Monday, 27 August 2012

Impossible Things

“I can’t believe that,” said Alice, “It’s impossible!”

“Then you’ve not had any practice,” said the Queen.  “I’ve had so much practice in believing the impossible, that I can believe six impossible things before breakfast!”
(Lewis Carroll:  Alice Through the Looking Glass)
We Unitarians think of ourselves very much like Alice.  We’ve given up believing impossible things.  Centuries ago Unitarians gave up believing in impossible theological things.  The Trinity we discarded very early, and it wasn’t too long after that the Virginal Conception of Jesus, and the Resurrection of Jesus were excised from our individual and collective credos.  Then, all the miracles were thrown out, as was the idea of special revelation.  Unitarians have just about given up on the idea of God; in a recent survey, 48% of American Unitarian Universalists declared themselves to be humanists, presumably implying a disbelief in all so-called supernatural things, coupled with a commitment to what they consider to be a rational and empirical approach to life.
However, it seems to me increasingly strange that we can hold up to scrutiny the theological assumptions of our culture, while blithely and unquestioningly accepting its scientific dogmas.  The atheistic and humanistic mind-set of our time is predicated upon the tacit acceptance of scientific theories which are staggeringly improbable as they are generally presented to us, but which we never question because we have unconsciously invested their proponents with an authority which the popes and priests of old could only dream about.  We may be like Alice in matters of religion, but we are very much like the Queen when it comes to science.
 Here are what I consider to be the four scientific dogmas of the contemporary Western world; four “impossible things”, if you like.
1.     That the Universe began with a big bang; that there was nothing and then, in a fraction of a millisecond, there was everything.
2.     That life on earth began accidentally; a series of incredible coincidences within the natural world turned inorganic matter into living, self-replicating, cells.
3.     That these simple cells, through another sequence of accidents and coincidences were transformed over aeons of time into the innumerable life forms we see around us.
4.     That self-consciousness, which we human beings enjoy, is itself the chance outcome of the evolutionary process.
So, nothing produces everything; non-living matter produces living cells; a blind, random, evolutionary process produces the profusion of life-forms, and non-conscious entities eventually bring forth conscious beings like ourselves who can love and hate, think like Einstein, write like Shakespeare, and paint like Michelangelo.  In the words of our second reading today (see below):  “Thinking meat! Loving meat! Conscious meat! Dreaming meat!”  And it all came out of nothing.  Indeed, we’ve all had a lot of practice in believing impossible things!
Now please don’t get me wrong.  I am not questioning the validity of these scientific theories.  I am not equipped to do so.  I have little or no scientific education beyond what I learned in secondary school.  And this is just my point.  Few of us have any substantial knowledge about these things.  We haven’t investigated them in any real way and yet, impossible though they seem, we have allowed them to become the cornerstones of our thinking and, to some extent, to inform our opinions on everything – on God, on the Bible, on morality, on life after death, on virtually every important issue you can imagine.
Take the theory of evolution for example.  I’ll bet that if I were to give you each a piece of paper and ask you to write all you know about it you wouldn’t be able to produce more than half a dozen lines.  Maybe there’d be something in the back of your mind about Darwin in the mid-19th century (but when exactly?), and something about moths changing colour in industrial landscapes, and then that film (what was it called? Oh, yes, “Inherit the Wind”) in which a handsome attorney, played by Spencer Tracy, defends a brave schoolteacher whose teaching of evolution has incensed the obscurantist bible-thumping half-wits in the American deep south.  There’s not much else.  And yet we stake our lives and our thinking on such a paucity of information.  Ah, well, we think, I may not know too much about it, but there are plenty who do, and I’ll just believe what they say.  How different is this, Mr and Mrs Enlightened Rationalist Unitarian from the much-mocked deferential attitude of our grannies with their “Father knows best” submission to priestly authority?  We’ve not discarded authority, we’ve just changed our allegiance, and not necessarily through conviction, either, but for the sake of convenience.
I think that we Unitarians have a duty to examine every dogma, no matter what its source.  We have no excuse for lazy thinking.  In what remains of this address I want to consider briefly the second of our scientific dogmas:  that non-living matter accidentally produced living cells.
I have been quite comfortable with this theory for most of my life.  I had this hazy idea that there was something called “the primordial soup”, a random mixture of inorganic chemicals which was fortuitously struck by lightning to produce the first living cell.  Darwin, who had no real idea about how life began either, postulated, in a letter written in 1871, that there might have been, “some warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity etc.”) (Davies, page 61).  The classic film version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has a somewhat similar approach to the relationship between non-living and living things:  Frankenstein’s monster is cobbled together from bits of dead bodies, but a simple charge of electricity brings him to life and sends him lumbering uncontrollably into the world.
These unstudied images – gleaned as much from Hollywood as from investigation – I was content with.  But, in recent years, I have become uneasy with them, and a month or so ago, after reading an article in the Guardian written by Professor Paul Davies, I became acutely aware of their inadequacy.  Paul Davies is a physicist and astrobiologist from the University of Sydney who is currently here in the northern hemisphere lecturing on the origins of life.  He is no crank anti-evolutionist; he’s not a reactionary religious bigot, but his honest account of the difficulties involved in the production of life by non-living matter is arresting and salutary.  This is what he says about the simplest living cell.
The living cell is the most complex system of its kind known to mankind.  Its host of specialised molecules, many found nowhere else but within living material, are themselves already enormously complex.  They execute a dance of exquisite fidelity, orchestrated with breath-taking precision.  Vastly more elaborate that the most complicated ballet, the dance of life encompasses countless molecular performers in synergetic coordination.  Yet this is a dance with no sign of a choreographer, no conscious controlling agency swings the molecules into place at the right time, chooses the appropriate players, closes the links, uncouples the partners, moves them on.  The dance of life is spontaneous, self-sustaining, and self-creating.  (Page 5)

