What’s going on here?
We find ourselves as conscious creatures who are curious about what’s going on. We ask questions. How did we get here, what does it all mean? We have succeeded in answering many questions of the “who”, “what”, when” and “where” variety, and even, most impressively, in the last few centuries we are answering some of the “how” questions.
But we haven’t answered any “why” questions and these questions don’t yield to the scientific method, as normally applied. Historically, we have always tried to answer the “why” questions with religion.
All societies have had religions. Over time societies evolve, and their religions go through a metamorphosis into higher level religious understandings. These new religious developments retain many features of the originals, but sublimate the original myths into higher level metaphors that are more appropriate to the new requirements of civilization. However, the original spiritual myths were not untruths with which people deluded themselves; rather, they were best-effort theories to explain the world as they found it, similar to the best effort theories we use in science. When we find a better theory, we change our paradigm, but we still recognize the utility of the previous theory and paradigm, in its day, and the need for better theories and paradigms for the future.
To quote Thomas Nagel from his book "The Last Word" as he discusses scientific beliefs and theories:
"This means that most of our beliefs at any time must in some degree be regarded as provisional, since they may be replaced when a different balance of reasons is generated by new experience or theoretical ingenuity. It also means that an eternal set of rules of scientific method cannot be laid down in advance. But it does not mean that it cannot be true that a certain theory is the most reasonable to accept given the evidence available at a particular time, and it does not mean that the theory cannot be objectively true, however provisionally we may hold it. Truth is not the same as certainty, or universal acceptance."
Now, it is true that modern science is explaining more and more of the external world to us, and we certainly don't need religion to explain those things which science explains so well. We also don't need religious dogma, fundamentalism, fanaticism, intolerance, and exclusionary tactics. But we do need something to hold society together, which requires something more than materialism, technology, and economics; it requires a raison d'être, a spiritual glue to give civilization enough cohesion and meaning to make human life tolerable, meaningful, and fulfilling.
Physical science proceeds with the aid of physical measuring apparatus, but such tools are of little use in our quest to understand our inner sense of meaning and purpose. Yet our conscious awareness, our sense of our own free will and purposeful existence, is just as real a phenomenon as our awareness of the inputs from our senses. It is only the method of investigating and explicating that is, of necessity, a little different. Thus the physical sciences, by their very definition and original axioms, only investigate and explicate the world available to our physical senses. It is no wonder then that the physical sciences do not explore meaning and purpose for which they can make no claims.
How do we investigate the reality of meaning and purpose? We do so by using the scientific method of proposing the most reasonable hypotheses, based on the best evidence available, and then subjecting these hypotheses to the most rigorous analyses and tests that we can devise.
We might propose our first hypothesis to be that existence has purpose and meaning. The alternate hypothesis can be that that all of existence is accidental and utterly meaningless.
These hypotheses have more in common with the most basic axioms and hypotheses of physical science than may be apparent at first glance. Indeed, science itself seems to have originated out of the religious concept that the universe is orderly, obeys divine laws, and is thus comprehensible. The history of the discovery of deeper and deeper physical laws underpinning the physical universe confirms humanity's primordial religious instincts that the universe obeys laws and is thus comprehensible.
By using the principle of Occam's razor, the physical sciences advance by choosing the most simple, direct, and economical explanations. In other words, if a phenomenon can be explained by using only one axiom, or underlying physical law, then that is far preferable than an explanation of the same phenomenon by using several axioms or principle laws.
By applying Occam's razor to the meaning and purpose of existence and consciousness, we see that it makes most sense to believe that existence is purposeful; this explains why the universe gave rise to human beings who have brains which produce minds which produce consciousness and awareness. By contrast the other hypothesis must explain this whole evolution as a most improbable series of accidents that just happened to all lead to more and more intelligence and more and more order, in direct contradiction to the laws of thermodynamics.
To test our hypothesis that existence has meaning and purpose, we ask, does the evolutionary unfolding of the observable universe seem to proceed as if it had an underlying purpose? Indeed, the observable history of the universe is one of increasing intelligence, so much so that the physicists Brandon Carter, John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler have proposed the Anthropic principle, which hypothesizes that the evolution of the universe unfolds such as to always increase intelligence, consciousness, and information processing. Indeed, this Anthropic principle, when analyzed, seems to hold true and also to pass the test of Occam's razor, in that no other hypothesis yet surmised seems to so economically explain the unfolding of the evolution of the universe and life as we observe it to have happened.
The best minds of every society and culture that has ever existed all around the world have often come to surprisingly similar understandings about human existence and meaning. These ideas, which are known as the Perennial Philosophy, form the common underpinnings of almost every human religion that has ever existed. Even the best minds of modern science, including the discoverers of Quantum Physics and Relativity Theory, have expounded personal understandings of the philosophical basis of existence that are in accord with the Perennial Philosophy, including Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrodinger, Louis De Broglie, James Jeans, Max Planck, Wolfgang Pauli, and Arthur Eddington. An appeal to "authority" is not a "proof"; and I by no means mean to imply that these scientific giants believed that quantum physics and relativity "proved" the existence of God and purpose; but rather, that each of them found the concepts of spirit and purpose to be compatible with modern physics and appealing to the human understanding.
Religious truth is relative, theories are improved, new paradigms adopted. But we do have a choice, and we should choose to adopt those theories and paradigms which best fit the facts, best promote the common welfare, and offer the best vision of the future. Indeed, we need a common vision, common goals, and a community of meaning.
And our choices in these matters can be guided by reason, just as our scientific theories are. Karl Popper, the eminent theoretician of scientific method, has posited that in order to be a good scientific theory, a theory must be falsifiable. What this often means in a practical sense is that a scientific theory must be able to predict certain experimental outcomes which, if not forthcoming, would serve to falsify the theory itself. In religious terms, we can strive for an equivalent falsifiability of process. Where it is impossible to perform actual experiments on the entire history and future of the human race and the universe, we can instead observe the results which various processes have in human affairs. One religious theory is not as good as the next; we do have a choice to make, and an important one. We should make a sound choice based on reason, evidence, and observation.
At the end of the day, there are two options. Either some underlying purpose or power designed things so conscious beings could evolve, or else we came about by a long series of compete accidents. But if we came about by accident, we should still devise core meanings and values and attempt to impose them on reality to the best of our ability. The long history of religion and art provide a solid basis on which to start.
Religion represents society’s long term memory and blue prints for the future. Some long term memories are so important, have been so painfully won and at such a price, that they must never be forgotten. Most of all, we must have a common vision of the future, a vision which recognizes our need for more than just material comfort and which represents the best possible aspirations of humanity. Most of our lives are spent on short-term affairs, duties, goals and pursuits. Religion serves that noble function of supplying long-term guidance and direction, and momentum from generation to generation. As such, it is indispensable.