Friday, January 23, 2009

The Missing All

I know that He exists.
Somewhere -- in Silence --
He has hid his rare life
From our gross eyes.

'Tis an instant's play.
'Tis a fond Ambush --
Just to make Bliss
Earn her own surprise!

But -- should the play
Prove piercing earnest --
Should the glee -- glaze --
In Death's -- stiff -- stare --

Would not the fun
Look too expensive!
Would not the jest --
Have crawled too far!


I find Dickinson to be the most striking of poets because she inhabits the knife edge of agnosticism (about matters both metaphysical and theological), compared to which atheism is a cozy nook of fundamentalist certainty. From a purely external point of view, with respect to, say, church attendance or time spent in prayer, the agnostic and the atheist may appear indistinguishable, but subjectively there is all the difference in the world. Like any poet ought to, Dickinson sees this mystery, among other wonders, through fresh eyes, but with words that detonate upon reading, compounding gunpowder with the austerity of haiku. She may not have gazed upon God, but she sure did see the gaping God-shaped hole in the universe.

Jerry Coyne has written, in The New Republic, another devastating critique of both intelligent design and the often touted compatibility of religion and science. His lengthy but rewarding essay begins by reminding us that Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born on the very same day, February 12, 1809. The universe held its breath--can there have been any more world-historically significant day in the two centuries since? I will not attempt to summarize his trenchant analysis; a few comments will suffice.

Coyne notes that the fact that some scientists harbor conventional religious beliefs says more about the psychological inconsistency and talent for rationalization of human beings than it does about any real philosophical family resemblance. As he puts it:

True, there are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind. (It is like saying that marriage and adultery are compatible because some married people are adulterers.)

Science does not directly disprove religion, but it has gradually removed the rational need for religion to attempt to explain any number of things about how the universe works. To be sure, there are things that science cannot explain, at least not yet, such as the origins of life or of the universe. But religion does not explain these either; it does offer purported descriptions of these origins, but this is not rational explanation, which depends on testability and experiment. To say that God created the universe is not to explain how the universe is created; it is, rather, to say, "Stop asking, in rational terms, how the universe was created."

Anyone who cares about psychology ought to take religion seriously, given that the great majority of human beings who have ever lived have been religious. The fact that a minority of people are unpersuaded no more undermines the centrality of religiosity to human nature than the occasional occurrence of voluntary celibacy negates the significance of sexuality. Religion arguably meets powerful needs for spiritual integrity of the self and the world, as well as underpinning morality and communal life. This is not to say that these needs cannot, some day, be met in different sorts of ways than they traditionally have been, but we ought not to overlook the needs themselves.
The problem, as Coyne writes, is that most religions go beyond moral, communal, and spiritual experiences to make specific empirical claims about the universe (involving, of course, creation, virgin births, heaven and hell, etc.). It is these claims that are specifically incompatible with science because they are immune to possible disproof by experiment (these claims have also led to much of the historical factionalism and violence that gives religion a bad name). The question is whether religion in the future can relinquish these empirical claims without losing its benignant influence for many people.

It's awfully hard to prove that something doesn't exist. Even so, I am virtually certain that, say, centaurs do not exist anywhere in the universe. I am so certain because the likelihood of intelligent life elsewhere (already a huge long shot of course) taking the form of such earth-generated mythological creatures is very close to nil, even if it cannot logically be shown to be zero.

I am very much less certain about God than about centaurs, largely because throughout history the notion of a supreme being has been so amorphous, and has taken so many diverse forms, that it is hard to know what we are talking about. In fact, it may be more accurate to liken the possibility of God not to any specified phenomenon such as a centaur, but to the potentiality of other intelligent life of whatever (in)conceivable form anywhere in the universe.

I personally have not encountered incontrovertible evidence, whether in my own subjective experience or available objective data, for the existence either of God or of extra-terrestrial intelligence. I cannot disprove their existence, and I have no interest in doing so, but I also don't go about my affairs under any specific assumption that they do exist. I try to do what's right, but I do it because it seems right, regardless of alleged supernatural justification. The fascinating and sometimes bewildering part is that while only a very small and eccentric fraction of my fellow human beings believe in UFO's, a rather large proportion of my earthly cohorts believe in God, so it behooves me to try to ascertain why that is and how we can all get along on this, the only world we really know.


rvitelli said...

Unfortunately, the true believers tend to shout the loudest. Drowning out rational discourse seems to be an effective strategy.

Rossweisse said...

Well, it all depends upon how you define God. As the father almighty in the sky waiting to take us in to a perfect afterlife? Perhaps, but I do not understand let alone believe it. An unconscious aspect that serves as a governing element? Perhaps, as we do seem to need, based upon the universality of similar myths, for there to be something besides us. On another hand, it could be I have been reading too much Jung lately and science is Right ...


Anonymous said...

