Sunday, July 27, 2008

What I think

Ok, here you go. This is a summary of what I think about who we are, why we are, what we should be doing, issues of free will, whether prayer makes sense, how God (if He exists) sees the world, how notions of good and evil fit in... the answer to life, the universe and everything isn't 42. At least for me, it's this. Oh, and when I say God I mean God/The Gods/some elemental forces that created the universe for some reason, and appear to have a sense of style involving a concept of goodness. That's too much typing, so I'll just say "God", but you'll know what I mean. Ok, then, moving on.

First off, I think it's fairly obvious the universe isn't random. There's an order to it, laws of physics and whatnot. Does that mean it's created, that it can't possibly have arisen spontaneously? Hm. Probably, and so I'm going to go with "Yes", but if anyone disagrees with me I’ll go “you could be right”.

Secondly, related to the consistency of the laws of physics, it doesn't seem to me that if there is a God, he's busy mucking about with things here on Earth. Direct, obvious divine intervention in our lives that defies the laws of physics in response to prayer, worship, virgin sacrifice, placing your furniture correctly, or whatever, appears to me to be out.

So what about "God has to hide his work, because if he didn't... " followed by some explanation? Maybe, but I think probably not. Not that I'm a god, but if I was, and I had the power to create the entire universe, and the genius required to make it actually a relatively workable system, I think I could figure a way to reward people for believing in me, and prove my existence to those who didn't believe at first. As I understand it that's what's written in the bible. If those stories are even approximately true, then God's presence was fairly obvious to people back then, because he started fires, parted oceans, etc.

So, divine intervention, hidden or otherwise: out. Stories in the bible being true: out for the old testament, open to serious questioning in the new testament. Prayer/attending church because it’s looked on favorably by God: not helpful (more on this later). Transcendental moral truths being told through stories in the bible or other religious holy books? Sure, that could happen, and in fact probably has happened. Summary: the stories and practices of religion appear to be less than credible, but the universe has some order, and was probably created by someone, something, or perhaps a community of beings or elemental forces.

So what might the creator(s) look like? "Way, way, way beyond anything you can imagine"? ... well, yeah, possibly. But let's do a thought experiment and see what we might be able to say about the matter.

Before we even start speculating, we can say one thing with reasonable certainty: God, if he exists, has to be outside of time. Why? Because He made it, along with the rest of the universe. We've proven that space and time are linked (Thank you, Einstein plus supersonic jets taking atomic clocks around the world a few times to see that time slowed down at high velocities) and are really one thing, rather than two separate things. So you can't argue that God made the space we live in, but not time as well. And God made space-time, so it didn’t exist before Him, so he's outside of it. C. S. Lewis drew the analogy of how an author can create a book, yet be outside of it, and that works but over simplifies things so that his audience's heads wouldn't hurt. Follow me now, and try not to get a headache.

What would someone who exists outside of our four dimensions (length, width, height and time) see the universe as? Well, we can easily see and understand three dimensions, so let's use the difference between a two dimensional view of the world and a three dimensional view of the world as an analogue to the difference between seeing the world in three dimensions plus a moment-to-moment view of time, as we do, and seeing the world in four dimensions as God must do.

Let's take a simple three dimensional object as our example. Picture an ice cream cone without the ice cream, lying on its side on your kitchen counter. Now, your two dimensional view of that cone would be a cross-section. Picture a laser beam slicing through the cone in a vertical plane, and the infinitely small width of that laser beam is what you get to see from moment to moment. The movement of the laser beam is like our movement through time. If we were two-dimensional beings seeing this, we would see a circle that grows or shrinks from moment to moment, not a cone. For more complicated three-dimensional shapes, we would see more complicated two-dimensional patterns. And if you'd seen a cone before, you could go "hey, I know what's going to happen next, the circle's going to get bigger/smaller." That's sort of like cause and effect - given a past/present state, and a motion through time, our two dimensional beings could predict, to a degree, what the future holds.

The difference between seeing a bunch of moving patterns and a cone whose shape doesn't change at all is kind of like the difference between our view of the universe and a god's eye view. Instead of seeing a bunch of moments in a timeline, he just sees a four dimensional object. No confusing three dimensional events which seem to make some kind of patterns sometimes, just a cone sitting on the counter. We move through time and try to figure things out, but God can just see the big picture. From the first moment in time, through to the last moment in time, across all of the billions of light years of space, the millions of galaxies that are out there, it's all there for Him to look at at his leisure, like C. S. Lewis's God-novel. And to someone or something with an intellect capable of creating a universe, maybe it really is as simple as an ice cream cone.

