Nonbelievers have often denied that any meaning can be found in the universe's existence. They say there is no reason for the universe, or us: we just happened to show up. In The First Three Minutes the physicist Steven Weinberg wrote, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless” (154). In Wonderful Life, the paleontologist Steven Jay Gould wrote that “we are only an afterthought, a kind of cosmic accident, just one bauble on the Christmas tree of evolution” (44).
But I think nonbelievers can do better. Much, much better, in fact. There is a way for nonbelievers to see transcendent meaning and purpose in the cosmos, and in human life.
To get there, nonbelievers have to show that that meaning emerges inevitably, inexorably, out of the basic physical processes of the universe, and that it is not optional or accidental. They have to show that it provides a guide for action here on Earth, that is, it has to help us make moral choices. They have to show that it offers a coherent explanation for suffering. Finally, they have to show that that meaning is good enough, interesting enough, and rewarding enough to be worth teaching and celebrating. That it provides occasion for reverence and – just possibly – prayer.
That's a daunting list of requirements. However, when one reflects that most religions meet them (or claim to meet them) based on believing in genesis in seven days or conception without sex, it may not be as hard to do as it looks.
Let's preview the nonbeliever's path to meaning in one paragraph. The first task is to show that the emergence of beings like ourselves is inevitable, on Earth and elsewhere. Then they have to show that such beings, once they exist, will inevitably become technologically more capable. They will also, by similar mechanisms, become less inclined to cause suffering, and more inclined to cooperate for the common good. Finally, they have to show that this kind of progress is also inevitable; that there is a single trajectory of development that all life must traverse. What do we get from doing that? We get to imagine a universe populated with increasing life and intelligence. In time, the universe could become saturated with intelligences smart enough to do things that to us would seem godlike: say, to delay the consequences of the universe’s heat-death almost indefinitely, or to escape it. This is an awesome future, one worth working toward. For ourselves, living in the here and now, we can make choices by thinking about which actions enhance that future versus which don’t. What increases complexity, choice, and happiness? What decreases it? When we know the answer to those questions, we have a morality that is grounded in the evolutionary past and future of the universe. And that evolution is so impressive that awe and reverence are reasonable responses. They are the ground of a secular, but heartfelt and intellectually consistent, form of worship.
Let's take these pieces one by one, referring to the above paragraph sentence by sentence.
The first task is to show that the emergence of beings like ourselves is inevitable, on Earth and elsewhere. There are two parts to this task: to show that life is inevitable, and that intelligence is inevitable, and as a matter of physics, not supernatural creation.
Many books have been written arguing that life is inevitable. In his book Genesis the mineralogist Robert Hazen argues that “biochemistry is wired into the universe. The self-made cell emerges from geochemistry as inevitably as basalt or granite” (44%). In At Home In The Universe Stuart Kauffman writes, “I hope to persuade you that life is a natural property of complex chemical systems, that when the number of different kinds of molecules in a chemical soup passes a certain threshold, a self-sustaining network of reactions – an autocatalytic metabolism – will suddenly appear” (47).
This isn’t a done deal. The rub lies in Kauffman’s cautious I hope to persuade you. For no one knows exactly what the chemicals are, nor what conditions and energy inputs are propitious. Much effort has been expended to create self-sustaining chemistries in conditions that could have existed on the early Earth. So far, nothing has coughed to life in a test tube. This is probably the single biggest missing piece in the atheist program of meaning; until the origin of life is explained and reproduced, one can’t assume its non-supernatural inevitability.
But this is a matter of science, not faith. We’ll figure this one out, just like our ancestors figured out the law of gravitation and the molecular basis of inheritance. Once that's done, people won't have to appeal to supernatural forces to explain the emergence of life.
Then they have to show that such beings, once they exist, will inevitably become technologically more capable. I’m using “technologically” in the broad sense here. The molecular engines of metabolism are a technology, as is DNA, as are hands, brains, axes, and computers. But the existence of a trend doesn’t necessarily entail that it was driven by a mechanism. Steven Jay Gould argued there isn’t one: that when many species are taking random evolutionary walks, some will, by the luck of variation and selection, become more complex and more capable.
But other scientists are arguing that there is indeed a mechanism. The theorist Stuart Kauffman has argued that self-organization is an essential factor in evolution. There are many examples where it is known to happen, from the creation of heavy elements in stars to the way lipids arrange themselves in double-layered spheres. Whenever you get an energy gradient, Kauffman argues, plus sufficient raw materials, you get the spontaneous creation of more complex systems.
There’s several ways in which evolution ratchets life up to higher levels of complexity. The author Robert Wright focuses on what he calls “non-zero-sumness,” in which species exchange resources and leverage earlier accomplishments to ascend to higher levels of capability. There’s also the “arms race” aspect of evolution, in which any innovation must be matched by competitors. For example, when rabbits learned to burrow underground, foxes had to get smarter to continue catching them, which forced rabbits to develop better strategies, and so on. Once life gets going, its own internal dynamics continuously drive up its level of sophistication. Wright says that his book Nonzero “is a full-throated argument for destiny in the sense of direction” (8). Along the same lines, Kevin Kelly writes in What Technology Wants, “The course of biological evolution is not a random drift in the cosmos, which is the claim of current textbook orthodoxy. Rather, evolution – and, by extension, the technium – has an inherent direction, shaped by the nature of matter and energy” (103).
