10 January 2009

God IS science (is God)

I got an email from Mom, this morning, that included the full text of a story titled "GOD vs. Science", which she prefaced, "this is kinda long, but it's really good!" You can read the whole story here, online. That links not to the original instance--just the highest ranking response to a Google search, sparing me the need of pasting it all below, where enough of it turns up, anyway. Turns out, according to Snopes (one of my favorite resources for, among other things, debunking the occasional panic spam about an internet based apocalypse), this has been going around for quite some time by email; and in some variations, the student in the story turns out--surprise, surprise!--to be Albert Einstein. But before I'd read any of that, I responded to bits of the story, as copied below:

GOD vs. Science

God is NOT against science, nor is science against God. I wish everyone would get that out of their heads! Science is not the effort to prove or disprove God. It's an effort to understand how the world we live in works, through the empirical method. We can make a "non-scientific" faith-based assumption that God made the world, if we so choose; but regardless, we can use science to learn quite a honkin' duty LOT about just how "He" went about doing so. We can also accumulate a lot of empirically testable scientific data about, say, morality; i.e., we can literally experience the results of certain behaviors and formulate future testing based on these results. I don't have to think about science, or morality for that matter -- I can experience it. I can experience how lying makes me feel, and draw a conclusion about whether or not to continue lying. Perhaps I should conduct more tests. Maybe I'd feel better about lying if I only did it to the IRS. I can test that. Granted, that's not strictly "empirical", because it starts with an hypothesis. But still: I'll learn a scientific thing or two about lying to the IRS.

I tend to think of the Bible more as a compendium of scientific experiential knowledge about how such things work, padded with some educated guesses on the less testable hypotheses. On the one hand, it's like one of the earliest editions of the DSM-IV, with a thorough detailing of the many manifestations of sin and its wages, to which we may all refer with no further testing necessary. And on the other, in certain areas of science, it's more like a pre-Columbian map of the world. At a certain point in time, to the best of our knowledge, the sea eventually fell off the edge of a broad flat Earth. For all we knew, for most of human existence, this broad flat world was created about as long ago as we could imagine, which is to say... gosh, maybe, several thousand years! Science has since brought it to our attention that there are much more incomprehensibly large numbers of time and space available to the universe, nearly as incomprehensible as God. God, I would argue, has given us, through science, in just the past few human generations, a much more mind-bogglingly, stupefyingly impressive picture of his workings in the material realm, than we were able to even conceive of a few thousand years ago, back when mind-boggling was no more or less common than cow milking or sheepshearing. And yet: we can be pretty well satisfied with the treatise on sin and redemption as it exists in the Bible. My guess there is that, by the time we got around to compiling (or were given?) a Bible, we'd had dozens of generations of experience in lying, cheating, and killing one another, not to mention loving, nurturing and caring for one another. We'd gotten to know that stuff inside and out. As soon as we could write a book on it, we did. We'd lived it every day. We still do. Despite not knowing how to tell the age of a rock, or whether light is a particle or a wave, we manage to carry on, because understanding how to treat one another is a much older body of knowledge and a more practical science than... paleoarcheology? microbiology? quantum physics? Despite their newness: those things are God, too. God IS science. Our guesses about Him are often wrong, but God is the way things work.

Or such is my hypothesis.

'Are you good or evil?'
'The Bible says I'm evil.'

The Bible says I'm evil? He means, like, in the sense that I'm somehow different from God, right? Or is this some kind of doctrine of "original sin"? 'Cause I can get with the first idea, but I don't have an ounce of faith that unbaptized babies perish in eternal hellfire, not an ounce. Near as I understand, we are all children of God, with a bit of a communication breakdown (or communion breakdown). And near as I can tell, Jesus asks that I see everyone around me as "another Christ". I might add "afflicted by evil" to that.

'You'd help a sick and maimed person if you could. Most of us would if we could. But God doesn't, does he? My brother was a Christian who died of cancer, even though he prayed to Jesus to heal him. How is this Jesus good? Hmmm? Can you answer that one?'

I can't. Can you? I mean, I can list ways in which Jesus is good, but I can't answer the larger question, "why do bad things happen to good people?" There's a word for our efforts to answer that question: theodicy. And it's an ornate little rabbit hole to fall down into. All I can figure is, I've got to be able to expand my definitions of "good" and "bad", depending on the context... or... something? Whenever I peer into that rabbit hole, I'm reminded of the advice a friend's AA mentor once gave her: "why" is not a spiritual question.

