Atheism and the Sweet Mystery of Life

Sweet mystery of life
“What does Dr. Bloody Bronowski know about it?”

“He knows everything!”

“Oh, I wouldn’t like that. It’d take all the mystery out of life.”

It takes all the mystery out of life. This is an argument that sometimes gets made against the atheist/ materialist/ naturalist view of life. Naturalism is too reductionist, the argument goes. By seeking to explain the universe in terms of physical cause and effect, and in seeking to understand that physical cause and effect in increasingly greater breadth and detail, naturalism ultimately seeks to explain and understand everything. And that would be bad. We need some mystery. Mystery — unanswered and unanswerable questions — are a central part of what makes us human. Without it, our life would be bleak and empty, with a yearning that can never be satisfied… because there’s nothing left out there to satisfy it.

And religion, supposedly, offers that mystery. The belief in that which cannot be perceived by the senses; the belief in immaterial entities or forces that somehow affect the world but that nobody perceives in the same way; the belief in a life after this one that that nobody’s ever returned from and nobody really knows anything about… all of this fills the human need for mystery, the need for questions we don’t know the answer to.

Okay. Deep breath.

Wishful Thinking billboard
First, I feel compelled to point out: This not an argument for why the spiritual view of the world is correct. This is an argument for why the spiritual view would be nice. It’s not offering any evidence or reason for why the spiritual world is real and has a real effect on the physical one. It’s a classic case of the argument from wishful thinking: “It would suck if there were no God — therefore, there is a God.”

But let’s take this argument on its own terms. Let’s pretend, for a moment, that the argument from wishful thinking has some validity. Let’s say that, if it could be shown that religion serves some social or psychological utility that can’t be addressed by any secular means (religion in general and the mystery of religion in particular), it would therefore be right to perpetuate it… even if it’s mistaken.

“We need religion because we need mystery” is still a terrible argument.

For starters: If you’re worried that we’re in danger of understanding everything about the universe, you can relax. We’re in no danger of that happening anytime soon. There’s an enormous number of unanswered questions remaining about the physical world — some of which are huge and profound. The two great ones of our era, in my opinion, are “What is the nature of consciousness?” and “Where did the universe come from?” (It’s one of the great frustrations of my life that I will most likely die before seeing these questions answered.) And there are thousands of other unanswered questions in every field of science: questions with answers that are closer to our grasp but that as yet still elude us.

What’s more, it’s in the nature of science that every answer we find seems to present more questions. For instance: We now understand the answer to a question that was unanswered for millennia: we now understand that the universe is not infinite, but is in fact finite in size (although pretty darned big). But the answer to that question inevitably leads to another question: Is there anything outside this universe? Are there more universes out there: are we just one universe in a multiverse, the way we’re just one planet in a star system, one star in a galaxy, one galaxy in a universe? (And if so — is that multiverse infinite, or is it limited in size as well?) Or when it comes to physical existence, is our universe the whole enchilada?

At the moment, we don’t have any way of even beginning to answer that question, or even of beginning to explore it. But we might someday. And when and if we do…. that’ll make for centuries, millennia probably, of further exploration, further unanswered questions for us to try to answer.

And it has been ever thus. When we figured out evolution and answered the question, “How did the vast and complex diversity of life come about?”, it led to thousands of new questions about how exactly evolution happens. When we discovered that our galaxy was only one of billions in the universe, it led to thousands of new questions about the nature of those galaxies. When we discovered atoms, it led to thousands of new questions about the nature of those atoms; ditto when we discovered the subatomic world. Some answers do eventually lead to dead ends — as I understand it, we have Newton’s Laws of Motion pretty well figured out — but it’s very common indeed for solved mysteries to open up still more unsolved ones.

But let’s pretend that we somehow come up with a Grand Unifying Theory of Everything. Let’s pretend that we somehow come up with perfect and complete explanations of the physical cause and effect of absolutely everything, from quarks to galaxies to the universe itself. Multiverse. Whatever.

Would this mean there’d be no mystery to life?

I say No.

Consider this. We know, reasonably well, how babies are made. In even more detail than the basics of “sperm and egg combine to make baby.” We know that when a sperm and an egg combine, the DNA in the fertilized egg provides a recipe for how the proteins behave, how they fold and unfold and divide and combine to eventually form into a human being. And we’re learning more every day, in ever- greater detail, about exactly how this process happens.

