First off, why does it matter?
Good question. There are a number of reasonable answers. You might begin
with mere curiosity. You might go on to point out that if we can figure
out how we got here, we might be able to have more influence on what happens
now that we are here. But we would argue that the most important reason
for trying to answer this, the second
question, is that it has a huge bearing on what our answer is to the
In human society to date, there appear to be two essential conflicting
hypotheses. Either we got here through a mechanistic chain of events
which will eventually be fully explained by the validated theories of
science (following the reasoning we've tried to outline in the previous
chapter) and require no hint of intelligent design; or the
whole thing is far too organised to be result of blind chance and, thus,
must have been put together by one or more gods for reasons best known
Actually, there is now a third hypothesis. That the scientific model
is correct but that we exist in a simulated
universe created by an intelligent species several billion years ahead
of us. This hypothesis has the attractive merit of offering a compromise
between the scientific and religious models. It offers no less than a
scientific explanation of how our universe could have come about as the
result of the behaviour of a superior (if not necessarily supreme) being
whom we might, for the sake of argument, agree to call god. However, for
the purposes of this discussion the real split is really between those
who believe our existence is scientifically explicable in terms comprehensible
to human beings and those who do not.
This split is fundamental and even occurs within theist ranks. Most theists,
for example, no longer quarrel with the main tenets of modern cosmology
or the theory of evolution. They take the relaxed attitude that science
is explaining how their god created what we see around us. Such a view
is not incompatible with science and may well even be largely vindicated
if we do indeed turn out to be living in a simulated universe. But there
are "fundamentalists" who cannot accept anything which contradicts
the teaching of their holy books. To them Cosmology cannot possibly be
correct because it implies a universe far older than those books imply.
Evolution cannot be right because it implies that Mankind was not directly
created by god, but evolved from other organisms (which may or may not
have been created by their god). It matters to them most of all.
If the scientific explanation is correct, then we are likely to be on
our own (other than life forms evolving in broadly similar circumstances
elsewhere in the Universe) and its up to us to work out how to behave
amongst ourselves. Conversely, if a god or gods created the universe,
then it is reasonable to assume that s/he/they are intelligent; that they
had a reason for their actions and that our intended purpose in life may
well be to fit in with their plan/s (or at least that it may be wise to
'play safe' and do one's best not to offend the creator). This is essentially
the basis for the fundamentalist theist view that our behaviour should
be dictated by whatever those hidden plans turn out to be; and thus that,
whether or not we have a free choice, we have a duty to anticipate what
s/he or they want us to do. The detailed differences between religions
then simply boil down to differences over alleged perceptions of these
Astute readers might have spotted which side we're on. Lets try to spell
out the objections to Theism.
To begin with, why do we need a Theory of Gravitation?
Uh? I thought we were talking about God.
Don't worry we'll be back to that in a moment. Now why do we need a Theory
To explain the phenomena of falling apples, planetary orbits, ballistic
trajectories and so on is why.
So why do we need a theory of God?
To explain everything else I suppose.
But that's just the point. We have explained almost everything we've
taken a serious look at in other ways just as credible as the theory of
Gravitation. Skipping lightly and in reverse chronological order through
the usual list; we start with human beings. We evolved from the primates
who in turn evolved from lower mammals, a mutation or two away from reptiles.
Before that we were primitive mono cellular animals like amoeba and bacteria.
Life's first stirrings may have been as long chain amino acids in a prehistoric
nutrient soup. Or perhaps the basic building blocks of life actually formed
in deep space and were carried to earth in the form of cosmic dust. In
any case, some of these molecular precursors of life hit upon the enormous
commercial possibilities of self-replication. The rest is history.
'Ah but,' you ask, 'what about the primeval soup itself, or
come to that the planet on which life chose to propagate, not too mention
the Sun, the Milky Way and the rest of the known Universe?'
The answer to which is that in the beginning was the void. A tiny fraction
of a second later was a football sized object containing all the matter
now spread throughout the universe. It also contained all the space in
the universe. Indeed, it was the Universe. It was at a temperature so
high that even light could not exist and matter was not even on the drawing
board. It exploded with a bang that is still going on today.
As it flew apart, it cooled and allowed the formation of photons and,
eventually, atomic particles which, on further cooling came together to
form atoms, mainly of hydrogen but with a liberal sprinkling of helium.
These in turn formed huge gas clouds which, perhaps partly due to the
rotation imparted by the explosion and eventual condensation and partly
to microscopic variations in energy distribution, began to form sub clouds
of considerable density which had sufficient gravity within themselves
to force higher and higher compression until eventually the heat of the
compressed gas was sufficient to ignite it in thermonuclear fashion and
a star or two was born. (If you're interested in rival theories like "super
strings" as condensation seeds, try this.)
