The Mother of All Questions: The Meaning of the Universe.
“The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything is 42.”
Douglas Adams – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
This blog explores further implications of my previous blog, “Science and Religion – Strange Bedfellows?”
As always, I would be delighted to hear any comments you may have on my two latest blogs. In particular, I would be interested if you have changed your religious/philosophical beliefs during your life, and whether the blogs trigger anything in your belief system. Did a hominid species that lived millions of years before modern man, Homo sapiens, feel a need to create a religion, wonder why they were on earth and ponder the meaning of the universe? Are religion and science the two sides of a coin? Is the need felt by many people to believe in a religion genetically determined, or is it perhaps a form of cultural indoctrination?
The answer to the meaning of the universe may not be 42, but this blog will explain why the number four certainly has an almost magical significance in the universe’s design. The blog presents five views of the universe’s significance and possible answers to humankind’s millennial-old question – why am I here?
- A Cave’s Eye View of the Universe. – ‘Primitive’ Pantheism.
Time: The Pleistocene – 14,000 thousand years ago.
Location: The Vézère Valley, a Cro-Magnon man and Neanderthal man site in the
I begin this blog with a daydream triggered by a visit as an undergraduate student to the fabled galleries of prehistoric cave paintings that adorn the walls of labyrinthine caves in the Vézère Valley nestling at the feet of the picturesque Auvergne Mountains. Ancient, but paradoxically highly reminiscent of modern impressionist art, these expertly executed paintings in carbon black, red and yellow ochre, ground calcite white and malachite green, depict a chaotic promenade of long dead, ice-age species.
I had heard that when viewed by the candle light of the ancients rather than by modern torch beam, the paintings spring to life and dance again behind the flickering flame after sleeping for over fourteen thousand years. The cold dampness of the cave seems to trap the cold of ice ages past. My ears are invaded by the sound of multiple water drips busying themselves with their millennial-long task of growing stalactites one drip at a time. Imaginary smoke from a cave-mouth, brushwood campfire drifts back to this sacred inner sanctum where only the favoured prehistoric few were permitted to tread. A few seconds later, a second evocative smell seems to fill my nose; it is the acrid smell of a burning tallow candle that I imagine an antler-hooded, Cro-Magnon Shaman priest is holding in his hand. He is not the first to tread the darkness of these ancient caves. Four hundred thousand years ago, Homo erectus arrived from Africa finding shelter from the bitter arctic cold and a menagerie of fearsome ice-age beasts. A hundred thousand years later, the same cave would shelter a newcomer, Neanderthal man (Homo neanderthalensis) who thrived in the ice age conditions for hundreds of thousands of years. This robustly-built early cousin of modern man had the winter-wonderland of the ice age to himself until the Shaman artist’s ancestor, modern man, penetrated up the valley from the south. For tens of thousands of years, Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon co-existed in this valley leaving a mixed, early technological detritus of flint and bone tools on the same cave floors. One wonders what ‘turf wars’ ragged through the valley and into the precious few cave dwellings.
To the surprise of archaeologists, the most ancient cave paintings discovered in Spain show that Neanderthal man shared the human use of art to capture the ancient world in which they lived their short lives. Did they, as our later Cro-Magnon ancestors did, question the reason for their existence and place in the natural world? The elaborate burial of their dead surrounded by flint tools – perhaps for use in the hunting grounds of an afterlife, strongly suggests that they did.
I arrive at my destination in the deepest recesses of the cave. My candle’s yellow flame’s, ever changing luminosity and direction, cast an organic living light to animate the shimming a giant bison in front of me.
