Sunday, July 21, 2013

The God-Haunted World

I've been reading a fascinating book in the last few days, The Dancing Universe by Marcelo Gleiser. It's an engaging account of the history of scientific thinking and its association with religion through history. It's gotten my gears spinning about another one of my perennial writing topics, the nature of the relationship between science and religion.

From creation myths to the Enlightenment

In the beginning, writes Gleiser, there was no explicit relationship between science and religion because no distinction was made between the two. What we now know as science (the attempt to understand and explain the workings of the universe) was handled entirely by religion, initially by the writing of elaborate creation myths that answered, in a distinctly premodern way, the fundamental question, "Where did everything come from?". Gleiser divides these myths into creation myths and no-creation myths (ones that describe the universe as eternal or cyclic in nature), and the creation myths further as being precipitated by a god, a spontaneous emergence of order from chaos, or simply something from nothing.

In the next few chapters he covers Greek philosophy, which was surprisingly varied in its applications to nature. Various philosophers saw water, air, or fire as the primary substance of the cosmos; some believed the universe was constantly changing while others considered all change to be a mere illusion; the Pythagoreans saw all through their lens of number mysticism whole the later atomists proposed, in a mix of unintentional fact and misconception, the constitution of the universe as indivisible atoms. The only limit to the breadth of these theories seemed to be the human imagination. These philosophers were the first known thinkers to look for an explanation of the nature of the world in the world itself rather than in their conception of the divine.

Then came the two philosophers whose ideas would shape the discourse for millenia to come. Plato espoused the "world of forms", which was the highest and most fundamental reality and consisted of the true essences of things in the world, which were merely the shadows cast by them. This realm of pristine truth, he said, was to be the pursuit of all philosophers rather than the subordinate world in which we live. His student Aristotle disagreed, emphasizing the instantiation of forms in physical things and incorporating induction from the study of the world to the discovery of "universals. It was a prefigurement of the scientific method, which he saw as little different from the rest of his "natural philosophy".

Subsequent philosophers concerned themselves more with observational astronomy, taking up Plato's challenge to "save the phenomena", or find rational explanations of their observations of the cosmos that described the motions of the heavenly bodies in circles, inhabitants of the abstract world of forms. From the lack of (observable) stellar parallax, they concluded that the earth was stationary at the center of the universe and came up with increasingly complex models to explain astronomical observations, culminating in Ptolemy's model which would be the standard in Europe until the Renaissance.

While the Greeks continued to be taught for centuries after, with the Christianization and collapse of the Roman empire and the loss of the works of Aristotle to the west, what we would call "scientific progress" slowed down considerably. The only acceptable wisdom was considered to be theological, and the contemplation of information gained through the flesh (i.e. the senses) was shoved aside as a sure route to depravity and irrelevant to the path to eternal salvation. Augustine, who played a significant role in introducing neoplatonic dualism to Christian thinking, wrote:
At this point I mention another form of temptation more various and dangerous. For over and above that lust of the flesh which lies in the delight of all our senses and pleasures...there can also be in the mind itself, through those same bodily senses, a certain vain desire and curiosity, not of taking delights in the body, but of making experiments with the body's aid, and cloaked under the name of learning and knowledge... Thus men proceed to investigate the phenomena of nature--the part of nature external to us--though the knowledge is of no value to them: for they wish to know simply for the sake of knowing. Certainly the theaters no longer attract me, nor do I care to know the course of the stars.
Once the works of Aristotle were rediscovered by the west, his view of the cosmos was adopted dogmatically by the church after being somewhat "Christianized". The medieval view of the cosmos was more concerned with meanings than with actual reality; the universe was supposed to be laid out according to the mind of God and to be a moral allegory, thus rendering the exploration of nature subordinate to the more important matter of eternal salvation. So a model of the universe with the central earth surrounded by ethereal spheres; God was situated with the stars in the outermost sphere, while the other planets occupied inner spheres with the spherical earth in the middle and Satan in Hell the center of the earth (so the medieval universe was actually "diablocentric"). So traveling or directing your thoughts "up", toward God and away from Satan and this fallen earth, was assumed to be an unqualified good; the protagonist in Dante's Inferno traverses the circles of Hell and the heavenly spheres in the order prescribed by Aristotle.
After the Catholic church's spiritual authority was challenged by the Reformation, its scientific authority was challenged by the beginnings of the Scientific Revolution. Johannes Kepler marveled at the discovery of a stella nova, "new star", in the sky, actually a supernova. Using his telescope, Galileo detected smaller "stars" in motion around Jupiter, mountains and other earthlike features on the moon, and spots on the sun, which had previously been thought to be transits of Mercury. These all constituted evidence against the Aristotelian view of the heavenly bodies as unchanging, made of a totally different element than the four present on earth, and all revolving around the earth. Battle lines between astronomy and the church were drawn; I have already written about the conflict that followed and how Galileo was forced to bitterly recant his discoveries.

