Religious Views That Place the Goal of Life beyond the Universe

Many religious views, especially in the Indian traditions, live with the thought that the universe has no such future goal. For them, true human fulfillment lies in leaving all physical universes behind. The physical universe has had a part to play in the story of human souls. It provides a context in which desires can be explored and fulfilled and the futility of desires can be realized. So, human life is not an accident, and the universe is not indifferent to it. The universe is a necessary part of the journey of souls that have "fallen" into passion, ignorance, and selfish desire and that need to rise again to the spiritual realm from which they have come.

For such religious views, it does not matter much how the universe began or how it will end. Yet, the universe does in a sense have a purpose. That purpose does not lie in its final state but simply in the fact that it provides a place in which souls can work out their karma, the consequences of their actions in past lives, and perhaps develop toward a greater spiritual maturity that can be completed in future lives.

According to these views, human life in this cosmos is only a part of a larger series of lives in other worlds. Traditionally in Indian thought, there are six hells (places of even greater suffering than in this world) and six heavens. But there could be an infinite number of other worlds, in which souls could be embodied. The end of this universe is just the end of one particular world, which will begin again anyway. It is not the final destination of any human soul, but it can be a good jumping-off point toward a more enlightened spiritual existence (whether that is union with the One Self, as in Advaita Vedanta, or entrance into nirvana, as in some forms of Buddhism, or into a Pure Land of wisdom and bliss, as in other forms of Buddhism, or becoming a liberated soul, as in Jainism).

To many people, such an idea of many embodiments is both irrational and immoral. It is irrational because there is no evidence of past or future lives and because souls cannot jump into different bodies. It is immoral because it makes people think that, if they suffer, it is because they deserve it. They must have done great evil in past lives, so there is little incentive to relieve their suffering, which is a just judgment anyway.

These objections are not insuperable. If memories and thoughts can be downloaded into different forms of neural network, as some scientists suppose, it is not a great leap from that hypothesis to the view that they can be downloaded into completely different bodies. Some people do claim to remember past lives, so there is some evidence to support the theory. Admittedly, however, the evidence is not strongly established, and the evidence that we have remains a puzzle rather than a proof.

As for the moral point, we can still have compassion for those who suffer, even if they in some sense deserve it. Compassion is still an obligation, and we might be able to help others to face up to and overcome the pain they feel. We should look to the future and to what embodied souls may become, not to the past and what they may have been.

These arguments are not likely to be definitively settled by science. They are more likely to be settled, if they can be settled at all, by trying to decide whether consciousness is a product of complex material processes or can have independent existence, whether it does look as though people's human lives seem to be appropriate in terms of what we can see of their characters, and whether a worthwhile ultimate goal of human existence is complete liberation from embodied existence. Science and close observation may be relevant to such discussions. But they will rarely be decisive, and wider considerations—our judgments about the nature of the human self, about the meaning or pattern of human life stories, and about what we hold to be ultimate values—will be very important.

It can always be held that these are just subjective choices and that, if we were really concerned about the facts, we would rely solely on what the sciences can establish. But the fact is that speculations about the end of the universe, whether pessimistic or optimistic about the existence of intelligent life, will not be very relevant for those who hold religious views that the goal of human life lies wholly beyond the universe. Scientific disputes about such topics may suggest that at least hard science cannot disprove religious beliefs on these matters. Maybe believers and unbelievers alike will have to be content with that.

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