What would you do if it was scientifically proven that God does not exist?
Disclaimer: This text has spoilers of Ted Chiang’s short story “Omphalos”.
One of the best advises I ever received was this: when we are studying something, it feels like the subject is always following us. We can see our research theme everywhere, even when there is no connection. Who gave me this advice was a mentor I had as an undergraduate researcher, but it remains valid even today while I’m finishing my thesis about the human attempt to survive death through imagery and memory. So I have been reading a lot of stuff about the consciousness of death, how men deal with this from philosophical, artistic, and psychoanalytical perspectives. By chance, I learned about this book, “The Denial of Death”, by Ernest Becker, in a lecture that had nothing to do with its subject, but it was nevertheless mentioned there and so it became my next read.
Winner of the 1974 Pulitzer prize, the book was written by a cultural anthropologist and not a psychoanalyst, but the content is mostly based on a historical and semiotic analysis supported by authors such as Kierkegaard, Freud, Rank or even Nietzsche, who also dealt with this particular human ability to be conscious about his own death.
After finishing this book, I read Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation” collection of short stories. Maybe because I’m already used to his writing style or perhaps because this collection is truly better than “Stories of Your Life and Others,” I found in this book some very intriguing stories, especially “Omphalos”.
In Greek, the term means “navel,” but it is also related to an artifact that addresses the world’s creation epicenter. In the short story, Chiang reflects on the theme explored in the book “Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot” (1857), written by Philip Henry Gosse. It is in this book that he develops the Omphalos hypothesis, that is, a hypothesis in which we understand that this physical world where we live is just an illusion created by God. In fact, what Gosse wanted to do is to explain the origin of everything after the biblical narrative, though this time using a more scientific approach to support the Biblical premise in the most rational and empirical way. This is exactly the posture of the protagonist created by Chiang (who, as a science fiction author, is quite dedicated to be scientifically credible and correct): the archaeologist Dorothea Morrell.
The story is unraveled through Dorothea’s prayers who, in spite of being a scientist, shares with her colleagues the same faith in God that, in this universe, truly exists. We know that many scientists such as Isaac Newton believed in God or were Christians, but in the universe created by Chiang, the Orthodox Church has become not only a religious but also scientific institution, this way proving that both faith and science can find their balance until Nathan McCullough, director of the Museum of Natural Philosophy (a field of knowledge precursor to the natural sciences, such as physics), decides to publish a scientific paper that proves that God does not exist or rather that the existence of humanity is no miracle or part of a higher plan.
In this universe created by Chiang, scientists and believers share the premise that Earth was created 8.912 years ago. This is reinforced by the existence of old objects, such as is the case of the blade coming from a primordial tree that, through its growth rings, can show its age until its center becomes smooth and thus proving to be one of the first trees ever created when the world itself “was born.” In other words, the scientists in “Omphalos” are not researching to discover the origin of everything, but actually to find the purpose of everything according to the divine plan, and especially when it comes for the reason behind human life.
The speculative exercise practiced by Chiang is an exquisite example of how a good science fiction work is able com blend actual and scientific information with logical and convincing possibilities that lead the reader to suspend their disbelief. The article McCullough wants to publish would feature the results achieved by an astronomer who observed that the 58 Eridani star, a Sun analogue, is part of an extraordinary geocentric system. In other words, the star is the body that orbits around a planet, not the other way around. This planet in its turn also shares similar characteristics with Earth, with each 24 hours experiencing oscillating movements of repulsion and attraction towards our planet. For the astronomer, there are three possible hypotheses that explain that: either humanity is only a test performed by God before he developed His true and perfected civilization (also hypothetical) in 58 Eridani, or maybe we are the final outcome of His plan, or just a non-intentional collateral effect.
Dorothea is not convinced by these hypotheses until McCullough argues that, in linguistics, philologists cannot explain why there are so many different languages that are not derived from a same supposed primordial language, for instance, Indo-European. In other words, unrelated languages were rather created with time by humans themselves, the same way that happened with writing, after all, there is no register written by the primordial humans. So, if in this universe scientists are challenged to understand the reasons behind all things, and thus strengthen their faith in God, what does it mean to realize that nothing has an inner purpose and that there is no real divine plan?
McCullough thus exemplifies with a personal tragedy: he has lost his son to influenza. So if nothing has a reason to exist or is part of a divine plan, then his son’s death is meaningless. Consequently, his dedication to science was a means to understand, to untangle the divine plan and realize that, in spite of all personal conviction, there is no way to deny the physicality of our world.
