(Article originally published here on August 10, 2016)
Harmony triumphing over Discord Quadriga Re'cipon Grand Palais Paris
(Image by Wikipedia (commons.wikimedia.org)) Permission Details DMCA
Having now completed my allotted span of "three-score years and ten," I've undertaken to create at least for my own satisfaction an answer to the query once posed by the main character in a popular 1966 British movie. Played by the actor Michael Caine, he asks himself plaintively, "What's it all about, Alfie?" In old age, I ask myself the same question, though it is rooted in a far broader perspective than is Alfie's questioning about his tawdry love life.
Before it's too late, I want to try to establish for myself--perhaps in living proof of Freud's theory regarding "sublimation" of the sexual instinct--a plausible conception of the meaning of human life as a whole: not only for my own life now well into its homestretch, but for the endless others that are still to be lived out. After considerable reflection, I think a good case for that meaning can be based on the evidence of nature itself, whose single function, at both the cosmic and biological levels, is a continual act of indiscriminate creation. It inheres ultimately, however, in the unique human capacity for conscious design, by which, unlike the forces of nature, it can bring mankind together in the joys of a collaborative creativity that, by continually producing harmony from diversity or disorder, adds genuine value to the world and meets real human needs.
No Designer God Is Shaping the Universe or Giving Meaning to Human Life.
To open-minded people, it can no longer be a matter of dispute that the universe disclosed by science in ever greater detail and breadth is not the finished product of a comprehensive design originating in the mind of an omniscient creator. Logic surely suggests that an all-powerful Designer God capable of creating a universe from nothing would produce it as a finished orderly system dedicated to specific, probably moral and spiritual, ends. As modern cosmology has shown, however, cosmic creation is hardly orderly. The universe is full of phenomena like supernovas, black holes, and quasars that are supremely destructive and disruptive of any conceivable ends tied to a comprehensive design.
Creation at the cosmic level is in fact the ever-unfolding product of violent, uncontrolled forces whose effects are unpredictable. Although the forces are themselves governed by universal laws of physics and chemistry, they interact in ways that are both integrative and disintegrative, displaying an evident absence of creation to design. Over eons of time, however, the same forces have produced new cosmic bodies and structures of various types, forms, and sizes. Among them are systems of star-orbiting planets that feature a wide variety of environmental conditions. A small minority of those planets besides our own, science now believes, have the potential to give rise to, and support, living organisms, including in some cases even intelligent beings* like ourselves. [*Note: I use the term "intelligent beings" throughout this essay to mean beings whose consciousness is capable of self-awareness, abstract thought, and empathy or love for other people and all living things.]
Even within this highest order of life, however, just as in the case of cosmic creation, it is difficult to discern the handiwork of a Designer God. Considering mankind's responsibility for the well-being of the planet and for all the living things that inhabit it, one would surely have expected such a God to invest his human agents with the guiding spark of true morality. Yet, if that quality denotes, as I think it must, a capacity to place the well-being of others at or above a concern for personal self-interest, I find it sorely missing. When one examines the conduct of business, institutional, and government leaders who have the greatest leverage in shaping the terms of life on our planet, very few will be found who instinctively deal with others on the basis of fairness, justice, empathy, and compassion.
It was, of course, Charles Darwin who, in the 19th century, made the scientific case that mankind is not the special creation of a Designer God, but the accidental end-product of the chance emergence of biological evolution on planet earth. As Darwin showed in his books On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, the very wide diversity of living species with which we are familiar, including our own species capable of self-awareness and abstract thinking, evolved from living creatures as simple as single-celled organisms.
Backed by abundant fossil evidence, Darwin demonstrated that biological evolution takes place through a process he called "natural selection." In this process, random gene mutations in existing plants and animals produce physical changes in their descendents that can strengthen or weaken their ability to survive and reproduce in a given environment. In time, species that inherit favorable modifications gain numerical dominance in their population and, in cases where additional gene mutations compound that dominance over generations, can evolve into entirely new species well-fitted to thrive in their existing habitat. Such new creations are never permanent, however. The earth itself is continually subject to assaults by such destructive phenomena as volcanoes, weather calamities, asteroid strikes, or climate change that, whether radically and in a single blow, or over long expanses of time, inevitably alter any local habitat or regional environment. In such cases, surviving individual species are again subjected to the roulette wheel of natural selection to determine whether their kind will adapt to the new environment, find a home in a different one, or perish.
Because natural selection operates by trial-and-error, producing some modifications that lead to higher rates of survival and procreation, and others that lead to extinction, it offers the best possible means by which nature can manifest in the biological sphere the same continual act of creation for its own sake that occurs at the cosmic level. Just as the cosmic order is composed of an endless diversity of structures in space, including star-orbiting planets with different environments, so, as we see on planet earth, the process of natural selection generates a maximum multiplicity of living forms (i.e. species with different features and capabilities). In fact, since science now tells us that the universe will expand forever, we can conclude that, over infinite time, every imaginable environment and every conceivable living form will be produced.
