Investigating the Unnatural – Is Science the Religion of the 21st Century? (RJS)

Justin Topp on his blog A biologist’s view of science & religion has just recently cleared his google reader and posted a Not so Weekly Links Update. There are many good links here on science, religion, or science and religion. One in particular caught my notice. This post on Naturalism and Investigating the Unnatural is found on a blog written by John Wilkins, an agnostic and a philosopher of science. It refers to and comments on an online exchange between two philosophers on the New York Times site, What is Naturalism by Timothy Williamson and Why I am a Naturalist by Alex Rosenberg. Timothy Williamson has since come back with a third post On Ducking Challenges to Naturalism. Three philosophers shouldn’t have the last word on science, naturalism, and religion, however. Yet another article also crossed my path this week Does God Exist by Alan Lightman. Lightman is a physicist and novelist, currently an adjunct professor of humanities, creative Writing, physics at MIT (faculty page), a rather interesting mix.

These four essays all explore different aspects of the relationship between science, naturalism, and faith. None of the four authors profess to any religious belief. John Wilkins and Timothy Williamson are agnostic (because one cannot know for sure) or atheist. Alex Rosenberg is unreservedly a naturalist – as the title to his essay makes clear. Alan Lightman is also an atheist although his stance is somewhat less rigid than Rosenberg’s.

Lightman starts his essay by reflecting on religion and why religion always seems to come up in discussion – even among those who profess no faith, who come together in a thoroughly secular environment to discuss things like science and art.

What continues to astonish me is the frequency with which religion slips into the room, unbidden but persistent. One member of our group, playwright and director Alan Brody, offers this explanation: “Theater has always been about religion. I am talking about the beliefs that we live by. And science is the religion of the twenty-first century.”

But if science is the religion of the 21st century, why do we still seriously discuss heaven and hell, life after death, and the manifestations of God?

This is an interesting observation. Science – naturalism and the expectation of natural explanation for anything and everything – is the underlying premise of much of modern life, and is certainly the underlying philosophy taught in our colleges and universities. It is in the air and the water, assumed in almost every discussion and premise, whether explicit or implicit. I wonder though, if this is general experience or limited to academics.

Is science the religion of the 21st century?

If so how does this impact your life or your mission?

How does this environment of naturalism impact the gospel today?

There are a number of interesting points we could take up from these four essays, and I’ll touch on several of them over the course of a series of posts, but I would like to start today with the concept of naturalism. First Wilkins’s definition of naturalism.

Naturalism is a project: It aims to try to explain all things, including mental activities and experiences, origins of living things, ethics, and so forth … by natural processes which are nomologically constrained.

I’ve included a link for those who, like me, don’t find “nomological” to be a word in their everyday vocabulary. It is the right word here though because it describes the essence of the approach. Naturalism is an approach to the investigation of the world around us that assumes that there is rhyme and reason, cause and effect in the world. We can put together the pieces in a way that makes sense. The scientific approach to knowledge and knowing, the underpinning principles of much of the present academic exercise, is that natural events are explicable by natural processes and by discoverable laws of nature.

Alan Lightman refers to this as the Central Doctrine of Science:

The first step in this journey is to state what I will call the Central Doctrine of science: All properties and events in the physical universe are governed by laws, and those laws are true at every time and place in the universe. Although scientists do not talk explicitly about this doctrine, and my doctoral thesis advisor never mentioned it once to his graduate students, the Central Doctrine is the invisible oxygen that scientists breathe. We do not, of course, know all the fundamental laws at the present time. But most scientists believe that a complete set of such laws exists and, in principle, is discoverable by human beings, just as 19th-century explorers believed in the North Pole although no one had yet reached it.

The scientific project, whether searching for an explanation for superluminal neutrino’s (either observational error or some new facet of physics) or an explanation for the origin of the universe, the diversity of species, and the origin of life operates under the assumption that there is some natural string of cause and event that gives rise to the reality we observe around us. Science can take no other approach.

This doesn’t mean, however, that scientific knowledge is the only kind of true knowledge. Dr. Williamson tries to make this point in his essays in the New York Times. He points to mathematical knowledge, historical knowledge, and literary criticism as places where there is a kind of knowledge that is not scientific knowledge and calls into question “pure” naturalism as the sole source of knowledge. Dr. Lightman also points out that the Central Doctrine of science is itself an assumption, it cannot be proven.

