It seems to be universally agreed upon, whether you are a theist or an atheist, that one of the characteristics of dead matter is the following: it can sometimes come to life.
Let me say it more explicitly. Whether you’re Jewish and thinking of the dry bones chapter in Ezekiel (“Can these bones live?”); a Christian applying the principle to the resurrection of Jesus; or an atheist applying it to the moment on Earth when chemistry, all by its lonesome, turned into biochemistry, all agree that it is in the nature of things that dead matter should sometimes become, out of the blue, alive. It never happens in our experience, but we are all convinced that it can happen, and even that it has happened–that it must have happened.
Isn’t that interesting?
Life resists entropy and reproduces. What we don’t know is how non-organic chemistry ever became organic chemistry (that is, how what was dead became alive). It certainly never happens nowadays. Scientists, at least, have never observed it. And there is no Darwinian mechanism at work, prior to life, to build up complexity, so it’s dumbfounding as to how what had always been dead suddenly came to life.
And yet what was dead became alive at some point. How can one not agree with that if one defines “dead” as what is “not alive”? A rock is dead. Sterilized soil is dead. Once the Earth was dead. It was chemistry obeying entropy. Then what was dead stopped going with the flow of entropy and started exploiting and storing energy for its own purposes and perpetuation; that is, it lived. It became, magically, an information carrying system bearing nano-machines (proteins) behind a cellular wall; a “river that flows uphill.”
This is why the idea of resurrection does not strike me as crazy. If we know that life came from non-life and think that God might exist, then it’s something (S)he could do–something to hope for–something (S)he has already done.
And an evolutionary universe supports this hope. If you take, after all, the evolution narrative seriously, and I do, then you cannot avoid the moments of crossover in evolutionary history. At one moment, for example, something was not living, and at the next moment it was living. When that happened, the whole universe crossed a threshold. You could even call it good news–something worthy of being shouted from mountaintops.
The same is true of consciousness. And of existence itself. These are three big ontological mysteries. They are mysteries of existence. How could they have ever come into being in the first place? Another ontological mystery is the moment in which independent living cells in competition with one another began cooperating in groups, making for the evolution of multicellular life–and, ultimately, beings like us that not only cooperate but love.
Love is an ontological mystery. What’s it doing in a material universe (that is, a universe consisting of blind atoms rustling in the void)?
The movement from nonexistence to existence; dead matter to living matter; competing cells to cooperative cells; non-conscious life to conscious life capable of love: these are stunning “resurrection powers”–epic shifts in the way things had always gone before, until they didn’t.
So here’s my question: why can’t there be similar stunning surprises in the offing–even extending to the resurrection of the human dead? Is the resurrection of the human dead really more implausible than some of the other ontological mysteries that have preceded it? And if God exists, why isn’t resurrection (or, at least, consciousness after death) something worthy to hope for?
If there is no God, the ontological mysteries that have already preceded us (existence to non-existence; non-life to life; competition to cooperation; matter to mind and love) make for an amazing series of coincidences. Given enough time, how powerful chance is! It seems, indeed, to mimic the action of a god intending these things! How odd!
Chance, however, seems a deeply unsatisfying explanation for what is going on around us and in us. That doesn’t make chance an incorrect explanation. It can be unsatisfying and true. But chance does seem to lead one to an idea that is pretty darn implausible: the multiverse hypothesis. Yet the multiverse hypothesis still doesn’t explain the nonexistence-existence transition.
I think, therefore, it’s possible–it’s not an absurd thought–that there is a mental Ground of Being that has brought the material universe into being to some purpose; that what we are experiencing is not just a product of chance.
I’ll let Fyodor Dostoevsky ease me out of this blog post. While living in Bern, Germany, Dostoevsky was mesmerized by the Hans Holbein painting below. He saw quite clearly that the painting depicted the pivot between faith and unbelief: one must either believe that God raises the dead, and there is, therefore, hope for humanity beyond this life, OR accept that such an event can never occur because it is impossible. Dostoevsky saw that, if we believe that Nature prevents resurrection, then we are trapped in a mechanized universe in which the dead stay dead. Dostoevsky included the painting in a scene of his novel, The Idiot.
Below is the portion of The Idiot in which Dostoevsky has his character, Ippolit, write about the painting. I place it in bold and large type because I think it says a great deal about the existential choice we all must make between theism and atheism. It also speaks to the question of how we go on, as vulnerable mortals in the furnace of this world, knowing what we do.