They will also, by similar mechanisms, become less inclined to cause suffering, and more inclined to cooperate for the common good. Once societies form, laws of social order make them increasingly more technologically adept, more peaceful, and more ethical. Robert Wright makes the case for this in Nonzero, arguing that people and societies cooperate on increasingly larger scales as time goes by. Wars happen, of course, but Wright argues that even there, complexity ultimately increases because societies have to pull together and innovate. Ultimately, societies develop cross-society methods of governance, unifying in increasingly larger political units.
Steven Pinker takes the argument even further, arguing that violence per capita has steadily declined even when one takes World War II into account. Relative to our growing population, he argues, an individual's chances of dying violently have dropped in every century. Furthermore, he points to five “pacifying forces” that he argues are inevitable: the rise of the state and its monopoly on violence, interdependence based on trade, the feminization of culture and a consequent de-emphasis on violence, the expansion of empathy to more and more distant people, and the “escalator of reason” – the self-reinforcing use of rational thought. He places especial importance on reason, as it impels humans to become more moral. It is “an open-ended combinatorial system, an engine for generating an unlimited number of new ideas. Once it is programmed with basic self-interest and an ability to communicate with others, its own logic will impel it, in the fullness of time, to respect the interests of ever increasing numbers of others” (669). As with biology and technology, the gears are apparently at work here too.
In short, morality increases not because it can, but because it must. Some civilizations will destroy themselves, as we nearly did with nuclear weapons, but enough will survive. And the ones that survive will develop in more or less the same way. Why? That brings us to the argument that there is essentially only one trajectory of development.
This kind of progress is also inevitable; that there is a single trajectory of development that all life must traverse. Why is it important to argue that there is a single trajectory instead of many? Because it lets us predict that if an interstellar civilization emerges, its component species will be fairly similar to each other. Different in details, but having a similar broad outlook. Let’s consider a concrete example. Dolphins are highly intelligent, but they don’t have fire, so they can’t create sophisticated tools. Without tools to externalize thought, such as pen and paper, and computer, it’s hard to formulate complex ideas. This suggests that at the very least, intelligent species will emerge on land rather than water. By similar arguments, one can conclude that intelligence’s path is strongly constrained, driving species to visual organs, centralized brains, manipulative appendages, a progression from stone to metal to electronics, and so forth. The point is that the universe is set up to produce basically one kind of mind, and does it over and over again.
This argument of a single trajectory has some evidence to back it up. In his book Life’s Solution the paleontologist Simon Conway Morris has argued that species like our own – neuron-using, bipedal, warm-blooded, camera-eyed, language-using – are likely to appear on any planet like Earth. Historical contingencies and catastrophes can change the timing of such an emergence, but not the ultimate outcome. He writes, “If we humans had not evolved then something more-or-less identical would have emerged sooner or later” (196). For example, if the dinosaurs had not been killed off, they would have evolved to walk bipedally, evolved larger brains, and become "human" in the broad sense.
As it goes with biology, so it goes with society and culture, with the historian Ian Morris arguing in Why The West Rules – For Now that human cultures are more alike than they appear on the surface: “East and West have gone through the same stages of social development in the last fifteen thousand years because they have been peopled by the same kinds of human beings, who generate the same kinds of history” (29).
Now we can begin tying it all together. When we know the answer to those questions, we have a morality that is grounded in the evolutionary past and future of the universe. If nonbelievers can argue, based on science, that life is inevitable and progressive, and always evolves toward greater complexity, peacefulness, and morality, then the universe begins to look like it has a function – the eventual creation of mind on a large scale. We have no evidence that that function was consciously planned before the universe’s origin. Such evidence may never be available. Nevertheless, if it is there, it is plausible to say that the universe is set up to create meaning and purpose.
For an nonbeliever, that offers an overarching story and a sense of purpose. Actions that increase power, understanding, diversity, and harmony are worth pursuing, not because they please some imaginary supernatural god but because they contribute to the development of the cosmos. They increase the amount of meaning in the universe. In his book Evolutionaries, the philosopher Carter Phipps writes, “In this case, that pilgrimage destination is not a physical place but a psychic, cultural, and cosmic possibility – the as yet unrealized potential of the future” (365).
This could explain suffering by putting it in an evolutionary context. Evolution is the mechanism that the universe uses to produce success through trial and error. While terrible for individuals, trial and error is necessary. Without them, you would not get evolutionary progress. To put it another way, suffering is necessary in order to get to a universe where there will be less of it. Impersonal as that is, it is a meaningful understanding of suffering. The point becomes not to explain suffering away by ascribing it to an inscrutable and invisible creator, but to work toward reducing it.
And this is where you begin to get a "church." Evolution is so impressive that awe and reverence are reasonable responses. They are the ground of a secular, but heartfelt and intellectually consistent, form of worship. What you don’t get out of this is a personal God that takes specific interest in you and breaks the laws of physics for your convenience. So we have to imagine a different kind of “church” than most people go to today. It wouldn’t tell you that you must believe X, Y, and Z, or be punished. It wouldn’t extract large amounts of money from its adherents to build monuments to itself. It wouldn’t have a massive hierarchy, and it wouldn’t go in for complicated, tedious rituals intended to entreat and placate a mythical parent in the sky.
What would it do? It would offer an alternative to hidebound fundamentalist religions. It would actively work to connect scientific knowledge with reverence. They have been separated for centuries; that split needs to be healed. It would foster song, art, and music that illuminate the evolutionary process in all of its pain and joy. It would encourage and catalyze progressive political action – “progressive” not in the sense of “Democratic” but in the sense of furthering human knowledge and freedom.
That’s a church that I, as a nonbeliever, could believe in.
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