The Purpose of Life?

G. K. Chesterton once said,  “Do not be so open-minded that your brains fall out.” Variations of this quote has been used by many. For example Richard Dawkins has been heard saying, “By all means let’s be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains drop out.” It reflects a slight amount of frustration prevalent among the atheist community to which I also belong. We must be inclusive to other ideas that may or may not contradict with our own but we shouldn’t be too inclusive that it amounts to frustration.

The Uninvited Argument

Recently an interesting incident took place at my workplace. As an atheist I often have uninvited guests who find entertainment in taking up meaningless debates with me. What annoys me is that the people who come to argue with me already make an assumption that I do not know the answers to their questions. Further, they don’t have the patience to listen to the answers I give. And when they find that I do have the answers, they get uncomfortable and impatient and often threatened.

I was talking about a recent Malayalam movie “Prabhuvinte Makkal” to my co-worker. It was an openly atheistic movie targeted against the so called “living Gods”, the frauds who prey on the money of desperate naïve masses. Another co-worker of mine objected to it and I told him that it took me several years to convince myself to become an atheist and that it was not a one day process. He joked saying that it is better for me to find an atheist girl because otherwise there would be conflict everyday. As we were laughing, another colleague of mine arrived at our bay and asked what was being discussed. So my co-worker told, “The subject is atheism“. Immediately he made a statement, “There is definitely a force behind everything in the universe.” Being a fan of Carl Sagan, I knew that if we had to pursue the question of existence courageously, we must ask the next question, “Where did the creator come from?” I did exactly that. An argument ensued thereafter. The following is a rough transcript of it (from my memory):

Colleague: “If you don’t answer with another question, shall I ask you something?”

Me: Sure. But if your answer requires me to counter with a question, I would certainly do that.

Colleague: Okay. Which came first? Chicken or egg?

Me: That’s not a question because egg laying reproduction evolved over time much before birds even came into existence. So I would say it is neither chicken nor the egg that came first.

Colleague: Just because Darwin said something doesn’t mean we have to accept it.

Me: Come on! In the past 150 years since Darwin’s work, every possible experiment has been conducted on evolution and it has passed every time. In fact the theory is so powerful that it has been applied in so many different fields. Next time you take an antibiotic, think about Darwin.

Colleague: I won’t do that!

Me: See, this double standard is what makes me irritated. You want all the benefits of science but still want to speak against it.

Colleague: I am not speaking against science. Tell me this – Is there a diameter to the universe?

Me: The observable universe has a diameter of a few billion light years. Why?

Colleague: Has science been able to find out what is beyond that?

Me: No. But does that mean that you should fill in that gap with a God? Shouldn’t we wait for more scientific data to explain things?

Colleague: Where did atoms come from?

Me: Through the process of nucleosynthesis. Initial atoms were formed during a transition from radiation dominated phase to matter dominated phase. Heavier atoms were cooked inside stars.

Colleague: What is the purpose of life?

Me: To propagate our DNA. That’s the prime directive. Everything else is optional.

Colleague: It’s a big question as to whether everything God or everything is science.

My Interpretations

The last statement of his is meaningless and you would have already guessed that the conversation didn’t go well. He didn’t allow me to complete most of the sentences that I have mentioned here. Most of the time he would cut me off and ask the next question. This is a tactic employed by many creationists. The idea is to frustrate the opponent in order to “win” the argument. Finally he said that he will wait for the return of another colleague from long leave so that he will have back up to argue. And after every answer I gave, he was simply smiling and shaking his head like a fool.

The chicken or egg argument is a very funny one. Anyone who cares to look up the evolutionary history will know that egg laying has been there long before birds walked the earth. From fishes to amphibians to reptiles to birds, there is so much convincing evidence for the transition. I have repeatedly written in my previous blog posts about evolution and its applications. Darwin is not the only scientist who worked on evolution. There have been thousands since him but creationists are still stuck with Darwin. Every experiment that one can imagine has been conducted with evolution and every time the theory and its predictions have been proven to be right. If that is not evidence for its correctness I don’t know what is.

By definition universe means all that there is. When we take that definition into consideration, “beyond the diameter of the universe” doesn’t make any sense. Of course, being able to observe is limited by the technology of our time. There may be a multiverse but that is a concept in cosmology that is not agreed upon by many. And my great debater didn’t mention multiverse in his argument because if he had I would have sat with him and discussed some more. According to him, being unable to know what is beyond the observable universe due to lack of advanced technology is somehow evidence for God. He is unwilling to concede to the fact that science is progressive in nature. He can’t accept that what was not known in the past is now known and therefore science will definitely figure out more things in future. How hard is it to grasp?

I am not surprised that many people do not know where atoms came from. Few months ago when I was talking about stellar nucleosynthesis to a friend, he was surprised to know that heavy elements are cooked inside stars. My issue is the reluctance of people to look up and figure things out in this information age. I am not saying that we should run to Google on each and every thing or be in front of the computer reading Wikipedia all the time. But it is definitely advisable to read at least once in a while about subjects like oceanography, astronomy, geology etc. It doesn’t hurt to know how the world we live in works.

Coming to the main topic of this article, what is really the purpose of life? I have been asked many times this question. Being an atheist doesn’t mean we lack any “purpose” in life or any moral values. Just because we exist does not mean that it has to “mean” something or there is some kind of “divine purpose” behind it. We exist because our parents gave birth to us. Since we live in a society, we do have certain obligations to set goals in life and try achieving it but again that is not mandatory. Nobody is forbidding us from going and living in a jungle if we so choose. So do atheists live with ethics and morals? Yes we do. And frankly our morals are in fact found to be far superior to religious people.

What would convince me?

Having said all of this, suppose I agree that there could be a God, what should be the nature of the evidence to convince me? Evidence as I wrote before can be direct or indirect. For example, the CMB (Cosmic Microwave Background) may contain tell tale signs of a pre-big bang event. Scientists believe that events prior to the big bang event may have produced certain signatures in the CMB that can be detected and interpreted. I am not saying you should go and check CMB for the evidence for God. I am trying to show you the nature of evidence that you should bring to the table. The idea that a God wants to create the universe and maintain it without any shred of his/her/its existence doesn’t digest well in the mind of a person with scientific curiosity.

Now, if you bring a cosmologically significant evidence doesn’t mean I would convert immediately. I will ask for peer-reviewed evaluation of your evidence. It should be scrutinized by other scientists and its validity checked. Further, the experiment you suggest should be repeatable and produce the exact same results. If the scientific community rejects your “evidence”, I wouldn’t accept it either.

Still I will ask the question “Where did the creator come from?” and that my dear readers is a question that creationists keep evading every time. What’s wrong in admitting if we do not know the answer? It’s not an offense to not know an answer. The offense is not accepting that fact and continuing to take up circular arguments that never get anywhere.

So in conclusion, my creationist friends should stop feeling threatened by atheists. We are not evil people with evil agenda just because we don’t agree to your prehistoric beliefs. In fact we are much less evil than you are. And we really don’t need a God to be moral. If you require a God to distinguish from right and wrong then you probably need psychiatric help in my opinion.