The Mythology of Modern Science — David Christian
This article is the latest in a series on the theme of whether we can find a new mythology to unite humanity in an attempt to solve the world’s problems. (For links to earlier articles, see footnote 1.) At the moment I am discussing some thinkers who are trying to create such a mythology from the worldview and findings of modern science. In the previous two articles I discussed Steven Pinker. Now I’ll turn my attention to David Christian.
I first became aware of him when he was interviewed on a radio programme², promoting his latest book, Origin Story³. I became interested when I heard him say that he wants to create a human family (as I do), and that to achieve this we need a unifying story based on science. He believes that this is his Origin Story, which is already being taught in various schools. At that moment I started to become alarmed, since this would suggest that a new generation is being indoctrinated. He also said that he admires Steven Pinker, at which point I became even more alarmed.
His Origin Story is obviously the orthodox scientific account (myth) of the history of the universe. I’m sure I don’t need to go into details, but here is a brief summary: the Big Bang, the formation of stars and planets, the emergence of life, Darwinian evolutionary theory, the advent of human consciousness, ever increasing complexity. The jacket notes announce: “This is the epic story of the universe and our place in it, from billions of years ago to the remote future”. The book is, unsurprisingly, the perceived scientific story of the material universe; there is no spiritual perspective. The notes further state that the author “created the field of Big History”, and the text confirms what the radio programme said: “Today, big history is being taught in universities in many different parts of the world… and also being taught in thousands of high schools” (Px).
Here is a summary of his justification for the book. He talks about “the feeling of aimlessness, meaninglessness, and sometimes even despair that shaped so much literature, art, philosophy, and scholarship in the twentieth century”. Bizarrely, however, he blames this on the lack of a universal story: “how embedded all origin stories and religions are in local customs and environments”; “multiple origin stories that said very different things”. This led to the corrosion of “faith in traditional knowledge”, so that many people “lost their bearings, their sense of their place in the universe”. This therefore justifies his claimed need for a universal story based on science: “I have written this book in the optimistic belief that we moderns are not doomed to a chronic state of fragmentation and meaninglessness”; “there is emerging a new, global origin story that is as full of meaning, awe, and mystery as any traditional origin story but is based on modern scientific scholarship across many disciplines” (all above quotes Pix).
Firstly, it is not true that all religions are embedded in local customs and environments. On the contrary, beyond their surface levels, at their heart all religions are saying the same thing, what is sometimes called the Perennial Philosophy. A scholarly exposition of this was provided by the western convert to Islam, Frithjof Schuon, in The Transcendent Unity of Religions⁴.
Secondly, and more importantly, what actually explains the feeling of aimlessness, meaninglessness, and despair in the twentieth century is not the loss of faith in traditional religions and mythologies, which have provided, and can continue to provide, meaning. On the contrary, it is the very worldview that he is trying to promote, that humans are alone in a godless, meaningless, pitiless, indifferent universe. (See, for example, the works of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Bertrand Russell, Samuel Beckett etc.)
Christian’s motivation is admirable. Because there is a “subliminal message that humans are divided, at the most fundamental level, into competing tribes”, he wants “to teach a unified history of humanity” (Pviii). He recognises the profound importance of origin stories (mythologies), referring to the sociologist Emile Durkheim’s insistence “that the maps lurking within origin stories and religions were fundamental to our sense of self. Without them, he argued, people could fall into a sense of despair and meaninglessness so profound, it might drive them to suicide. No wonder almost all societies we know of have put origin stories at the heart of education” (p8). He also quotes Lia Hills, who puts the idea more succinctly: “We tell stories to make sense of things. It’s in our blood” (Pvii).
Christian claims that “curiously, modern secular education lacks a confident origin story that links all domains of understanding. And that may help explain why the sense of disorientation, division, and directionlessness that Durkheim described is palpable everywhere in today’s world” (p8). However, coming to the rescue is his modern origin story, built “by a global community of more than seven billion people”, “for all modern humans”, which “builds on the global traditions of modern science” (p9). Once again he fails to notice that perhaps it is precisely because such education is secular, lacking any sense of transcendence or spirituality, true meaning, that it creates disorientation and directionlessness.
It’s hard to disagree with Durkheim or Hills, in which case it’s important that we tell ourselves true stories, taking into account as much information as possible. Christian has great confidence in the truth of his origin story, saying: “Today, we can tell that story with a precision and scientific rigor that was (previously) unthinkable” (Pviii), and “it draws on a global heritage of carefully tested information and knowledge…” (Px). Let’s have a look at how precise and carefully tested this story is.
