Archive for the ‘Science and religion’ Category

Promethean Faith

23 Jun


I saw the SF movie Prometheus last week.  I won’t review it or summarize it here except to note that it featured a creature far rarer than aliens in Hollywood’s universe: a practicing Christian.  She is even portrayed in a positive light, and is, in fact, something of the heroine of the story.

Not that this is in any sense a movie advocating Christianity or even religion.  Indeed, we never see Elizabeth Shaw engaged in prayer, worship, seeking guidance from scripture or really anything that could be described as spiritual. How do we know she is a Christian at all? First, because of the cross she wears around her neck; It is so symbolic that at the end of the movie she even pointedly demands it back from the robot who took it from her (long story). Secondly because when challenged how she can still believe in spite of all the…mess…that has hit the fan, she says explicitly, “It’s what I choose to believe”.

There is a bit of backstory to that statement. Earlier we see a dream sequence flashing back to Shaw’s childhood, where she is sitting with her father (who appears to be a missionary, if I am not mistaken).  Some of the local people are waking in a funeral procession, grieving their dead, and the girl asks her father, “Can’t you help them?”

“They wouldn’t want help from me”


“They believe different things.”

“Well, how do we know they are wrong and we are right?”

The father answers, “It’s what I choose to believe”.

The adult Shaw, then, has learned this lesson well, and repeats the type of faith she inherited from her father.  This is the extent of her Christian belief portrayed in the film: wearing a cross, and clinging stubbornly to a faith that she simply chooses to believe.

What do we make of this?  Are Christians (or religious adherents more broadly) simply those who “choose to believe?” Or, as I have seen in put in more insulting terms, do religious people simply believe without reason or evidence? An atheist columnist in my local paper put it this way: “Christians don’t need reason. They take everything by faith”.  It seems the writers of Prometheus, in spite of their good intentions perhaps, have pretty much the same view. Are they right?


I think they are very much in the wrong. The error, however, is rather easily understandable.  Did not Kierkegaard speak of a great leap of faith?  And was it not the mighty Augustine who set the course for medieval thought with these words, “Understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore seek not to understand that thou may believe, but believe that thou may understand”? Yes and yes, but also no. Let me explain.

The view that we must simply choose what to believe, and that reason and evidence form no part of this choice, is called fideism (from the Latin word for faith, fides).  Philosopher Alvin Plantiga defines it this way: “exclusive or basic reliance upon faith alone, accompanied by a consequent disparagement of reason and utilized especially in the pursuit of philosophical or religious truth”. I would only add to this definition that technically perhaps it is better to speak of a fideistic viewpoint as one that pits faith against evidence rather than reason (since reason is utilized even in choosing to go against reason).

Let us begin by noting that fideism has never been in the mainstream of Christian thought. Indeed, it is difficult to even find Christian thinkers of the past or present who would claim the label.  At the same time, two related themes have indeed been present in Christian thought from Tertullian in the second century to thinkers like C. Stephen Evans in ours. The first theme is the idea that reason (or evidence) by itself cannot prove the claims of Christianity. The second theme is that certain Christian doctrines go beyond reason in some sense.

It is important to realize that affirming both these ideas (as I do) does not make one a fideist, nor does it make faith “something I simply choose to believe”.  An analogy comes to mind.

A young woman falls in love and becomes engaged.  She eagerly begins planning the wedding (the groom being “not into details”) and her subsequent life joined to the man of her dreams. All is well until a week before the wedding.  She receives an anonymous note, claiming that her fiancé has been cheating on her this past year.  No proof is given, but its tone seems convincing.  She shows it to her fiancé, who denies the charge with indignation.

Question: does she call the wedding off?

Well, if she believes her fiancé really has been cheating on her this last year she certainly will. But does she now believe in her the man’s faithfulness? That is the question.  One the one hand, she has evidence, in the form of the note, that would argue against his faithfulness.  And she cannot prove his faithfulness (for that would have required 24 hour video surveillance). It is certainly rationally possible that he is a cheater and deceiver.  But on the other hand, she knows the man.  She has been close to him and observed him in a number of situations over the course of several years.  She has found him honest in other areas without fail.  And his response to the charge was not the sheepish look of a boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar, but something like the anger and indignation she herself would feel if she were the subject of the accusation.

Again, the wedding is a week away. The invitations mailed; all the preparations made. Does she call it off?

What would you do?  If you, in her situation, went ahead with the wedding, then in some sense you have made a decision that goes beyond evidence.  You are making the decision to believe in something that goes beyond what you can know.

I have a friend who is getting her Ph.D. in epidemiology.  She also has a two-year old son. What happens when she takes him to get vaccinated, and he sees the fearsome needle approach? Does she explain all the facts of the immune system to the child, hoping he will make a rational decision based on those facts?  A child that age would not understand. It is not that he has no reason, but his reason has limits.  The reason he does have, however, has shown him that his mother loves him and can be trusted.