However we look at it naturalism, the assumption of natural explanation, and the consequences raised by this view is a prevailing and growing view in the 21st century. Naturalism formulates and forms the stories we tell about ourselves and our lives. In this sense it is the 21st century religion.

Naturalism and the Gospel. Scot has a post up today on the Gospel, a discussion of a central premise in his book, The King Jesus Gospel. The gospel is the story of God’s work in the world. Jesus is the culmination of the Old Testament story of Israel and the work of God. We need this book and we need the kind of radical recovery of the story gospel because nothing else will fly in today’s world. People who are embedded in the naturalism and humanism of western civilization are not going to be sold on a need for salvation and escape from hell. The story is what we have to sell – and it is the only thing we have to sell. God’s work in the world is the gospel and is what frames our hope for the future.

What do you think?

How do you understand naturalism? Is it an underlying feature of your view of the world?

How does this impact our understanding and presentation of the gospel?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

  • DanS

    Is science the religion of the 21st century?

    I would say that science is the religion of the 20th century. The 21st century is favorable to mysticism, that is, you can believe what you want as long as you keep it entirely in the realm of the subjective and don’t argue that it has a measurable connection to empirical realities.

    It is actually what I see in the TE view of origins, where every natural phenomenon must and without exception be explained in terms of purely natural causes, but somehow it is OK to believe “God did it” in some undetectible, unverifiable and unfalsifiable religious sense.

    It is likewise permissible in our generation to believe we are all cosmic spirit beings united to a mystical life-force entity and baptize that in science-fiction jargon. Faith is good, reason is OK, but faith and reason are separated by a chasm that cannot and must not be crossed.

    I could go on, but I fear the terms “story” and “narrative” in many circles (not necessarily Scot’s view) has a tendency to remove the term “historicity” from one’s understanding of Christianity. It matters whether Christ rose physically from the dead. It matters whether the nation of Israel really did get rescued from slavery in Egypt. The stories do matter, but they matter because they demonstrate God’s activity in the real world, the connection between the spiritual and the physical is essential to Christianity. It enables us to move from personal subjective “belief” to a claim of “truth”, something post-modern culture often despises as mere arrogance. But it is what Jesus and the apostles claimed.

  • Rick

    “People who are embedded in the naturalism and humanism of western civilization are not going to be sold on a need for salvation and escape from hell. The story is what we have to sell – and it is the only thing we have to sell. God’s work in the world is the gospel and is what frames our hope for the future.”

    That is correct, but difficult to communicate and be convincing when science has been providing answers and solving problems at a seemingly faster (or more public) rate than they story we are trying to sell.

    I don’t know if they see enough in that story to turn from the track record of their own “religion”.

  • Bill Colburn

    ‘Naturally’, everything is explainable – though everything may never be fully understandable by humanity. Thus we rightly continue to ask questions with the hope of learning more, yet accepting the reality of our finite moment. I don’t see this as incompatible with a belief in God as long as I am willing to accept that what I think is an act of God today, may tomorrow be discovered to have been a mere act of nature. The ‘god-in-the-gap’ hypothesis isn’t problematic unless we make our hypothesis sacredly absolute. Science can help us refine our understanding of god unless we make our religion our god.

  • http://www.darenredekopp.com/ Daren Redekopp

    If our Lord is (as he said he is) the truth, then we as his followers must never be intimidated by any pursuit in any discipline. The truth should be our playground.

  • Dutch Rikkers

    I wonder if naturalists ever look closely at what the are saying when they eliminate a supernatural creator of all that exists? The naturalistic theory of origins says that for billions of years after the unknown and unknowable beginning there was nobody. There was something, but it wasn’t somebody. As the universe was developing and organizing without order or purpose, nobody knew or observed it. Throughout time and space there was no person, no intelligence, no will, no consciousness, no sensory awareness, no knowledge, no thought, no reason, no word—nowhere!

    For millions of eons something was here, but no conscious mind was aware that something was here. There was no purpose or intent, yet without anybody or anything here to direct it, this something followed an orderly progression from a simplicity that’s never been observed to a complexity we can’t understand.

