Alan Lightman, host of the upcoming PBS miniseries, Searching: Our Quest for Meaning in the Age of Science, is on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, the MIT professor, like most people, wants to live a life of purpose and significance. On the other, like many (but by no means all) scientists today, Lightman can find little basis for meaning in the physics that he believes enables us to live and move and have our being.
Lightman believes that if the new Webb telescope or other scientific means should discover other life in the universe, the problem would be lessened. But he acknowledges that extraterrestrial life, based on our knowledge of physical laws and our own observations, is extremely rare.
“A few years ago,” Lightman writes in The Atlantic, “I calculated that, even if all potentially habitable planets do in fact harbor life, the fraction of matter in the universe in living form is exceedingly small: about one-billionth of one-billionth. That’s like a few grains of sand on the Gobi Desert. Evidently, we living things are a very special arrangement of atoms and molecules.”
Another problem for Lightman is the apparent fine-tuning of the universe needed for life to emerge. “For example,” Lightman explains,” if the nuclear force holding the centers of atoms together were a little weaker, then the complex atoms needed for life could never form. If it were a little stronger, all of the hydrogen in the infant universe would have fused to become helium. Without hydrogen, water (H2O) would not exist, and most biologists believe that water is necessary for life.” There are hundreds of other examples of this, which scientists call the anthropic principle.
Here scientists must begin asking the “Why?” question. As Lightman explains, “Why should the universe care whether it contains animate matter?” Lightman briefly considers whether God might have something to do with it.
“The theological answer to this question,” the astrophysicist says, “is a cosmic form of intelligent design: Our universe was created by an all-powerful and purposeful being, who wanted it to have life.”
But he quickly moves to another explanation, more in keeping with his materialistic worldview, stating, “Another explanation, more scientific, is that our universe is but one of a huge number of universes, called the multiverse, which have a wide range of values for the strength of the nuclear force, the amount of dark energy, and many other fundamental parameters. In most of those universes, these values would not lie within the narrow range permitting life to emerge. We live in one of the life-friendly universes because otherwise we wouldn’t be here to ask the question. Our existence, and our universe itself, is simply an accident, one throw of the cosmic dice.”
Is this multiverse theory really “more scientific” than a belief in a divine Creator? No. As Lightman acknowledges later in the piece, “The hypothesized boatload of universes must be accepted or rejected as a matter of faith.”
So which faith describing life, the multiverse, and everything is more reasonable? Christian theism or scientific materialism? Which is more consistent with the facts as we know them? More satisfying? More livable? More meaningful?
The Christian has no reason to be afraid of the latest developments (or speculations) from the scientific community. Both science and Scripture now agree on a beginning for everything—although many scientists had to be dragged kicking and screaming into acknowledging the accuracy of Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning….”
The Christian looks up at the sky and can see the truth of Psalm 19:1, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” “From a Christian perspective it makes sense,” says astrophysicist A.J. Poelarends, director of the Center for Faith and Learning at Anselm House at the University of Minnesota. “It is what we would expect. A personal God, existing in a triune relationship, is the author of a world that exhibits his character in many different ways: The fine-tuning of the universe for life; A mind that is attuned to this reality; The appropriateness of mathematics for the description of physical reality; An innate sense of right and wrong; A sense of awe and wonder when we look up to the skies.”
Lightman, however, looks up and sees only matter in motion. He is forced to manufacture meaning not in the God who made all this, but in the wildly improbable bits of protoplasm that got here he knows not how.
“We living things,” Lightman concludes, “a few grains of sand on the desert, are that special arrangement of atoms and molecules that can attempt to fathom and record this dazzling spectacle of existence. In a limited but real sense, we living things help give the universe meaning. Without us, the cosmos would merely be.”
He might get an argument from Albert Einstein, who noted, “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is at all comprehensible.”
In addition, since Lightman has already admitted that life, the universe, and everything are mere accidents, his solution to the problem of meaning looks more and more like whistling past the cosmic graveyard. Meaning is impossible, and life is unendurable, if we are accidents and there is no plan and no God. Meaningless creatures cannot give meaning to anything, much less to themselves.
But if the opposite is true, that we live in a universe created by a loving and all-powerful God, then our lives can be full of hope, no matter what happens. As the philosopher and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl once said, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
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