Yet the fact that this happens — the fact that entirely new people come into the world, people who once didn’t exist and now have their own consciousness and selfhood and personality and future and everything — is still enough to fill me with a gob-smacked sense of mystery and awe. In fact, the more I learn about genetics and the process of embryonic development, the more awestruck I become. Entire human beings, whose lives and selves are just as vivid to them as mine is to me — and they came out of nowhere! They didn’t exist — and now they do! DNA and Hox genes and all of that nifty embryonic development stuff… it made a person! Every time I look at my nieces and nephews and friends’ kids, the mere fact of their existence sends chills of amazement down my spine.

And that’s been true for every field of science I’ve learned about. The more I find out about the universe — the more I learn about matter that bends space, brains that produce thought, finches that evolve to drink blood, chemical bonds that create solidity out of mostly-empty matter, black holes that exist at the center of all spiral galaxies — the more I learn about all this, the more I’m left with my mouth hanging open in wonder at the bizarre, extraordinary, astronomically improbable coolness of it all. Understanding the world doesn’t remove the mystery of it, except in the most narrow and literal sense of the word. It enhances it.

And finally:

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that none of this is true. Let’s assume that the naturalist worldview someday manages to explain absolutely everything. And let’s assume that having everything explained would somehow be a terrible occurrence that sucked all the mystery and wonder out of life.

Brick Wall
Would deliberately blocking off some areas of inquiry — deliberately setting aside some questions that can never be answered — be a remotely appropriate way of preventing this tragedy?

Galileo telescope
Yes, unanswered questions are a crucial part of what makes us human. But that’s because we like to answer those questions. Humans are curious, restless, exploring animals. Mysteries are cool, not because ignorance is satisfying, but because solving those mysteries is satisfying.

So how would saying “We need to preserve some mysteries and unanswered questions” in any way solve this hypothetical calamity?

Doesn’t saying “This question can never have an answer” have the same effect as saying “This question now has an answer”? Doesn’t it have the effect of shutting off that yearning, that restless desire to look into the dark and wonder what’s out there? Doesn’t it cut off the sweet mystery of life, every bit as much as actually turning on the light? A closed door is a closed door: whether it’s closed because we opened it and looked inside and now know what’s there and don’t need to look again… or whether it’s closed because we choose not to open it.

If I’m wrong — if it turns out that atheism and materialism is mistaken, and that a supernatural view of the world is the right one — then that’s fine. If someone can demonstrate, with solid, carefully gathered, rigorously cross-checked evidence, that the Universe came into being by the hand of God, or that consciousness is animated by an immaterial soul — then I’ll admit I was wrong. And I’ll be as curious to explore the nature of the metaphysical world, its broad architecture and its fine details, as I am to explore the physical one.

But that’s not the conclusion the current evidence points to. The overwhelmingly obvious conclusion, pointed to by every good piece of evidence I’ve seen, is that the physical, natural world is all there is… and that all the things that seem immaterial, consciousness and selfhood and the ability to choose and so on, are really products of biological processes, physical cause and effect.

And I’m not going to reject that conclusion — and I’m not going to stop trying to persuade other people of it — just to preserve the sweet mystery of life. There is plenty of mystery in the natural world: mystery enough for a lifetime, for a trillion lifetimes. I’m not going to pretend that the world is not the way it really is — fascinating, awe-inspiring, profoundly bizarre, but ultimately a product of natural laws and of physical cause and effect — just because some people find it exciting to ponder the mystery of the darkness.

Atheism and the Sweet Mystery of Life
OrbitCon: The Orbit's online conference. Attend from anywhere.

9 thoughts on “Atheism and the Sweet Mystery of Life

  1. 1

    I think it’s somewhat relevant to point out that many people who will use this excuse don’t even seem to believe it themselves as they will trot out the catch-all “god did it” explanation to any question you care to ask them, or will claim that the bible contains all the answers to all questions. It’s peculiar to say the least.

  2. JL

    I must be an oddball in that I’ve never found that lack of knowledge of how things work makes them more exciting. I find them more exciting when I understand how they work. Perhaps this is what draws me to science.

