Striving to Get
Closer To Truth
A journey in search of the vital ideas of existence
By Robert Lawrence Kuhn
I was 12, during the summer between seventh and eighth grades, when a sudden night thought struck such terror that I strove desperately to block it out, to eradicate the dizzying intrusion as if it were a lethal virus. My body shuddered with dread; an abyss had opened, and now, almost six decades later, I still feel its fright:
Why not nothing? What if everything had always been nothing? Not just emptiness, not just blankness, and not just emptiness and blankness forever, but not even the existence of emptiness, not even the meaning of blankness, and no forever. Wouldn’t it have been easier, simpler, more logical, for there to have been nothing rather than something?
The question would become my life partner. I do not pass a day without its disquieting presence. I am haunted. Here we are, human beings, conscious and abruptly self aware, with lives fleetingly short, engulfed by a vast, seemingly oblivious cosmos of unimaginable enormity. While “Why not nothing?” may seem impenetrable, “Why this universe?” enlivened by remarkable advances in cosmology, may be more accessible. In other words, why does anything at all exist, and why is the universe as we observe it?
I am the creator and host of the public television series, Closer To Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God, now in its 14th season on PBS stations (www.closertotruth.com). Closer To Truth is a journey to explore the big questions that have long vexed me, and I invite those with similar passions to join me. Through the lens of open-minded critical thinking, each Closer To Truth episode features four to six of the world’s leading thinkers in intimate conversations on cosmos, consciousness and God/meaning — physicists, philosophers, mathematicians, psychologists, biologists, and theologians who present diverse, impassioned views on fundamental questions of existence and awareness and their implications. These notable thinkers — such as physicists Steven Weinberg, Alan Guth, Max Tegmark; philosophers of mind John Searle, Daniel Dennett, David Chalmers; philosophers of religion Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, Peter van Inwagen — share their latest thinking, personal perspectives, and the challenge of facing the beauty, complexity and mystery that compose our existence.
I learn from everyone; I’m thrilled whenever I hear an idea or argument I’ve not heard before. I challenge all of them: framing and provoking our experts’ ideas (while struggling to clarify and assess my own). I am willing to entertain extreme positions, but not careless thinking. Guests can challenge conventional wisdom, but not base their arguments on specious reasoning. Though faith is not a gift that I’ve been granted, I understand that the road to truth, for many, ends at a Supreme Being or God. I can appreciate an argument founded on faith, provided that leaps beyond logic are recognized and noted.
I do admit a predilection for something (or other) beyond physicalism, a hope that mainstream materialism does not exhaust all-there-is and methodological naturalism is not the only way to discern truth. But I mustn’t fool myself: hope swamping reason terrifies me. I feel pleased when atheists and theists each commend Closer To Truth, each modifying initial suspicions of a ‘hidden agenda’. But such pleasure, for me, has a half-life measured in minutes, and I am soon returned to the long pursuit.
As a young man, I took my doctorate in brain research, entranced with the immature idea that by understanding the brain, the most complex known expression of matter in the universe and the means by which we know everything, perhaps we could gain insight into meaning and purpose. Though my career branched in other directions, I never stopped thinking about meaning and purpose, brain and mind, science and God.
When confronting the ineffable vastness of the cosmos, and what seems to be the exquisite ‘fine-tuning’ of universal laws — which are required for the existence of stars and planets, life and mind — I cannot but wonder whether there is meaning and purpose for, or in, the cosmos. Thanks to dramatic advances in cosmology, we now have credible theories about multiple universes and other astonishing possible existents. Could these theories lead to larger revelations of universal truths?
When considering consciousness or mind, I marvel that what seems so ordinary and obvious is so profound and mysterious. What, deeply, are our subjective experiences? What brings about our rich inner awareness — why does it feel like something inside to smell garlic, hear a Beethoven symphony, see a Picasso painting, feel love and despair? Neuroscientists assert that all these ‘qualia’ (i.e., all our private, subjective, internal perceptions) are generated by the brain and by the brain alone. But how can masses of brain cells (neurons) literally be consciousness awareness? No matter how many pulsing neurophysiological sparks and swirling neurochemicals, how can physical things made of matter be identical to mental stuff constituted by inner awareness?
