Does the Multiverse Theorem Solve “Fine-Tuning”?

I have have been exploring the observations around cosmic fine tuning, and I’ve explained the possible explanations for it are either:

  • Natural necessity
  • Chance or
  • Design

Given the incredible coincidences that Sir Fred Hoyle observed that makes nature life permitting, seems like an incredible assumption to say either that the universe HAS to be this way, or it just happened to be this way by chance.

To increase the odds for a finely tuned universe by chance, some have suggested that perhaps there are an infinite number of parallel universes, all with slightly different configurations of cosmological constants. If that is how things are, then there are just a few life permitting parallel universes in existence, and we happen to inhabit one of them.

SO – the universe is not designed by a designer (God). Rather, we just happen to inhabit a parallel (or bubble) universe that is life permitting. It was bound to happen some time, given the infinite number of parallel universes that exist.

I love Star Trek as much as the next guy. But – I don’t buy this idea. There are problems.

First – it seems to violate Occam’s Razor. William of Occam was a Franciscan Friar who observed an important problem solving principle. “Entities should not be multiplied without necessity.” In other words, when we look at the WHOLE problem, to identify the correct solution we should not make it more complicated than necessary. We should go with the simplest possible answer that meets the conditions reflected by the whole problem.

When we posit the multiverse, we are ignoring three simple solutions (chance, natural necessity and design) and positing a much much more complex solution. An infinite number of universes, and a mechanism for generating each one.

The multiverse theory would not violate Occam’s Razor if I can show that none of these simpler options work. But I’ve heard no one prove to me that a universe designed for life is impossible. So – until that happens, I’m going to be sceptical of a solution that’s just too complicated (the Multiverse theory).

Second – the multiverse theory requires that an impossible, infinite series of events has and will occur. An infinite number of universes will pop into existence. The problem here is another philosophical one. You cannot have an actually infinite number of events in the real world, although you can have the idea of an infinite number of events in your mind. Why?

Imagine you have laid out a line of dominoes and you start them dropping, one at a time. Each one knocks the next one over until you reach domino 1, which then knocks over the final domino 0. You can actually do this experiment if the number of dominoes is an absolute number (say N). You start at N, and drop the dominoes till you reach 0. But if N is infinite, then there are an infinite number of dominoes in the line. You will never reach dominoes 1 and then finally 0, because you cannot step through an infinite number of events one at a time in nature.

The multiverse theory posits the idea that an infinite number of universes have existed, and then another one pops into existence, and then another. Like dominoes 1 and 0. This does not make sense.

If there is a multiverse, then it must have had an absolute beginning, an ultimate origin, and a particular number of parallel universes have appeared. This idea has been confirmed by the Borde-Guthrie-Vilenkin theorem which requires an absolute beginning to an expanding universe. This would apply to one universe, or a parallel set of universes.

An infinite multiverse is logically and naturally incoherent.

Third – there is absolutely no empirical evidence that a multiverse exists. It’s a very cool idea that allows the rebooting of beloved franchises (Star Trek) in the real world. But nothing more. Worse, scientific methods cannot prove or disprove it. Therefore to try to solve the fine tuning problem by appealing to a baseless assumption sounds like a really bad idea!

Fourth – a universe generator still needs to be fine tuned. Right? Because there has to be an absolute starting point for a finite number of parallel universes, there has to be something that causes these universes to come into existence. This therefore pushes us back to the original problem. Why is the multiverse generator finely tuned to produce multiple universes?

Fifth – chance and natural necessity seem unlikely explanations for the multiverse generator. But a cosmic designer seems a much better explanation. And so we are back to God as the inference to the best explanation for the existence of the universes.

Summary

I don’t buy multiverse as a solution to the fine tuning problem, though I do accept it as a solution to the cinema, TV and literature problem…how do we keep this story moving forward?

It is the Most Spiritual of All The Trek Movies

A vast cloud has been detected in outer space, and it’s heading toward Earth. Every being who has crossed its path has been lost. Admiral James Tiberius Kirk sees in this crisis an opportunity to escape a tedious desk job, and get back to his first love. Hopping galaxies in the star ship he used to call home.

