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THE MEANING OF EXISTENCE

There are two ways to explain how a seed germinates under earth, then grows into a human being; either each of the innumerable particles operative in the process of growth individually knows its place, functions and environment, and its relations with all the other particles, cells and larger wholes within the organism, or one who has that vast knowledge employs them in the growth process, as indeed in the formation of all living or non-living entities.

The following simple scientific experiment, reported in Discovery, 20 August 1993, will help in understanding this significant argument:

There is no ‘trial and error’ in nature

Overbeck and his co-workers at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston were trying to practice some gene therapy techniques by seeing if they could convert albino mice into coloured ones. The researcher injected a gene essential to the production of the pigment melanin into the single-cell embryo of an albino mouse. Later they bred that mouse’s offspring, half of which carried the gene on one chromosome of a chromosome pair. Classic Mendelian genetics told them that roughly a quarter of the grandchildren should carry the gene on both chromosomes -should be ‘homozygous’, in the language of genetics-and should therefore be colored.

But the mice never got a chance to acquire color. ‘The first thing we noticed,’ says Overbeck, ‘was that we were losing about 25% of the grandchildren within a week after they were born.’ The explanation:

The melanin-related gene that his group injected into the albino mouse embryo had inserted itself into a completely unrelated gene. An unfamiliar stretch of DNA in the middle of a gene wrecks that gene’s ability to get its message read. So in the mice, it seems whatever protein the gene coded for went unproduced, whatever function the protein had went undone, and the stomach, heart, liver, and spleen all wound up in the wrong place. Somehow, too, the kidneys and pancreas were damaged, and that damage is apparently what killed the mice.

Overbeck and his colleagues have already located the gene on a particular mouse chromosome and are now trying to pin down its structure. That will tell them something about the structure of the protein the gene encodes, how the protein works, and when and where it is produced as the gene gets ‘expressed’, or turned on, ‘Is the gene expressed everywhere, or just on the left side of the embryo or just on the right side?’ Overbeck wonders, ‘And when does it get expressed?’

These questions will take Overbeck far from the gene-transfer experiment. ‘We think there are at least 100,000 genes,’ he points out, ‘so the chances of this happening were literally one in 100,000.’

It will take many thousands of tests therefore, and cost the lives of many thousands of mice, for this type of experiment to be carried out with success. However, there is no such trial and error in nature, and any seed under earth, unless some impediment like lack of enough moisture intervenes, germinates and ultimately becomes a tree. Likewise, an embryo in the mother’s womb grows into a living, conscious being equipped with intellectual and spiritual faculties.

The human body is a miracle of symmetry, as well as of asymmetry.

The human body is a miracle of symmetry, as well as of asymmetry. Scientists know how an embryo develops in the womb to form this symmetry and asymmetry, but they are completely ignorant of how the particles-the particles that reach the embryo through the mother and function as building blocks in the formation of the body-can distinguish between right and left, how they are able to determine the place of each organ, how each goes and inserts itself in the exact place of a certain organ, and how they understand the extremely complicated relations among cells and organs, and their requirements. This is so complicated a process that if a single particle which should be placed in, for example, the pupil of the right eye, were to go to the ear, it could lead to malfunction or even death. Another point relevant here is that all animate beings are made from the same elements coming from earth, air and water, and similar to one another with respect to the members and organs of their bodies, yet they are almost completely different from one another with respect to bodily features, visage, character, desires and ambitions. This uniqueness of the individual is so reliable that one can be identified absolutely by one’s finger prints.

There are only two alternatives to explain creation: either each particle or atom possesses almost infinite knowledge, will and power or One Who has such knowledge, power and will creates and administers the whole existence

How do we explain this? There are the two alternatives we mentioned at the beginning: either each particle possesses almost infinite knowledge, will and power or One Who has such knowledge, power and will creates and administers each particle. However far back we go in an attempt to ascribe this to cause and effect and heredity, these two alternatives remain valid.

This argument, frequently emphasized in the writings of Said Nursi, lost its appeal when I objected: ‘Everything takes place according to a certain program and the principle of cause and effect. Why, then, need a particle possess the knowledge of its place and functions, its relations with all other particles with which it must combine and co-operate?’ However, it soon dawned upon me that I was trying to find an explanation for existence from within existence, seeking the Creator in that which was created.

Materialistic science, whether biology or physics, reflects upon existence from within it and is dazzled, tangled by the apparent self-organization in the universe.