Right now, some of you are probably thinking something containing the words "free will". In a static four-dimensional universe, does it exist? My answer: From our limited perspective, for all intents and purposes, it does. This is important, because we do get to choose what we do, and without the motivation of knowing your contribution counts a lot of people might not choose as carefully. But from God's perspective, he knows what we will choose, he can have a look and see. "Will choose", from his perspective, has no meaning, because there is no difference between "I will choose" and "I have chosen", they’re both just what happened at a slightly different point in space-time.

His viewpoint is also how the omniscience thing is done. Being outside of time is how God could be everywhere at once, if he wanted, listen to or look at or know the universe from every angle at every moment of its existence. Because "moment" is a concept he's just a little bit beyond.

Now I ask you, do you find it likely that a being like that would find it worthwhile to stick his finger into the universe and change something to answer your prayers? I say no, for two reasons. First, we are so, so, so, so insignificant when you look at all the vastness of the universe. I find it almost funny that religion preaches humility, while at the same time telling you that the human race is the reason creation was created. That we have dominion over all things here, that we were made in God's image, and that he cares about each of his little ones individually and will listen whenever they have a problem. I know people really like that idea, but it doesn't seem to be true. Which leads me to my second reason why he doesn’t interfere mid-way through the universe’s development: he doesn’t have to. Let's not forget, God chose the laws of physics. Instead of giving you what you prayed for, he could just tweak the laws of physics slightly so that either you don't ask for it, or you get what you asked for. So the idea of "God made that car stop at just the right moment" ... well, true maybe in a sense, but not in the sense most people see it.

"Sure it is", you say "You just said God makes sure our prayers are answered!" Not exactly. Not in the sense of "I ask for something and God gives it to me, but if I didn't pray I wouldn't have got it." Your mind is stuck in time, which makes this hard to grasp. God’s is not. But it still might seem as if he does answer prayers, from your perspective.

Consider this: if God could tweak the laws of physics however he wanted, to get whatever he wanted, if he could see exactly what any changes he made to physics would mean for everything in the universe, from beginning to end, and the concept of a limited amount of time didn't exist for him, so he could think and play with physics to get just exactly what he wanted, what would he make the universe be like?

"I have no idea / I can't say for sure I'm not God" comes to mind. And it's true, this is all speculation. But it seems, to me at least, that the idea of the greatest good for the greatest number is one element of his style. We certainly seem to have it ingrained in us, to the point where many people who deny the existence of god still adopt that as their guiding principle and say "See, I have morals!" And it's amazing how often ecosystems are finely balanced so that there is no waste, everything is incredibly efficient so that life can get the most benefit out of every bit of energy and nutrients available.

So assuming the greatest good for the greatest number is something God likes, wouldn't he set up the laws of physics so that good things happened to as many people as possible? So some of your prayers get answered, sometimes in ways you don't expect, and my not praying still gets me what I want about as often as you get what you want. As a result, atheists go “Prayers don’t work, look at the stats”, and theists go “but look at this amazing coincidence, it can’t really be coincidence, this proves God exists!” But that doesn't mean your prayers affected the outcome, it just means God wants people to be happy as much as possible, and has the power to make it so, by fiddling with physics. Away goes the “Why is God hiding?” argument. And the answer to "why does God let people suffer so, in that case?" might be "Maybe that's the best that could be". And my answer to the idea that God has a plan is "Well, if you think it involves everyone getting into heaven unless we use our free will to deviate from the plan because the Devil convinced us of an evil lie, I'd have to say that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me and seems rather superstitious. But in the sense of God knowing what's going to happen to you and making it as good as he could figure out how to do, which might make things happen that you wouldn’t quite expect, you might just be right. On the other hand, a plan implies a desired future state, so that idea doesn't quite 'get it'".

And if you're a cynical atheist going "You're an idiot, the universe is f#@#ed up!", well, there's no reason to say God created the best of all possible worlds this time around. If he can make one universe, he can probably make more than one. Or maybe this is a work in progress, an intermediary state, and he'll tweak physics a bit and make a better one. Unfortunately we wouldn't be around to see it, because we arose under a given set of physical laws, and if they change we no longer exist. But I happen to think the universe we live in is pretty neat, even though there's an awful lot of pain and suffering in it too. And regardless of the possible relativity of the goodness of this universe, we can still understand that there’s something called “good” that makes sense to pretty much all of us, so I vote we go with that concept. Anyone vote Evil?

And the answer to anyone who doesn't like any of my answers is "I can't say they're true for sure, they might not be, but they fit what I've seen of the world better than any other story I've heard, particularly a biblical one. Tell me a story that’s Occams-razor simple and fits the facts better than mine and you win. Go! :)"

And there's one more big question, which just boils down to "But why?" If God could do basically anything, why bother to create the universe in the first place? What does it all mean? Is it meaningless? In this story we're just physics-driven groups of molecules, there’s no heaven to go to and God doesn’t really care much more about me than He does about the rest of the universe. But it doesn't feel meaningless, so... What's the point of it all?

