If the universe had a point, how would you know what it was?
What philosopher, physicist, sage, or poet could possibly tell you? As wise as they were, they’re just as small and finite as you are. You’ve no guarantee that their answers are any better than the ones you came up with on your own. And yet, we desperately need answers—I need to know what the purpose of all this is. I need to know my place in it.
Now when faced with a painting that I can’t make sense of, I find it useful to read the little plaque next to it. There’s often a statement from the artist there about what they were trying to do in the painting. Of course artists can’t know everything even about their own art, but knowing what the artist was trying to say is pretty useful. The question is, where is the little plaque hanging next to the whole universe?
Welcome back to the Homilies of St. Asinus, the recycled saint
Before you can really get any satisfaction out of anyone’s answers to the big questions—who am I? Why am I here? What’s the purpose of the whole world?—we have to decide if we’re comfortable with where the answers are coming from. People who claim to have such answers have them either on the basis of their own authority or on someone else’s. Great thinkers often have profound realizations based only on their own reflection on the universe—the way I suppose the Buddha reached enlightenment.
Most claim answers on the basis of something external to themselves—a vision, a mathematical equation, “universal common sense.” The point is that the level of confidence we have in such answers often rests on whether or not we can buy into the “source” of the answers. When my neighbor Bob claims to have “had a vision” it feels different to me than reading about the visions recorded by the prophets Isaiah or Ezekiel, which feels different again from the celebrity agnostic on NPR denying that real visions even happen—taking the Scroogian line, “it was just a bit of bad beef.”
So where do you get the most reliable answers to the big questions of life? Where are to be found those deep truths upon which all other truths depend? Is it found in our own trial-n-error experiences, some ancient book. Are they found under a microscope or on a conspiracy theorist’s website?
You’d do well to remember, I’m just a man, so my answers aren’t any better than yours, but since you’re here, you must be at least a little curious as my source of answers.
The first thing you have to understand is that everyone everywhere starts with something they cannot prove—yes, everyone. They may not ever think about it consciously, but everybody has some deep beliefs that they can’t really demonstrate to scientific or philosophical standards. That’s not because their intellectually lazy, it’s just because of the way knowledge works. Rather people must assume certain basic things are true and then go out and try to live them in the world. If life seems to be working out well, they take it as evidence that their starting beliefs are good ones.
Everyone everywhere starts with something they cannot prove – yes, everyone.
But if their life goes splat, and if they’re at all the reflective type, then they begin to question their deep assumptions about the world and maybe go through a bit of a crisis over what life’s really about. And you find that eventually they modify their basic beliefs or maybe adopt new ones to cope with the parts that didn’t work. The Christian becomes an atheist, the atheist converts to Christianity, the republican becomes a democrat, the materialist becomes an mystic. The carnivore goes vegan. It happens all the time, but the new set of starting assumptions are ultimately just as optimistically unprovable as the last ones. The hope is just that they’ll work better in the world.
What this means is that everybody everywhere has faith in something. Some set if beliefs are taken for granted. They have to be assumed true or else you couldn’t go any further.
Now I find people usually associate a word like “faith” only with religious people, but even hard core skeptics have to take many basic things “on faith” as well.
For example our skeptic might say, “I only trust what I can see.” And what he’s really saying is that things my eyes can see are more reliable or true than things I can’t. That is, only information from the senses is reliable. “Seeing is believing.” Or maybe they’re a bit more sophisticated and speak rather of the certainty of “science”—which essentially says the same thing, since good scientists are the first to recognize the foundational role the senses, like seeing, play in their task.
But here’s the question for the skeptic: how would one prove that what the eye sees is reliable? If your eyes are a product of a long series of evolutionary developments, then there is no certain reason to believe that eyes exist to give you a true picture of the universe—only one that helps you survive and pass on your genes—that was “natural selection” simply means. In the end, the person who is trusting their physical senses—taste, touch, sight, hearing–doesn’t have an real argument other than one provided by the very senses they claim to trust in—I trust my senses work properly simple because…well, they work—it’s all rather circular,
Don’t get me wrong. Personally, I think, baring disease or injury, eyes are generally reliable and for two reasons. First, the same reason the skeptic would claim—because we use our eyes a lot in this world and they generally seem to produce reliable results. And most of the time that’s enough to get along comfortably in life.
But as a Christian, I have another reason that I think I can trust my eyes, that itself becomes one of these assumed beliefs. That is I think there is a good reason—or warrant—for being able to trust healthy eyes.
Not only do I find the eye generally “reliable” in experience, I also believe the eye (and all the senses) were designed with this particular universe in mind. The same one who made the eye also made the universe and intended them to work together. That’s why my eyes are generally trust-worthy—because they were made to be so. That’s my reason…my warrant… for believing so. And if I can be honest, it’s a confidence, my skeptical friend can’t have on the basis of his starting places. Now if he demands I furnish scientific proof of this basic belief, of course I can’t because for that I’d need my eyes, and that would just beg the question. I’m in the same boat he is. We both need to start with something we can’t prove with our eyes. My only advantage is that my explanation—that of a common designer of the universe and the eye— explains why eyes are reliable, where his does not.
This is the difficulty with all answers to the big basic questions—not just religious answers, scientific ones too. They are all impossible to prove true with our senses, because we and our senses are part of the very universe we’re trying to figure out. And there’s no way to get outside the universe and look at it to check our answers objectively. There’s no other universes that we can compare this one to in order to see if we’re right. It’s like trying to write an essay entitled, “Words don’t exist”—how can I disprove the existence of words by writing an essay with… words?
