Outside the Fishbowl (a fable)

Author’s Plecostomus contemplating the meaning of life.

Let me tell you a story I was recently privy to. I can’t vouch for all the details as I wasn’t there, but both our cats assure me they stealthily witnessed the events and overheard enough to reconstruct the following.

Our two fish were swimming in their aquarium, amidst all  their brightly colored rocks,  “plants”, and decorations.  Life is pretty laid back for them: food appears floating on the surface of the water each day, and they have an aerator, a pump, a filter, a thermometer, and a pH sensor to keep things just right for them. But these aren’t your ordinary fish that die 2 days after you get them home from the store. Despite our cats’ intense desires for fish fillets, these fish have been around a while, so they’ve had time to think. They’re surprisingly contemplative fish – philosophical fish, you might even say. They stare out the tank at the vast expanse beyond the glass walls and wonder about what lies beyond. They often talk about things like that, although they apparently disagree a lot. One fish -call him, Bob, for neither I nor the cats can pronounce what he calls himself – came to some sad conclusions about life. He felt that their world, “Aquarium”, and all that was in it, and all that might lie beyond it in the great “House” beyond the glass, even their own bodies, were simply the result of something he liked to call “chance” or “just a big accident”. There was no overarching reason for him to exist, no purpose to his life other than whatever he chose as a life goal. In fact, the vastness of what they could see outside Aquarium led him to believe that they were really a very insignificant part of all that existed. After all, the House outside the Aquarium was a huge hostile environment, so obviously fish were meaningless in the grand scheme of things.

The other fish – call him, Joe – wondered why there was anything existing in Aquarium rather than simply nothing. And why did it seem like everything was “just right” for their existence where they were?  Was there some cause or maybe even some being responsible for what he observed? Maybe the vast, unlivable House beyond served some other purpose they didn’t know about. These were just a few of the questions that kept him awake at night. Being the thoughtful (and rather talented) fish they were, Bob and Joe decided to build a vessel to explore the great unknown beyond Aquarium. After a while, they had worked out  a way to bring some of their aqueous environment with them into the ominous air beyond Aquarium, and they boarded their vessel, and went out to boldly go where no fish had gone before! They explored the wonders of the other rooms of the House, and saw many strange things they could not imagine any possible purpose for. They made a map and labeled these things “Chair” and “Couch” and “Table”, and wondered what they could signify. Bob thought they were interesting anomalies at best, or maybe an ominous confirmation of their own insignificance at worst. Joe, on the other hand, wondered if these oddities might be clues about the nature of the one responsible for their own realm.

Eventually, they came to windows that opened up onto an even bigger world beyond the House, one covered in snow and ice, so that getting near the windows made their little portable heater strain to keep the water temperature stable in their ship. Then they realized that while the House was a hostile environment to them, it was necessary for their fish-friendly environment to survive. The House supplied the power to run Aquarium’s water pump, filter, light, and water heater. As their water evaporated, it was replenished from a nearby faucet. Fish food and pH balancing chemicals and replacement filters were all stored nearby to keep the Aquarium habitable for them. But even seeing the fish food stored nearby, and the source of fresh water, and so on, they only had more questions than when they started. How did food and fresh water and filters and such get from where it was to their home by itself? Although Joe’s suggestion of some nonfish being outside of Aquarium that was responsible for these things was a more straightforward explanation, Bob assured Joe that someday they would figure out a completely natural, impersonal explanation. Joe wondered to himself why any impersonal explanation, no matter how improbable, was preferable to Bob over any explanation involving intelligent agents. After all, they themselves were intelligent agents who made decisions every day. Was it so hard to extrapolate that there might exist a being beyond them doing the same thing on a grander scale?

But then there was also the troubling aspect of the apparent design of Aquarium: they had to work long and hard to design a portable version of Aquarium’s life-sustaining environment. Yet, looking back on their home from outside, they had to wonder why this perfect little place for fish was carved out of this larger environment so unsuitable for fish. Everything about Aquarium, from its structure to its mechanical components, seemed focused on sustaining their life in a very intentional way. In fact, most of their design of their ship was simply copied from Aquarium, yet they had no problem saying they intentionally designed their ship. Even if they were insignificant compared to the scale of the House – and more so now that they had seen an even bigger, more hostile world outside of the House – that still didn’t explain the origin of the carefully built haven they had grown up in, or it’s continued maintenance and protection.

Fortunately for our piscene explorers, our cats are fat and lazy, and Bob and Joe returned home to Aquarium unharmed, with a lot of new knowledge, but even more questions to hash out in their home on the table above our eavesdropping cats.  Now, I tend to take what cats say with a grain of salt, but humans sometimes express the same views as Bob the fish, so maybe the cat was serious. People do sometimes say that the inhospitableness of the vast majority of the universe is a strike against the God of the Bible. It’s true that the universe is not life-friendly, but that doesn’t negate the fact that our little piece of the universe appears to be uniquely habitable among all we’ve observed. Besides that, God gave us rational minds far beyond any animal (even Bob and Joe), such that we really can make spaceships and actually live in space, and potentially other planets. So does the immense and inhospitable nature of our universe make me doubt God’s existence? Hardly. He just gave me a huge playground to explore! As a parting thought, it’s been said the universe is more massive than we can really grasp because the universe is not displaying our glory, but God’s. Something to chew on next time you’re looking up at the stars “outside the fishbowl.”

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