Monday, August 27, 2007

The Atheist's Synaesthesia before Creation

(Image from a draft towards a translation of Christian Bok's Eunoia)



I heard Francis S. Collins, Director of the Human Genome Project, yesterday on the CBC radio show, Tapestry. He was discussing 'evidence' for the existence of God. He clearly made a distinction between what science is able to find and what it isn't -- science is a superlative tool to inquire and explain the material world. To understand the immaterial world, to ask fundamental existential questions such as "Why is there something here rather than nothing?" we need something other than science -- religion, philosophy, etc.

He is a clear-sighted and intelligent man and it is refreshing to hear of a passionate religious person who is also a believer in the power of science and, indeed, is an eminent scientist. Too often the dialogue, at least in the popular culture in North America, is seen as exclusive. You either believe in God or science.

I did have one major objection to something he said. He was speaking about how unfathomably improbable it was that we exist. This is what he said (I'm paraphrasing):

If there wasn't the inconceivably unlikely balance between forces at the Big Bang -- if gravity hadn't counterbalanced the force of expansion in the way that it had at the instance of the Big Bang, then the universe wouldn't be here. Likewise, DNA. It seems so supremely unlikely that such a complex thing could exist. (If one read out the letters of the human genome night and day continuously, it would take 31 years.)

OK. So I agree with him that this life situation is fantastically, perhaps supremely unlikely. I am filled with awe that such a thing exists. I look out of the window in front of me and am filled with wonder that there is anything out there (driveway, skateboard ramp, passing traffic, trees, birds, houses, the windowpane, my eyes, my contact lenses, garbage collectors, beetles, blinking.) We should be astounded. But I don't see why that the fact that it seems inconceivably unlikely and improbable is some kind of Q.E.D. argument for the existence of some other force. What's that Douglas Adams' quote?

“Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?"

Not to reduce someone's belief in the divine to mere fairies, but to me the presence of a fantastic clock doesn't mean that there is a clockmaker.

Since this is the universe, the universe is how it is. It is the definition of itself. (Is that an O.E.D. argument?) What is unlikely? What is the threshhold of possibility? Well, since this is the way it is, this is the way it is. The existence of existence is exactly as improbable as existence. What are the odds? These are the odds.

What would a guy who won the lottery think about the odds of him winning? Even if the chance of him winning is one in a hundred million, to him, having won, that seems like reasonable odds. He won, after all. And he would (I expect) feel joy, wonder, amazement, awe. That's how I feel about all of this (he stretches his hand waving vastly across the universe.) The fact that all of this is fills me with a spiritual, centred, inspired elation.

As to why it all is here. Well, going back to the idea that 'the universe is its own definition' means, for me, that since the universe is everything, it is also its own reason for being. And besides, I don't expect that I'd really be able to fathom an "explanation". Besides, I'm in it. I can't exactly get a bird's eye view. I "get" existence in some way. I feel something of its infinite vastness and the essential fact of it being here.

I should perhaps say that all of this doesn't mean that I don't think that the spiritual traditions of the world don't help people. I believe that the spiritual traditions can connect us deeply to the universe. Here's a quote to end on, from an interview about prayer with William Segal (as quoted in Parabola magazine -- Summer 1999). And Segal's definition of prayer is very broad and encompasses many spiritual traditions. It would include the walk through the Thornberry Trail that I did with my dog yesterday at twilight, the walk which in fact occasioned this post.

We live in a very complex world. We don't know who we are, we don't understand how our brain and our body function, we don't know who's guiding us, who is guiding the universe (in other words, who is running things)--we don't know any of that. But through prayer we might come to a state of knowing--not so much knowledge as knowing. An unknown knowing.


Here is another Psalm translation:


He that dwelleth in the secret places of the belly shines a mighty light and twists poodles out of shadow.

I will say my insides have barked their refusal for I have eaten the wrappers of garrulous cattle and my scars lust after rain.

Surely within 40 minutes they shall deliver the sneer of the turtledove, dispense excess joy from the noisome duffle bags of stars.

For he has covered thee with his feathers, and under his breath there are wings: his teeth are an encyclopedia-size dinner which protects you as the jeweled coleslaw protects a deck of cards from bellicose pickle fencing.

Thou shalt not be fried by the flummoxed terriers of night, nor diced by the drumsticks of the day that flieth towards thee like the bittersweet vagina of lawn

Still not by the penis that juggleth chainsaws in darkness and proclaims it was fathered by magma; and also not by the mispronounciations that wasteth the noondog in the Galleria parking lot and offer not a luminous pylon in comfort

Like the green leaves of cash, a thousand shall stride beside the autumnal blastocyst of winter, and ten thousand shall consider their right hand their left and teach their children so; but it shall not draw close as uranium pinking shears upon the foam of thy bathwaters.

Only with nine eyes couldst thou—the eight-eyed—hold and dandle the infant words of the mewling cricketers.

Because thou hast made loud that which was my silent dolphin, my jar that had no mouth and so was the lightbulb where my blind quiet could live and be the Tinkerbell of beaming ducks.

No ladders shall fall over thee, neither shall any beach sand come nigh thy dwelling and fill it with the mirthful and prehensile haberdashery of lifeguards

For he shall make hyperbolic triangles to flutter over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.

And they shall make thy ears into pink airplanes lest thou dash mayonnaise against a stone.

Thou shalt tread only upon the lion and the abacus: the suspenders and the answering machine emerge like a trump card from the silken slit of twilight in which thou ask to travel first class

Because he hath set his dove upon me, therefore will I make a shopping cart of tongues: I will set alight a paper bag upon a nimbus of square waves because he hath made it snow my name all over the parking lot and in cursive.

He shall call upon me as the antidote upon the phone booth and I will answer him as the lucid stapler and the breath of moths herd the ardent buffalo of the cruise ship: I will be with him in trouble; I will be as saliva on the migrating oak, an orange on the bad boy of gladness.

With long life will I satisfy him; and will throw away my tiny shoes.

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