Monday, September 20, 2010

This Too Shall Pass

Stephen Hawking's new book, The Grand Design, is receiving a lot of attention, even though there's nothing really new about his claim that the universe is self-creating. That idea has been around since the ancient Greeks and received a big boost from the French philosophes in the 18th century. The nub of it, essentially, is that once the universe got started it pretty much unfolded in a deterministic, inevitable way and we don't need to posit God to explain any of it, not even as a first cause. The universe, modern cosmologists like Hawking tell us, could have simply caused itself.

Well, maybe, but beyond seeming counter-intuitive, to say the least, this idea has another problem that I think can be illustrated by comparing the universe to a Rube Goldberg machine that's set in motion by a single falling domino. The materialist wants to say that that first domino could have been knocked over by some pre-existing impersonal force, like wind, setting off the whole grand system. There's no need to say that "God did it."

Perhaps, but even if we set aside the problem of where the pre-existing force came from, or what it acted upon, or how it acted, there's another very serious problem in accounting for the complex precision of the machine itself. Watch this (Turn your sound on):
It's not hard to imagine the domino falling by some accident without the intelligent agent knocking it over with the toy car. What is hard to imagine, though, is this system constructing itself, not out of the parts we see but out of raw energy, and then arranging those parts to do precisely what it does purely through impersonal, purposeless accident, without any input from an intelligent agent.

This machine was designed by the engineers who are seen in the video standing on the platform overlooking their creation. It may seem superficially to be able to run it's course without their intervention, but not really. Their intervention came in the planning, design, and construction of the apparatus. Without them it never would have existed.

I wonder if Stephen Hawking has ever watched this video of This Too Shall Pass. He should. It sounds like an appropriate title for an assessment of attempts to do away with the need for God.


When I think of movies that illustrate well the existential predicament of modern man, a couple come to mind. I think of the emptiness and sordidness of contemporary life portrayed in American Beauty, or the absurdity of life reflected in A Serious Man. And, henceforth, I'll think of a 2008 film I saw for the first time this weekend which stunningly captures all of these elements - emptiness, sordidness, and absurdity. The movie is Synecdoche, New York featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman as the pathetic playwright Caden Cotard.

I'm not recommending the film, even though I wish I could, because it's R-rated, and although there's no violence, there's plenty of other unfortunate stuff in it that makes it inappropriate, especially for younger viewers. Nevertheless, there are few films which present to their audience in starker accents what I believe is this movie's chief message: Life without God is a pretty pointless and joyless affair.

Cotard spends fifty years of his life trying to fill the emptiness of his miserable existence with sex and his art, but none of it is fulfilling. His wife, an artist herself, leaves him early on, taking their daughter with her to Europe. Cotard then tries to replace the emotional loss with a series of implausible sexual relationships - implausible given the attractiveness of the women drawn to this very unattractive loser.

He wants to produce an autobiographical play, but because his life keeps dragging on he never gets the play completed. Fifty years later he's still conducting rehearsals. In the meantime he's beset with a series of physical ailments that range from the bizarre to the disgusting and a series of emotional calamities that make his life agonizingly sad.

The story is mesmerizing, and the viewer can't help but feel pity for Cotard, played magnificently by Hoffman, as he endures one blow after another. Throughout the film the message that comes through, whether intentionally or not, is that modern, secular man is lost in space, to borrow Walker Percy's phrase. He's alienated from everything and everyone around him, he's all alone, forlorn, and his life is empty, paltry, pointless, sleazy and absurd. Cotard keeps plodding resolutely, even bravely, on but the only progress he makes is toward the senescence of old age, and then his life ends. None of his relationships, none of what he has striven to accomplish, amount to anything. Cotard's life serves as an artfully crafted synecdoche for human existence in the age of metaphysical naturalism.