After a while, some burnt off their hydrogen and were forced to even
more extreme forms of fusion which involved the combination of ever heavier
nuclei so until they got to iron, where, unless they were at least 3 times
the mass of our own sun, they stopped and cooled down into the biggest
ball bearing you've ever seen. Above that critical mass, once they pass
iron, they cascade the production of the remaining 46 naturally occurring
elements until forcing nuclei together is simply too feeble a resistance
for the crushing gravitational collapse. Catastrophically, a significant
percentage of the mass of the star is converted into energy which blows
the whole thing to pieces in an explosion so powerful that if one happened
within 25 light years of our solar system, it would give us a gamma blast
large enough to sterilise the planet. (Fortunately, no star big enough
to go supernova is within 25 light years of us, so that's one nightmare
we don't have to worry about) In the short period between the last fusion
of iron nuclei and the catastrophic explosion, all the elements heavier
than iron are created in the supercrushed crucible of the collapsing star.
The nuclei generated go way beyond the so called "92 naturally occurring
elements" which stops at Uranium. This is only because the much heavier
nuclei are so unstable that they decay in the next few hundred or thousand
years to insignificant levels in the background and all we're left are
the elements stable enough to last the millions or billions of years that
have passed since their synthesis. And when that lot is blown to bits,
its pieces are scattered over cubic light years of space - where the heavier
elements collide with massive clouds of virgin hydrogen.
Stars like our Sun when it was a mere youth, came along and pick up huge
quantities of this dust in interstellar space. In the process, many of
them shed or attract spare lumps of matter of various sizes, mostly too
small to be self heating, which then cool into planets, some with rocky
cores and the complete physically stable chemistry set. Once in a while,
one of these planets will have the right proportions of the right chemicals
required to sustain organic life. Once in an even longer while, conditions
will arise on such a planet which will permit the free formation and destruction
of organic molecules of ever increasing complexity. And on one in perhaps
a million such planets, one or more of the resulting random cocktails
has the ability to replicate itself and begin the long process of evolution.
That's a very short but reasonably accurate sketch of modern cosmology.
It still doesn't finally answer the question "How did we get here?"
because we haven't figured out what went on at point zero and what caused
anything to happen at all. But given that we've figured out the broad
sequence of events that makes up 99.999999999999% (approx) of the history
of the universe, and given that we haven't yet needed to invoke a creative
intelligence to explain a single step in the sequence, it is the consensus
among most cosmologists that the very first step will not turn out to
require creative intelligence either. But it does remain a possibility
and is consistent with the simulated universe hypothesis.
The question is, of course, How do we know any of the above? And
the answer, going back to the limit
of perception argument, is, of course, that we don't know it
in any absolute sense, but that, despite this, for various reasons it
is rational to accept the broad outline above as being our best
explanation to date. And although debate and research continue to pin
down the precise details of each of these phases, no serious student of
these things doubts the broad outline.
Hence, for example, there is an occasional flare up in the scientific
world such as that which took place in the field of evolutionary biology
and received wide publicity in 1987. There were three factions; those
who asserted a kind of class analysis of species (eg all species with
fur = 1 group; feathers another etc etc) which contradicted classical
theories of genetic development (the Cladists); those who asserted that
evolution tended to proceed in jumps after long periods of relative stability,
(Punctuationists) which contradicted the long held view that evolution
was a very gradual process in which progress from form to form went via
a series of intermediate steps; and the classical Darwinists who were
defending their pet theory (the "very gradual process" just mentioned)
against these onslaughts despite some rather alarming gaps in the fossil
Creationists leapt at this opportunity to 'prove' the validity of their
own 'hypothesis' (the biblical Genesis story). Their argument somewhat
missed the point. Using Popper's
comments on the theory of evolution, they argued that as Darwinism
could not be subject to a test which could prove it false (a view which,
as you can read in the same extract, can be easily challenged) and as
the Cladists and Punctuationists were able to punch holes in its framework,
then Darwinism itself was not a valid scientific theory. They then went
on to make the wholly absurd argument that given that this was so, and
that, nevertheless, Darwinism was standard teaching in US schools, then
in the interests of balance, their own theory should be given equal treatment.
If their argument had been valid (that Darwinism was invalid) then the
proper response would logically have been to end its teaching altogether
- not to "balance" it with an equally invalid theory! The point which
totally escaped the Creationists was that all three factions agreed
that Evolution had taken place (rather than Creation) and were merely
arguing about the precise mechanism.