No two-dimensional, static high-gloss art book page could ever capture the magic of that living image painted on the three-dimensional cave walls by the flickering light of a candle’s primitive flame. This ice-age Picasso used mineral and herbal pigments to capture the image and spirit perhaps seeking to bewitch his future prey by his art and whispered incantations. In a neighbouring cave, I find suggestions that the Shaman’s magic didn’t always work – another impressionist painting depicts the gruesome death of a hunter gored by the scimitar slashes of giant horns, and tramped by the stumbling feet of a spear-pierced, dying bison. The painting was perhaps a touching epitaph for the hunter perished during that ancient hunt in the lush green river valley below the cave’s entrance.
Resorting to the brighter light of twentieth-century flash, I photograph this Pleistocene masterpiece from many angles before extinguishing my candle and picking my way back to the cave entrance using less romantic, but more practical torchlight.
It was night by the time I emerge from my troglodyte excursion. The filigree of sparking stars that weave their luminous tapestry across the darkness of the night sky is breath taking.
This is an astronomer’s dark sky untainted by the urban light pollution. I picture the three types of hominid species who had stood here eons before me contemplating the same vista above my head. Did they wonder what was ‘up there’ and why we are ‘down here?’ Almost certainly, all these sentient beings living in close communion with nature and the threat of early death had many abilities that we modern urbanites have lost. How true is the saying that “for early loss, there is a hidden gain, and for every gain there is hidden loss.” High tech humans have built both physical and mental walls which, by a form of mental home land security, prevent migrant thoughts of invading the cosy cocoons of modern mental life. I will always remember the comment of a student on one of my Astronomy 101 courses on emerging out of the four-wheel drive that had brought us, and a portable telescope, to observe a total eclipse of the moon in the dark skies of the deep Arabian desert. Looking up at the night sky she exclaimed without a trace of jest – ironic humor….. “Whow! It’s so unnatural.!”
The only people alive in living memory who perhaps shared our cave-dwelling ancestors’ view of the natural world were the American Indians and other ‘primitive’ races such as the Bushmen and Aborigines. For them, the transient nature of everyday life is all too obvious as capture by the evocative, Zen-flavoured words of a Blackfoot proverb:
“What is life? It is the flash of the firefly at night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.”
Theirs was a pantheistic view of the world in which the ‘great spirit’ lived in all living and non-living things. This creed teaches that God or the Great Spirit is the transcendent reality of which the material universe and human beings are only manifestations. They felt themselves a part of the universe in a way in which the more insular modern humans do not. Such beliefs are
“The overwhelming presence is everywhere inside you and outside you and you can never be separated from it.” Deepak Chopra an American Advocate of the New Age.
“You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop.” Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī 3th-century Persian poet, theologian, and Sufi mystic
“All things are bound together. All things connect.” Chief Seattle of the Suqamish and Duwamish tribes.
This pantheistic view is far removed from that of traditional 19th-century science in the experimenters are totally isolated from, and external to, the natural phenomena they seek to study. This isolationist view of the universe was an important factor that lead to the rise of atheism, the view of the universe we will review next.
- The Atheist View of the Universe.
“Atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning ……” – C.S. Lewis.
Perhaps one of the very best summaries of the atheist’s extreme view of the universe are the lines spoken by William Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
“And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Atheism shares with the philosophy of nihilism in the rejection of all religious and the belief that life is meaningless. The majority of atheists, however, do not reject moral principles by which they believe life should be lived and subscribe to humanism – an interest in human rather than divine or supernatural matters.
It can be argued that the atheist’s view of the universe is not just too simple but it is hopelessly myopic.
In many ways atheism is rooted in the evolutionary biology and the pre-quantum physics and chemistry of the Nineteenth Century. This view of the universe applies Occam’s Razor to shave away the trapping sof religion and spirituality to produce a simple, clean-face view of science and the universe. The English philosopher William Ockham proposed that if there were two possible explanations for a phenomenon, the simplest one that requires the least speculation is usually correct. In particular, the more assumptions you have to make, the more unlikely it is that the explanation is correct.
In a similar vein, but with an added caution Einstein wrote that “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
Victor Stenger, the American particle physicist, philosopher, author and religious skeptic, for example, commented “There’s no reason to believe in God so I don’t.”