    So if the apostle John’s understanding of the beginning is wrong John 1:1ff., what was in the beginning? Naturalism gives credit to a big, unimaginable “explosion” that caused immateriality to take on materiality. Purposelessness then created a cosmos. Chaos organized itself. Unconsciousness awoke. Deadness begot life. Asexuality engendered sexuality. No one became someone. Impersonality gained personhood. Irrationality became rational. Non-entity became a self. And this material self functioned for millions of years according to the inexplicable principle of self-preservation to evolve into a being who, oddly, could even purposely will to give up his life for the belief that everybody and everything have a spiritual (super-cosmic) cause, purpose, and destiny. So godlessness created God. And because of that belief, amorality produced morality, which in turn developed into complex moral and ethical systems based on apparently irrational beliefs about deity, spirituality, goodness, love, and immortality.

    Summary: For all but the last tiny eon of existence, nothing had knowledge of anything else; yet something lifeless and unconscious cooperated with something else lifeless and unconscious to bring into existence the living, knowing, conscious, intelligent, rational creature called man who survives by deliberate cooperative relationships. This accidental—and oddly naked—ape communicating in symbols invented language and made poetry. The uncreated thing created music and art, and its evolved and embarrassingly illogical emotions cause it to weep over the stunning beauty and grandeur of its apparent purposeless and meaningless environment.

    This reasoning, decision-making, sensory somebody who came into existence by the will of nobody can yet will to love or hate, kill or allow itself to be killed, and even develop the capacity to senselessly alter or destroy the natural systems that created it—threatening to send everything back into unconsciousness. So according to naturalism, man is nothing but a cosmic orphan overwhelmed by the knowledge that he has no ultimate purpose and no ultimate hope. Shakespeare’s Macbeth articulated it well:

    Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
    And then is heard no more. It is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing.

  • Amos Paul

    I find it sad that the ‘naturalists’ of today predominantly deny natural theology. That is that basic reasoning about the Universe which points to the divine which, I might add, almost all our ‘founding’ scientists believed in.

    The Scientific Doctrine is, as I’ve said before, a basic tenet of faith in oneself and the human mind. It has no epistemological justification in and of itself. It’s a bald assertion. Indeed, it even, IMHO, generally entails an epistemological view that knowledge consists and only consists of some kind of true and consistent propositions about the world. But again, this doesn’t do anything justice in my eyes.

    Most philosophers accept that non-propositional understanding exists. Indeed, many accept that it might be a kind of knowledge… but don’t want to talk about it much since it’s so difficult to pin down. I consider it both good and necessary that humans have natural intuitions about things that attempt to draw out meaning and understanding in non-propositional ways. Indeed, I call this understanding almost spiritual. And, IMO, it’s the sort of understanding that historic ‘religions’ have often tried to pursue.

    Moreover, I think that it is, in fact, this ‘spiritual’ understanding–combined with our propositional ‘scientific’ conclusions–that form a more complete view of the universe. ‘Spiritual’ reasoning tends to feel for goodness and rightness as though they are objective values. ‘Scientific’ reasoning acts as though order and perfection are the natural ways that things operate. If two forms of thinking are combined to strengthen one another, they can potentially justify each other’s assumptions as well as give us a much deeper defition of ‘naturalism’ than these scientists assert.

    Though I think that DanS nails it on the head when he suggests that subjectivism based upon non-propositional assumptions is coming back in vogue these days… though I think that’s also clear that the ‘modern’ view of pure and un-justified propositional naturalism is still the dominant view. Philosophically, this is all faith.

  • phil_style

    Dutch, “I wonder if naturalists ever look closely at what the are saying when they eliminate a supernatural creator of all that exists”

    Yes, I’m pretty sure they understand perfectly the difference between theism and naturalism with respect to all of your comment.

    “Naturalism gives credit to a big, unimaginable “explosion” that caused immateriality to take on materiality. Purposelessness then created a cosmos. Chaos organized itself. Unconsciousness awoke. Deadness begot life. Asexuality engendered sexuality. No one became someone. Impersonality gained personhood. Irrationality became rational. Non-entity became a self. And this material self functioned for millions of years according to the inexplicable principle of self-preservation to evolve into a being who, oddly, could even purposely will to give up his life for the belief that everybody and everything have a spiritual (super-cosmic) cause, purpose, and destiny. So godlessness created God”

    Yep, that sums it up. Although, your mention of “inexplicable” and “unimaginable” is probably pushing the point too far, there are many simulations, calculations and models to predict how this could have all happened.

