Science and religion have one thing in common – both offer the promise to explain things that are currently outside our understanding. The cornerstone for most religions is a God or gods, responsible for all issues of importance. Monotheism categorises religions that have one God, whereas Polytheism refers to those involving multiple gods. Those gods are seen as creators of the rules that everything in our universe must obey. There is much comfort to be had in believing one has reached an endpoint that delivers the answer to everything. Scientific investigation and discovery is a never-ending process, and no theory is safe from being obsoleted by future work. On the other hand, religious models rarely face the challenge of revision. Nor is there a requirement that they must. Religious belief is very much culturally based, and there is no contradiction in having many equally valid versions. Science however, has no cultural boundaries and ultimately belongs to all humankind.
Somewhere in every child's life, the time comes when they ask the difficult question -- “Where did I come from mummy?”. Mummy has several choices on how to approach this. Perhaps going into all the gory details of childbirth and the tricky gymnastics required 9 months earlier, may not be appropriate for a young mind. If mummy had a philosophical bent, she might want to spend the rest of her life trying to answer that question. Even so, there is every possibility she could still be quite unsatisfied by the answer she arrives at. Another approach, and definitely one of the most common, is to look at one of the off-the-shelf religions for a solution. This technique might supply answers sufficient to satisfy childish curiosity, and there is a possibility the solution sits so well that particular children may take that philosophy and grow with it through the remainder of their life. There are many solid psychological reasons why this method may be best, simply because it induces comfort and a sense of well-being in the human animal.
As difficult as the question of where we come from might be, it does not take the prize as the most difficult question of all time. That honour belongs to the completely unanswerable, “Why does anything exist at all?”. When investigating components of existence that do not contain life, time-frames of several billion years are involved. An example of this is the formation of the planetary system around our Sun, which is estimated to have taken around five billion years. On the other hand, evolution of particular life-forms occurs within a much tighter time-frame ( History of Earth ). Using the Cosmic Calendar introduced by Carl Sagan, any particular form of life is likely to be only a blip on the radar for a few seconds of the calendar year ( The Cosmic Calendar ). Insulting as it might seem, human civilisation is totally irrelevant outside our time and tiny biosphere. It would be quite egotistical to imagine that the grand cosmological design was solely for the purpose of accommodating humankind. Perhaps a more realistic perspective is that all forms of life we know of result from a set of rules that permeate all space and time.
If humankind beats the odds and survives beyond the next couple of centuries, the clock will be ticking very loudly. Many would rail at the idea that every aspect of human achievement could be permanently lost. Engineering, Scientific, Artistic, Cultural – all legacies gone forever. Part of our psyche demands that we have 'purpose'. If we examine all the beautifully complex rules-of-nature that govern our existence, none appear to be without purpose. It would be a logical extension that we humans might also have purpose. What that purpose might be is very dependent upon the context and the time-frame.
Life appears to be quite transient on a cosmic scale. One possible conclusion might be that the rules for inanimate objects could be more refined and appropriate for the long term. If life-forms like humans are destined for extinction after such a short reign, it implies one of two things. Either there are flaws in the design that will lead to self-destruction, or there is no point in continuing with one particular experiment of life in preference to another. To suggest that there could be flaws or unintended consequences related to human design, runs counter to the observation that everything in the natural world is indistinguishable from perfection. Although an uncomfortable conclusion, it just might be that humans result from endless probabilistic outcomes, and this idea does fit with the proposition that we're just an experiment devoid of any long-term significance.
So if we are simply pawns in a gigantic experiment, who or what might be responsible for conducting this experiment with a view to analysing the results? Although it is not possible to answer that question in a meaningful way, these thoughts could feed directly into a god-model. This definitely implies a high degree of control and intelligence at the top level. Giving the gods human qualities is quite common in many religions ( Anthropomorphism ). Returning to this idea that man is somehow special, does beg the question as to why he has not been privileged to have much greater access to the big picture. Mankind's involvement in everything is so brief and insignificant, it makes no sense to propose that this entire magnificent scenario was contrived over billions of years, just for the entertainment of a few animated atoms in a near-infinite Cosmos.
If we search long and hard enough, we can usually find an explanation or purpose for every rule or function that applies to the natural world. We are encouraged in the belief that no rule is without purpose. However, it is difficult to reach a similar satisfying conclusion when trying to understand the purpose behind the entire scenario of existence. Identifiable patterns are emerging – whenever intrepid explorers approach the difficult end of the question-spectrum, invariably the god model comes into play. It would seem more important for humans to have AN answer, rather than THE answer. There is widespread adoption of many religions across quite diverse societies and cultures. The evidence to suggest a need for a god or gods, is far stronger than the evidence for the existence of those gods.
To a large degree, the god-model satisfies the need for answers, even though those answers may depend a lot on faith as opposed to reason. Accepting this explanation for the giant mystery-of-existence does provide an opportunity to concentrate on many of the other important aspects of being alive. For some of those humans lucky enough to have a life that they're grateful for, the religious model can provide a focus for gratitude. It's very hard to give thanks into a void – it loses much relevance and meaning. Similarly, it may seem satisfying to sometimes outsource blame for negative aspects of the life experience.
There are other strong parallels to draw between religious models and the structure of the family unit inherent in human society. Most of us are born to be cared for and nurtured. For many religions, there is a strong reliance on the belief that individuals are watched over and guided by some unseen, caring parental entity.
