As all students of literature will know, Douglas Adams had quite a bit of this worked out in his book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Concerning life, the universe and everything, the ultimate answer turned out to be 42 and it is as profound an answer as any.
In the book, the difficulty for the beings who devised the super computer that came up with the above answer (the ultimate answer) was that they had not managed to figure out the ultimate question. They were in the process of working it out when the even more powerful computer they had constructed to determine the question (the Earth) was destroyed by the Vogons in order to make room for a hyperspace bypass.
Despite the loss of the computer, these super-intelligent beings, who took the form of mice, used their reasoning power to come up with what they thought should be the ultimate question, bearing in mind they already had the answer by that time. The question they eventually came up with was: how many roads must a man walk down? (before they call him a man).
Arthur Dent’s subsequent personal revelation was that it might have been possible to still extract the ultimate question from his own brainwave patterns because he had been a part of the Earth super-computer. Using a kind of divination process in which he pulled Scrabble letters from a bag, he then managed to spell out the sentence, what do you get if you multiply six by nine? We all know that six times nine is fifty four, unless you do the calculation in base 13 arithmetic of course.
As crazy as all of the foregoing may seem, the story provides a wonderful picture that is analogous to humankind’s own search for the ultimate answer about life, the universe and everything because, it seems to me, that science is on the verge of proving that the theory of evolution is not a theory at all, but a fact. To me, that’s a bit like finding the ultimate answer. But, just as in the Hitchhiker’s Guide, it needs to be placed into proper context.
Just like the mice (the super-intelligent beings in the story) the scientists have their idea about the ultimate question. It seems they think the question might be something about the existence of God. For perhaps the last century or so, the main argument advanced by atheists against the existence of God has been that evolution provides a better answer to the question of how life arose on the planet. The problem with this argument is that it completely misses the possibility that evolution might well be God’s own creative process.
Then we have the Earthlings who, just like Arthur Dent, have some of the program in their own heads. Some of them think the question relates to why science should be concerned with metaphysical matters that are clearly beyond its scope. Individuals might argue that from personal revelation and other kinds of subjective evidence, they know that God exists and that therefore the supposed ultimate answer (the evidence for evolution) is a false premise.
It is about time that religious groups relaxed about the question of whether or not evolution is a fact and recognised that the answer really has absolutely no bearing on the question of the existence, or otherwise, of God. We are indeed, at this point in history, on the verge of having all of the evidence for the proposition that evolution is a fact. However, it is also about time that well-educated atheists, like Richard Dawkins, stopped trying to utilise very poor reasoning in support of their own belief that God does not exist.
We only have to look at what science is telling us about the magic of quantum physics or the duality of the nature of light behaving as both particles and waves to understand how faulty is the reasoning that proposes that if evolution is true, then God does not exist. It is not just that we cannot yet properly understand these physical phenomena and therefore have even less chance of scientifically understanding spiritual matters. It goes much deeper than that.
If science can live with the concept of wave-particle duality, then it should also be able to live with the understanding that evolution and creation by God are not incompatible ideas.