A 'simple' cell
Elsewhere in his book, The Origin of Life, he tells us that the living cell is as complicated as a vast city in the degree of its elaborate activity (page 77), and is “packed with tiny structures that might have come straight from an engineer’s manual – minuscule tweezers, scissors, pumps, motors, levers, valves, pipes, chains and even vehicles abound” (page 76).  The miracle of life is not that it is made of such “nanotools”, he goes on to say, “but that these tiny diverse parts are integrated in a highly organised way.”  (page 76)

Homer, Mr. Burns, and the Monkeys
What are the chances of such a cell coming into existence accidentally?  This is called the chemical fluke theory, which most of us, when we think about it at all, unconsciously subscribe to.  Davies tells us that the odds on such a fluke are enormous and have been computed as 10/40,000 – 1.  That is, 1 with forty thousand noughts after it!  Or, to put it another way, 1 with as many noughts after it as the letters in the chapter of a book.  The odds on dealing a perfect hand of cards a thousand times in succession is as nothing by comparison.  It’s like the old monkeys on the typewriter image:  a million monkeys, typing randomly on a million typewriters over millions of years have more chance of producing the complete works of Shakespeare than has life of originating by a chemical fluke.  The British scientist, Fred Hoyle, has compared it with a hurricane sweeping through a junkyard and producing a fully-functioning Boeing 747!
So incredible are the odds on life happening by a chemical fluke, says Davies, that it is unlikely to happen twice in the universe, or even, as he says in his Guardian article, in a trillion universes!  Perhaps, then, our search for extra-terrestrial life is absolutely forlorn.  Perhaps we are alone in the universe, the incredible outcome of billions of accidents, the only conscious, thinking, loving, dreaming meat in the whole universe.  If so, then the reductionist jibe that we are the inhabitants of an obscure lump of rock revolving round a middling star on one of the many arms of a pretty ordinary galaxy seems quite ridiculously demeaning to us.  Even if we are accidents, we are amazing accidents, the crown and summit of all that exists, blind nature’s greatest achievement.  We should consider ourselves as proud participants in the awe-inspiring dance of life.
But there is another way of looking at these things; perhaps life is not the product of a chemical fluke but is actually instinct within matter itself; perhaps the atoms of matter are not dead entities awaiting an accidental spark or charge to animate them, but alive in a rudimentary sense, possessing a seed of consciousness which would ultimately and inevitably grow into the fully self-conscious human being.  Perhaps, as someone has remarked, it’s as if the universe knew we were coming and has lovingly and painstakingly nourished our emergence.  Perhaps we are part of a great evolutionary unfolding, operating according to a blueprint which was there in the beginning, much like the mysterious way in which an acorn develops into an oak tree.  Perhaps those lovely words in the book of Jeremiah, “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee” (1:6), echoed by Walt Whitman in his Song of Myself, are not just poetic fancy:

I am the acme of things accomplished, and I an encloser of things to be.
Rise after rise bow the phantoms behind me,

Afar down I see the huge first Nothing, the vapour from the nostrils of death,

I know I was even there……I waited unseen and always,

And slept while God carried me through the lethargic mist,

And took my time……And took no hurt from the foetid carbon.

Long was I hugged….close and long.

Immense have been the preparations for me,

Faithful and friendly the arms that have helped me.

Cycles ferried my cradle, rowing and rowing like cheerful boatmen;

For room to me stars kept aside in their own rings,

They sent influences to look after what was to hold me.

Before I was born out of my mother generations guided me,

My embryo has never been torpid…..nothing could overlay it;

For it the nebula cohered to an orb…the long slow strata piled to rest on it…..vast vegetables gave it sustenance.

Monstrous sauroids transported it in their mouths and deposited it with care.

All forces have been steadily employed to complete and delight me,

Now I stand on this spot with my soul.

Perhaps we are not the products of 'blind' chance, but the end and purpose of everything.  But, of course, purpose implies a purpose-giver, and a purpose-giver takes us back to the God we thought we had abandoned.  Is there evidence of design in the universe and if so, what are the implications?  I’ll leave you to ponder these questions, which, as thinking, conscious meat it is your privilege, nay, your duty, to do


An alien explorer, just returned from an earth visit, is reporting to his commander.
“They’re made out of meat.”
“There’s no doubt about it.  We picked several from different parts of the planet, took them aboard our recon vessels, and probed them all the way through.  They’re completely meat.”
“That’s impossible.  What about the radio signals?  The messages to the stars?”
“They use the radio waves to talk, but the signals don’t come from them.  The signals come from the machines.”
“So who made the machines?  That’s what we want to contact.”
“They made the machines.  That’s what I’m trying to tell you.  Meat made the machines.”
“That’s ridiculous.  How can meat make a machine?  You’re asking me to believe in sentient meat.”
“I’m not asking you, I’m telling you.  These creatures are the only sentient race in the sector and they’re made out of meat.”
“Maybe they’re like the Orfolei.  You know, a carbon-based intelligence that goes through a meat stage.”
“Nope.  They’re born meat and they die meat.  We studied them for several of their lifespans, which didn’t take too long.  Do you have any idea of the lifespan of meat?”
“Spare me.  Okay, maybe they’re only part meat.  You know, like the Weddilei.  A meat head with an electron plasma brain inside.”
“Nope, we thought of that, since they do have meat heads like the Weddilei.  But I told you, we probed them.  They’re meat all the way through.”
“No brain?”
“Oh, there’s a brain all right.  It’s just that the brain is made out of meat!”
“So….what does the thinking?”
“You’re not understanding, are you?  The brain does the thinking.  The meat.”
“Thinking meat!  You’re asking me to believe in thinking meat!”
“Yes, thinking meat!  Conscious meat!  Loving meat!  Dreaming meat!  The meat is the whole deal!”
Terry Bisson



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