Christian is convinced of the reality of the Big Bang, saying that this is the “most widely accepted account of ultimate origins”, “one of the major paradigms of modern science, like natural selection in biology or plate tectonics in geology”(p20). He says: “Bizarre as this story may seem when you hear it for the first time, we have to take it seriously, because it is supported by vast amounts of evidence” (p31). He later claims that “today, the evidence that our universe began in a big bang is overwhelming… The core idea is firmly established as the first chapter of a modern origin story” (p37–38). However, in the meantime he merely goes on to recite what in an earlier article I have called the orthodox story of the Big Bang — Edwin Hubble, red-shifted light, the expanding universe, and the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR). Now, the Big Bang may have been a real event but, even if true, is nevertheless based on some very dodgy science. I have written about this at length in a second earlier article, from which I’ve extracted some relevant material here.
Edwin Hubble is widely credited with the discovery of the expanding universe because of the red-shifting of light, but himself rejected the idea, saying in a later paper that the data were incompatible, and that “the expanding models are a forced interpretation of the observational results”⁵. You don’t find this mentioned very often in Big Bang literature.
Christian further says that the discovery of the CMBR “persuaded most astronomers that the big bang was real because no other theory could explain this all-pervading radiation” (p37). This statement is factually inaccurate because in 1933 the German physicist Erich Regener had predicted the existence of a microwave background produced from the warming of interstellar dust particles by high-energy cosmic rays, thus not a product of a Big Bang. He had also predicted the temperature of the CMBR much more accurately than any Big Bang theorist, suggesting that his theory was more likely to be true. Again this is hardly ever mentioned in Big Bang literature. Is the so-called ‘evidence’ for the Big Bang as convincing as is claimed?
Christian finds Darwinian evolutionary theory equally convincing. He would say that, of course, because it “seemed to do away with the need for a creator god” (p84), which is one of his stated objectives. As I have argued in earlier articles, this is the reason Darwinism seems so attractive to modern scientists; it is more a question of their philosophical worldview, religion and faith.
Like other scientists speaking from a Darwinian perspective, Christian has at some point to deal with the tricky problem of purpose, and comes up with the usual answer. He says: “The spooky thing about life is that, though the inside of each cell looks like pandemonium… whole cells give the impression of acting with purpose. Something inside each cell seems to drive it, as if it were working its way through a to-do list” (p76). He obviously cannot contemplate the possibility that the cells are really acting with purpose, since that would undermine his whole thesis. We are therefore subjected to a barrage of words to convince us that what we are witnessing is an illusion. However, as the biologist Stephen Talbott asks: “How, after all, might we distinguish between an organism capable of expressing wise intention, and an organism capable of conjuring an overwhelming illusion of wise intention? Is there, in fact, evidence that can properly override the judgment of our own eyes?”⁶
Christian goes on to say that “the appearance (or, perhaps, illusion) of purposefulness is… not (his italics) a feature of the other complex entities”. He asks “would it mean anything to say that stars have a purpose? Or planets, or rocks? Or even the universe?”, and his own response is: “Not really, at least not within the conventions of the modern origin story”. Here he is echoing the thoughts of Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the original contributors to the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis: “It would make no sense to talk of the purposiveness or adaptation of stars, mountains, or the laws of physics”⁷.
The phrase that I have italicised is the key. The worldview that Christian is advocating excludes on principle the possibility that the universe has a purpose, despite possible evidence to the contrary. Perhaps, however, stars, planets, the universe, the laws of physics do have a purpose. Perhaps the purpose of stars is to provide heat and light for solar systems. Perhaps the purpose of planets is to provide suitable habitation for living beings. The universe and the laws of physics are a bit trickier. However, even conventional cosmologists agree that the hypothesised initial conditions of the universe were precisely right, finely tuned for life to arise, and that if various constants were only very slightly different, then life as we know it could not have evolved. This is known as the Strong Anthropic Principle, and atheistic materialists have spent much time and energy trying to wriggle their way out of the teleological implications.
Christian says that living things are different from stars, planets and rocks: “Life, with its never-ending attempts to push back against entropy, represents a new type and level of complexity… The components in complex adaptive systems seem to have a will of their own. They appear to follow additional rules that are harder to detect… (They) act as if every component is an agent with a will of its own” (p77). Here we are being subjected to another concerted, relentless attempt to persuade us that there is no purposive behaviour in living organisms; it may appear that way, but is an illusion. However, as Stephen Talbott might say, what scientific experiment could possibly distinguish between an organism capable of expressing wise intention, and an organism capable of conjuring an overwhelming illusion of wise intention? Why should we not believe in the evidence of our own eyes?