Think again of the ice cream cone, as an analogy for our universe. Except now it's something more complex. A sculpture, or a building, or a painting. We create things all the time, just because we like making things of beauty. An artist doesn't ask why he should create a sculpture, he just does it because he gets some intrinsic satisfaction from doing so, and then maybe goes "see, isn't this neat?" If we can take drives we feel ourselves as any guide to God's "style", then maybe an intrinsic motivation to create beauty is why God created the universe. If there is more than one god, maybe the one(s) that made this universe made it to show to others and go "see, isn't this neat?"

And when you think about it, it is neat. And that's a point that I think religion misses, sort of. Religion is so focused on us as human beings. In the religious story, we're the center of God's attention, and the center of his creation, and we're more intrinsically valuable than every other kind of life, and God gave his only son so we could get into heaven (if you're Christian), and we're "in this world but not of this world", this world is not really where we belong, there's something better waiting.

People cling to that story to the point where they say schools should teach that Evolution and Creationism are equally scientifically valid. Isn't it possible, they say, that the earth was created by God substantially as it is now, instead of having to go through billions of years of lifeless darkness? Couldn't God do that, too? And doesn't the complexity of the life we see around us rule out the possibility that it wasn't designed? Well, technically speaking, if God has a sense of timing, I suppose he could have created it yesterday, and I just think last week happened because he decided that’s what I should think. But I don’t think that’s it. Besides which, again, if I and C. S. Lewis are right and God is outside of time, the universe didn’t come into existence at a particular moment, it came into existence all at once, as it is, evolution and multi-billion-year-period-of-lifeless-darkness and all.

I'm a computer programmer. I build things too, that require thought, and planning. And they're complicated enough that wrapping your head around how a program works is often tricky. And when I see a program that does a lot of work in a few lines of code, that takes something simple and builds it into something complex (like, say, a fractal, which we see often in nature) I look at that and think it's elegant. In a way, the logic demonstrated by a really well written program is almost beautiful. And when I look at the simple programs that I try to write, and I think about the universe by comparison, it just seems beyond words. The fact, the mere idea that you could take a few elemental laws (clearly very, very carefully chosen), and a single point of pre-molecular energy, and let it run for a few billion years, and you get stars and planets and self-reproducing life, and you let it run for a few billion more and you get us, who can appreciate beauty... that idea is so mind-bogglingly elegant, so totally beyond my ability to comprehend how it was done, that it seems to me like an idea a God could come up with. It fits. It makes sense. Compared to that idea, the religious stories I've heard seem like trying to fit the meaning of the universe into a little metaphorical box, which in turn will fit neatly into as many people's minds as possible. It seems to me that the more we find out about the universe, the more amazing and elegant it will become. And telling ourselves we have most or all of the answers, and they're mostly or completely on our scale, as religion attempts to do, just seems wrong, and not humble at all. Thinking we have the answers stops us from asking questions which would lead to a greater appreciation of the universe's order and beauty (I think Galileo would agree with me on this one, just as one example). It forces us to suggest that all there is is to live for a while on a small dot created to give us a chance to learn to be good people, and then go somewhere better if we succeed with the goodness bit, gold star and eternal life for us. That idea just seems so... small.

From the first single-celled life on earth to here is 4.5 billion years or so. Consider that the universe could have many billions of years yet to run. Our sun is only about half way through its life, so even if we don't find a way to leave this solar system, we've still got billions of years to grow. Just imagine, assuming we don't destroy ourselves, what the result of that could be like. I can't, really. But by contrast, I can imagine heaven, which tells me it’s not on god-scale, which means it’s probably not true. I think the future that lies in store for life in this universe will be amazing beyond anything we can understand, and that is a far more compelling vision than anything proposed by any religion I've ever heard of. Why should you try to be good? Not because God will reward you. Not even because you believe you can change the future (although if that makes you happy go ahead and think it, from our perspective it might as well be true). But really, just to have your small part in making the amazing beauty that the future will be.

And by the way, I don’t fault religion for telling stories that don’t make sense, because until very recently we didn’t know what we know now about how the world works. But in that light, I think we need some new stories. And as our knowledge grows, I think we need to be willing to change those stories again, without shame.

15 comments:

JackieD said...

Hi! I'm really glad to see that you're following up on this line of thought.

There's quite a bit in your post that I'd like to discuss, but lets start with the dismissal of divine intervention, which leads you to dismiss the bible, prayer and worship.

