Belief in an ordered universe is hard to reconcile with a tragic view of life

I remember sitting up and taking notice of something Richard Dawkins once said, which was to this effect: “When aliens arrive here, the first thing they will ask is: ‘Have they discovered the theory of evolution yet?’”

The only problem with this quotation is that I can find no reference to Professor Dawkins actually saying it, or the occasion and context of him saying it. He may not have said it at all. If anyone can give me a reference (the link above, which is hardly satisfactory, is all I can find) then I would be grateful. It would be interesting to unpack the meaning of the words.

Hunting down the quotation, I did of course come across others, collected, for example, here. Again the lack of context makes them rather strange, and one wonders what so many of them mean. Words like “religion” are not of themselves univocal. It all depends what you mean by religion.

Here is a saying that I find particularly problematic: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

First of all, notice the use of the words “precisely” and “observe”. It is surely impossible to observe the universe in its entirety. We observe parts, though we may intuit wholes. But these observations are not going to be precise – not if they are observations of “the universe”. So the use of the words “observe” and “precisely” here strikes me as giving the statement a scientific veracity that it cannot possibly claim, for this statement seems neither falsifiable or verifiable.

What the statement seems to be conveying, rather than a scientific observable truth, is an existential statement of belief about the nature of the universe. While Christians believe that at the heart of the universe there is Love, Professor Dawkins makes an opposing and opposite statement. But if the first statement is unscientific, so surely is the second one as well.

What this might all boil down to are opposing interpretations of experience. Some may feel that they are being protected by a benign Divine Providence and that even when they suffer this suffering can be turned somehow to good. Others may feel that life teaches them that there is no purpose to anything, only blind, pitiless indifference.

This strikes me as being the essential difference between comedy and tragedy. The characters in a tragedy frequently experience this Dawkins-like sense of desolation. Remember the Duchess of Malfi? “Look you, the stars shine still” – in other words, the heavens are indifferent to human suffering. Indeed, the characters in tragedy often call upon the heavens for justice, but answer comes there none.

And yet comedy is radically different. In comedy there is justice done at the end, each gets what they deserve. Some may find it hard to join the harmonious human community, such as Malvolio in Twelfth Night, who leaves the happy final scene of reconciliation with the words “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you.” But comedy depends on a firm belief in justice and truth and that these are possible on earth.

It seems to me that if Professor Dawkins believes in pitiless indifference as the presiding spirit of the universe, then he is clearly in the camp of an earlier professor, Friedrich Nietzsche. This is a serious matter, because the Nietzschean vision is one that not only contradicts the idea of Divine Providence, but it also makes science of any sort nonsensical, in that it seems to deny intrinsic meaning to physical phenomena, attributing meaning only to human will.

In other words, a Nietzschean would say that any theory of meaning is in the head of the person who holds it, not in the phenomena themselves. Or to sum up the tragic view of life in the words of Macbeth:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Is this what Professor Dawkins believes? Is this what modern atheists believe? It does sound pretty close to the quote from Dawkins above. But if he believes this how can he believe in an ordered universe, one that is susceptible to rational and scientific observation?