“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”
― Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (1995)
This widely quoted paragraph is the subject of this essay. I am mostly concerned with the last sentence, but let me first briefly comment on the opening that builds up the dramatic power. When you read the comment on suffering, it seems at first like a valid observation, one that “sees through” the “illusion” of the goodness of the world to all the harshness of “the truth of things”. But think a little. If you had to write a couple of sentences in which you tried to capture a fair portrait of what happens in the natural world during the minute it takes to compose a sentence, would this be the portrait? Of course not. The suffering is not to be set aside, but it is less than half the story of most life, and it is less than half the story of life on Earth. Are all the careful, sympathetic and fulfilling studies presented by naturalists such as Sir David Attenborough just some sort of rose-tinted spectacles and wishful thinking? No. Go and look in your garden, or in the forest, or the jungle, or in the river, or the ocean, or on the African plain. Is it the case that starvation and misery is the “natural state” of affairs? Or are they part of a natural state of affairs which has here been grossly miss-represented?
The quotation above is only a short extract, so it does not, on its own, present the full force of the argument behind it. However, I think the concluding sentence is a fair statement of where Dawkins and others are coming from, and it is the sort of thing you see emphasized by modern-day public speakers in the cause of atheism:
“The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”
In the following I am going to take the above statement apart. I do this not out of any wish to triumph over anyone, nor to deny the feeling of hopeless meaninglessness which is part of the common currency of human experience. But I will assert that the feeling is misleading, and the argument behind it is illogical.
First, though, let’s acknowledge the feeling. The feeling that our lives are meaningless is a pervasive and very painful aspect of human experience, one that I do not want for a moment to deny or treat lightly. It is, indeed, this very impression that contributes large amounts of the pain of bereavement or of having life-chances cut short. And when you look at the wandering history that led up to the present, you can decide there is no meaning there either (it can seem that way), and nor will there be meaning in the future. “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity,” said the preacher.
But the argument asserted in the name of atheism goes much further than a feeling. It tries to assert connections or inferences which, even if they are not hard logic in the strictest sense, are nevertheless said to be reasonable. It tries to assert a form of reasoning. It is an argument from properties of the universe to an absence of design, purpose, evil, good, pity or concern in whatever is the origin or source of the universe. Dawkins is saying that he thinks if there were nothing but pitiless indifference “at bottom”, then the world would come out like it has come out. I think this is wrong. I think, if there were nothing but pitiless indifference at bottom, then we should expect the world to come out showing nothing but pitiless indifference. But it does not. Human beings are part of the world, and human beings do not display mere pitiless indifference all the time. Nor, for that matter, do plenty of other creatures.
Dawkins and other of my intellectual opponents will admit that human beings are capable of pity, and I think we will agree that human beings are capable of good, and ought to restrict and oppose their own tendencies towards evil. The question that remains is, then, whether this aspect of humanity has been spontaneously created from absolutely nothing, from a complete absence of good or pity, or whether it is an expression of a goodness that is independent of humanity and was there all along.
Before we consider humanity, however, let’s take a look at the rest of the known universe. To the most brief impression, and to the most thorough investigation, it does not look like a random chaos. When the atheist asserts that this universe “has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design”, one does begin to wonder. Wouldn’t we expect the universe to be a bit less replete with pattern if there is, at bottom, no design?
To handle this, atheism typically advances arguments along the lines of “anthropic cosmological reasoning”, and often it invokes the idea of multiple universes. One idea is, in broad brush, that the fundamental reality that gave or gives rise to all that exists is randomness. Another idea is that the reality that gave or gives rise to all that exists is a collection of abstract principles. I will comment on these. For brevity, the first idea I will call R, the second AP.
Consider R. Perhaps the universe that we are part of is a temporary pattern in a fundamental randomness. Nothing else has shaped the randomness; it is just in the nature of randomness that it can occasionally exhibit patches of structure and order. Patches that have the form of an expanding spacetime, for example, with the multiple fields described by M-theory or some such “grand unified theory”. Let us admit, this might be so. There is absolutely no way of telling. No matter what signs of pattern we actually find, it will always remain possible to say “it just happened”. It is the ultimate non-scientific statement, and it can always be made. No evidence can refute it.