You start out by saying that it's unlikely that God would muck about with the laws of physics simply for the sake of insignificant us. But I don't think miracles necessarily entail breaking or even tweaking the laws of physics. Everything I've learned in a pretty extensive science education has taught me that although the universe obviously follows rules and laws, there is always a random variable involved. Genetics is the first to come to mind, but I can't really think of a natural process that doesn't involve the random movement of molecules at one point or another. What if these random variables are the tools that God uses to shape his miracles? When left alone they are truly random, but if He wishes, He can take control without breaking any laws. Tiny, apparently insignificant changes in the location of a few million molecules here and there could shape events in ways that we would never recognize.

Let's group miracles into two different categories: Miracles of Coincidence, which do not break any natural laws; and Miracles of Change, which do.

The parting of the Red Sea could be a miracle of coincidence, if you forget all the fanciful movies and think about what actually happened. A group of people needed to cross a body of water, and land appeared before them, allowing them to cross. It could have been a sandbar combined with a particularly dry year, followed by a storm at just the right time to wipe out the Egyptians. All perfectly possible, perfectly natural, and yet still a miracle because of the timing. Same with starting fires with conveniently timed lightening--not supernatural in its occurrence, just in its timing. If we've already accepted the existence of a being that can shape an entire universe from outside time and view it as a single object, I don't think it's much of a stretch to believe that He was able to shape these events to help his chosen people, without breaking any natural laws.

But what about the other kind of miracle, where the laws are broken? I would say that this has happened only once, or at least, only during one brief period of time. The Incarnation of Christ was such a miracle, fundamentally different from any known miracles before or after. And the laws broken by this miracle did not snap back into place like plucked strings, but have remained, and the universe is a different shape because of it.

Myron said...

I'm considering my response to this one carefully, because I want both people who believe in the miracles of God and people who think it's all very silly to see me as a reasonable person and be willing to come talk.

But I think everyone can agree on one thing: If God exists, he can do whatever he wants - if he can create the universe, it stands to reason that he can also make any changes to it he would like.

Perhaps I should clarify another reason I think it's unlikely God is busy mucking about with the laws of physics. I think it's unlikely because we have absolutely no concrete evidence that he has done so in living memory. People are going to dispute that, so later today I'm going to do a seperate blog post for evidence God has broken the laws of physics, and another one for the atheists for evidence prayer/worship doesn't work. I've seen studies to that effect (looking at sick people who were prayed for and others who weren't, and finding no difference in cure rates) but I don't have any of those studies at hand, so it would be good to have some links to some on this site.

Darwin said...

I'm glad that you're putting together a blog to work through these ideas of yours. I should be an interesting discussion, and I hope that you get the intellectual engagmenet that you deserve.

A few thoughts:

First, I love your discussion of God and time. And thus took the time to dig up the St. Augustine reference that this reminded me of.

In City of God XI, 21 Augustine says:
"It is not with God as it is with us. He does not look ahead to the future, look directly at the present, look back to the past. He sees in some other manner, utterly remote from anything we experience or could imagine. He does not see things by turning his attention from one thing to another. He sees all without any kind of change. Things which happen under the condition of time are in the future, not yet in being, or in the present, already existing, or in the past, no longer in being. But God comprehends all these in a stable and eternal present.... Nor is there any difference between his present, past and future knowledge."

If there were two authors I could urge on anyone interested in these sorts of topics, it would be Plato and Augustine. (Which just goes to show that humanity has always struggled with the same problems.)

On the efficacy of prayer, I think you might find this post by Dr. Carson of Examined Life interesting:

http://examinelife.blogspot.com/2007/10/what-shall-we-pray-for-this-evening.html

I don't entirely agree with him, but I think you might find some of his reasoning congenial, and it also helps to show the breadth of understandings of prayer and its efficacy even among traditional Christians.

I would tend to think that miracles are much rarer than many Christians seem to believe -- but I do suspect that they happen from time to time. Why they happen some times and not others is not something I would claim to be able to understand. But I think you make a good point that if God does something "for our good" (let's call it a miracle for a moment) it's not necessarily a case of God stepping in and violating the laws of physics. After all, God not only made the laws of physics, we might say that he _is_ the laws of physics. The laws of physics as we see them are our inside-looking-out-view of the ordering intellect of God.

Many elements of this order we can understand and systematize as laws of physics, because God is consistent and orderly. Other elements of God's universe remain mysterious to us. Maybe we'll figure them out later, and maybe we won't. But say that (paraphrasing from a claimed miracle I recall reading about a while back) someone has several major cancer tumors and then when the surgeon goes to open her up, they simply don't find any cancer. Later scans and blood tests don't show any tumors or evidence of cancer cells.

