The Ragged-Trousered Philosopher


History of Digital Telepathy

with God


The Eagle Has Landed

All's Well That Ends Well


Chapter Five

How Did We Get Here?

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 third question.

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 to themselves.

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 mysterious blueprints.

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 of Gravitation?

Surprise me.

To explain the phenomena of falling apples, planetary orbits, ballistic trajectories and so on is why.

Yeh? So?

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 record.

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 it?

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 system!

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.

All previous 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 chapter

(Last updated 28 Dec 2003)

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed by Harry Stottle (2003-5) under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License.

T H E    B O O K
Why Bother?
So, What is It?
Do We Exist?
Meaning, Truth...
How Did We Get Here?
A Theory of Behaviour
Survival,Ethics & Democracy
Part 1- From Neolithic to Neocon

Part 2-Leadership
Abortion and Human Rights
Crime and Punishment
War-Part 1-Morality
War-Part 2-Reasons To Be Fearful
War - On Drugs
The 'Rule of Law'