Need for Meaning to Existence


Salman Ahmed Shaikh

The twentieth century can well and truly be regarded as the century of modern science. Science has made us understand the physical world better and to make the ever-more effective use of matter around us. The comforts of life that a common person takes for granted were not available to even the Kings and the Royals of the past.

Nonetheless, along with advancements in science and technology, over 200 million people died in the last century in wars. On average, if 5,500 people die every day of a century, only then it will reach the figure of 200 million. Is extinction merely a rearrangement of molecules, even if it happens to humans via nuclear weapons? We need better humans, morality, values and a social contract that can make us live better, meaningful and fulfilling lives. The technological advancements do not make right as wrong or wrong as right. In fact, if values are undermined, then the same technology can be used for more destruction rather than for social benefit.

Using free will, we can use the moral screening provided by conscience to act in good ways. But, if I believe that this life is the only life, then why shall I use my limited time, income and abilities to help others? How can absolute justice be provided in the crime of genocide? Even in other crimes, with perfect monitoring, prosecution and law enforcement, the suffering caused is irreversible.

Our outlook to the universe will be different based on the meaning we attach to our relationship with the universe. From Physics perspective, extinction is merely a rearrangement of atoms, even if it happens to millions of humans via nuclear weapons.

Stephen Hawking once said: “We are the product of quantum fluctuations in the very early universe.” Neil deGrasse Tyson also remarked that it is likely that our entire existence is a program on someone else’s hard drive and that everything in our lives is just a creation of some other entity for their entertainment. The physical appearance of life can be studied as biological and chemical processes, but is life just all that?

Humans live in society and exercise their free will in socio-economic relations. Unlike the dials in a well-functioning clock which do not intersect, humans have the potential to be compassionate or not to be. But, why should I part with my time to help some stranger I might never meet again or for someone who lives miles away from me? Why should I part with my wealth if it is scarce, legally belongs to me and so nobody could question about what I would decide to do with it in life?

Science seeks cause-effect relations in physical realities. Mathematics is one of the tools to guide this search in complex relationships. Scientists exclusively focus on material processes. So, they only extract the deeper meaning as regularity and algorithm itself. Science can only help us thus far. The reflection on nature and its regularity around us requires a philosophical underpinning for deeper meaning.

Cooking is not chemistry and chemistry alone. When cooking starts, what ingredients are involved at the most indivisible level and how they mix together is part of reality. The second set of reality is who is cooking, why and for whom? The cook and hunger as part of reality are as much important as the knowledge of how the ingredients mix to become eventually a prepared ready-to-eat food. We drink so that we quench thirst. ‘Why’ in what happens is part of reality as much as ‘how it happens’. If a person asks who made the computer, the answer is not sufficient if it only describes the material and processes through which it was created. Seyyed Hossein Nasr writes:

“The idea of reductionism which is innate to modern science could be described as the reduction of the spirit to the psyche, the psyche to biological activity, life to lifeless matter and lifeless matter to purely quantitative particles or bundles of energy whose movements can be measured and quantified.[i]

Science concerns with ‘how it happens’. That is not the complete description of reality until we also know ‘why it happens’. Albert Einstein in his essay ‘Science and Religion’ writes:

“Knowledge of what is does not open the door directly to what should be. One can have the clearest and most complete knowledge of what is, and yet not be able to deduct from that what should be the goal of our human aspirations. Objective knowledge provides us with powerful instruments for the achievements of certain ends, but the ultimate goal itself and the longing to reach it must come from another source.”[ii]

The intellect with which we discover knowledge about the matter in physical sciences to answer the question of ‘What is’ and ‘How it is’ and the conscience with which we differentiate between right and wrong, are neither our own creation nor have they appeared by themselves. Electrical appliances function in full compliance with the mechanical and electromagnetic principles, but their existence is not the natural result of such natural laws alone.

