Friday, September 30, 2011

The Sirens of Insanity (or, Why I Believe in God)

Hello, everyone.  I have a problem when it comes to thinking about my faith.

One thing theists and atheists have always seemed to agree on is the idea that a person ought to believe what he does for a reason.  Everyone agrees on this so strongly that no one I have ever met seems to question it at all; the idea of supported, reasonable belief is so obvious that no one even discusses it.

Yet I am not convinced.

(I see the irony of such an inquiry into the reasonableness of reason itself.  If I claim that I do not believe in reason, then I will have to stop trying to support my claims at all, it seems.  To do so would require reason.  But I will make an attempt.)

The universe is full of matter and energy and things behaving in certain ways and causing other things to behave in their ways.  Understanding the goings-on of this universe requires some investigation and learning.  But something with a brain can start to notice patterns and see causes and effects, then use this to predict what will happen under similar patterns and with similar causes.  This thinking is not always a higher-level or conscious function.  Ants manage to carry things (largely by instinct), which requires some instinctive understanding of physics.  They know, consciously or not, that if they pick something up and walk, the thing will accompany them.
  However, if you put them in an area outside their experience, their conclusions about the world do not pan out.  An ant would become as profoundly frustrated as an ant-brain can be by a laser point, which would probably appear as a thing to be picked up but would defy all attempts at carrying it.  (Even cats do not understand that a laser point is not a real object, as many funny Youtube videos will demonstrate.)

In fact, an ant's brain may or may not be capable of understanding the concept of something like a laser point that appears real but is not.  (Perhaps they are; surely somewhere in their instinct is experience with points of light on a jungle floor, for example.  But the idea remains whether they do or do not understand laser points, specifically.)  My point is, their brains are simply incapable of understanding very complex concepts.  Their patterning of neurons just cannot deal with some ideas.

The set of things an ant "knows" and finds "logical" might or might not hold if it were moved to a more complex scenario.  For example, an ant "knows" that if it steps off a tree branch, it falls.  If placed in zero-gravity, the ant would not be able to make the leap of understanding and realize that this, too, is logical and reasonable.  The smartest ant that ever lived could not.  Many generations of ants could not.  They would remain befuddled.

The same is true of a cat.  A cat can understand cause-and-effect and even perhaps some emotions.  But it cannot understand calculus.  Cat brains just don't have the wiring to get it.  A cat's brain would not be equipped to handle the dynamics of movement in deep water or in zero gravity; cats are land animals.  Their sense of what is true or logical or reasonable is a product of their evolution and does not encompass all the experiences the universe can offer.

In other words, there are parts of the universe that do not and will not ever make sense to an ant's brain or a cat's brain.  So in essence, my conundrum is this: why are we all then convinced that the universe's workings lie in that narrow range of complexity that a human brain can understand?

The universe clearly is not accessible to an ant's brain, or a cat's brain, or a lobster's brain.  Why do we suppose it is accessible to ours?
It would seem extremely unlikely that the universe is just complex enough to be accessible in its every fact to the brains of the hominids that evolved on the third planet from one of the billions of stars in one of the billions of galaxies that exist. To believe that we will someday understand it all, or ever could, just does not make sense to me.

The implications have shaken me as I have thought them through in the last few months.  If humans cannot understand all things about the universe, then there must exist at least one thing about the universe that will eternally be inscrutable to us no matter how hard we try.
In other words, facts are out there that will always seem wrong and false and illogical to us.  After all, what does it mean when we say that something is logically true?  We mean that we reasoned it out by making logical leap after logical leap, none of which set off the "untrue warning bell" feeling in our brains. Or maybe we simply got the "true" sensation about this particular fact from the beginning.

Where did we get our sense of logic or truth or our untrue warning bell?  Is it not the result of the environment our brains grew up in?

In fact, that is exactly what we have seen.  Our brains evolved in Newtonian mechanics.  But over the last couple of hundred years, small discrepancies started to appear.  Our sensation of "this-is-not-right" began to go off.  With time, we discovered quantum mechanics, a realm of reality that is very much true but very much illogical to us.  Parts of our reasoning, such mathematics, still hold.  But much of it does not.  Particles can pop into and out of existence.  Tunneling can occur. Cause-and-effect breaks down.

My big conundrum is this.  Why are we convinced that we must only believe what is reasonable to us?  Why is our sense of logic the final arbiter in what is and is not true?  Why not decide instead to believe whatever makes sense to a chimp?  Really, why not?  Is it because we believe we are the smartest creatures that could possibly exist? If we do, what are the odds of that, and why do we think so? If we do not, why do we remain convinced that nothing illogical could be true?