'[W]here does Satan come from? God made Satan, didn't he? If God created everything, then God created evil, since evil exists, and according to the principle that our works define who we are, then God is evil.'

This gets back down into the theodicy hole a bit. I tend toward the position, as it's described later in this story, that evil can be better defined as an absence, rather than as a presence. And yet I'm a little puzzled as to how to reconcile that with the notion of a Satan, personally bent on keeping God absent everywhere he can. I remember reading Dad's copy of People of the Lie when I was back east a few years ago. It was an interesting exploration of evil in human lives, but I remember the author trying to make the point that an actual, personal Evil Being was in action, due to whatever experiential evidence he'd compiled. And... I dunno. It just didn't wash. I mean, I was left still having to accept on faith that Satan was laying in wait for me, or out to get me, or whatever; when it seems perfectly appropriate to my experience that God, or the absence of God pretty much defines the shape and power of evil. I've heard the old aphorism that the Devil's favorite trick is to get you to not believe in him. While I don't think I have much doubt about the power of ignorance and hatred to keep me, or anyone, in hell, I'm not convinced that any sentient being other than myself is holding those chains.

'Science says you have five senses you use to identify and observe the world around you. Have you ever seen Jesus? [Have you] ever heard your Jesus? Have you ever felt your Jesus, tasted your Jesus or smelt your Jesus? Have you ever had any sensory perception of Jesus Christ, or God for that matter?'
'No, sir, I'm afraid I haven't.'
'Yet you still believe in him?'
'According to the rules of empirical, testable, demonstrable protocol, science says your God doesn't exist. What do you say to that, son?'

I say this is the part of the story where the professor turns into someone's cartoon idea of a scientist, ye olde proverbial Straw Man, soon to be rent in twain. Either that, or he's a genius teacher, pushing his students to discover on their own the flaws in his argument. I only suggest that because later on, when the students start doing exactly that, he beams about what a good semester they'll have.

•'I only have my faith.'
'Yes, faith,' the professor repeats. 'And that is the problem science has with God. There is no evidence, only faith.'

Another way of putting that: about the existence of God, there are ultimately no empirically testable conclusions. In a homily a few weeks ago, our priest postulated that "Faith is the opposite of certainty" Embracing that encourages all sorts of enriching conversations with doubt. "We hope and pray" is a common phrase. "We know and pray"? Not so much. In science, hope and faith in a particular outcome can skew the results of a test, or at the very least, skew how it's interpreted and/or reported; thus, it's a contaminant, one that's often unpredictable but largely inescapable. We're permeated with faith at every level of cognition. I have more faith in that, than that "the Bible says I'm evil". But faith is a good thing in science, too: I don't need to run a test anymore to prove the sun will come up tomorrow, or that there's a brain in my head, or that I had great-great-grandparents, or that the Earth is billions of years old. We can accept these things on faith, because there's a lot of sound evidence to that effect (with the possible exception of the brain part), and get on with more pressing discoveries. I'd argue that there's plenty of evidence of God, too; but because I'm contaminated with faith, my results are skewed that way.

'Since no one has ever observed the process of evolution at work and cannot even prove that this process is an on-going endeavor, are you not teaching your opinion, sir? Are you now not a scientist, but a preacher?'

Among religious people who posit science as an adversary to God, this seems to be a rampant presumption, that scientists have fooled themselves into having faith in their own unproven hypotheses, and are thus always foisting opinions on us as fact. I think that because this is sometimes true, we are led to mistakenly conclude that it's true whenever our faith disagrees with science. But, really, in matters of physics, the practice of science has so, so very much solid evidence to offer us about how things work, that any time science controverts my understanding of God, the first place to look for cracks is in my understanding of God. Yes: scientists often have more "faith" in things than they're willing to admit. No: God did not allow the Devil to plant dinosaur skeletons in the dirt just to lead us astray. Yes: there are lots of unanswered questions about the mechanisms of evolution. No: to accept that I'm a member of a species of animal that evolved to be aware of and appreciate God, does not diminish the awesomeness of God. To me, anyway. Those are a few tenets of my faith.

'So what point are you making, young man?'
'My point is, your philosophical premise is flawed to start with, and so your conclusion must also be flawed. You are working on the premise of duality. You argue that there is life and then there's death; a good God and a bad God. You are viewing the concept of God as something finite, something we can measure. Sir, science can't even explain a thought. It uses electricity and magnetism, but has never seen, much less fully understood either one. To view death as the opposite of life is to be ignorant of the fact that death cannot exist as a substantive thing. Death is not the opposite of life, just the absence of it.'

