Tue, 20 Oct 2009 8:22 PM (GMT-0700)
Last time I was Bored in Baltimore, I watched a series called the Atheist Tapes on the Netflix Instant Queue. Denys Turner made a particularly bold challenge to the "card-carrying atheists" of the world, by daring us to step beyond the "what" and "how" answers provided by scientific process and try to answer the "why" questions supposedly addressed by theology. Well, I suppose that begs the question of whether theology does any better with those questions than what scientists do with the "why" questions that can't be addressed by scientific method, which I would say is a resounding no. But he at least gets points for being interesting.
Denys Turner talks of the universe as a gift. In fact, he calls it gratuitous, an adjective more closely associated with sex and violence than the natural world in my mind (guilt by association). I think the term is sort of apt in that the universe really doesn't seem to serve a particular purpose, but completely inapt in that it implies that there is something outside the universe that does the giving (sneaky, these theists, always finding a reason to invent a god). From my point of view inside the universe, I certainly see a world in which to exist as a gift (especially with its unbreakable order and practically unlimited freedom).
In this sense, the universe exists for the universe's sake, to be appreciated by itself, or within itself, or by a subset of evolved consciousnesses contained within. We have another term for things that exist for their own sake: art. The universe is art, it is form. We perceive its rules and order, and can say that it functions, but is that distinct from it having function?
In order to answer this question, it must first be decided whether form and function are dichotomous. Pirsig's Zen example is the Coke can shim to fix a loose brake lever, which gets rejected by his touring buddy for purely aesthetic reasons. His buddy wants to buy the part/service from his BMW dealer for what amounts to artistic purity; Pirsig knows their mechanics are just going to cut a piece of aluminum and slap it around the handlebar anyway. The difference is purely aesthetic. (Does this matter, that it has some Coke-red labeling on it or not, hidden away behind the handle?) In this sense, form and function are distinct. Both shims perform the same function, but in different form.
Certainly any system can have both form and function. We can imagine hundreds of useful things in our lives with aesthetic value and utility, often by starting with the first five minutes of every morning. Beds, sheets, alarm clocks, curtains, faucets, towels: all functional forms. But what happens when we try to define the relationship between form and function in each of these things? The form is subordinate to the function. In order to be useful for a given function, there are certain constraints that must be met by the form. It doesn't much matter to the purpose what color our toothbrushes are, but they better at least have a handle and bristles. The art is really only what's left after subtracting out the utility of anything.
In the Pirsig example, the form-function distinction feels somewhat tautological: we artificially constrained two forms to the same function in order to show the difference. Using the toothbrush, we have defined the word art in terms of function, which may not be a very satisfying way to show dichotomy. Perhaps it is too ambitious to tackle this relationship in a few paragraphs, so let's take the definition of art as the part of existence that serves no useful function and run with it.
Does the universe have utility? Again, having utility is distinct from functioning. We can rely on natural laws such as gravitational attraction, subatomic interaction, and learn to predict the systems that arise from these natural laws. The universe 'works' in an exceedingly reliable way. But is it useful? Useful to whom? Humans certainly find it useful because it enables our existence (and we have the higher reasoning capability to appreciate it). But we are part of the universe, so at best the universe is only useful to parts of itself.
The theist mind will likely jump next to thoughts of something outside the definition of the universe. A typical attribute of a god is that it exists outside the universe. We can probably create rational-sounding arguments about the utility of the universe to a god, but whatever those arguments are, they result in the idea that our universe (and therefore we) exist only to be useful to a god. This is actually pretty common theme of religion, and we can come by the precept rationally. But is this precept of any useful answers to our original question ("why?"), or is it just a convenient tool for one class of people to manipulate another?
Another common religious precept is that man cannot know the mind of god. Then why the hell are there so many claims made by religious people to the contrary? There is no chain of custody for the Bible, Koran, or any of the other millennia-old religious texts claimed as the words of god. If we exist only to be useful to a god, yet we cannot know what that god wants, that seems like a recipe for insanity. So how can we determine what a god would want?
We have nothing but our own observations. We can observe the rules of the universe and discover that some of them are immutable. We can also observe the supposed "rules" proposed by various religions and discover that most of them are mutable, or at least culturally relative. We can observe still other rules of man-made legal systems and societal structures and discover those that promote the general good and those that promote the general misery. But in all these observations, we are limited by the natural: what we can perceive. It is of no use to our lives to postulate a god outside of our perceivable experience to this process of finding meaning in the universe. However, the concepts we are left with are often qualities that are ascribed to an idea of god, such as love, interdependence, ineffability, and those things as yet beyond our understanding or limits.
If the universe is useful to only ourselves, or to some entity that cannot be known, then it is essentially form for form's sake. It is still up to us to find our own meaning. My challenge to return to Denys Turner and other theists is to explain why the religious answer ("we're part of God's plan") isn't a cop-out that allows people to live their lives without their own individual purpose and meaning, and why the rational answer ("it's for you to determine") isn't more honest, challenging, and responsible.