I am a politician (though frustrated and disgusted by so much of the corruption of modern politics), but my mother wanted me to be a priest. I never felt the call of that vocation, never had an experience which suddenly or profoundly changed the course of my life, and grew into adulthood in a quizzical or sceptical frame of mind. I planned to become a social worker, burned over the social injustices which hammered at my conscience, railed against the class system, hated the elite which kept power to themselves and kept others in bondage.
But politics didn’t satisfy either. Conviction, vision, the sense of purpose, the ideology of transformation were all drained out of it by careerism and personal ambition, spin and manipulation. I began to wonder what ultimates there were in which one could truly believe. I became deeply interested in science on which I had missed out at Oxford, and in all my spare moments began to read avidly and widely across the scientific canon – physics, biology, chemistry, cosmology.
But how did they all fit together – the religion of my youth, the philosophy of my degree, the politics of my occupation, the science of the universe around me, the threat to the environment and our survival on Earth? Did it all make sense, as somehow it has to in one single indivisible reality? But how could those disciplines be stitched together, discarding whatever did not meet the canons of evidential truth, but producing a single unity as the narrative of existence? That’s why for the last 10 years I have wrestled with writing, amid many setbacks and puzzlements, a book called Destination of the Species: The Riddle of Human Existence.
First, several caveats. Very deliberately it is not parti pris: it is not written from the preconceived propagandistic viewpoint either of religion, science, philosophy, or environmental dogma, to the exclusion or discounting of the others. It simply tries to answer the central question: in the light of all we know, drawing it together from every channel of human experience, what does it all mean ? What is the message that the whole story is telling us? Is there a coherent thread running through all the mountains of evidence that makes sense of it all?
It does not provide any final answer on the mystery of human existence – that is beyond human comprehension and always will be. But it does assemble sufficient empirical evidence from the natural world to provide a plausible answer to the age-old conundrum: is the universe driven by pitiless, directionless chance as the Dawkins and neo-Darwinian view would have it, or is there verifiable evidence of purpose detectable within it?
The book comprehensively analyses the scientific data from the origin and evolution of the universe, the formation of the Earth and the possible origins of life four billion years ago, the enormous subsequent proliferation of exotic life forms leading improbably but perhaps inevitably to the human species, and the intellectual, cultural and spiritual uniqueness of human beings. The totality of this evidence reveals certain clear, distinct patterns.
Science has uncovered a mind-bogglingly precise fine-tuning in the construction of the universe. It has also shown that early life was driven for billions of years by symbiotic and co-operative networking, not blindly by purposeless mutations. And most recently evidence is accumulating of how matter and energy spontaneously transpose into new higher organisational states at certain thresholds of complexity both in biological and cosmological systems. We are seeing the development of models of the universe which are subjective, holistic and purposeful, not analytic, reductionist or arbitrary.
The evidence of a ‘designed’ universe is very strong, but that does not automatically equate with a ‘personal God’. For that, a different set of criteria is necessary. Religious experience is validated, not by scientific verification, but by the awesome sense of numinous power almost universally present in human societies, the revelation of the founders and prophets of the world’s great religions, the ineffable witness of the mystics, and the authenticity of overpowering personal experience which transforms lives.
The view that the huge advance of science since the Enlightenment has somehow ‘disproved’ religion is still widely held today, even though that is a category error. It cannot in fact do so when logically science and religion reflect entirely distinct, non-overlapping strands of human experience. But what is exciting and fruitful is the uncovering of more and more scientific evidence which indicates that, far from being incompatible, they are in fact mutually complementary.
What then is our destination? For three centuries science has progressively narrowed the significance of humans against the almost infinite backdrop of the universe, and maybe an almost endless series of universes. Yet it is pointing now to an ultimate reality, certainly not of the human race as the summit of evolution, but of an overarching cosmic plan of which we may well be a key part.
(c) Michael Meacher is Labour MP for Oldham West and Royton, having first been elected to parliament in 1970. He was one of the longest serving minsters in the government from 1997-2003, having previously been a junior minister under both Harold Wilson and James Callaghan's administrations. He has been a critic of recent government policy on environment and on the Iraq war. In January 2010 he published his new book, Destination of the Species: The Riddle of Human Existence, upon which this article is based. Michael Meacher's regular blog can be found at: http://www.michaelmeacher.info/weblog/
Ekklesia will shortly be reviewing Destination of the Species and examining the arguments it puts forward.