This, I believe, is the essence of Augustine’s famous quote cited above.  As he says elsewhere, “God does not expect us to submit our faith to him without reason, but the very limits of our reason make faith a necessity”.  Even Kierkegaard, I believe, should be understood this way: the step of faith is not a call for rejecting reason in favor of faith, but rather a call to radically live out the implications of our faith, even when the choices go beyond our ability to see outcomes.

This type of faith, I believe, is what the best Christian thinkers have always tried to model, and that most believers I know seem to have (though most could not articulate it as well as Augustine).  They have many questions. Some things may not make sense. But they have also experienced the goodness of God, and learned to trust his words.  Their faith is without reason, but it may believe things reason cannot prove, just as the non-religious person believes manythings he cannot prove either.

So I was happy to Elizabeth Shaw, a Christian alien in the universe Hollywood has constructed. May her tribe increase. At the same time, the type of faith portrayed is the shallow, easy to dismiss kind that ultimately is not reflected in Christian teaching or practice.

But then again, perhaps that is not the final word.

The name Prometheus became associated with human striving. This could be striving against ignorance, tradition, or (originally) the gods of the Greek world.  The movie’s title, then, reflects not just the name of the space ship, but the attitude of the lone human who survives, and who, as the movie ends, plans to seek out and question those “gods” responsible for her life and her great pain.  When David, the robot, asks her why, she seems confused by the question.  To be human is to seek understanding, whatever the cost. Her stubborn faith that there is an answer to why, and that the answer matters, is contrasted with David’s cold and limited rationality; and it is this that makes her human.

Here we come, it seems to me, to the heart of true religion: To not be content with the facts, but to use the facts to ask the one question whose answer we can never prove, but can perhaps know: why?

Ultimately, the universe (including human life) either exists as a bare fact, requiring no explanation, or it exists as a thing with meaning.  It is the stubborn, promethean faith of Elizabeth Shaw, clinging to her cross as she boards a new ship to search for the gods, to search for meaning, that we can both celebrate and emulate.


Four Things Science Cannot Prove (but are necessary for science to work)

20 Oct

Perhaps the most common misunderstanding of science today is the idea that it alone operates only on what can be proven.  The scientist, we are told, unlike the historian, sociologist, or (shudder) the theologian, believes nothing except what is proven to be true by the scientific method; therefore he or she alone is the oracle of true knowledge of the physical world.

It is remarkable how prevalent this thought is, even when not articulated, since it is so easily shown to be not the case.  Science is a wonderful and noble way of exploring and understanding this world we find ourselves in, but it in no way operates solely on the basis of proof. Some things it must assume. I will list a few of them.

[Note: nothing I can say will stop some people from viewing this as an attack on science; it is anything but, as I think as reasonable reading will show. ]

1. Reality is rational.

That is, its makeup is such that it exhibits order and consistency, so that we can make predictions and postulate laws and theories.  Now this may seem like common sense, but that would be common only to sensibilities formed in and shaped by what could loosely be defined as “western” thought (though of course we mean history more than geography here).  To the ancients, and to many of the east today, the idea that the universe is rational and subject completely in its physical workings to consistency and order is not something assumed at all.

Nor can reality be “proven” to be rational.  Indeed, ask yourself how this would be proven from the viewpoint of someone within this reality.  You cannot prove it by experiment, for you cannot experiment on reality as a whole. You cannot prove it by induction, arguing that since everything we have studied has proven rational that reality itself must be. An inductive argument like this fails for four reasons.  First, an inductive argument of this sort will only grant a probable truth, not a certain one, so the best we could say is that, “reality is probably rational” which is a world different from saying “reality is rational”. Second, we have no way of measuring how much of reality we have “figured out” versus how much we have not, so there is no way of knowing if we have high probability or very low probability for our inductive claim.  Thirdly, it is simply not the case that we have figured out everything we have been able to study.  When Richard Fenyman wrote, ‘I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics,’ he was including himself which is disconcerting given how many books he wrote on that very subject.  No-one today can give a satisfactory answer to the most basic question of physics (how quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity can both be true since they contradict each other) nor can astronomers and astrophysicists give an agreed upon answer to the quandary that most of the matter of the universe (dark matter and dark energy) cannot even be observed (but must be assumed to make sense of everything else).  Fourth, even if everything we can study shows rationality, that is no proof that we do not inhabit a slice or bubble of the universe that has qualities different than the universe as a whole (an idea which some astrophysicists argue as possible).

Now, I do believe reality is rational, for I believe it is the creation of a rational being.  And I suspect the legacy of this belief gives a clue to why science developed more successfully in theistic societies than pagan, pantheistic or animistic ones.  So I am not arguing that reality is not rational, but that science is logically dependent on a belief that it cannot prove.  Unless reality is rational, science is not possible.