Regardless of how vehemently atheistic people claim to be, there will always be those fractional moments of rational disjointedness that ever so fleetingly warp the senses into believing in a spiritual beyond of sorts. This manifests as spooky synchronicities; inexplicable nocturnal occurrences; last minute reprieves that dash hoplessness & despair on the altar improbability as if by divine intervention; elegant patterns of mathematical beauty that seem to defy chance, and so on. An irrational hyperawareness that jolts materialistic causation out of its hitherto comfortable groove; but is eviscerated with equal speed upon daylight - a situational error, the mind rationalises.

These temporary 'insanities' afflict everyone, but some turn them into religious belief systems, others displace them with thought and reason. Both systems alleviate the anxiety of the unknown.

Humans like narrative, cohesion and meaning - you can't deny them that natural reflex, however godshaped it sometimes appears.

So rather than try to find obscure compatabilities between science and religion, I think it's wiser not to cross-contaminate because you can end up with some pretty nasty infections like 'intelligent design' and its bastard reason 'irreducible complexity' Rome was built in a day....ha!

Everything in its right place.

KMSF said...

The God you believe in is Christian for He/She/Neither has shaped the culture you were brought up in. What if you lived in "Bora Bora" and what "felt right" was to kill and eat the brains of all the males you could kill who lived in the tribe on the other side of the hill?

Anonymous said...

The article from The New Republic used a great deal of science to refute creationism, but didn't offer much science to support evolution. I find it interesting that logic and reasoning requires a theory of multiple universes(TRUE SCIENCE, INDEED)to support evolution. Sounds a little bit like faith to me.

Retriever said...

With the greatest respect for your fine mind, let me offer you this: regardless of whether you are interested in, believe in, even like or have the slightest need for God, He is very much interested in you, believes in you, likes every individual quirk of yours, and even needs you to complete His universe (tho some might call me heretical for saying a perfect God "needs" anything.

I will not insult you by making the analogy to the (brutal)way members of your profession used to assert a truth to an unwilling patient, then say the strength of their resistance was a sign of its truth. It isn't that simple. God doesn't violate us, doesn't do sneak attacks, doesn't insult our intelligence or our individuality.

I used to work with Catholic nuns who served abused kids. They spoke of Jesus as the lover of their heart. The faithful, tender, watchful companion, who delighted in them when the world sneered or hindered their efforts to help his children. I was young and contemptuous and made vulgar Freudian interpretations to myself quietly about the way they thought, spoke and imagined God. I was wrong. They were right. Go read Hosea about how God pursues his people with the faithfulness, the persistent love despite hurt, betrayal, indifference of a devoted husband. Gives me hope.

I am not saying this to proselytize, just to say that you are a little too quick to dismiss God. It isn't all about us, actually.

Novalis said...

I'm glad that faith is a source of hope and joy for you, and I wouldn't wish it otherwise. Your comment shows however that faith requires one to assume God as absolute premise #1; no reasons can be offered (and wisely, you don't try). I think that if God is as merciful as is said, he will have forbearance for purblind agnostics like myself.

Anonymous said...

There is a bit of a problem with the idea that a closer comparision to the likelihood of a Abrahamic-type god is the likelihood of there being other intelligent life in the universe.

Which is that we already _know_ that intelligent life can come about in this universe, whereas we don't know that anything like the Abrahamic god can come about in this universe. We know the opposite in fact - which is that such a being, which is supposed to be everywhere and always, has a conspicuous lack of evidence, even though it's supposed to be right in front of our noses.

Centaurs are pretty plausible, or something like them, anyway. I wouldn't be too surprised to hear that elsewhere in the universe intelligent life has evolved that has four legs, two free arms to manipulate stuff with, and the sense organs clustered high up in the body, like our heads.

It might not look precisely like a horse with s person's torso on it, but it would be close enough to a centaur. We have evidence that things pretty blooming similar to centaurs exist (intelligent creatures, creatures with six limbs, creatures that use the limbs closest to their heads differently from the limbs further back, etc.).

But no evidence that anything like an omnipotent being that is everywhere in the (vast) universe at once exists.

The thing is that a being which is everywhere and knows everything and has always existed and moreover cares which hand you wipe your bottom with has got to be staggeringly more unlikely than a centaur. If this god is supposed to be everywhere, it should be easy to find evidence that it exists, because it is right here.

But we havent. If centaurs or something like them exist, chances are they're so far away we'll never get there. So my reasons for not thinking there's a god there are a lot stronger than any reasons for thinking there are not centaurs - if there's a god, i should be able to see some evidence; if there's centaurs there's no reason I should ever know about it.

OTOH, probably one day it'll be easy to create a centaur by GM, if we wanted to. That would be so cool.

Except maybe for the person who actually is the prototype centaur. It'd be a bit lonely unless and until they made some more centaurs. And you might feel a bit silly, and sad, and like you had been used and/or were nothing more than an experiment. A freak.