Bailout Required in the Business of Belief

By Novar Caine

Few among us care to have our beliefs challenged. It crashes the cosy cloak with which we insulate our lives. Whether it’s the political party we vote for or the everyday choices and decisions we make, it is devastating to have our faiths and convictions rocked, with a hint they may be crushed and leave us flailing about in a frantic scramble for some sort of anchor. Nowhere is this truer than in our shaky confidence in why we are alive and where we are, supposedly if at all, headed.

Astrophysicist Stephen Hawking likens the mind – the spirit, the character – to software that runs the hardware – the brain – and when the scanning arm of the hard drive crumbles due to disease or age the computer programme too ends. It’s a tasty crumb for the popular mind by a whittle-down populist scientist whose publishers demand bare bones. And why not, when everyone, not just the theoretical intelligentsia, has a stake? But as with flavoursome morsels it leaves us yearning for more: Does the software live on past the cranial sell-by-date?

In The Grand Design, Hawking’s latest book and co-written with colleague Leonard Mlodinow, God is usurped in the perpetual battle between science and faith. The laws of nature are enough to have caused the galaxies’ existence, which brought about mankind’s arrival, the authors argue.

“One can’t prove that God doesn’t exist, but science makes God unnecessary,” Hawking, who we can conclude does not directly believe in God, has said. Having examined the emerging celestial evidence, Hawking has decided there was no supernatural, omnipotent designer. That is not to suggest, however, that whatever forces brought our worlds into existence 13.75 billion years ago were not the knock-on reaction effects of earlier creations devised by a supreme being.

Indeed, for the authors, it is the force of gravity that not only keeps us grounded but is responsible for us being here. They write:

“Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

The theory gives more plausible rise to the conjecture of quantum foam, the posited soap-bubble-like connectors of a multiverse of immeasurable universes that may be popping into existence – much like the subatomic quark – and expanding and contracting before forming themselves into a reborn space.

These biggest questions of our existence were on stage in Canada late last month when former British prime minister Tony Blair, a believer in religious faith who converted from Protestantism to Catholicism three years ago, and atheist Christopher Hitchens debated whether religion was a force for good in the world. Hitchens is dying from oesophageal cancer but remains steadfast in his conviction that humans are a kind of evolutionary accident and to live your life thinking there is an all-seeing, caring God looking down on you is delusionary.

How terrifying it is to realise that the greatest disappointment you will ever face is that we truly are alone, awash in the greatness of space and time, a dumbstruck dread perfectly rendered in Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

Blair lost the God debate, but then it was held in a liberal country with a sizeable university-student contingent in the audience. Hitchens told the packed crowd that we are “imperfect primates living in an unimportant part of the universe.” And so, according to this line, we are a species that is irrelevant to the workings of the worlds but that deems itself the vastly important centre of the universe. The ultimate absurdity.

If we are part-evolved, however, that state does not solve the problem of human consciousness. Insofar as we know, people are the only creatures on Earth capable of critical thinking about our existence, to the extent that we see ourselves as eternal entities presently experiencing a stage of our development. There is, of course, no evidence whatsoever for this, which is why the belief business conveniently fills the gap. That faith intrinsically is based on a lack of physical evidence, where empirical fact is suspended, is precisely what makes it so difficult. It is equally hard to not put stock in the scriptures.

So should we surrender and blindly hope for the best; or should we employ our thought faculties and try to work it out for ourselves? Is there any middle ground at all? But in the duel between science and faith, and their effects, religion is among the most morally bankrupt institutions there are. Is it therefore immoral to follow?

Even so, there may be more in the heavens than we will ever know, and for a rising number of people, faith alone is not enough.

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