2. Reality is knowable.

This is not the same argument as above.  The success of the scientific method assumes not only that reality has the quality of rationality, but that it is also knowable. That is, it is conceivable that realist is rational, but I could be irrational, and not able to form valid conclusions about reality.  My mind must be “on the same wavelength” to capture its rationality.

Steven Pinker, the famous evolutionary biologist, unwittingly encounters this very issue when he writes on page 561 of “How the Mind Works”:

We are organisms, not angels, and our minds are organs, not pipelines to the truth. Our minds evolved by natural selection to solve problems that were life-and-death matters to our ancestors, not to commune with correctness or to answer any question we are capable of asking.

Somehow, one gets the impression that Pinker feels his own mind is an exception to this rule, else why would he write the book (or even ask us to believe the above quote).

But indeed, how could we prove that the human mind is a capable tool for understanding reality and finding truth, especially on the assumptions Pinker makes (that the mind evolved to solve practical problems that affect reproductive success, not to find truth)?  But without the belief that the human mind can understand reality, there is no reason to study reality.  One is better off not wasting the time.

Again, I am not arguing that reality is not knowable.  I believe it is because I believe the same rational being who created reality (thus ensuring its rationality) also created mankind in His own image, thus ensuring the possibility of valid knowledge of, and reasoning about, that reality. No, I cannot prove that scientifically.  But neither can the scientist prove that his or her mind is capable of anything more than an utilitarian problem solving that may or may not speak actual truth.

3. Causation

Surely, if there is one thing science can prove, it is that one thing causes another, right?  Actually, nothing could be farther from the case.  The very idea of causation must be assumed.

David Hume, of course, is the one who most famously has shown this.  Imagine, he said, I have one hundred windows in a row, and I take a hammer and hit the first 99.  All of them shatter.  I approach the last one.  Will it shatter also when I hit it?  Hume argues that you cannot know that, for there is no way of proving that the impact of the hammer caused the other windows to break. It is conceivable (even if unlikely) that some other forces or forces broke the windows at the exact time the hammer hit them.  Causation, he argued, is an attribute of the mind, by which it tries to make sense what happens in the world.  But there is no way to prove beyond doubt that causality applies beyond the mind’s interpretation.

Hume’s argument is epistemological, that is, a question of how we know things.  But 20th century science (in the form of quantum mechanics) itself has undermined the concept of causation (please read up on simultaneous causation and the uncertainty principle to see this).

Also, as I am writing this, the world of science has been shocked by the apparent find of a team at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) that some particles travel faster than the speed of light. One article notes,

The existence of faster-than-light particles would wreak havoc on scientific theories of cause and effect.

“If things travel faster than the speed of light, A can cause B, [but] B can also cause A,” Parke [head of the theoretical physics department at the U.S. government-run Fermilab near Chicago, Illinois] said.

“If that happens, the concept of causality becomes ambiguous, and that would cause a great deal of trouble.”

At this point, both philosophically and scientifically, the simple idea of causation (A causes B) is very much a working assumption that makes science possible, not the result of science itself.  [Please note I am talking about the concept of causation, not examples of one thing causing another].

4. The very existence of an external universe consisting of matter

I will spend the least time here, for this is unable to be proven by any worldview or any method of knowledge.  Suffice it to say that both solipsism and idealism would deny the existence of an externally existing material universe.   Solipsism argues this world does not exist outside my mental projections, or, as my epistemology professor put it, “I’m the only pebble on the beach. And there is no beach”. Idealism argues that only the spiritual is real, and the material world is an illusion (or, as for Berkeley, real only as the thoughts of God).  Technically, neither idea is refutable (any arguments against them must come from inside the projection or illusion).

Again, this does not count in any way against science.  Of all the four things on this list, this is to me the least substantial (since no-one can consistently live out this idea).  I include it here to remind us of the need for intellectual humility, whether we are a scientist or theologian.

Other presuppositions of science include the following:

  • The laws of logic (especially the law of non-contradiction)
  • The adequacy of language to communicate reality and truth
  • The existence of numbers
  • The existence of other minds

All these have been argued by philosophers and others, and none of them can be proven by the scientific method.  In short, they are metaphysical assumptions, not proven facts.

Also, related to this but somewhat a distinct issue is that science assumes certain values in order to proceed, without being able to scientifically prove the validity of these values.  Chief among these values is that of honesty.

All this to say that science is a wonderful tool for granting knowledge about this universe we find ourselves in.  It in no way is to be despised or denigrated.  But enough of the foolish talk that it alone traffics in certainty and what is beyond doubt.  It is an invaluable servant, but makes a terrible idol.

*note: I originally posted this at internet monk


Six Stupid Things People Say About Religion

09 Sep

On any topic on which emotions run high (global warming, abortion, Antarctic agriculture) reason will sometimes not only take a back seat, but be clinging with its fingernails to the bumper.  Such, of course, is the subject of religion, as evidenced by the statements below.

