Faith & Wonder: Weighing Cosmologies by Hank Parnell : LUSENET : Zonkers : One Thread

Faith & Wonder:

Weighing Cosmologies


Hank Parnell

Wherefore, Nietzsche concluded that the chief characteristic of a moral system was its tendency to perpetuate itself unchanged, and to destroy all who questioned it or denied it –HL Mencken

In nearly half a century on this planet, I can honestly say I've only known one person I could call a Christian; that is a true Christian, at least not the kind Christians are supposed to be. That was my paternal grandmother. She would turn the other cheek. She would let herself be cheated out of something if it was important to another person. She would sit in the yard with the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Mormons when they came around and nod politely; and when they left she would remark, "They're nice people, and really sincere about what they believe, but I was born a Baptist." I remember about five years after my father died, and my mother sitting in her straight-backed chair in the kitchen of the old house where I grew up, reading her Bible.

Funny thing about that woman. She has now gone on to her reward, if any. My beliefs, or lack of them, never threatened her faith. She was, of course, worried about my soul. And she often anguished over my ungodliness; but she never grew defensive about the things she believed. The strongest thing she might ever say was, "You may think differently some day, if you live long enough." I could have sooner cowed a rock with a pistol than I could have threatened her beliefs with my lack of faith.

Nor would it have ever occurred to her that her ability to follow Jesus' injunction to "love thy neighbor as thyself" depended on my agreement with her beliefs, or on my submission to her assertion of the correctness of those beliefs. She loved me regardless. She never harmed a living human soul, and I have always thought that if all those fine people who call themselves "Christians" behaved even a little bit like her —just a little bit, mind you— the world would indeed be a vastly different place.

But the world is what it is. It’s a heartless, ruthless, indifferent killing machine that eats all. The vines strangle the branch for the light of the sun. The lion lies down with the lamb for an evening meal. The spider cleans her fangs in anticipation of the fly, whose still-pumping life's juices she will suck from its still-living body when it strays into her web. This may well be evidence for some kind of "God"; but if it is, it is not one of "love." Only the delusional stretch of human wishful thinking could make it so.

"It's a mystery to me," says Rod Taylor's hard-bitten Congo mercenary in the 1968 film Dark of the Sun; "and if there's singing in it, I don't hear it." Like the stalwart Captain Curry, I too fail to hear what I have come to call "the hallelujah chorus" singing in the background. The only thing I can hear in the background is a static buzz, left over from the Big Bang.

Of course, the Big Bang was no mean feat. Running Einstein's famous equation backwards like that, turning energy into something with form and structure, if nothing but a hydrogen atom, is quite an achievement for an "accident." Then again, we may be in an endless cycle of Big Bangs, and this may have been the only one to produce something substantial enough to form a material universe with living observers. In an infinity of possibilities, in other words, the impossible is perhaps eventually bound to happen.

Perhaps. Yet the presence of those observers leaves one wondering. I am more certain of my own existence than anything in this universe. The idea that my mind, consciousness or whatever you want to call it, is the mere "epiphenomenon" of the electrical and chemical activity in my brain strikes me as hysterically funny as the notion that religion is the only possible source of morality. If I am not writing this, I would like to know just who is!

So let us assume, for the sake of argument, that we are not just "lucky" and happen to be in that one out of a million-billion-trillion cycles of Big Bangs. Mind you, we can assume this for the sake of argument, but we cannot say this for sure, because we clearly don't know, at least not yet. Those of you who claim you do know are going to fall back on a book written in times of ignorance and superstition, when much of the workings of nature were unknown. Honestly, if you turned to that book as a source of morality, I would not much quibble with you. I might argue that the morality contained within sprang from the minds of human beings, not some divine source; but I would not quibble with much of the genuine morality contained therein. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" has always seemed a sound policy to me; what does it matter if it was conceived by a man or a God? Likewise, who would want to live next door to a murderer, a thief, a liar, a false-swearer, or a spouse-estranger? Not me! But if you are going to turn to that book to assert that existence is the creation of the entity described therein and that it is therefore all "good" and "filled with love", we are going to have some real and serious difficulties, not the least of which is your inability to grasp a very readily-perceivable and apparent reality: the world that we all must live in, if we are to "live" at all.

