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January 2016 Issue [From the Archive]

Our Truly Dreadful Situation

Why is the Universe as it is and not something else? Why is the Universe here at all? It is true that at present we have no clue to the answers to questions such as these, and it may be that the materialists are right in saying that no meaning can be attached to them. But throughout the history of science, people have been asserting that such an issue is inherently beyond the scope of reasoned inquiry, and time after time they have been proved wrong. I dare say that you yourself would have said, not so very long ago, that it was impossible to learn anything about the way the Universe is created. All experience teaches us that no one has yet asked too much. How then can we accept the argument of the materialists, when the essence of their game lies in throwing up the sponge?

And now I should like to give some consideration to contemporary religious beliefs. There is a good deal of cosmology in the Bible. My impression of it is that it is a remarkable conception, considering the time when it was written. But I think it can hardly be denied that the cosmology of the ancient Hebrews is only the merest daub compared with the sweeping grandeur of the picture revealed by modern science. This leads me to ask the question: is it in any way reasonable to suppose that it was given to the Hebrews to understand mysteries far deeper than anything we can comprehend, when it is quite clear that they were completely ignorant of many matters that seem commonplace to us? No, it seems to me that religion is but a desperate attempt to find an escape from the truly dreadful situation in which we find ourselves. Here we are in this wholly fantastic Universe with scarcely a clue as to whether our existence has any real significance. No wonder then that many people feel the need for some belief that gives them a sense of security, and no wonder that they become very angry with people like me who say that this security is illusory.

00029__Space-Harpers-1601-630-2But I do not like the situation any better than they do. The difference is that I cannot see how the smallest advantage is to be gained from deceiving myself. We are in rather the situation of a man in a desperate, difficult position on a steep mountain. A materialist is like a man who becomes crag-fast and keeps on shouting ‘’I’m safe, I’m safe!” because he doesn’t fall off. The religious person is like a man who goes to the other extreme and rushes up the first route that shows the faintest hope of escape, and who is entirely reckless of the yawning precipices that lie below him.

I will illustrate all this by saying what I think about perhaps the most inscrutable question of all: do our minds have any continued existence after death? To make any progress with this question, it is necessary to understand what our minds are. If we knew this with any precision, then I have no doubt we should be well on the way to getting a satisfactory answer. But at the moment we have only got the vaguest of ideas on this. One thing, however, seems clear — that mind, if it exists in the religious sense, must have some physical connections. That is to say, if the something we call mind does survive death, then this something must be capable of physical detection. For, if the mind were without physical connections, why is it that the mind is so intimately associated with the body?

It is true that some Christians claim to imagine an existence without physical connections. If this is so, then Christians must be endowed with a faculty not possessed by others. I would go so far as to suggest that it is impossible to write half a dozen meaningful sentences concerning such an existence that do not involve some reference to the physical world.

From “The Expanding Universe: The Nature of the Universe, Part V,” which appeared in the April 1951 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The complete essay — along with the magazine’s entire 165-year archive — is available here.

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January 2016

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