Mar 1, 2023
“What sort of God would throw candy wrappers on a pristine beach? I mean, burning someone at the stake, well maybe, but littering, no way!”
It’s time for me to return to my home planet in the Andromeda Galaxy. For over a year now, I’ve been researching intelligent life on Earth and documenting suspected occurrences.
I think I’ve done good work here, but I know my superiors are going to want a lot more from me than just a collection of anecdotes. They’ll want to know what intelligent life forms on Earth think about themselves and Universe and their place in that universe; and frankly, I’m at a loss to know what to tell them.
Got a minute? Can I explain my conundrum? Maybe you can help! For the most part, Earthlings agree on the ‘data’, what happened and when, but the way they interpret that data sorts them into two possibly irreconcilable camps.
First, the data: At the birth of time itself, an event occurred which everyone affectionately calls ‘Big Bang’. Then in the first fraction of a nanosecond, that universe ‘inflated’ by a factor of 10^26…to the size of a small marble. Over the next three seconds, all the forces of attraction and repulsion and all the known subatomic particles, in other words all the building blocks of the universe, precipitated.
The Universe cooled from 10^32 degrees Kelvin all the way down to a chilly 10^9, still 100,000 times hotter than Earth’s Sun, but below its own ‘dew point’; and below its dew point, the universe rains fermions and bosons. Crazy, right? Well, hang on, we’re just getting started.
As you know, the universe is incredibly fine-tuned. It depends on dozens of apparently unrelated parameters; a variation of less than 1% in the quantitative value of any one of these parameters would have aborted the universe sometime during its first three seconds.
Over the next 14 billion years or so, the universe ‘gradually’ expanded to its current size (45 billion light years across); the subatomic particles and their related forces combined to form elements, then molecules, then galaxies, and finally, black holes.
The first three seconds were incredibly eventful! Then, nothing much happened for the next 10 billion years. Oh, galactic sheets formed along with stars, planets, and moons; new, heavier elements emerged, and together with hydrogen, combined to form an inconceivably vast array of molecules, exhibiting many bizarre and unexpected properties. In other words, yada, yada, yada…
Then came the next Big Day! I call it ‘Big Bang 2’. A little less than 4 billion years ago, precursor molecules (organic) combined to form the first (and only) living organism; et voila, biogenesis. Biogenesis happened almost as suddenly as cosmogenesis. One day lifeless, next day life! No wonder Earthlings are dizzy!
At least as far as Earthlings know, reproductive ‘life’ can only occur in the presence of DNA, a single molecule painstakingly assembled from a ‘string’ (actually a ‘double helix’) of molecules. DNA is made up of just 4 molecules, bases, arranged ‘vertically’ in triplets and ‘horizontally’ in pairs. No big deal, right?
Except that an average DNA molecule consists of three billion base pairs. A change in the composition or position of a single base pair may (or may not) impact the phenomenal characteristics of the host organism. So, kind of a big deal, after all!
So far, so good, right? But here’s where things start to get interesting. Some Earthlings believe that ‘life’ arose independently on many different planets and moons across many different galaxies; they tend to underestimate the nearly incalculable precision required to generate a single living organism.
Others believe that life evolved only once…on Planet Earth; they tend to underestimate the vastness and variety of the universe. Of course, Earthlings have no access to any real evidence either way.
Here’s where you’d like me to step in and give my ‘study subjects’ additional information that might help clear things up for them but, of course, I can’t do that: I am prohibited by the Prime Directive from sharing any information with Earthlings that they have not already discovered on their own. I’m told, “Lose lips implode galaxies!” So my lips, unfortunately, must remain sealed.
So this welter of seemingly disconnected ‘facts’ forms what Earthlings call their ‘Standard Model’ (of cosmogenesis and of biogenesis). These ‘models’ are widely accepted; but their interpretation is an entirely different matter.
Sidebar: While most Earthlings accept the Standard Model, some prefer a version of that model that telescopes the entire process down to 7 days. Potato…potato!
Now things get interesting. Consensus turns to conflict, sometimes armed combat, once the discussion moves from science to philosophy. So far, we’ve focused on the ‘what and when’ of things…that’s the easy part; but now that we’re starting to look at the ‘how and why’, it’s a very different story. Here, seemingly, the human population splits into two apparently irreconcilable camps.