As mentioned previously, gods were invented partly as a mechanism to enforce authority in society, although in all likelihood this would have preceded the notion of the God of the Gaps. Humans, all the way back to their tribal days, have gained strength in numbers and the tendency to form collectives of the like-minded provided a similar protection to the way animals defend themselves in the wild. If groups or societies developed along religious lines, the notion of their God as protector would help strengthen such groups and reinforce legitimacy. Here was an umbrella figure to provide an extra level of protection from danger, either real or imagined.
Some religions define a much stronger relationship between the gods and Nature, and see the two as synonymous. God is in everything we see and touch. This is termed Pantheism ( Pantheism ). That concept that God and Nature are closely intertwined has great merit, and there are striking similarities. The gods are out-of-reach; entities to be respected and revered, just the same as we should appreciate the magnificence of Nature and everything associated with what we know as 'life'. A fundamental response to the wondrous world we are born to, should involve unwavering respect and reverence for Nature.
Many religions take the approach that humankind is special ( Genesis ). In one sense, man is special because we currently occupy top spot on the food-chain. That ranking will doubtless change over time, as it has in the past. A challenging consideration for those who believe in mankind's permanent status on the 'special list', is to think about the creatures who ruled the planet many millions of years ago. Did they have special status and a connection to the gods? Later in this book we carefully examine the possibility that there are no such things as Singularities. If man is a singularity, a special-case in a special-place, the implication is that he is somehow central in the structure of the universe, rather than just one example of intergalactic life from near endless possibilities.
Mankind being special is an ancient idea where the entire universe revolved around man and his Earth. Today, that model has few followers, and yet we still want to cling to the thought that man is somehow central. Could it be a remnant of the philosophy of old? It is also interesting to look at the template or blueprint for man as suggested by some religions. As discussed in chapter 2, it is difficult to argue against the high probability of countless advanced civilisations existing elsewhere in the universe. Mankind could be the result of following a generic blueprint, and one might speculate that alien civilisations could be somewhat similar if incubated in similar conditions. Does this mean that out there in another space and time, there are creatures we might recognize as brothers? Accepting for the moment that life does exist in many and various forms throughout our universe, how similar to humans must these lifeforms be in order to achieve the same special status attributed to our species?
In the same way that we analyse how our physical world can be driven by rules, we need to also question what might drive the less-physical aspects of our existence. Patterns of collective behaviour certainly play a part in the way any civilisation ultimately performs and survives. Are there rules written to guide this behaviour? If we understood these rules long ago, could we have predicted the future as we live it today?
As we gain ever-increasing knowledge about our place in things cosmological, it becomes clear that 'forever' may be unachievable. Most religions have at their heart the idea that there might be ways to extend some form of participation, well beyond the allotted span. Part of what makes us human, gains comfort in believing there is some continuity. And any religion which builds on that to create a better life this time around, must be considered of benefit.
Somewhere along the path to consciousness and intelligence, mankind developed a serious flaw of perception. There developed a tendency to take everything personally – the “Why me?” syndrome. When considering the human race as a whole, it must be remembered that we're playing a zero-sum game – there are an equal number of winners and losers. If you find yourself on the losing team during a particular game, you might try to identify some bias in the rules that worked to your disadvantage. The rules of nature have no bias whatsoever. Man, through various religious models, introduces a bias in the form of a God that supports one team in preference to another. The counter to this is quite simple – invent a new god that is on your side.
Many religious naysayers see the inability to shake hands directly with the 'Creator', as being a challenge to credibility. That is not necessarily a key requirement for benefits to flow to society or to an individual. We have very little understanding about the interaction of rules governing the physical and mental health of the human animal. Psychological well-being may play a much greater role in physical health than has been generally recognized until recently.
Some branches of belief subscribe to the idea that all life forms were created at virtually the same time, by divine intervention, and have followed a predetermined path to the situation that exists today – Creationism ( Creationism ). This concept requires that every life, including our own, had a detailed blueprint from the start. There are some parallels between the rule-driven philosophy promoted in this book, and the concept of Creationist-blueprints, but a serious question arises about the level of detail that such blueprints might entail. Not only does Creationism pose a serious challenge to Darwin's theory-of-evolution, it is also at odds with the notion that mankind could be a chance result from the endless application of generic rules since time began.
Assuming that any particular individual deserves or receives special treatment, ignores the premise that all laws were drafted long ago and apply equally to all parties. Taking the personal approach of a one-on-one session with the Creator, may well have psychological benefits. Unfortunately, the guy next to you could be appealing for an outcome that is totally at odds with the one you have requested. If you both happen to be talking to the same Creator, then it is quite unlikely you both end up satisfied with the result. Perhaps a more realistic approach is to accept that the rules were originally drafted for a level playing field. Again, as a result of probabilistic outcomes along the way, the playing field could have become less level at some time. Inequality and inequity are inevitable because of the unstable equilibrium between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots'.
Conflicts often arise because of different perspectives for Religion and Science. Much of this conflict might be explained by looking broadly at the models for each. Religious models tend to rely on a 'top-down' approach, where each component is dissected to gain insight into its function and purpose. The results from this dissection form a lower level, which then become subject to further analysis and break-down. Science employs a 'bottom-up' technique where observations and theories from many disciplines are compiled to create the next higher level of knowledge. Both of these processes have no clearly defined endpoint that might suggest an ultimate answer.
Our existence is governed by an incredibly complex and beautiful set of rules. Does it really make a difference if they came from 'god', or were always in place? This argument will be philosopher-fodder until time ends.