The latest cosmological scientific narratives describing the birth and death of the universe suggest that 13.7 billion years ago matter emerged from nothing in the Big Bang, and that as a result of the Big Bang there are now approximately 125 billion galaxies in the known Universe, and an estimated 1024 stars in those galaxies, i.e. a 1 followed by 24 zeroes. That’s 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars. Our Sun is just one of these. Life on earth emerged about 3.5 billion years ago (0.65 billion years after the Earth formed), through entirely random natural processes and human beings evolved only about 200,000 years ago. Moreover, in 5 billion years the Sun will cool and life on earth will become unsustainable.
If this existentially bleak scenario is anywhere near true the quest for an overarching “meaning and purpose” for humanity seems doomed to failure. What “meaning” could result from a series of actions and reactions caused entirely by the rules of physics? Under this scenario that plays out over these immense sweeps of time the emergence and demise of the entire human species is entirely insignificant, let alone the life of an individual human being………unless perhaps the laws of physics were “designed” by some creating intelligence?
But even if such a “designer” did indeed put the laws of physics into motion at the moment of the Big Bang, I’m not sure that helps us much in divining the “meaning of Life”, because the nature of a “designer” who could bring about something on the scale of the Universe and over such sweeps of time, is surely beyond the realms of human imagining and cognition – let alone any purpose or “meaning” that the “designer” may have had in bringing about such an immense creation.
Well, we might say, perhaps that is where religion comes into it’s own? Perhaps religion can give us access to the “mind” of this designing creator? But surely even this “spiritual” explanation of the cause of the Big Bang remains incompatible with the narratives of all of the world’s religions that place human beings at the heart of God’s creation. If human beings are the purpose of creation why did we only evolve after 13.7 billion years? And why will the universe not end when our Sun ceases to burn and life on earth ends? The Cosmological narrative is incompatible in so many ways with most of the World’s religions that surely we have to question their ability to offer us a convincing way of reconciling cosmological theories with any notion of an overarching “meaning” for humanity.
Even if we argued that all the World’s religions are fallible human attempts to connect human beings with this unknowable “designing” creating force, or even, that we human beings are born with an ability to sense this force and that this sensitivity is what inspires the religious tendency in human beings, we still can’t reconcile the current theories of the science of cosmology with the world’s religions and thus if we accept the current theories of the science of cosmology religion cannot help us in defining a “meaning of life”.
But to what extent should we try to integrate current cosmological thinking with a concept of meaningful life? Watching Prof Stephen Hawking’s, Master Of The Universe, on Channel 4 over the last few weeks and all the talk of dark matter and multiverses one can’t help observing that much of this current round of cosmological theorising sounds as if it could have been imagined by a lunatic cult leader like David Icke or a teenage sci-fi writer.
In Hawking’s film exemplary computer graphics depicted visualisations of the universe that were at times moving and all too credible but, although based in scientific theory, these visualisations were pure inventions that ultimately came out of the heads of Hawking and the film-makers; they were imagined pieces of dramatic fiction
Multiverses? Are they serious? An infinite number of parallel universes all with their own Big Bang and all expanding infinitely through space? This sounds as crazy as the son of God rising from his coffin three days after dying, or 24 virgins waiting in heaven for a dead Jihadist, or a man being reincarnated as a monkey!
A young physics PHD candidate, Hugh Everett III, came up with the theory of multiple universes in 1954 to answer a specific question in Quantum Mechanics, i.e. why does quantum matter behave erratically? Now, I’m not going to pretend here that I even know what quantum mechanics is, or even if, let alone why, quantum matter behaves erratically, but I do not have to understand the theory to recognise that what Hugh Everett did in 1954 was to take a leap of his imagination. He came up with a theory that, while it fits the science, as it is understood by those who understand it, is still just a leap of faith, and only one of any number of fantastical scenarios that could have been imagined that would have also explained the observations. Even those who support the various many-world’s theories accept that it is unlikely that we will ever be able to visit these other universes or even discover direct physical evidence that they exist; i.e. that the best we can do is infer that they exist because they offer a plausible explanation of the scientific observations we make of the world in which we live.
