Friday, June 20, 2014

To An Unknown God

Star Formation in NGC 2174 Nebula. Hubble Space Telescope
The other day I finally got around to reading The Language of God, by Francis Collins. Collins is the former director of the Human Genome Project and the current director of the National Institutes for Health. He's also a devout Christian, and his book is an admirable attempt to explain how Christianity and science--including evolution and the Big Bang--need not be in conflict. The explanations of science are truly first-rate. His defense of his religious beliefs didn't convert me from agnosticism, but they did make me do some hard and uncomfortable thinking. The man has a formidable mind, and his book is well worth reading, whatever your religious beliefs may be. I'm still scheming about how I can get more creationists to read it.

Collins' book got me on a kick of reading about the intersection between science, religion, and philosophy. I went on to read Owen Gingerich's book God's Universe (also very good), and then a couple of books on the philosophy of religion. It's interesting stuff, and as usual, I was humbled by the breadth of my ignorance on the topic. In fact, I'm still pretty ignorant, so this post is more of a reflection on my impressions than a carefully considered argument.

The Christian philosophers and scientists I was reading are smarter than I am, and some of their arguments are extremely impressive. I'm sure I'll come back to those in later posts, but in this one, I want to talk about one I found less impressive. One reason Collins, Gingerich, and many others claim that God and science are not in conflict is that science is concerned with nature and its laws, while God transcends nature. God, they say, is outside of space and time, and therefore beyond the reach of scientific inquiry. This means non-religious scientists like Richard Dawkins and Victor Stenger are wrong when they claim that God is a scientific hypothesis like any other; one which should stand or fall based on empirical evidence. I suppose this explains why discussions among these sophisticated theists are based on logic, Christian tradition, and a feeling of personal revelation far more than observation and experiment.

In these discussions, God is said to have a whole host of great qualities. He is omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, utterly good and loving, eternal, and necessary (as opposed to contingent). Philosophers of religion seem to spend a lot of their time trying to work out how he can be all these things at once without contradiction. Much attention, for example is given to the problem of evil, which was succinctly expressed by Epicurus over 2000 years ago:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?
It's a conundrum, no doubt about it. Another apparent contradiction involves free will--a cornerstone of Christian faith. If God is all-knowing, then he knows everything that will happen before it does. How, then, can we be free to choose our path? Isn't it already predetermined?

Of course, some Very Smart People think such contradictions can't be overcome, and Very Smart People think they can. The arguments get extremely subtle, and occasionally mind-boggling. Take the Ontological Argument for God's existence, for example:
God is perfect.
It's more perfect to exist than not to exist.
Therefore, God exists. 
That line of reasoning makes me feel like I'm staring at one of M.C. Escher's impossible drawings--something seems very wrong about it, but it's hard to say just what.

I'm guessing Douglas Adams felt the same way when he wrote this passage about the Babel fish in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:
"it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mind-bogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the NON-existence of God. 
The argument goes like this: `I refuse to prove that I exist,' says God, `for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing. 
`But,' says Man, `The Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn't it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don't. QED.' 
`Oh dear,' says God, `I hadn't thought of that,' and promptly disappears in a puff of logic. 
`Oh, that was easy,' says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next pedestrian crossing."
That's a caricature, of course, but not a groundless one. The real arguments in the philosophy of religion can also be quite bewildering, and can seem a little disconnected from ground-level reality (as Adams' philosopher discovers when he tries to cross an actual road.) Many theists readily acknowledge this disconnect: If God is outside of space and time and beyond the reach of science, as the argument goes, then we can't rely on science to ground our speculations about him.

This seems problematic to me. When I read religious philosophy, as sophisticated as it may be, I always feel like I'm listening to people arguing about whether creatures from Alpha Centauri have eight legs or ten. I think, "What makes you think you can figure out anything about them without actually seeing one? How can you even know whether they exist at all?"

The thing is, figuring out how the world works based on pure reason and faith doesn't have a great track record. Philosophers tried to reason out how nature works for thousands of years, coming up with many plausible-sounding, but wrong, ideas: the Great Chain of Being, the flat and motionless earth, the teleological theory of physics, Descartes idea that the body and mind met in the pineal gland, and many more. They made very little real progress in understanding nature until they started relying on observation and experiment. The world revealed by science has consistently proven far grander and more sophisticated than we ever imagined based on reason and speculation.

Why should it be any different with God? Why do we think we can figure out what he is like--if he exists at all--without having some way to systematically observe him? Why shouldn't we currently be just as clueless about God as Kepler was about General Relativity? What if, instead of the characteristics we traditionally ascribe to him, his real nature turns out to be a huge surprise? That's how it's been with the rest of the universe so far.

Of course, people will object that God is outside nature, so we will never be able to observe him the way we might observe a distant quasar. But do they know that? I see no proof of that assertion (unless you want to prove it by appealing to the definition of God, and definitions are just human inventions). If people like Francis Collins and Owen Gingerich don't think we can access God empirically, but still think we can understand him in any meaningful way, they have a lot more faith in pure reason and revelation than I do. Those approaches have proven to be awfully fallible over the years. Besides, what does it even mean for a being to be outside of space and time, or outside of nature? What if such a thing is impossible? Couldn't nature just be bigger than we thought? Couldn't what seems supernatural be an aspect of nature we haven't fully understood yet?

I'm not saying it's useless to try to reason about God. Doing so can at least clarify our thinking, and tell us which ideas are incoherent on a purely logical basis. Philosophers and theologians don't agree much on what God is, but they do seem to have some consensus about what he can't be. All I'm saying is that you can only get so far without actual observation, and I think it's premature to conclude that (if there is a God) we can never approach him scientifically. Maybe we can. Or maybe we can't. Or maybe one day he'll just come out and say: OK, here I am, and here's what I'm all about. Stop killing each other over it, because none of you had any clue in the first place!*

We humans are small, and the universe is big. We don't even fully understand gravity, or the origin of life, or how many species there are on Earth. Why should we think we're anywhere near understanding God?


The Language of God / Francis Collins

God's Universe / Owen Gingerich

Philosophy of Religion: A Beginner's Guide / Charles Taliaferro

Philosophy: The Pursuit of Wisdom / Louis Pojman

Of God and Other Mysteries / an even more rambling post I wrote on the same topic

* Why wouldn't God just unambigously reveal himself to us, after all? What would be the point of keeping us guessing? Does he really consider faith in the face of uncertainty such a virtue? For that matter, if Jesus was the incarnation of God, and he died and rose from the dead to save us, why wouldn't he just reappear and say: "The records of my first appearance are spotty and don't always agree, and people don't usually rise from the dead. Why shouldn't you want as much proof as Thomas had? So here I am. Oh, and I made a second moon, just to show I'm the real deal."

No comments:

Post a Comment