So begins Star Trek the Motion Picture (TMP), which is – to my mind – the most spiritually aware of all the classic Trek movies. It’s also probably the most “Star Trek” of those films, because it touches on themes that affect us all. No, it doesn’t have “God” in it, or the famous line “What does God need with a star ship?” That’s left to the inferior Star Trek V. But the spiritual themes are more mature and deeply embedded in this first one.

During the torturous pre-production period for TMP, the Paramount Studio executives reportedly urged Gene Rodenberry to elevate the story to religious sorts of levels. They didn’t want a swash buckling Star Trek on the big screen. They wanted 2001 a Space Odyssey, a thoughtful and inspiring tale.[1] Right or wrong, I think that’s kind of what they produced.

It is forty years since TMP was released. I vividly remember going to see it in Glasgow during Christmas 1979. Of being amazed by how incredible it looked, but confused by the different feel to the TV Show I loved. Yet even as a youngster, I sensed the weighty themes at play in this movie.

So – what spiritual themes are found here? Someone might say – “It was just slow. It dragged. It was boring. Just like church is.” Well, that’s not quite what I was thinking of.

The Need to Know Who We Came From

It turns out that the cloud threat, V’Ger, is heading to Earth. But not to destroy it. Rather, V’Ger is travelling vast distances to meet with and to eventually join with its creator. Spoiler alert – V’Ger is actually NASA’s Voyager 6 probe, repurposed by a distant and advanced civilisation that made it sentient and sent it home again.

There’s a sense in which mankind’s religions have a similar aim. It is the attempt of the individual to somehow reach and to understand the greater reality, the one who is responsible for us being here in the first place or some state of ultimate spiritual fulfilment. So many people want to somehow relating to this bigger reality that has to do with where they came from. In the TV cut of TMP, Commander Decker actually says that V’Ger has done what people do, it has make God in their own image.[2]

The Need to Become, So That We Can Know

As the star ship Enterprise intercepts the cloud, V’Ger has to take the form of a member of the Enterprise bridge crew in order to engage and interact with Kirk, Spock, Bones and the rest. They lose their bridge officer, Lieutenant Ilia, only for her to return again in a slightly different form. While taking a shower. Go figure!

By using Ilea, V’Ger trying to understand and engage with the crew of the Enterprise, to learn everything it can, becoming like them so that it can know and understand more. V’Ger has to change itself, and take on something knew so it can know more.

The Need to Live a Significant Life

Admiral Kirk has been on his own quest, to recover past glories, and get back to his hearts deepest desires. Being Captain of a star ship. Yet in doing so, he finds that the Enterprise has changed. She’s not the same vessel she used to be.

Kirk has a need for fulfilment in life, of feeling that he is able to contribute in a significant way. Surely this is a longing within each of us? And it has similarities to the longings within V’Ger. Is this all I am? Is there nothing more? Kirk intuitively knows what he’s good at, and he wants to reclaim this position at all costs. Even if he must sacrifice other people to achieve it. Perhaps he realises that life is short, and in the end you need to spend the years you’ve got doing what you love, and doing something that makes a difference somehow?

The Journey to the Next Level of Life

Probably my favourite character arc is that of Spock. Kirk’s friend has been on a quest of his own for 10 years since we last saw him. His aim has been to finally purge all emotion from his life thru Kolinahr. And yet tragically Spock has failed in this quest. In an attempt to understand why, he realises that he must discover just what V’Ger is and what it’s aims are. And he uses the Enterprise and her crew to do that. But are his aims noble? Or … like Kirk may be doing … would he put his needs above those of others on the ship? It’s a fascinating tension there in the second act of the story.

Spock’s overall journey is one of abject failure which results in a reconnection with the people who had previously been his adopted family on board the star ship Enterprise. Spock finds what he needs in his interactions with V’Ger, and experiences a break thru from the failures and disappointments of the past into a new place of purpose and significance and belonging in his own life.

What about Bones? Sadly – he’s just along for the ride in this picture! What a shame.

The Need to Know and Be Known

V’Ger, has been travelling the universe learning all that can be known. Who cannot relate to the sense that there is so much that we do not know? But we have the urge to learn more. And what about so many big questions? Who am I and what is my purpose in life? I long to understand. Yet there is more. More than knowing answers, is actually being known by another. Personal intimacy is more important and vital than all the learning one can do, particularly with the one who originally created us.

