Q: Atheists: How do you explain life?
I’m one of those rare breeds who believe equally in God and in Science… I evidently see evolution, and I can even go along with the Big Bang Theory, but how do you explain what makes us alive? Or cognitive thought and imagination? How can these things be explained in the material world if you do not believe in a spiritual world?
Thats why I have to believe in some sort of Creative Force… because I cant reconcile life. How do you do it?
A: No offense, but your inability to reconcile your observations with your beliefs has no bearing on objective truth. I honestly don’t say that to sound rude, condescending, or anything negative. I’m simply trying to offer the suggestion that your perspective might be skewed to accept a certain assumption.
If you really want to boil it down to the absolute basics, I believe the reason we are alive is entropy. It’s the only “force” that ensures that things will change, and change is absolutely necessary for the existence of life. It reminds me of the quote by Alan Watts: “A living body is not a fixed thing but a flowing event.” We are not alive simply because we are alive but because energy itself is bound up in every atom, and entropy is the expression of that power.
Cognitive thought and imagination are simply the byproducts of a highly evolved neurological machine. Our brains were really only developed to take information in, process it, make a decision, and then react to that decision. All brains (and other brain-like systems) work in this way, and it’s only because our brains have become so complex that we’re able to experience things like imagination and abstract thought.
The spiritual world you’re referring to is a completely abstract concept. And since it has no basis in physical reality, it’s easy for me to reconcile with my beliefs. I hold a fundamentalist belief about the term “supernatural.” I believe that all things that exist outside of nature are supernatural. Though it’s clear that there is a “force” that drives life itself, it’s a typically-anthropocentric logical leap to say that it comes from any guiding hand.
If you absolutely must believe in some kind of intelligent designer, consider this. If you choose to do one thing over another, you have made a decision using your intellect. If that decision affects your life or anyone that comes after you, then you have altered your world through your intentions. If your intentions affect something in your world, then you have designed something. And the most intelligent designers I’ve ever encountered are human beings.
I believe the concept of Intelligent Design confuses cause and effect. There can be no deity that intelligently set things up the way they are or else everything would be more intelligently designed. Headaches? Disease? Cancer? War? Rape? Death? What good are these things to thinking and feeling individuals, and why would a benevolent creator curse us with so many problems? The truth is that there is no intelligent designer; intelligence itself has “designed” things to be the way they are. Every time a being chooses one thing over another, its intellect has affected the world. If there was a Great Designer, these decisions would be made for us. And that seems more like a video game than a life to me.
Dec 19, 2009 -
I understand where you are going with your answer; however, I want to suggest that your final paragraph might open you up to the same rebuttal/answer that you initially provided to the question poser. In a sense all of our perspectives are skewed to a certain assumption. All of us are bound by our individual biases. The reason for my comment is not to argue for or against a higher power, it is simply for the sake of debate. It seems that your answer has taken the assumption that an intelligent designer would make everything perfect for “thinking and feeling individuals”. Is it possible that an intelligent design might take on the full range of combinations of atoms and molecules, those that thrive on disease and war just as much as those that thrive on health and peace? Would not the intelligent designer be the only one to know who would reap the most reward within the design? We might be viewing this from the wrong angle.
On another note I would like to pose a question about thoughts and memories. Are our thoughts our minds’ creations, whether conscious or subconscious? Or are they living organisms themselves? You speak of the act of living relating to energy, and I agree without the observation of change, life is not apparent. I would like to pose that thoughts, beliefs, etc are akin to a mental virus based on energy waves, not on atoms and molecules themselves, and passed from one being to the next like a parasite. Where mental vulnerabilites are found the thoughts proliferate. Some vaccines (i will use religious extremism as an example here) provide individual brains a defense against certain other living thoughts (in this case the belief of having an open mind or tolerance to religious beliefs).
What are your thoughts on any of this?
Jan 27, 2010 -
“I believe the reason we are alive is entropy. It’s the only ‘force’ that ensures that things will change, and change is absolutely necessary for the existence of life.”
You’d be right to posit that evolution only happens because of chance combinations (“entropy”), but biologically speaking, life also has to locally reduce entropy in order to keep existing. That is, mechanically speaking, entropy works both for and against living organisms. (Beware of elevating entropy to magical status.)
As a working scientist, I’ve obviously got no problem attributing the *physical* presence of life to the laws of probability and physics (which naturally encompass Darwinian evolution); nonetheless, as a human being, I still *experience* life as having a metaphysical meaning, a “why” that dares to peek beyond the physical. Probably, we have evolved to feel this way, but if such experience is natural and proper to the human organism, why fight it?
Sure, “cognitive thought and imagination are simply the byproducts of a highly evolved neurological machine”, but such an explanation only explains the mechanics of self-hood, not a purpose beyond the mechanics, a purpose which the heart still thirsts for (even if such thirsting is only the delusion of being human).
I can only speak for myself. The bottom line for me is that, even though I know as a scientist that there will never be empirical or logical proof of the spiritual (or disproof, for that matter, as Russell acknowledged), I still experience day-to-day life as having a spiritual dimension, and I find cultivating that dimension worthwhile. Furthermore, I find that my religion encourages me to study science as an act of worship — the universe is God’s startling gift — while what I learn by doing science also fills me with worshipful wonder. “To know can only wonder breed, and not to know is wonder’s seed” and all that. I think I can fairly say that I personally wouldn’t have pursued science as a career if I didn’t also feel religious wonder.
Science is an analytic understanding of the world; religion, an experiential, humanistic understanding. I think both types of understanding can rub along comfortably together as long as we don’t go about confusing one for the other.