“I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world.” – Richard Dawkins
Before we begin a journey to search for our dharma or look for purpose in our life, it is essential we answer the first of the questions that I raised in my previous article. Is there any purpose in this Universe, or is it just an arbitrary space with a lot of matter and energy banging around? Was it just by chance that over millions of years, intelligent organisms evolved ‒ ones with an unnecessarily inflated sense of self-esteem, who then start looking for a purpose behind everything ‒ where none exists? There are two worldviews which dominate the human psyche in regard to the above question, and I intend to explore these two in this article and the next.
The first of these views is that we are all created out of chance interactions of matter and energy, and these are the only real things in this Universe (and these, i.e., energy and matter, are interchangeable as Einstein demonstrated at the beginning of the 20th century). Further, all these interactions are governed by fixed laws which science is discovering, and soon we will be able to calculate what the future of the Universe is going to be with a very high level of accuracy. This is a materialist, mechanist and deterministic viewpoint.
This view basically does not want to introduce the concept of a creator or any sort of intelligent design (which would imply purpose). If there was a creator, then the creator has started the process and now left it to fixed laws for the Universe to evolve on its own. The creator or the intelligent designer is now no longer relevant. Lastly, since everything is working as per predefined laws, and matter per se is insentient, anything that happens can be predetermined. This is called a deterministic universe. So in short, we live in a purposeless and deterministic universe. This view has gotten its maximum push from the advancement of science.
Science has been the leading force in our society over last few centuries. After many centuries of domination of human psyche by religion, science arrived on the scene in the late 17th century, and since then it has been a tour de force, completely capturing our minds and lives. Today we believe that science has most of the answers, if not all. So, what is science telling us about the universe that we inhabit?
Science tells us that we are a very small speck in this enormous Universe. We inhabit a small, insignificant planet in a huge solar system dominated by the Sun. The Sun itself is an insignificant and relatively small star in the huge Milky Way Galaxy, which houses 400 million stars. The Milky Way is just one of the galaxies among 2 trillion galaxies in the visible Universe. This only goes to show how insignificant we are in this enormous Universe. To think that we exist for a deeper purpose sounds like an inflated view of ourselves, say the scientists. Why would any intelligent designer create such a supermassive structure to have such a limited quantum of intelligent life on an obscure planet, they ask.
Further, science has come to understand many pieces of biological evolution and has established beyond doubt that all living things on the planet are related to one another and have, in all probability, evolved from the same first single spec of life. The first spec of life, a self-replicating entity which tried to preserve its identity (to remain alive), was a pure, chance formation ‒ given the existence of organic compounds (molecules having long chains of carbon and hydrogen in them) and the right external environmental conditions, is what the scientists claim. The process of biological evolution has been established as a very effective process of chance variations (or mutations) followed by natural selection through survival of the fittest, producing all this biodiversity that we see. It leaves no room for a creator or an intelligent designer. Science has indeed been very effective in taking God or any intelligent designer out of the conversation.
The biggest impact of science on our psyche, has been its ability to use all its understanding of the physical world to design and produce in mass quantities, various gadgets and appliances which we use to make our lives easier. It has given us enormous control over our surroundings. It has demonstrated that all that our ancestors saw as miracles and acts of God are nothing but natural phenomena, which are very easy to forecast and easy to manipulate to our benefit. For example, scientists can now predict the exact time and date of a solar eclipse accurately hundreds of years in advance! To a person in the middle ages, this itself would look like an act of God. Science has indeed become the new God of our current times.
Science has convinced us that this whole creation is like a machine which runs on some fixed rules and laws, which we are in the process of discovering. Some scientists believe that soon we will have all the equations which run the Universe in our hands, and this coupled with all the ever-increasing computing power in the world, will enable us to predict and forecast the future to almost 100% accuracy. This will ultimately give us 100% control over nature, and hence control over our future, so some believe.
Our basic mindset has become that of understanding everything around us, and then putting it to use for either making life easier for ourselves or providing entertainment and pleasure. We get better every passing moment at harnessing all the possibilities of this chance creation to our advantage. Actually, we are so focused on our own safety, comfort, and pleasure that we don’t give a damn about how we are treating our whole ecosystem. Unluckily, science has given us all the tools of exploitation, and we are really going overboard on using, pursuing this path so relentlessly that we are endangering the existence of life itself on this planet.
To give some perspective of timelines of evolution of life on earth, dinosaurs ruled the planet for an immensely long period of 165 million years, while we homo sapiens have been around for only 0.3 million years. In such a short time, we have been able to generate so many nuclear weapons that we can destroy all multicellular life on earth many times over! While we try to control nature to our benefit, we destroy it at such a fast pace that even imagining the human race to last sustainably for 1 million years (which is 3 times our current time on the planet) seems farfetched, let alone matching the 165 million years of the dinosaurs! It is important to note that most of this environmental destruction has happened in the last two centuries, and every passing year the quantum of impact only increases.
We’ve arrived at this unhappy stage largely because we believe our Universe is a product of chance, which we are trying our hardest to take control of and manage to our best advantage. Everything has commercial value, and everything has some use, and we have no compunctions to put it to use. We see everything external of us as independent entities, to be manipulated for our benefit. Science and its amazing success over the last couple of centuries is very much responsible for this fundamental belief now well established in us. We also refer to this view as the materialistic view, or mechanist or physicalist view of reality. As per this view, our consciousness and our ability to experience things and find meaning in things is just another tool which we developed as we evolved. It is more like a byproduct of evolution and not something fundamental. Matter and its interactions are fundamental.
But is there an alternate worldview? I explore this in the next article!