  • Dutch Rikkers

    Phil,your comment on “inexplicable” is apt. I think it would be stated better this way:

    “This material self functioned for millions of years according to the principle of self-preservation to evolve into a being who, inexplicably, could even purposely will to give up his life for the belief that everybody and everything have a spiritual (super-cosmic) cause, purpose, and destiny. So godlessness created God”

  • phil_style

    I just noticed the title of the post.. “investigating the un-natural”.

    The peculiar thing is:
    naturalism says there is nothing un-natural to investigate. supernaturalism asserts that even if there is, it cannot be investigated anyways.

  • phil_style

    “historical knowledge, and literary criticism as places where there is a kind of knowledge that is not scientific knowledge and calls into question “pure” naturalism as the sole source of knowledge”

    – I must confess I never really understood Dr. Williamson’s distinction in this regard. With respect to literary “knowledge”, and using Williamson’s example:
    Attributing the “hero” role in literary studies does not fail to conform to any of the rules of scientific inquiry. One simply establishes the definition of “hero” and applies said criteria to the sample-set/ data (the literary work) to see if the data meets the criteria.

  • T

    Naturalism is a religion, and a project, and it is also a Story. At least the “pure” kind is a rival Story to the gospel. But, it’s not a very compelling or attractive story or religion if we let ourselves think about it for any time at all. Further, our project of the reign of Christ includes within it all the best parts of the naturalism project (advances through scientific work) and includes much more besides.

    So what to do? The reign of Christ is a religion, and a project, and a Story. But the reign of Christ is not a reign of talk, but of power. Yes, I’m one of the resident charismatics at Jesus Creed, and yes, gospel declarations, both in the NT and today, are wonderfully helped by deeds that match (if the ‘declaration’ is that Jesus has authority over heaven and earth). But all that said, one of the most powerful witnesses of our time of Christ’s reign, (as religion, project and Story) was Mother Theresa. Yes, she worked a few miracles. But her life demonstrated the “most excellent way” of Christ. It thereby drew us to Christ just like his crucifixion did and does. As she, daily, picked up her cross for God and others, she testified strongly of Christ’s ongoing reign, and of its unmatched goodness and love.

    Why mention this? Because our Story, our Religion, our project is more attractive and more powerful and more “righteous” and redemptive than any other—if we will believe it enough to live it. “Let love (as Christ lived and defined it) be your highest goal.” It’s not enough to tell the story of Christ, we must live it, and in the measure he lived it. We must love as he loved us. We must truly be(come) his disciples.

    Think about, by contrast, the big story of Naturalism. It’s horribly depressing. You and all you know are accidents. Death is permanent (other than, perhaps, your offspring, if any or if they survive), and it is inevitable. You may think and feel like more than animal, and in many respects you are, but you are an animal. “Right” and “wrong” are convenient constructs that we’ve come up with for a variety of reasons, but they are nothing more than that because there is nothing more than that. Enjoy it while it lasts. We Christians fail against this not because of Naturalism’s strength, but because of the challenge of Jesus’ Story/religion/project, which is a cross-shaped love.

  • Amos Paul

    Phil,

    There is no necessary consequence that if there’s supernatural, then it can not be investigated. The historically orthodox opinion about the miraculous is that it is the glory of God writ small that is already writ large across the whole of the natural universe. The natural is supernatural. The supernatural is the foundation, the essence, and being of all that is natural. That there is some sort of weird divide between the two is a secular and worldly assertion.

  • Dutch Rikkers

    Amos, what you are saying jibes with the views of many theoretical naturalists who suggest that there may well be parallel universes we are not aware of but have a significant impact on our universe. As Christians we have always believed in at least one parallel universe–the one that causes this one to be and keep on being.

