Friday, August 1, 2008

Hope in the Black Void of the Unknowable

All life and human experience is devoid of meaning. The Universe is nothing more than an enormous cosmic accident. It is an accident that will be corrected in due course, as the Universe and its inhabitants are fated to be destroyed in an equally pointless cataclysm of some kind or another - whether it be through a Universal collapse to a singularity or a dissipation of all energy in an entropic heat death. At least this is the view of our Universe as seen through the eyes of empiricism. Is it really any wonder then that 40-50% of the American public, depending on which poll you’re looking at, prefers the idea of creationism to the theory of evolution? Our morals, our accomplishments, our feelings and thoughts, our connections to others and to the world in which we live – all the things we as a species hold dear – are apparently no more than blips of energy in an inconsequential cosmic blink.

Yet this is the Universe that we face if we look at it only through the lenses of logic and reason. How much blame can we really place on our Earthly brothers and sisters for rejecting such a worldview? No doubt, within certain psyches such a view might inevitably lead to depression, apathy, and a callousness toward humankind and existence. Do we as scientists wish for every other person on this planet to truly see and understand our world through sensory perception and evidential experience alone?

The media is currently awash with the pontifications of atheist personalities such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, both of which claim that faith and religion are the downfall of humanity and the yoke holding us back from true existential accomplishment. According to them, if only people could truly understand the awe and wonder brought forth by an intimate inspection of existence, from the microscopic to the astronomical – if only they could see that faith is unnecessary – the world would reach a new height of enlightenment and elevated existence. I believe their motives are noble, and I find the essence of their arguments to be true – that is until they cross the line of reason into their own forms of faith. For both of these now famous authors have fallen into the pitfalls of their own arrogance. Through one word alone they have both done a disservice to the endeavors of science, while providing fodder for those who wish to remain blind to the forces of nature. The word is “atheism.”

The error is a small one, yet profoundly significant in its effects. Both men claim to be atheists. Their position is that there is no God. There is no evidence for a God and even entertaining the notion of one is foolishness. Perhaps it is. However, neither of them seem to grasp, or at least to express their understanding, that underlying all knowledge and all science is one major faith, one assumption. This is the assumption that our senses and experiences are relating real information about reality. That we are not merely in “The Matrix.” There is simply no philosophical workaround to this argument – it is impossible to absolutely know anything. Thus, even if science can tell us exactly how the Big Bang began, we can never know what if anything came before that moment or whether it was orchestrated by some deistic entity. So by definition, any scientist who claims to shape all of his or her worldviews around empiricism and logic, must declare themselves agnostic: the view that the existence of a God is unknown or unknowable. Or they should at least qualify themselves as “agnostic atheists”, which takes a more probabilistic view claiming that there is no evidence for or against a God, but that the Universe as we know it seems to suggest that there is not one.

I agree with the supposition that all orthodox religions and dogma as we know them are farce. The genesis stories throughout the religious world have been disproven as far as it is possible to do so, given the above inherent unknowability of all knowledge and the limitations of our ability to measure history. Evolution is not even a debate within the world of science. Every month it seems a new “transition fossil” is found to plug another hole in the fossil record. A steady stream of hominid fossils have traced our own evolution back about seven million years, and 85 million years for all primates. The only debates of this are micro-debates about which species begat which. As for the fossil record, one must understand that by its very nature, every time we fill one hole, two more arise on either side of it. Our understanding of molecular biology and genetics has only cemented our theories of evolution and natural selection. Natural evolution is irrefutable, insofar as the above prime assumption is acknowledged. The world is not a paltry six thousand years old. The Earth and the solar system we inhabit all formed about four and a half billion years ago, over nine billion year after the formation of the Universe itself as we know it. Thus, I agree with the self-branded atheists that it is foolishness to believe that a single man and a woman talked to a demonic snake six thousand years ago and bred to yield our current population. This story, along with all other religious dogmas, appear to be nothing more than fables – parables that helped us once cope with and explain our own existence.

But that brings us back to the original question: do we really want all of humanity to live as if our existence is a meaningless accident? It is my view that we in the science community should embrace the idea, from a philosophical standpoint, that there very well may be an unknowable entity – Aristotle’s “unmoved mover” - that crafted the laws of physics as we know them, that set the ball in motion. We can never even attempt to discover what underlies the laws of our system, for we are within the system, a part of the system, are the system. I personally have no problem admitting that this existence is likely as ethereal and meaningless as a flake of dead skin. However I am not so sure that I have faith that the rest of humanity could cope with such a prospect. Perhaps this is arrogance on my part. The evidence, though, seems to support my lack of faith in human mental well-being: how many of the worlds problems and crimes are caused by individuals feeling lost and unimportant in this world?

Thus, I suggest that we push our science, which is everyone’s science, as strongly as we can. We must educate our children about where we as a species come from. We must make them understand that we use science because it is the only proven method of obtaining anything close to actual knowledge about our Universe and existence. However, just as importantly, we must admit where our knowledge cannot reach, and allow that place to be inhabited with hope – a hope that maybe, just maybe, in that dark void of unknowability lies a meaning to our existence, a meaning we can never know or understand. We must make them understand that although the fables passed down from our ancestors are untrue and no longer useful as a defining belief, the true possibilities of our meaning and our worth may be infinitely larger than they ever imagined. I believe that if we take into consideration the grandness of nature, the mind-boggling array of galaxies in our Universe, and the insanely complex biology and chemistry within ourselves, the unknowable creation of our Universe will seem only that much bigger and infinitely more awe-inspiring. As the philosopher Karl Popper once said, “Our knowledge can only be finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite.” It is in this infinite ignorance where our only hope for greater meaning may lie.

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At August 2, 2008 10:01 PM , Blogger The Painter Of Oregon, C. L. Pagani said...

Very interesting points. As a former ultra-fundamentalist Christian, I've only slowly reached the conclusion that there's nothing out there and that life is completely meaningless in the most absolute sense possible.

And now as I'm slowly dying due to lack of health care (thanks USA 'private is better' people), I would like to think that there is some outside chance, however small, that I might be wrong.

At August 11, 2008 2:18 PM , Blogger Irradiatus said...

It's amazing (sad?) that I'm still writing about the same topic in basically the same way that I did seven years ago.

At August 19, 2008 2:29 AM , Blogger Atheist Okie said...

"You want the truth? You can't handle the truth!"

Maybe some people will suffer depression if they suddenly had their ideas of "God" are stripped away, but I don't think the numbers would be as high as some think. Even with all the religious beliefs flying around in our country there are still many who suffer depression and other mental disorders already. So the argument from Christians that we atheists will just break so many hearts, I think, is wrong.

I think we can help alleviate this much in the same way a therapist/psychiatrist makes certain therapies available to ease the minds of the delusional and afflicted.

At August 22, 2008 9:20 PM , Blogger Irradiatus said...

I know what you're saying. Most of the time, this is what I think as well. But I sometimes waver on this topic, largely because of my wife's experiences as a clinical psychologist.

I'm not sure that we can actually "alleviate in the same way" though. Honestly, I think a very large proportion of people aren't helped that much from therapy. Let me step back, cause alot of psychologists would scream at me for saying that. Actually, what I mean is that their depression isn't "cured". But they learn to cope with it. And I think alot of that therapy is finding ways for people to find greater meaning in their lives.

I'm just not sure that a nihilistic worldview will help.

I want it to. I'm just generally pessimistic about our world's mental health.

Or perhaps you're right, perhaps I am exaggerating the numbers of psychological disorders causally affected by a meaningless worldview.


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