Scientific understanding is an ongoing process. Science cannot, of course, explain the "why" of our existence, since since that is not a scientific question. That science has its dogmas and heresies like religion should not be surprising, however saddening and disheartening. And the dependence of science on "accident" and "random chance" may well be a mistake, but it is at least a humanly understandable one; science wanted to free itself from religion and from the interference of the supernatural in the natural. Scientists wanted to understand the natural laws and processes that governed the universe; they wanted explanations for physical phenomena that didn't depend on the action of some supernatural power or agency. And, like it or not, "believe it" or not, they have attained a great many of those answers.

Religious believers like to pick holes in scientific theories. But then, so do scientists. That’s how science advances. But scientists don't wag their fingers chidingly at other scientists the way religious believers do because science doesn't have "all the answers." There are deep and serious problems with longstanding views on everything from cosmology to evolution to high-energy physics in science today. This is as it should be. It does not invalidate science and somehow "validate" religion. And to embrace science, the methods and goals of science, is not to embrace materialism, mechanism, or even atheism. It is merely a way of looking at things in order to obtain empirical data about them. Ultimate questions must be left up to individuals, scientists and non-scientists, as they have always been.

That said, and if we aren't just "lucky", what might be going on in this universe of ours? Let's say there is a God. For the sake of argument. What kind of Being might He be? Does He, truly, love the swimmer more than the shark, the AIDS victim more than the AIDS virus, the tortured more than the torturer? As human beings we might claim that He does; but note that He does not seem to act this way. He says He does in that book, right; but He doesn't act that way. Do actions truly speak louder than words? You be the judge.

God, if He exists, might well be malicious, even malevolent. James Coburn, playing another stalwart soldier ("no atheists in the foxholes," remember?) in Sam Peckinpah's 1977 Cross of Iron, says when asked if he believes in God: "I believe that God is a sadist —but he probably doesn't even know it." This idea —that God is evil— is an old one; it is in fact one of the earliest Christian heresies, embraced by many of the early Gnostic sects and the later Cathars and Albigensians, who were of course ruthlessly put to death for their disagreement with the accepted doctrine of the "God of love." In this view, the God of the Old Testament is an evil and deluded usurper of the true divine godhead, upon which He has imposed His materialistic creation. The Serpent is mankind's real savior, bringing knowledge (gnosis) of the underlying spiritual reality to the false God's hapless and benighted creations (us). This, to me, is a vastly more credible scenario than that of a supposedly all-powerful deity locked in a struggle with a bunch of rebellious creations over the "souls" of another bunch of willful creations, the essential theology of Christianity.

Then again, God might well be insane. This was the assertion of the fabled Rhode Island recluse, Howard Philips Lovecraft. Lovecraft's "Cthulhu mythos", for all its overweening dread and seafood-platter menaces, is a rather rigorously worked-out cosmology that attempts to explain the universe in some congruence with scientific understanding, which is why Lovecraft's works endure. To give you an idea of the scope of Lovecraft's conception —and his fascinated dread of it— consider this small snippet from a 1931 story, The Whisperer in Darkness:

"Even now I absolutely refused to believe what he implied about the constitution of ultimate infinity, the juxtaposition of dimensions, and the frightful position of our known cosmos of space and time in the unending chain of linked cosmos-atoms which makes up the immediate super-cosmos of curves, angles, and material and semi-material electronic organisation."

And at the center of it all, residing in "the heart of nuclear chaos beyond ordered space and time," was Lovecraft's "God," old Azathoth, the "blind" and "insane" Creator, driven mad by the sheer complexity of His own creation.

Could God be insane? That would certainly explain a lot. Suppose you were aware of every thought and feeling of every creature in the universe. Forget whether there's life beyond earth; merely to be aware of all life on earth like that would drive just about anybody —even Somebody without a body— insane. Makes more sense than "God makes life tough for us so we can better ourselves" while a child is starving in Africa, doing its puny best to "better itself", the flies swarming around its mouth and eyes —doesn't it?

