Friday, December 11, 2009

Clearly Man Needs Something Greater Than Himself

Mankind needs purpose. We need meaning. We need to believe that there's a reason for our existence. A grand scheme to an otherwise seemingly senseless universe.

I'm not sure why that is. Is it intrinsic to sentience? I think, therefore I am...and I am why exactly? There's plenty of life on this planet that doesn't possess the consciousness to know that it is. So it doesn't question. It just exists. It does what it does without moral judgement and without regard to purpose or meaning. Animals hunt and animals kill. They steal, cheat and lie (in the sense of pretending to be something they're not) and there are no rewards and no punishments apart from survival and death.

We're different. We are all aware, sometimes painfully of the fact that we exist. And especially in the difficult times, when pain and desperation prevail, we innately question our existence, and look for the purpose and the meaning behind our travails. Humanity, as a species simply cannot accept randomness. When things happen to us, good or bad, we imagine the plan positioned around the situation. Especially when that situation is poor we can't help but say to ourselves, "Why me?" On some level we just can't accept that we weren't specifically selected. That things are just happening as opposed to happening to us.

There are really only two overarching narratives that human probing has attempted to illuminate. The first is, "What are we and the universe?", and the second is, "Why do both of these exist?" And both of these questions are informed by and give rise to (or negate) purpose.

I've touched on all of this in earlier entries, but they've all resolved with positive affirmations and relatively clear cut answers. This entry won't follow the same line. And the positive won't be quite as obvious either. In fact I think the positive here is just that a dialogue has been opened. This is the start of a potential conversation. The beginning of a germ of an answer. It won't be warm and fuzzy.

In a nutshell, here's my issue. Atheism, my chosen philosophy, if followed to its logical conclusion strips away any intrinsic meaning to human life, or to life or the universe in general. It destroys the notion of an implicit, divinely inspired moral code. Neither of these are necessarily bad things. They can create an opening to build your own meaning in life and create an ethical system based on the valuation of human life for its own sake. But atheism, if misapplied can lead to some really nasty conclusions. A complete devaluing of individual human life. A "flexible" ethical system that favors some "common good" at the expense of individual citizens. Stalin's Russia is a good example of what atheism can devolve to. Atheism can lead to conflict, conflict to violence, and violence to death.

Theism doesn't fare any better. Religion does one thing well. It creates meaning for everything. Human life, the world, the existence of suffering, etc. Religion ties the entirety of human experience up with a nice tidy bow, perfectly explained and easy to palate. It satisfies our deep need for purpose. And that would be all be fine if there was only one explanation. Problem is there are any number of neat, tidy bows. Every religion explains the same universe differently, with different intrinsic moral codes and different values and ethics. And they all claim to have the lock on ultimate truth. And give man an "ultimate truth" and the moral obligation to enforce it, and you get fanatics. Sometimes entire nations of fanatics. As a result, history is awash in the blood of holy wars, religio-ethnic cleansing, terrorism, forced conversions, intolerance, misplaced hatred and blind devotion. Theism (religion) can lead to conflict, conflict to violence, and violence to death.

So we're damned either way. Both atheism and theism have the potential to do wonderful things for the world, but they also, and often have propagated hideous pain and anguish, death and suffering on massive scales. Clearly our claim to or lack of religion isn't the problem. Both often lead to the same results. It is our own human nature that has to be the problem, and there's no easy solution for that.

I'm an atheist. I don't believe god exists. I've come to that conclusion after considering all the available data. For me it's the only conclusion that makes sense. Others come to very different conclusions. But we're united in one thing. Regardless of how strongly we hold onto our beliefs, that's all they are. We don't know anything for sure. We can't. I can't claim to know that god doesn't exist any more than a religious person can claim to know he does. It's unknowable. That's why the religious talk so much about faith. If one could truly know god's existence status, faith would be unnecessary. And clearly in some sense I have faith. Faith in logic's ability to illuminate truth. Faith in the predictability of a universe guided by physical laws. And faith that god isn't "out there" anywhere. It's not a religious faith because its derived from observation not illumination, but it's still faith.

What we can derive from all of this is that there is an ultimate truth in the universe. One indisputable fact that touches logic and religion, and that is that we can never know where we came from and where we're going. Both religion and science attempt to explain the world. But neither science nor religion can answer these questions without eventually falling back on faith. The is clear with religion. The universe was created by god, most of them say. A simple answer, but it requires a faith in a god whose existence cannot be known, only believed (and this is true whether he actually exists or not, as demonstrated earlier.) So religion is not knowledge, it's faith.

Finding the root of faith in science's explanation for the creation of the universe is a little trickier. Science has teased out the evidence that our universe started some 13 billion years ago at the "Big Bang". Before that all matter everywhere in the universe was contained in a space smaller than an atom, nearly infinitely dense...a singularity. Even time itself was bound up in the singularity, so it's difficult to talk about when the Big Bang occurred, relative to moments before the Bang, as the Big Bang expanded time into something measurable. So what came before the Big Bang? There are countless theories, many very promising and supported by the math and what we know of the physical universe. But, given the nature of the question, and the fact that verification is almost impossible we will probably never know for sure what happened before the Big Bang. Scientists simply have faith that an answer will be found, one that doesn't require metaphysical assumptions.

I noted earlier that there's only two major narratives in the story of our universe. What and why. But the even deeper narrative that bisects both of these questions is, "How did we and the universe come to be?" Your answer to this ultimate question influences your answers in both of the other major human questions.

But neither side, the theists nor the atheists, the scientists nor the clergy have anything but faith as a weapon of last resort. So why are we fighting?! I can't offer ultimate proof for my position anymore than anyone else can. If we all accepted the fact the faith does not equal knowledge we could all move on with our and let live.

Because clearly we are all going to believe something. It's our nature to have faith without ultimate proof. If we ever want to have any chance of creating peace in our times we need to find a faith we can all agree on. Faith can't be stamped out. To be human is to believe. Instead of fighting over which ultimately unprovable belief is the "right" belief, let's all just accept that none of them, including atheism can be considered right because none of them can ever be proven one way or the other.

Like I said, there's no easy answer to this one.

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