My visit to England gave me plenty of time for reading Dan Brown’s new novel Origin. My attention was drawn to it by learning that it featured the Palmar de Troya cult in Spain, something that always attracted my curiosity through its grotesque extravagance. The central theme was that of an eccentric billionnaire claiming to have scientific proof that life evolved from inorganic matter by the laws of physics alone, excluding any intelligent design or prior consciousness – and that humanity would be made extinct by technology by the middle of this century.
This author wrote the famous Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, which I have read for entertainment. I also have the films on DVD. We all need our lighter moments and respite from our intellectual work. We also need to be challenged in our certitudes, though the challenge is not serious. If you have not read the book and wish to do so, read it before reading any further here, because I have no scruple about expressing what amounts to a spoiler.
The dominant theme reflects Stephen Hawking who was an atheist and a materialist, and warned us that we humans would have to find another planet to live on. Dripping with sarcasm, I would hail him for his practical sense! I know of no regular bus service to the nearest habitable planet, which must be a few thousand light years away. Then we learn from the murdered billionnaire that we would become extinct by 2050 (it seems to be a safe bet that I would be extinct by then, or 91 years old). Artificial intelligence would take over in the form of the most powerful quantum computers and stuff out of the Terminator films.
I read the so-called “scientific proof” last night of man’s origins and demise without God and it reminded me about the scientific proof of climate change. One bit of irrefutable scientific proof contradicts another bit of irrefutable scientific proof, at least the way it is presented to us non-scientists. Whatever happened to Aristotle’s principle of non-contradiction? It sounds more like ideology to me than science. Science is supposed to be certitude of knowledge obtained by repeatable demonstration and experimentation. You begin with a theory in the domain of physics, chemistry and biology, and then you verify that theory by repeatable experiments. Then all this has to be accurately related to the public without some agenda or ideology modifying the results of the experiments.
Apparently what Edmund Kirsch (the murdered billionnaire) did was to prove that if chemicals in the sea were left to react for billions of years, order would emerge from chaos like the formation of rock crystals. If you waited for long enough, life would be produced by these random events without any consciousness or intelligence being involved. He claimed to have modelled this process on a quantum computer. I don’t know if any scientist in real life has tried this, but it hasn’t come to my attention. If this is possible, I would still not be convinced that life emerged from inorganic matter without consciousness being involved.
Dan Brown is portrayed by several articles and interviews as not being an atheist, but rather someone who has had a bad experience of religion. He is not pushing atheism, but his way of building suspense (this is a novel) is to make exaggerated claims about the scientific finding that would put an end to all religion. It reminds me of the YouTube video that is making outlandish claims and is “banned” in nearly all countries. See it before it disappears! The gullible viewer is made to feel that he is privy to a secret. It is a great piece of manipulative psychology. When the story about where we are coming from and where we are going comes out, we are hit by the anticlimax.
Perhaps my Christian belief makes me sceptical about the atheist’s claims. In reality, the atheist’s claims are not proven to me, because I am only hearing a second-hand account. The other thing that is suspect is the main monotheistic characters in the novel, a Spanish naval officer become adept of Palmar de Troya, a fanatical archbishop of the official Church and lackey of the Spanish royal family, a murdered rabbi and an equally dead imam. Their behaviour faced with the supposed refutation of all they believed in is not what we would expect from the present Pope or other leaders of any Church.
I have always esteemed Massimo Introvigne, the Italian cult specialist, who was certainly intrigued to find Palmar de Troya featuring in a novel by such a popular author. The article in question is Origin: Dan Brown vs the Pope of Palmar de Troya. According to him, and I concur, Brown only has a very superficial notion of world religions and their clergy. The theme of the novel is atheism, but I fail to see (at 90% though the book according to my Kindle mobile phone app) any consideration given to the more serious theses of intelligent design, biocentrism or other theories of consciousness preceding matter based on quantum mechanics. Those too are scientific theories with some degree of experimental verification. My own reaction early in the book about the final irrefutable proof that there was no God was that it would have to be good to persuade me to commit suicide out of despair of having my entire life paradigm changed. But, I am a Christian with a difference: I go through life with an open and enquiring mind, and I am also a Romantic.