Finally, in the late seventeenth century, Isaac Newton published Philosophia Naturalis Principia Mathematica ("Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy"), laying out his mathematical laws of motion. This exploded the perceived distinction between the "heavens" and the "earth" by showing that both operated by the same laws; the same force that makes an apple fall to the ground also holds the planets in their orbits around the sun. Newton's discovery, based on reason and observed data and (relatively) insulated from theological concerns, helped spark what would become the Enlightenment, which through the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century applied what would become the "scientific method" to more and more problems, until by the dawn of the twentieth century scientists believed that had solved every major problem in physics. That's as much as I've read so far.

The (In)compatibility of Science and Religion

As someone with an appreciation for the explanatory ability of science and a passion for correct (as in Christ-like) interpretation and use of the Bible, it was hard for me to read about the church's suppression of any thought or discovery that "contradicted the Holy Scriptures". It was almost as hard for me to read about how eagerly God was shoved aside by the rush of scientific progress in the Enlightenment, first into the impotence of the deistic god and then into total irrelevance. All a part of the perennial "conflict" between science and religion.

This conflict is based on a relatively simple assumption that I will refer to as "scientific incompatibilism": A scientific explanation for something necessarily excludes a theistic one. In other words, scientific and theological explanations are incompatible with each other. It is evident how this has played out in the history of science; once Newton's laws become common knowledge, God's role as the "unmoved mover" of the planets was forgotten and He was instead seen as the "master watchmaker" who wound up the clockwork universe and then let it proceed on its own. Once the Big Bang theory gained acceptance, even this role for God become unnecessary and atheism became an intellectually credible belief (or nonbelief) system. As we explain more and more where we previously invoked God, reason and empiricism become effective God replacements. When asked why he didn't invoke the Creator in his book Celestial Mechanics, the French mathematician Pierre-Simon de Laplace responded, "I have no need for that hypothesis." As the Kamelot song says (through the voice of Ariel, a philosopher whose sole ambition is the search for universal truth): "How can we believe in heaven? Human reason counters all."

Meanwhile, this same scientific incompatibilism reverberates through religion. The case of Galileo was more a matter of his observations' implicit challenge to the church's claim to the authority to interpret scripture, but it's hard to believe it wasn't also clinging to the Aristotelian model because (ironic, given its non-Christian origin) of its reflection of the truths of God in the cosmos. Inconvenient facts couldn't be allowed to challenge the very principles by which God ordered the universe, could they? And, of course, in the past century we've seen the perennial Christian debate over the status of evolution. Many Christians see Darwin's theory as an assault on the role of God as creator simply by virtue of its offering an explanation for the development of life that doesn't directly invoke God as the one who "did" it . Critics of young-earth creationism point out their "God of the gaps" methodology that construes questions unanswered by science as evidence for God and is another example of scientific incompatibilism.

You presumably know where I stand on the matter from my previous writing on evolution. I reject the dualistic assumption that scientific and theological explanations of the same phenomenon (e.g. human origins) are incompatible, i.e. that "either God does something or it happens naturally", on the grounds that science and theology are meant to answer totally different classes of questions, as well as the fact that God created nature in the first place so the whole dichotomy is bunk. What I am more concerned with now is the question: how did we get here? How did religion and inquiry about natural phenomena proceed hand-in-hand for millenia before so suddenly and violently bifurcating?

I propose an explanation: confusion between two different kinds of (ironically) "explaining". Also ironically, this confusion arises from a lesson not learned from Aristotle, whose ideas were the focal point of so much contention. Aristotle proposed four different kinds of "causes":
  1. The material cause, or the physical constitution of an object.
  2. The formal (or "form-al") cause, or the abstract form represented by a change or "becoming". This is the most obtuse, but for example the abstract form of a sphere might be the formal cause for the shape of a ball.
  3. The efficient cause, which we normally think of in the modern sense of "causation" as that which "causes" something else to occur. So the efficient cause of a table is a carpenter; the efficient cause of water boiling is applied heat, and so on.
  4. The final cause, or its teleological aim or purpose.
Up until the Renaissance religion and philosophy, such as that of Aristotle himself, freely investigated any and all of these kinds of causes and were indeed thought of as the only real way to do it. The various kinds of causes were often conflated, as we see in the concept of celestial spheres: the sphere, being the simplest of forms, was the formal cause of their shape; they were thought to be made of the celestial material aether (material cause); they were arranged and moved by God (efficient cause) to teach us a moral lesson pertaining to our eternal salvation (final cause).

