject nor satisfying to the longings of the soul."

The problem, in a nutshell, is that the world of human interest, the world of values, seems to have little connection to the world of facts as revealed by the natural sciences. As a result we live bifurcated lives. We accept the world described by science -- purposeless matter in mindless motion -- as the "real" world, while confining the world of meaning and purpose to the subjective psychological realm. The result is a debilitating tension between the subjective and the objective, between the inner world and the outer world. We are aware that how we think of the world, our knowledge of it, shapes our actions, and, hence, influences our social and political orders. But we also sense that we can only be at home in a world when the "facts" reflect and reinforce our "values" -- when, in other words, we no longer feel like aliens on Earth.

Surprisingly, perhaps, many scientists feel this way, too. The cosmic pessimists -- Dawkins, Weinberg, Monod, etc. -- who insist the universe is "indifferent" or even "hostile" to the human presence seem to hold sway of late, but there are others, past and present, who aren't afraid to open science to spiritual questions.

These cosmic optimists include Stephen Hawking, perhaps the most famous scientist of our time. In a 1985 letter in the American Scientist, he described the theological implications of his theories this way: "I thought I had left the question of the existence of a Supreme Being completely open ... It would be perfectly consistent with all we know to say that there was a Being who was responsible for the laws of physics."

Physicist Freeman Dyson finds the most amazing thing in the universe to be the presence and power of the mind. "Somehow, by natural processes still totally mysterious, a million butterfly brains working together in a human skull have the power to dream, to calculate, to see and to hear, to speak and to listen, to translate feelings into marks on paper which other brains can interpret."

Astronomer Carl Sagan used the word "numinous" to describe the awe he felt him contemplating the universe. He once said that "science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality."

Such examples, says scholar Nancy Frankenberry, suggest that we should not regard scientists "as cold, hard soulless individuals who try to reduce the splendor of nature to sterile mathematical formulas or the mystery of life to laboratory manipulations."

Certainly, the most famous scientist of the 20th century was convinced of the meaningfulness of the universe. Albert Einstein did not believe in a personal God that intervened in the world, but the physicist thought the universe was pervaded by an underlying intelligence. "My comprehension of God comes from the deeply felt conviction of a superior intelligence that reveals itself in the knowable world ... I believe in Spinoza's God, Who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God Who concerns Himself with the fate and doings of mankind."

Einstein was also convinced the universe was intelligible. As he famously put it: "God does not play at dice." For Einstein, nature was rational and man, as a rational creature, possessed the capacity to comprehend this reality. And as far as Einstein was concerned, the religious sensibility, properly understood, expressed this relationship better than any other human endeavour. "I have not found a better expression than 'religious' for the trust in the rational nature of reality that is, at least to a certain extent, accessible to human reason."

Einstein held to this "faith" despite the arrival of other theories -- Max Planck's quantum theory and Werner Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, for example -- that undermined his idea of a unified and deterministic universe in favour of a universe of chance and probabilities. Nancy Frankenberry sums up Einstein's predicament this way: "Having glimpsed so much of the very face of God revealed in the workings of a majestically rational and deterministic universe, Einstein could not bring himself to abandon the sublime vision of a certain God for one of probability and uncertainty."

Einstein is not alone in seeing a rational and knowable order to the universe. Physicist John Polkinghorne, for instance, argues that biological life, from the simplest to the most complex, is the purpose of the universe. "Those trillions of stars have to be around if we are to be around also to think about them ... Only a universe as large as ours could have been around for the 15 billion years it takes to evolve life."

Our world, says Polkinghorne, is one "shot through with 'signs of mind.' I believe that it is an attractive, coherent and intellectually satisfying explanation of this fact that there is indeed a divine Mind behind the scientifically discerned rational order of the world." Indeed, Polkinghorne seems to believe the universe exists to produce a species that allows the universe to comprehend itself. "Human powers of rational comprehension vastly exceed anything that could be simply an evolutionary necessity for survival, or plausibly construed as some sort of collateral spin-off from such a necessity ..."

In a similar fashion, physicist Paul Davies rejects the nihilism implicit in the theories of the cosmic pessimists. Science, he says, points to deeper meanings to material existence. The universe is indubitably about something, it has meaning and purpose and humans are somehow connected to that purpose. "If the universe did not have to be as it is, of necessity -- if, to paraphrase Einstein, God did have a choice -- then the fact that nature is so fruitful, that the universe is so full of richness, diversity and novelty, is profoundly significant."

Davies is convinced that the universe is governed by natural laws that encourage matter to evolve into life forms that can become conscious. "Life" is so etched into the basic structure of the universe that its appearance is almost inevitable when Earth-like conditions are available. "To me, the true miracle of nature is to be found in the ingenious and unswerving lawfulness of the cosmos, a lawfulness that permits complex order to emerge from chaos, life to emerge from inanimate matter, and consciousness to emerge from life ..." For Davies, then, "God" -- understood as the rational ground of the universe -- imbues the universe with purpose and meaning.

Stuart Kauffman, a biochemist and theoretical biologist, conceives of a "fully natural God that is the creativity in the cosmos." Such a concept of divinity is offensive to many because it implies that God, the sacred, is a human invention, Kauffman admits. "For billions of believers this is Godless heresy," he says. On the other hand, "words like 'God' and 'sacred' are scary to many of us who live in modern, secular society because they have been used to start wars and kill millions of people, and we just don't need any more of that."

What we need, says Kauffman, is to "reinvent the sacred" because our current notions of God are obsolete. "Humans have been worshipping gods for thousands of years. Our sense of God in the Western world has evolved from Abraham's jealous God Yahweh to the God of love of the New Testament. Science and faith have split modern societies just as some form of global civilization is emerging. One result is a retreat into religious fundamentalisms, often bitterly hostile."