Now, I’m not saying anyone who has said one of these things is stupid. Even smart, wise people sometimes say stupid things; nobody bats 1000.  But if you find yourself about to utter one of these sayings…just…stop. Please.

I’m not religious, but I am very spiritual

This statement is stupid because it means exactly nothing.  Both religion and spiritual are words so broad that in some sense they apply to everyone.  If religion is a system of beliefs which undergird a code of ethics (one reasonable definition) then anyone above the level of chimpanzee is religious in some sense.

More serious, though, is the slipperiness of the word, spiritual.  To say “I am spiritual” is to affirm nothing more than a belief that I am more than simply brute matter.  Of course, usually the statement is intended to tell us that the speaker is not exclusively concerned with material (wealth and status) pursuits, but is also attuned to more esoteric concerns (without defining or defending such concerns).  In the end, this statement almost always comes across as meaning, “I’m more truly spiritual than those religious nuts and less shallow than the average materialistic American”. In other words, it is akin to saying, “I am very humble, you know”.

Religion is the opiate of the people

Karl Marx coined this phrase to discredit and marginalize people of faith who might stand in the way of the great communist revolution he was advocating.  Those repeating this tripe today might well consider the origins of the phrase, as well as asking if the non-religious cultures of communist societies he inspired were any more discerning and courageous than the opium-induced worshippers who preceded them. This is an insult, not an argument, and says much more about the arrogance of the speaker than about those it intends to slander.

Religion is the primary cause of all wars and violence

This statement is willfully ignorant.  Do not bother talking to a person who utters wisdom such as this; you will have more success in a conversation with a person who thinks they are a light bulb.

It should be apparent to anyone with even a passing knowledge of human nature or human history that religion and violence are both consistent parts of the human experience, for good and ill.  One is no more is the cause of the other than love is the cause of political power, or fear the source of knowledge (to name just a few other human constants).   If this was ever in doubt, the 20th century surely proves the point.  The greatest murderer of mankind by far (Stalin) was an avowed atheist, as were the regimes in China, Cuba, and Cambodia in the great genocide of the 70’s (when the atheist regime of the Khmer Rouge murdered two million people, or roughly one-third of the population. Please read that statement again).  In fact, communist countries were not only non-religious, but the only societies which explicitly promoted atheism, and it is difficult to find a single example of such a country not marred by human rights abuses of the worst kind.

Religion operates by faith,  and science by reason

Leaving aside for the moment the things science must take by faith (for example, that we live in an ordered universe, that the laws of physics apply everywhere and to all times of the past and present, that our senses give us accurate knowledge of the world, etc…) the real problem with this statement is the idea that religion is a totally faith operation.  This is shown false simply by asking why a religious person believes the Bible or Koran, for example, and not that the moon is made of green cheese, or that cows fly.  The answer, of course, is that the Christian or Muslim believes they have good reason to suppose their book is true, and therefore its teachings likewise true.  Now, they may be very wrong in this.  But they choose to believe it at least partly on the grounds of reason, not faith.  In fact, I don’t know one person who would go on observing their religious activity if they were totally shown by reason and argument that their belief was false.

I expect this confusion results from the rather narrow definition of “reason” used by some today, by which anything not proven by the scientific method does not count for knowledge.  But of course, most of the things we believe (that our mother loves us, that Caesar crossed the Rubicon, etc…) are not proven in this way before we believe them.  Knowledge comes to us in a multiplicity of ways, and each sphere of human interaction has its own ways of knowing.

All religions teach basically the same thing

Of this whole list, this one is the most easily disproved.  Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Animists, etc…teach different and mutually exclusive doctrine on such basic issues as God, reality, sin, salvation, and so much more.  The Animist  teaches a plurality of gods within nature, each with different power and nature. The Jew believes in one personal God, separate from nature, who is holy and loving.  To the Hindu, the physical world is maya, an illusion, and history is at best a circle that repeats. To the Christian, the physical world is real and good (though not ultimate), and history has both providence and a goal. Anyone who claims religions teach basically the same thing simply shows they don’t really know what religions teach.

Now it is true that the different religions are more alike in their ethics than their theology.  For example, every religion I know of views murder, cowardice, and lying as wrong.  And many of the practices of virtue are somewhat consistent: praying, giving to the poor, worship, justice, and so on.  But pies with identical crusts can still have very different fillings, and ethics can seem alike, even as their purpose and basis varies.  A Hindu does good for the sake of Karma: he or she hopes to be reincarnated in a higher form. A Christian (hopefully) does good out of gratitude for God’s grace, and to become more like the one they love.

