Tuesday, December 25, 2007

a message of faith

Parmenides was first to draw the obvious conclusion from the fact that you can't make something out of nothing. A pre-Socratic philosopher, he was born 2,500 years ago. The web site of Prospect Magazine (UK) has a current article on him by Raymond Tallis, an all-round British intellectual.

The conclusion was that the universe must have always existed, that all its component parts have always been present, and, since these contents have always been, they must always be. What is, is. This isn't too far removed from our current understanding that matter can become energy and energy matter. The whole sum of matter and energy is the whole sum of everything: there's no creation of matter without loss of energy nor creation of energy without loss of matter.

What Parmenides didn't say, but can't be escaped, is that it doesn't make sense that matter and its potential have always existed. We simply can't imagine what it means to say there was no beginning and will be no end. It's the same as saying there was something before time came into being and will be another something after time ceases to be.

To him this "something" of before and after is the concept "nothing."

Parmenides' contemporaries, particularly Democritus, tried to come to terms with this "nothing." He, Democritus -- known as the laughing philosopher from Abder, is famous for pointing out that nothing has to be. Something, anything, all things, everything -- none can exist without nothing. This sounds like wordplay of a sort dear to the Elizabethan wits, and indeed Samuel Beckett made sardonic jokes about it; as when he has Murphy contemplate "when the somethings give way, or perhaps simply add up, to the Nothing, than which in the guffaw of the Abderite naught is more real."
(Grove Press edn. 1957, p.246; guffaw of the Abderite refers to Democritus)

Parmenides also didn't say that the idea of this nothing (no thing, no time, no place) makes very us uncomfortable. Thus Beckett has Malone say "I know those little phrases that seem so innocuous and, once you let them in, pollute the whole of speech. Nothing is more real than nothing. They rise up out of the pit and know no rest until they drag you down into its dark. But I am on my guard now."
(Malone Dies, Grove Press edn. 1975, p.16)

There's much that you can drag out of this navel-gazing, but I only want to draw one simple conclusion. The current state of our knowledge requires that we have faith.

We must take on faith that there an unknowable nothing that preceded all that exists and will succeed it. Faith is required to grasp that there can't be an "is" without an "is not."

I think this is why so many scientists profess belief in God. We need something -- an organizing principle -- to help us come to terms with what we know to exist (this "nothing") but recognize to be unknowable.

This is my way of saying atheism may not be provably wrong but it's unpragmatic; there's no sense in denying a first cause, an organizing principle, a focus for an explanation by faith of that for which there is no other explanation.

A current article in the National Post (Can.) deals with this subject. It's on faith in the virgin birth, an improbability that's easy for atheists to doubt, but it's also about faith in general. The author quotes the Catholic writer Romano Guardini: faith, he says, is the point "where the mind has stopped short at some intellectual impasse." And that point, he wrote, is "this journey of God from the everlasting into the transitory, this stride across the border into history ... something no human intellect can altogether grasp."

The author also says it's tempting to ignore this intellectual impasse, but doing so is against our nature. The author quotes a psychologist -- Prof. Peterson, Univ of Toronto:
[Peterson says] belief is not optional. And regardless of the specific belief, he maintains it is as necessary as air and water.

At its most basic level, belief acts like a set of headlights to guide us through a foggy universe that "is far more complicated than we are smart." So belief is eradicable, he said, because there will never be a time when we know everything.

"Ignorance is a condition of human existence and belief is a necessary means of coping with ignorance," he said. "The assumptions we make about the world directly regulate our emotions and they provide hope and inhibit anxiety."

But at a deeper level, belief represents patterns of a deeper reality that go beyond the physical world. They function like mathematical formulas that seem abstract but actually define an underlying physical reality.

"Our religious sense is grounded in biology," said Prof. Peterson. "It's not a simple cultural overlay. Religious belief and ritual are universal. It's as specifically human as language.

"What's repeated in profound systems of belief are the patterns of life. That's why they're so memorable," he said. "There is something about them that contains the essence of life. These stories can't be forgotten. That's why they last thousands of years."
Pretty good stuff.


Anonymous said...

This is so ridiculous that's it's beyond belief. For example:

I think this is why so many scientists profess belief in God.

How many is "so many"? The vast majority of good scientists have no such beliefs. 80 to 90 percnts of Nobel Prize winners are atheists.

This is my way of saying atheism may not be provably wrong but it's unpragmatic; there's no sense it denying a first cause, an organizing principle, a focus for an explanation by faith of that for which there is no other explanation.

Uh huh. You left something out: Evolution is "unpragmatic". It's better to believe that the universe is the work of an "intelligent [sic] designer".

A current article in the National Post (Can.) deals with this subject. It's on faith in the virgin birth, an improbability that's easy for atheists to doubt..

Atheists can also doubt that Jesus brought dead people back to life, that slavery was perfectly acceptable and that if women wanted to learn anything, they should never say anything in church but should stay home and ask their husbands.

Pretty good stuff.

Good, that is, if, as Freud correctly diagnosed religion, you're afflicted with a universal neurosis, or in your case, it's proceeded to an even worse case: you've got a mental disease.

GobberGo said...