Well, it's possible that it was just a mis-diagnosis -- that someone mixed up the scans before or the equipment malfunctioned. Or perhaps there's some incredibly weird and rare natural process that happened. Or perhaps God performed a "miracle". But in a sense, what's the difference between the latter two? If God is the source of the natural order, then if there's some "natural process" which is so rare or so hard to detect that we never figure it out, it is, from our point of view, a miracle. And if it's a natural process that we do understand -- then if God really is the creator and the orderer of the universe then it's no less his work than a "miracle". (This, incidentally, is why the creationists and Intelligent Design people drive me up the wall -- they see there as being a dichotomy between "natural" and "God did it" which it seems to me simply doesn't exist -- unless you think that God is lesser than the universe.)

And telling ourselves we have most or all of the answers, and they're mostly or completely on our scale, as religion attempts to do, just seems wrong, and not humble at all. Thinking we have the answers stops us from asking questions which would lead to a greater appreciation of the universe's order and beauty (I think Galileo would agree with me on this one, just as one example).

I think you're right that some Christians make this mistake. I guess the point where I'd disagree is that I don't think that holding that "man is made in the image and likeness of God" is necessarily a matter of putting humans in the center of the universe. Traditionall, this has been taken to mean that man is, like God, rational and creative. And also that humans possess an immortal soul. But to take that to mean that there's nothing important to discover about the rest of the universe is supremely foolish. After all, if Christians believe that God created the universe, it would be foolish to then turn around and ignore most of his creation. (I'm afraid I get rather passionate about this, perhaps partly from family history: my father was both a devout Catholic and a deeply enthusiastic astronomer.)

Incidentally, on Galileo, if you get the chance some time check out his Letter To The Grand Duchess Christina -- where he talks about how faith and science should compliment one another. (A lesson we Christians are as much in need of learning now as then.)

http://www.galilean-library.org/manuscript.php?postid=43841

Myron said...

Thanks Darwin! I appreciate the clear effort that's gone into this, and I'll take the time go through it for sure. I particularly like reference to the letter from Galileo. It may be a while before I respond to each of the articles, but I will. :)

Myron said...

Hi again Jackie:

I think we agree that if God exists, He can do pretty much whatever he wants. So this:

But I don't think miracles necessarily entail breaking or even tweaking the laws of physics.

has been responded to, right? Sure, there are plenty of ways God could work that we couldn't detect, but I agree with you that:

If we've already accepted the existence of a being that can shape an entire universe from outside time and view it as a single object, I don't think it's much of a stretch to believe that He was able to shape these events to help his chosen people, without breaking any natural laws.

Or, for that matter, if he wanted to, he could move New York 20 miles into the air and put a giant billboard you could see from space in its place which read "Hey Atheists - you've got it WRONG!". There’s no reason for God to stay within the laws of physics, and there would be a heck of a lot more convincing case for His existence if he’d just go right ahead and break some physical laws. Atheists don’t deny the existence of God because they’re willfully trying to keep their heads in the sand, they do it because there is no convincing evidence that they can’t dismiss by saying the word “Coincidence”. It’s difficult to argue with that, given God’s supposed to be all powerful.

The question I was trying to answer was not whether God could perform miracles (yes), or whether all of them would have to be obvious (no). Given that he would have the ability if he existed (remember, I’m not trying to make the case that God does exist, I’m trying to make the case that he could possibly exist, although I have no physical evidence to back up my claim) why is it we don't see miracles all the time? In summary, "Why is God hiding?" Atheists say "'Cause he's imaginary, like Santa Clause". I was trying to come up with something else, which would lend some legitimacy to the "divine coincidences" religious people claim to encounter all over the place. The Atheist response: "Wishful thinking / seeing things that confirm what you've already chosen to believe". I wanted to give religious people the benefit of the doubt if possible, without saying anything reasonable people would laugh out loud at because I have no evidence God has broken any laws of physics. I’m not trying to be harsh here, but work with me, I'm trying to help you out! :)

Also, I'm curious about something else you wrote:

Let's group miracles into two different categories: Miracles of Coincidence, which do not break any natural laws; and Miracles of Change, which do.

Why would we need to do that? You seem to be saying God is hiding (except with Jesus-related miracles). Which seems kind of arbitrary, but maybe you've got a reason I'm not seeing. What leads you to believe that God would hide, given you've said you believe he doesn't have to? I like my explanation better – God isn’t hiding, he doesn’t have to break the laws now, he can change them before the universe even gets started, and then everything just works out how he wants. It seems simpler to me, and it fits what we see in the world today, plus it lets religious people have a “Gods Plan” and say “Prayer works” and atheists say "Prayer doesn't work", and nobody has to call anybody else delusional. Sure it takes away free will, but even without looking in at the universe from outside of time, free will and the idea of God’s plan are not compatible. You can have one or the other, but not both, unless you suppose God breaks the laws of physics frequently to keep his plan on track, which I don’t see any evidence for.