Perhaps I am being a little unfair. Perhaps R does have some predictive power, if one adds a small amount of mathematics—just enough to say that even randomness has some properties, namely the fact that in a random situation, structure is rare, and a high degree of structure is rarer than a low degree of structure. If we allow this much, then R begins to say something, because it predicts that the universe around us should be minimally structured. This is a very rough use of the term “should be”, because I am trying not to invoke further mathematical ideas such as probability. Probability is itself a type of structure. But we can admit that if R is so, then we might reasonably infer that the universe has, “most likely,” the least amount of structure that is capable of giving rise to conscious agents such as ourselves. (That last assertion is an example of “anthropic” reasoning.)
It would indeed be interesting if it turned out that our universe is in some sense minimal. That is, if it is the least complicated that is needed in order to allow long-lived stars, chemistry, Darwinian evolution, brains. It is very hard to know how we could assess that well enough to be able to tell. But it seems to me that the universe has some significant unnecessary “extras” that suggest it is not minimal. The “extras” I am referring to are things like deep beauty in the laws of nature, poetry in humans, and extravagant hope. In a patch of order in a fundamental randomness, would the universe have such deep hidden beauty? And would there be as much tendency to seek beauty and to assert hope as is the case in our human lives? Nobody knows. But all the arts, and all the sciences, and all the efforts to assert that life is worth something and we can make a better future together—these all constitute the claim that we can tell what words like worth and better mean. We can tell. Imperfectly, but such words are not without meaning. As soon as you see that, you have dropped R. You have dropped R because you have said that human brains have a purchase on a type of value and a reality that is not contained in R. This value-laden type of reality is not thrown up by R. It asserts its self-consistent nature quite irrespective of R. R might furnish, by some amazing fluke, the ability to discern value and tell the difference between good and bad, but those things that are good are good quite irrespective of any random chaos that may exist somewhere and somewhen.
Love is not just an alternative to hate; love is better than hate. We don’t invent such distinctions; we become aware of them. If you think that such assertions have no meaning beyond some sort of genetic pressure or some sort of delusion, then you can revert to R. If you think human beings can whole-heartedly buy into the ultimate meaninglessness of good and bad without losing their poetry and their hope, then you can promote R. But I think anyone who does that has lost a hold on the very rationality that they probably think led them to R in the first place.
To be clear, let me summarize: you and I are allowed to affirm value and meaning in the lives of living creatures such as humans, quite irrespective of their fame or reproductive success or natural talent. There is no intellectual abdication in so doing. We can be liberated to give full expression to the sense of meaning that we possess, and write all the poetry, or music or art or diplomacy or civil rights manifestos or scientific papers that we can. We do not need to suspect that all this is mere invented amusements that function to protect us from the “true” futility of our transient lives in an ultimate meaninglessness. We can quite reasonably suspect that our transient lives take their place in an ultimate meaningfulness.
That “reasonably suspect” is called faith. There is nothing wrong with it. It is not stupid, and it is not arrogant. Rightly handled, it inspires not ignorance or arrogance but hopeful humble efforts made by ordinary people to lift up their fellows and lift up their hearts to that which renews their hope.
I admit that I have not presented a very carefully argued case above; this piece is more in the way of providing pointers rather than completely annotating the path. There is a risk of presenting a caricature of any position you don’t agree with. But I find it hard to take R seriously, because it seems to involve an abdication of the will to seek. It stands at the borders of our understanding, saying “this far and no further may you explore; beyond there be chaos-dragons.” What does this attitude have to say to anyone who suggests, “maybe there is more to be discovered”?
Next let’s turn to AP. This is the idea that the reality that gave or gives rise to all that exists is a collection of abstract principles. This is a very much stronger assertion than R, and presents a very much richer notion of that which is real without needing to be created or derived from something else. AP can underpin a form of atheism that one can do business with, because one can discuss what are the abstract principles, and one may find that assertions about meaning and value might be among them. So one might hold AP while rejecting the statement made in the quotation at the head of this essay.
I will not here discuss why I don’t agree with AP. (The reasons are mainly to do with human experience, and what most deeply liberates people to play positive roles). I will return instead to the last sentence of the quotation I started with. The question it naturally invites is: what properties would you expect to find in the universe if there were, at bottom, some design, or some purpose, or some evil or some good, or something other than pitiless indifference?
What, exactly, is missing that commentators such as Hitchens, Dawkins and Russell expected to find?