But what if there is no Nothing (a punny grammatical faux-pas, but a philosophical possibility)? What if the human understanding of "is and is not" is flawed? What if there is only? That is to say: "is, and is-something-else?"

The idea that if there is something there must be a nothing doesn't necessarily follow for me. And even if there is the possibility of nothing, I still don't see how that nullifies atheistic disbelief. The possibility that there is more to existence than existence does not necessitate a god.

I remember a moment in my religious education class growing up. I felt so proud of myself. I approached the teacher with what I thought was finally a good explanation for the existence of god. It was merely the next biggest thing. When humans thought small, God was the sun and the moon and the weather. Then He was a supernatural being that was a lot like us only bigger, in a sense. This was (and is) a poor summary of the evolution--as it were--of the god concept, but I only meant to point out that mankind's notion of god has always adapted itself to be simply bigger than what is explainable through other means.

My religious education teacher, as one might expect, did not like the idea--or didn't follow me. I understand why a little better now. Regardless, I'm still missing how faith becomes an imperative. Faith, to me, is a fallback. A safety net. A way of explaining our existence without explaining anything.

My personal problem with belief in a god (well, one of them I guess) is something I think you were trying to address: there is no seeable imperative for a god's existence beyond the human need. Aside from the fact that humans seem to need this "organizing principle," as you put it, to begin making sense of our existence, I see no reason for the idea to have ever occurred to us (unless, of course, one takes as Fact the various godly intercessions laid out in the numerous religious testimonies of the past six thousand years--something I am not, and don't foresee ever being, prepared to accept).

Jeff said...

I did a little research on the many-scientists-believe matter and found some reputable-looking reports that this is so. All the same, rereading my post, I see that I drifted away from my main point. That was about faith (not necessarily religious, but some form of extra-rational thought process with an emotional component). The trouble with saying "God made it" is there's then a nagging question where did He come from? It may be significant that origin myths seem to dodge this question and that the Buddha simply said that there was no point in talking about a God; you don't get anywhere when you start down that road.

I didn't think of it while writing the post, but doesn't it seem that reason points to some kind of non-religious faith; doesn't our understanding of what we know point us to conclude that there's a limit to what we can know? I realize that this use of reason might reduce to linguistic wrangling -- arguing about what we mean when we say this or that, but I think extra-rationalism exists in scientific language as well -- that is to say in mathematics. Here I'm standing on quicksand since my understanding of this stuff is weak, but I think there's an intuitive element in mathematical thought.

Here's how Tobias Dantzig expresses this idea: "Experimental evidence and logical necessity do not exhaust the objective world which we call reality. There is a mathematical necessity which guides observation and experiment, and of which logic is only one phase.The other phase is that intangible, vague thing which escapes all definition,and is called intuition." (Number, p. 256)

I think you can see the operation of this intuition in contemporaries' struggles to come to terms with irrational numbers, the concepts of zero and infinity, and the math discoveries that led to the development of the calculus in the 17th c. Here's Tobias Dantzig on on these struggles:

"They dealt with infinitesimals as fixed or variable according to the exigencies of the argument; they manipulated infinite sequences without much rhyme or reason; they juggled with limits;they treated divergent series as if these obeyed all rules of convergence. They defined their terms vaguely and used their methods loosely, and the logic of their arguments was made to fit the dictates of their intuition.In short,they broke all the laws of rigor and of mathematical decorum. The veritable orgy which followed the introduction of the infinitesimals, or the indivisibilia, as they were called in those days, was but a natural reaction. Intuition had too long been held imprisoned by the severe rigor of the Greeks. Now it broke loose, and there were no Euclids to keep its romantic flight in check." (Number, p. 135)

I connect this intuition with what I'm calling faith.

In the case Dantzig raises, it's not faith in unknowability but faith bridging between the rational and the irrational.

Regarding the unkowable kind and the question of the beginning of time, I think it's pretty easy to find instances where cosmologists deal with this. The obvious example is Hawking's Beginning of Time. (I have to say, so far as I know he doesn't actually say the time before time is unknowable however.) Here's the conclusion to his Beginning of Time lecture:

"The conclusion of this lecture is that the universe has not existed forever. Rather, the universe, and time itself, had a beginning in the Big Bang, about 15 billion years ago. The beginning of real time, would have been a singularity, at which the laws of physics would have broken down. Nevertheless, the way the universe began would have been determined by the laws of physics, if the universe satisfied the no boundary condition. This says that in the imaginary time direction, space-time is finite in extent, but doesn't have any boundary or edge. The predictions of the no boundary proposal seem to agree with observation. The no boundary hypothesis also predicts that the universe will eventually collapse again. However, the contracting phase, will not have the opposite arrow of time, to the expanding phase. So we will keep on getting older, and we won't return to our youth. Because time is not going to go backwards, I think I better stop now."

The mind reels. As Malone found, it's dangerous to let the mind dwell on these things too much. I'll give Dantzig the last word on this subject: 'It is mathematical intuition that urges the mind on to follow the mirage of the absolute and so enriches the intellectual heritage of the race; but when further pursuit of the mirage would endanger this heritage, it is mathematical intuition that halts the mind in its flight, while it whispers slyly: “How strangely the pursued resembles the pursuer!”' (Number, p. 257)