Indeed, many would argue that this is not unusual in science, and is in fact how science works, that science is not a statement of the truth but simply our best guess based on the evidence available to us at the time. But the beauty of science, it is argued, is that unlike religion, when new evidence emerges science is prepared to alter it’s previous theories and explanations to fit the new evidence. For example, the current cosmological orthodoxy as espoused by Hawking in his C4 series, is based on evidence that the Universe is expanding uniformly across space and time and that by theoretically reversing the expansion we get back to a single point in time and space – the Big Bang. But even the most cursory trawl of the internet shows that credible evidence is now emerging that challenges this basic notion of a uniformly expanding universe, if sustained these observations will inevitably lead to a re-examination of Big Bang theory and quantum mechanics.
In any event, whether the observable Universe is expanding or not, the Big Bang Theory and related theories of Multiple Universes can only ever be just that – theories. Why? Because Cosmologists are suggesting that these events took place 13.7 billion years ago! We can only ever infer this from our observations, we can never observe it or test our hypothesis by anything other than inference. And logically the reliability of inference relies on the reliability of the premises and the reliability of propositions based on observation of events that took place 13.7 billion years ago must surely be open to question?
This leads me to the conclusion that the current Cosmological explanations for the nature of the Universe are not as reliable as Hawking’s C4 doco suggested and are more similar in form and origin (i.e. the human imagination), to metaphysical and religious descriptions of the universe, than scientists would care to acknowledge.
So if religion science cannot be relied upon to help us with finding the “meaning of life”, where else could we look?
When we ask, “what is the meaning of life?” are we asking, “why does life exist?” i.e. why are there living plants & animals? If we are asking that question we need not worry because science is already in the process of answering it. No, it seems to me when we ask, “What is the meaning of life?” we are actually asking, “What reason is there to live on and not to die?” Or, “Why should I behave decently towards my fellow men?” When things are going well we don’t tend to ask these questions, or if we do the answer is fairly banal, i.e. we live on because living is a pleasant experience and anyway the alternative, death, is at best unknown, at worst terrifying. We may also answer the question, “Why should I behave decently towards my fellow men?” by replying that if we do not we will suffer legal redress and/or social exclusion i.e. that behaving badly towards our fellow men will result in unpleasant experiences for us.
But none of this is answering the question about whether life has “meaning”. To say life is worth living because it is pleasant and that we should behave well in case we get caught is not to say very much. For a start, most, if not all, human beings will undergo some level of suffering in their lifetime. Indeed, the First Noble Truth of Buddhism is that, “Life is suffering”. For most human beings who have ever lived suffering has been at the heart of their experience of life; hunger, violence, injustice, oppression, unremitting toil, painful illness, loss of loved ones; these were and still are, part of the everyday experience of most human beings.
So when we ask, “What is the meaning of life?” are we not really asking, “Why should I suffer rather than end the suffering by ending my life?” Or to put it another way, “Is there a point to my suffering?” Note, we are not only asking, “Is there an end to my suffering?” We are asking if our suffering has meaning.
Most of the world’s religions seek to answer this question above all others: for Hindu’s human suffering is a result of sins committed in previous lives; for Christian’s our suffering is a result of original sin but is mitigated by the possibility of an eternity in heaven after death; for Buddhists suffering is the route to Nirvana; for Muslim’s suffering, like temptation, is sent by God to test us and those who pass the test will go to heaven.
Compared to most people on the planet and most people who have ever lived, the material comfort and lack of physical suffering across the whole of the Western world today is truly remarkable and yet we are still asking what it’s all about and what it all means. It appears that for many of us simply being free of hunger and pain, and having a warm bed at nights, while highly desirable, are not the end of our strivings. Even with this level of material wealth we still suffer: we still get ill and die; we suffer from mental illness; we suffer the alienation of living in mass industrialised societies; we suffer from our feelings of insecurity, failure, humiliation, bafflement and rage.
