Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder tells the story of a fourteen-year-old girl’s life changing tour of the history of philosophy led by a mysterious philosopher named Alberto Knox. Through a series of perplexingly creative letters, Knox orients Sophie’s inquisitive mind to the major philosophical questions mankind has posed and debated since the beginning of history (my 11th grade students read this book for an introduction to the history of Western thought – it’s a great tool for a basic philosophical survey). The first two letters, in the first chapter appropriately called the “Garden of Eden,” simply confront Sophie with the questions “Who are you?” and “Where does the world come from?” Her inquiry into these questions launches her into a mind-boggling intellectual and existential quest.
The summer blockbuster film Prometheus (2012) might be thought of as a quest for Eden, though dealing more with the specific question of the origins of life and of humanity – “where do we come from?” The passionate, life-risking pursuit of an answer to this question by the scientists aboard the “Prometheus” and their trillionaire financier is deeply consonant with our innate psycho-spiritual need to make sense of our origins. This need is derivative of an even more basic nee to make sense of the world and of ourselves. The reason why the question of origins is so important to us is that our answer to this question shapes and may even determine our answer to other questions that impact directly how we live, namely questions of identity (who are we?), of purpose (why are we here?), of destiny (where are we going?) and especially of ethics (how should we live?).
As Sophie realizes in her philosophy lessons, the questions of origins and identity are really inseparable. Are human beings essentially animals with the most highly evolved cognitive faculties in nature? Well, yes, if we came from more primitive animals, which themselves came from life forms that accidentally sprung up from organic molecules that aggregated into complex, self-replicating entities. But if we came from an intelligent source, a designer, that made us fundamentally different from other living things, then the answer is no – we are more than just advanced animals; our nature is essentially unique. The Bible reveals that our core identity is divine image bearers – representatives of God on earth. This, of course, only makes sense if God created us.
The purpose of the mission of “Prometheus” is not only to discover where we came from and who put us here, but more important to the main characters is to understand why we were put here. This is why they are not content just to find a matching DNA sample, but to communicate with our “engineers” to ask them what they put us here for. The connection between origins and purpose is also intuitive. Consider finding an unfamiliar piece of technology left behind at a park bench. You’d naturally want to know what this device is for – its purpose. There is a “Sony” label on it. Where or from whom could you find a definitive, most credible answer to what this thing is for? Of course, the best source for an answer is Sony because they made it. The origins of the device tell you what it is for.
The connection between origins and destiny may not be so obvious. Perhaps the why question of purpose is needed to link the two. The idea of destiny actually assumes a yet to be realized purpose to be fulfilled in an indefinite time period. The Bible teaches that we were made in God’s image for the purpose of ruling the earth by multiplying and exercising dominion. This purpose directs our future by prescribing an end to progress toward. Thus, a destiny is to fulfill completely and with finality one’s purpose.
Finally, I’ll explore briefly the connection between origins and ethics. There are at least two major dimensions to this relationship. One is the relationship between creation and authority. Just as inventors have natural authority over technologies they make, and artists authority over art they create, so would our creators have authority over us to determine what we are supposed to do. This is why throughout history, ethics and religion have been inextricably linked. Another dimension also requires purpose to thread the origins and ethics. If our origins are in impersonal, and therefore non-intelligent and non-purposeful, forces, then our “purpose” is the same as any living thing – to survive and successfully reproduce (and perhaps to be as happy as we can in doing so). We then are “supposed” to live in such a way as to achieve these aims. If our origins lie in a purposeful source, then we ought to live in such a way to achieve the ends decreed by our “engineer.” Take for instance sexuality. If our purpose is to reproduce successfully and perhaps to attain as much bodily pleasure as possible, we will sanction sexual behavior (such as polygamy, adultery, and some have argued even rape) to achieve those aims. But if sex is more than about reproduction and pleasure, but also is means of spiritual and emotional unity between one man and one woman, as the Bible teaches, then we will condemn sexual behaviors that are common among animals and sanction completely distinct sexual norms.
Human beings are unique in our need to make sense of things: we are at our core interpreters, meaning makers. Understanding our beginnings is essential to making sense out of life because beginnings is where our thinking on everything else logically begins. Religion has traditionally supplied answers to these questions, but in our current climate of religious skepticism, some intelligent people have proposed alternative answers, even going so far as to posit that alien beings put us here. This is not just an idea of science-fiction, but a serious academic proposal that has gained some credibility. In my next Prometheus post I will explore the allure of this idea.