The current scientific outline is certainly philosophically superior
to the Theistic explanation which basically hides behind the meaningless
phrase that we cannot understand either how god did it or why. If the
fundamentalists wanted to cling to some vestige of intellectual respectability,
they would follow the lead of the mainstream religions in accepting the
scientific argument and merely state that the methods identified by science
were the ways designed by god. Fundamentalists, however, cannot bring
themselves to do so; partly because they can't face the thought of having
chimpanzees as cousins and some dead great apes as common ancestors; but
more significantly because they've made the assertion - which evolutionary
theorists have not made themselves - that if Darwin's theory is
broadly correct, then this implies the absence of their God. (For instance,
check out this statement from Dr.
Duane Gish - the leading academic proponent of Creationism)
We wish we could share their optimism!! There is little doubt that Darwin
discovered a fundamental truth about the manner in which the amazingly
diverse selection of species currently inhabiting our planet actually
came to be here. But much as passionate atheists would like to be able
to, we cannot say that the validity of Darwinism in any way rules out
the existence of a God. You really can't prove the negative! Indeed,
as we've said, the respectable simulated universe hypothesis would require
both a theory of evolution and a theory of superbeings capable of creating
us. So why have the Creationists boxed themselves into that particular
corner? We suspect it ensures that their cults will be extinct by the
middle of the 21st century and most of us will not be sorry to see them
reduced to the status of the 'Flat Earth Society'. But why did they do
The only obvious conclusion you can draw from that behaviour is that
it reveals their appalling ignorance about scientific method. For the
record, lets make it plain to 21st century readers. The concept of god
is such a loosely defined and nebulous intellectual structure, that we
will never prove that god does not exist. What will happen
is that, very quickly in historical terms, the very notion of "believing
in god" will fall in "status" to the same level as we already regard
"believing in fairies" or "father xmas".
How will that feel? Well think how you react, now, to hearing someone
declare, with a straight face, something like "I'm a passionate campaigner
against believing in fairies".
You read it and think "er... get a life!"
Which is roughly how future readers - say 23rd century on (if, of course,
they still refer to time in the christian calender sense - one hopes we'll
have moved on to a more "inclusive" measuring system by then) will respond
to the phrase "I'm a passionate atheist". In response to which we can
only appeal to you (future readers) to try to imagine what it was like
to live in a world where believing in the unbelievable was the norm
and we - atheists - are considered the weirdos! Take
our word for it, thats enough to make you passionate about it!
Meanwhile, back in the real world, the "mainstream" religions do not
challenge the fundamental tenets of Darwinism (belatedly, no doubt, having
learnt a thing or two from their persecution of Copernicus and Galileo).
They do indeed accept the theory and argue that we are merely learning
how god performed his handywork. However, this "modern" approach to theism
can afford them only limited protection as it still leaves open not only
the question of god's purpose but also the rather obvious question as
to how their god came into being. There would have to be answers to such
questions even if they are only available to the gods and even if we are
genuinely incapable of understanding them. In other words the theist answer
to the Second Question
fails not because its the wrong answer but because it is no answer
at all. It avoids the question. The question is "How" did we get here?
It is not "Who was responsible?" And even if they were right about that,
it would still be entirely reasonable to ask the "How" question. The theist,
when finally forced to confront this issue asserts that the answer cannot
be known, or can only be known by a being whose existence we can never
prove (or disprove!). This places it four-square alongside our earlier
fairy story as a totally meaningless proposition.
Thus, on the question of purpose, even if we could satisfy ourselves
that we exist through the efforts of a super being (in either a "real"
or simulated universe), what reason does that give us to anticipate and
follow his wishes? If you learn, for instance, that you are, in essence,
a laboratory rat, would you feel particularly obliged to perform up to
the required standards of your "hosts"? Unlikely. You weren't consulted
and, frankly, you can think of better things to do with your time.
Similarly, whether or not a god has a purpose for any one of us, we weren't
consulted about it. It has not been made clear to us. We may not like
it even if it was. Why should we obey it? Because he can blackmail us
with threats to our eternal well-being? You think that's a good idea
for obeying someone?! If he can do that, he'll do it. We can't stop
him. If he can compel us to follow his path, he will. Again, by definition,
we couldn't stop him. Meanwhile, why should we co-operate? If his purpose
is to our advantage then all he's got to do is make it clear how and why
and we'd all no doubt agree to follow his advice. Why would he need carrots
or sticks? Anything powerful enough to create a Universe can manage a
reasoned discussion or two even if he does have to stoop to our humble
level. Or perhaps his "purpose" is indeed to let us learn by making our
own mistakes, and "doing our own thing", so - for Christ's sake(!) - let
us damn well do it!
