So far we have stressed the animal nature of man, but have distinguished him from the beasts because of his heightened consciousness (which, among other things, has given him the capacity to deny or worship the power that may have designed him). Language is not unique to man, since all creatures have various means of communication, and even the use of tools is only an extension of nature, although our resultant technologies clearly give us enormous advantages over all other species.

There are, however, some areas of our lives in which we appear to differ strikingly from the beasts: we have an insatiable curiosity which has led to the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Animals may be inquisitive, but there is no reason to suppose that they will investigate the world’s phenomena for any reason other than their relevance to survival. We, however, need to know. It’s true that the practical applications of science fit in with the whole evolutionary process as it pushes on towards some kind of perfection, but we will investigate all things, regardless of practical value. We are aware of mysteries, and are uncomfortable until we have solved them. The atheist would argue that religion is a misguided attempt to solve a mystery by manufacturing a solution that entails another mystery, whereas the believer would argue that atheism is a misguided attempt to solve a mystery by claiming that there is no mystery.

Of all our human activities, art (by which I mean the arts in general) is the one that seems to take us furthest away from the animals whose ancestry we share. Music above all epitomizes the aesthetic sense which transcends understanding. The animal kingdom produces its own sounds, of course, but so far as we know, these are functional and form part of the communicatory processes. They are indispensable to survival. Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is indispensable to no-one, and yet we rank it as a supreme human achievement. (If you don’t, then substitute any piece of art that you regard as supreme.) Some of the greatest minds in our culture pay homage to the work of the composers, the painters, the sculptors, the writers, and our lives would be infinitely poorer without them. And yet generally speaking, they are of no practical value. Literature comes closest to practicality in so far as it may provide usable insights into the way the human mind and human society function; painting and sculpture may challenge our modes of perception, or draw our attention to facets of the world we might otherwise be unaware of. But how many poems or novels, paintings or sculptures, have actually changed the way the world functions? Not even the plays of Shakespeare – although they have spawned a vast industry and keep thousands of people in employment – can be described as indispensable or even contributory to the survival and continuation of our species. Music, though, is the art most remote from the practical world, and its appeal presents an insurmountable challenge to our understanding.

Why should a combination of sounds with no articulate meaning (let us, for argument’s sake, consider only instrumental music here) have such a profound effect on us? We can be plunged into darkest melancholy, or whipped up into a celebratory frenzy, and yet there is nothing tangible to direct us. Why do I want to weep at the end of Tschaikovsky’s 6th Symphony? Why do I want to cheer at the end of Brahms’s 2nd? Why do I melt within at the adagio of Schubert's C-major String Quintet? Why do I want to wave my arms, tap my feet, dance like a dervish during the last movement of Beethoven’s 7th?

In everyday life we experience emotions such as love, fear, joy, etc. without questioning what processes actually take place to make us “feel” them. We take them – as we take most of our functions, both physical and mental – for granted (until they go wrong). I blink, breathe, sit, stand, move, etc. without ever thinking about how I do it. The body takes over as soon as the mind decides on an action – or if it is an ongoing action like breathing, the body performs it without my even instructing it to do so. Emotions are the same: my “feeling” of love, fear, joy comes automatically according to the situation, and I do not ask what is going on inside me. I merely relate the feeling to the situation. With music, there is not even a situation to relate to. Only meaningless sounds. To a degree, the same applies to art and sculpture – whatever the nature of their appeal, they are normally unrelated to our own, real lives. Why, then, do they “move” us?

The question inevitably takes us back to origins. In terms of the purely physical universe, where do emotions and aesthetics spring from? Remember that the atheist’s starting point is mindlessness – total inanimateness. Even if you can accept the extraordinary coincidence of inanimate matter forming itself at one and the same time into something live and able to reproduce itself, what gave birth to the hitherto nonexistent and – so far as we know – also non-physical spheres of “feeling” and, especially, of artistic expression, which in itself is of no practical value (the crucial force that drives evolution)?

There is an additional mystery here. Any writer who visits a primary school will confirm that one of the most frequently asked questions is: “Where do you get your ideas?” Small children are aware of the problem, even if they do not see its implications. In the creation of artworks, there are strange mechanisms in operation. Ideas generally spring from the so-called subconscious mind. Suddenly, out of the blue, a writer will get an idea: some will then begin to plan their tale, whereas others will simply allow the idea to develop of its own accord. Even those who plan will tell you that more often than not the characters force them to abandon the plan. They take on a life of their own. We do not understand the mechanism ourselves, but it can be summed up by something Michelangelo once said – namely, that the statue was already in the marble; he only had to find it.

The artist knows what he is doing – he is conscious of sculpting, painting, composing or writing – but in most instances he feels that the material is guiding him rather than the other way round. Of course, if you take away the brain, or even a certain part of the brain, the composer will stop composing, but the same applies if you take away the heart or the lungs or the liver. No-one is claiming that in this life we function without our physical casing. The question here is why physical matter is able to produce concepts that have nothing to do with physical matter, or with the survival of that physical matter. The atheist may say that this, like all organs and organic processes, is the result of chance mutations which create totally new though primitive phenomena, and these become more sophisticated as time goes by. Chance created a D, and then over thousands of years the D converted itself into Beethoven’s 9th. But why should it have done so?

Scepticism over the creative powers of chance will not, however, answer the primary school question: where do ideas come from? The honest answer is: we don’t know. And we should not pretend that we do. But we can speculate. If there is a designer, and if that designer is not a physical being like ourselves, it is possible that the force that gives us life (I have called it the “spirit”) is also possessed of the nonphysical emotions and aesthetics we have been discussing. This makes the artist a vehicle – the material is not coming from him but through him, although he may have to work on it many times because he is not a pure filter. In other words, those elements of our nature that are not physical may have a non-physical source.

A religious artist will claim that his inspiration comes directly from God. God is dictating to him, and it is only because his “hearing” is imperfect that he is sometimes forced to work on the dictation – perfecting it until he is satisfied that he has come as close as possible to the message transmitted from on high. An atheist will claim that the “message” emanates from globules of matter emitting electrical impulses that somehow by sheer chance have developed a sense of aesthetics. An agnostic will admit that he is mystified. There is no shame in this, and there is if anything a great deal more excitement, because an unsolved mystery is always infinitely more fascinating than one that has been solved.

Of particular interest is the possible parallel between the playwright/novelist and the designer. One must acknowledge the fact that if there is a designer, we do not know where its ideas come from either, but that is no proof that there is no designer, any more than our ignorance of the playwright’s source is proof that there is no playwright. The parallel, however, lies in the autonomy of the characters. If we imagine the designer now as the writer, it comes up with its brilliant idea of living creatures imbued with its own spirit, and then eventually hits on the variation of characters with complete consciousness of themselves. From then on, it watches – and maybe even records – what they do. According to the Bible, it occasionally interferes, but eventually it probably decides not to do so. The characters themselves must run the story, with built-in natural disasters to maintain a degree of unpredictability and to present renewed challenges.

This scenario at least has the advantage that it explains many of the problems that face religious believers. There is free will, humans are subjected to suffering that is partly of their own making but partly caused by nature as created by the designer, prayers may or may not be answered because of the law of averages (for example, if both sides pray to God before a battle, one of them will have its prayers answered), some crises will be resolved and some will not, and the co-existence of good and evil springs from the designer itself. Once you accept the principle that a design in some way reflects the designer, many of the trickier theological questions become remarkably simple.

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