Saturday, September 04, 2010

DIARY 129 - Inhabiting a Godless Universe

So, Stephen Hawkings has brought down from the mountains of scientific authority, a new tablet of cosmic belief. The world evolved without any help from God, Gods or Goddesses, but by the power of gravity. An idea which, even to my inexpert eyes, seems a trifle feeble, an incomplete and hence unconvincing philosophy. None the less, I can see the many colours of theism already scurrying around for a way to refute his assertion.

Richard Dawkin's espousal of evolution in recent years, has been met with some nifty pseudo-scientific verbal footwork by Christian fundamentalists. The term 'intelligent design' is a neat phrase, your sympathies rise without you ever having to know whether it really hangs together as a philosophy. If you were to seek out a spokesperson to champion atheism, Dawkins would probably not be your first choice. Like the humanist Ludovic Kennedy before him, Dawkins has as cantankerous persona, often teetering on the verge of apoplexy. The veracity or not of his argument to one side, Dawkins presents his beliefs in a teacherlymanner, that is as self-satisfied, and smugly patronising as any street evangelist, and equally toe-curling. One can be forgiven for thinking when he refers to believers in God, that he's not talking about fellow members of his own human race, but some sort of sub-species that must be systematically eradicated. I can feel myself wanting to rushing to the defence of the theistic underdog, to protect them from the unfortunate fascistic triumphalism of his scientific orthodoxy. This does atheism as a belief system a disservice, making it no better or worse than its theistic cousins.

Atheism appears then, to not to make you any more tolerant, kind or understanding of different views, than its theistic opponents. Which makes one realise that the sins attributed to organised religions, are really just common human responses of insecurity, defensiveness, righteousness and potency finding an external focus for there worst expression. We misplace, and fail to take full responsibility for this when we single out organised religions alone, for damning opprobrium. Humankind tends towards holding beliefs, whether religious, political or cultural, with rigid inflexibility, that lurches toward cruel compulsion when ever it meets non compliance. We don't necessarily avoid or negate this outcome by disavowing religious, political, or cultural affiliations, whether organised or not.

Hawkings is a completely different kettle of fish to Dawkins, a compassionate man, who is probably the most influential theoretical physicist and cosmologist of his generation, Dawkins, by comparison, seems a mere reformulator of established theory. Hawkings being chronically disabled, easily wins hands down the public's sympathy. For obvious reasons not an eloquent speaker, we do, however, seem to be prepared to listen to him, as he's an effective explainer of the dense complexity of theoretical physics. If he has achieved anything, its that he has brought back a cosmic dimension to our view of ourselves and our place in the universe. But his assertions, like any others, shouldn't be automatically approved, and passed unchecked.

Singling out gravity as a progenitor of the universe, as a substitute for a deity, just isn't as yet going to convince anyone. From the perspective of Prattiya Samutpada (the conditioned arising of all phenomena) gravity undoubtedly is a major conditioning factor without which all matter and life would not cohere. As it is, we are still left with the unanswerable question - where that gravity itself originates from? Perhaps if we live in a creatorless, Godless Universe, we can't continue looking to conditioning phenomena for an answer. At some point we have to posit 'something' that is unconditioned, is conditionless, which the theists may still say is God anyway, and so will not resolve this issue. Whether God or gravity is attributed the role as creator of the world we live in, we are still left with the sense of a flawed philosophy, partial and incomplete views that fails to fully match the distinct shape of Reality. This is where an Enlightened perspective would be essential.

The Buddha's perspective was that this whole question of the origins of the universe, and by implication the existence, or not, of a creator God, was an imponderable one. A question that doesn't necessarily get resolved, or become clearer by repeatedly being asked, is of dubious value. There appears to be no irrefutable answer that will conclusively silence everyone on this matter. So expending further intellectual energy on it is not the best use of our valuable finite lifetime.

Such imponderable questions distract us from dealing with more urgent issues, the tangible origins of our suffering; our desire for immortality, satisfaction, and self fulfillment. Suffering is the existential ground of human experience, it doesn't vanish because there is, or is not, a creator God. If anything a creator God makes the theological rationale behind suffering more convoluted, disingenuous, fidgety, and hence unconvincing. It is hard for humans to take full responsibility, to grasp that we suffer because we live our lives out of sync with basic universal principles, those the Buddha said were dependent on Conditioned Arising - the Three Laksanas - impermanence - unsatisfactoriness - and the insubstantiality of our conceptions of a fixed self. These have nothing to do with gravity, and everything to do with the fluctuations, the changeable streams and giddy fits of Universal Reality.

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