Disappearing up our own black holes…
“What then, is the meaning of it all? What can we say to dispel the mystery of existence? If we take everything into account, not only what the ancients knew, but all of what we know today that they didn’t know, then I think that we must frankly admit that we do not know. But, in admitting this, we have probably found the open channel.” (Richard Feynman)
This is one of Professor Brian Cox’s favourite quotes and it’s easy to see why, as it is a deeply profound, even humble statement. We can understand why he uses it at the start of his latest tour, exploring the universe, meaning and ourselves.
Brian Cox is a rising star in the world of science and media. His books, TV shows and talks are extremely popular. He’s likeable, gentle-minded and he even used to be a pop-star, what’s not to like? And his talks seem to make so much sense. They offer a humble, scientific approach to discovering meaning to our lives. As an example, his latest talks address a very profound question,
“What does it mean to live a small, fragile and finite life in an infinite universe?”
Professor Cox suggests that this may be, “The only interesting question!”It certainly is an interesting question! So when I read about his talks and this question in an article, I thought I’d stop and listen.
The “interesting question,” displays quite honestly the seeming contradiction that exists between two very different scientific propositions:
(1) Our lives are small, fragile and finite
(2) We live in an infinite universe.
Given (2) is a “fact of science,” then surely our lives must have no lasting, over-arching, “meaning.” Professor Cox admits this, indeed he himself does not believe that there is any, “global meaning,” to our lives. Yet what he offers in its place is that our lives have meaning and value, simply because they are so rare and yet they exist! He says…
“I argue that meaning exists BECAUSE we exist. I don’t think there’s any such thing as ‘global meaning’ – I think that meaning is local and emergent and temporary. But, let’s say that in the Milky Way Galaxy, Earth is the only planet with a civilisation on it – which is quite possible. I’d argue from a biological perspective that means that this planet is the only place where meaning exists in the Milky Way. And that, for me, is sublime.”
The odds of life are so rare, and the existence of life in the universe being (so far) limited to one small blue-green planet, means that life is precious. And from this preciousness flows our value and meaning. Coming to terms with our tiny place in a huge galaxy is how we achieve a sense of peace in this life that we live.
“I think that we are extremely valuable. And I think that coming to terms with the facts that our lives are small and finite in both space and time, that’s where you find the sublime. If there’s any such thing as the meaning of life, it’s coming to accept that. In my view, the laws of nature force us to accept that we cannot be immortal.”
He also argues, from physics, particles and Einstein’s theory of relativity, that there is no genuine free will or choice, and that instead, we are simply products of the events that make up our lives.
“There is no room for it [free will] in physics as we understand it. It’s deterministic… That’s just the way it is… We’re just a sequence of events that make up our lives.”
I like Professor Cox. I think he has a gentle manner and a genuinely humble attitude to science, life and also other world views. And his writings seem to be often quite humble and very thoughtful. Yet, sadly, I am left thinking that his views are basically the latest secular attempt at, “whistling in the dark.” Let me explain…
At its roots, his views are a very simple smoke-screen (unintentional) behind which atheists attempt to hide from the huge cosmic monsters, called, “ultimate meaning” and “personal significance.” And like all attempts to hide under the duvet from monsters, it is self-deluded.
Take for example his attempt to reconcile our finitude and transience with the seeming infinity and eternity (at least relative to us) of our universe. He acknowledges the contradiction, and admits that for him personally, there is no, ‘global meaning.’ But his alternative, “local, emergent and temporary,” meaning seems like a very hollow substitute. On what basis can we simply say, “This has meaning, because it exists?” or “This has meaning, because it is alive?” Why should something have meaning simply because it fulfils the rather obvious criteria of being a thing that exists? In that sense, of course, everything has meaning of some sort, even non-living objects.
And WHO gives the meaning? Do we give ourselves meaning? Yet, how can we, who are ourselves simply products of random particles, relativity and time give meaning to anything? Given that we are simply the sum of the events that happen to us (deterministically) how can anything we do or say give meaning to anything we experience? Surely the best we can hope to achieve is to simply LABEL events with names? (This suffering happening to me is called Cancer, or This event in my life is called marriage. This emotion I feel because of my marriage, I shall call, “joy!” etc.) In the end, sadly, Cox’s theories can only reduce everything down to the level of events.
I acknowledge that IF you believe we live in a cold, deterministic universe, and IF you accept that you are simply a product of particles, time and chance, then probably the BEST you can hope for is to simply, stoically accept your fate as a tiny speck of dust blown by random solar winds. If you want to call this, “meaning,” then I cannot stop you of course, but it’s not really any meaning in a meaningful way that I recognise. And it certainly won’t help you when cancer takes your beloved partner or child.
Thankfully, another true scientist offers us hope. (I use the word, “scientist,” here to mean somebody who knows facts about the world, and who lives his life in the light of objective facts.) That person is Jesus Christ. In Christ, we are offered a personal universe, made by a loving Father.
- A world-view that explains why we long for meaning (we are made in God’s image).
- A world-view that explains why life sucks (we are cut off from God and damaged by our sin)
- A world-view that explains how meaning can be found (we confess the truth of ourselves to God and he rescues us through the life, death and resurrection of his Son)
- A world-view that rescues us from the prison of materialism and forces us to admit that all of us are immortal and will face God one day; either as Judge or Father.
Here is meaning. And hope. And the Sublime. But don’t expect to see it on the BBC.
NB: The original article that got me interested in Brian Cox’s latest tour, and from where these quotes are taken.