[Note: This is not to deny our experience of love, joy, peace and contentment, just that we are not discussing those.]
But even in the wealthy West for some citizens their level of suffering overrides their will to live and rates of suicide are alarmingly high. You could argue that in the modern Western world our expectation of a life free from suffering is unrealistic and that all that is required is to educate people about the contingent and sometimes exacting nature of human experience. I would concur with this approach but it still doesn’t help us with the question of whether this inevitable but intermittent suffering has any meaning or simply has to be endured.
So how can we proceed? Well, firstly, as I argued above, perhaps we should stop asking, “What is the meaning of life?” because bearing in mind the immensity of time & space the answer to the question itself is at best unknowable and at worst nonsensical.
A more useful question to ask might be, “What is the meaning of my life?” Regardless of whether there is or isn’t a designing creator or any overarching purpose or meaning to the Universe, each of our individual human lives is historically and geographically situated in a particular family, community and society. If our lives are to have purpose and meaning for us, surely that purpose will be found in how we interact with our fellows.
Biology and anthropology show us that human beings are social creatures before we are anything else. Indeed, I have argued elsewhere that human beings were social before they were human because they evolved from primates and all known species of primates live in complex social groups.
This suggests to me that contrary to the self-centred ethos of Western consumerist capitalism, for an individual human life to have a purpose that is emotionally and philosophically satisfying and meaningful to the individual living it, that purpose will be socially focused; focused upon improving the lot of their family, community and society, not just the lot of the individual themselves; that the lived sense of purpose and meaning of a human being’s life is social in nature.
In turn this leads me to challenge the free-marketeers conception of human beings as primarily rational self-seekers as a profoundly mistaken contradiction of human nature that leads inevitably to human lives that lack purpose and meaning.
It is striking that many people who lived through WWII while profoundly mourning the losses and sacrifices of war also keenly remember the sense of comradeship, kindness and compassion generated by the fight to defeat the imminent threat of a common enemy. The sense of common purpose and meaning that war gave to people’s lives illustrates my point that it is cooperating with our fellows in an atmosphere of mutual respect and in pursuit of a higher good that truly gives our lives meaning. I’m not suggesting here that the only way to give life meaning is to start a war! Only that ultimately common purpose and personal sacrifice in pursuit of a noble cause are the routes to a meaningful human life.
It seems to me that this may indeed be a primary motivation for the increasing number of people in the West who are drawn to organised religion; that for members of religious congregations the sense of purposeful community action in pursuit of a noble cause is as important a factor in the sense of well-being they derive from regular attendance as is belief in any particular God.
I myself am not a religious believer or a member of a religious congregation, but I can recognise that the free-marketeers pessimistic and atomising notion of human nature has for 30 years undermined widespread attempts at purposeful community action in pursuit of noble causes which are psychologically central to most peoples attempts to give their lives a sense of meaning. Indeed, it appears that the Conservative Party has itself recognised this fact. Surely if The Big Society is about anything it is about trying to encourage citizens in purposeful community action in pursuit of noble causes. An objective I amazingly find myself endorsing wholeheartedly.
So for me, and I suspect most of us, a sense of living a purposeful and meaningful life derives not from our individual success or wealth, or even from religion or from belief in God, and certainly not from scientific theorising about the birth of the Universe, it derives from our human capacity for self-sacrifice and purposeful community action. In fact, I would go so far as it to say it’s what human beings as social animals are born for and a significant factor in so much of our modern existential angst is that our need to belong to a community and to work with and for other people has been fatally denied to us by the theology of consumerist capitalism and to stand a chance of living meaningful lives we have to challenge that orthodoxy and recognise our fundamentally human social nature.
I Am Not A Number
Political and Philosophical Dispatches From An Individual Living In A Society