Again, not trying to be harsh, and I do really want you to stick around and continue giving me your thoughts on things, but if I’m going to build what I’ve got into something many people can accept, it must be logically consistent.

Myron said...

Darwin:

I would tend to think that miracles are much rarer than many Christians seem to believe -- but I do suspect that they happen from time to time.

That's interesting. My opionion (just an opinion, and I think it might agree with yours) is that if there were atheistic scientists around at the time of these rare miracles, they would point out how they could be explainable from within a scientific framework. But it's entirely as legitimate for religious people to say "that's just you imposing your belief system on events" as it is for the scientists to say to the religious people "That's just you imposing your belief system on events." So I guess it's a moot point. If you can verify that something actually happened, arguing what it means is a question of what seems reasonable, not what we can be certain of. :)

But here's a question for you. You would argue miracles are rarer than most Christians believe. So obviously you have a different framework from "most Christians" for deciding when a miracle has happened. What is your framework, and what do you think "Most Christians" use as theirs, which leads them to a different conclusion from yours? And what support do you have for your framework as compared to the "typical Christian" one?

Myron said...

Sorry, "many Christians", not necessarily "mostn Christians".

Darwin said...

My opionion (just an opinion, and I think it might agree with yours) is that if there were atheistic scientists around at the time of these rare miracles, they would point out how they could be explainable from within a scientific framework.

Well, I certainly don't think that a commitedly atheistic scientist would look at an event he wasn't able to otherwise explain and say, "Perhaps it was a miracle in answer to prayers." But there are plenty of events which scientists are unable, under current knowledge, to explain.

To be honest, I haven't dug very deeply into accounts of specific miracles (the Catholic Church investigates and approves a very small number of miracles, I think usually less than one a year, as part of the canonization process -- most of them otherwise inexplicable and dramatic medical cures) but from the brief mentions that I have read it sounds like there are some dramatic events that occur from time to time which do not currently have another explanation and were fervently prayed for. That doesn't mean that there's no explanation that will ever be possible, but given that I'd tend to see the natural order as itself being an expression of God's will, if we someday come up with an understanding of why (to take an example I think I've read about) an advanced set of cancer tumors would suddenly disappear, it's clearly an unlikely event regardless, and to the extent that someone had been praying for such an event to occur, I don't think that it's inappropriate for that person to be grateful to God for it's occurance.

But here's a question for you. You would argue miracles are rarer than most Christians believe. So obviously you have a different framework from "most Christians" for deciding when a miracle has happened. What is your framework, and what do you think "Most Christians" use as theirs, which leads them to a different conclusion from yours? And what support do you have for your framework as compared to the "typical Christian" one?

I wouldn't say that I necessarily have a different "framework" from other Christians (or at least, other Catholics) in an essential sense. I do tend to have a fairly skeptical and intellectual mindset, however, and in my experience many people don't look at life that way.

I'd say the main reasons I'd differ on this would be:

1) While I don't see it as inappropriate to thank God for things you're glad happened (heck, we should be thankful in our prayers simply that the universe exists) I wouldn't necessarily say that because something you prayed for happens, it happened _as a result of_ your prayer and is a miracle.

2) I think a lot of people (perhaps without thinking about it) see "natural causes" and "God did it" as two different things, as if God were some really, really big person who could step in and do magic, but otherwise it's nature and not God doing things. This is contrary to Catholic doctrine, and I think that if someone sits back and thinks about it, he'd realize that his beliefs imply that what happens "naturally" is as much God's will as that which is "miraculous" -- but a lot of people in everyday usage think that if "God willed it" then "it wasn't natural".

Darwin said...

One other thought on miracles -- this one a point contrary to the skeptics:

Something I sometimes see argued by skeptics/atheists is, "Obviously a lot of the stuff in the New Testament has been disproved by science. There is simply no way that a body which has been dead for three days can come back to life. It's scientifically impossible."

This represents a mis-understanding of what science is capable of. Science basically looks at that which has happened that we've observed, and from those observations derives an understanding of the physical laws by which the physical universe appears to operate. On the basis of this, science can make predictions about what can or will happen in the future.

Thus, science can only talk about things which either we have observed, or which we can predict as possible from the physical laws that we've discerned from our observations. If, as Christians claim, God sometimes does something which transcends the normal physical laws (such as dying and then rising from the dead after three days) science has to be essentially agnostic about it. We can say that science knows of no natural way in which such a thing can happen, but science doesn't have a way of showing that the physical laws as we currently understand them are binding and that a supernatural agent who transcended and controlled those laws could not (if such a thing existed) do something else on occasion.