For other philosophers, the search for the simplest explanation for the existence of the universe and life on earth brings with it illogicalities as highlighted in the following tongue-in-cheek definition:
“Atheism – The belief that there was nothing and nothing happened to nothing and then nothing magically exploded for no reason, creating everything and then a bunch of everything magically rearranged itself for no reason what so ever into self-replicating bits which then turned into dinosaurs. Makes perfect sense.” Anon.
It can be argued that atheism is a religion with its own system of beliefs with unsupported assumptions which include:
* The Origins of Energy, Space and Time.
“Energy can neither be created nor destroyed; energy can only be transferred or changed from one form to another.” – The first law of thermodynamics (the Law of Conservation of Energy).
For many atheists, the question as to the origins of energy, space and time is one we are not allowed to ask. Is this a convenient way for not having to admit they do not have answer to this most fundamental of questions? Their view is that energy has always existed and therefore, applying Occam’s Razor, there is no need to postulate a creator.
As the late English theoretical physicist and cosmologist famously suggested, “asking what caused the big bang is like asking ‘What is north of the North Pole?’” If I can be forgiven for the temerity of suggesting an answer to this question, changing the frame of reference and scale it is possible to see that the Polaris, the Pole Star is north of the North Pole.
Interestingly, the taboo amongst cosmologist against pre-big bang speculation is waning. It is now speculated that perhaps the ‘big bang’ that produced our universe was the consequence of the collapse and ‘big crunch’ of a previous universe. Perhaps, also, the Law of Conservation of Energy only applies to energy which has already been created. This interpretation does not preclude the creation of energy by a God-like, spiritual entity.
The origins of energy, space and time are certainly topics that atheists conveniently side-step.
* The Goldilocks Problem.
My last blog introduced the Goldilocks problem and highlighted the amazing fact that if the four fundamental forces (the strong and weak nuclear forces, electromagnetism and gravity) were only a few percent greater or smaller than their current actual values the universe and life on earth would be impossible.
I find it difficult to internalize and fact that the universe, the earth, and all forms of terrestrial life are built up of just four types of fundamental particle building blocks (up and down quarks, the neutrino and electron) which are held together by the four types of fundamental forces.
Perhaps even more amazing is that fact that it is the arrangement of just four bead-like units (the bases cytosine (C), guanine (G), adenine (A) and thymine (T) ) along the length of the coiled, necklace-like DNA molecule that makes us human rather than a virus, bacteria, plant or an Amoeba. The three of the bases in the reading frame (the codon) enclosed in the box codes for the insertion of one type of amino acid in one human protein.
Atheists take the types and properties of the basic ‘Lego’ blocks from which the universe and life are constructed for granted.
The Goldilocks problem applies not just to the physical and chemical properties of matter, but to the unlikely series of ‘just right’ astronomical and geological events that allowed human life to evolve on earth. A few such Goldilocks events include:
* The giant planet Jupiter being in ‘just the right’ position during the development of the solar system to Sheppard water-bearing asteroids and comets towards ancestral Earth. Water which was clearly vital to the appearance of life on our planet.
* The movement of newly formed Earth into the habitable zone – an orbit at the distance from the sun at which the temperature of surface is ‘just right’ for liquid water to accumulate allowing life to evolve.
* The miracle of water. Whenever I look out at the view of the sea from my balcony, I cannot help but remember that by the general layers of chemistry and physics, liquid water should not exist on the earth’s surface. All other simple compounds of hydrogen with other elements such as carbon (CH4), sulphur (H2S) and nitrogen (NH3) are all gases at normal temperatures and pressures. It is only the unique hydrogen bonding between oxygen and hydrogen which makes the liquid water of the earth’s ponds, rivers and oceans possible as will be reviewed in a future blog.
