Science and Religion

Need for Meaning to Existence

Salman Ahmed Shaikh

Plato is quoted to have said: “Man is declared to be that creature who is constantly in search of himself – a creature who at every moment of his existence must scrutinize the conditions of his existence. He is a being in search of meaning.1

 We enjoy free sunshine, oxygen, water and life-supporting climate to live. The blessings and hardships are good and bad only till we are alive. All social problems and their solutions become irrelevant when we are no more. Beneath all the chaos and clutter and hopes and fears, we need to reflect on what is the purpose of life?

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 on 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 on 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.

Prof. Stephen Hawking once said: “We are the product of quantum fluctuations in the very early universe.2Prof. Neil deGrasse Tyson also remarked that it is possible 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 entertainment3. 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 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. Some 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.

Columbia University Professor, Dr. Brian Greene elucidates that Science is very good at answering the ‘how’ questions. How did the universe evolve to the form that we see? But it is woefully inadequate in addressing the ‘why’ questions. ‘Why is there a universe at all?’ These are the meaning questions, which many people think religion is particularly good at dealing with4.

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 materials and processes through which the computer was created. Prof. 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.5

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. 6

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 result of such natural laws alone.

Prof. Richard Dawkins sharing his thoughts says: “After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life. Within decades, we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it?7

But, why have we come to wake up in it and why we would sleep again after death. What meanings our moral and immoral choices have if these choices and actions are not fairly rewarded or punished in the brief moments under 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.

By learning syntax of programming languages, we can learn to make new and variety of computer programs, but it does not negate the inventor of the programming language. Matter had existed before we had human life in the universe. We had only learnt to use matter in different ways.

Scientific enterprise does not run nature, but merely tries to understand it. Sun, moon, seas, rivers, mountains, forests, clouds and basic chemical elements had all existed even before we arrived in this universe.

Consider a person who is asked to review a novel authored by some other person. The reviewer knows that he himself has not authored the novel. He reads most of the pages of the novel meticulously. He goes through the dialogues of characters carefully. Now, the reviewer can summarize most scenes of the plot in a generic way. In the story line, the author does not come explicitly as a character. In describing different scenes, the reviewer refers to characters in the novel. Each character gives way to the next character through a physical process that is explained in the novel. What if the reviewer describes characters and the scenic details, but eventually ignores the author and claims the piece of writing as author-less because the author is not an explicit character in the novel and each character emanates from another character through a physical process described in the novel.

What if he says that the novel has characters and their emotions, physical attributes and personality can be understood from the words in the novel and hence there is no need of attributing the novel to an author? What if this claim is made after finding few more intermediate pages of the novel and some more characters? If we would be puzzled to see this conclusion about a novel, imagine if this conclusion of ‘no author’ is reached about real characters in real existing life which runs into billions of species in a gigantic scenic environment which has immaculate details and complexity. One can describe how the author brought it about without reference to author, but it cannot negate the existence of the author altogether.

When we look at a computer program and find loop in the code which enables the program to run endlessly, it does not mean that there was no author and that the endless program had no point of start. If an executable computer program is run and complex animation appears on screen which runs and runs with unique things appearing from time to time, one cannot imagine that the program was made from nothing and by no one and it just came by chance.

Prof. 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 direction8. But, George F. R. Ellis aptly asks: “Why the laws of physics exist? Why they have the form they have?9Prof. Pervez Hoodhbhoy in his book ‘Muslims and Science’ writes that science does not have any explanation for the origins of physical laws and it cannot reject the claim that these laws might have been decreed by a divine God10. Even Prof. 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.11

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 illustrate complexity, intricacy and detail. Science tries to disentangle useful knowledge about the matter so that this knowledge can be put to effective use. But, as Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman explains ‘science cannot be an arbiter in moral matters’12.

Prof. Stephen Hawking in an interview 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.13What 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. Prof. Brian Greene once said: “Sometimes nature guards her secrets with the unbreakable grip of physical law. Sometimes the true nature of reality beckons from just beyond the horizon.14

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).’

