Saturday, November 05, 2011

God and the problem of certainty

"Simply, as the great French mathematician Laplace once told Napoleon Bonapart, 'Sire, God is a hypothesis I do not need.' And indeed, science and religion should not be seen as antagonistic; they just do not need each other, as they ask questions and give answers within very different modes of knowing." (The Origins of the Universe, Lurquin.)
By James Curcio

Though there is little more problematic than a religious zealot that doesn't even seem to understand the purpose of religion or the function of symbol, let alone the scientific method, there is a similar side to self-assured atheism that strikes me in all earnestness like proverbial fingernails down a chalkboard. (More like a rusty nail.) This perspective, quite simply, believes that if their understanding of the theistic premise is irrational, it must be false.

Granted, this perspective seems less dangerous. There have been few atheist inquisitions. Though we shouldn't think of the history of communism, fascism or other often atheist politics are unrelated to the absolute role narrative plays in forming our actions in the world.

All this is still based on misunderstanding heaped upon misunderstanding, so I'd like to try to clarify a position. I'm quite sure I'll make no friends in doing so, but I simply can't help myself.

Disproving God with science makes as little sense as proving God with science. From the vantage point of logic, God is at best a philosophical postulate, but beyond that, and more importantly, it is a relationship or orientation which one either does or doesn't have. Religion is, if anything at all, the ground upon which an experience can occur. It is not an idea. It is not something to be proven or disproven, even if anyone with a brain can easily understand that there is no truth to be found in taking the doctrine of monotheist religion literally.

Nevertheless, the divinity premise that we assume to run through all theism is simply the belief that there is an intelligence behind the universe. This is an unprovable postulate. There's no "finding" it. It is exceedingly difficult to prove intelligence even when life is involved. (Consider various related quandries in AI, when we can only know intelligence through its effects. Even the existence of intelligence itself could be a symptom of a deeper, embedded intelligence. Or it may not be.)

So, divinity is not even considered within the project of science. Nor need it be. Science isn't an all inclusive method for rendering meaning out of personal experience. That is, of course, the role of myth. Nor would there be any point in faith if there was a need to "prove" God. It's a matter of apples and oranges.

But from this standpoint, proselytizing is inherently irreligious. The sufis seem to "get it" a hell of a lot more than your run of the mill Christian. The people who seem to really get something from religion - sufis for instance - have an ecstatic experience. They don't need rational demonstration, and many of them would even say that god is just an unknowable idea that we toss out there as a standin for actual divinity (mystery).

Matt Keegan
In other words, sufis (etc) have a direct experience of ecstacy that requires no logical rationale. But the underlying postulate falls outside the scope of scientific inquiry. The only reason why this question is of any importance is because beliefs can be organizing principles, in regard to how we mentally construct and then experience the world around us. Our orientation toward existence changes based on our understanding of it, though it's not actually our orientation towards physics that seems important. (I mean in terms of seeing how a voudon or sufi lives as opposed to an athiest).

Though the beliefs of religion may appear man-made--certainly Ludwig Feuerbach made a solid claim to that effect in the Essence of Christianity, and it is a central theme in Nietzsche's discussion of religion--Science too is man-made, though when it comes to the mechanics of the natural world, its very effective at getting us out of the picture--at least to an extent. Let's not forget the number of scientists that were theists of one sort or another. Those things aren't mutually incompatible.

The unknowable, some of the central questions of existence, are not answerable through science. To do so is to put absolute faith in logic, and in the conclusions we have drawn from it today rather than tomorrow, which is something the failure of the Enlightenment project should have put to rest.

Though I don't want to depend too much on etymology, religio / religaire both have their origin in the idea of "linking back," whether it's a joining of the phenomenal person to a source or the yoking of a people under one cultural domain. That's a worthwhile insight on the nature of religion because even a belief in God seems secondary (especially in many Eastern systems) in comparison to that psychological or social function. Literal belief in God isn't prerequisite for religion. This is something really worth considering.

Personally, I'm more interested in how belief effects behavior and experience than in whether or not that belief is true. Which I suppose is an anthropological perspective. I am essentially an agnostic on this matter, because that's what absolute honesty demands. What bothers me is the arrogance that says that someone else's experience is wrong, yours is right, and furthermore, those people are clearly idiots because they don't see x, y, and z, when z is by definition unknowable. That problem exists for many theists and atheists alike. The bravest thing can be to admit what surpasses the capacities of universal reason and experience.

Unfortunately, it's improbable if not impossible that a discussion like this can possibly sway anyone who has already made up their minds about these matters. Atheists and theists are alike in their certainty, unable to consider anything that doesn't directly follow from the presupposed postulates of their belief.

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