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Arguing about God

An end (right!) to a meaningless conflict

September 2011

If this does not end the useless battle between believers and nonbelievers, nothing will. That is a true statement.
It's said that there are two kinds of people: those who believe there are two kinds of people and those who don't. Which suggests, in a way, that there are in fact two kinds of people, always depending on how you frame the question. So, dragging out the ancient question of the existence of God, let me frame the question (the answer, actually) this way:

There are two kinds of people: those who believe the universe runs naturally – never deviating from its adherence to rational, deducible laws of nature – and those who believe it runs supernaturally – with the appearance of natural laws operating on the surface, but in its essence based on miraculous inputs from a supernatural Deity. For those who hold the rational view – we'll call this the "Dawkins" view, to have a simplistic contemporary label – the idea of a Deity influencing the universe outside of natural laws is of course anathema: there is simply no evidence for it; it's irrational. On the other hand, for those who would base the universe on acts of Deity – we can call this the "Kansas" view in memory of the Kansas School Board that required the state's science teachers to include lessons on God – the idea of a universe created and operating without God is impossible and infantile: clearly nothing but an intelligence could have created this precise mechanism and the wonder of life.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I'll reveal that my inclination is with the Dawkins side, though hopefully without the real Dawkins' shallowness and irritating conclusoriness. On the other hand, I consider the Kansans (but not the School Board) to also hold a legitimate position – it was my own as a child, though now I find it less likely to be true than the Dawkinsian view. So, moving on . . .)

If we remove ourselves, as best we can, from the midst of the conflict that has raged between these two sides and observe from a distance, and if we set aside for a moment the human misery that has followed this battle for centuries, we see a disagreement not of a deep philosophical nature, as the Kansans and Dawkinsians usually pretend, but more akin to a schoolyard argument among subteens: "Is not!" – "Is too!!" – "Is not!!!" – whereupon a fight breaks out. Mildly amusing in its ignorant hopelessness, were it not, as I said, for the millions of persons who have suffered under this virtual schoolyard brawl.

"What cheek!", you may be saying. To propose that the ancient philosophical debate about faith and reason has been juvenile, uninformed, and completely without substance! To suggest that the great philosophers have haggled over nothing! Mais oui. That's just the point. There has been nothing to haggle over. It's really a matter of which axioms to accept, and those are in the end taken on faith: faith in basic common sense. Let's look at the field of mathematics for some apposite insight.

There's a "secret" that all mathematicians know, but that most others don't. It is that the entire field and practice of mathematics, that most strictly logical of all mental endeavors, is based on a belief. On belief in the truth of a set of statements called axioms that underlie the entire structure of mathematics. These axioms, such as, for example, the statement that two numbers that are each equal to a third number are also equal to each other, are taken to be true without the need for proof. There are many such axioms in geometry, arithmetic, and logic. So that whenever a mathematician publishes a complex proof of a new theorem, the unwritten understanding is that this new proof is true given that the axioms that underlie mathematics are true. The axioms aren't considered to require proof for two reasons: they are taken to be self-evident, and it is not possible to prove them. (Given this last point, we may agree that the first point is a fortunate circumstance for the practice of mathematics.)

The mathematicians' conundrum is that the construct of mathematics is built on a foundation that they believe to be solid ground and not sand, but unfortunately this cannot be proven from within mathematics, since any such reasoning would be circular, being built on the foundation to be proven. Nor can the foundation be demonstrated from outside of mathematics by any means more reliable than human common sense: the axioms are simply "self-evident". How reliable common sense is in the larger scheme of universal truth is unknown, and ought to be suspect.

Well, so what? The corollary for our discussion is that the natural sciences find themselves in a position similar to mathematics. Our friends the Dawkinsians, for whom the universe must be purely rational, depend entirely on axioms, though these are rarely acknowledged. One basic axiom, for example, states that the laws of physics are the same throughout all space and time. This axiom is taken by physicists as self-evident, and that's very convenient because, just like the mathematical axioms, it cannot be proven. We believe it to be true. We believe and hope. Because if it isn't true, anything goes, and inconstant physical laws could result in apparitions of all sorts, perhaps even gods and devils, popping up as they please and resulting in who-knows-what. As you may guess, physicists (and other scientists, but mostly physicists because they're the ones searching for final physical truth in science) are sometimes a bit uneasy over this business. They don't like being in the same boat as the mathematicians: that their science only holds true within the sphere defined by their axioms. Naturally, they like to believe that this sphere covers "everything" (their axiom says it does, but that's self-referential), but if it doesn't . . . well, let's not go there.

In contrast to the Dawkinsians, the Kansans are usually up front about the fact that their view is based on belief. Belief is after all at the core of their . . . belief. But most Kansans share with the Dawkinsians the belief that their belief is truth. We can ask, are there also unproved axioms at the basis of the Kansan beliefs? Certainly, if you're a Kansas apologist you would make much of the fact that your view does not limit the possibilities in the way that the Dawkins side does. Kansans don't erect axioms that deny potential realities. They see horizons beyond the narrow confines of human reasoning. They're ready to acknowledge both natural and supernatural answers to the big questions. In short, they're more broadminded. That's what you'd say. And it sure sounds convincing.

Alas, the Kansan's apologetic founders at its conclusion of broadmindedness. Lovely as it sounds, that conclusion is theoretical, not real. If the Kansan in fact turned out to be an unafraid seeker of truth, objectively investigating the entire spectrum of natural and supernatural phenomena to posit his best understanding at the moment, we should applaud his open-mindedness. But as we know, the Kansan doesn't do that. He has his own axiom: final truth is in his old book, and that's that.

Nevertheless, he is right in his criticism of the Dawkinsian view: Natural science, and particularly physics (and its astronomical offspring, cosmology) – which attempts to find a "theory of everything" – is wrong in its axiomatic assumption that physics is everywhere the same, and even that the universe is everywhere "rational." (It may well be so, but it's hardly axiomatic - it remains to be discovered.) This axiom represents the physicist's unwarranted extrapolation from a local and limited data set. When hypothesizing about conditions outside the data set, the physicist should not fail to label the work, much as a pack of cigarettes is labeled: "This paper contains speculative extrapolation. Dependence on its contents may be damaging to your understanding, and may lead to theoretical failure."

A curious tag to this story is how Dawkinsians and Kansans alike make use of attempts at rational argument to try to convince the other side of the rightness of their position. Remembering that it is precisely the question of the rationality of the universe that separates them, this is of course silly. The Dawkinians' "rational" arguments will never cross over and touch the Kansans' faith, and the Kansans are falling in a trap and abandoning their axiom if they try to defend the faith by "rational" means.

So, to conclude, what separates these fighting cocks is axiomatic and cannot be budged by argument. Their conclusions from their own common sense are and will remain opposed. We cannot bring them to the same conclusion, but we can hope to make each side understand the basis for their separation. It is not a question of good and evil, of smart and dumb, or of right and wrong. It's a question of philosophical preference at the basic level: is the universe rational? I'm guessing yes. But it's a guess; I don't actually know, nor does anyone else. I happen to think that if both sides moved their axioms into the "maybe" box, where they really belong, we'd all get along better. While everyone searches for truth, acknowledging our uncertainty would be the greatest truth.

© 2011 H. Paul Lillebo

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