  3. 4

    @JL: Nope, I don’t think that’s odd. I think there is a thrill about finding out new things, and by definition that originates with ignorance about them in the first place. It just depends on whether you are more inspired by the mystery itself, or solving the mystery.

  4. 5

    Some answers do eventually lead to dead ends — as I understand it, we have Newton’s Laws of Motion pretty well figured out — but it’s very common indeed for solved mysteries to open up still more unsolved ones.

    Oh, ha ha! Take it from a mechanical engineer working entirely in the domain of classical physics: there is a tremendous amount we don’t understand about how to use Newton’s Laws for our purposes. The Navier-Stokes equations are nothing more than a trivial special case of Newton’s Laws, but a general solution to those equations is a difficult enough problem to deserve a million-US-dollar prize.
    There is a huge amount to be discovered, have no fear.

  5. 6

    I’ve always found it amazing how people think you can only find awe and wonderment in things if you can regard them like an ignorant caveman scratching his head in confusion as he grips an animal femur. “Ook not know what shiny things in sky are. Ook think pretty!”
    I find plenty of awe and wonderment in thinking more deeply about things I have taken for granted. Like what we know about the stars. Yes, I’m sure there are all sorts of unanswered questions in that arena, but the question has been answered for all practical purposes for the common layman. At one point, they were gods, or the heralds of gods, which could be read and used to determine all sorts of things. Now we know enough about them that what made them mysterious to the average person is gone, so we take it for granted in a way our ancestors never really could. For the average person, that mystery is solved.
    I don’t always think about it either way when I look up–some part of my mind just registers it as I might a very high ceiling and not much more. But every so often, I really look up and think about what we know and what it actually means. I force myself to really consciously think about how that is all empty space, and it keeps going on–perhaps not infinitely, but certainly farther than I am able to readily comprehend–and I think about how far those stars really are and how some of them are so far that they could be dead and it will be millions of years after I am dust before that registers on this planet. I really try to understand that the moon is not some disc painted on a ceiling, but is actually a 3-dimensional sphere “hanging” out there in all that empty space. If you try to genuinely understand how big all that is, and really contemplate what we know without taking it for granted, you’ll be amazed at how much awe and wonder you can feel without a single bit of magic being invoked.
    So even though I know there are no gods, no magic fairies, no firmaments with god-messages affixed to them, I can still have awe and wonderment by really considering what we do know and contemplating more deeply on it.
    The same can be achieved with nearly every “solved” mystery. When I was a child, I used to get pretty whacked out meditating on the the fact of my own existence and consciousness amid the existence of everything around me–something that is easy to take for granted.

  6. 7

    Demonhype, thanks for that. Seriously. That was beautiful.
    And I can’t resist adding:
    “You may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space. Listen.”

  7. 8

    Thank you, Robin. I stand corrected. And it’s kind of comforting to know that there’s still more to learn about Newtonian mechanics.
    And Demonhype, I second Nurse Ingrid. That was beautiful. And I totally know what you mean. Knowing that there’s a black hole at the center of our galaxy; that matter is mostly empty space; that the Sun is a star just like the twinkly lights in the sky — and really, really thinking about it and contemplating it — is awesome. (Also, “Ook not know what shiny things in sky are. Ook think pretty!” made me laugh so loud it scared the cats.)

  8. 9

    I know this is an older posting, but one additional point comes to mind:

    Even if humanity as a whole some day “answers every question” (something I don’t believe is even remotely possible), that doesn’t mean that any individual person has any lack of “mysteries” (to them) to pursue and explore and learn and love within whatever subject area entices them.

    So lets say all the deep mysteries of (to pick a hopefully narrow example) orchid breeding are someday definitively answered (through direct gene manipulation, let’s say). All that does is throw wide the door of creativity/art of creating beautiful custom orchids (previously restrained by the limits of cross-breeding), enough for untold lifetimes of exploring, creating, learning, and sharing. Or even if you didn’t create your own varieties, you could probably still spend your entire life simply learning everything that other people have discovered about orchids.

    In fact, I would be surprised if we haven’t already exceeded the limit for how much a single person could learn about orchids (or any single narrow subject) in their lifetime.

    More knowledge (as a whole) simply gives each person a wider variety of choices for what gives them joy.

Comments are closed.