Prof. Krause once said: “We find ourselves on this remote planet in a remote corner of the universe, endowed with intelligence and self-awareness. We should not despair, but should humbly rejoice in making the most of these gifts, and celebrate our brief moment in the sun.” Scientists study the minute aspects of hospitality in our visit to the world and have reached the conclusion that life exists on a knife’s edge. But, should we not accept and thank the host? Should we just spend all the time and energy in looking at the facilities provided by the host and their immaculate discipline and order? The laws of nature that we study exist independent of us. As guests in this finely tuned earth which requires life-supporting systems, can we reject the host by knowing and enjoying all the facilities? All that we have done with science is to be able to use the matter existing in the universe to make our lives more useful.

Lawrence Krauss in his book ‘A Universe from Nothing’ suggests that the universe came about from nothing and which may one day return to nothing via processes that may not only be comprehensible but also processes that do not require any external control or direction[iii]. But, George F. R. Ellis aptly asks: Why the laws of physics exist? Why they have the form they have? Prof. Dr. Pervez Hoodhbhoy’s in his Urdu book ‘Muslims and Science’ writes that Science does not have any explanation for the origins of these laws and it cannot reject the claim that these laws might have been decreed by a divine God. Even Stephen Hawking admits:

Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe.[iv]

Modern science has not created anything that does not exist in the universe. Rather, it has made use of matter which already exists in the universe. The properties in matter exist not because humans have created them.

Science is knowledge established by observation and experimentation through an objective process. Scientific knowledge substantiates that the design, variety and balance found in the universe is complex, intricate and detailed. Science tries to disentangle useful knowledge about the matter so that this knowledge can be put to effective use. But, science cannot be an arbiter in moral matters or a guide in identifying the purpose of life.

Stephen Hawking once said: “I believe the universe is governed by the laws of science. The laws may have been decreed by God, but God does not intervene to break the laws.” What eludes us is to think about the meaning of our own lives. We would do research in distant galaxies, distant past of the universe and in the smallest particles of matter, but we remain ignorant about the meaning and purpose of our own existence.  Cecil Boyce Hamann aptly summed up this: “Natures does not explain; it is in need of an explanation”.

Nature and natural laws do not explain the deeper meaning of life. They are in need of explanation themselves for their origin, purpose and designer. Descartes said: I think, therefore I am. It is also important to think ‘why I exist and where will I be when I am not (alive).’

The ability to make machines can be used for more effective food production, distribution, clinical cures and better health. On the other hand, the same ability can be used to decimate species including human beings. The record of science taking a solo flight by discarding values in recent times has not impacted our technical progress, but it has resulted in the unprecedented loss of human lives in wars, extinction of species, ecological imbalances and irreversible damage to the environment.

Many scientists in the past did not posit scientific discoveries as a challenge to faith. They understood that what had been offered by modern science are better explanations of physical phenomena rather than finding a newer source of origin, creation and ‘will’ behind the physical phenomena. Isaac Newton aptly said that gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who sets the planets in motion.

Richard Dawkins once said: “Darwin explains how we got here.” Nonetheless, rediscovering regularity in physical realities is not the end-objective of existence. How we develop as adults from birth as an individual and how and when homo-sapiens as a whole came to exist in this form physically is all besides the point from the basic premise of faith. Albert Einstein in his essay ‘Science and Religion’ states:

“The knowledge of truth as such is wonderful, but it is so little capable of acting as a guide that it cannot prove even the justification and the value of the aspiration toward that very knowledge of truth. Here we face, therefore, the limits of the purely rational conception of our existence.”[v]

Putting an ideology over a descriptive falsifiable theory is a different matter than just the scientific and physical aspects of the theory itself. Theory of evolution attempts to describe the process through which life comes to exist. This theory does not concern with the question of the meaning of life itself. It is erroneous to use it as an evidence to support a godless philosophy of life. Michael Ruse, even though an atheist, aptly writes: “Evolution is promoted by its practitioners as more than mere science. Evolution is promulgated as an ideology, a secular religion.”[vi]

Animals wake up, find food, eat, sleep and wake up again. Are humans also supposed to have the same purpose only? Conscience may not err in helping to differentiate between right and wrong, but the right ethical choice may not be chosen if it conflicts with self-interest. If I believe that this life is the only life, then why shall I use my limited time, income, abilities and resources to help others? If I am just part of an evolutionary process, why should good and evil matter? Why should conscience and ethics in any way be different from dust and air?