I’m not religious, I just love the Lord

This one is usually uttered by the religious person (specifically a Christian).  In one way, the motive is right: it is an attempt to focus on the person of Jesus rather than all the trappings of religion and religious argument.  Nonetheless, it seems to me a confused and vapid statement.  It makes “religious” to be a bad word, and implies the speaker has risen above such odiousness.  In fact, it is impossible to “love the Lord”, as He defines love in the Bible, without obeying His instruction, and this includes things like prayer, corporate worship, giving, adherence to a certain ethical standard, etc…, all of which fit under a common-sense definition of religious activity.  As a Christian, it seems better to me to make sure one does such religious activities while still focused on Christ, rather than advocate some kind of ethereal inner love for God that does not produce any of these things.


Scientists > Theologians?

17 May

Every age needs their heros (or idols, for the more cynical of you).  When I was growing up, they mostly wore fatigues and helmets.  Today they wear lab coats.  Again and again new TV series and movies show us the wise and courageous scientists solving crime, curing obscure diseases, and generally  just saving the world.  All while looking like models.

On a recent imonk discussion, I mentioned the danger of deifying scientists.  My point (soon lost on some commenters, of course) was not that science was bad or scientists stupid.  Rather, I was trying to make the point that no mind knows everything, or precious few are brilliant in more than one limited field.  It is a very good idea to listen to a theoretical physicist when he or she speaks of physics.  It is folly to give him special privileges when he or she talks of religion, philosophy or politics. One or two people took this as occasion to bash theologians, since they, unlike scientists, had not made anything like telescopes, the internet, drugs, etc… As one put it, “pardon me if I choose the side that has results”.

I have seen this mindset so often.  I am not a theologian, but it seems to me to be a very confused (even if wide-spread) viewpoint.  This is an expanded form of my response on that blog:

 First, to compare the accomplishments of theologians and scientists in terms of what they have “given us”, especially when that is framed in terms of inventions, is to completely miss the point of their respective roles.  What have music theorists, or sociologists, or teachers invented?  The argument seems to confuse value with a certain type of production.

Second, to do an adequate job of accessing what the scientists have “given us” we would need to do a cost/benefit analysis of all modern technology (including such things as nuclear bombs) which would also include their social cost. For example, one commenter mention the “combustible engine” (and I assume he meant the internal combustion engine, not an engine that explodes); this has given us mobility, but at the price of pollution, white-flight, the rise of the suburbs, the decline of the downtown, global warming, and other ills.  Is it worth it? Are the gains greater than the costs? Ultimately, that question can only be answered by the value-judgments you place on human mobility and freedom versus the value judgments you place on the environment, racial integration, and healthy human society.  But how do you make those value judgments without relying on a worldview, which will include judgments of a religious or metaphysical nature?  In other words, no important invention is value neutral, and the value cannot be determined only in scientific terms.

Thirdly, to draw a sharp dichotomy between the contributions of science and religion is to show a lack of understanding on how much western science is based upon religious (in particular, Jewish and Christian) foundations.  It is not mere chance that the scientific revolution occurred in those countries and cultures that had a Judeo-Christian understanding of the nature of reality and the worth of man. In particular, Judaism and Christianity both provided a framework for believing reality is rational (since a rational God created it) and knowable (since God has made us in his image).  Without a strong belief in these two ideas (that reality is rational, and the reality is knowable) modern science is without a foundation.

I hope it is obvious to all, by the way, that those two statements are philosophical/theological statements, not something that can be proven scientifically.  They are metaphysical statements, not physical statements.  Modern science is a wonderful house, but can only be built on a foundation supplied by a certain type of religion.

This is why the sociologist Rodney Stark could say, “It is the consensus among contemporary historians, philosophers and sociologists of science that real science arose only once: in Europe.  The leading scientific figures in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were overwhelmingly devout Christians who believed it their duty to comprehend God’s handiwork.”

Comparing the contributions of scientists and theologians is like comparing the value of sunshine and Tolstoy.  Let each be valued and appreciated without what used to called, “odious comparisons”.


The Naivety of Einstein

03 May

Should a Mount Rushmore of scientists ever come to be carved upon the cliffs of the Black Hills, surely one of the faces would belong to Albert Einstein.  His accomplishments are too well known to be recounted here.  As a scientist, he is without peer in the last 100 years. However, because of his great accomplishments in the area of physics, an unfortunate tendency has emerged: to regard him as not only a great scientist, but a great sage — a man who should be listened to not only when he speaks of atoms and energy, but when he speaks of life.

This is a mistake.  Einstein’s genius did not extend to all fields.  In fact, his brilliance in the areas of theoretical physics was accompanied by a rather poor logic of metaphysical thought.  It was his naivety that convinced him he had much to say beyond science; it is our naivety is we spend a great deal of time listening.

I would offer the following essay by Einstein as an example of this: Strange is our Situation here upon Earth. The essay in question was offered to a book whose goal was to collect the wisdom of the greatest minds on the meaning of life.  It is not offhand remarks, but a carefully written summary of his beliefs. You are welcome to read the full text.

