Is the universe friendly?
Regular Network Norwich & Norfolk columnist James Knight considers a question once posed by Einstein: is the universe friendly?
As I was looking through some of my old writings, I found some thoughts about existence that I had written in my early twenties – several years before I became a Christian. I had pondered the question once posited by Einstein – he enquired ‘Is the universe friendly?’ – A question on which he placed great importance. Here are a few of my ponderings on the subject:
The Purposeful Universe by James Knight
There is a misconception in humanistic terms; it is the belief that ‘improvement’ is part of the universe’s immutable law. But really, this is not how the grand theories of evolution work. It is a mistake to regard progression as the predominant rule of evolution, for in fact, in the domain of Darwinism, degeneration outnumbers progression. Moreover, everything suggests that organic life, in comparison to the timescales we are using here, is going to be quite transient - if the sun doesn’t make us a crisp, and the Andromeda galaxy doesn’t collide into our own, the big crunch will get us all eventually.
Please do not misunderstand me; I am not for one moment suggesting that the transient nature of human life provides any ground for diminishing our attempts to make a harmonious existence. If the universe is unremittingly thoughtless, there is no reason why we should imitate it. So this futility from which the universe is made up should not affect our outlook towards fellow human beings, but it should most definitely affect our outlook towards our own thoughts and feelings regarding existence.
Now it seems to me that mankind could take three different approaches to this news. In the first place, one could become overly pessimistic and live life as negatively as it is humanly possible, giving in to all kinds of instincts. In the second place, one could claim that human reality is much greater than the vicissitudes of our universe, and that far beyond what we know lies a very different reality, perhaps even Deity. This method could be used to alter the view that the universe is ultimately futile, and replace it with a view that there might be hope after all, while still doing nothing about it. Or thirdly, one could accept the situation that we are faced with and endeavour to do something about it – something that ensures to the best of our ability that whatever the extent to which the universe is unfriendly, we will make the very most of out time on earth..
Straight away I imagine the third method is most pleasing to your ears. But I think the biggest problem with our feeling towards the futility is this. In calling the universe futile, we are really applying to it the same thought pattern that we might apply to a machine or a political policy. We are, in fact, treating it as if it were designed by someone or something or that it were underpinned by something purposeful. In calling it futile we are incredulously reacting to something that really should be obvious, that the entire cosmos is in no way like something man himself might create. If the universe has produced man then the universe has engendered in him the ability to think. This pattern increases over time, so that now, these past few thousand years, man has gotten into the habit of thinking and has become pretty good at ontology.
And of course our remarkable abilities for cognition adds another angle to the spectre of the futility of the cosmos; where once we thought it was running down and that life was comparably transient, we are now faced with the prospect that we are been guided by something that transcends nature. This seems to be a commonly held belief among many – after all, how many times have you heard someone say “I’m not sure I believe in God, but I believe in ‘something’”?
Now we know full well that we cannot accuse the cosmos or indeed this ‘something’ of being good or bad without admitting the existence of a standard by which it can be measured. And if this standard exists, then something has to be certainly right. If we say that nothing is certainly right, we then have to admit that nothing is certainly wrong either, thereby we would have to give up measuring. And even if we do form a judgement of that ‘something’ behind the universe, we would soon I think be forced to admit that He had to be good – or at least, that is the standard argument on this matter..
It goes roughly like this:
If we, even for a second, accuse the Creator of the universe of being bad, we would have to admit that a bad thing was responsible for creating us, including our mind and reasoning power. And if He created our reasoning power, He also created the part of our reasoning that is rejecting Him for being bad. How then can we trust our judgement if it came from a bad Creator? We cannot reject Him because if we do we would have to reject everything He created, including the moral standard by which He is being judged. If we accept the standard by which we are to judge Him, we then have to concede that He must be good, in fact, He must be a higher standard of good than we actually know. And there is the contradiction that pervades through all theories of supernatural beings that exist, but that the name God cannot be ascribed to them. You have to respect the ultimate good before you even start to criticise Him, and therefore you are admitting the existence of a Supreme Goodness - the existence of one God that stands above good and evil.
What the argument really amounts to is that we have no grounds for saying that our own system of values has a purely naturalistic explanation, for if we do, we should stop using our moral judgements as criticism, because we are saying that they are based on nothing substantial. And we also find that men must stop making values of judgements at all, because if a man is under the impression that all value judgements originated from a malevolent force, he has no moral reason for saying that his mindless judgement is better than the next man’s mindless judgement. The corollary of this, as is often posited, is that even the atheists have to admit that the universe, and man’s place in it, is a lot more ordered, and has a much greater direction, than that which theories of a malevolent creator seem to suggest.
