February 16, 2016

Dear Christians: Answer to Questions for Atheists, Part VI

This week, I'm once again continuing this series, this time with a look at the category called Supernatural.

The title of this section kind of amuses me. After all, the majority of these questions are dealing with or hinting at the supernatural, but nonetheless, I'm tackling it with my usual mild clumsiness, which I beg my very dear readers to forgive.

I'm by no means an expert in science and philosophy. That's not even a self-deprecation. I spent most of my formative years actively avoiding the subjects because of my religious beliefs, so now I'm furiously trying to catch up. It makes this enterprise thrillingly terrifying for me.

All the same, I am enjoying taking a look at what I believe, what I don't, and why. I'm never going to understand the cosmos as well as some of the great minds that I admire, but every week, I feel like I'm understanding a little better.

I hope you are too.


1.    Is there a supernatural realm, a reality that lies outside sense perception and outside the reach of modern science? If not, how do you know?

This is a complicated question, and the simple answer is: I don't know.

I don't know, but there's no compelling evidence, in my opinion, that there is such a realm. Indeed, the simple statement of "no compelling evidence" is perhaps too kind. There is no evidence for a realm outside of this one that we move through every day.

Victor Stenger once wrote:

Conservation of energy and other basic laws hold true in the most distant observed galaxy and in the cosmic microwave background, implying that these laws have been valid for over thirteen billion years. Surely any observation of their violation during the puny human life span would be reasonably termed a miracle.

And it's true. In the time since we've been able to scientifically record and analyze that which just a few decades or centuries ago would have been consider extrasensory, miracles and other such evidence of a reality that lies outside of our experience has really ceased to resist.

Consider this: just a few decades ago, a red communion wafer would have been declared a miracle for Catholicism. Now? Now we have demonstrated, multiple times, that said aberration is a bread mold. When scrutinized, so-called proofs for the idea of an extrasensory world are repudiated with regularity.

Now, does this mean that I think we will one day have the answers to everything? Not in the slightest. I don't see any reason to assume that there may not be limits on our ability to understand, at least as it is naturally rendered without augmentation from other sources.

Let's shift and talk about the second part of this question: "If not, how do you know?"

This feels vaguely like a shifting of the burden of proof; however, I think that it still merits answering, but first, I'd like to remind you of the Dragon in My Garage, as described by Carl Sagan:

"A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage" Suppose (I'm following a group therapy approach by the psychologist Richard Franklin) I seriously make such an assertion to you. Surely you'd want to check it out, see for yourself. There have been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no real evidence. What an opportunity! 
"Show me," you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle--but no dragon. 
"Where's the dragon?" you ask.  
"Oh, she's right here," I reply, waving vaguely. "I neglected to mention that she's an invisible dragon."  
You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon's footprints. 
"Good idea," I say, "but this dragon floats in the air."  
Then you'll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.  
"Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless."  
You'll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.  
"Good idea, but she's an incorporeal dragon and the paint won't stick." And so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won't work. 
Now, what's the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there's no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I'm asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so.

But still, sometimes evidence of absence is absence of evidence, so I will assume that what the author is attempting to do is not to shift the burden of proof, but to encourage me to explore my thinking on the subject. I will choose to assume that they are engaging in good faith and just chose a poor turn of phrase.

There are, as Dr. Stenger's quote illustrates, multitudes of proofs that the physical laws that we understand here on Earth apply without real exception, all the way to the furthest reaches of our observable universe. Why, in all of that expanse, have we failed to locate even the slightest evidence of a reality outside of this one? Stenger wrapped up that section on Cosmic Evidence like so:

In short, the natural state of affairs is something rather than nothing. An empty universe requires supernatural intervention--not a full one. Only by the constant action of an agent outside the universe, such as God, could a state of nothingness be maintained. The fact that we have something is just what we would expect if there is no God.

The idea that there is something instead of nothing is often used to argue FOR a god or gods, which is why I found Stenger's ideas so interesting the first time I read them. But in many ways, it makes sense. I've often wondered if it's that we exist because the universe exists, or vice versa--does the universe exist because we do? After all, if we weren't here to perceive it, would it exist at all?

2.    Is God a byproduct of wishful thinking? Why?

The interesting part about this question, for me, is the Why. Why the why? Usually, the author of these questions gives you a "If so, why?" option, which indicates that the author understands that there could be answers in each direction.

