52 Guitars: Week 25
It's Ambrose Bierce's Birthday

Versus Science Versus Religion

The New York Times has been running an interesting (yes, really) series of interviews on philosophical and religious subjects. It's part of a broader series called "The Stone" (the philosopher's stone? I don't know...) and the interviewer is Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at Notre Dame. The most recent is with Tim Maudlin, another professor of philosophy, whose specialty is apparently the philosophy of science. The subject: Modern Cosmology Versus God's Creation, and it's worth reading, but Maudlin ends up with the sort of statement that makes me groan:

As yet, there is no direct experimental evidence of a deity, and in order for the postulation of a deity to play an explanatory role there would have to be a lot of detail about how it would act.  If, as you have suggested, we are not “good judges of how the deity would behave,” then such an unknown and unpredictable deity cannot provide good explanatory grounds for any phenomenon.

"Direct experimental evidence of a deity"? Shall I laugh or cry? When I encounter statements like this I think of those earnest 19th century investigators who weighed dying people immediately before and after death, or with other physical experiments attempted to determine whether a soul had departed the body. I don't even know if those stories are true, but they certainly capture the determined obtuseness of those who believe the existence of God is a question to be studied and at least in principle resolved by the physical sciences. What annoys me is the serene superiority with which they give a confident answer to a question they have not understood.

But it has to be admitted that Christians set themselves up for some of this. There is of course the continuing rear-guard action against the idea that the earth is very much more than a few thousand years old, and was not created in six twenty-four hour days. There's also the more sophisticated attempt to appropriate certain ideas from modern physics in support of theology, such as the use of the uncertainty principle to allow space for the existence of free will. Although these ideas are interesting to play around with, I think it's generally a mistake to make them part of an argument for the existence of God or for some other theological insight. For one thing, to attempt, for instance, an argument for free will on the basis of the uncertainty principle is to give away much of the game in advance, by implicitly accepting the presumption that physics has any light to shed on the subject. For another, I strongly suspect that Christians who are not themselves scientists (of whom I am one) don't fully understand the ideas they're trying to appropriate, and thus risk (or insure) that they won't be taken seriously by those who do.

I am not one to make fun of simple conceptions of God. A six-year-old child, or an adult with the IQ of a six-year-old, may have an intuitive sense of relationship to God that escapes a theologian, and a spontaneous goodness that makes me feel ashamed. And anyway even the most sublime insights of theology are no more than glimpses into the endless mystery of God. But to venture into very abstruse and complex scientific and philosophical debate armed with a conception of God that does in fact resemble the skeptical caricature of a man in the sky only brings the faith into disrepute.

Beyond the superficial oppositions set up by fundamentalists on both sides, there are deeper questions to be pondered. The skeptic would do well to stop thinking of religion as primitive science and consider the philosophical questions: how did we get from nothing to something? how do we get from is to ought? The believer would do well to trust that all truth is of God, and be less anxious about the apparent challenges to belief from science. Both should try to understand where the boundaries between theology and science lie. At least as far as the Catholic Church is concerned, the "conflict between science and religion" doesn't really amount to very much, as long as each understands its proper function and limits. 

Not that the boundary is always easy to discern. There is one question that troubles me, and which I think about frequently. Since Catholics are not obliged to believe the creation account in Genesis literally, many of us glibly dismiss the whole question: "What does it matter whether the creation took six days or billions of years? The important thing is that God created it." Well, yes, but that really doesn't dispose of the matter. Never mind the time scale--unless we detach Genesis entirely from the physical world and history, we have a conflict between the pre-lapsarian paradise described there and the picture of millions of years of nature red in tooth and claw before mankind appeared, the savagery of which seems to have been our habit from that moment on. 

I discussed this problem at more length ten years ago in this Sunday Night Journal. I'm no closer to a resolution than I was then, and really don't expect one.

Comments

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I remember talking about it years ago. Iheard an interesting explanation of it last year from Paul Griffiths, professor of Catholic theology at Duke. He said that the world is already fallen by Genesis 3. He say that Eden is an enclave in a fallen world. In other words, between Genesis 1, or what modern scholars call the P account, and Genesis 2 and 3, or what we call J, the fall of the angels and with it the animal world occurs. The fall of the angels is not described in Scripture but its crucial to the whole narrative as understood bz the Fathers of the church.

"The fall of the angels is not described in Scripture but its crucial to the whole narrative as understood bz the Fathers of the church."