  • Dutch Rikkers

    Astronomer Robert Jastrow commented on the meaning of the Big Bang to the naturalist worldview:

    “Now we see how the astronomical evidence supports the biblical view of the origin of the world. . . . The essential elements in the astronomical and biblical accounts of Genesis are the same. Consider the enormousness of the problem: Science has proved that the universe exploded into being at a certain moment. It asks: ‘What cause produced this effect? Who or what put the matter or energy into the universe?’ And science cannot answer these questions. . . . For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountain of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.” [Robert Jastrow, agnostic, in "God and the Astronomers"]

  • Dutch Rikkers

    Thoughts from one of the most respected science philosophers of the 20th century:

    “The book of Genesis and its great pictorial illustrations, like the frescoes of Michelangelo, remain a far more intelligent account of the nature and origin of the universe than the representation of the world as a chance collocation of atoms. . . . The scientific picture denies any meaning to the world, and indeed ignores all our most vital experience of this world. The assumption that the world has some meaning which is linked to our own calling as the only morally responsible beings in the world is an important example of the supernatural aspect of experience which Christian interpretations of the universe explore and develop.”
    [~Michael Polanyi, "Personal Knowledge"]

  • Randy Gabrielse

    I find the question that RJS poses, and the first response to be interesting. The early 20th century saw the rise and crest of scientific positivism, at least among the thinking classes of the US and Europe, raising the question “Was the 20th century the century where science was the religion of the day.
    The mid to late 20th century saw many things, including the rise of non-theological and then theological mysticisms of many stripes and the work of Lesslie Newbigin, following the thinking of Polyani on personal knowledge, followed by the rise of pluralist expressions of faith in areas that had been Christianized by missionaries, and finally by indigenous expressions of faith back against the formerly mission-sending societies.

    I suspect that the division in the Anglican Communion, more than the rise of the New Atheists, is the real mark of the 21st Century. While I personally regret some features of these new expressions of Christianity, I rejoice that we now see the multiple expressions and celebrations of faith that allow us to recognize our previous arrogance in thinking that we had the one right one.
    Peace,
    Randy Gabrielse

  • Tim

    Science is about what is objectively testable. Thus far we’ve determined that the natural world is, quite conveniently, objectively testable. It’s not that supernatural phenomenon couldn’t be testable of course. Not in principle. It’s just that we haven’t found any way to reliably test it so far. But keep in mind that if something is open for validating, it is open for invalidating as well. So what aspects of the supernatural do you think we could subject to the harsh lens of science? The power of prayer? Not subjectively or psychosomatically. But an objective test on prayer> Would you accept a result that indicated that there was no objective power to intercessory prayer? What do you think in the supernatural world we should be testing? And how?

  • rjs

    Tim,

    Science is about what is objectively testable – no question. We will get to some of these other issues in the next couple of posts on these four essays. I don’t think it makes any sense to subject the supernatural to natural tests – and any scientific investigation is inherently a natural investigation. I expect this will get some discussion and disagreement down the line.

  • rjs

    Dan S (#1)

    While mysticism or spirituality of a sort has made something of a come back (but not anything resembling an orthodox Christian belief in God), I think this is more superficial and nuance than real substance. Naturalism is heart and soul still the philosophy of the 21st century. We need to grapple with it in presenting the story of the gospel. As you know, though, I think the historicity of the story is real and important.

  • DanS

    RJS. No, we cannot subject the supernatural to natural tests. But the effects of supernatural intervention would be testable, would they not? Would not the water changed to wine exhibit real, observable, physical characteristics? Is that not what the “eyewitness” accounts portray? Intelligent men, admittedly not from our scientific age, but men who understood something of the “nature” of things observing incredibly unusual events that left a real mark on a real world?

    If the reported healings that apparently occur often in the southern hemisphere among believers can be subjected to “before” and “after” medical evaluation, would it be a requirement of the scientific mind to insist on a natural cause? I think it would. In much the same way as “God created” has to be understood as “God used natural processes”.

    That is the way in which naturalism has become a secular religion that has altered the story of a God who creates and interacts with the cosmos in ways science cannot directly test, but left visible marks on the real world. The story has been stripped of it’s unity. Faith has largely been severed from history.

    But should we assume today that all causes are natural causes simply to uphold a dogmatic definition of science? What natural cause explains the resurrection? The Virgin birth? The ascension? Why then should any Christian in the sciences assume events surrounding origins have to be explained in terms of natural causes?