Whenever the single why has showed up, I've been intrigued by wondering why the author assumes the default answer. This question is no different: the author assumes that I am going to answer yes. Why does he assume that?

The truth is, I don't think God is the byproduct of wishful thinking. I think some facets of religion are, yes, but I think God, as a concept, is much different than that, and I think to understand God, we have to put ourselves in the shoes of our ancestors as they gained a higher level of sentience than anything this planet has seen before (as far as we know).

My view is summed up, somewhat ironically, in my opinion, by another Victor Stenger quote:

God has always been an explanation.

Why ironically? Well, it comes from an entirely different source than my prior quotes in this post, and also, I never really linked the two together in my head and didn't imagine them coming together in a blog post. Yet here we are!

Imagine, for a moment, that our brains began to evolve, allowing us to understand the world around us in ways that (as far as we know!) our fellow animals do not. We began to comprehend our own mortality--not in a "live!" way, not in the way that life has screamed for eons in the face of relentless evolution and merciless environments. No, this was a different way of understanding death. We understood death. We understood loss. We were suddenly shunted off into a world where we understood that our death would cause pain to those we left behind, because we understood that the deaths of those we loved caused us pain.

And we were, unlike some of our animal counterparts who also understand loss, able to contemplate that.

I have a very dear family member who has been experiencing this first hand, and he's been kind enough--and I mean that--to share the very real process of his grief over the past year and a half in a pretty public way. He's not an open person, so in some ways, it's been a shock to everyone who knows him (especially those of us who know him relatively well) but it's also been instructive, a point he's made multiple times about his motivations for sharing it. As he's worked through it, he's weaved in and out of his faith. Loss shakes us to the core, especially when it is untimely, sudden, and surprising. When the person we loved is there one day, and gone the next, we wonder why. Why?

When our ancestors faced an environment that was capricious and unruly, unpredictable, unknowable, unfathomable. When they were plunged to the depths of uncertainty and loss, I imagine they too asked: Why? Why is this happening?

We're reasonable creatures, and we come from a long lineage of reasoning creatures. We applied our reason to the tasks. We created explanations.

At first, those explanations probably covered simple things. Why is there a sun and a moon? Why do the seasons come in certain orders? Why does it flood? Why do people die? What happens after death?

In some ways, these ideas forged us. We were able to unify around them. The ideas that most encouraged unity were passed on to future generations, who refined them. They grew. They evolved in our social consciousness. They provided a salve in a world that we didn't understand--that, at the time, we couldn't understand.

Rains didn't come? A god or gods must be angry. Too much rain? Angry gods. Good harvest? We pleased the gods. Untimely death? They're with god.

God wasn't wishful thinking; God was an explanation. 

Perhaps this is why one of the most expedient paths out of religion is information. When you present people with alternate explanations--especially those backed by significant empirical and objective evidence--the stronger explanations muscle God out. This is why, consistently, apologists and theologians argue that the God of the Gaps is a terrible argument for religious belief. As we understand more, the gaps shrink. There's simply less for God to explain for us.

There's no more proof for this, I suppose, than for God himself. But it's an alternate hypothesis for the evolution of religious belief that I find compelling personally. It's also a far simpler explanation than the idea that there truly is a God out there. 

I've also said this before--and I'm sure I'll say it again should I live long enough--but this hypothesis explains the nature of God and gods. Often they are cruel, whimsical, capricious, violent, benevolent--all rolled into one. The God of The Bible, for instance, is described as jealous and wrathful, things that Christians themselves strive not to be. He's also violent. He drowns the entire human race at one point, except for eight individuals, after deciding that making them was a mistake. For someone omniscient, that seems a huge oversight in planning, but I digress.

When you view these characteristics in light of a people so primitive that they didn't understand the environment around them, it makes sense. God was capricious but benevolent not because those are objective characteristics of the deity, but rather because those are subjective characteristics of our world. Floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, hurricanes: in a time before we could predict and monitor these, they would indeed make the world seem to be a very unpredictable place, and I can see how such a place would require an explanation. A God or gods to make sense of it.

So...wishful thinking? No, not really. A failed hypothesis would be a better description for my thoughts.


So this sums up Part VI. I mentioned this in the introduction, but I'm by no means a scientific or philosophical powerhouse. There's still so many gaps in my knowledge that I feel that I'm not really doing this series justice.

This section was so simple and made such basic sense that I worry I've not covered it in enough depth to do the subject justice, but hey, I've tried.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments, folks. I look forward to hearing them.

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