For me, our own planet offers still another validation that natural selection, not a Designer God, is the source of living things. It is the fact that mortality is a condition of life. Isn't it highly unlikely that an all-powerful and omniscient--not to mention omni-benevolent--Designer God, capable of planning in advance every detail of creation, including the happiness of its sensate creatures, would not find a way to create optimal forms of living species, including an intelligent form, in numbers that could be sustained forever without bloodshed, decay, or death? Yet, it is a given of the natural world that no animals can survive and procreate without eating other living animals or plants, thereby depriving them of life. If this food stock were immune to death, not only would all animals be denied essential nutrition, but their unlimited accumulation in a given habitat would soon overwhelm available space. That would in turn limit or foreclose instinctual life behaviors, including those relating to procreation and the rearing of offspring, and force those with sufficient mobility to attempt migration to new habitats. The result would be a breakdown of the very process by which random gene mutations favorable to the survival and reproduction of organisms in a given environment are passed on to future generations. Because such a breakdown would put an end to physical variations within species and, over time, the possible production of new species, nature could no longer sustain, at the planetary level, its continual act of new creation.
If one accepts the evidence of science that nature's inherent function, at the cosmic, planetary, and biological levels, is creation for its own sake, one must also conclude that no omniscient Intelligence stands behind it to direct its forces in accordance either with principles of design or an overarching moral purpose. The only conclusion we can logically draw is that nature functions at all levels to indiscriminately produce from existing structures the widest possible diversity of new physical forms. This is readily apparent to us thinking beings on planet earth, which is blessed with a natural environment favorable to life and has already hosted many millions of both familiar and exotic plant and animal species. That count would of course be even much higher if it included the many millions of other species that die out before they can be discovered, due to the throw of the dice involved in the success or failure of inherited genetic mutations. And, as has already been noted, a hypothetical count of all organic species that could develop in the entire universe over time would likely not only be astronomical, but infinite. Given the diverse atmospheric, geological, climatic, and weather conditions of life-supporting planets that science now believes exist, we can assume that living forms of all conceivable sizes, shapes, and capacities will emerge at some point, somewhere, including many species of beings capable of various levels of psychic awareness and abstract thinking.
Our Human Task, in All Spheres of Life, Is To Create Harmony from Diversity and Disorder.
For humans and other intelligent beings that almost surely exist elsewhere in the universe, nature's creation of an endless diversity of living forms may offer a vital clue in their search for meaning in life. That clue is vested in the fortuitous process of natural selection, which--assuming life exists on other planets--operates by the same rules everywhere in the universe. In addition to producing an endless variety of living forms, the process continually trends--though on a hit-and-miss basis over eons of time--to the creation of more complex organisms within given species and, in time, new species deriving from them, that are better fitted to survive, thrive, and procreate in an existing or changing environment. In this way, nature also functions to bring the needs of life as a whole into harmonious relationship with the various demands of the environment in which it finds itself. The same function, it seems to me, is essential to the life-fulfillment of humans--though, for us, it is not governed by chance natural selection, but by conscious direction based on our unique human capacities for self-awareness, abstract reasoning, and empathy for fellow humans and other life forms. There is also an important added benefit in our human capacity for conscious creativity. Not only does it engender a sense of deep empathy for all living creatures who instinctively seek the same end; in many cases it requires constructive collaboration with other humans that can itself be a source of great joy.
We humans can find inspiration for this creativity in the kinds and depths of harmony achieved by nature's surviving life forms through adaptation to often magnificent and challenging environments--which are themselves the harmonized products of undirected geological, climatic, biological, and other processes. It is up to human beings, and to other intelligent species wherever they may exist, to take a cue from such natural adaptations and consciously create the harmonies between themselves and their own social, economic, cultural, technological, and natural environments that can give them the physical security and joy they need to thrive in an otherwise heedless and silent universe. Such adaptation has in fact never been more urgent than it is now. In our own times, it has become obvious that mankind must rapidly and globally concert its efforts to achieve one order of harmony above all: the reconciliation of its industrial activity with the health of the natural environment. Lacking that harmony, continued warming of the earth--which scientists agree is caused significantly, if not totally, by the burning of fossil fuels--will soon lead to massive destruction of animal and plant habitats and human population centers. Only if this peril is averted by advanced technological means and good-faith political bargaining can the human race experience enduring physical security and fully develop its unique capacity for the spiritual harmony that derives from empathy with other people, the appreciation of nature, and creative collaboration with other people. The same can be said of the perils of violence and war. Unless these are kept in check by creative pressures for peaceful conflict resolution and the design of a comprehensive global security system, they can also thwart humanity's need for physical security and its potential for spiritual joy.