Robert Anson Heinlein was in many ways to 20th-Century America what Mark Twain was to 19th-Century America, a defining cultural influence. Not surprisingly, Heinlein was himself deeply and profoundly influenced by Twain. Heinlein was obsessed with "what is going on" and was convinced that there was more to existence than "just a bunch of amino acids bumping together." Yet conventional scientific and traditional religious explanations made as little or no impression on him as they did on Twain (or as they have on me).

In an early story, The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag (1942), Heinlein posits the notion that God is an artist —a talented but erratic genius whose work is not quite up to snuff. (Hoag's "unpleasant profession" is "universal art critic.") This is not an entirely original idea of Heinlein's; and the roots of it can be traced back to the solipsism of Twain's The Mysterious Stranger, from which Heinlein was never far. Indeed, since our own individual existence is the one undeniable certainty in a universe of uncertainty, solipsism has, pardon the pun, a certain undeniable appeal. The great problems with solipsism —the explanation of conflict, and the danger of narcissism— can also be found in Heinlein's work.

A year before Jonathan Hoag Heinlein published They, a remarkable short story that I personally regard as a piece of "revealed religion" every bit as legitimate as Revelations or the Book of Mormon. The narrator of They is locked in a mental institution for believing that the entire world is a gigantic conspiracy to keep him from realizing who he really is and what his real purpose is. Engaged by his particular Adversary, a psychiatrist, the narrator makes the following commentary about the world he sees around him, a commentary unforgettable to those who read it with an open mind:

"People that looked like me and who should have felt very much like me, if what I was told was the truth. But what did they appear to be doing? 'They went to work to earn the money to buy the food to get the strength to go to work to earn the money to get to buy the food to get the strength to go to work to get the strength to earn the money to buy the food to earn the money to— ' until they fell over dead. … And everybody tried to tell me that I should be doing the same thing. I knew better!"

Heinlein's narrator then forcefully lays out his position, using both logic and instinct, in a devastating critique of "commonplace" (including religious) explanations for human existence. And in the end, of course, he is proved right —existence is a vast conspiracy against him. They is only a story, to be sure; but it is a profoundly disturbing and thought-provoking one, and has spawned some interesting commentary of its own.

Do I think the universe is a gigantic conspiracy against me? I plead the Fifth.

In his later years, Heinlein posited a theory he called "pantheistic multi-ego solipsism", to which he devoted his long (and often unreadable) last novels. The basic idea —that the universe is the shared creation of our individual consciousnesses— is not a bad one. The problem is in the exposition Heinlein gives it; for in these last works it seems as if everybody is Robert Heinlein; and the books are essentially about all these different "variations" of Robert Heinlein meeting and talking and squabbling and having sex with one another. Narcissism is the ultimate trap for the solipsist.

And there is always Deism, or some variant thereof. Another science-fiction writer, the late A.E. Van Vogt, wrote a "libertarian" novel that I suspect many "libertarians" don't care for (though I do) called The Anarchistic Colossus (1977). In it he suggests that "God", or what we would call "God", essentially blew Himself up in the Big Bang, that curious reversal of Einstein's equation, to transform Himself into the universe and us. This is, frankly, my favorite idea, to which I've devoted a lot of fictional exposition; but it's only that, an idea. We may, again, be just lucky, in that one out of a million-billion-trillion chance cycles of an eternity of Big Bangs, expanding and collapsing again and again like the stroke of some perpetual-motion piston. It's fun to speculate, and there's no real harm in it. The harm comes from taking it all too seriously.

None of it would've fazed my old country grandmother's convictions. It would have been like pointing a pistol at a rock. Over the years I've been forced to conclude she had "the real thing" when it came to faith, my faith regardless. I think the difference between somebody who really has it, like her, and somebody who really wishes they had it, but doesn't, is that she never really cared what anybody else believed or disbelieved. Her belief was secure, and no criticism of mine could ever take it away from her, and she was content in that.

It makes me wonder about people who call themselves believers or non-believers, whose beliefs or non-beliefs can't take a little criticism. But then, I wonder about a lot of things. Such is the fate of those who don't have cut-and-dried, absolute, "God-given" answers.

Hank Parnell

-- Anonymous, February 20, 2002

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