More than what is

“If there is no God, then everything is permitted.”

So remarked Ivan Karamazov in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, thinking that if there isn’t a higher power watching over human beings, then they don’t have to abide by any laws or moral codes. This sentiment and its opposite (that God exists and sets rules for our behavior) are quite common in the U.S.

When some hear there is no god, they think “everything is permitted” and no laws of morality have to be observed; when they find out there is no free will, they think life is worthless and impervious to betterment; when they learn of mechanistic or reductionist explanations of their nature, they lose all interest in that domain. A common sentiment is that love is “nothing more than chemicals making you do stupid things.” A chemistry professor at Boston University once derided a horde of pre-med hopefuls as “nothing more than water-bags swooshing with organic molecules.” An Op-Ed contributor for Slate recently lamented the purported disappearance of the concept of evil, as neuroscientists come up with natural (as opposed to super-natural) explanations of it.

The list goes on, but we have enough information now to ask – why do people crave justification, meaning or higher purpose to their lives? What makes them feel that a world built on rules of physics is inadequate, insufficient? Is there something fundamental about human nature that makes most seek vindication?

Progress in science over the last few centuries has provided us with the greatest gifts – like iPads and supercomputers, fast cars and spaceships, life-extending medical treatments and Scooby-Doo band-aids – and a deep understanding of the universe. We don’t have megapixel-range clarity yet, but we do have an impressionistic outline of reality. This picture is painted with rules, which layer by layer produce an incredibly complex, miraculous system that includes these special machines of life. But this is not enough for some.

Perhaps people don’t like that facts and answers kill wonder. Compare Beethoven’s “Mesozoic symphony” (something Richard Dawkins would have liked to see) with his actual Eroica (i.e. heroic) Symphony written in the memory of a great man – Napoleon Bonaparte – when he declared himself Emperor. Wonder and questions are awe-inspiring; answers are not.

That’s not to say that we don’t need answers or wonder. We can have all the wonder and awe that we like, it just has to be kept out of the realm of facts. Let’s call it escapism, if we may. Its not that there is anything wrong with facts and the real world – they are cool, fantastic and magical – but if you want to wonder, you have to let the facts go. Is this not the same as the anecdotal claim that “schools kill creativity”? Similarly, let’s think of the brain as a wonderful machine. Would the brain bore us if we had answers to all neuroscientific questions?

This is all quite speculative – just a musing. Perhaps with a different constitution of atoms in my body tomorrow, I will have a different opinion on the matter. Remember, readers, your minds are the most sophisticated machines in the universe; that at least is something to be inspired by.

And now for something completely different:


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