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Faith in Practice

A rare species

Derek Walker

A former cabinet minister, Michael Meacher is best known for preparing to stand against Gordon Brown for the Labour leadership. But Derek Walker talks to him about another subject: his scientific - but not anti-faith - quest for the meaning of life.

meacher.jpgPoliticians are used to playing with large numbers, but Michael Meacher has figures that exceed any Westminster's expenses. In his book Destination of the Species he writes that there is a one in one hundred trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion chance that the universe we know could have its laws, components and life without being specifically designed.

There are plenty more trillions as he explores cosmology to investigate the origins of human life. For life to emerge the right circumstances had to be present and one key condition is the formation of stars. He quotes a probability of about one chance in 10229 that 'a universe created by randomly choosing the parameters will contain stars.'

The book is the result of a man wanting to be sure of what he believes and putting together all the evidence he can find. You could almost see it as the result of some mid-life crisis, but the surprise is that so few people seem to examine the meaning of life with Meacher's seriousness.

He recalls the questions that inspired him: 'Are our lives simply a temporary rite of passage, which quickly vanishes with little or no meaning in the relentless treadmill of the universe over billions of years, or is there some greater order of things, which gives meaning to the human species? If so, where is the evidence that I can safely rely on, which is consistent with all the enormous range of scientific data that has accumulated, particularly in the last 300 years?'

But it was dissatisfaction as much as curiosity that set him off on his quest. He was brought up with sufficient religion for his mother to want him to become a priest, but reading philosophy at Oxford made him search elsewhere for ways to make a positive difference in the world.

'I opted instead for social work as a probation officer,' he explains, 'but then became strongly focussed on achieving social change instead through the political process, which took me into Parliament for the best part of 40 years. While that offered important opportunities to fight for the values and principles I believed in - and still strongly believe in - it gave no respite from the puzzlement still gnawing at me about the deeper meaning of human life and what it's ultimately for - if indeed it is for anything.'

His background was not wasted; religion and philosophy had proven their worth to him as disciplines parallel to science and so had to be a part of his research, but with none as an a priori worldview. As he notes, 'Some people think modern science has disproved religion. I think that is a category error.'

Meacher is not naive enough to expect to solve the meaning of life on his own - that would be 'like an ant trying to understand planetary economics' - but he does believe that his holistic approach is taking the subject further forward.
He contrasts his attitude with his reaction to van Eyck's painting The Betrothal of the Arnolfili, which he initially viewed as 'a bit stiff' and unremarkable.

'I couldn't have been more wrong!' he exclaims. 'This is an extraordinary painting, with exquisite detail, when you look closely, which imparts a whole new understanding of what he was conveying. For example, there was a mirror on the wall behind the figures, which at first glance you would hardly even notice. But it actually contains a reflection of the whole scene, including the artist himself, with all the precision of a modern digital photograph. I completely missed it. When you look at the story of the universe as we so far know it, one has to be very attentive, to pick out the really key things and then ask, "Why did that happen?"'

Meacher believes that there are answers, which his book investigates systematically. His favourite section is about the fine tuning of the universe.
'In order to produce the stable universe we know, which we take for granted, the balance between the original outwards explosive force of the Big Bang and the gravitational forces pulling back the galaxies is precise with an accuracy which is utterly incredible: one part in one followed by 60 noughts. That is absolutely incredible when you are considering forces of such awesome magnitude.'

Without that precision, the galaxies would either have been flung out too fluidly to form into stars and produce life, or 'would have gone back to the crunch almost immediately.'

Although he now passionately believes that the universe is designed, he does not assume that the creator is a personal God, because 'creation is a slippery concept'. He doesn't know how to connect the distant designer God with the loving, personal Jesus, describing the link as 'mysterious'.

If he has had the advantage of a Christian background but still cannot make that link easily, he feels it essential that his work should be written to be accessible to today's far more sceptical generation.

He also ardently believes that this generation, which has lost the altruistic assumptions of a religious culture, needs to let go of its 'scientific materialism, gross consumerism and the increasing emphasis on personal gratification and liberalism.'

The need for a change of lifestyle is crucial, he believes, if this wonderful world, which has taken billions of years to reach this stage, is to survive challenges like peak oil and peak water in the next few centuries. 'That in geological time is a flicker of an eyelid.'

As he concludes in his book, 'It's not our capacity to control the world, but our capacity to control ourselves, which is the biggest challenge.'

Faith in Practice returns next month

Michael Meacher's book, Destination of the Species: The riddle of human existence is available now from O Books.