What I think happened in the scientific revolution was that the new generation of natural philosophers saw science as having dethroned religion's role in explaining these causes. They traded theology and authority for reason and empirical observation as sources for knowledge of the four causes (the transition from premodernism to modernism in its infancy). But while science is clearly much better-equipped than religion for knowledge of the material and efficient (and, to some extent, the formal) causes of things, it is completely useless for explaining their final causes. But this is easily forgotten when you're drunk on your newfound power to lay bare the secrets of the universe, to peer into the very mind of God! (See how easy it is) I think that scientific incompatibilism arises when both science and religion each lay claim to all four of these causes as lying within their "territory", as it were, so that a scientific perspective leaves nothing left for a religious one to speak to and vice versa.

The God-Haunted World

What then? Are we to adopt Stephen Jay Gould's view that science and faith occupy "non-overlapping magisteria" (NOMA), leaving questions of nature and technology to one and questions of morals and meaning to the other? This is what I might have advocated in the past, but (of course) I don't think it's so simple. NOMA does not offer a way to move past scientific incompatibilism, but rather gives into it by essentially saying: "Yes, the claims of science and religion really are mutually exclusive, so the realms of knowledge in which they operate should also be mutually exclusive".

The biggest problem with this admission is that I don't think it is true. Life is not so easily compartmentalized. I don't think the ancients' total conflation of what would later become natural philosophy and science with notions of the divine or transcendent was merely a regrettable consequence of their ignorance that we have grown out of. If anything, our insistence on dividing the "natural" from the "supernatural" so completely is what needs to be grown out of. Question of final causes and meaning refuse to confine themselves to the abstract realm of armchair theology and ivory-tower ethics, and the ramifications of scientific inquiry refuse to confine themselves to questions answerable by science. As we have known from prehistory, the starry heavens overawe and confound us, as if crying out, "Explain me!" (And not just with physics, cosmology, chemistry, astrophysics, relativity, etc.) So similarly with the problem of suffering, which no amount of medicine, psychology, or social science can fully heal. So also with the mysterious nature of the mind, or why there is something rather than nothing, or the meta-question of why we are so driven to seek meaning in everything in the first place.

Where science is either silent on these questions or (more extremely) actively denies that they have any significance beyond what is empirically verifiable, faith speaks loudly and clearly to them. So Psalm 19 (written from that premodern viewpoint) begins,
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
This understanding of the heavens has not been rendered obsolete by our knowledge of the true nature of stars; it may even be enhanced by it, if we could just get over the misconception that explaining something scientifically is enough to understand it. What I am getting at is what I think the Bible assumes when it speaks of something as being done both by humans and by God. Among many possible examples, Philippians 2:12-13 expresses this compactly: "Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." This seems at best a paradox and at worst an absurdity to our modern sensibilities, but I don't think it presented any such difficulties for Paul's audience. It is tremendously helpful to think about how this can be true.

This sets the pattern for how we, as Christians, are to hold a faith that is not purely abstract, that has practical implications for "real life" without leading us to believe we can brush aside scientific discoveries by quoting Bible verses. We tend to assume that God's actions are overtly miraculous and thus distinctly separable from our own. But the main way in which they are distinguished is not by their means, but by their meaning. The bare fact of God "doing" something must never be separated from its teleological significance, even if He "does" it through the mundane. "He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him." (Isaiah 53:2) I have a strong conviction that God never just "does" anything for no reason. It's always part of the story He's writing, even if we can't see how and shouldn't even try to. The acts of God are best understood, I think, in terms of their (to use Aristotle's terminology again) final rather than efficient cause. This is a way of learning to "see" God in the midst of an understanding of the world that has been deeply shaped by science and modernism, which fits over and above our mechanistic understanding of the world rather than colliding with it.

Though we can't simply go back to the premodern world of mystery where God is responsible for every change of seasons and starry night, these things aren't necessarily drained of the meaning they had to the ancients because we know the laws governing them. Understanding something scientifically in terms of composition or causation is not understanding it teleologically, as part of a larger meaningful narrative; the two complement each other rather than conflicting. The teleological understanding arranges facts into something more than just senseless, meaningless phenomena, and in turn a better understanding of "how things work" can increase the impression they make on us. This is very subjective,  but I would say that the mechanism of evolution and the incredible vastness of space both help me to appreciate God as Creator more, not less.

I would argue further that the teleological understanding is more fundamental than the scientific one. This is why the default for most of human history has been for philosophico-religious explanations of things to "lead" their mechanistic explanations while a method for rigorously explaining something scientifically had to be developed, rather than the other way around. And even now, for all our "progress" we haven't lessened our dependence on story to "make sense" of life in a way that science never could, we have merely pushed it out of the forefront of our attention. (Possibly by making the god of progress and human achievement our story) I believe (and this may shock any postmoderns reading this blog) that not all of these stories are equally true. For all our experimentation, calculation, and theorization to purge the mystery from our midst, we can't seem to escape living in a God-haunted world.

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