In the worst case, of course, we might well just be the product of a
gigantic experiment. And it may well be that we represent either a failure
or a valueless control sample to be disposed of once the experiment is
concluded. Are we also expected to co-operate with our own disposal? Not
here we won't. We shall fight the dying of the light.
And any theists inclined to argue that their god/s couldn't possibly
have an inhumane purpose might care to answer the questions as to why,
in that case, he takes so little interest in our affairs to the extent
of allowing such huge and widespread pain and suffering. Indifference
to our fate either individually or collectively is no better, subjectively,
than active hostility - particularly if he genuinely was capable of preventing
it. And its not that we can't see the long
term perspective that a deity might take. We can even perceive the benefits
of the holocaust, for example. The death of 6 million Jews has almost
certainly ensured their survival! (This, incidentally, from one whose
family lost 46 members in the death camps and ghettoes) Organised anti-semitism
on any widespread scale is now virtually extinct. You may continue to
have neo nazis for a while, but they are unlikely to have any serious
impact. The long term result, therefore, of that insane butchery is more
genuine security than the Jews have known in a thousand years and the
rebirth of their geographical nation. Of course, they may be about to
throw that all away if they cannot break the cycle of abuse and step back
from being the grotesque
abusers they have become, but thats for the future to determine.
We can even see that the whole experience of the second world war was
a hugely valuable learning experience for the human race. Many believe,
for instance, that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are principle
reasons we have not had and will not have a nuclear third world war.
If those real life examples had not made such a devastating impression,
the full horror of nuclear weapons would never truly have been understood
either by politicians or the people, and we would have had to find out
'the hard way'! Which implies that, somehow, Hiroshima and Nagasaki
were the 'easy' way. We can see how a god would see it that way... kill
a quarter of a million to save the species... but something that
powerful really ought to be able to come up with a more humane education
Thus when seeking an answer to the Third
Question, we start from the position that a) there is no god to dictate
the answer for us and b) that even if there was one, we see no good reason
to voluntarily accept his recommendations if indeed he had any. His behaviour
to date - through failure to intervene at the very least - sets no example
that we would wish to follow.
Most important, philosophically, however, is that any attempt to answer
the Third Question must be in line with our answers to the first
and second questions.
attempts at moral philosophy founder at this point. In short they all
attempt to define "the Good" and then tell us that virtuous behaviour
consists of promoting this Good. The most advanced form of this philosophy
is "Utilitarianism" most popularly summed up as pursuit of the "greatest
good for the greatest number". The ultimate difficulty is that despite
several thousand years of trying, the best definition of "Good" they can
come up with is "that which causes pleasure"; the weakness of which is
painfully obvious (what about those who kill for pleasure, for starters).
Hence the hedging with "for the greatest number". Take the case we have
used elsewhere of the democratic cannibal. His mates
are presumably going to experience some considerable pleasure eating him.
Does he think to himself "ah well, the greatest good for the greatest
number, my turn had to come some day" and resign himself to the pot? Well,
he might, but most of us wouldn't and we have a shrewd idea that you
wouldn't either. But are they wrong to eat him? If so, why?
The answer is that we can't - in today's society at least - accept a
notion of "the Good" which includes killing fellow human beings for such
frivolous reasons as food. In other words, before attempting any rational
analysis of what constitutes Good, we have a predefinition that Life
itself is Good. All moral philosophy ultimately hinges on that
precept. And its intellectual garbage. To some objective observer outside
our galaxy, or the creator of our simulated universe, we might be a stain
on the universe equivalent in value to that persistent mould you can't get
rid of on your damp bathroom ceiling. The value we put on Life is just
that; the value we put on it. It is not particularly surprising
that we do so, but there is simply no reason to believe that the value we
place on Life has any real meaning in the Universe at large. Hence,
although you can design rules of behaviour which will promote pleasure,
reduce killing etc etc. You can't go on to say that they reveal what is
"right" or "wrong" with behaviour because there is no absolute measure of
whether it is right or wrong even to be alive.
We need, therefore, to answer the Third
Question without making any value judgements. Like any valid scientific
hypothesis, (e.g. "How We Got Here") we need to answer it in such a way
that our solution is potentially true under all circumstances and
not just subject to contemporary moral fashions. We are looking, in brief,
for a Universal Theory of Behaviour which doesn't so much tell us how
we should behave as a) how we do behave and b) how we could
behave if we so desire. And, as you've probably gathered, we believe we
have found that theory and intend to go on to recommend the practice.
We start the search in the next
(Last updated 28 Dec 2003)