This evening we had dinner with my Danish father-in-law. With his white, longish hair and long white beard, piercing blue eyes and dramatic flair, he is quite the character, certainly not your average Dane. Dinner conversation ranged across several topics; from a memoir he had read of a once dirt-poor Appalachian family whose four children managed to get themselves to the Big Apple and make something of their lives (which I later found out was a blockbuster on the NY Times bestseller list for 100 weeks a few years back), to his anecdotes from a recent trip to Nepal, including a ride he had on the back of an elephant through the jungle; until finally during dessert (of tiramisu, his usual offering to the meal), he broached the subject of the ‘God finger’ or Higgs Boson particle which has finally been proven by some clever physicists in Switzerland last week. The conversation went something like this:
Danish Father in Law (DFL), (with lovely Danish accent, speaking rather dramatically): Did you know, that some scientists, who have now discovered this new particle, which they are calling God’s finger, are, along with some other neuroscientists, making a new sort of philosophy of their own, in which they have done extensive research into the human mind, and figured out that humans are actually a kind of automaton, and that everything that we do and believe is actually the result of conditioning? As a matter of fact, humans seem to have no free will whatsoever. (here he raises one bushy, white eyebrow, and peers at me intently with his keen blue eyes.)
Me (somewhat aghast): Well, I have heard about the Higgs Boson discovery, yes. But the idea that humans are automatons, that one’s a bit hard to take.
DFL: Yes, and they even go so far as to say that everything we believed before, for thousands of years, including religion and all the philosophers, ought to be thrown out, because none of it is true.
Danish Husband (truly aghast): Throw out the philosophers! Those scientists don’t understand what God is at all. They are the reason why the world is being destroyed, with that kind of materialistic thinking. Why do you say such ridiculous things? (and ranted in a kind of insulted tone for the next several minutes, his voice raised, and not allowing anyone else to say anything until he had run out of righteous steam.)
DFL (amused): I don’t believe anything. I am only telling you what these neuro-physicists are saying. You know very well that I do not believe that there is a God, to me it is only a word, like any other.
Me (in a measured tone): Okay, but look. Do you really think that humans are the most intelligent life form in the world, and that everything there is was simply created through chance, that there is no higher intelligence, or being, or force, in the universe? But it is simply absurd and completely egoistic to believe that we are the highest beings.
DFL (attempting to listen but completely unconvinced): I don’t claim to know anything about it, but no, I do not believe in a god who made the world. For all I know, the scientists could be right. We are all automatons, and do things because we are programmed to, because although we believe we have a choice, in reality we have no choice at all. (he stops and gives me that look and the eyebrow again.) It could be true, if you could drop your own beliefs for long enough to consider it.
The conversation continued in this vein for another twenty minutes, with my husband making an impassioned speech about the ills of the modern world and its scientists who are ruining everything, to me trying to find any kind of middle ground, and DFL listening, obviously delighted with the controversy he had stirred up. Eventually we ended the discussion, walked him over to catch his bus back to Århus for the night, and stood together in the evening quiet, the sky that certain shade of cerulean and pink which only shows at dusk. He gazed up at the thin white clouds, and opened his arms wide against the sky. ‘It is so big, the sky, and all the stars beyond it,” he mused, a little smile upon his lips. I agreed, and wondered again how anyone could see such beauty and yet not believe that there was a higher intelligence at work somewhere, creating it all. When I said as much aloud, he looked at me with his open, direct gaze. “And I cannot understand those who believe the opposite of me,” he said simply. Soon his bus came, we hugged goodbye and he got on board, waving to us.
As is always the case after an evening spent in my DFL’s company, I remained in a pensive and thoughtful mood for the remainder of the night. His perspective on life was, in some ways, the polar opposite of mine. He had no god, no spiritual basis to guide his thoughts, his life, his thinking. He never prayed. He evidently saw life as nothing more than an opportunity to indulge in whatever fun and pleasure one could find, to learn what one could from books, films and other people, and to accept that there was really nothing of consequence which a person could do to change the world for the better. And if his new-found theory of humans as a kind of sophisticated robot was correct, then things were way worse than I had suspected. True, when I ponder my astrology forecast, the accuracy is so eerie that I must conclude that we do appear to be not much more than puppets on a string, but part of me says so with tongue in cheek. The neuro-physicists (could he have meant neurophysiologists?) take on our lack of free will was truly appalling, however. What would life be like for humanity if and when science proves, beyond any doubt, that we humans really are a kind of programmed robot, without any freedom of thought or will whatsoever, and we had been totally brainwashed into thinking that we did have free will this whole time– the ultimate conspiracy!
The thought that we could be totally wrong in our believing we were free, at least in our minds, is enough to nearly send me over the edge. In a very real, scary way, I can see that it is totally possible. Maybe we humans really are a kind of automaton, a being which, although human and not an android, is incapable of truly original thought or action. Though I cannot buy the theory that there is no puppeteer who is holding our strings, because if we really don’t have free will, logic says that somebody, somewhere, has programmed us to be how we are. Will the neuro-physicists win in the end, and prove us free-willing people wrong? And if so, will it be too late in the game to do anything about it? Will all those horrific science-fiction stories which are so popular these days, turn out to become our future world?