When we take a taxi or boat or an airplane on a certain route, we do not question the existence of the car, for example. Rather, we might ask: Does it run by itself or is there a skillful driver behind the wheel?! If we look at a building, we will immediately believe that an architect has built it. How will it sound that some wood, steel, stones, and paint have gathered by themselves and on their own and in a certain fashion built that building for human beings to dwell therein? Those who do not believe in God apply this logic to a tiny object like a car, but not to a grand object like the universe and all the complex life and support systems and processes within it which run to perfection day after day and centuries after centuries.

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 regard 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 is quoted to have said that gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who sets the planets in motion15.

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 beside the point as far as the basic questions of purpose, essence and meaning of life are concerned. Albert Einstein in his essay ‘Science and Religion’ states:

“The knowledge of the 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 the truth. Here we face, therefore, the limits of the purely rational conception of our existence.16

Prof. Karl Popper explains that “In so far as a scientific statement speaks about reality, it must be falsifiable: and in so far as it is not falsifiable, it does not speak about reality17. Putting 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 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.18

Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute in USA feels no problem in his religious beliefs and his work in evolutionary biology. He explains that theory of evolution describes biological evolution and functions. Human beings have special attributes like moral conscience, aesthetic sense, inquisitiveness and curiosity. Dr. Collins reasons that evolution describes our biology and it is still just the description of how God created us19.

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?

Prof. Richard Dawkins in his book ‘God Delusion’ states that we do not need religion to be moral20. If we assert 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.21There are no objective morals then. Sam Harris is skeptical 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’?22

William Palley and Voltaire used the analogy of Watchmaker for their perception of god23. Voltaire is quoted to have said: “I cannot imagine how the clockwork of the universe can exist without a clockmaker24”. Science is not a good barometer for hypothesizing about God’s personality. In fact, it cannot be a perfect way to know anyone’s personality. Our medical reports, tests and the various chemical components in our bodies only describe our biology, chemistry and physics, but not our soul and inner self. Explaining evolution by natural selection, Prof. Richard Dawkins modifies the analogy as ‘blind watchmaker’ by saying that “the only watchmaker is the blind forces of physics.25Prof. Krauss also shares his view: “Without science, everything is a miracle. With science, there remains the possibility that nothing is.26

But, who made the natural laws? Who made the fundamental forces of physics? Who makes them work? Who created the physical forces and their exact characteristics and their rules of operations in the universe? Who created the primordial inputs which are required for life to evolve?

S. Lewis aptly writes: “We are in the habit of talking as if laws caused events to happen; but they have never caused any event at all.” He further adds: “Every law, in the last resort, says ‘If you have A, then you will get B’. But first catch your A: the laws won’t do it for you.27Dr. John Lennox also explains this fact fittingly: “A law of nature, by definition, surely depends for its own existence on the prior existence of the nature it purports to describe.28

Carrol poses and answers this interesting question: “Do advances in modern physics and cosmology help us address these underlying questions, of why there is something called the universe at all, and why there are things called ‘the laws of physics,’ and why those laws seem to take the form of quantum mechanics, and why some particular wave function and Hamiltonian? In a word: no. I don’t see how they could.29

The perception of god in the view of scientists and philosophers who do not believe in 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.

If we make intelligent robots, they can only know about their inventors and creators if that knowledge is inbuilt into them. Their recognition or non-recognition does not make any difference about the fact that they have been created by someone. Furthermore, their best source to know about their creator is the knowledge given by the creator itself.

Similarly, divine scriptures including Qur’an talk about One Creator for the universe and accountability for actions in life hereafter for the actions we undertake in this world using our free will. This worldview satisfies one’s quest for answers about meaning in life, about absolute justice and has the potential to engender self-less, moral and altruistic choices which are socially good. Yet, this knowledge is overlooked to evade responsibility which comes with this answer.

