Tuesday, October 21, 2008

God, in a bigger gap

Several months ago, the Templeton Foundation held a "conversation", featuring essays by many public intellectuals answering the question, "Does science make belief in God obsolete?" All sorts of views are represented; the participants include Christopher Hitchens, Steven Pinker, Michael Shermer, and Kenneth Miller. I haven't read them all yet, but I already want to respond to the second essay, by Catholic archbishop Christoph Cardinal Schönborn.

önborn's answer, boiled down, is that science actually supports belief in God, but the scientistic mentality has (wrongly) made God irrelevant in the minds of many.
Superficially it may seem that the advances of science have made God obsolete by providing natural explanations for phenomena that were once thought to be the result of direct divine activity—the so-called "God of the gaps." But this advance has been the completion of a program of purification from superstition begun thousands of years ago by Athens and Jerusalem, by a handful of Greek sages and by the people of Israel, who "de-divinized" Nature to a degree unparalleled in the ancient world.
önborn begins by criticizing the "God of the gaps". That is, the God that is used to explain things just because we couldn't think of anything better. The God who throws lightning, because we didn't understand electricity. The God who turns the refrigerator light on whenever we open the door (my examples, not his). Schönborn criticizes the idea as superstition, superstition that good religion has been working against for years.

Schönborn goes on to say that science has shown Nature to be complex, ordered, and elegant. As far as we know, it is built on the base of the Standard Model. From the Standard Model arises chemistry, biochemistry, plant life, animals, and humans. Every step of the hierarchy is intelligible. This, he takes to be the scientific evidence for God.
To view all these extremely complex, elegant, and intelligible laws, entities, properties, and relations in the evolution of the universe as "brute facts" in need of no further explanation is, in the words of the great John Paul II, "an abdication of human intelligence."
This gave me a turn, because he had just criticized the "God of the Gaps", the type of God who is merely used as a convenient explanation. And now he is using God to explain the fact that intelligible patterns tend to emerge in nature? He has not let go of the God of the Gaps at all!

Well, technically, this is a different kind of gap for God to fill. The "God of the Gaps" that is typically derided is the kind of God that explains how lightning works. Science can easily explain lightning. But science will probably never be able to explain why the world behaves the way it does. The very question is in principle unanswerable.

It is in principle, even unanswerable by God. God explains nothing. Or rather, God explains everything--it's same thing, really. God explains the things that exist and the things that do not exist equally well. What kind of explanation is that?

Humans seek explanations--perhaps one of our more noble instincts. But we're not always good at telling the difference between an explanation and something that just looks like an explanation. If you study a true explanation, you ultimately get a better understanding of that which it explains. If I study quantum mechanics, I can get a better understanding of chemistry, perhaps even make new predictions. An explanation makes predictions. If I study God, I can't get a better understanding of chemistry at all. God predicts nothing. God predicts emergent patterns? If we didn't find those patterns, who would consider that evidence against God? That would just be evidence that God wanted to make the world more complex, or more mysterious, or he wanted to give scientists more to discover.

God explains everything.
God explains nothing. That is why the God of the Gaps is wrong. Not because God is used to explain things that will eventually be explained by science, but because God is used to explain.

This is making me cynical. This guy, who rightly criticizes the God of the Gaps as superstition, is unwittingly holding to the same superstition. Does that mean there is nothing left, when we take the God of the Gaps away?

I would argue no. There is still a god left. There's the God of experience. Of devotion, of spirituality. The God which brings religious communities together, sometimes in ritual and sometimes in action. The kind of God that we don't technically need to believe in to benefit from. The kind of God that should be completely unnecessary, because we can do all that without him. Wait, this is the atheist's god. That is, no god at all. A god born of poetry, all the better for it to be abused by the misguided.

The rest of the essay might be considered an example of this abuse.
Schönborn waxes metaphysical about how materialism and scientism is pushing out God, but we'll still come back because we have... the hunger (I've been watching too much Heroes). Yeah, I just don't think it's true that everyone has an inner craving for God (Schönborn probably thinks it's just really well-hidden). And a craving for the God of the Gaps that Schönborn believes in? Um, no thanks.

1 comment:

miller said...

For the curious: Several badly translated comments appeared here and elsewhere on the blog. I've deleted them, but I have them saved elsewhere. Here is a sample:

"Everything religious is out when it is mystified god, only a drawn fantastic physical existing. The religions are out when a Satan and a devil are told, because he exists but this only fantastic physical energy, and not bad, not something terrible, but ellenkezőlewg living fiery biological one may say thank you for the edge to him his body."