Why do you atheists bother living?
This meme is trending in the fake battle against science (and atheism) that is being waged on-line by some creationists and conservative religious advocates. Basically, the argument goes, the universe which science (and Dawkins and his ilk) has opened to our understanding is without God, death is the end of a pointless life and thus we have no destiny or hope, so why do we bother living? One wonders what their purpose is with this theme. Is it to rid the world of atheists by driving us to despair and thus suicide?
An up-beat response to this question was given by the atheist blogger, Calladus (Mark Boyd), which you can read here. Calladus argued “Why do we live as if we have a purpose? Because we do. Because we all matter to each other, right now – and not in some merely hypothetical future.”
Last week I made a posting on Facebook, to which my creationist brother commented,
..no meaning…no purpose…no future… from dust, to dust…nothing more….so empty…so bleak… whybother.com
What was my Facebook posting? It was a link to a 3-minute YouTube video of Astrophysicist Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson answering the question “What is the most astounding fact you can share with us?” His answer was the fact that the chemical elements that enable life on Earth were produced and dispersed by the explosion of heavy stars. Our Sun is a second generation star and solar system containing all of the heavier elements necessary for life to emerge. Here is the link:- and this has to be the coolest 3 minutes of video ever! ” So, to my joyous agreement with Tyson’s video, my brother responded with a bleak “why bother?”
I have been an avid follower of things scientific ever since I studied astronomy 50 years ago. Why did I share Tyson’s awe? Because this discovery occurred during my lifetime Because I often reprise the amazement caused by considering that every atom in me has come from the detritus of stars which burnt and died explosively, long before our Sun was born more than four billion years ago.
How was this discovered? Four physicists worked for ten years. Their paper published in 1957 was titled Synthesis of the Elements in Stars. The four were E Margaret Burbidge, G R Burbidge, William Fowler and Fred Hoyle.
Who were these people? English-born astrophysicist Margaret Burbidge is the same age as my Mum, turning 95 in 2014. Her astrophysicist husband, Geoffrey died in 2010. Willie Fowler, the only American-born of the four, was also the only Nobel prize winner. Sir Fred Hoyle coined the term “Big Bang” as an ironic name to underline his rejection of the theory. He was chairman of the Anglo-Australian Telescope board at its inauguration (at Siding Springs) in 1974. Apparently, he was too controversial, too “rude”, to be awarded the Nobel prize with Willie Fowler. It is possible to trace the contribution of the Anglo-Australian Telescope to the work that subsequently affirmed the Big Bang theory, and then the discovery of dark matter (allowing galaxies to form as we observe them) and then dark energy by Aussie Brian Schmidt and associates (causing inflation or the acceleration of the rate of expansion of the universe). Sir Fred also wrote some wonderful science fiction, which I read avidly in my teens.
Why did these scientists bother? Why did they labour for ten years to discover an obscure and arcane fact like this?
The scientific revolution started about 500 years ago, and it, in turn, fuelled the industrial revolution. These were predominantly European phenomena, and are the explanation as to why the empires in the modern era have been European empires. But mankind has sought to understand the universe ever since the Cognitive Revolution over 80,000 years ago. What happened in Europe around AD 1500 to fuel this remarkable era of discovery? The answer is ignorance. Or, rather, the willingness to acknowledge ignorance, that we humans do not know the answers to our most important questions. The pre-modern forms of knowledge such as Islam, Christianity and Confucianism held that everything that is important to know was already known. Whatever the gods or the wise people of the past didn’t bother to tell us is trivial and not worth knowing.
To me, it is quite obvious why our four astrophysicists bothered. Like Tyson and the many other scientists of their kind, they were driven by curiosity and a desire to find an answer to important questions. And the transformation of the human circumstance over these 500 years is comprehensive demonstration that those pre-modern forms of knowledge were quite devoid of the knowledge that has led to the quality of life and life expectancy that we enjoy today. In that context, one feels compelled to ask those, like my brother: if the Scriptures contain all of the knowledge that is of any value and importance, why do you bother with anything else? If you are not motivated by curiosity, what does motivate you to engage with anyone else or anything else in what is, to many of us, this remarkable universe which you disdain?