A recent article in the current issue of the New Scientist (22nd May, 2019) “The Young Sun Spun Slowly – Which Could Explain Why We Are Here” presents evidence that it was the relatively slow rotation (around 10 days) for our newly formed star that made it possible for humans to evolve four billion years later. Faster rotations would have produced much more frequent flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) which would have then bombarded the newly formed earth with destructive ejected solar material making it impossible for liquid water and elements such as sodium and potassium vital for the evolution of life to accumulate.
* The Giant Impact Hypothesis. The collision of the relatively small, ancient planet Theia which collided with early earth (Gaia) around 4.5 billion years ago led to the formation of a double planet system – the Earth and the Moon. As will be reviewed in a future blog, the creation of the moon was crucial to the development and survival of life on Earth.
* The Chicxulub Impact Event. The impact of an asteroid or comet with the earth at the end of Cretaceous Period is believed to have lead to the extinction of the dinosaurs and allowed the evolution of larger and more advanced mammal species. The quotation from Matthew 5.5 “blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” – comes to mind. Without that fortuitous impact, at least from a human perspective, it is likely that the earth would still be ruled by the tooth and claw tyranny of giant dinosaurs.
* The Supernovae Explosion relatively close to the sun at the boundary between the Pliocene and Pleistocene Epochs. There has recently been growing support for the theory that bombardment of killer cosmic rays slamming into our planet about five million years ago caused mass extinction of marine life and triggered lightning storms which, in turn, ignited widespread forest fires. It is thought that this event may have prompted our ape-like ancestors, who were already experimenting with bipedalism, to abandon their arboreal, tree-based existence, and venture out into the expanding savannah grasslands which were replacing the decimated, charred forests. Hands, now unneeded for locomotion, could then learn tool-making skills and launch our species’ technological development.
If any one of these crucial events had not occurred, it is argued that humans could never have evolved on Planet Earth.
Does the Goldilocks problem then imply that there must have been intelligent design by a creator?
The Atheist’s Defence.
Scientist of an atheist persuasion do have a defence to the Goldilocks problem – the multiverse. Let the forces of nature and evolution history of our planet be a billion-to-one-against chance. If, as the multiverse theory suggests, there are billions of other universes, it is argued that we just happen to live in the extremely rare universe and on the planet where everything is ‘just right’ for the evolution of advanced, sentient life. According to this interpretation, we are not uniquely special, but just a statistical aberration.
Problems of the Multiverse Defense.
On closer examination, the multiverse defence is not as convincing as it may first seem. As discussed in our last blog, to draw scientifically valid conclusions, investigators need to investigate a representative sample of the objects/phenomena they are studying. Can atheist scientists draw valid conclusions as the nature of the universe if they are studying just one universe out of at least 999,000,000,000 other possible universes? An analogous situation would be for a geologist to attempted to formulate a comprehensive understanding of the geology of entire Earth after studying the mineralogy of just a single grain from one of the planet’s beaches.
* Paranormal and Reincarnation Phenomena.
The paranormal is the atheist’s proverbial ‘red rag to a bull’. The growing evidence for the validity of at least some paranormal phenomena suggests that, to quote Shakespeare’s Hamlet again, “there are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Perhaps, as suggested in my other blogs the paranormal events are just normal phenomena that have yet to be discovered. The investigation of the paranormal using scientific instrumentation and protocols is likely to play an increasing important role in the future into the meaning of the universe and the rejection of atheistic nihilistic approach. (Reference: My own scientific investigations reviewed in my blog “A Swinging Pendulum and Walking River.”)
Part 2 of this blog to be uploaded next week will look at the religious view and an experimental model of the universe as well as attempting to draw some general conclusions. I hope to see you then.
In the meantime, I cannot think of a better way of signing off than by quoting the Cherokee blessing:
“May the warm winds of heaven blow softly upon your house.
May the Great Spirit bless all who enter there.
May your Moccasins make happy tracks in many snows and
May the rainbow always touch your shoulder.”