 

The Themes

It turns out, Star Trek the Motion Picture is a story about knowing:

  • Knowing that you have managed to make contact with the person who created you
  • Changing to become like someone else so you can know what they are like.
  • Knowing what you want, and doing everything you can to get it.
  • Knowing that you have failed, and needing to find out whether you can move to the next stage of your life or not.
  • Coming to the realisation that knowing everything that can be known is not enough. The more important thing – is being known by the one that made you.

 

Christianity

It is fascinating for me then that, while TMP reflects human spirituality in its thematic structure, it is a very human form of religion we find there. Yet Christianity turns the tables on this very human search for meaning and knowledge. We might not realise it, but Christianity shows that it is not possible for the creature to restlessly reach for the greater thing. In the end it’s not mankind’s role to be like V’Ger, and seek to join with its creator. Actually it is the opposite. God comes looking for us instead.

Are Christians making God in our image here? Well, who would have imagined that the transcendent creator would stoop so low as to come in search of little me. It’s an absurd suggestion, it’s wonderful, it’s Christianity.

God wants to be known by me, and is willing to find us to let that happen. We are the people who have gotten lost and are in deep need of being rescued. God’s the one looking for us, not the other way around. He has the resources to become like us to find us, and to help us know what our purpose is in life. He can help us connect with him, to achieve what V’Ger, Kirk and Spock were all trying to get to. A life of true meaning, being known and loved for ever.

 

 

“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel (which means “God with us”).” Matthew 1:23, NIV

“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Luke 19:10, NIV

Though he was God,[a]
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges[b];
he took the humble position of a slave[c]
and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,[d]
he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
and gave him the name above all other names,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 2:6-11, NLT

 

[1] They were also confused about whether they wanted a movie or a new TV series. Eventually, Star Trek Phase II was dropped in favour of a new movie in the wake of the success of Star Wars at the box office.

[2] “In Thy Image” is actually a title for a proposed episode for a new Star Trek series which never happened, and instead was used as an inspiration for TMP.

Machines, Personhood and Sarah Connor

Contains mild spoilers.

The latest Terminator movie has stumbled at the box office. I feel that’s unfortunate because this was a genuinely fresh and interesting take on a well established story. What interested me was the philosophical article I read about it in the Hollywood Reporter.

The Hollywood Reporter suggests that, perhaps people just don’t see AI as the enemy any more? Rather, we see machines in more positive terms, convinced by the idea of a future personhood owned by machines. Yet Dark Fate tries to observe the psychological difference between man and machine. “Humans are uniquely alive compared to artificially intelligent beings because we are fated to death and decay in ways machines are not.”[1] There is a character called Grace who is part human and part machine, yet she is psychologically on the human side of the conflict. In comparison, the antagonist is a highly dangerous Rev-9 model Terminator which mimics humanity simply to make it a more efficient killing machine. This is a familiar story beat. Schwarzenegger’s Terminator in this movie has tried to emulate humanity for more positive and life giving reasons. Yet both of these machine Terminators are simply machines, unable to achieve personhood. Arnie’s Terminator “appreciates humanity and strives toward personhood, but can’t fully achieve it.”[2] So in this movie we see the full spread – human, part human and machine. The inhumanity and non-personhood is always located on the machine side. Perhaps people don’t resonate with this idea so much anymore? Perhaps “the generation raised on Wall-E is entering adulthood just as regarding robots as people becomes the onscreen norm.”[3]

If you think about it, Western society is increasingly of the opinion that people are simply biological mechanisms. There’s no soul, no spirit, just physical. We live, we break down and we die. And death is that cessation of functionality that no one in Western society likes thinking or talking about. Given that understanding of humanity, it makes sense that robots would be seen closer to us than ever before. Why do we have to portray conscious robots as the enemy, when it makes more sense to imagine that they would be our friends?

It’s a fascinating observation and – the Reporter might have a great point. But because society gathers around the idea of future, conscious AI, does not make that idea either credible or likely. Fictional stories are important, we learn a lot about ourselves and our personal development through myth and fairy-tale. Fictional stories can also lead to breakthrus in science. But sometimes the fictional idea is just going to remain a fictional idea. I think conscious, thinking and creative AI is one of those fun yet solid fictions. It doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of Terminator Dark Fate, but I’m increasingly convinced that genuinely conscious, thinking machines are impossible.