Now the reason I say all of this, is not because I’m about to offer a bunch of proofs that such a creator God actually exists. Nor because I fault the skeptic for having unprovable faith in the general reliability of his mind, his eyes, or his senses. Let us be good and kind to each other and not demand of each other what neither of us could possibly provide to the other’s satisfaction.
I belabor all of this only because you just have to understand that the existence of such a Creator is one of my starting places…oh, I do have a bunch of tedious reasons I could give in support of it, but you would quickly recognize that they’re just like the skeptics reasons for trusting his eyes—that is, they all come a posteriori, meaning, after the fact. I get them after I assume the truth of God’s existence–from going out into the world and using the very eyes I claim that God designed.
The person who denies the existence of a Creator of course does the same. Nature is an accommodating host—she will give you support for whatever belief you’ve already committed yourself to.
So all the saintly ass is doing in this homily is informing you of the basic controlling beliefs which he thinks offer the best answers to the big questions about Life, the Universe, and Everything. If you want to say you don’t hold these assumptions, God bless you as you go, but you must allow him to hold them…because they are the only ones by which he can make sense of the world.
So when it comes to the question of what the point of the universe is. I confess that I only know one sort of source that could give you any kind of workable answer. It can’t be the universe itself or anything in it. The universe didn’t come with an instruction manual or a plaque with an artist statement…or rather if it did, that would only prove my point. The only one who could declare with any confidence the point of the universe or my place in it, would have to be someone outside it—someone beyond it. No one from inside has the perspective to do it. Cartoon characters know nothing of the process of animation, for that you must ask the animator—who is not, you’ll notice—in the cartoon. Characters in a novel can’t tell you the chapter titles, for that you’ll need the author.
So are my two basic controlling assumptions for my working answers to the big question from here forward: First, all of this and myself as a part of it only exists because a Creator has so made it. Second, that this creator has in fact spoken to us in a number of ways with the purpose of answering our most important questions. The 20th c. theologian Francis Schaffer wrote two books with roughly these same titles and for the same purpose: “He is There” and “He is There and is not Silent”
The import of these assumptions is that if I really want to know the point of the whole thing, I’m going to have to take someone else’s word for it. That is, I’m going to have to trust, something outside myself. I have to take someone’s word for it even when my own experience seems to say something else. Like when the doctor tell you that you have a cancerous tumor even though you feel just fine. You can either believe the doctor and take the prescribed course, or claim that you know better how you feel…and take your chances.
I know this sounds scary; I mean, taking someone else’s word even against your own senses feels…well, counter-intuitive… negligent even.
Well, consider for a moment how few of the things you already believe are the results of your own actual investigations. You believe that most of the countries in the world exist, not because you’ve seen them in person (with those trustworthy eyes of yours), but because you hear of them on the news or see them on a map—neither of which are beyond forgery.
Everything of any detail you know about the solar system you believe because some NASA probe sent back little beeps or even because some ancient thinker like Galileo was good at math. You have no memories at all before you were, say, 3 years old. Your whole birth and infancy actually consists of the fading memories of your parents and a few possibly photoshopped pictures. In fact, just about everything you claim to know, you do so on the basis of trust in someone else—a teacher, a biologist, an old book, a wise uncle…Wikipedia.
So I’m not playing a trick on you. I’m not doing anything we don’t already do all the time. Claiming to know anything worth knowing about the world is to admit that you are trusting someone else.
Claiming to know anything worth knowing about the world is to admit that you are trusting someone else.
Now the bigger and harder the question, the greater the authority of our source must be and the deeper the trust demanded. If all you care to know is John Lennon’s birthday, Wikipedia is probably sufficient, but if you want to know the meaning of the whole ball of wax, who can you trust that much? Cicero? Einstein? Kanye? Yes, these all have eyes, just like you…but they’re no better than your own.
This is why I suggest that the most fruitful source of an answer we can live with (if indeed there is one) has to be a voice from beyond, from one who, although all else moves, is itself not moved.
All that to say, if I want to know the reason for the universe or my place within it, I’m going to have to look to something like God, and in the end, take God’s word for it. If you don’t like divine answers, that’s fine, but then you’re back to looking for another trustworthy source, and I simply won’t be able to help you.
But having assumed this location for my answers, I can reflect on my subsequent experience in the universe. At every turn I find myself thrown back upon these two assumptions—of the One who is there, and that this One has not been silent. I say this because I, perhaps like you, have tried the other way as well. I spent a period of my life trying to come up with my own purpose and meaning—to build my own world out of nothing—to demand that the universe submit to some structure of my own devising, and after the hardest and most miserable struggle of my life found that all I had actually succeeded in doing was destroying my life and those of a lot of other people. Self-deception, depression, and agonizing solitude was all I got for my trouble. So if you feel you can do better on your own, I won’t stop you from trying. I wish you the best of luck. But when you reach the end of your rope, come back to old St. Asinus. He’ll be here, and we can weep over your losses together.
As we shall see in the coming homilies, this outer voice has told us, and our experience confirms, that human nature is fickle—we’re like the tide, we go in, we go out——we move around an awful lot but I believe there is One who does not move. One who patiently waits for us to run to the end of our rope, and then invites us back home, bloodied and bruised, to see the world through a different set of eyes.
If you could see the world through the right set of eyes, you could be at peace anywhere, because no matter what this crazy universe threw at you, you would know where you fit, where you belong….no, I’ve said that badly…you would know to whom you belong. We would finally cease to feel like Arthur Dent in the Hitchhiker’s Guide, thrown from world to world, nomadically searching for an earth that he already knows has been destroyed. No, St. Augustine knew better, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts will be ever restless, until they rest in you.”
See you next time at the Homilies of St. Asnius, reflections of a recycled saint.