I had to go back up to the top of the story to see whether this guy was a professor of science or a professor of philosophy. Turns out he's both. And an atheist to boot! Three birds, one stone! I think the student's on pretty intriguing philosophical ground here, at least more so than when he's trying to paint evolution as an opinion. He's puncturing widely held concepts of good vs. evil, an opposition that makes much more sense throughout life and history than God vs. science, and yet, apparently has even less weight than the latter. I don't want to jump ahead, but he goes on to conclude that "evil does not exist" except as "the absence of God". I don't know how orthodoxically Christian that viewpoint is--maybe it is the orthodox viewpoint--but I think it would come as news to a lot of Christians. Personally, it makes a lot of sense. As I stated above, I don't really know what to make of the concept of Satan. This student seems to be doing away with it completely. How does that fly for you? I'm reminded again of that This American Life episode about the Rev. Carlton Pearson. He does away with hell itself! I don't know quite what to make of it. It's like: there is oneness with God. Then there is the extent to which I am not one with God. This is the measure of my state of sin, and/or this is how far I'm dipping my toe into hell... Pearson would say that's what hell is: I'm choosing to be in it right now, inasmuch as I'm not choosing to be one with God. And after... "the absence of" my life on earth (?), well, that's beside the point (that is, science hasn't brought us any gems from over there). A quick two line parable: "A man is running. Is he running toward heaven, or away from hell?"

This part of the story also reminds me of one of my favorite books, The Presence of the Past, in which Rupert Sheldrake, in describing his theory of morphic resonance, basically presents a history of the past century and a half of scientific endeavor, and draws a stark picture of how little we understand about how the world is organized, particularly when it comes to non-material fields, like electricity or magnetism or gravity or memory or thought or time...and so on. He points out how many assumptions are made of what we "know" about evolution, but only to illustrate that there's more to learn and other ways of understanding it--not to reduce it to a matter of opinion.

'Is there anyone in the class who has ever seen the professor's brain? Is there anyone here who has ever heard the professor's brain, felt the professor's brain, touched or smelt the professor's brain? No one appears to have done so. So, according to the established rules of empirical, stable, demonstrable protocol, science says that you have no brain, with all due respect, sir. So if science says you have no brain, how can we trust your lectures, sir?'
[A]fter what seems an eternity, the old man answers. 'I guess you'll have to take them on faith.'

'Now, you accept that there is faith, and, in fact, faith exists with life,' the student continues.

All this prodding at the professor's brain reminds me of a passage in Ken Wilber's A Brief History of Everything: "The brain physiologist can know every single thing about my brain--he can hook me up to an EEG machine, he can use PET scans, he can use radioactive tracers, he can map the physiology, determine the levels of neurotransmitters--he can know what every atom of my brain is doing, and he still won't know a single thought in my mind. This is really extraordinary. And if he wants to know what is going on in my mind, there is one and only one way that he can find out: he must talk to me. There is absolutely no other way that he, or anybody else, can know what my actual thoughts are without asking me, and talking to me, and communicating with me. And if I don't want to tell you, then you will never know the actual specifics of my individual thoughts. Of course, you can torture me and force me to tell--but that's the point: you force me to talk."

But that's beside the point. See, this is where the whole arc of the story kinda breaks down for me, like a huge missing link in the fossil record. At first, the professor seemed like a contemptuous jerk. Then, when the students started to show they were learning something about science, there seemed to be a method in his madness, and everyone this semester would gain a deeper understanding of the intersections of faith and knowledge. But then, suddenly, an eternity passes and he's an "old man", and this young whippersnapper has stepped fully into the professorial role. I'm not sure he's ready for it just yet, although he has picked up the professor's skill for belittling the object of his pupil's pride. He has demonstrated his ultimate point, that faith has a role, even in the life of a scientist (although, with a scalpel and a bone saw, it would be easy enough to devise an experiment to prove the existence of the professor's brain); but has he learned that faith is no more a proof of the existence of God, than it is a reason to discount the fact of evolution? Or that faith has no bearing on either, whatsoever? Has he really internalized that "according to the established rules of empirical, stable, demonstrable protocol," his God doesn't exist, and begun to reconcile that with the benefits his faith in God hath presumably wrought in his life? Has he learned anything about the preponderance of evidence, as it relates to satisfying conclusions; or how difficult it is to satisfy anyone with a conclusion that contradicts his or her faith?

And I think I'll just leave that as a conclusion. I'm running out of the time I had to put things off today.

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