Why?

 

1 – We project our capacity for conscious thinking onto today’s AI.

It’s a way we use language and it would be misleading to someone who knows nothing about computers. AI is a cool gadget that makes my life better (self-driving car). Yet our AI of today is purely functional, following an algorithm and incapable of thinking about whether or not it wants to. It is a mechanism designed to emulate a human (hello Siri).

 

2 – We are always going to be superior to AI.

Machines may be faster and stronger than us, but we have ontological superiority. We are the ones designing and thinking here. When machines do cool things, they don’t get the praise. We do. The designers. We may not even have a metaphysical property that allows us to create thinking, creative  machines that can reproduce themselves.

 

3 – We are conscious, but we do not understand what that means.

A genuinely thinking machine would have to be conscious. But no one is doing the work to understand consciousness from a third person perspective. Part of the problem is that consciousness is something we have. It is deeply subjective and requires someone to be conscious. It is not something we can dissect from a third person perspective. Rather, it is something we experience. Thinking always requires a thinker.

We need to understand consciousness to replicate it. But – I’m not sure we’re built to understand consciousness. Just to experience it and use it to understand other things.

 

4 – Humans are of a Different Order than Machines.

Yes, we have a physical make up and the closer we look at it, the intricacy of biological mechanism is seen. But – we are of a different order to machines. Likening machines to humans is, in a real sense, comparing apples and oranges.

Whoever we are, we have the ability to navigate our way through life, following our own thoughts and ideas and intentions. We create opportunities and respond to events that occur from our own rational, creative and conscious selves. We have general intelligence. We live in our environment and we cope within it, we adjust. We establish a social network, we conduct our lives appropriately.

Machines are different order from us. They lack this general rationality. We give them rules to follow and they don’t think about it, they just do it. We are simply of a different order from them. We can build them to mimic human characteristics, but they are not thinking as they do so. They are simply following the instructions we programmed them with.

 

Final Thoughts

Yes, we are going to get better at making machines mimic human behaviour. But – I don’t think we will ever see a genuinely conscious machine. Terminator Dark Fate understands the ontological differences between us. And I think there is an important reason for doing that. Realising that we are more than biological machines is important for the future of humanity. It is a life giving perspective. As Arnie once said – “Come with me if you want to live.”

[1] Clara Wardlow, One Reason ‘Terminator Dark Fate’ Didn’t Connect With Sci-Fi Audiences, Hollywood Reporter, accessed 20th November 2019, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/why-terminator-dark-fate-didnt-connect-audiences-1252112.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

 

Joker and the Cost of Nihilism

The reports were correct. For a comic book movie, Joker is unusually violent. Very violent, in fact. Yes I’ve seen it. No, I didn’t walk out. But I had to shut my eyes a few times.

(No spoilers below)

Director Todd Phillips portrays violence in the actions of his characters, but also in their uncaring, selfish and brutal attitudes towards each other. Violence is nothing new in cinema. But violence with no mitigating circumstances? Or apparent consequences? Personal pain turning into raw and unchained nihilism? It’s a tough watch. I’m grateful that Phillips clearly telegraphs the oncoming violence in his movie so that the audience has time to look away if they want to.

There is concern about the effect this film will have on culture. The tragic Aurora cinema shooting of 2012 was mistakenly linked to perceived glorification of violence in the earlier Dark Knight movies.[1] Well, Joker is a well-made and gritty homage to the Scorsese and Friedkin pictures of the 1970s. It feels like The French Connection in places. The cult status of the Joker character has caused people to worry that Aurora could happen again, a “wider cultural conversation is bound to crop up … [about] the influence these movies have on the national mood.”[2] Could the new Joker movie inspire copycat behaviour in certain types of people in its audience?