Even if we do not know anything about the cosmos and how it runs, the fundamental questions about the meaning of our own lives stick in mind no matter whether the universe had and have whatsoever biological, chemical and physical properties. 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’? Belief in God is a logical and rational answer to life, its variety, its design and the complexities of supporting ecosystem that we observe. What gives any of our actions meaning is the belief in accountability which promises absolute justice to every intentional act.

Some scientists who do not believe in God concede the way to deity, an impersonal god who makes the watch and then the watch keeps on running; a simulator who makes the simulation which keeps on running and a programmer who makes the program with loops and nested loops which keeps on running after executed.

As artists, when we make a piece of art as painting, poetry and novel, we project the work in exhibitions, publish it and explain it at length in different forums as long as we live. As scientists, when we make a discovery, an invention or find answer to physical realities, we project the work in science exhibitions, publishing in journals, teaching in classrooms and educating the masses through books, podcasts and televised programs. We seek copyrights and patents to keep the work we have created and discovered as ours and we like to be identified by our works and contributions. Then, God, Who has written the laws of physics, Who created everything in the universe and Who brought this universe and us into existence, would be oblivious to it? Would not he contact us and communicate with us about our purpose of existence? Indeed, the known history we have with us proves that the concept of God has remained in every human civilization. The teachings of messengers sent for reminding about oneness of God and accountability in life hereafter have been spread throughout in our known history. The last two messengers, Jesus (pbuh) and Muhammad (pbuh) lived in the daylight of history and whose followers now comprise almost two- thirds of the human population.

Some scientists are open to the idea that aliens brought the fundamental particles of life from outer space, but not to believe in an intelligent being, Who has given existence to fallible creatures like humans. The Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick, along with Leslie Orgel proposed that life may have been purposely spread by an advanced extra-terrestrial civilization30.

We can recognize our fallibility and intelligence at the same time. If we have some intelligence, why we hesitate in assuming that our Creator would be more intelligent Who has brought us into existence for a purpose rather than assuming a deity as an unconcerned watchmaker, a simulator among future humans, a mathematician, a master equation and a random space travelling alien. We are searching for alien life since last century through expensive experiments and advanced instruments to no avail yet.

But, what is puzzling is that there is not a single reference to a religious text by scientists who do not believe in God like Prof. Richard Dawkins, Prof. Lawrence Krauss and Prof. Stephen Hawking. They have made no effort and attempt to pay attention to the signals conveyed in the religious scriptures. They mock the believers and do not realize that more than half of their own colleague scientists are not outright atheists even in this age of misinformation and massive propaganda and arrogance about faith.

The problem of specialization of knowledge makes them reach conclusions which are bounded by the specific jargon and scope of their disciplines. Prof. Dawkins as a biologist asks naïve question that if there is complexity in observable life, then what will be the biological complexity of the Creator. Atheists who belong to physics profession try to ascribe origins to physical forces and physical laws. Physicists like Prof. Michio Kaku having a mathematical orientation describe God’s mind as ‘Music of strings resonating through 11 dimensional hyperspace’. Technical entrepreneurs like Elon Musk describe existence as part of a possible simulation. Unfortunately, there is no serious effort to understand the point of view of faith beyond the narrow confinements of one’s field of specialization.

Loneliness greets us in space. Fermi’s Paradox in physics wonders ‘Where is everybody’. Why stars that were born long before our sun could not create any life. Our earth is not a separate corner in the universe; it has its composition of atoms coming from the same material that exists in the universe. Outside of earth, we have not found a liveable place where we could even just breathe naturally.

The verses of nature in universe also reflect truth on those who want to wonder why there is life at all and for what purpose. Scientific discoveries have added more substance to the verse ‘Which of God’s blessings will you forget’. Astrophysics has proved that there are too many features of blessings in various forms. Astrophysics has taken us near to the exact fraction of a second when God’s command brought the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago.

Big Bang can explain what happened afterward, 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.


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