The Village Computer jlavarnway Free Inquiry

From the time we are able to understand anything at all as children, most of us are taught that when jumping into the abyss of the great questions of existence, one finds oneself immediately face to face with God. But it is a great paradox that we humans have been endowed with a rather incredible and unrelenting need to understand. A great deal of religion involves attempts to provide explanations for things. Of course, in doing so religion actually seeks to prevent our searching, our poking at it, our turning it all in our hands to see all sides. It literally instructs us in what “truth” is and then suggests that we accept it as presented. It might tantalize us about the nuance in a biblical passage or in the writing of someone like St. Paul in ways that seem to be intellectual. But there is always that point that cannot be breached by the faithful. No one is permitted to ponder whether someone like Jesus or St. Paul ever really existed, and we must accept that they said the things that are ascribed to them and in the exact way they have been presented.

One question we might ask is why a god who demands blind adherence to his word would have “designed” a species whose survival and flourishing is rooted in an ability to think for themselves. No other lifeform on this planet has such a defined faculty for rational thinking. Our near relatives on the tree of evolution, the chimpanzee, might be able to do some modest “thinking” when it comes to finding sustenance, reproducing, or identifying an enemy. But as far as we know, philosophy is well beyond them. Also beyond them is the conjuring of gods.

One of the fundamental arguments against atheism is that it deprives the human mind of wonder at all that is around us. Many among the religious say that to truly appreciate a sunset, a newborn infant, or a flower, there must be a “creator,” an originator of it all. From that perspective, we can marvel at it all and we can further marvel at just how great the god who made it happen must be. It sounds enticing, as surely it is to more than three-quarters of all the human beings alive today. But as a student of biology, I found a remarkable thing. My wonder at it all, at the mystery and majesty of existence and its workings, was only truly ignited when I removed the god of my childhood from the center of it. When I began to really marvel, to really imagine, and then backed up what I beheld with established knowledge, my appreciation for it all grew by magnitudes. What’s more is that it inspired me—not to worship but to understand, giving over my mind to a bottomless curiosity. In recent years, I have said in lectures to students that an education really provides one with a beginning, and moreover with an understanding of just how much one does not know. To this day, now forty years after my time in higher education, it is my curiosity that drives me in all things and in my desire to quench it with learning as often as I can.

As a child, I was told that there was but one thing to know that mattered, the word and will of God, and that such was the essence of a life well-lived. But now I have come to know that there is much to know and that it can be known if one chooses to do so. If one really wants to go beyond that, one can be among those who have delivered us knowledge over the centuries; new knowledge might enrich us even more.

When in debate, some religious people seem unable to cross that threshold and abandon what has been taught as revealed truth, truth that is true because someone endowed with authority said that it is true. They leave their critical faculties at the door in a self-defeating effort to turn off that gift that nature has bestowed, the gift of rational thought. One question always arises: Where does all this complexity we see come from if not from a divine source? I was brought up in a rather rigid Roman Catholic household. When I had questions about things, I was told that they were not only inappropriate but sinful, so much so that they would eventually lead me to eternal damnation. When my three children were growing up, I raised them without gods or churches and encouraged them to inquire about everything, to think, to investigate, and to settle questions for themselves. It might have been the best thing I ever did for them.

I recall with some clarity a conversation I had with my eldest daughter when she was less than ten years old. She had been hearing about God and knew I did not believe, and she began to ask all kinds of questions about how the trees got here, how the Sun got here, how we got here, and the like. I patiently tried to answer her in ways that she could understand. At the end of what might have been an hour, she said that maybe God did not make all the things she asked about but that he surely “got all the stuff together to make them.”

It is not in dispute that the world is an extremely complex place, but I would offer an analogy that will make sense to almost everyone. Like most of you, I own a computer. That computer can do many things. I can push a button and send my thoughts to someone on the other side of the world in an instant. I can ask it a question, and it can provide me nearly all the knowledge that exists on that subject. I can push another button, and it will capture the image of a mountain, a flower, or a person I love in perfect detail. It can hold all the music in the world and play it for me at the asking. It can show me any place on Earth and tell me how to get there from wherever I am. And surely it can do things that I don’t even realize it can do. If you were to ask me how it can possibly do that, I will admit my ignorance of computer science. I cannot answer beyond saying the word electricity, and my understanding of how electricity does anything left me years ago despite some education in physics in the late 1970s. Despite that, no one can rightly dispute that it can do all those astounding things I described and more. But here is the really incredible thing: It was built entirely by human beings, and it was built one small bit of understanding at a time, one imagined possibility at a time. To be sure, there are members of our species who understand it all, and what a thing that is to be sure.

Let’s take it one step further. Let us take a trip to the most remote place humans live on this planet, a place where there has been no contact with the rest of humanity ever. Today such a place might not even exist, but I can tell you with certainty that such places have existed in the very near past. Even in the short history of the Americas when the Native Americans first saw men riding horses brought with them from Europe, they thought that they were seeing a new kind of beast, one with six legs and two heads that ran very fast. Let us imagine that we take our laptop and bring it to these imagined remote people. Then we open it and show them a few of the things it can do. We can take a photo, and they will instantly be able to see themselves trapped in the confines of the computer. It might terrify them. We can play some Beethoven for them, and they might wonder about this new creature that makes strange sounds. Maybe we can use Zoom and have someone speak to them from someplace far away. What might they think? How might they react?

What is likely is that they would think it must be the work of a god. Maybe they would think the laptop was itself a god. Maybe they would decide to worship it just as humans once worshiped the Sun and Moon, the thunder and rain, and the sea and the mountains. Maybe they would worship the man who brought it into their village. They might even begin to record, verbally or otherwise, what happened that day when they were visited by a god, and they would pass that story down to each succeeding generation. Maybe after many retellings, it would be written down, and the account—in whatever altered form it took after so many retellings—would become the basis of a holy book. Maybe one fine day, one of them would venture out into the world and return after many years, newly educated, and would try to convince their people that the thing they have been worshiping is just a computer. Maybe no one would believe them.

From the time we are able to understand anything at all as children, most of us are taught that when jumping into the abyss of the great questions of existence, one finds oneself immediately face to face with God. But it is a great paradox that we humans have been endowed with a rather incredible …