The confusion begins immediately after the brief opening paragraph.  Einstein begins the second paragraph by assuring us that “there is one thing we do know: that man is here for sake of other men…”.  The careful reader will stop here and ask, “Wait! How do we know this?” This is not an idle question.  Is it proven scientifically we exist for the sake of other men?  Is it innate within us?  If so, then why do most of us live for ourselves, instead of for other men?  If this is the foundation for the meaning of life (as the rest of the essay suggests) then perhaps it can be explained why this foundation is chosen before we start building the walls and ceiling. Alas, no explanation is forthcoming.

We will resist the temptation to spend much time pointing out that the phrase “for the sake of other men” is almost empty of actual content.  After all, it is clear that both Churchill and Hitler could claim they were working for others by working for what each saw as a good government and society.  There is a more serious problem, and it resides in Einstein’s next paragraph.

He writes: I do not believe we can have any freedom at all in the philosophical sense, for we act not only under external compulsion but also by inner necessity. Schopenhauer’s saying— “A man can surely do what he wills to do, but he cannot determine what he wills”—impressed itself upon me in youth and has always consoled me when I have witnessed or suffered life’s hardships. This conviction is a perpetual breeder of tolerance, for it does not allow us to take ourselves or others too seriously; it makes rather for a sense of humor.”

 Putting aside the question of this viewpoint does indeed foster tolerance and humor, we cannot help but dwell on the implications of this paragraph.

What Einstein is denying here is free will, the idea that a human can think or act differently than he does in fact think and act.  He claims that in the “philosophical sense”, that is, metaphysically as opposed to politically, we have no freedom “at all”.  Following Schopenhauer, he suggests that we all do what we will, but what we will is already determined for us.  Who or what determines this is not said, but it is certainly not us.

Lest we think we are misreading the man, we also have this quote from another essay: If the moon, in the act of completing its eternal way around the earth, were gifted with self-consciousness, it would feel thoroughly convinced that it was traveling its way of its own accord… So would a Being, endowed with higher insight and more perfect intelligence, watching man and his doings, smile about man’s illusion that he was acting according to his own free will. 

 And this: the scientist is possessed by the sense of universal causation. The future, to him, is every whit as necessary as the past.

Think through the implications of this view.  Not only our actions but our will, not only our external deeds but our internal thoughts, are determined by something outside of us. Every time we think we are free in choosing what we think, like, value, or do (for these are all related) we are actually deceived. There is no freedom.

Now, of course, Einstein is not the only scientist to deny free will.  The denial of free will is logically consistent with a materialist worldview (that is, that we live in a closed system and everything can be reduced to molecules and motion; there is nothing except matter and energy).  But his adherence to this viewpoint makes the rest of the essay entirely pointless.

First, we see him criticize those who make comfort or happiness their goal.  But certainly under a closed system with no human freedom they have precious little choice about this.  One may as well criticize water for being wet.  He then lauds himself for “scorning” things like success, publicity, luxury — again as if he had chosen to do so.  He lauds America’s political system and Germany’s social programs, before launching into a rather vicious attack on what he calls “the odious militia”.  He not only loathes wars, but any man who seems to have military and patriotic sensibilities: “He received his great brain by mistake – the spinal cord would have been amply sufficient”.  Those who enjoy military bands and marching in line are “the vilest offspring of the herd mind”. He calls this mindset “a stain on humanity” that would have been washed away by now except for the corruption of the schools and the press.

This last thought, of course, is almost a howler.  Does he really mean to suggest that the military mindset did not hold sway before modern media and the modern educational system?  Is it really the schools and the press that should be blamed for this eternal stain on mankind?

But more importantly, do the odious beings he pictures have any choice in feeling and behaving so odiously?  Surely they are the product of the same “mysterious…intelligence manifested in nature” as he is.  And on what basis can he set his morals above the morals of others here?  I ask that question again: on what basis can he commend his own morals and beliefs while criticizing those of others?  If the universe is a closed system without purpose, if nothing and no-one transcends it, if free will is a delusion, than on what ground can Dr. Einstein make these moral pronouncements?

And it is here we must charge the great scientific thinker with incredible naivety.  He not only does not answer that question, it is almost too obvious they never arose in his mind seriously enough to have wrestled with them.  He judges the morals of others even as he undermines any criteria for morals to be judged.  And He breezily dismisses human choice even as he sharply criticizes other humans for their choices.

Of course, on Einstein’s viewpoint, even the foundation of meaning, that we exist “for the sake of other men” is now seen to be not the grand foundation, but rather a thought that arose, for some mysterious reason, into Dr. Einstein’s brain.  This foundation was not chosen by him after years of reflection by his fertile mind; His mind just happened to choose to build on this spot; if the molecules and motion had played out differently, he would perhaps been the drummer in a military marching band.

