O Books, 2010, 252 pp.
Reviewed by Howard Jones
An attempt to understand the meaning of our lives
This book is an exploration of often mutually exclusive and even contradictory opinions as to the purpose of human existence – explanations offered by religion and humanism, and by scientific rationalism or ideological belief; that we exist to fulfil a divine purpose versus humankind as the result of meaningless random mutation, and so on. The author will already be known to most readers in Britain as someone who served as a junior minister under Prime Ministers Harold Wilson and James Callaghan.
As the author says at the outset, there is really only one fundamental question: Is human existence just the result of fortuitous and meaningless random interactions of totally disinterested chemical molecules or is it part of an overarching plan generated by some cosmic force that many regard as deity and of which humankind is an essential and integral part? Most scientists, though with many exceptions, would subscribe to the former world-view. Followers of one of the world’s many religions, though again with some exceptions, would believe in the alternative scenario. Chapter 1 tells us that, either way, our world-view is likely to be no more than an emotional belief that we hold from social indoctrination rather than rational assessment and so is philosophically suspect as ‘truth’.
Chapter 2 explores systematically several models for the Origins of the Universe: the infinite, eternal universe of Bondi and Gold; the finite, eternal universe of Hartle and Hawking; a finite but meaningless universe as postulated by David Hume; the finite but necessary universe of Steven Weinberg; the finite, created universe of Alexandr Friedmann and Georges Lemaître that originated in the Big Bang; and finally, the universe designed and created by God such that humankind would eventually be able to emerge – the Anthropic Principle of Brandon Carter – and that’s quite a comprehensive overview. Chapter 3 examines how our environment is fine-tuned for human life.
Chapter 4, The Evolution of the Universe’, takes up the theme of the last chapter. Meacher explores how the laws of physics come to be as they are, and we get into some substantial, but quite readable, cosmology. However, some familiarity with developments in physics and cosmology over the past few decades is a decided advantage here to ease the reader through, for this leads on to an examination of the hypotheses concerning The Origin of Life (Chapter 5) and The Evolution of Life Forms (Chapter 6). I was glad to see that these chapters include a mention of some possible, but not widely held theories, such as the idea that the origin of life was enhanced by the catalytic role of inorganic silicate clay minerals like montmorillonite, originally suggested by A.G. Cairns-Smith in Glasgow in the 1960s.
Following on logically from the evolution of life, we are then presented with ‘The Advent of the Human Species’ (Chapter 7) and, in the following two chapters, a discussion of our unique propensity for thought and spirituality. There’s a good summary of hominid evolution here.
The final part of the book assesses this wealth of information. Chapter 11 on ‘The Issue of Purpose’ presents arguments, in a very professional philosophical way, for and against teleology in human evolution. The late appearance of humankind in Earth’s history and the near extinction of life-forms more than once weigh against design. On the other hand, we have the fine tuning of the natural constants, the organic network of the Earth as Gaia, and cooperation rather than competition apparently more important in evolution as factors favouring design.
The final chapter, ‘Who Then Are We?’, does not solve the riddle of human existence but, as the author says, the wealth of material presented here makes it clear that the most probable scenario must embrace something from both of the extreme positions of religious fundamentalism and scientism. As for the Destination of the Species: the author’s view is as logical a possibility as many others. The book concludes with a Glossary of technical terms and a list of References relevant to each chapter but, regrettably, no Index.