Very true.

That was one of the interesting things about the recent "Noah" film. Based on Talmudic sources the idea that the angelic fall had vast earthly repercussions was a main plot point.

I didnt catch it when it was in the cinema I was training for the camino I didnt go on. Is it good?

On the whole I liked it. Some aspects were better than others, but it was an interesting take on the story. And the director seemed quite respectful of both the source material and its gravity. He's now an agnostic apparently, but he was raised in a conservative Jewish family.

Ill watch it on DVD

Is that really how they pronounce "z" in Hungarian? Don't they realize how crazy that makes them look to the rest of the world?

"...the world is already fallen by Genesis 3..."

Well, that's interesting, but it seems a bit of a stretch--I mean as an assertion of "this is most likely the case." An interesting conjecture. I must say it's rather frustrating not to know.

The evangelicals have a version of that interpretation -- the so-called "gap theory." It's the idea that the cosmic/angelic fall happened between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2, based on a Hebrew reading that says that the latter could be interpreted as, "And the earth became without form and void." So in effect, the "creation" was actually a re-creation. The long period of time in between was when evolution occurred, prehistoric animals were existent, etc.

Interesting. My personal conjecture is that what actually happened is really beyond our ability to comprehend. It sounds pretty patronizing to say that Genesis tells the story in a way that primitive shepherds could make sense of it, but I think that's entirely plausible, and still applicable. We aren't all *that* much more knowledgeable than they were.

I also remember something about the Hebrew words for "without form and void" being used elsewhere in the OT as describing the results of destruction, not just a random formlessness or chaos.

Tantalizing.

"Direct experimental evidence of a deity"? Shall I laugh or cry?

Maybe just shake your head and ask "what can one do with such people?"

What a shame modern people seem to be incapable of thinking in the right categories. :/

The question of a young versus old earth has never really interested me, but when you write about it, it almost becomes interesting. :)

At any rate, I will have a good and hearty laugh if the scientists turn out to be wrong after all. :D

(I like science a lot, but the scientists are so often readjusting their views by a full 180 degrees on things that I'm more inclined these days to think that maybe they are flat out wrong on this).

"Is that really how they pronounce "z" in Hungarian? Don't they realize how crazy that makes them look to the rest of the world?"

LOL!

Well, the question interests me a whole lot, as you can tell. Not so much the age per se, but the implications for the story of the Fall--paradise followed by the mess we know. I think it's very unlikely the scientists could be totally wrong, but it is amusing to contemplate.

I certainly think it's a reasonable thing to be interested in. And yes, it does seem to be problematic.

I'm reminded of Dawkins' absurd claim that the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis that should be treated accordingly. As if that's how the idea ever came about.

One can certainly treat claims of miraculous events - the parting of the Red Sea, Jesus walking on water, the raising of Lazarus - as material events that could be scientifically observed and analyzed, though good luck with that. But God is a metaphysical claim, not a physical one, by definition. So there's no physical test for it. Which by definition means it's both unfalsifiable and also unscientific.

As far as the Fall goes, I've always thought of it on two levels. First, metaphysically, I feel that it refers to the fall from original Unity into dualism.

Second, I've always thought it was perhaps an echo of mankind's evolutionary descent from being an unthinking animal living in the forests of Africa, to being an intelligent, rational creature who is tormented by "the knowledge of good and evil", which animals without our advanced intelligence certainly don't have.

"Second, I've always thought it was perhaps an echo of mankind's evolutionary descent from being an unthinking animal living in the forests of Africa, to being an intelligent, rational creature who is tormented by "the knowledge of good and evil", which animals without our advanced intelligence certainly don't have."

Scripture portrays it, and the Church concurs, that it wasn't a change in intellectual ability, but an act of the will--a decision.

As a non-Christian I also held the idea that the Fall had something to do with the change from animal to human. Well, "held" is overstating it--I don't think I necessarily believed it, but I thought it was at least a plausible conjecture. Still seems to me have a lot of descriptive merit, even if it's not exactly an explanation.

Walker Percy's Lost in the Cosmos involves a fascinating view of what the Fall is, or at least of its most fundamental effects.

Robert, yes, I understand what scripture says in the literal sense. I would just turn that around and say that it represents the newfound ability to make decisions at all.

I don't think animals make actual decisions. As we became humans, we became able to make decisions. And so the whole process certainly feels as if a huge decision was made. Which came first, chicken or egg?

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