The Possibility of Religious Explanations of the Universe

This sort of religious explanation is not vacuous. It makes some quite specific claims about the sorts of things that exist and about the past and future of human lives. There can be, and are, arguments about whether these claims are true, and that in itself shows that the claims are meaningful and that their content can be understood fairly well.

But can they be verified or disproved? Not, it seems, by public observation and experiment. We cannot observe the coming into being of universes, and we certainly cannot observe a disembodied consciousness creating a universe. We can only publicly observe the physical. We may think a physical state is intelligently designed if it is amazingly complex, integrated, elegant, and beautiful and if it seems to accomplish some worthwhile purpose. But such things cannot be established beyond reasonable doubt.

The only real verification would be if we discovered in the future that we had been reborn many times or if we found ourselves as blissful companions of Krishna (for many Hindus, a finite embodiment of the Supreme Lord) or as one with the Supreme Self—in which case such intellectual puzzles would long ago have ceased to matter. As an old Buddhist saying puts it, "If you have not found enlightenment, you could not understand the answer to your question. If you have found enlightenment, you would not ask the question."

So, in proposing such a religious explanation for the universe, we are presupposing that there are meaningful questions that may be verifiable in principle but that there is, in this world, no conclusive way of verifying or proving them false. This situation is not, however, all that unusual. A somewhat similar example from science would be the question of whether there is life in other space/times—we know what the question means, but there is no definitive way of answering it.

In this situation, some would say that agnosticism is the only responsible attitude. That may be so. But a Hindu would say that the real question is not about things that happened millions of years ago. It is about the nature of reality now and about whether the forms of space and time are appearances of some deeper spiritual reality. It is about what the human self really is and about its origins and destiny, why it is as it is and what it may fear or hope for.

Religious explanations do not provide exact predictions of publicly testable processes, but they offer explanations. They explain what the nature of reality is (it is at least partly spiritual), how humans have come to be as they are, how humans should act, and what the final goal of human life is.

The trouble is that such explanations are very contentious, and none of them can be established beyond reasonable doubt. There are profound disagreements about whether Spiritual Reality exists at all, about how humans should act, and about whether there is any goal or purpose for human life. This does not mean they are not explanations. But it does mean that they are hypotheses that have not been definitively established and that always have to compete with other hypotheses. For some people, that lack of certainty and of conclusive evidence is enough to rule out all such explanations as moot, more like science-fiction fantasies than like anything else.

But others will think that we cannot avoid adopting some hypothesis about whether there is a spiritual origin and goal of human life—even if our favorite hypothesis is that there is not. We just have to do the best we can with very ambiguous evidence.

The Spectrum of Religious Claims about the Origin of the Universe

The most general religious hypothesis is that there is a spiritual basis and goal for human existence. Within the spectrum of world religions, this hypothesis divides into three main religious attitudes. One is theism, prominent in the Semitic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and their derivatives). The universe originates in a conscious intention, and there is a good purpose for the existence of the universe. Religious believers should help to realize this purpose, in loving obedience to the Creator's will.

The second is absolute idealism, characteristic of some Indian traditions. According to this belief, the universe originates in one spiritual (intelligent or conscious) reality. There may be no positive purpose in the existence of the universe, but it arises by necessity from the essential nature of Brahman, the Absolute. Religious believers seek to become conscious of their own inner identity with the Self of all and to be liberated from the illusion of being a separate desiring ego.

The third is dualism, or double-aspect monism, found in some forms of Buddhism and East Asian religions. The origin of the universe is unknown. Perhaps it has just always existed as a fundamental "brute fact." But spirit exists in addition to matter or as an aspect of matter. Accordingly, the religious quest is either to seek liberation from matter in a realm of pure spirit (to achieve liberation from the wheel of rebirth and enter into nirvana) or to apprehend and live in harmony with the moral and spiritual aspect of the material world (the Way of Tian—"heaven").

The religious question of origins is not really about whether the universe had a beginning. It is about whether the whole of space/time and everything in it depends upon ("originates in") a superior Spiritual Reality—or, in the third religious view, whether there is a spiritual aspect to it that is vital for determining how humans should act. A supreme Spiritual Reality or a spiritual aspect of material reality could exist whether or not the physical universe has a beginning. So it might seem that the scientific question of whether the universe began is not relevant to the religious question.

What matters is the nature of the universe now. For religious views, all material things are creations of, appearances of, or aspects of, a spiritual state or being. The basic reason for believing this is not a purely speculative theory about the origin of the universe. It lies in claimed personal experience of liberation—freedom from egoism and union with a spiritual reality of supreme goodness. When this is the experience of another person, who claims to have achieved liberation or to have intense knowledge of God's will or of unity with the Self of all, it takes the form of "revelation"—a teaching accepted on the authority of someone we believe to be more closely related to Spiritual Reality than we are.

It is such claims to personal experience that make belief that the universe originates in something like a Supreme Consciousness more than an abstract hypothesis. No public testing of such claims is possible since they are claims to apprehend a reality that is not physical and that, therefore, usually has no publicly observable aspect. But personal experience, especially when widely corroborated by others who are not sick or insane and when accompanied by a positive transformation in the moral and affective quality of one's life, is a form of evidence, one that can be overwhelming to those who have it.

This is very unlikely to convince a skeptic, who will dismiss such claims to personal experience of a purely spiritual reality as unreliable and unverifiable or even as delusions. There are no such spiritual realities, the skeptic will say. The natural sciences provide an account of the origins of the universe that needs no appeal to spiritual considerations, and that makes them both superfluous and implausible.

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