We need to find a middle ground between the destructive inclination of religious extremism and spiritually denigrating notions of fundamentalist atheism and cosmic pessimism, says Kauffman. "The schism between science and religion can be healed, but it will require a slow evolution from a supernatural, theistic God to a new sense of a fully natural God as our chosen symbol for the ceaseless creativity in the natural universe."

Cosmic optimists by and large derive their concepts of the "sacred" from the idea that the universe is a self-organizing order that was bound to produce life. From the moment of the Big Bang some 13 billion years ago the universe contained the potential for life, not because it was necessarily designed that way by an external creator (the Abrahamic God, for instance) or some First Cause (as the ancient Greek philosophers taught), but because the universe was creating itself in such a way that the creative process itself is the process of emergent life.

Kauffman, for instance, theorizes that the sheer abundance of "being" in the universe eventually reached a tipping point that allowed the metabolic sources of life to emerge. To borrow his scientific language: "As the molecular diversity of a reaction system increases, a critical threshold is reached at which collectively autocatalytic, self-reproducing chemical reaction networks emerge spontaneously."

This is no small thing, because it suggests that the emergence of self-reproducing molecular systems was highly probable. If so, then life is not the freakish accident the cosmic pessimists claim it to be. Rather, life emerged because of an inherent purposiveness in the fabric of the universe. And that implies, perhaps, that human existence on a small planet on the rim of a galaxy that is one of billions of galaxies is not without some meaning and significance.

Such a thought brings up the so-called anthropic principle: the idea that the universe is finely tuned for life to emerge. Not every scientist is enamored of this notion. They object that the anthropic principle is a sneaky way to reintroduce a designer God, a Great Creator. Yet, a number of physicists have approached this conclusion in one fashion or another. Physicists such as Stephen Hawking have pointed out that the earliest seconds of the universe after the Big Bang reveal some strange constants: the exact rate of the universe's expansion (the Hubble constant); the precise numerical values of the various force fields -- nuclear, electromagnetic, gravity -- that hold the universe together; and the equally precise ratio of particles and anti-particles.

The laws of nature seem to be calibrated in order that galaxies, stars, planets and life itself can appear, says science writer David Toolan in summarizing this picture of constancy. If gravity was just a bit stronger, the universe would have collapsed before stars -- the factories for the chemicals of life -- could appear. If gravity had been any weaker, the universe would have ballooned too fast for stars to form. If there had been a slight variation in the strong nuclear force, the universe would be a vast, starless desert. If every proton created in the early universe had been matched by an anti-proton, they would have eliminated each other. That would have ended the story of life right there.

No one yet understands why these constants are the way they are, says David Toolan. But what is clear is that "the initial conditions of the universe are so very finely tuned for the development of life -- in some region of the galaxies at some time, and perhaps in more locales than planet Earth."

Pondering this balancing act, Freeman Dyson wonders whether the universe was arranged for the arrival of humans. "I don't feel like an alien in this universe. The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known we were coming."

Paul Davies refers to this apparent cosmic equilibrium as the "Goldilocks Enigma." The universe, he says, "looks not just beautiful, but in some sense deeply ingenious. It looks like it's been put together in a way that makes it work exceptionally well ... If it were even slightly different, it's quite likely there would be no life."

Such thinking raises questions about the scientistic view of the world that has prevailed over the past few centuries. The mechanistic science that has come to dominate the West in the 400 years since Galileo, Bacon, Descartes and Newton holds that nature is mindless and indifferent to the existence of creatures that feel, think, reason and understand. Self-conscious beings such as ourselves are "cosmic anomalies," to borrow Toolan's phrase. We are, say the cosmic pessimists, alien intruders huddling around our religions like frightened men crouching beside a fire in the middle of dark forest.

But what if the cosmic optimists are right? What if we really do belong here, part of a still unknown -- and perhaps humanly unknowable -- cosmic purpose? As Toolan says, "What if the evolution of mind is what this universe has been about since the first three seconds?" What if, to borrow Kauffman's poetic phrase, "life spattered across megaparsecs, galaxies, galactic clusters" to make us "members of a creative, mysteriously unfolding universe?"

Such ideas cannot help but lead to the notion that maybe we are the means by which the universe seeks to know itself, self-conscious star stuff that for some mysterious reason has a role in a long running cosmic drama. What that role entails and how long we have to play on the cosmic stage is unknown. But perhaps if we strut our stuff with courage in the face of this mystery the future won't be entirely grim.

Robert Sibley is a senior writer for the Citizen


Selected Sources

Francis Collins, On God: A New Theology of Celebration, Search Magazine, Sept.-Oct., 2007.

Paul Davies, We are meant to be here,, July 3, 2007; Physics and the Mind of God: The Templeton Prize Address, First Things, August-September, 1995; and God and the New Physics, 1983.

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 1976; The Blind Watchmaker, 1986; and River Out of Eden, 1995.

Freeman Dyson, Disturbing the Universe, 1979.

Nancy Frankenberry, The Faith of Scientists in Their Own Words, 2008.

Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes, 1988.

Stuart Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion, 2008; Does Science Make Belief in God Obsolete? John Templeton Foundation -- Essay, 2008.; Breaking the Galilean Spell, Edge, 2008,; Investigations, 2000; and At Home in the Universe: The Search for Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity, 1995.

Leon Kass, Science, Religion and the Human Future, Commentary, April, 2007; The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis, 2003.

Jacques Monad, Chance and Necessity, 1972.

John Polkinghorne, Understanding the Universe,Cosmic Questions: Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 2001; and Beyond Science: The Wider Human Context, 1996.

David Toolan, At Home in the Cosmos, 2001.

Steven Weinberg, A Designer Universe, New York Review of Books, Oct. 21, 1999.


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