Two contributors present brief
essays in response to some perennial questions. Each writes
independently of the other. One comes from a person closely linked to a
Christian denomination. The other comes from a person at the fringes of
the traditional Church.
Is the universe all that exists?
I recently heard that some reputable physicists
have suggested there may be many universes outside of our own. This
means that at the same time our Big Bang universe is expanding there are
others in various stages of similar development.
In other words, there may be countless material entities having the
potential of developing organic life similar to that on our earth. This
is above and beyond similar possibilities already hypothesized for our
own universe. As individual humans we may be even more insignificant
than is already supposed.
Unless there are conscious observers of these spectacular phenomena,
it is tempting to ask, "So what?" Can any of this have meaning and
significance without some reference to a mind that apprehends it? I
don�t think so.
I don�t think, however, that the initial question is posed to discuss
the possibility of a multiplicity of material universes. Rather, I see
the question as an introduction to the age-old controversy of whether or
not there is an immaterial world or reality that co-exists with material
This is a question that has infused our discussion of the other
"Questions". Thus, I see this as perhaps the most important and pivotal
question of them all.
I cannot produce a body of material proof that there is an immaterial
reality. It is my choice to believe in one. The question might be
posed, "What does it matter?"
It matters for large numbers of people who find strength and guidance
in their religious faith.
With our increasing reliance on science and technology for answers to
human problems, faith and spirituality have come under increasing attack
because they radically depart from conventional materialist rational
thinking. Miracles, divine intervention, creeds and other manifestations
of faith are ridiculed as superstitions by some intellectuals with a
condescension that is at times breathtaking.
Yet countless numbers of people who are intelligent and well-educated
have no difficulty in reconciling their views of the material world with
those of immaterial reality that enables their religious faith. This
empiric fact must mean something.
Humankind has sought for signs and symbols of a creator of the
universe since time immemorial. I suspect this will continue no matter
how sophisticated the world of science and technology becomes.
I would never argue with those who would constrict their world views
to the purely materialist mode. That is their choice. But I would
encourage anyone to embrace the idea of an immaterial reality if it
gives meaning and a positive dimension to their lives. They are in the
company of many thinking and intelligent people.
Aware of the mischief and frank disaster that can come from
over-zealous religious practice, I would invoke some qualifications.
Religious practice ought to have life-affirming goals and results.
Furthermore, religion should promote freedom of mind and conscience and
inspire people to find as much genuine happiness during this life as is
"Is anyone out there?" is a question human
beings have always asked. No doubt the first people wondered, "Are there
other tribes over them there hills?" And when this planet was our
universe, we wondered if a similar world existed just beyond our
Then along came Copernicus, Kepler and the many others who have
mapped and analysed the vast reaches of interstellar space. Now the
question is, "Are there other planets like ours?"
In the process of widening our horizons from the hills to the distant
shores of space, something unique has happened. For just as we can't
look back further than the start of space/time itself, so also we
realise that our universe has no "outside". An inside/outside
distinction depends on space/time beyond an edge - and the universe is
by definition unbounded. It seems that the universe is our oyster.
So where do we end up? It appears that the universe is all there is,
and that it's impossible to know anything other than it - if by "know"
we mean "that which we can experience" in space/time.
In previous ages humans tended to imagine parallel worlds. The
unknown became a variation of the known. We speculated about heaven and
hell to mirror earthly pleasure and pain. The spirit world was a happy
hunting ground for the early animist. Gods in their Valhalla or Mount
Olympus behaved rather like human rulers. The Hebrew God punished
disobedience and rewarded loyal service just like a king or tribal
Now our boundaries are nearly infinite - and it has become difficult
to imagine anything other than what lies within those boundaries. Is
there a heaven? Is there a hell? Is the universe all there is? Perhaps,
we respond. But if so, what is the evidence which leads us to an
The Greeks once tried a different tack. It's patent, they argued,
that we and everything else change, decay and disappear. If that's so,
how is it possible to talk about truth? For if something is true, it
must be permanent and unchangeable. And if that's the case, then there
must be a dimension in which there are perfect, unchanging forms of the
things we experience here - a perfect chair, a perfect table, a perfect
tree, a perfect truth.
But this tack no longer works either. Just as we know that Mount
Olympus doesn't lie the other side of this or that galaxy, so also we
now know that we invent our truths. They don't lie around for us to pick
up and polish. As philosopher Don Cupitt remarks,
Nobody sent them to us through the post. We invented them, and
their meaning and their value to us is given by the part they
actually play in our exchanges.
Of course, that doesn't prevent people concluding that there is more
than the universe, that just beyond our reach there is another reality.
Nor does it devalue such a conclusion.
It's just that increasing numbers simply don't need such a vision.
The universe we inhabit is so vast that the human mind will never grasp
it, nor the human psyche ever be fully at ease with it. To all intents
and purposes the universe is infinite. We can no longer see the
frontiers of our world.
If we have the universe, we don't need a heaven. There may be
realities other than the one we know. But if there are, we have no way
of interacting with them and therefore of confirming them.