Well – I can’t speak for anyone else. I didn’t think Joker glorified or promoted acts of violence (physical + non-physical), even though certain scenes in the movie graphically show it. Rather – I think the filmmaker assumes you bring your moral sensibilities to the movie, and he spends a couple of hours facing you with a growing “sense of rage [that] pulses through Joker and makes it a compelling viewing experience.”[3] Yet it left me with a sense of utter tragedy and loss. This is the result of someone choosing to empower themselves through acts of violence. Joaquin Phoenix has said, “I don’t think it’s the responsibility of the filmmaker to teach the audience morality or the difference between right or wrong.”[4] I’m no filmmaker, but I’m an inherently moral human being. And – I think Phoenix is right about what he says.

Here’s another way to put it. The movie WORKS because we are essentially moral creatures. If we weren’t, then nihilism would be the norm. What is nihilism? It’s an idea that says that nothing is real or matters, particularly religious and moral principles.[5] Life is meaningless. So, who cares if I eliminate people that get in my way? Those acts are of no ultimate importance. Under nihilism. But this is simply wrong. Murder does matter, whatever the reason. It is because we are moral beings, that acts of unbridled violence are deeply unsettling to us. And – rightly so. Nihilism is a broken and dangerous idea.

Ideas have a big impact on people. So does nihilism. One consistent and possible outcome of nihilism is portrayed in Joker. And look at the results:

  • mental breakdown.
  • loss of relationships.
  • casual destruction of the family unit.
  • loss of life.
  • misery.
  • terror.
  • social unrest.

Will Joker impact society? No doubt. But I think it would have done its job well if it underlines the cost of any nihilist tendencies within us. Look at it. They are just not worth this cost!

There is a better way to live. One that won’t leave you always running from a caped vigilante…

[1] Untangling the Controversy Over the New Joker Movie, The Atlantic, accessed 6th October 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2019/10/joker-movie-controversy/599326/

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Nihilism, Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, accessed 6th October, 2019, https://www.iep.utm.edu/nihilism/.

Reflections on Judy

There’s a moment in this movie that just pierced the heart of it for me. The heart of who we all really are.

Judy Garland (real name Frances Gumm) is sitting in a British GP’s surgery. It’s 1968, the angry concert promoter is sick of her unreliable behaviour, and has (in his wisdom) sent her to the doctor for vitamin injections. A last ditch effort to save his future concert dates and his bank balance, not Judy’s health problems.

Injections won’t help.

Hers is a story of control and manipulation, of being at the mercy of the brutal Hollywood system. We’ve already been treated to sobering scenes of her as a younger woman making “The Wizard of Oz”. (Do I ever want to watch that movie again?) Judy has lived a life mixed through with privilege, public adoration and emotional abuse. It has led her to this point. She sits now in this doctor’s surgery. Stripped bare. Not physically. But in every other way. She’s 47 years old, but still the child that is unable to stand up against the dominating and controlling voices that have moulded her.

A middle aged doctor is staring into her gaunt face. He’s expressing professional concern about her low weight, her tracheotomy scars (“I tried to kill myself,” she admits). But he does not add to the verbal abuse she has endured. Rather, his is a voice of concern and wistfulness.

He looks off into the distance at one point. “I had a real thing for Dorothy Gale when I was growing up. She was so earnest. So concerned about doing the right thing. What touched me most was how kind she was to her dog.”

A precious childhood memory plays on his face, while a resigned, exhausted world weariness is ground into hers. The actress who had once been Dorothy.

Judy wasn’t a difficult person because she was born that way. She was nurtured and made that way. It left her permanently yearning, with the need to belong.

Reflecting on Judy, I’m struck by how fragile human beings are. I don’t mean our physical make up. I mean how delicate the thing is. The thing that is us. The Bible states that “God created human beings … reflecting [His] nature,”[1] and so this makes us valuable. Whatever anyone else says about us, God looks at us and sees someone He crafted. Our unique personality somehow reflects the attributes of God Himself. Whatever happens, we are precious to Him.

And yet – we can allow other people to crush that unique personality we’ve been gifted with. Perhaps it’s our need for affirmation and our compelling drive to please other people that crushes us. Maybe we’ve just allowed other people to blot out who we are, and gotten used to living as if they matter more than us. This is a road to frustration and loss in life. For Judy, it meant medicated pain, the relational chaos that comes from never truly belonging, and ultimately a life cut tragically short. Yet that pain is not what God has intended. His intention was for us to flourish as unique people.

