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This Thanksgiving, Don’t Thank the Universe…It Doesn’t Care

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Matthew Becklo - published on 11/21/14

Or "give you what you need"

In a progressive little elementary school in the 90s, I was taught the following song…sort of.

A staple of our all-school sing-alongs, the version we learned was redacted of religious implications, and every instance of the term “the Lord” was replaced with the sterilized secularity of “today.” So my six-year old self – totally oblivious to the lyric change – would wander around singing:

Today is good to me!
And so I thank today!
For giving me the things I need
The sun and rain and an appleseed
Today is good to me!

Looking back, I’m totally unsurprised by the decision of the principal, teacher, parents –whoever it was that took out a Sharpie to the lyrics. While most people are content to “live and let live” when it comes to both private and public expressions of faith, we’ve come to expect a certain vocal anti-religious minority (e.g. David Silverman’s “Freedom From Religion Foundation”) to frame any mention of God in the public square as an aggressive infringement.

Looking back, what bothers me now is not so much the revision itself, but the total incoherence of the revision. It’s the same incoherence besetting a recent cultural trend of “thanking” the universe for what it “does” or “wills” or “thinks” about us and what we do.

Consider this sampling from TV:

True Blood:
“Tonight, the universe showed me my destiny.”

Castle:
“A sign from the universe telling us we need to solve this case together.”

Modern Family:
“The universe rewarded me.”

Girl Meets World:
“I hardly think the universe is upset with me for being nice to Farkle.”

The Mentalist:
“I’m blessed is what I am. The universe wants me to have this money.”

Marry Me:
“The universe isn’t against us at all. Our friends are just idiots.”

And the winner, “How I Met Your Mother”:

“I mean, the universe is screaming at me right now, how can you of all people have come to ignore that?”
“Maybe we don’t need the universe to tell us what we really want. Maybe we already know that. Deep down.”
“Why would the universe do that to me?
“That’s the universe, the universe is talking to us.”
“The universe clearly does not want you and Robin to be together.”
“You see, the universe has a plan kids, and that plan is always in motion…All these little parts of the machine constantly working, making sure that you end up exactly where you’re supposed to be, exactly when you’re supposed to be there. The right place at the right time.”

Like a redacted Johnny Appleseed, these sentiments about the universe take what are essentially descriptions of a transcendent agent and apply them to the imminent material universe of quasars, pulsars, and black holes that constitute the over 100 billion galaxies of which our solar system is a mere fraction of a sliver of a hair. The impulse behind this metaphysical bait-and-switch is not difficult to decipher; it reaps all the “magic” of classical theism – meaning, purpose, and value – without the high social or personal cost of believing in or even mentioning God.

But you get what you pay for. The godless universe, as Christopher Hitchens once put it, “doesn’t care.” It’s not that the universe is mean – it’s not even aware that it doesn’t care. It may be magnificent and mind-blowingly beautiful – and it might not judge us – but “Mad Men” cuts through all the fluff of these other shows with the brutal reality: “I hate to break it to you, but…the universe is indifferent.”

The universe doesn’t “do” or “think” anything, precisely because it lacks what philosophers call “intentionality.” Intentionality – which comes from the Latin “intendere,” which means “to aim (at)” – refers to capacity of consciousness to “aim” at, represent, and be “about” an object. This is not synonymous with mere “intention” or desire – your conscious perception of the computer or smart phone in front of you, and your belief that this article is officially going in a weird direction, are both examples of intentionality.

Human beings have intentionality. Some animals do as well. It’s a property – in fact, the property – of consciousness. But rocks, trees, planets, stars, galaxies – any intentionality on the part of these things is evidently impressed upon them by us.

In his book Philosophy of Mind, Edward Feser gives the example of an electric fan:

“The fan also behaves ‘as if’ it believed there was a world of external physical objects (that it ‘wants’ to cool down, say): but of course it doesn’t really have this belief (or any wants) at all. In the case of the fan, this is not because it just hasn’t occurred to the fan to think about whether there is such a world, for the fan isn’t capable of such thoughts; it is rather because, strictly speaking, the fan doesn’t really ‘act’ or ‘behave’ at all, as opposed to just making movements. And the reason we don’t regard it as acting or behaving in the same sense we do is precisely because it doesn’t have intentionality – it is a dumb, meaningless, unconscious hunk of steel and wires.”

It’s an uncontroversial claim, of course, that an electric fan doesn’t believe it has to cool things down, desires to blow more air, and feels bad as it watches you sweat. 

Billy Madison chastises a brass swan for looking at him funny
– and we laugh. It’s ludicrous, and not only because it defies common sense. Contra animism, modern science has shown that material objects like fans operate according to certain fundamental laws of physics. Every time you get on an airplane or cross railroad tracks without looking both ways, you assume as much.

But the universe is just the electric fan or the brass swan writ large – much bigger and much more complex, but exactly the same “kind” of thing, i.e., just a thing. Even if we could make the enormous leap to assume that the universe had some kind of will, we’d be hard-pressed to say it had our best interests at heart. As Neil deGrasse Tyson

puts it
:

“Look at all the things that just wanna kill us, okay? Most planet orbits are unstable, star formation is completely inefficient. Most places in the universe will kill life instantly…We’re on a collision course with the Andromeda galaxy. Gone is this beautiful spiral that we have. And of course we’re in a one-way expanding universe as we wind down to oblivion as the temperature of the universe asymptotically approaches absolute zero. That’s the universe.

For Tyson, this “stupid design” of the universe is proof that God, if he exists, isn’t beneficent. But this is really just an offshoot of the problem of suffering, and the point is open to debate because it doesn’t entail a logical contradiction. On the other hand, if there is no God – or if the universe is synonymous with God as on pantheism – it can’t reasonably be said that the universe “cares” about us.

So this Thanksgiving, when you’re carving up the turkey and thinking about how to say something meaningful at the dinner table without offending anyone, don’t cast your eyes to the sky and thank the universe for a bountiful harvest. The universe doesn’t care one iota about you; you’re just one lucky duck.

Matthew Becklo is a husband and father, amateur philosopher, and cultural commentator at Aleteia and Word on Fire. His writing has been featured in First Things, The Dish, and Real Clear Religion.

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