I love the above picture, and I thought I’d start with it. Taken in Austria on holiday in the summer of this year it is has since become the desktop background of my computer; the scene behind my twitter profile picture; and for a fairly long time it was the screensaver of my mobile phone too (or, rather, an annoyingly thin portrait section of it was). I place it in front of me constantly and purposefully, and it never gets old.
While away, when I get the chance, I take a lot of pictures. Of these, I’d say only about 1 in 100 are of people. The other 99 are of landscapes, animals, plants and other far more interesting sights. I’m constantly in awe of ‘nature’.
That’s not to say people aren’t interesting – they really are. However living in London I’m in no short supply of people, so they lose their allure after a while (especially when cramped onto a Tube carriage in perpetual rush-hour)… But back to the point: nature’s amazing.
I see no problem, no conflict between that seemingly spiritual assertion and my unbelief. In fact, I don’t feel that a feeling of amazement (or any other profound emotional response for that matter) is in any way attributed to, or in requirement of, spirituality. This position, which takes the view of necessity of soul with regards to emotional experience, was summed up quite nicely by a question posed to me by a friend recently:
“If God isn’t real, why are there pretty patterns on kittens?“
This query was put forward entirely in jest of course, but I think it’s a good starting point to seriously explore the answer to what a godless appreciation of existence actually means, and why it makes perfect sense. Let’s pick the question apart:
- Firstly, the patterns on the kittens are only pretty because we judge them as such, and the animals have certainly been bred to appear as cute as possible, by our standards. That’s not to say infant mammals across the board who haven’t received a human intervention in the direction of their genealogy are not/cannot be cute, as features such as bigger eyes proportional to head size or a round-ish face are not hard to find. Our swooning stems from the fact that the non-human infants share characteristics with the human – characteristics it evolutionarily benefits us greatly to identify with vulnerability and need of care (as it most probably does with other mammals too).
- The ‘aww cute‘ response is down to the firing of neurological impulses and release of chemical messengers in the brain and so sheds no light on whether a God drew up the patterns or not. The point is: the markings are pretty because people think they are, and no amount of concentration on ideas to the contrary will bring an imaginary friend to life.
- Without anyone around to think the patterns beautiful they would not be pretty, they’d just exist (with or without a god).
- Acknowledging the patterns as being ‘pretty’, as it makes sense for them to appear to us, by no means provides evidence for a ‘creator’ of the universe (especially not a god specific to any one religion).
I hope that answers it.
I enjoy systematically answering such questions greatly, and love the scientific process as a whole. Whether the question is entirely genuine or laced with a touch of humour it’s the same – fully understanding the answer, as best I can, is what I aim for. There is a joy in understanding what’s going on around me, and I think that joy underpins most (if not all) of science and scientific thinking. Instead of seeing a rainbow and simply smiling at the pretty colours, I find true appreciation in knowing that each raindrop is acting somewhat like a prism separating out all of the different wavelengths of visible coloured light contained within the ‘white’ light of the sun at different angles, and thus causing the position of each raindrop relative to my eye to change the way I perceive the colour coming off of them. Now, (as that was quite the mouthful) most would rather I shut up and allow them to continue gazing aimlessly at the sky, but I think that true beauty comes in the understanding of why something is beautiful. I don’t necessarily have to let everyone know why all of the time, but it pleases me to ponder silently to myself.
Everyone thinks like this to some degree, but they then tend to stop once they hit a certain barrier. This barrier, I am going to call the ‘insignificance barrier’, and it tends to come about after extensive silent pondering. The paraphrased words of the great Tim Minchin sum the thinking underlying it well, so here they are:
“We are all tiny, insignificant, ignorant bits of carbon“
And this scares a lot of people. Hardly anyone can look up at the stars experiencing anything but awe (or tiredness), and where a significant few would pair the sightings of great distances, masses and abundance of stellar objects with a genuinely pleasurable sense of big-scheme-of-things worthlessness others are threatened by any ideas of unimportance on a universal scale. Many people feel they need meaning, but the universe provides none. Call all things bright and beautiful godly in origin (as well as being specifically existent for human pleasure) and the ‘meaning’ quandary is solved… But this is as untrue a conclusion to draw as it is an unnecessary one.
To those who see a lack of emotion or poetry in the idea of a godless universe I would ask why an empirical understanding of their existence – along with the inevitable realisation that it is in itself not extremely meaningful as far as the laws of physics are concerned - is any less poetic than one in which all manner of sufferings and hostility have to be accounted for before the beauty of it all is even considered. Realising an absence of soul does not take away meaning from life, it provides it (at least on the human scale). A singular shot at living, instead of driving a person to madness, should allow them to reflect on just how important living life to its fullest really is – ever more than if this life is a simple wait in the foyer before we are allowed to check in to a better existence.
I do not feel there can be any beauty in nature with God, and it most certainly does not provide evidence for one (unless all of the miseries in nature are recognised as counter-evidence). The only true source of ‘meaning’ and ‘beauty’ in nature is from coming to terms with just how brief each and every person’s shot at experiencing it is – and that is the atheistic standpoint on such issues.
So to close, in the words of Christopher Hitchins:
“The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.“
Well said Hitch…
I apologise for the lateness in the week of this post’s writing, the holidays have made me lazy. Nevertheless, as always, have a nice week.
Oh, and feel free to add to the ‘kitten’ bullet points (or respond to any section of this post) with a comment – I’d love to see feedback.