This article is the first in a three-part series on the question of whether or not there is more to this universe than what we can observe. The first installment asks the question, the second shows C.S. Lewis’ controversial answer to the question, and the third shows why fantasy is so useful for showing us why there is more than there is.
It is, I think, the essential question before (and after) all other questions: Is there more than there is? Is there more to this world than what we touch, taste, hear, smell, or see? It is this one question, I believe, that divides the human path and will define who we are as people in the century before us.
That is why it is this question, in a much more sophisticated form, that C.S. Lewis puts to us in chapter one of Miracles (1960), the foundation of the third part of his apologetics trilogy. He argues that before we look at the question of miracles in history—or look at issues of ethics today, he would add—we must decide whether or not we are Naturalists, people who believe that all there is is all there is.
For the theist, it is God who is “the Alpha and the Omega”—the Ground of All Being; for the Christian it is God “who is and who was and who is to come” (Rev 1:8). But Naturalists believe that all we can measure is all there really is.[i] Echoing that scripture, Carl Sagan elegantly explains the foundation of Naturalism:
“The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be” (Cosmos, 4)
As the Humanist Manifesto tells us,
“We find insufficient evidence for belief in the existence of a supernatural” (Humanist Manifesto II, 1973).
Since I converted to Christianity twenty years ago, I have believed that heaven dances between the molecules of our world, sometimes igniting our world with fire and light, rearranging a few of those molecules into significant new patterns or in providential times—miracles, some might call them. But for the Naturalist, there is no divine miracle except the evolutionary gift of human self-consciousness, the neurochemical pleasures of beauty and love that have emerged into our social biology.[ii]
I suspect that there are many of us in the Western world that walk around with both these stories in our heads—both the idea that Nature is all that there is, and that there might be something beyond that. To paraphrase one of a number of similar comments I’ve heard from students, “I don’t believe in God or a greater being, but I think there will be a heaven after death where there is only love.” I know that it is an inconsistent view, but I don’t think that we necessarily hold all our beliefs consistently. But the reason I suspect that inconsistency comes from when I see people respond to this second quotation from the Humanist Manifesto:
“As far as we know, the total personality is a function of the biological organism transacting in a social and cultural context. There is no credible evidence that life survives the death of the body”
Or, as Bertrand Russell sublimely captures it:
“No fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave” (Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship” in Why I Am Not a Christian, 107).
I knew one man who, while we were chatting, had just denied any existence of God, but found this idea—denying that the there is heaven—to be absurd, almost indecent or uncivilized. His view, as best as I can discern it, is that any intelligent adult knows that this God business is mostly a lark, but of course this life isn’t all there is, isn’t the end of all things—much like the student I quoted above. As it turns out, I have never visited a nursing home or hospice bed where someone faced the leap into dark nothingness with full confidence. These people exist, absolutely. I’m just saying the folk theology of our scientific age is hardly consistent.
That is why the hospital scene in The Invention of Lying is so poignant. Ricky Gervais’ character comforts his frightened, dying mother that the future she faces is not eternal nothingness,but a snow globe vision of a heaven of love and happiness and meeting all the favourite pets we had in life. It didn’t matter if it was true or not; the idea of heaven itself resonates past the belief that created it. And, if sales numbers for the prepubescent pop theology bestseller, Heaven Is For Real, are any indication, the snuffing out of existence at life’s end is still something that people are resisting.
Yet, from what Richard Dawkins and the Humanist Manifesto call “the scientific perspective,” to presume anything beyond this material existence is to move past what the data demonstrates, as best we can understand it. The most we can do is follow the admonition of Robert Ingersoll:
“If there be gods we cannot help them, but we can assist our fellow-men. We cannot love the inconceivable, but we can love wife and child and friend.
“We can be as honest as we are ignorant. If we are, when asked what is beyond the horizon of the known, we must say that we do not know. We can tell the truth, and we can enjoy the blessed freedom that the brave have won. We can destroy the monsters of superstition, the hissing snakes of ignorance and fear. We can drive from our minds the frightful things that tear and wound with beak and fang. We can civilize our fellow-men. We can fill our lives with generous deeds, with loving words, with art and song, and all the ecstasies of love. We can flood our years with sunshine—with the divine climate of kindness, and we can drain to the last drop the golden cup of joy” (“Why I am an Agnostic,” 1896).
Or as Jonathan Swift put it so plainly:
“May you live all the days of your life.”
But can we even do that? Can we be admonished to rise up and take our destiny in our own two hands? Of course we can, or at least we can attempt live life with Ingersoll’s honesty or Swift’s sense of purpose. Many people do this very thing, and expect it of others.
What I mean, though, is this: can we presume in some way that we must live with honesty and “civilize our fellow-men,” as Ingersoll calls us? Can I hold the idea consistently that there is objective value in this little life of mine? If we were to go with lived social reality—folk theology—we should be able to say “yes.” Atheists and secular humanists are typically moralists—the Humanist Manifesto is a moralistic document, an experiment in “should,” a call to others to be better, to seize the universe by both hands and steer it towards good. But I would argue that even this question, the idea of ethics and morality, is premised by the answer to the question, “Is there more than there is?”
New Atheist Richard Dawkins is not short on moralistic judgment. On the contrary, he is famous for his disdain at the moral inferiority of others. In the documentary, The Root of all Evil, for example, he castigates the thoughts and beliefs of others as mad, ridiculous, and hideous. His hope, when he considers religion as the root of morality, is that:
“when we look closely, we find a system of morals which any civilised person today should surely find poisonous.”
Yet, he also admits that we cannot presume ethics from Nature itself:
“In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or Reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference” (Dawkins, “God’s Utility Function,” Scientific American (Nov 1995), p. 85).
I don’t know how many would go as far as Dawkins does. Some critique that idea that theistic belief offers the best foundation of morality—as we see in Plato’s elegant Euthypro argument—or that universal agreement on morality is more possible than universal agreement on religion (the proposed foundation of morality).[iii] Others may argue that “should” is founded on what is adaptive, or the idea of enlightened self-interest. These are all fair approaches, but none, I think, can demonstrate the universal “ought.” To get to “ought,” we need to begin with “is,” with the foundations of who we are in this universe. For Dawkins, the “is” cannot lead to a universal “ought”:
“Natural selection is the blind watchmaker, blind because it does not see ahead, does not plan consequences, has no purpose in views” (Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, 21).
So, before we can ask “What will happen when I die?” or “Are miracles possible?” or “How should I live my life?” we have to ask that key question: “Is there more than there is?”
[i] Or all that really matters. Functionally, the result of lived life is the same.
[ii] Aside from the absurd over-statements, the book that captures the beauty of this best, for me, is Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (Free Press, 2009)—I have an illustrated edition that really excites the imagination.
[iii] I.e., the idea of God is irrelevant to morality. See chapter 22 in Malcolm Murray’s The Atheist Primer (Broadview, 2010).