As we reflect on these things, maybe we look with empathy at Judy and her life. Perhaps some of us look with recognition. “That’s me,” we say to ourselves. There will be no quick fixes for us. But perhaps the important question facing us is – will we decide to take a step in the right direction today? Consider accepting the statement I pointed to above? That God’s original intention was to make us good. Even if people and life has stripped it from us, they have no right to do so. Ask Him to give you back the goodness that belongs to you, and the life he has for us to live.

[1] Genesis 1:26 – 28, The Message translation.

Ad Astra and a Privileged Planet Earth

What do you get if you mix “2001: A Space Odyssey” with “Apocalypse Now,” and add a dash or two of “Event Horizon?” If you get the chance – see “Ad Astra” in an IMAX cinema. It looks and sounds beautiful. I thought the IMAX cinema format really let James Gray’s work shine.

In many ways, the film’s narrative is understated, mundane even. Yet all the while, Gray’s visual and audio spectacle pulls vigorously against a slower plot. This gives the film a slightly odd unbalanced feel. But – it’s not an unpleasant one. It elevates the experience, and – I think it works with the overall theme of the movie. Brad Pitt gives voice to this theme during the third act of the story, when he describes the choices and actions of another character. He says something like, “He had it all looking him in the face, but he missed the significance of it all.”

If you have picked up that “Ad Astra” is a father – son story, then you have heard right. It is. But there’s a bigger issue that is also raised here. I don’t think it spoils the movie to reveal this. Apologies if you’ve seen the film and you disagree with me. I’ll describe the issue this way:

What if the earth (our beautiful marble) and our human race is actually the only source of conscious life in the whole universe? What if we are alone in this vast expanse? What if we’ve got each other, and that’s it? The title of this movie is Latin for the phrase, “To the Stars.” Ad Astra. Well, once you’ve been to the stars and comprehended their beauty, what if you need to come home again to find someone to describe your experiences to? What if there is no extra-terrestrial life waiting out there for us to contact?

And someone groans at the thought. “How can this universe be so vast, and yet there NOT be life on many other planets? Are you saying we are somehow privileged, living here on this unremarkable spot in our galaxy? That doesn’t seem likely.” Really? Why don’t you think that’s likely?

Look at it this way. Imagine you have to bake a cake for your mother’s birthday. But, before you start, there’s a rule you must follow. You are not allowed to buy any ingredients at the store. None. Instead, you must grow everything from scratch that will eventually be used to make the cake! What might that mean? Well – as my wife will tell you, my presence in the kitchen is usually a sign that I’m hungry, not that I’m making anything. I’m no cook. But I do know that to make a cake, you need at the very least milk, eggs, flour, sugar and jam. Probably chocolate too. If you cannot buy your ingredients…how are you going to come upon them?

Well – milk comes from cows. So – you are going to have to set aside a substantial area of farm land to raise a heard of cows. You will need enough farm land to raise and nurture them. And you will also need to grow enough crops to feed them. You are doing all of this work so that they will eventually produce milk for you. How about the eggs? Well – you are going to need to raise chickens for eggs. Right? And flour? You get where I’m going now. You need to plant a field of wheat which you will eventually harvest so that you can process the resulting grain to produce the flour. You’re also going to have to grow sugar cane, fruit trees… and you need space to process and refine them all. The list of preparatory steps goes on….and must all be done before anything starts on the cake.

You will bake your cake in a small kitchen. But the production of the raw materials FOR your cake will take an extremely vast area of farmland dedicated to livestock, wheat and fruit production. And these raw materials won’t appear quickly. It’s going to take time to grow them to the appropriate stage of development, so that you can take more time in converting them into the raw materials for your cake. Little kitchen…massive farm land to produce your ingredients.

What has this to do with Ad Astra?

Well – this movie works hard to show us an artistic impression of the glorious and beautiful universe we inhabit. What if its that big and beautiful…just for us? As I’m watching the story unfold, I’m suddenly left feeling very alone. Like I’m watching our characters pick their way thru lonely farmland that exists to service a busy kitchen. What if our vast universe is actually that size and this composition, just so that life can be constructed and deposited on a particular planet which is specially prepared for it? What if the age of our universe is right for the production of life on the earth during this specific time period? That there are just enough stars that have cooked the elements…raw materials that human and animal bodies are composed of? Our universe is big and old…because it grew and prepared all the stuff that our world, and we are composed of. Like the farmland outside a small kitchen.