One crowd takes the science at face value. It is what it is. There’s no need to look further. Universe just is! WYSIWYG: What you see is what you get. We’ve pushed the envelope to the limit of its elasticity. In the language of Earth’s scholastic philosophers, Universe is causa sui. It has no proper cause; it is the product of no agency. You are your own grandmother. Shut up and enjoy! Or not, suit yourself.
Perhaps this is the only possible universe (the Anthropic Principle), or perhaps it is the best of all possible universes (Leibniz), but in fact, no one knows, and no one can know, and no one could do anything about it if they did know. So all you can say is: This is how it is!
The other camp takes a very different view of the same data. “Causa sui…phooey!” Obviously, something as complex as Universe must be the result of an intentional act by a supremely creative intellect. Earthlings usually refer to this ‘creative intellect’ as ‘God’.
The ‘God Hypothesis’, as I call it, is potentially useful; but perhaps it raises as many problems as it solves. Who is this God, and why did he exercise his creative intellect in just this way? If this impossibly intricate universe is the product of a creative intelligence, why is everything so messed up? That question splits itself into two versions. The first is the age-old Problem of Evil.
As I write this report, tens of thousands of human beings have just died horrible deaths as the result of an earthquake in Turkey. Many were crushed to death, others smothered, others buried alive. The ‘lucky’ survivors had to wait to be rescued, immobilized and without food or water for as much as a week.
If Universe is the intentional act of a creative intelligence, is that intelligence malevolent? As in Earthlings’ Book of Job, should God be brought to the dock to face charges of Crimes Against Humanity? (If you’re interested in the outcome of this ‘trial of the millennium’, I recommend an article in Issue #1 of Aletheia Today Magazine, "The Riddle of Job.")
But I don’t want to get into the ‘Problem of Evil’ right now. If you’re interested, check out "The Problem of Good." also in Issue #1 of Aletheia Today Magazine. In any event, it is the less challenging version of our problem.
The second version is of much greater concern. If God is benevolent and created Universe, why did he do such a lousy job? I’m passing over God’s alleged crimes against humanity so that I can focus on a much more serious crime, cosmically speaking, the crime of Littering.
What sort of God would throw candy wrappers on a pristine beach? I mean, burning someone at the stake, well maybe, but littering, no way!
Sidebar: What’s happening to me? Have I spent so much time on Earth that its values (or lack thereof) are rubbing off on me? What does it say about me that I condemn careless inefficiency over intentional cruelty?
Anyway, according to the Standard Model, genesis is nothing but a bunch of wrong turns. It’s like a stopped clock – it’s only right twice a day. 24 hours of noise gets you two bits of information!
For example, genes mutate randomly. Almost all such mutations are harmful to the host species and therefore do not pass on to future generations.
Once in a great while, a particular combination of mutations works to produce a new phenomenal characteristic that confers a selective advantage on its host species. Such mutations may be conserved and passed on.
The universe as is cannot possibly be the intentional product of a creative and benevolent intelligence… unless that intelligence has done a brilliant job of covering its tracks. But if so, for what purpose? Just to fool the already cognitively impaired members of Homo sapiens?
So, I am faced with the fact that Earthlings understand the common data in two diametrically opposed ways. The Standard Model, by itself, is hardly convincing, and it’s anything but beautiful. Some Earthling once wrote, “Beauty is truth and truth beauty.” If that’s so, goodbye Standard Model! Where’s Occam’s Razor when you’re so desperately in need of a shave?
At first glance, the so-called ‘God Hypothesis’ looks more appealing. For one thing, it allows for the operation of real, objective values (e.g., Beauty, Truth, and Justice) in the creation and maintenance of Universe. It allows Einstein to claim, rightly or wrongly, that Universe has a built-in bias toward Good.
For another thing, it solves the problem of ‘particularity’ – how is it that something as precisely tuned as the cosmos and the biocosm came to be just the way it is? The answer is simple, “God made it that way.” But if so, why does it look like it came about by blind chance?
As if this were not enough, I have another problem! Earthlings have a useful epistemological principle that could apply here; it takes various forms: “Actions speak louder than words; by their fruits you shall know them," etc.