Stuff has been published for years about artificial intelligence, “post” and “trans” humanism, refinements of Darwin’s theories, anything to try to refute religion in the belief that religion alone is the source of trouble in this human world. It isn’t religion that is the problem, but our notion of truth, just as I have been studying in German Idealist epistemology (and I still have a lot to learn). If we possess truth like we possess our wealth, then we will compete for it. If truth is above and beyond us, something to be longed for and sought by all, then surely there is enough for all of us, like the rays of the sun. If some bling-bling hyper-modernist character came out with something like this today, I would brush it off, because his “proof” would be no proof at all. The onus would also be on him to disprove biocentrist points of view as well as the theologies of religious traditions.
Introvigne gives a spoiler about the remaining 10% of the novel I have not yet read. The world religions fail to disappear as expected. Why would such a possibility be seriously entertained in a novel? Sensationalism? The Palmar cult is given much more importance than it really has, especially since the death of Clemente Dominguez y Gomez in 2005. He makes the point that Brown should have been more broad in his choice of sources about Palmar de Troya, especially those written by Magnus Lundberg and Jean-François Mayer.
After all, it is a novel, so one doesn’t have to be too rigorous about the rules of evidence and proof for this or that thesis.
I had a disturbed night with my mind working on fragments of these ideas together with other incoherent elements produced by the dreaming brain. I seemed to have a tablet made of some unknown material with three columns of words, and I was trying to decipher the meanings of these apparently random words. It was all about trying to understand my own identity. It was very strange. As I woke up this morning, the incoherent fragments dissipated as I thought soberly about the implications of what things would be like in such an atheistic paradigm.
We are influenced by scores of science fiction and catastrophe films since the 1950’s, themes running through Star Trek and the Terminator among so many others. I have already mulled over the idea of just being a clod of matter, without a soul, just a kind of biological computer that is thrown away when it no longer works. It is the depressing narrative of Stephen Hawking together with his insane idea of travelling to a planet that man could colonise. (Wouldn’t the indigenous aliens have something to say about that?) Atheism is a dinosaur that knows its days are numbered.
Atheism and the dystopia it evokes would be a dream for the next little Austrian corporal with a Charlie Chaplin moustache and failed art student – in other words for the worst of human nature and the brute struggle of the strong getting rid of the weak and the “trash of sub-humanity”. That is what it would come to. Mankind without a divine judge would judge and condemn himself. The idea is depressing and revolting, an epitaph for mankind about to become a fleet of “assimilated” machines and cyborgs, the ultimate nightmare of the Romantic science fiction writer like Mary Shelley.
Perhaps this idea that there is no God or consciousness giving reality and order to matter is like standing a steer in front of the gates of the slaughterhouse. Does this idea enslave us or emancipate us? Many of our contemporaries have had bad experience of religious institutions. I have. But it isn’t God’s fault. It is our fault for failing to understand, hope, love, reach for the light. The spirit of God and our own consciousness bring us hope, freedom and warmth, a reason to stay alive and do good. The emptiness of atheism can only bring us to do evil out of despair and madness. That is what the Spanish Inquisition and the Nazis had in common. This is the nihilism that brought Nietzsche to his final agony.
I remember from my first-year philosophy days that one piece of evidence of God is our desire for him. Why would we have such a desire if it were futile? Why is humanity endowed with culture, intelligence and art if our value is no more than an animal about to be killed for food? I thank God for the gift of the Romantic paradigm and the ability to see science as only one aspect of our human culture and not as the only thing of value. Perhaps this challenge – always challenges – will be the salutary medicine of the soul we need.