In his work, McCullough could find evidence that seemed to be “watermarks” of God’s actions, and this had gave him strength to overcome that tragic moment in his life. However, the discovery of a system so similar to ours only shows that there is nothing unique and miraculous on Earth and humanity, hence all scientific discoveries have nothing to do with the unraveling of something bigger. Still, Dorothea argues that, although science can be used as a means to ease our existential pains, it is nevertheless committed to the pursuit for the truth, something that McCullough, in turn, replies: “Science is not only a search for the truth. It is the search for a purpose.”
In face of such argument, Dorothea starts to question what is the purpose of her work: what difference does it make to dedicate herself to excavations if everything is irrelevant, if nothing makes sense or takes part in some higher plan? But differently from the scientific community, the Church didn’t seem to be so unsettled by the discovery, after all, “the Church as an institution was always able to derive its strength from evidence when it is useful and ignore when it is not.” Even if the Church agreed that Adam and Eve’s story is not completely true after the emergence of both male hominid fossils, the narrative was kept as an allegory which people can take as reference. But as a scientist, Dorothea had her faith always supported by evidence and if it is now proven that the Earth is not the center (or the navel) of the universe, then what is the point of existence?
Ernest Becker, in “The Denial of Death”, addresses this issue from another perspective, the consciousness of death. What is the purpose to wake up every morning, to brush your teeth, take a shower, eat something and go to work if, no matter what are your habits, you are inevitably going to die — sooner or later, with more or less pain, more or less randomly? Becker argues that we (usually) do not fall in this nihilistic absurdity as we face the real, rational reason of human existence because we repress such acknowledgement through neuroses that, in this case, are positive for giving us dummy narratives and meanings that support us in our journey. For Kierkegaard, the best way to fulfill this existential void is through religion, whereas Freud has obsessively searched for a means to substitute this with psychoanalysis and science.
What we see today, and what I already addressed here, is that technological and scientific innovation has overthrown the grand narrative in which the secular societies find support. As Harari argues in “Homo deus,” we are living in a moment when technology is capable of making real what was once supported only by faith and allegory. The death of death, for instance, is the ultimate target of transhumanists and one of these “neuroses” that the contemporary man found to give him a purpose in life. But what happens when we remove death from the life’s equation?
For Becker, when Freud developed his psychoanalytical theory, he was so obsessed with turning it into the center of his world that the weight of believing in himself and in his own ideas grew too heavy for a single person. Believing in God, following and practicing a religion is an attempt to find support in something bigger than ourselves as individuals, it is a means to put ourselves inside a grandiose narrative in which we find ourselves as an embedded character equipped with a destiny, a purpose, and a mission.
Religions, ideologies, philosophies, sciences: all these fields of knowledge, culture and art are bigger categories that may guide us, but, ultimately, there is no intrinsic purpose in them besides the fact that they are a human attempt to conciliate our double existence as an animal and as a symbolic being, as argued by Becker.
So, going back to the beginning of this text (regarding my mentor’s advice to be capable of separating things when we are too deeply immersed in our research subject): these two books that “happened” in my life did make sense to me and added new layers to my thesis. But how did they come to me? Was that part of a higher plan?
One evening, during a dinner with some work colleagues, they said that my ability to write and research were, in fact, a psychic ability and that spirits, extraterrestrial and ancestral entities were actually contacting me and canalizing these messages that I bring to the physical reality through, for instance, this very text. This is the premise that Chiang tries to put in question: if it was scientifically proven that there are no spirits, extraterrestrial entities or any divine creature guiding us in our journey, how would we deal with that?
Another suggestion can be found in Vilém Flusser’s work when the philosopher argues that reality itself does not rely neither on a causal or fatal (in the sense of accepting that there is a destiny) logic, but rather a chaotic one: things happen randomly and, even when we have a scientific and empiric explanation for phenomena, there is always the fact that the Universe itself has only happened to exist by chance. To deal with such philosophical perspective, we may need more than books and classes — we may need therapy. And this is precisely one of the solutions envisioned by Becker: in the figure of the psychoanalyst or the therapist, we may find someone who can organize our life and our reality in narratives that empower us with reflection and criticism. It depends on each person. Or as they say in English, “pick your poison.”