Materialistic science, whether biology or physics, reflects upon existence from within it and is dazzled, tangled by the apparent self-organization in the universe. It is true that everything appears to happen according to certain principles and the law of cause and effect. Empirically based and having adopted the method of doing tests in laboratories, modern science attempts to discover the Creator in laboratories. This means regarding the Creator as of the same kind as the created-finite and material-which implies for the scientist a rank over the Creator. If the scientist is not seeking to deify himself over creation, what is the rationale, the sense, of looking for the Creator among the created?

As everybody knows, science advances on the feet of theories. That being so, would it not be legitimate to approach, at least for once, existence and the act of coming into existence from the perspective of the existence of God?

In the past, Muslim theologians argued the necessity of God from the unacceptability of an unending chain of causes. Everything in the universe is finite, transient, it begins and ends. Also, anything that begins and ends needs a cause or originator to bring it into existence since nothing can originate itself. (Even man, despite being the most conscious and powerful of creatures, has no part in his coming into existence, in the time and place of his birth, in determining his family, his race, his bodily features, nor has he much control over the workings of his body.) In short, as every existent needs an originator and the chain of originators cannot regress for ever, there must be an absolute originator, self-originating, self-existent, self-subsistent. This is God, without beginning and end, eternal.

Even if the existence of the universe is attributed to some entity other than God-to evolution or causality or nature or matter or coincidences and necessity-no one can deny that everything displays, though its coming into existence, its subsistence and death, an all-comprehensive knowledge, and an absolute power and determination. As we saw in the experiment referred to above, a single misplaced or misdirected gene, may suffice to ruin or prevent life. The interconnectedness of everything, from galaxies to atoms, is a reality into which every new entity enters and wherein it must know its unique place and function. And is there not a further demonstration of the existence and free operation of an all-comprehensive knowledge, and absolute power and will, that particles made up of the same bio-chemical constituents should be able to produce through the subtlest adjustments in their pattern of mutual relationships, entities and organisms which are unique? Is it satisfactory to explain this as heredity or coincidence, seeing that all such explanations again rest upon the same all-encompassing knowledge, absolute power and will?

We must not be misled by the apparent fact that everything happens according to a certain program or plan or process of causes

We must not be misled by the apparent fact that everything happens according to a certain program or plan or process of causes. This process of causes is a veil spread over the flux of the universe, the ever-moving stream of events. The ‘laws of nature’ which may be inferred from this process of causes have a nominal, not a real and concrete, existence. Unless we attribute to nature the attributes we would normally attribute to the Creator of nature, we must accept that it is, in essence and reality, a printing mechanism, not a printer, a design, not a designer, a passive recipient, not an agent, an order, not an orderer, a collection of nominal laws, not a power. The same argument holds if, in place of ‘nature’, we choose the terms ‘matter’ or (the preference of French biologist Jacques Monod) ‘coincidence and necessity’.

One of the points which entangles, and brings down, materialist scientific explanations is ‘eternity’. In order to perceive eternity, science must first acknowledge the inevitable limitations of its being a product of human reason. Man is a part of existence or creation, and therefore a finite being, and it is impossible for a finite being to comprehend the Infinite:

  • The Infinite cannot be of the same kind as the finite.

  • Man is enveloped by time and space which are two of the dimensions of existence, that is, they are not there before, but there together with creation. So, unless one goes beyond the limits of time and space, it is impossible for one to comprehend eternity. This can be attained, not by, in the terminology of Kant, the theoretical reason, but by the practical reason, by spiritual experience or enlightenment, or by one’s inner conscience.

  • God is not dependent on time. Possessing absolute Will, He is not compelled to do or not do anything. He created the universe.

The universe is like a book each sentence, each word and each letter of which is interrelated with every other

The universe is like a book each sentence, each word and each letter of which is interrelated with every other. By manifesting His Names, God gets this book to ‘speak’, to be listened to or read by man. The original or essential meaning of this book originates in the Knowledge of God. In other words, before coming into material existence, the universe existed in the Knowledge of God. Through manifestation of Will and Power in the sphere of Knowledge, the meanings in the Knowledge appeared as the letters, words and sentences of the book of the universe. The universe which God fastened to the ‘string’ of time is the result of Divine manifestation of Will and Power in the sphere of His knowledge. For an existent being, coming into existence means transference from the sphere of Knowledge to the sphere of Power. By dying, it is transferred to the sphere of Knowledge again, but after it has acquired a new state proper for a new, eternal life in the other, eternal world. This can be made more understandable through the following analogy, which was explained before in this book:

The meaning of a book exists in the mind of its author before he writes it. Even though he does not write it, the article or the book has an ‘essential’ existence in the form of meaning. In order to make this meaning visible in the material world, the author should ‘mould’ it into letters. Readers can know the author through the book. The book’s being there to be read indicates its having an author with the ability to write it. Likewise, the universe points to all the Names of God, including the All-Powerful, the All-Knowing and the Possessor of Will. These Names are indicative of the Attributes of Knowledge, Power and Will, which, in turn, demonstrate the One Who has them.

