Tuesday, September 13, 2005

False Choices and a Bridge

I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between God and science lately. For some, this might be a waste of time on foolish speculation. But all philosophers “waste” their time in conjecture, as do members of fantasy football leagues and black-jack players. To me, few things are as important as the metaphysical questions. And so, I theorize.

I believe firmly in a God of reality. If God exists, then God must be the author of reality – indeed the Creator.

A few weeks back, I explained on this blog (and here) that I have come to the conclusion that, “that evolution is the best explanation of our natural history.”

In all-too-many circles, the gap between God and science has been widened. Creationists seek a static world where every discovery is a potential threat to their literal interpretation of Genesis 1. Atheists, on the other hand, find reassurance in “blind chance” and “randomness” that is, in their opinion, so purposeless that there just can’t be a Deity.

Like Coke and Pepsi, Republicans and Democrats, this is a false choice. Each side wants you to believe that you only have two choices and you must choose, even if you believe the alternatives are bad and worse. But there aren’t only two choices. For example, if you’re hankering for a soda and you care for neither Coke nor Pepsi, you can drink Mountain Dew or Dr. Pepper or Cherry Coke or 7-UP. And if you loathe the tax-and-spend policies of the Democrats and the borrow-and-spend proposals of the GOP don’t sit well with you, then you can vote Libertarian. Or, you can do like me – give up soda and partisanship because both are bad for you.

When it comes to our origins, there aren’t merely two, or even three, choices. But unlike pop and politics, I don’t advise you check-out.

I have faith that discovering the way the world works brings me in touch with God. As I’ve pointed out before, that view seems very consistent with Scripture.

Faith is the bridge between God and science. Before you dismiss or pooh-pooh the concept of faith, stop and consider what it is. Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the substantiation not yet seen. And even the deepest skeptics have faith.

A dear friend who is also a skeptic, who reads this blog and who will recognize I’m talking about him, routinely speaks to me of the things he believes – things for which he has no conclusive evidence. He talks of his plans, what he believes his future will be like, and even what he believes the future will be like for people he loves. Because he’s a close-friend, I hope he succeeds and is happy.

But what’s fascinating is that he has no proof that these things will happen. In fact, he will admit he has no proof. And yet, each morning, he gets up and pursues his dreams. And he passionately believes in what he’s doing. This is an act of faith.

So faith isn’t a bad thing. It appears to this observer that we need faith to survive – to get out of bed in the morning. For the goal-setter, faith is the bridge between now and the future. For the believer, faith is the bridge between science and God.

And this makes perfect sense. The God of monotheists (perhaps five-point Calvinists exempted), respects mankind’s will. We can do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God, or we can ignore, maim, and/or seek power over others.

The scientific evidence we have this choice is all around us. It appears to be built into the very fiber of the universe. And because every one of us has these choices, the future is not predictable. Anything can happen.

It makes theological sense to me that if my hunches are right, that the best way (perhaps the only way) we can approach God is through faith. That’s how the Creator wanted it. We just wouldn’t have had the will necessary to be free if God had imposed Himself on us. God wanted us to seek Him.

Atheist Bertrand Russell was famously asked what if when he died he found himself before God... what would he say to God? “There wasn’t enough evidence,” was his reply. But I wonder; if there was enough evidence to satisfy Russell, would something important have died within him?

Without faith, is there despair? And can we have a world where we wouldn’t have or need to rely on hopes and dreams and still have even a tattered will?

Would we accomplish anything without these emotional skills? And is this seeking for God good for us in some way we don’t yet know how to explain?

OK, now perhaps you’re getting ready to click away from this article because you think that such a God is distant, cruel, and ruthless. But don’t give up yet. Let me make one final point... about presumptuousness.

Who are you in relation to God? Let me make this simpler. Who are you in relation to the President, or the Governor, or the CEO of a local corporation? Let’s say you had a pressing matter to bring to their attention. Should they be seeking you out? Why? Or is it the other way around? Clearly, you would need to seek them out.

Well, here’s God’s promise, and it’s better than any “open-door policy” the aforementioned human officers would promise. “Ask, and it shall be given you. Seek, and you shall find. Knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” And if that’s not good enough for you, God will go one better, “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will dine with him, and he with me.”

Why then should the scientist resist faith? Yes, like Coke and Pepsi, Republicans and Democrats, this is another false choice. I for one am having my faith expanded by scientific discovery. Thank God for science.