Christian then introduces a new idea into the debate, information (p78). He is obviously still trying to promote his ‘scientific’ origin story, yet introduces some very interesting phrases: “We should think of it as working undercover or in disguise, manipulating events but staying out of the spotlight… Information directs (his italics) change, often from the shadows” (p78). Is it not reasonable to ask exactly what this mysterious information is, and where it is located? Christian’s choice of words suggests that he has absolutely no idea. One obvious suggestion is that the physical universe is being directed by information from other non-material levels (higher/supernatural?), for that is what ‘undercover’ and ‘staying out of the spotlight’ imply. He is obviously unwilling to contemplate this possibility, and fudges the issue with these vague phrases.
We therefore arrive at Christian’s contention that there is no place for a creator god in his origin story. He says: “Most versions of the modern origin story no longer accept the idea of a creator god because modern science can find no direct evidence for a god” (p25). This is obviously true, even though Big Bang believers have no idea what happened before it, or what caused it. It would be interesting to know, however, exactly how Christian conceives the creator god he rejects, hopefully not an old man with a beard in the clouds.
Spiritual thinkers do not think of the creator god in that way either, one of them even going so far as to say that “the notion of an external, anthropomorphic ‘Creator God’ as preached by the exoteric religions”⁸ is the first in a list of crucial misunderstandings that must be cleared before there can be any hope of a reunification between science and religion. The spiritual understanding of ‘God’ is rather that of a Cosmic Consciousness, a Divine Mind, a hidden ultimate intelligence. Christian himself has noticed such hidden intelligence; it is information working undercover, staying out of the spotlight. Of course, he refuses to accept the implications of his own words.
Perhaps there is no direct evidence for God, but what about indirect evidence? The early quantum physicists, upon discovering the true nature of matter seemed to move in that direction, for example Sir James Jeans, who said: “The universe is looking less like a great machine, and more like a great thought”⁹. Max Planck took the idea even further: “There is no matter as such! All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particles of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together… We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent Mind. This Mind is the matrix of all matter”¹⁰. This mind, we might add, is probably the ultimate source of the information that is working undercover, staying out of the spotlight.
Finally, is there some contradiction here? Christian says that “The universe really is indifferent to our fate (p291), sounding like Richard Dawkins: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference”¹¹. He continues: “It’s a vast ocean of energy for which individual wavelets such as us are ephemeral, passing phenomena”. Only a few pages earlier, however, he had said: “New flows of information and energy have woven humans, animals, and plants, as well as the chemicals of the earth, seas, and atmosphere, into a single system constructed primarily for the benefit of our own species” (p278). If the universe really is indifferent to humanity, as Christian claims, then why is it doing something primarily for our benefit? Now, I know that he doesn’t mean what he is saying literally; he doesn’t think that these flows of information and energy are doing this consciously, deliberately — for him it’s obviously a bizarre, unlikely accident. He is interpreting these flows from a materialist perspective. But suppose they are doing this deliberately? Spiritually speaking, everything, including these flows of information and energy are manifestations of the Divine Mind. So why can’t they be consciously doing something for our benefit? Perhaps the universe is not indifferent to our fate after all.
Click here for the next article in the series.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics, and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website www.spiritualityinpolitics.com (click here and here).
- Previous articles in this series are:
The Need for a New Mythology — Introduction
It’s strange how the world works. I was busy preparing a series of articles about the need for a new mythology which…
The Need for a New Mythology — part 1, the Importance of Myth
Keiron Le Grice: “Through the stories of myth, people in all times and all places have explained their relationship to…
The Need for a New Mythology — Where Do Myths Come From?
This article follows on from one which explores the value of mythology.
The Need for a New Mythology — Modern Scientific Attempts
This article is the latest in a series — for links to the earlier ones, please see footnote 1.
The Case Against the Enlightenment, Reason, Science and Humanism — part 1
My title refers to, and is almost the same as that of, a book by Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason…
The Case Against the Enlightenment, Reason, Science, and Humanism — part 2
This article is a response to and critique of Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science…
2. Afternoon Edition, BBC radio 5, May 31st 2018
3. Allen Lane, 2018
4. originally 1957, my copy Theosophical Publishing House, 1993
5. “Effects of red shifts on the distribution of nebulae”, Astrophysical Journal 84 (1936): p554
6. http://natureinstitute.org/txt/st/org/comm/ar/2016/teleology_30.htm This article is no longer on line.
7. quoted in Talbott, footnote 6. The source given is Corning, Peter A. (2014). “Evolution ‘On Purpose’: How Behaviour Has Shaped the Evolutionary Process”, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society vol. 112 (June), pp. 242–60.doi:10.1111/bij.12061, pp. 247–8
8. Edi Bilimoria, The Snake and the Rope, Theosophical Publishing House, 2006, p239
9. The Mysterious Universe, Cambridge University Press, 1930, my edition 1947, p137
11. River Out of Eden, chapter 4. https://www.azquotes.com/quote/73917