God has many other Names or Attributes and therefore many kinds of manifestations. As the manifestations of, primarily, His Will and Power in Knowledge brought the universe into existence and still originate new lives incessantly, so His manifestation of Speech in the same Knowledge gave visible existence to the Qur’an, the last and the most perfect form of the Divine Scriptures. The present, revealed form of the Qur’an is, in one way, a counterpart of the universe in letters. In the same way as a magnificent building and the booklet describing it indicate the architect who produced them, the Qur’an and the universe, being two different forms or kinds of Divine manifestation, are signs of the Creator. The Qur’an came from the Divine Attribute of Speech, while the universe originated from the Divine Attributes of Will and Power. Both have their sources in the same Knowledge, the Knowledge of God. For this reason, any science-whether biology or physics or chemistry or astronomy or psychology-which studies the universe or man can never be contradictory with the religion of Islam. If there is a contradiction, it is either in the mind or intention or quality of the scientist or in a mispresentation of Islam.

The first revelation in the Qur’an and its relevance with the meaning of existence

The first revelation to the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, was:

Read: In and with the Name of Your Lord Who created, created man of an embryo suspended. Read: And your Lord is the most Munificent, Who taught by the Pen, taught man that he knew not. (al-’Alaq, 96.1-3)

It is quite significant that the first command of God to His Messenger, the unlettered Prophet, was ‘read’, when there was not yet the Book to read. This means that there is another book or, rather, there are two books, counterparts to the Book which was to be revealed. These two books are the universe and man. A believer should approach the study of universe and man without prejudice. It is also significant that the verses of the Qur’an and the phenomena in the universe and in man-material and psychological-are both called ‘signs’. The imperative ‘read!’ is followed, not by a direct object or an adverbial, but by ‘in and with the Name of your Lord Who created’. This signifies:

  • ‘Reading’ the universe-studying it-has principles of its own, like, for example, observation and experiment.

  • The word translated as Lord is Rabb, among whose meanings are ‘educator, upbringer, giver of a certain nature’. God created the universe and man on a certain pattern, and gave each entity a particular nature. Man’s nature includes free will, every other entity acts according to the primordial nature assigned to it. This is what modern science refers to in the words ‘nature’ and the ‘laws of nature’. What man is commanded to do is to discover these ‘laws’.

  • Every act of man, including his scientific studies, should be done in the name of God, and therefore be an act of worship. That is the only limit which the Qur’an or Islam has put on science. Any act so performed cannot be against God’s Commandments. For example, in the pursuit of scientific knowledge as worship, no one could harm mankind, nor put that knowledge in the form of a deadly weapon in the hands of an irresponsible minority. If done only in the name of God, by people conscious of always being supervised by God and who will be called to account before a Supreme Tribunal for all their actions in the world, science could change the world into a garden of Eden.

In sum: The meaning of existence is from the existence of God. That is what gives their true meaning to all things, all events, all efforts to live and acquire knowledge. Consider that the smallest thing like an apple costs the whole universe, seeing that for its formation the sun, earth and water must co-operate, something that the whole world population working together could not provide. Whether for the universe as a whole or a simple life within it, a great expenditure has been made in creation. In spite of this, many living things die at birth, and many others after a few moments of life. The average life span of man, who is the ‘cream’ of creation, to whom much of the existence has been subjugated, is about 60 years. You may, therefore, ask why such a vast expenditure is made for so short a life-span. If there is not an eternal life in an eternal world, will life and every existent thing have been pointless, in vain? However, God has not created anything for vanity. Every existent is infinitely meaningful, displaying an infinite knowledge, will and power. Each is directed to a particular aim. Each, whether its term is short or long, is a ‘sign’ pointing to God and is directly related to Him.

Without that relation of itself to God, every entity would mean nothing-zero; and the universe would be a huge zero. If God is not recognized, if the meaning His existence and creativity provide for existence is not understood, the zeros would be, each one, a sort of ‘black hole’ absorbing all the Divine manifestations and beauties. It is belief which removes the dark veil from creation and manifests the meaning it carries. Through belief, each of the ‘black holes’ changes-according to the degree of its refinement-into a shining sun, moon or star which manifests the meaning, aim and beauty it has been given by its Creator.


Recommended Reading:
Shooting stars and the clash in the heavens

Last Updated on October 26, 2000

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