Again, this is not to deny him his place on Rushmore.  Rather, it is a reminder that even the greatest minds are usually great only in one sphere, and that setting any man or woman up as a paragon of wisdom is foolish idolatry.

Give the great physicist his due.  But not more.


We Murder to Dissect

23 Nov

The other poem by Wordsworth I have also chosen to follow up on some thoughts last week.  It is one of my favorites. Wordsworth regarded it as something of a compliment to the poem I shared yesterday.  It is called, The Tables Turned (1798)

  Up! up! my friend, and clear your looks,
  Why all this toil and trouble?
  Up! up! my friend, and quit your books,
  Or surely you’ll grow double.

  The sun, above the mountain’s head,
  A freshening lustre mellow
  Through all the long green fields has spread,
  His first sweet evening yellow.

  Books! ’tis dull and endless strife,
  Come, here the woodland linnet,
  How sweet his music; on my life
  There’s more of wisdom in it.

  And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
  And he is no mean preacher;
  Come forth into the light of things,
  Let Nature be your teacher.

  She has a world of ready wealth,
  Our minds and hearts to bless–
  Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
  Truth breathed by chearfulness.

  One impulse from a vernal wood
  May teach you more of man;
  Of moral evil and of good,
  Than all the sages can.

  Sweet is the lore which nature brings;
  Our meddling intellect
  Mishapes the beauteous forms of things;
  –We murder to dissect.

  Enough of science and of art;
  Close up these barren leaves;
  Come forth, and bring with you a heart
  That watches and receives.

In the haunting warning, we murder to dissect, Wordsworth captures the essence of the romantic movement more clearly and briefly than any other poet.  It is not a protest against science and rationalism per se, but rather recognition that science and rationalism can lose the forest for the trees (to use a cliché).  This reflects my own worries about living in an age where science now reigns supreme.  It’s not that I don’t respect science.  Rather, I fear lest we murder all the majesty and mystery of life by dissecting it to ever deeper levels.


A Wise Passiveness

23 Nov

Today and tomorrow I want to share two poems that reflect on some of my posts last week.  They are both by Wordsworth.  In the first, he hears and responds to a friend, Matthew, criticizing him for communing with nature instead of studying the books.  It is called, Expostulation and Reply (1798).



“WHY, William, on that old grey stone,

Thus for the length of half a day,

Why, William, sit you thus alone,

And dream your time away?



“Where are your books?–that light bequeathed

To Beings else forlorn and blind!

Up! up! and drink the spirit breathed

From dead men to their kind.



“You look round on your Mother Earth,

As if she for no purpose bore you;

As if you were her first-born birth,

And none had lived before you!”



One morning thus, by Esthwaite lake,

When life was sweet, I knew not why,

To me my good friend Matthew spake,

And thus I made reply:



“The eye–it cannot choose but see;

We cannot bid the ear be still;

Our bodies feel, where’er they be,

Against or with our will.



“Nor less I deem that there are Powers

Which of themselves our minds impress;

That we can feed this mind of ours

In a wise passiveness.



“Think you, ‘mid all this mighty sum

Of things for ever speaking,

That nothing of itself will come,

But we must still be seeking?



“Then ask not wherefore, here, alone,

Conversing as I may,

I sit upon this old grey stone,

And dream my time away,”


Communing with the natural world brings its own wisdom, that Wordsworth called, a wise passiveness. How many times I recall sitting and staring at some mountain pool, or fiery tree, and how it has brought such a wise passiveness and calmness to the stress of my soul.  It taught me not how to think about my life and about God, but how to feel about these things.  It has reminded me of the two greatest truths needed for mental health: there is a God, and I am not Him.


What Do You See? (part 3)

19 Nov

What I have been trying to get at in these last few posts is that there is a way of looking at the world around us that goes beyond the data from our senses.

I want to conclude with a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

Earth is crammed with heaven,
and every common bush is on fire with God;
but only he who sees takes off his shoes;
the rest sit around it and pluck blackberries.


What Do You See? (part 2)

17 Nov

In yesterday’s post I included a video of the world of nature.  Today I include two  from the world of microbiology.  The videos all take place in one human cell. 

Of course, we don’t have cameras this small.  This is a computer animation, done by the BioVisions project at Harvard.

The first is a three minute video with music showing the almost magical activities of the cell.  The second is an eight minute video which adds narration and some extra detail.

 What do you see?  Is it only molecules and motion?  Or do you see deeper, and recognize the beauty and purpose of a master-designer?


What Do You See?

