The fundamental question of existence

Why are we here?
Because we're here
Roll the bones
Why does it happen?
Because it happens
Roll the bones....

Rush, Roll The Bones, 1991 (Lee/Lifeson/Peart)

Not all heavy rock bands are about wine, women and song. Canadian hard rockers Rush penned the above as a subtle protest against what their drummer Neil Peart described as "the prefab structure of religion", hinting that it might be preferable to abandon the search for any cogent reason behind the universe and simply instead just to "roll the bones" (ie toss the dice). When I saw them in concert the following year, the above chorus was played over an intriguing backdrop of video sequences: first, pictures of the East Europeans of 1989 peacefully overcoming their former masters and tearing down the Berlin Wall; second, shots of Jupiter, Saturn and other immense heavenly bodies. What the song seemed to be saying was that, despite the occasional glories that the human spirit can rise to and the awesomeness of the universe, there is simply no reason for either: they just are. At the end of the day, it just is, and you can never know.

This view of the universe, historically speaking, is the minority one. From time immemorial mankind has tried to make sense of its home and its very being through seeking the power, force or person behind the universe, albeit in varied ways. It used to be fashionable to regard this religious sense as a sort of primitive explanation for the power of nature, but now we know that the quest for the ultimate cause was not necessarily linked to a people's scientific knowledge. For example, while we might regard the gods of the Aztecs as bloody, and their religion as savage, they seem to have possessed a fairly detailed knowledge of astronomy. So did the Babylonians, who worshipped a pantheon of deities. Plato, one of the greatest minds of the ancient world, still spoke of "God" or "gods" in his writings. Whatever we may think of pagan religion, it is patronising and unscientific to regard it simply as the product of a childish intellect.

Consider for a moment the view that there was no person, guiding force or "First Cause" behind the universe. Anyone holding this view must deal with the following:

  1. The fact that the universe exists at all, let alone the universe as we know it with its incredible diversity of phenomena, particularly on this planet;
  2. The fact that life arose from a complex of atoms to form biological molecules, then living cells, and then the ladder of life from the humblest protozoan or sponge through the incredible panorama of prehistoric life to our own species;
  3. The fact that we ourselves are rational beings.

At a superficial glimpse it might be possible to explain these away as a series of lucky accidents: Big Bang - a number of lucky rolls on the evolutionary dice - the evolution of the mammalian brain to a stage where it is capable of self-contemplation. Closer analysis raises the following difficulties, however:

  1. The phenomena of the Big Bang is a huge hurdle for a pure atheist to leap. It presupposes that there was nothing - literally nothing - before the birth of the universe, and therefore cannot explain how the necessary energy and mass arose. People who talk about "pre-existing energies" or the like in this context are just trying to have their cake and eat it, since it merely begs the question as to where the "pre-existing energies" came from: in other words, you're just moving the argument in a circle. Furthermore, it has been shown that far from being simply a primordial and unordered explosion, the Big Bang operated within very fine parameters. If the initial explosion had been too strong, the material needed for the universe would have been scattered so far that it could never have coalesced; too weak, and it would have collapsed in on itself.
  2. If evolution really consisted of a large number of rolls of the dice to progress from species to species, then we might expect to find a large number of briefly-lived but misshapen or maladjusted fossils in the fossil record. In fact most fossils are evidence of creatures that were successful in their day, and were appropriately formed for the conditions of their time. It used to be fashionable to laugh at the dinosaurs for being so stupid as to let the mammals pull the carpet out from under their feet: now we know that the dinosaurs were in fact as a class the most successful species that lived, and their demise has a certain awesome, almost apocalyptic, dimension. That evolution does occur is not contested: what is contested is the random-evolutionistic viewpoint.
  3. There is also a logical flaw in the argument that the human brain, and reason itself, is simply an evolutionary by-product. If our reason is something that is simply part of our biological makeup, rather than something that can be tested by itself, then there is no reason for supposing that this view of reason is correct, since we would be "programmed" to think this way. In other words, if you tell me that logic and reason are simply a biologically determined product, then there is no reason why I should believe you, since you have been biologically determined to think that way. As C S Lewis once observed, 'The man who tells you "Trust no-one in this office" expects you to make an exception for him'.

Another way of looking at the argument is to see whether a person can seriously live with their presuppositions and act in a consistent manner. Of course, most Christians, Jew, Muslims and others also fail to meet their own high standards, so we are not talking about perfect behaviour here. But does the man who claim that humanity is really just a piece of primordial slime, a random array of chemicals in an infinitesimally small part of the universe, really act on a daily basis as if he believed that? In most cases - thankfully - the answer is no. In practice such people are often involved in good causes and treat their partners, friends and colleagues well. But the point is that if they were consistent, they would not feel the need to do so. Perhaps the only people who acted consistently with their presuppositions regarding the nature and origin of man were Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot. Richard Dawkins, an avowed atheist, once wrote that he would run from a state built on such presuppositions. Again, the sentiment is worthy, but it lacks a certain consistency. If man is simply the product of blind evolutionary forces, then there should be no rational reason to rail against injustice, any more than the sheep could rage against the injustice of the wolf.

Of course, once we move onto the thorny subject of the existence of God, we are dealing with a different set of problems. There are valid objections to the existence of God, just as I have stated objections to atheism in the preceding paragraphs. In the following pages I would like to consider some of these, plus some differing conceptions of God as held by the human race (I can't answer for my lizards yet).


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