In other words the universe does have a sense of friendliness about it and a background agenda that seems to be made of underwritten rationality. This feeling affects us in a subliminal sense; those who claim that the cosmos is futile also claim that man has a moral obligation to make it less-futile - and that really implies a subliminal desire that the cosmos it not futile after all.
While miracles would not categorically prove that Christianity is true, their occurrence would certainly remove the obstacles of hostility already felt against its claims of supernaturalism. I am not enquiring as to whether the vast array of putative experiences of a religious or miraculous nature can aid us in finding comfort or consolation, we are only interested (at least I am only interested) in what is true and what is false. If the Christians who claimed to have seen miraculous events were merely saying that their imagination of them evoked in them some form of pleasurable psychological hysteria or delirium, I would not be at all interested (save of my interest in human psychology). No, my interest is whether they really happened or not. Whether they did or not, one thing seems abundantly clear – there is an order to existence that seems to hint at some purpose behind it. The universe may seem unfriendly at times, but there seems every reason to believe there is friendliness outside of it.
As a Christian, looking back on this all these years later, I am reassured that even when I had no relationship with God, I had acknowledged a sense of purpose about existence. The indignant atheist who has antipathetic feelings towards what seems to be an unfriendly universe is really, if the truth be known, offering veneration to something that transcends his personal convictions; something which he acknowledges as morally authoritative. For if justice and rectitude were really personal opinions that came straight from his own cognition, he would have no business being indignant at the apparent badness of nature.
This sense of purpose is, of course, in accordance with what the Bible says about man’s desire for something greater than the world. Christ says that He is the bread of life, but also that He has overcome the world, thereby asserting that He is the answer both to life on earth, and our eternal existence after it.
In this modern day science has, to many people, taken over from where religion left off. It is thought that science is here to answer all of the questions that religion used to answer wrongly. But this is simply not true. Science covers a great many number of things, but it does not probe beyond the descriptive nature of laws and statistics – it cannot answer the deeper questions of existence.
It is often thought that the whole method of contriving a convincing argument for the supernatural consists in initiating means whereby the incongruities - that is, mistaken assumptions and irrelevancies, can be fractionated and then investigated - with each fraction of the whole put in its rightful place until a proper demarcation, not just of natural and supernatural things is in place, but also between physics and metaphysics. But I do not think this is always clear – after all, if there is a creator God, then the only entities will be Him and creation; the physical and the metaphysical will likely blend together into one creation ex nihilo (out of nothing). Even our abstract thinking can be a progressive shaping of spiritual reality so long as the abstractions are seen in their proper context – reality is creation. Every real physical event, much more every supernatural experience, has behind it, in the long run, the entire Divine plan in which we have a significant role.
Christians attribute meaning to reason by admitting an external force bigger than that of natural law. And as I have argued before in this article here, when atheists attribute thinking to mere events without any external structure, they immediately invalidate thinking in a way that the Christian never does. If thinking was merely an event not conditioned by something outside of itself, we should be forced to admit that a cough or a sneeze could be viewed in the same way as a thought or an idea. Do the naturalists accept this? Of course not, and you can be sure that at every step they will make giant strides towards attempting to add something external to reason while at the same time denying its immaterial nature.
Naturalism is a little like house of cards, the more you try to pile onto it the more vulnerable it becomes, until eventually the structure will come crashing down on the table. Either we must give up hoping to understand anything about ultimate existence – the ontology beyond the descriptions of science - or we must ascribe to thought and reason some external cause; a cause which explains reason and validates its reliability. In doing so we admit that the house of cards is structured by something bigger than itself (as it is in a literal sense in the metaphor). Of course, all this does not prove that Christianity is true - we must rely on other things for this. But it does show that naturalism falls down quite easily. It is simply pointless to think of the universe in naturalistic terms and then try to smuggle in grand narratives as a later event within the system. If we want to see reason as reliable we must look outside of the interlocking system; reliable thought cannot be an accidental event in natural universe. Whatever else we are going to decide about our existence, it must be underpinned by this fundamental principle. All these years later I still concur with my thoughts at the end of the essay:
“One thing seems abundantly clear – there is an order to existence that seems to hint at some purpose behind it. The universe may seem unfriendly at times, but there seems every reason to believe there is friendliness outside of it.”
The difference now is that I have discovered this supreme force behind creation is more than just a friendly ‘something’ – He is an all-loving, all-knowing and all-powerful God that can be found in the person of Jesus Christ. The power of God really is upon any who search for His revelation.
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James is a Norwich local government officer, author and Proclaimers church member in Norwich. You can access his current collections of columns here
Meanwhile, if you want to find out more about Christianity, visit: www.rejesus.co.uk