Honest to God?

It seems to me that if we’re to be ‘honest to God’, (understood as being, in some way, the originator and sustainer of all that is), we must face the challenge presented by the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who cuts to the chase in an impressively concise way (unusual for a philosopher, some might say)

“That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins – all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.”

As a seasoned philosopher, Russell acknowledges that although he regards what he’s written as “nearly certain”, it is “not quite beyond dispute”, (not that he anticipates any credible refutation)

He may be entirely correct! We may be nothing more than “collocations of atoms” which obey the laws of physics that determine everything that happens, and make ‘freedom of choice’ an illusion. Having begun, our universe will presumably exist until its energy gives out. Long before then, it seems our ‘yellow dwarf’ Sun will temporarily become a ‘red giant’, incinerating planet Earth. Unmoved by this insignificant local disaster, the galaxies will continue to fly from one another. All warmth will cool. All the lights will go out. The skies will become black. It’ll be as if we’d never been. We must face this, and come to terms with its possibly being so. 

Must we surrender our “hopes and fears .. loves and beliefs”, along with all “fire, heroism, and intensity of feeing”? Is all that a futile waste of effort? Or should we rejoice in having our ‘moment in the sun’, and that our sun’s been given its ‘moment in the universe’, and make the most of it while it lasts? Must whether or not things will ultimately matter in ‘the great scheme of things’, make any necessary difference to how much they matter to us in ‘the here and now’?

We can choose to focus on Bertrand Russell’s acknowledgement that, though “nearly certain”, none of this is “quite beyond dispute”. Unlike bad religion, good science doesn’t claim to possess absolute and final truth. It tells us what appears to be the case, based on current observation and research, but who knows what tomorrow will bring? Good science, like good religion, is ever open, and welcoming, to new discoveries and insights, which can alter our understanding and outlook. 

Unresolved fundamental questions remain. How could our universe have originated, furnished with ‘laws of nature’ exquisitely ‘fine tuned’ to produce stars and galaxies? Whence came the vast amounts of precisely ‘coded’ genetic information necessary for the first living cell to appear? How is it possible that the miracle of conscious self-awareness can seemingly arise out of inert matter? 

I don’t find helpful, doctrinaire and dogmatic scientific minds which ‘religiously’ anticipate a ‘theory of everything’, and regard science as ‘king of the castle’ and religion the ‘dirty rascal’. Nor do I find helpful, doctrinaire and dogmatic religious minds, that turn transcendence into literalised, picture book ‘images’ of a ‘god’ made in many of the worst aspects of the human ‘image’. I do find helpful, ‘philosophical’ minds which insist on continuing to ask fundamental questions, and on challenging all so called ‘settled’ conclusions, religious or scientific.

If we can release our idea of ‘being’ from our own necessary experience of ‘embodiment’, then we can contemplate, not some locatable ‘being in the sky’, but the transcendent, primordial existence of consciousness, intelligence, information and design, evolving in its own, unpredictable, experimental, sometimes beneficial, sometimes harmful way, towards what we cannot now anticipate, but which can nonetheless evoke awe and wonder, and in which we can find value and meaning in our being however small a part of it.

Let’s end with just one of the Bible’s (Ecclesiastes) possible responses to Bertrand Russell’s challenge – “How can we know what will happen in the world? … I decided to cheer myself up with wine and have a good time. I thought that this might be the best way people can spend their short lives on earth”.

Amen to that !

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