Myron said...

Darwin:

I do tend to have a fairly skeptical and intellectual mindset, however, and in my experience many people don't look at life that way.


And I commend you for that. It's always mystified me why more people don't have that mindset, as we would all be so much better off if they did.

I guess the point where I'd disagree is that I don't think that holding that "man is made in the image and likeness of God" is necessarily a matter of putting humans in the center of the universe.

True, it's not necessarily so. People can get different meanings from the idea of man being in the image of God, and your interpretation is sensible. I wish others' was as well. When I went to Church (for the short period I did), though, it always seemed to me to be a way of letting people picture God as an image of man so He would be more easily understandable, and that troubled me. Also, when taken with the "and let man have dominion over everything" which forms part of the same sentence in the version I'm looking at right now (thanks, Grandma, that bible finally came in handy :)) the passage as a whole sends a strong message about the relative importance of Man to many people. Not to everyone, as there are many different ways to read many passages of the Bible, but I think this one (if taken how many Christians do take it) leads to the idea that we're not a part of a living system, we have dominion over it. I believe it's important to recognize, now that we truly do have dominion over a lot of the natural world, that we are in fact a part of it and dependent on it. I think people sometimes miss the "and replenish the earth" bit and just skip to "and subdue it". Not you personally, though, you don't seem the type.

On miracles:

I wouldn't necessarily say that because something you prayed for happens, it happened _as a result of_ your prayer and is a miracle.

Boy, I wish more people thought this way. And I like your take on physics as just an expression of the fact that God is orderly. It speaks to the same idea as I had. Mine is just a slightly more extreme form, coming from my atheist roots, but your view is just as valid. Now if we can get others to thing the same, we're set!

Are you aware of any links listing the miracles verified by the Catholic Church? It would be a good thing to stick up on my "Divine Intervention" blog post. Your position that today's miracles may someday be found to be caused by a process we can understand but that doesn't make them any less worthy as a miracle, really, is entirely reasonable, by the way.

I think we agree on many things. Which was the point I want to get across to more people with this site - when you really think about things, you come to the same basic conclusions whether you're religious or not, because you're looking for truth, and the truth stays the same whichever religion (or lack thereof) you subscribe to. When you look on the various discussion boards, not a lot of people see that fact yet.

Feel free to send people my way, as the sort you would send might make a valuable contribution to the discussion here, I think. Also, I'm going to do some blog posts soon on "Universal truths", things that may have come from religious teaching, but we've found to be true for everyone. One example is the idea that an "Other-centered life" is more fulfilling than a self-centered one. Also, Jen F. did a good post on how prayer helped her to take a step back from the chaos of life and find some peace and a more contemplative mindset, and I think there's a lesson for everyone in that - taking breaks is good for you. Also, her post on confession was interesting, and speaks to how religion has, over time, come to understand and use psychological principles. I think religion has a lot to teach us, and I'd like to put some of it up here, so that religious people would understand that they wouldn't be abandoning what's good about their brand of religion (whatever it might be) by adopting an idea that made more sense beliefs-wise. And atheists might realize that by rejecting _all_ of religion, they've thrown the baby out with the bathwater, rejecting thousands of years of practical wisdom. So if you have other things in the way you practice religion that you think I might miss (as I'm unfamiliar with most religious practices) please pass them along.

Thanks so much for your contribution - I really appreciate it!

Myron said...

And I love your second post on miracles too. Basic rule of logical thought: Sentences that contain the words "never", "always" or "impossible" are flawed far more often than they're correct.

The problem you run into is as soon as you admit a miracle happened once, it becomes "scientific proof of God" and people start to believe they happen all the time, that God made their cheerios miraculously sweet this morning. Or they start using divine intervention to explain things for which science actually does have an explanation. I'd have no problem with the idea that sometimes things happen that science doesn't understand yet, but we may come to understand in the future, or some phenomena may remain a mystery. So long as people can agree that the first obligation we have is to not say something that's unreasonable based on what we can observe and understand, then acknowledging our knowledge isn't perfect is fine. The problem I have, though, is when people get really invested in a miracle. For example, although your point about very rare natural processes legitimately counting as miracles is valid, suppose we found the explanation for how Christ rose from the dead. Many Christians would reject it out of hand, because of a lack of understanding of the false dichotomy they're using. They're doing the same thing with Creationism right now. It's a really tough balance to strike, being an un-dogmatic scientist without lending credibility to "miraculous" claims which don't deserve it. So I can see how many people just say "The laws of physics are never broken, period."

Darwin said...

