Monday, October 17, 2011

The Science of God

"Under Pier": Karen Matarazzo
I mentioned, a little while ago, that I have been reading C.S Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia to my youger son. As usual, Lewis's work has gotten me thinking about faith (as he meant it to).

I'm a firm believer that those who will, ultimately, find faith in a higher power do so by their own map -- not by getting force-fed someone else's beliefs. So fear not: I'm not going to try to get you to believe what I believe; but, as always, I am going to try to get you thinking so that you will draw (or continue drawing) your own map. Whether that map ultimately leads you to faith or the lack thereof is up to you.

In the interest of disclosure, I do believe in God. This belief is quite unfashionable in intellectual circles, nowadays, so I have taken my share of flack about it from grad school, on. Most intellectuals think it is illogical to believe in God. (Some readers might have just dismissed my credibility as a thinker, based on the statement above. Consider that reaction as you read on.) I have written before about the common smugness of both the non-believers and people of faith. But to dismiss the belief in God -- or anything else that defies the things we "know" to be "real" -- as illogical is, in itself, a foolish and short-sighted stance to take.

Anyway, my seven-year-old son and I were reading The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, and we got to my favorite section: Peter and Susan, the older kids, go to their uncle, "the Professor," to discuss little Lucy's claim that she has been to Narnia -- a claim that they don't believe, because it is "illogical':

"Logic!" said the Professor, half to himself. "Why don't they teach logic at these schools? There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies [about Narnia], or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn't tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad. For the moment then and unless further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth . . . I don't think many girls her age would invent that story [about a world with a different time-frame] for themselves. If she had been pretending, she would have hidden for a reasonable time [she had claimed to have been in Narnia for hours but reappeared in England only minutes later] before coming out and telling her story."

"But do you really mean, sir," said Peter, "that there could be other worlds -- all over the place, just round the corner-- like that?"

"Nothing is more probable," said the Professor, taking off his spectacles and beginning to polish them, while he muttered to himself, "I wonder what they do teach them at these schools."
Lewis's depiction of the intellectual Professor allowing for the possibility of a magical world always struck me. I hope it strikes my boys as well: intelligence, logic and belief in the unexplainable are not mutually exclusive.

(Lewis, himself a noted theologian, was pretty smart, too. As a side-note, his logic in defense of Lucy is the same logic he applies to Jesus's credibility in Mere Christianity.)

More recently, a neuro-scientist named David Eagleman has said, here:

"What you learn in a life of science is that at the end of the pier of knowledge are uncharted waters; what we know is vastly outstripped by what we don't know." Rather than becoming fixated on knowing things for certain, he said, what we should be doing is "shining a flashlight around the possibility space."
Eagleman refers to himself as a "possibilian." He shares my view that is it idiocy not to allow for the fact that there are things in the universe we don't understand. And he is a scientist. Empirical method and all that rot.

Eagleman doesn't profess a theological belief, but his years as a scientist have taught him that there are possibilities in nature that we haven't even imagined. That's reason enough, to me, at least not to be smug about those who believe in God.

It is the absolute epitome of arrogance for us to assume we understand the mechanics of possibility. If I am an ant on the Sahara and I can claim knowledge of the several million grains of sand, over the half-dozen yards upon which I walk daily, I still know nothing about the miles upon miles that stretch out beyond me. In the end, aren't we smaller and more obscure in the universe than that ant is on that desert?

We need to stop being arrogant asses, we humans. Really.


  1. Chris, for once I agree with you completely. Well said.

  2. When it comes down to it, you could argue that the major difference between religion and science is terminology.

  3. Thanks, 'nora. (Hopefully, that means that, most of the time, you at least agree with me partially . . .)

    Pete: I always think of Star Wars -- in the episode where a Jedi master explains that the Force comes down to a presence of something in the blood. The Force remains the same thing, but the explanation is de-Romanticized. Science rejoices and religion slinks away disappointed. But it doesn't need to be so. I think you're right.

  4. I feel that the separation between science and religion is rubbish. Couldn't science be the answer to how and not why? We might be able to quantify what a miracle is, but does that make it any less a miracle? If God was actually discovered or revealed, would it make Him any less God, just because we know more about Him? He would still be the creator of all life - whether He started the world in 7 days or sparked the big bang 13.7 billion years ago. Anyway, just a thought of mine.

  5. And I much appreciated thought at that. I agree heartily, Zach.

  6. Well, I do often agree with you at least partially, but to be honest I tend to find the places where I disagree with people more interesting. Those are the things that make me think.

  7. 'nora -- I suppose partial agreement is the best fodder for discussion -- better than either total agreement or total disagreement. Agree or disagree, it is always good to hear from you.

  8. It's funny, I tend to use some similar approaches in thought to you, but have gone a different direction. I neither believe nor disbelieve in a deity, in God (my lack of belief -abelief, if you will - offends many people), though I freely acknowledge the possibility for EITHER direction (both that God does not or does exist). I also discovered Eagleman, though only in the last year, and find myself regularly nodding along with his ideas, at least in principle (have you read any of his afterlife stories? They're rich with humor, imagination, and commentary).

    I also freely admit that I cannot stand preachiness (despite the irony that I have used my own blog to preach/vent my feelings), especially of the strongly religious variety. I am a passionate disbeliever in the perceived reality of man's creation stories, instead choosing (perhaps sadly) to deconstruct the stories' histories and analyze them both contextually and thematically (rather than literally). Perhaps this makes me a Susan.

    I love all of his books, though I am fondest of ...The Dawn Treader (Reepicheep stole my childish heart and holds its adult counterpart).

    For perspective on 'possibility'...Earth is a tiny planet in a one-star, large solar system found in a galaxy that contains 200-400 billion stars, and we don't know, probably can't know, how many more galaxies there are (our best guess is 100-200 billion galaxies, which, if you assume all galaxies are the same [a silly assumption, I know], suggests that at least 10^21 stars exist...which calls into doubt nearly everything we think we know about the nature of existence).

    Thanks for such an insightful, thought-provoking post!

    ~ Matt