It’s a thought. And it doesn’t take away from the visual splendour of our universe, particularly as its depicted in Ad Astra. You could argue, it makes our universe all the more sweet. Because as we view it, we do so from the only place that is made specially for our protection and safety now. Home, planet earth. Surely, a privileged planet? James Gray does a masterful job of positing this idea, I think. Yet he does so thru the lens of an intensely personal story. One that I think may stay with you once your memory of this visual and audio feast has faded.

Are We Just Star Dust?

He rolled his eyes at me. “How sad that you need approval from some external deity. I am happy with my life as it is. I make meaning for my own life, thank you very much. I need approval from no mythological deity.”

I nodded. “Well – I’m glad you are happy with your life. I’m also happy with mine – so that makes two of us! But the issue here isn’t how we FEEL about our lives. Rather, the question is how we make sense of our lives. You say there is no meaning beyond the natural world. We are physical beings and nothing more. Is that what you are saying?

“Yes,” he announced.

“Well,” I continued, “I’m sorry but – there’s a problem with your statement. The problem has nothing to do with whether or not we are open to receiving approval from God or anyone else. Rather – the problem is about the assumptions you are making around the truth and the importance of your words.”

He raised his hand and replied abruptly. “Enough of your talk about God and absolute meaning. I am happy with subjective meaning…I give my own life its purpose. This is important…everyone needs to grow up and do this, particularly religious people.”

I laughed. “Okay. I hear that you think this is important. My question to you is why? Why is it important? And to whom?”

He stopped, a quizzical expression on his face.

I pressed on.

“I hear from many people that we are just physical beings in a physical universe. Neil deGrasse Tyson announces that we are star dust, and we should be happy about that. If all we are is physical stuff…then Neil’s words are meaningless. And – so are yours.”

“Why?” he retorted? Perhaps because Neil says them after Carl Sagan before him, my friend thinks that gives them more meaning. But – if Neil and Carl Sagan are right, their words have no meaning.

I continued. “Because what you are saying is – we are ONLY brains, constructed of biochemistry, composed of atoms that were cooked in the stars. There is no human soul. No God. Right? In that case, I don’t see why the words and thoughts of any of our minds are any more significant than other natural events…like the sound of the wind blowing in the trees.”[1]

Do you see the point I am making to my friend?

1 – if all we are is physical, then everything we do and say and think is ultimately physical.

2 – if everything we do is simply physical, then nothing we do is any more significant than other physical effects in the world. Trees swaying in the wind, for example.

Conclusion: we might think we are profoundly creating our own subjective, personal purpose for our lives. We may write and produce a TV series like Cosmos, even.  But actually nothing we do or say or believe actually matters. It’s not true or false, profound or pedestrian. It simply is. We simply are. Like swaying tree branches.

If that is the case – then what we say to each other does not matter, and has no consequence when it comes to truth or significance.

 

What does this mean? Well, my friend is kidding himself about subjective meaning for his life. He doesn’t even manage subjective meaning for his thoughts!

 

YET – if there IS objective meaning and purpose, and a God who has constructed reality to make it so? Well, that’s a whole different thing! Then, a human being’s words DO matter, because they either point towards or away from that ultimate, objective reality that created us. They either help us to get closer to it, or further away. They help or hinder. Words become more than just physical motions and sounds. They become pointers to the objectively real.

 

If something in the Universe ultimately matters, then we can do science, we can understand morality, and art moves us for a reason.

 

How interesting that everyone talks as if their words matter, and their thoughts are significant. Perhaps this fact about how we speak – and the assumptions we make about the importance of our words and thoughts – undermines the whole enterprise of atheism and shows it to be self-refuting? Because unless there is a God … our lives are meaningless. But if there is nothing but physical matter – whatever I believe about anything (God included) doesn’t matter and isn’t true or false. So atheism becomes a self-refuting and pointless exercise.

That doesn’t sound like the world we actually live in…

[1] C. S. Lewis, Is Theology Poetry?, The Weight of Glory, (New York: Harper One), 139.