When trying to integrate God and science, I try to think carefully. The two are so radically different, in ways subtle as well as obvious, and I am always anxious that if I harbor a desire to believe in God, it may distort my capacity to reason about God. Exploring God and science means probing motivation and methodology. As for motivation, it’s natural to use science to reinforce prior belief. If I assume that God exists, then science shows ‘the glory of God’s handiwork’. If I assume that God does not exist, then science shows ‘how well the world works without God’. As for methodology, the scientific method, based on objective data and repeatability, discovers facts about the physical world, confirmable by all. The religious method, based on personal faith and belief, may offer private validation of nonphysical realms, but cannot provide public verification of anything nonphysical.
These are the categories of questions that trouble and thrill me. They rattle the cage of my consciousness, but they also enable me to meet some of the most insightful experts on Earth.
As I take this journey, I know I’m not alone — I’m hardly the only person who wrestles with cosmos, consciousness, God/meaning. Many of us, when standing in line or staring into space, take a step back and contemplate, in our own special ways, the big questions of existence. For those so captivated, Closer To Truth provides a forum for candid, informed discussions marked by open inquiry, sophisticated analysis, impassioned arguments, and critical thinking.
For example, in our first Closer To Truth episode (of 182 and counting), we put the question ‘Does God Make Sense?’ to a distinguished and diverse group: two Christian philosophers (Richard Swinburne and Alvin Plantinga), an atheistic philosopher (Daniel Dennett), an Islamic philosopher (Seyyed Hossein Nasr), a Hindu physicist (V.V. Raman), a scholar of diverse religions (Huston Smith), and a skeptic (Michael Shermer). The episode ends with Shermer, the skeptic, affirming his near certainty that nothing exists beyond the physical world (tempered by fleeting moments of existential angst).
So, after all this, what do I think? Does God make sense?
To me, honestly, nothing makes sense!
God? No God? Both hit circularities, regressions, dead-ends, brute facts.
Arguments? I love them all. Each side can muster arguments that seem strong, but in the end, they all falter. Theistic arguments, atheistic arguments — none are dispositive. I’ve joked that if I had to choose, I’d have to say that I find atheistic arguments more palatable to swallow but theistic conclusions more satisfying to digest. That doesn’t make sense, of course — and in a way that’s my point. It’s not scientifically becoming to admit belief without reason.
Is this progress? Not much. But I’m not bothered and continue the pursuit.
Working closely with Closer To Truth co-creator and award-winning producer/director Peter Getzels, organizing, writing and hosting Closer To Truth has been a magnificent multiyear adventure, fulfilling in part a lifelong passion and a source of great joy. For almost nine years and counting, Peter and I have travelled for weeks on end, twelve hour plus days, crafting optimum environments, visually and symbolically, for Closer To Truth’s intense investigations with many of the world’s leading thinkers on cosmos, consciousness, God/meaning**.
It is not the case that I have my own brand of broad vision and organized belief. I have no belief system to promote, no doctrines to pitch. Personally, I’m after details, the fine-grained elements of cosmos, consciousness, God/meaning.
Perhaps I’ve progressed. I do see a richer, more textured picture of the structure of the cosmos, the nature of consciousness, and what a Supreme Being, if such a being exists, might be like.
Many people seem certain of their beliefs. I wish I were certain. I am certain of only this: I will not stop exploring cosmos, consciousness, God/meaning, and while I do not harbor the slightest pretense of actually finding ultimate truths, if any there be, I cannot not continue the journey. For me, for now, passionate pursuit is Closer To Truth.
Robert Lawrence Kuhn is the creator, writer, host and executive producer of Closer To Truth (www.closertotruth.com). He has written or edited over 30 books, including The Mystery of Existence: Why is there Anything At All? (with John Leslie); Closer To Truth: Challenging Current Belief; Closer To Truth: Science, Meaning and the Future; How China’s Leaders Think; and The Man Who Changed China: The Life and Legacy of Jiang Zemin. His articles include “Why This Universe” and “Levels of Nothing” (Skeptic magazine) and “Science as Democratizer” (American Scientist). He has a BA in Human Biology (Johns Hopkins), SM in Management (MIT), and PhD in Anatomy/Brain Research (UCLA).
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