16 Nov

In my last post, I mentioned that seeing the universe as a Christian allows a deeper vision than seeing it as a nonbeliever.  A Christian (or most religious people) see the glory, not only of the masterpiece, but of the master. This video illustrates this wonderful enhancement. The song is called, Creation Calls by Brian Doerkson. The footage is taken (with permission) from the BBC series, Planet Earth.  I love watching Planet Earth.  It showcases the beauty and wonder of the world better than any film I have seen.  But watching a video like the one below  illustrates in a small way how a religious viewpoint adds to, and does not detract from, an appreciation of the physical world.  It adds meaning and music, and turns prose into song.  A  high def copy of this is available here (it is too big to upload to this blog), or you can click below for a standard definition video. If you want to download the high def version, go to the bottom of this page.


 Thanks to my friend Scott for passing this along.


Christian Science

10 Nov

No, I am not talking about the religion called “Christian Science”.  That religion always reminds me of Grape Nuts (it’s neither grapes, nor nuts).  I am talking about how a Christian does science, or understands science, or appreciates science. 

This is not a question to be settled only by the people in the lab coats.  All of us are affected by science, and oft those outside the trenches are best able to take in the meaning of the battle.  I claim no expertise, then, but simply lay out my opinion for your comments and thoughts.

First, a Christian doing science will use the same methodology as anyone else doing science.  He or she will use the scientific method appropriate to the field of study.  Appeals to the bible or the viewpoints of the church (as if the church was univocal) will be totally out of place in deciding scientific questions. Nor will the Christian scientist be affected by the question of whether or not God exists.  The reason is that if God does exist, he has presumably left the area of science under investigation subject to the natural laws of physics he established.  Miracles are more the realm of the historian than of the scientist.  This combination (of belief in God and metaphysical neutrality in methodology) actually gives the Christian an advantage: He or she is able to be content with saying of some things: “we don’t know”, rather than forcing facts into ill-fitting theories that try to explain everything from a naturalistic viewpoint. 

Second, the Christian doing science or appreciating science is able to understand the picture, not just examine the brushstrokes.  I take this metaphor from the times I have stood staring at a Van Gogh at a local museum.  With my face a few inches from the glass I have wondered and been amazed at how the crazy brushstrokes conveyed the weary face of the farm worker, or the beautiful mess of the haystack.  And the crucial work of those in the lab coats is to unveil or to shine light on the various parts of the painting.  A few, whom I will call meta-scientists, will step a few feet back and show how all the parts of the painting work together to create, not isolated images, but a blended panorama.  Christians (or, substitute most religious persons here) are not those who see different things in the painting, but are those who can consult, as it were, Van Gogh’s diary on why he painted what he did.  They see not just the beauty of the painting, but the meaning of the painting.  They praise not only the glory of the masterpiece, but the glory of the master.

Of course, others are free to view with skepticism whether the religious folk have the real diary, or even if the painting had a painter.  But those are not scientific questions.  And the religious folks, alleged diary in hand, are free to respond, “And what is your explanation, not for what the painting is, but what it means, and how do you justify that explanation? I’m all ears.”


Random Thoughts on Mystery, Knowledge, and Humility

24 Sep

I’ve always like Pascal’s Pensees. The word Pensee means “thoughts”, and the book is full of scattered and disconnected sentences or short paragraphs.  He left them that way because he died before he could systematize them into a monogram on faith and religion.  I leave the following thoughts scattered and disconnected because I’m not smart enough to put them all together.  Here’s a few on the topic of mystery and knowledge.

  • The goal of modern sciencetism is to obliterate mystery.  The goal of a healthy soul should be to embrace it.
  • In the deepest sense, to embrace mystery is to embrace humility.
  • We have been misled into thinking that we can know everything.  A rationalist used to be someone who believed everything is knowable; that is, reality is rational.  Modern day rationalist insist that everything is knowable by us.  The old version was a statement about the nature of things in themselves.  The newer version is also a statement about us.
  • Our culture is preoccupied with sex because as someone has said, “sex is the last true mystery”.
  • As Dirty Hairy said, “a man’s got to know his limitations”.  We seem to be ignorant of our limitations, ignorant of our ignorance.
  • Ignorance is not always culpable.  I am ignorant of the dark side of the moon, but am not to blame for that.  It is not necessarily the fault of the general if he is ignorant of many important aspects of the enemy force arrayed against him.  But he is to blame if he does not recognize his own potential for ignorance.
  • A purely mechanistic view of the universe is weakest where it thinks it is strongest, is most ignorant in the area it thinks it is most knowledgeable.  That area is causation.  We understand how the balls must roll and collide on the pool table.  We do not know who put the cue ball in motion, nor why it was done.  We resort to vague talk of the pools balls always being in motion, not realizing we have merely substituted one mystery for another.
  • To embrace mystery is liberating, not defeatist. 
  • Much of the modern despair of the soul is caused by trying to interpret reality with the wrong filter.  Some things will just be missed. 
  • A denial of the true mystery of life only opens the floodgates to false and piecemeal mysteries.  We become fascinated with the macabre, the magical, and the glamorous.  Science fiction becomes the substitute for some, occultism for others.
Random thoughts on life, the universe and everything