Richard Dawkins in his book ‘God Delusion’ states that we do not need religion to be moral. If we assert that moral values have only evolved genetically and that we do moral behaviour instinctively for ensuring survival only, then, there is nothing good and bad essentially.

Sam Harris writes that “most of what we currently hold sacred is not sacred for any reason other than that it was thought sacred yesterday.[vii] There are no objective morals then. Sam Harris is sceptical of free will. If that view is taken, then all judiciary and penal laws shall cease to exist. But, do they or would they? Seyyed Hossein Nasr aptly asks:

If the human being is nothing but the result of ‘blind forces’ acting upon the original cosmic soup of molecules, then is not the very statement of the sacredness of human life intellectually meaningless and nothing but a hollow sentimental expression? Is not human dignity nothing more than a conveniently contrived notion without basis in reality? And if we are nothing but highly organized inanimate particles, what is the basis for claims to ‘human rights’?[viii]

Palley and Voltaire used the analogy of Watchmaker for their perception of god. Explaining evolution by natural selection, Richard Dawkins modifies the analogy as ‘blind watchmaker’ by saying that “the only watchmaker is the blind forces of physics”.[ix]

Their perception of god is ‘god of the gaps’ which has to be invoked as an ad hoc presumption to bypass material explanations in certain instances where physical answers and explanations are absent for the time being. Their argument is that if a physical explanation can take us back to relying on some finite number of constant values related to forces and energy, then why to invoke god to fill the gap. Problem with this argument is that it misplaces the real point of religion and faith. These analogies reflect thinking and mindset to evade responsibility and they add nothing in terms of answering the questions about the meaning of life.

Faith in God or in religion is not concerned essentially with the steps and ‘how it is’ of and behind things. The things which we are able to explain through science relate to the physical phenomena. The existence of a being as a whole and with its physical parts and processes still begs the question ‘why’ and ‘for what end’? Charles H. Townnes – well-known for his invention of laser – explains: “Purpose implies structure, and structure ought somehow to be interpretable in terms of purpose.”

Big Bang can explain what happened afterwards, but not what was before it, who was behind it and why did we come to exist in this world in the first place. We can force the question of purpose out of sight, but not out of significance and importance to a thinking mind.

References

[i] Seyyed Hossein Nasr. “A Young Muslim’s Guide to the Modern World”. Chicago: Kazi Publications.

 

[ii] Einstein, A. (1940, November). “Science and Religion”. Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion & Their Relation to the Democratic Way of Life.

 

[iii] Krauss, L. M. (2012). “A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing”. UK: Simon and Schuster.

 

[iv] Hawking, S. W. (1996), op. cit.

 

[v] Einstein, A. (1948). “Religion and Science: Irreconcilable?”. The Christian Register, 127, 19.

 

[vi] Ruse, M. (2000). “How Evolution Became a Religion”. National Post.

 

[vii] Harris, S. (2005). “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason”. WW Norton & Company.

 

[viii] Nasr, S. H. (2004). “The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity”. New York: Harper San Francisco, p. 275.

 

[ix] Dawkins, R. (2006). The God Delusion. UK: Mariner Books.

 

About Salman Ahmed Shaikh

PhD Economics, National University of Malaysia. Assistant Professor of Economics and Finance. Author, Researcher, Teacher and Consultant. He can be contacted at: salman@siswa.ukm.edu.my
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