    I know you affirm the historicity of New Testament events by and large, but in reading many of your posts over a period of time, I’m not sure your approach to origins and much of the Old Testament escapes the presuppositions of the secular scientific mind that says we can’t do credible science if we entertain the slightest inkling that something might not have a natural cause.

    As to the mysticism of the 21st century, the academy may be fairly well locked into naturalism, but the popular culture seems to be grasping for something beyond, and that something is largely undefined. It must be, for the academy insists there is no connection between nature and supernature. I tend to think folks sense naturalism leaves the big questions about meaning and purpose unanswered and so they embrace anything that fills the void.

  • http://wwwi-wonder-as-i-wander.blogspot.com/ linda

    rjs said: While mysticism or spirituality of a sort has made something of a come back (but not anything resembling an orthodox Christian belief in God), I think this is more superficial and nuance than real substance.

    in academia naturalism may be reigning, or appear to be reigning because the naturalists are the most vocal, but in the rest of north american culture there is a plurality of religious options including but not limited to the other major religions. just because new age spirituality may not have the depth of christianity does not mean that it is not the favored choice for many middle-class un- or post-churched people. that lack of depth may even be part of its appeal? then, we have the many immigrant communities who have brought their religions to us like a large sikh temple down the street from me. i do think our context, both geographically, intellectually and culturally largely impacts what we are observing as far as people’s religious choices. i find it very encouraging that those who are into new age practices are open to the supernatural. i do know many followers of jesus from my old church that used to be involved in those practices. i tend to think that naturalism in the forms of agnosticism and atheism are products of the modernism of the 20th century while religious pluralism will largely characterize the postmodern 21st century.

    i’ve also wondered what you think of the works on postmodernism from the early emerging church. i’d recommend stanley grenz’s a primer on postmodernism if you haven’t read it. i would be interested to hear your thoughts on that type of book. :)

  • rjs

    Linda,

    We’ll see. I may be proven wrong, but it seems to me that naturalism of a sort is more pervasive than we think. It isn’t conscious and explicit as much as it is subconscious and implicit. It is the default unreasoned assumption.

    The vocal atheists make it explicit. I think that the explicit expression may actually make it easier to address.

    Of course there are always exceptions.

  • Tim

    RJS (#22),

    There are atheists such as Jerry Coyne who fit the description you are providing. However, there are others who would love to have persons of faith put their beliefs within range of the chopping block of science. In their view, they see persons of faith as defining their views in manners immune from falsification, and therefore likewise immune from scientific evaluation.

    I think atheists such as those would be delighted to have a crack at falsifying religious doctrine of some form or another. What would you give them for potential scientific validation, or alternatively fodder for the refuse heap of invalidated hypotheses?

  • Patrick

    Religion keeps coming up in their discussions for the same reason little kids raised by atheists always answer “God made it” when asked how the earth got here (I’ve read more than 1 psychological study on this).

    We are hard wired to believe in God. We have to work not to.

    That’s how He made us.

    BTW, I think there is impirical evidence paganism is making a charge in the west right now. Led by Wicca.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    “The first step in this journey is to state what I will call the Central Doctrine of science: All properties and events in the physical universe are governed by laws, and those laws are true at every time and place in the universe.”

    I’d say Lightman is wrong about this. I’d phrase the “Central Doctrine” as: the universe is, in principle, comprehensible by humans.

    QM challenges Lightman’s formulation in some ways.

    Supernaturalism always, in practice, winds up meaning “something unknowable, ungraspable by humans”.Think about the difference between the notion of the ‘powerful alien’ (a staple of science fiction) and the notion of a ‘god’ in a religion. What’s the essential difference between them? In the stories, they both do amazing, astonishing things. But a powerful alien is (ultimately, eventually) comprehensible – often in the story humans are able to figure out some way of duplicating its powers, or interfering with them, etc. Gods, though, are beyond what humans can do, and there’s no point in trying to figure out why or how they do what they do.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Dutch Rikkers –

    The scientific picture denies any meaning to the world

    “Meaning”? Meaning to whom?

    To say that some event means something without at least some implicit understanding of who it means something to is to express an incomplete idea, no different than sentence fragments declaring that “Went to the bank” or “Exploded.” Without first specifying a particular subject and/or object, the very idea of meaning is incoherent.