In other words, don’t tell me what you believe; show me! Is Universe the product of spontaneous generation, i.e., a random, purposeless accident? Or is it the brainchild of an intelligent, powerful, benevolent Creator? Naively, one would expect that people in Camp #1 would behave somewhat differently from those in Camp #2 – and so they do…but only on the margins.
There are living members of genus nihilist, as there are of genus credulous. The problem is, there are only a few of each.
The actions of the vast majority of human beings don’t betray an allegiance to either ideology. Some label themselves ‘theist, idealist, spiritual’; others prefer ‘atheist, materialist, secular’. Can you tell me who is in which group by examining the way they live their lives? I can’t!
Avowed theists are capable of unimaginable cruelty. Avowed atheists are capable of incredible charity. Absent, the one-percent at either end of the spectrum, people don’t seem to care one way or the other about these issues. They deny the existence of God but behave like Mother Theresa; or they affirm the existence of God but behave like Josef Stalin.
To the extent they care at all, human beings seem to wall off their cosmological ‘beliefs’ from their terrestrial ‘duties’: Church is for Sundays while business…is ‘just business’. Or do I have it backwards? Should I have said, ‘cosmological duties’ and ‘terrestrial beliefs’? Either way, there’s a disconnect.
I am particularly intrigued by older Earthlings, many of them retired from what they call ‘the daily grind’. As far as I can tell, most of them are spending their final years perfecting their golf swings, travelling to exotic destinations, or seeking out hidden culinary gems. Few see ‘financial freedom’ as an opportunity to turn their attention from the ridiculous to the sublime.
Recently, many have taken to enshrining their post-retirement activities in the form of something they call a bucket list, a compendium of things they hope to experience before...
You’re 75 years old and now you want to see the Grand Canyon? Why? To check it off some imaginary list? To say you’ve seen it? After all, you’ve lived on Earth for 75 years. How can it be that you haven’t even seen the Grand Canyon, or eaten a meal in Paris, or shopped in a Kasbah! What a waste of a life…or not!
The best explanation I can come up with is that Earthlings regard their lives as ‘works of art’. Prior to age 25, they are priming the canvass. From 25 to 65, they lay in the broad strokes. After 65, it’s time to add the finer details.
To what end? Have they even read their own poets? “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings; look upon my works ye mighty and despair…nothing beside remains.” (Shelley)
What is the purpose of this finished product humans call ‘a life’? It’s not for God, they’ve ruled that out; and it’s not for others, obviously. People seem hell-bent on making themselves for themselves. The competition characteristic of the commercial realm spills over into the existential. I am ‘better than you’ if I have ‘more’ experiences than you.
But what does it mean to ‘have more experiences’ than someone else? Longer life? (Is life an endurance contest?) More variety? (Is life a travelog?) Greater intensity? (Or should I say, “Cheap Thrills”)?
I heard one person describe life as making memories: but memories for what? Making memories, some no doubt painful, that will shortly be erased? Is life a punishment? (A ‘bad boy’ is made to write 25 humiliating sentences on a blackboard, and then later that same day is made to erase them.)
I am told that once upon a time, things were different: humans regularly devoted their later years to prayer, study, and various spiritual practices. Well, no more! Teenagers talk freely about ‘the meaning of life’, but not seniors! In fact, it is considered déclassé for an older person to raise such concerns, even in casual conversation. It is considered morbid, a memento mori for a society that has effectively lost sight of its mortality.
So, I must report that human beings are split into two diametrically opposed factions when they consider ‘the ultimate question’: what’s it all about, Alfie? (Title of a movie from the 1960s.) But must I also report that they don’t really care about the answer? For the most part, they live their lives as they want to live them, with no regard for where those lives fit into the totality of things. Curious, don’t you think?
This is the spot where you’re wondering if I know something that you don’t. Come on, admit it! Well, maybe I do and maybe I don’t, but either way, as you know, I can’t tell you. I am prohibited by the Prime Directive from sharing any information that might prompt folks to change their behavior. So I’m afraid you’ll have to figure things out for yourselves…if there’s anything to figure out…and I’m not saying there is!
BTW, I appreciate the hospitality you’ve shown me throughout my stay. I’ll find a way to muddle through my report. In the meantime, my thanks to all of you…and good luck with your quest!
Image: Perseus and Andromeda (1720). Hendrick Jacob Hoet (c. 1693–1733). Credit: The Bowes Museum.
David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at email@example.com.