Were they expecting a universe in which pain and tragedy does not happen? Or happens on a much smaller scale? Was it one without earthquakes, perhaps, or without viruses, cancer and predation? Is it that our lives are too long? Or too short? Or is the problem that our lives are not all the same length, and there is no special protection on the years of childhood, except the one we provide? Or is it that goodness of character does not correlate with ease, happiness and longevity? Is the problem that we feel deeply the loss of our loved-ones? Is it back-pain and long-term depression? Or uncontrolled randomness, perhaps? Such a list is not intended to be glib, but to ask the questions in all seriousness. I don’t wish to ignore or invalidate the deep problems which pain and injustice confront us with. But when one tries to present examples of how the world could have been better, one also becomes aware of the deep and often inextricable connections between painful things such as bereavement and joyful things such as raising a child. On a planet with a finite surface area, the joy and the work of raising children is only possible because people eventually die. There are also deep connections between pain and empathy, viruses and evolution, uncontrolled openness and freedom. This does not offer a simple picture of a rosy cosy world, but neither does it permit the equally simplistic analysis commonly offered in atheist rhetoric.
It was not in modern times that people first noticed that life on Earth is painful and difficult. We did not require the help of modern-day activists to state the obvious. The difference between Dawkins’ rhetoric in River out of Eden and a poem such as Psalm 90 in the Bible is the tone of voice: the first is strident, commanding, contemptuous of meaning; the second is mournful, yearning, hoping for meaning.
To return to the words of Dawkins’ statement again: what if there were, “at bottom”, some good? Then we would expect to find that the universe is, at bottom, good. But that is precisely what we do find. Even after acknowledging the imperfection and unfairness, no one but some sort of insane, blind, or morally bankrupt ideologue would denounce it as basically bad and consequently imply that it ought to be stopped completely. However, I will agree that the universe, or to be precise, the patch of it where we live, is not as good as we can help to make it. It is a work in progress, and the solution, and also the biggest problem, is largely ourselves.
It is important to acknowledge that the world is good enough to merit our commitment. Apathy and suicide are neither correct nor adequate responses to the universe. But this does not make the problem of pain go away. Part of that problem is the fact that if there is some ‘higher’ or ‘deeper’ reality that can be held responsible for originating the universe—if that theistic way of thinking makes sense—then we start to feel that we or others have been hard done by. We feel caught: we have to be grateful, we suppose, for having a chance to exist at all, but the existence we got is not a fair one. Are we allowed to complain about this? According to Biblical authors, such complaints are a recognised and respected part of honest human behaviour. But we won’t get any response other than absolute reality. The universe is as it is: wonderful, difficult, and not fair, and our complaints won’t change that. The only response that comes from absolute reality is to present us again with the actual world itself, and our role in it: to let us know that we have a role, and help is on offer to establish justice for others, not joy for ourselves (but the latter will come from the former; “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well,” Matt 6.33). Any complaint we raise against injustice is only real, as opposed to mere vapour and posturing, if we act as well as speak: if we join the struggle to relieve distress and reduce affliction, and as soon as we do that then we are back on track. We are doing business with the absolute reality from which our lives have come and to which they can legitimately be offered. Also, according to the Christian message, there is more that can be said. According to us, the ‘management’ is not just offering resources (perseverance, truthfulness, scientific insight, etc.) but is also engaged in a more intimate way. The buck stops with one who shares the pain of the cosmos.
What would we expect if there were some purpose, something other than pitiless indifference? We would expect, I suggest, that agents capable of sensing purpose (and that means conscious agents) would sense that there is purpose. And that is precisely what most of us do sense. Our lives have purpose. The purpose is, approximately, to realise a more and more complete expression of goodness, beauty and truth, in the context of imperfection, improvisation and shared resources.
The statement in the quotation from River Out of Eden with which I started is almost completely wrong. The universe that we observe has a mix of properties, and included among them are some that we would expect if there is, at bottom, design, purpose and good. And furthermore, if we explore, tentatively, in the direction of pity—not in the impersonal forces of nature, but in what we encounter in one another and, notably, in prayer too—then we do, yes, discover something that is not pitiless indifference, but quite the opposite. We discover a sense of solidarity, shared pain, and encouragement to live creatively.
Andrew Steane, Oxford 2015
 The idea that the world is bad, or has gone bad, and should rightly be stopped, is a perennial feature of bad religion. Some forms of religion calling itself “Christian” have been just as guilty of this sort of talk as anyone. To address that issue would require a longer essay, so I will make simply one brief comment here. Apocalyptic fervour is a bad thing, but it can support itself by an abuse of various Biblical passages, because it is a perversion of a good thing, namely the longing for justice for the oppressed, and for an end to the suffering of the afflicted. But anyone genuinely desiring those things will be engaged in bringing them about, not waiting for someone else to do it.