Saturday, 27 December 2014

Atheist Universes

Orion Nebula Hubble 2006 mosaic 18000

Following a review of four Christian visions of our Universe - that of Chiara Lubich, Pope Francis, the Catholic Church’s Catechism and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, I would now like to attempt a far harder challenge, which is that of presenting atheist thoughts on its nature. Here, I must leave the luxury of my own experience behind and rely much more on the Principle of Charity when engaging with the words of others, especially since I desire to identify what the atheist position is in itself, as opposed to in contrast with other, religious positions. My points of departure here are: the conviction that there is great good in the lives of atheists,1 that I myself stand to benefit from discovering that good, that I wish to speak about it in a way that my own atheist friends would recognize as doing their views justice, and that I would like to construct an understanding of atheist thought about the universe using the words of contemporary atheists themselves. And since atheism is not a single-minded entity, the plural in the title of this post does not refer to the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, but rather to there being multiple atheist understandings of the universe (whether it be one, in the sense understood before the multiverse was conceived of, or not).

Desiring to start at the beginning, as the White Rabbit is encouraged to do by the King, I would like to refer to the words of the atheist author Kenan Malik, who argues that the basis of his view of the universe is an uncertainty that, instead of being disconcerting, is exhilarating:2
“The difference between believers and atheists is not about whether either can explain the ultimate cause of the universe. It is about how we wish to explain it. I am happy to say, ‘I do not know what First Cause is, or even if there is one. It may be that one day we discover the answer to that. Or it may be that we never will. For now I am happy to keep an open mind, accept our ignorance of First Cause and live with the uncertainty of not having one’. […] The human condition is that of possessing no moral safety net. No God, no belief in God, no amount of ethical concrete, can protect us from the dangers of falling off that moral tightrope that is to be human. That can be a highly disconcerting prospect. Or it can be a highly exhilarating one. Being human, the choice is ours.”
That uncertainty leads not to stagnation or paralysis, but that it can impel one to an intense participation in both the sorrows and joys of living in the universe, is also clear from the words of the atheist thinker Christopher Hitchens:
“The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.”
In the above what strikes me is not only the clear-headed determination for a conscious life, but also a profound sense of sincerity. This choice of striving for meaningful living in a meaningless universe is also expressed very clearly by the atheist biologist and philosopher Franz Wuketits:
“And the meaning of being? The universe itself has no meaning, it simply exists, without it being possible to derive meaning from this fact itself. Of course, it is understandable that many people do not like this idea. They are afraid that this being empty of meaning would triumph over human aspirations for meaning. But, no one stops us from giving our being a meaning that has its source in our own selves - by virtue of what we do. To accept that the world is meaningless in itself, only creates space for individually founded meaning. If instead, the Universe gave us meaning, this would not necessarily have to be good for us. Because then we would be deprived of our personal development opportunities from the outset. To be happy, we have no need for a Universe that participates in our destinies.”
For an example of what such self-rooted types of meaning look like, the atheist activist, Richard Carrier, readily shares his own beliefs, which should look very familiar also to the followers of the world’s religions:
“An atheist is a person who does not believe that any gods exist. […] I believe in many things. I believe in the potential of humanity, in the power of reason, in the comfort of love, and in the value of truth. I also believe in the beauty and joy of human experience, and the nearly unlimited power of the human will to endure almost any hardship or solve almost any problem.”
How does such a self-rooted foundation of meaning come about though? Here the words of the atheist cognitive scientist, Steven Pinker present a solution that relies on going beyond one’s self:
“Knowing there is a world that will outlive you, there are people whose well-being depends on how you live your life, affects the way you live your life, whether or not you directly experience those effects. You want to be the kind of person who has the larger view, who takes other people’s interests into account, who’s dedicated to the principles that you can justify, like justice, knowledge, truth, beauty and morality.”
And, while such self-transcendence may smack of theism, it is, in fact a position held by other atheists too, without requiring recourse to belief in God. Even in a universe that is itself devoid of meaning, one can - and can feel impelled to - go beyond oneself: towards others and towards that universe itself. Kenan Malik writes beautifully about this in the context of art, and Christopher Hitchens too presents it as a distinctly human trait:
“I’m a materialist … yet there is something beyond the material, or not entirely consistent with it, what you could call the Numinous, the Transcendent, or at its best the Ecstatic. I wouldn’t trust anyone in this hall who didn’t know what I was talking about. It’s in certain music, landscape, certain creative work, without this we really would merely be primates. It’s important to appreciate the finesse of that, and religion has done a very good job of enshrining it in music and architecture.”
This leads me to the final part of our brief excursion into atheist experiences of the universe, which presents the accounts of three scientists engaging with its beauty.

First, we have the inspiring words of the atheist physicist, Richard Feynman, who takes exception to the suggestion that his appreciation of the beauty of a flower is any lesser than that of an artist. What’s more, he argues - very successfully to my mind - for the opposite:
“I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe…

I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”
Second, the agnostic physicist Brian Cox takes the same attitude as Feynman does and projects a sense of interconnectedness from it, in addition to that of aesthetic appreciation:
“On its own, [a blade of grass] is a wonder, but viewed in isolation its complexity and very existence is inexplicable. Darwin’s genius was to see that the existence of something as magnificent as a blade of grass can be understood, but only in the context of its interaction with other living things and, crucially, its evolutionary history. A physicist might say it is a four-dimensional structure, with both spatial and temporal extent, and it is simply impossible to comprehend the existence of such a structure in a universe governed by the simple laws of physics if its history is ignored.

And whilst you are contemplating the humble majesty of a blade of grass, with a spatial extent of a few centimeters but stretching back in the temporal direction for almost a third of the age of the Universe, pause for a moment to consider the viewer, because what is true of the blade of grass is also true for you. You share the same basic biochemistry, all the way down to the detail of proton waterfalls, and ATP, and much of the same genetic history, carefully documented in your DNA. This is because you share the same common ancestor. You are all related. You were once the same.

[…] Deeper understanding confers that most precious thing — wonder.”
Third, the atheist biologist, Richard Dawkins too sings the praises of wonder and elevates it to a source of value itself:
“The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living is quite finite.”
Re-reading all of the above leads me to two thoughts: First, a great sense of joy, derived from a recognition of the centrality of goodness, truth and beauty in atheism. Seeing these three “sisters,” as Aristotle refers to them, revered, is a sure sign of of a fulfilling and rich life, and - in St. Paul’s words - I feel like “rejoic[ing] with those who rejoice” (Romans 12:15). Second, a call to living my own life as someone who tries to follow Jesus - and who believes in a loving, personal God - with a renewed commitment, in imitation of the fearless intensity of life that I observe in my atheist brothers and sisters. The false certainties they rebel against are false in my eyes too and I am reminded of the warning from the book of Proverbs (14:15): “The naive believe everything, but the shrewd watch their steps.”

1 I am greatly encouraged here also by the words of Pope Francis in his Evangelii Gaudium: “God’s presence accompanies the sincere efforts of individuals and groups to find encouragement and meaning in their lives. He dwells among them, fostering solidarity, fraternity, and the desire for goodness, truth and justice.” (§71)
2 I also highly recommend his blog.