God’s Vacant Throne by Robert Gorham Davis (May 1996)

“Why do we exist?” “Why does the world exist?” “Why is there something rather than nothing?” These “ultimate” or “cosmic” questions appear at the beginning of an article in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, called simply “Why.” The article was written by the encylopedia’s Editor-in-Chief, Paul Edwards.

In his article Edwards quotes a British astrophysicist who said the problems raised by the three questions “can tear the individual’s mind asunder.” I myself tackled Edwards’s article, not because I wanted my mind torn asunder, but because modern astronomy, with its vast distances and “big-bang” theory of the origins of the universe–apparently springing out of nothingness–threatened to do it for me.

Though no Fundamentalist or Bible believer, I remembered how Genesis began. In the opening chapter woman, far from being made out of man’s rib–an unlikely source–has the same divine origin as her husband.

Not only does the fictional God resemble his literary creators in appearance and action but–sex aside–in ignorance, also. Though he creates what is said to be the earth we live on, he has got its structure and operations all wrong. This the scientifically-minded have known since the times of Copernicus and Galileo. Our tiny bit of the universe is not earth-centered, but sun-centered. The earth spins daily on its own axis and revolves yearly around the sun. But of such astronomy God, with all his reputed omniscience, knew nothing.

So far as God’s ignorance of his own presumed creations is concerned, take the Hebrew word translated “firmament,” which occurs nine times in the first chapter of Genesis, and five times in the latter part of the first chapter of Ezekiel. It shows that God–or his imaginers–had a very faulty sense of the earth which he allegedly created. The firmament was supposed to be a solid dome with windows in it which separated the waters above the earth from waters on and underneath it.

This is all very different from the expanding universe as we and our contemporaries know it. In the last few weeks great excitement has been caused, both in the scientifically inclined and in ordinary newspaper readers, by the discovery of two neighboring yet very distant planets on which life might be possible.

Chet Raymo, a professor of physics who writes a weekly science column for The Boston Globe tries to give us some idea of the distances involved. He tells how the Hubble Deep Field Camera was focused for ten days on a tiny speck of sky beyond the range of ordinary astronomical telescopes. “The most distant galaxies in the photograph,” he writes, “are more than ten million light-years away.” A light-year is the distance light travels in a year, 5,880,000,000,000 miles.

Raymo continues “We see them” (these distant galaxies) “as they were not long after the universe’s beginning.” A comparable survey of the entire sky would show 50 billion galaxies. “Each galaxy contains hundreds of billions of stars. Most of the stars probably have families of planets. Our sun is just one star in the Milky Way Galaxy, a flat spiral of a trillion stars.”

These staggering numbers were used to show the likelihood that if intelligent life existed here on earth it probably existed in innumerable planets elsewhere. It was at this point that my brain rebelled. Despite Raymo’s efforts, these magnitudes were too much for me.

I believed the truth of his numbers and in one sense understood them, but I was imaginatively unable to extend them into space and comprehend the reality of what they stood for, making as they did of our galaxy a tiny speck in the vast rapidly expanding universe, with a corresponding diminishment of our importance, though our whole lives went on here, as had all of human history. I believed and I did not believe.

What about the imagined God? The God of Genesis–despite the saying “With God all things are possible”–certainly had no awareness of such magnitudes, or of the double rotations of the earth, or even of the existence of the Southern hemisphere of this spherical earth. Nor did Jesus seem aware of any of this, though as a member of the Trinity he allegedly shared in God’s consciousness. If conscious intelligences existed on other planets (ETI), would they not have their own god or gods and own bodies, the bodies evolving according to what equivalent of Darwinism operated according to the particular possibilities on their planets?

The prime focus of the discussion stimulated by the discovery of the two planets was not on God or vast distances but on the possibility of communication between us and extra- terrestrians. The article in Time was headed “IS ANYBODY OUT THERE?” with the subheading, “How the discovery of two planets brings us closer to solving the most profound mystery in the cosmos.” “The most profound mystery in the cosmos,” presumably, is the “why” of its origin. Putting it another way, “Why is the universe thus and not otherwise?” What answer is possible?

The Harvard University Gazette of January 25 featured what it called “The Great ET Debate” between Ernst Mayr, Agassiz Professor Emeritus of Zoology, who said the chance of communication with extraterrestrials was “virtually nil” and Physics Professor Paul Horowitz who–answering Mayr point by point–said intelligent life on other planets was a virtual certainty. Generally speaking, the excitement aroused by the discovery of the two planets seemed focused on the possibility that we could at some point communicate with their inhabitants.

It had occurred to me that if intelligence developed spontaneously on other planets distributed through the universe, it and the bodies of its possessors might exhibit very different characteristics from our own, and that communication, quite apart from the technical difficulties, might be very unsatisfying. In any case its development to the point where it was genuinely informative might take hundreds, even thousands, of years. In a universe as vast and varied as the one astronomers are now exploring, expanses of time are as likely as those of space. If the ones who first communicate with us have any religion at all, it may be as different from any of ours as Buddhism is from Roman Catholicism, and the idea of a god or goddess may be totally puzzling.

This took me back to the article “Why” by Paul Edwards, whose title, I discovered from Edwards’s bibliography, is based on an entry titled “Why?”–sometimes termed “The Whys”–in Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary. Though not himself a theist, Edwards has a long section called “The Theological Why.”

Since my loss of faith in God at about the age of 12, I had been increasingly certain that no personal God had ever intervened in human affairs, and that the Bible and its god were full of blatant inconsistencies. If the God of the Hebrew Bible was so uninformative in his conversations with Moses, what is the likelihood that a God who created the expanding universe of the “big-bang” would tell us any more–if indeed he exists and is capable of doing so? Let us as secular humanists dutifully raise with Roman Catholics and Fundamentalists the question of the nature of the astronomers’ universe and its implications for theism, to see what happens. Of course we will have to master a certain amount of astronomy ourselves, and force our imaginations correspondingly.

Foundation member Robert Gorham Davis is a distinguished educator living in Massachusetts. A Harvard graduate, he received the Bowdoin prize there in 1929, was a Fulbright professor in Austria, and was a Guggenheim fellow 1971-1972. He taught at Harvard and Smith College, and was part of the Columbia University faculty from 1943-1976, including a stint as chair of the English department. His books include John Dos Passos and his popular writings have appeared in the New Yorker, Colliers, New York Times Book Review and other publications.

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