Tuesday, April 04, 2006

On Not Knowing It's Normal

From page 17 of Nick Webb's Wish You Were Here: The Official Biography of Douglas Adams:
Douglas was a radical atheist, and quite unequivocal about using the term....He really did mean "atheist" and not agnostic. The more he learned, the stronger his atheism became—but this was nothing as crude as replacing one paradigm with another.

One of the slanders frequently addressed to atheists is that their view of the world is mechanistic and reductive—a long, cold chain of materially determined consequences with each iron link of cause and effect stretching back to the Big Bang. Where in this account, argue the believers, is there room for spirit or free will? But Douglas thought that imputing such a position to atheists was absurd. The more you know about how the world works, the more astonishingly wonderful it becomes.

His way of looking at things is infectious.

In terms of quantum physics, you...are mostly empty space consisting of infintesimally tiny nuclei surrounded by clouds of electrons whizzing round in (relative to the nucleus) hugely distant and ultimately unknowable orbital clouds that nevertheless can only possess discrete values. The nuclei contain still smaller components, and their numbers determine what you're made of. All but the very lightest elements in your body were synthesized in the thermonuclear hearts of stars and blasted into the universe by explosion. You're at the bottom of the gravity well of a planet that is moving at nineteen miles a second around its solar central heating unit that is one star of about a hundred billion in the local system. Gravity is—by millions of orders of magnitude—the weakest of all the binding forces of the cosmos, but it weighs heavily on you because you're so tiny compared to the mass of our planet. What's more, you're living in a thin envelope of dangerously reactive gases. You don't give this a moment's thought because, of course, you know all this is normal. Douglas didn't.
I'm not the atheist Adams was (and Webb apparently is), so it's unsurprising that I don't agree that Webb's proven all of his points here. The physics discussed in the last paragraph are indeed mind-boggling. However, even if we stipulate that that these points demonstrate that the world is astonishingly wonderful, and increasingly so with increased knowledge and understanding of its workings, that still doesn't show the atheist worldview not to be "a long, cold chain of materially determined consequences." The amazing physics here may be astonishing and wonderful but still don't illustrate a role for spirit or free will.

That in itself doesn't mean that Adams was mistaken in his atheism, but it does mean that Webb presents us with a proposition he fails to prove.

Nonetheless, that quantum physics description of our situation is still pretty amazing.


Blogger trawlerman said...

Douglas Adams (in my opinion anyhow) faces the meaninglessness of man in the atheistic worldview with a jollity bordering on mania.

To face nothingness with such an educated willful abandon and with such good humour is surely admirable, but Adams' reveling in Absurdity seems to me to be nothing more than a pit stop on the road to Oblivion. The Absurdist position inevitably leads, I believe, to an acceptance of the impossibility of a Moral order apart from Revelation. One must either accept the idea that no Law exists and morality is fiction, that murder and rape are viable options, or one can accept a moral order, implying an independent higher moral authority, and live by faith.

Just a quick response during my increasingly less frequent travels through blogdom,

7:03 PM  

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