    Yet too often people still try to think of meaning in a disconnected and abstract sense, ending up at bizarre and nonsensical conclusions. They ask questions like: What is the meaning of my life? What does it matter if I love my children when I and they and everyone that remembers us will one day not exist? But these are not simply deep questions without answers: they are incomplete questions, incoherent riddles missing key lines and clues. Whose life? Meaningful to whom? Matters to whom? Who are you talking about?

    Once those clarifying questions are asked and answered, the seeming impossibility of the original question evaporates, its flaws exposed. We are then left with many more manageable questions: What is the meaning of my/your/their life to myself/my parents/my children? These different questions may have different answers: your parents may see you as a disappointment for becoming a fireman instead of a doctor, and yet your children see you as a hero.

  • rjs

    Ray (#25),

    I don’t think that quantum mechanics, even indeterminancy, undermines Lightman’s assertion. Your second paragraph gets to a good point that I would like to bring up in the next post though.

  • phil_style

    Ray I think what Dutch might mean by: “The scientific picture denies any meaning to the world”, is; that without an external observer, the universe (as a system) does not have that subject-object relationship which you (Ray) claim is required for “meaning”.

    So, I don’t think Dutch’s comment is quite as incoherent as you have made it sound. However, one could equally argue that the universe does not need external observers to have meaning, if it has internal observers.. which we have to be pretty confident that it does ;)

    I might have misinterpreted you both, however, in which case… ooops.

  • Tim

    RJS,

    I’ve been rushed today and had read and responded quickly to this post & comments. But looking back I don’t think I tracked well with the intent of the post. My apologies.

    However, I would disagree somewhat with your statement, “I don’t think it makes any sense to subject the supernatural to natural tests – and any scientific investigation is inherently a natural investigation.”

    I think that if the supernatural phenomenon is supposed to manifest something observable in nature, then we could test it indirectly. Sort of like testing ideas about the Sun if all you could do was observe it’s shadow.

    I would also suggest that science as a way of knowing such as mathematics, literature, history, etc. are only reliable as ways of knowing insofar as, like science, erroneous ideas can be shown to be, well, objectively erroneous. Meaning that to whatever degree any given way of knowing can credibly lay claim to reality, it would correspondingly subject its claims to potential falsifiability.

    It seems, however, that most faith claims seem infinitely immune from falsification under any objective measure. And subjective assessments can be argued back and forth until the universe goes cold. So I would be interested in seeing how you address this.

  • Tim

    …should be “I would also suggest that ways of knowing…” instead of “I would also suggest that science as a way of knowing such…” in the 4th paragraph.

  • Dutch Rikkers

    Y’all, I appreciate your discussion of what I meant by “The scientific picture denies any meaning to the world” but that was in a quote by Michael Polyani in “Personal Knowledge.” You’d need to read much more of the context to understand what he was saying.

  • Dutch Rikkers

    I think that trying to determine what is and what is not provable by the empirical method, which is an excellent tool for coming to know more about God’s general revelation, we need to keep in mind what Paul said to the Roman church regarding what the material world shows everyone (making them without excuse regarding belief in the existence of a Creator God). I don’t think we grasp the full meaning of Paul’s saying that the material world shows us God’s “ETERNAL power” and “DIVINE nature.”

    To me this means that there will be no detectable beginnings or endings and that wherever mankind looks even with its high-tech devices the microcosm gets more “micro” and the “macrocosm” gets more “macro”—in other words, eternal. And the cosmos we see is so awesome in scale, design, and beauty, it will shout “CREATOR”! And we will worship this divine One.

    Mankind WILL worship, and we will worship either the Creator or the creation. Naturalists, in essence, are making and worshiping an idol when they reject God. The result, ultimately, is that God allows them to become supernaturally blind. We can have sympathy with the blind, but it is a reserved sympathy since we know they have blinded themselves.

    Further, when we quibble about miracles, it’s a tempest in a teapot because God is in the whole show. And the whole show of life in a universe hostile to life is itself a miracle.

    As J.B. Phillips says, “[Y]our God is too small.”

  • Dutch Rikkers

    “The universe is hostile to life” except, of course, on this one “pale blue dot” (Sagan).


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