Fairies and Gardens
So far as I was concerned, Douglas Adams was a genius. Not just for The Hitchhiker’s Guide, although that was amazing. His little spoof dictionary, The Meaning of Liff, defined the word ‘Corriearklet’, which is really a place in Scotland, as: ‘The moment at which two people approaching from opposite ends of a long passageway, recognize each other and immediately pretend they haven’t. This is to avoid the ghastly embarrassment of having to continue recognizing each other the whole length of the corridor.’ The man was inspired.
I had dinner with him once, when I was at university, because he was the guest speaker at an event I’d been invited to. It was quite weird, because at one point I found myself in a conversation with him and Germaine Greer, which is pretty intimidating when you’re a teenager, and you’re not that funny, and you’re not a radical feminist – you find yourself making the most ridiculous conversation, just so you feel like you’ve got something to say, which (it sadly turns out) you haven’t. When we finally got to his speech, which was the reason I was there, I remember being a bit disappointed with it, because his main joke was an anecdote I’d heard loads of times which obviously wasn’t true, and which he could have pulled off the internet for all I know. I still count it a privilege to have met him, though, and I remain a huge fan of his writing.
But one of his most famous throwaway remarks – at least, famous since a friend of his quoted it while dedicating a book that sold a million copies – really bothered me when I first read it, and it sums up pretty well the mind/matter debate. He said, ‘Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?’
Douglas Adams called himself a radical atheist, and this was his way of saying that belief in a creator was unnecessary. If you come across a beautiful garden, then the right response is to appreciate its beauty for its own sake, rather than inventing all sorts of mythical creatures and pretending they live there. That, he argued, is what people do when they believe in God. They encounter a world that is very beautiful, filled with incredibly complex and magnificent creatures, and what they should do is appreciate it for what it is. But instead, they invent fairies – gods – to hide all over it, in the branches of the trees and under the toadstools, and then they worship these gods, when they should be focusing on the beauty. This, Douglas Adams was saying, is ridiculous. Why not just admire the garden?
You have to be careful with parables, though. They can backfire. Here’s what it made me think: of course a beautiful garden would not make me believe in fairies (which is probably why no sane adult in the world believes in fairies). But it might make me believe in a gardener. Wouldn’t you think? A beautiful garden might well make me believe that someone of intelligence and skill – in other words, some sort of mind – had given their time to planting, ordering and cultivating this particular patch of land, so that it became a beautiful garden rather than a tumbledown scrubland.
That’s the whole point. When we find matter in an unsorted, unproductive mess, we don’t tend to imagine that intelligent beings are responsible. Left to their own devices, things in nature tend to get more disordered: gardens grow weeds, snowmen melt, bedrooms become messy, bicycles rust, and so on. So when we find an ugly piece of land where the grass is overgrown and the flowers are dying, we generally conclude that nobody’s been looking after it. There is no mind supervising the matter.
Beautiful gardens, on the other hand, are a different story. They display such order and beauty that we immediately see a mind behind the matter. Nobody in their right mind walks through the gardens at Versailles and thinks they just happened to come about that way; we all know that a very skilled and intelligent gardener has been hard at work, trimming borders and arranging flowers, probably over many years. The Versailles gardens don’t make you believe in fairies, but if you saw them and said you didn’t believe in gardeners, you’d be laughed off the stage.
Perhaps it’s the same with the earth. If you came across a place that had bucked the trend towards disorder, a place where total chaos had turned into astonishing order and beauty, rather than the other way around – where, for instance, you started with a Bang and ended up with a brain – you might think that some mind, some sort of gardener, was behind it all. Maybe Douglas Adams spoke better than he knew.
Here’s another way I’ve thought about it. If everything in the universe began with some sort of supreme mind – and you don’t have to call that ‘god’, although lots of people do – then I would expect the world to be filled with things like beauty, thought, art, music and morality, since those things come about because of minds.
On the other hand, if at the beginning of everything there was nothing but matter, then I would find it extremely surprising if all of those things had come about. Not impossible, I guess – it’s possible that the mineral Mordor could produce life, cells, consciousness and the rest on its own – but it would be extremely surprising. If a few billion years back we had a lifeless jumble of minerals, then I’d expect us still to have a lifeless jumble of minerals, and I certainly wouldn’t expect there to be people who asked questions and wrote songs and read books.
I think that’s quite an important thing to bear in mind when we’re asking whether mind or matter came first.
This is an extract from Andrew’s new book, If God Then What? Wondering Aloud about Truth, Origins and Redemption. It is out now, published by IVP who are offering a generous discount for readers of this blog.