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The Egg.  It Depends.  Why Ask Why?
Written January 23, 2006


They're always presented as conundrums, three questions that seemingly have no satisfactory answer.  We're supposed to ponder them, rub our chins, and shrug.

However, they don't seem that puzzling to me.  Maybe I'm just slow to grasp the ineffable mysteries of life.  But I'm willing to take a stab at offering my answers.  You may or may not agree.

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Reproduction seems to be an endless loop:  the chicken lays an egg, which produces a chicken, which lays an egg, which produces a chicken, and so on.  Such a circle has no starting point.  But life is not really a circle.

Creationists would say that God created the chicken first, as an adult bird.

However, scientists know that life evolves.  Long before there were chickens, there were eggs:  fish eggs, reptile eggs, dinosaur eggs, bird eggs.

We don't know the details, but at some point in time there was a bird that had almost — but not quite yet — evolved into a chicken.  I'll call it a clucker.  Then one clucker laid an egg that contained an embryo with a mutation, perhaps a gene for a larger beak.  That mutated egg was the first chicken egg, and that embryo grew up to have a larger beak and to be the first chicken.

I realize that speciation takes place very gradually over many generations, and it's arbitrary to choose one point and say that although this bird's parents were cluckers, the bird itself should be considered a chicken.  Nevertheless, logic requires that there must be such a point sometime.

Therefore, because mutations are first manifested in the embryo, the egg came first.

If a tree falls in the forest and there's no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?

When I first heard this question, I said, "Of course it makes a sound."  I was a physics major, and I knew that a sound is a mechanical vibration transmitted by an elastic medium such as air.  Regardless of whether there were any humans in the vicinity, the falling tree would shake the air molecules.  Answer: Yes.

But then I realized that a physiologist would say that a sound is an auditory effect, a subjective sensation in our minds.  If there were no brains within earshot, no perception of sound would take place.  Answer: No.

And then it occurred to me that a geographer would say that a sound is a body of water, which would be unlikely to be gouged out by the fall of a single tree.  Answer: No.

Therefore, the answer depends on how we define "sound."  Two people who insist on different definitions will be unable to resolve this question.

Why do bad things happen to good people?

Some try to answer this question by manipulating the definitions of "bad things" or "good people."

Maybe the things that happened weren't really bad.  They were "blessings in disguise" with a silver lining that will later become apparent, or they were "tests of faith."

Or maybe the people weren't really good.  They deserved misfortune because they committed some sin in their past, or their parents did, or Adam and Eve did.

But these attempts at rationalization seem inadequate when we apply them to the anguish of real-life tragedies.  We continue to ask, why did that innocent child get a fatal disease?

I think we should turn our attention to the first part of the question:  the word "why."

When we ask why, we aren't inquiring about the medical cause of the illness.  We know the answer to that one.  Doctors know the mechanisms by which children are infected.

Instead, we're asking why the Author of Life wrote his script in this manner.  We're inquiring into God's rationale for deciding that this particular child would become ill.

To question God's decision assumes that there was a decision.  We imagine that the Man in Charge consciously said, "Because of this and that, I need a victim of illness, and unfortunately I must choose your child."

I don't think the world works that way.

We want to believe that "everything happens for a reason."  We want to believe that our lives have a larger purpose.  But it is primitive superstition to think that Someone in the sky is decreeing the outcome of every event, from who gets sick to who wins the Super Bowl.

We would like for there to be Someone in charge.  Then there would be a chance that we could influence His decisions in our favor.  We could try to argue our case, or please Him with ceremonies or good works, or beg Him with prayer, or bribe Him with gifts.

But it has become clear to me that God is not micromanaging the universe like this.  Things happen according to chance and natural laws.

Therefore, it's pointless to ask, "Why did God decide to send rain on my parade?"  He didn't.  It just rained.



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