Very nice post. Well written. Thoughtful.

Rather than argue immediately with your point about "faith in the future," I would be interested to know what you think I would say about it, based on conversations we've had before?

That aside, very nice job Jim. I enjoyed reading it.

One must have a belief before taking any action or making any decision. Whenever there is a choice, there will be evidence supporting various alternatives. Determining the validity and reliablity of the evidence is both something inborn and also a skill that can be honed. But whichever way one sorts the evidence, usually without conscious thought, and usually flavored by emotion, the preponderance of such will ultimately favor belief that the chosen alternative is the correct one, and then you make that choice. In this way, faith is a part of everyone's lives at all times. You have faith that when you go to sleep at night, you will wake up in the morning... if you didn't, why bother setting your alarm? When you prepare to go to work, you have faith that your car will start... else, why would you sit in it and turn the key? But while this kind of faith and a faith in a god or gods may seem to be different ends of the spectrum, they are in fact, as you related, the same kind of entity. Therefore, it is useless to speak as though faith is something which some people exhibit, but not others. And this is where your post breaks down, because on the one hand you define faith as I have above... applying equally to many kinds of things. But on the other hand, you use the term "faith" to describe what is rightfully expressed as "faith in God". Your friend's professed faith in his future plans is not the same thing as his "faith in God" in his future plans.

And when we can finally identify this distinction, we may finally discuss what I think you're truly seeking. What is it that creates a faith in God? Well, it's the same thing that creates a faith in alarm clocks. Evidence. Whether you like to think of it that way or not, there are in fact a plethora of arguments floating around in your head, either consciously or subconsciously, which justify your faith and therefore drive your decisions. These arguments are "evidence".

And sometimes these arguments are completely illogical. They don't have to be rational arguments to be evidence. If something simply makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside, or otherwise massages your emotions, it will undoubtedly provide very strong evidence for you in favor of that thing. I suspect this is the very evolutionary reason for emotions... to guide our decision-making in favor of survival. They are therefore very powerful.

Conversely, mankind has also developed well-defined objective means for evaluating evidence. Often, the conclusions of these methods will contradict intuitive, emotion-driven conclusions. For instance, the scientific method has concluded that air travelling over an aerofoil will lift a plane safely off the ground, riding on a cushion of high pressure. And despite our innate fears of travelling at insane speeds and being higher than we can safely land on our own two feet, people routinely choose to board airliners and rocket to 600 MPH and over 30,000 feet. These people either believe in the rational methods which drove the conclusion of safety (objective means), or they believe in the experts telling them so (emotional means). When the rationalism and experts agree, this is an easy choice. Well, at least an easier choice.

But when the experts and the rationalism don't agree, then it's harder to form this belief. Or worse, when the experts are divided and the rationalism inconclusive, it's very hard to form a belief. And this is where the issue of God stands. Some people put their emotional confidence in religious leaders and especially their parents. Others choose to believe the expert scientists. Others choose to reason for themselves.

Your faith in God is clearly an emotional belief tied probably to your parents and other experts from when you grew up. Otherwise, why aren't you Hindu? And your emotional confidence is betrayed by your clear willingness to impose your own ethics on God such that God satisfies your own emotional needs. As with so many other denominations and sects, you have faith in scriptures, but you pick and choose the ones you fancy. Other believers will disagree with your interpretation because they have different emotional needs to fulfill.

In the end, you ask, "Why then should the scientist resist faith?" And I think you misunderstand the scientist. Everyone has faith in things like cars and alarm clocks and airplanes. The scientist especially has faith in these things because they operate according to principles discovered and tested by science. But skepticism is a core component of rational thought. Tenacity has no place in science, since scientists would simply develop a world-view and never challenge it with new evidence. On the contrary, science demands constantly evaluating theories in the face of new evidence. Skepticism is healthy and necessary. It is for this reason that scientists cannot have faith in things which do not stand up to evidence and testing. There are too many competing hypotheses to just pick one at random and choose to believe in it. No, they must all be doubted until the preponderance of evidence supports one particular theory, and then that theory must continue to be tested ad infinitum. And although any particular scientist may choose for emotional reasons to believe in a particular religious doctrine, science in general has no evidence with which to support any of the hundreds of different religions on this planet, nor any metaphysical or supernatural components of them. In conclusion, science does support faith, but faith in the conclusions of scientific discovery, not faith in gods.
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