A life-affirming universe

Dave Belden
25 January 2005

Julian Baggini writes honestly, as an atheist, in openDemocracy’s forum in response to my last column, “Sin and tsunamis”. He reflects that, while atheists can and do live meaningful lives without God,

“for those whose lives turn out awfully – and we do not yet know how ours will ultimately end – there is no compensation. Rationally, that’s easy to accept. To live it, however, can be hard.”

Paul Wilson agrees. He stiffens his resolve against religion by treating it like wine: fine “for recreation, not solace”. Staying clear of alcohol and deities when miserable has always enabled him to make a “natural recovery”. He says, “who knows whether I may weaken in more extreme adversity.” I don’t think he will.

Dave Belden’s reflections on life, faith, the universe and everything appear regularly on openDemocracy in our “Faith & ideas” sections – which also includes writing by Gilles Kepel and Nelcya Delanoe on political Islam, Theo Veenkamp and Geoffrey Bindman on religion and civil liberties, and Patrick Weil and Svend White on France’s headscarf ban.

If you find openDemocracy’s coverage of these issues valuable, please subscribe for £2/$3/€3 a month and gain access to easy-to-read PDFs of these and other articles.

Contrary to myth, there are atheists in foxholes. It’s just that they may not all be as happy there as the drunks and the believers.

For me too, death is the end. Although, as a fence-sitter I am always ready to be surprised.

I am helping a 12-year-old in our Unitarian Universalist congregation work out his own statement of what he believes, as part of our coming-of-age process. He is indignant that a friend told him his father would go to hell for being an atheist. He himself thinks hell probably exists, and you go there if you have done serious wrong, but you have further chances to get to heaven. If there were no heaven or hell, he thinks we would just wander the world as ghosts. But what if death is the end: nothing, no ghosts? “No”, he said, “that would be worse.”

I don’t find it so. To me, nothingness is a great deal more comforting than hell, or ghosts. I don’t consciously fear going into nothing, much though I hate the idea of leaving here.

It is comforting to think that my child will live on after me. Or my books, my friends, my civilisation, my species or at least my planet. Life survives.

Yes, it’s true that all those will pass too. Even the universe will probably croak.

But I have found much comfort in thinking about how amazing it is that we are here at all. In fact, the universe does appear to have rather decisively beaten the odds in creating planets, life and intelligence. That doesn’t have to mean “intelligent design”. It may be some intrinsic aspects of matter that we don’t understand yet.

At any rate our universe is a very creative as well as a thoroughly brutal place.

Even if ours eventually collapses back into nothing, perhaps other universes exist, or are being created as you read this. The wheel of life, as in the life and death of stars, galaxies and even universes, as much as of Beldens and other creatures, seems like it may keep on turning.

Some people may not find this comforting. It may seem too distant and theoretical. But I do find it very consoling. This consolation is as open to the religious as the atheist.

Whether or not there is an inherently self-organising aspect to our universe, or to matter, there does seem to be to life itself.

You don’t have to subscribe to Robert Wright’s last chapter in which he goes a little mystical, to buy the main argument of his book Nonzero: the logic of human destiny. Non-zero sum interactions, where both players benefit, even if unequally, are more productive in the long run than zero-sum interactions, that create outright winners and losers. Hence the rise of complex organisms and eventually of intelligent ones.

Simon Conway Morris argues that the odds are so weighted against our existing at all, that we may indeed be alone in the universe. But he doesn’t really believe that. His book, Life’s Solution: inevitable humans in a lonely universe, filled me with a stunned sense of awe at the complex ways life manages to cobble together workable solutions from the available physics and chemistry. That the same solutions are arrived at from many different directions time and again suggests that if life gets started at all, there is some great likelihood that intelligent creatures will emerge – and there are only a few ways it can be done.

You don’t have to subscribe to Morris’s theism to share his awe at the way life beats the odds. A non-theistic version of his approach seemed to me more a question of preferred metaphors than actual science.

In Douglas Adams’s The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the ineffably cool Zaphod Beeblebrox is subjected to the worst known torment in the galaxy. He is forced to enter the Total Perspective Vortex. In this device, one finally sees how inconceivably minute one is in relation to the universe. Normal beings are driven mad and die. Zaphod is unmoved – thus proving his ego is bigger than the universe.

Or maybe he had just been reading Theodore Roszak’s The Voice of the Earth: an exploration of ecopsychology. This was where I first saw it well argued that the universe is just about as young as it could be for beings like us to be created. Elements heavier than helium are only made when stars explode. Our planet and our bodies couldn’t be constructed until a couple of generations of stars had lived and died. The night sky may look dauntingly enormous, but it needs something on that scale to breed enough stars to throw up a few little hard wet planets the right distance from their sun that have conditions on which life could grow.

So our universe is like Goldilocks’ porridge – neither too big nor too little, but set up just right, unimaginably violent events included, to generate semi-intelligent folks like Zaphod and us. I find it some kind of compensation for dying. I don’t think Bertrand Russell was right when he said that “only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built," nor Steven Weinberg with, “The more the universe is comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” That degree of nihilism seems to stem more from a priori belief than close scrutiny of the facts.

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