I'm rather looking forward to spending some time here, and hope that you keep this up as a forum for good intellectual discussion on these issues. I'll see about referring some people over here (if you don't mind a few more intellectually-minded Catholics crowding in) and I'll also see if I can find a good resource to link to in your other post in regards to miracles that the Vatican has verified. I did a little googling earlier and didn't find what I wanted right away. (Perhaps it's not a surprise that on the internet one finds a lot of unsound stuff on topics like miracles...)

One thought on your last comment, in regards to the resurrection: From the point of view of traditional Christianity, the resurrection is not just our best current explanation for the fact that (accepting the evidence of scripture) Christ showed up again three days after being crucified. We believe (and believe that we have done so from the beginning) that Christ rose from the dead after three days because he was God and chose to do so, in order to fulfill the Old Testament prophecies and to show us that he offered victory over death.

St. Paul reflects this in a couple of the Epistles (I'd have to look the citations up) when he says that "if Christ did not truly rise from the dead, then our faith is in vain."

So while I agree with you that there is an unfortunate history of at least some (and at certain times in history, many) Christians being suspicious of science -- these days most often displaying itself in Creationism and Intelligent Design -- there is actually a reason why Christians would not accept a naturalistic explanation of why something like the resurrection might have happened: For traditional Christianity (some modernist forms of Christianity would differ on this) the resurrection is not just a symbolic event or the best current explanation for what people say they observed, but something which we believe happened, was witnessed by the Apostles, and was explained to them explicitly by Christ.

Why I find that a compelling explanation despite my skeptical and intellectual bent is a long one and probably something for another day -- if you're interested in that one.

Myron said...

Why I find that a compelling explanation despite my skeptical and intellectual bent is a long one and probably something for another day -- if you're interested in that one.

Absolutely. You speak my language, so it would be interesting to hear your views on this. I would be willing to make it a blog post, rather than a comment, if you'd like to e-mail it to me (as it seems like something that might spawn a whole other discussion, and would probably be interesting material that I would like to highlight for future readers).

Myron said...

Hi Darwin:

I've been thinking some more about why I don't think divine intervention of any sort happens. For a while there, your idea of the laws of physics as our inside-out view of God's orderly mind had me thinking "Yeah, maybe a few miracles are possible, why not?"

And I've always thought divine intervention was possible, just not very likely based on the evidence. And it's not just the evidence in terms of "proven miracles" or the admission that since there are some things that happen that we don't understand, maybe that's valid evidence for divine intervention.

My problem with admitting divine intervention into the way I look at things is that having just a small bit of it, being willing to attribute a few things we can't explain to divine intervention, begs us to ask the question of why God doesn't do more. Aside from all of the beauty of the world, there is also a lot of suffering. It doesn't make sense to me that God would cure one or two people of cancer a year, but let 200,000 people die at the hands of their own government in Darfur, and (last I checked) 40,000 innocent children die of preventable diseases and poverty-inducced starvation per day. Good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people, all the time. If God was what caused a few people to be cured of cancer, why not "miraculously" give people who are causing death and destruction on a large scale cancer as well?

Many religious people's response to that is "we don't understand God's plan". I don't know what yours will be, but I'll respond to the one I think most people would give for now. It seems like a cop-out. When something good happens, that can be used to confirm God acts, but when bad things are allowed happen, when even a little intervention could go a long way, that can't be used to deny that God intervenes?

To me, admitting the idea that God intervenes in the development of the universe carries with it the responsability to try to explain why he would intervene in some cases and not others. I don't know if you have an explanation for that that makes sense to you, but many people don't, they just say "there must be a reason, because God clearly did help this person, so he does miracles, period."

I think we would have a healthier society if we just said "look, God is benevolent, but we're on our own in terms of what happens in the world". That makes sense even in terms of the greatest good for the greatest number over the long term, because it enforces the idea that if we screw up there will be consequences, and God isn't going to bail us out. I think it would be much better if we understood and acknowledged that we are the ones that have to make the world how we want it to be. That even though the problems of the world seem huge, we and not God, are going to have to fix them, or else they won't get fixed. Since God clearly doesn't perform miracles on a large scale, we need to get that point through people's heads, and admitting miracles on a small scale when it's not necessary (since they're rare enough to be explained by coincidence or "rare, not yet understood processes") slows the process of the recognition by society that we're on our own. So while it could be true that God does some miracles, it doesn't seem likely to me, and the idea does seem socially damaging.

Myron said...

I guess I kind of have a Occam's razor for ideas, which goes "When two conflicting ideas both seem possible, doing the greatest good for the greatest number (which is an important ethical principle to me) dictates that the idea with the most socially beneficial effects is to be preferred".