When I find myself thinking differently from other people, particularly if we seem to be talking past each other or if it seems like we are speaking different languages, I find that I am either completely on the wrong track or really on to something.  

So here I am, befuddled by my own brain's insistence that I rationalize my belief in God.  I think I can.  I've tried before with some success.  But why must I?  That's my question.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Little Penguin that Could

Hello, everyone!  I so much appreciate all the great comments.  You know who you are.

I really, really do not have time to write much.  I'll try to put something on here after my block exams.

Block exams mean four exams in five days.  This happens about every six weeks throughout the first semester of medical school here.  It means pretty much non-stop studying for about a week-and-a-half solid.

But what I really wanted to put on the record here is that I don't mind it.  Medical students told me that they had plenty of time to have lives, that they often took weekends off, and all sorts of associated nonsense.  I don't want to say that to the kids who are interviewing now.  I want to level with them.

"Listen, guys.  Medical school is hard.  You will learn more facts than you thought possible in less time than you thought possible.  It will take at least 60 or 65 hours per week of your time in classes, labs, and studying. You really can't do it in much less time than that; if you do, you're doing it wrong.  No way around it.
"And putting in that much work would be really painful and awful... if this were not exactly what we want with our lives.  It's so exciting to learn it all.  So yes, medical school is as hard as everyone says.   But it's also as great as everyone says."

I find myself gladly making sacrifices I would have begrudged in college.  Just like waiting for a stranger is annoying but waiting for the person you love is oddly a pleasure, sacrificing for medical school is gladly done.

Have a good week!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

During my White Coat ceremony, physicians put our pretty, fresh white coats on us for the first time.  These are the coats we ordered months ago and lusted over months before that when we first interviewed here.  When we put on the coat and took the Hippocratic Oath, we joined the profession of medicine.  Never mind that we don't know squat yet.  We are now part of the tribe.

But that's not really what I wanted to talk about, so let's talk about humanism.

We also received little gold pins to wear on our white coats for the ceremony.  They were supposed to embody the ideals of compassion and humanity in medicine, but unfortunately what they actually said was, "Humanism in Medicine".  I don't think that word means what you think it means.

I take sharp issue with humanism, so I wore the pin for the sake of symmetry and such during the ceremony and promptly removed it afterward.

Humanism can mean lots of things, but usually it involves a focus on human ethics, purpose, and reason.  It usually also involves (to some degree) some sense that humanity can and should achieve our highest purpose: to become more human, fully human, perhaps ├╝ber-human.  In essence, it's a strong focus squarely on humans.

I was homeschooled, so while certain things may have been lacking my education, an introduction to important world philosophies most certainly was not.  Since I first read about what humanism was, when it arose, and what it means, I have come to believe that humanism is perhaps the single most harmful and potentially dangerous idea in the world.

Humanism elevates humanity as our own ideal.  Man becomes man's own hero.  This idea really came into its own during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.  It drenches the art and music of the period.  It runs throughout the great philosophical works of the time.  It even has fingers in the Reformation and the economic theories of the day.
But I'm no historian, so I'll make only one example.

This is Michelangelo's David, perhaps the most famous statue in the world.  It is easy to see David as a representation of King David from the Bible, and perhaps in some way he is.  However, that figure is not King David's in one notable way: the figure is uncircumcised.

So what is David?  I'll leave the details of the case to the art historians, but some now believe that David was a statement of utter human perfection and of the perfection of humanity.  He towers over the onlooker, and such extraordinary detail and attention has been paid to his every line and feature. Michelangelo was one of the great humanists of the Renaissance, and this was one of his crowning works.

Look for humanism, and see if you can't find it in every seam, every pore, every mindless and intentional action of our society.  We arose from the Renaissance, and it shows. It pervades the fabric of our society, integral and invisible at the same time.  It is so universal in the modern world that it can be difficult to describe what it is.   If you're interested, get yourself a copy of Francis Schaeffer's How Should We Then Live, which chronicles the rise of Western thought and how it influenced the modern world.  (I can't vouch for absolutely everything Schaeffer says, but the historical aspects of the book are excellent.)

I've heard the case made elsewhere that the average Christian thinks like a humanist, not because he wants to, but simply because of the world he lives in.

Let's go a little deeper.  I tend to think of the Biblical Fall as a metaphorical, symbolic description of an actual event that happened in some way, in some sense when human beings first became conscious. 

So is humanism perhaps the oldest lie of all?  How it ingrains itself into us!  How we carry it from birth!  Is this the echo of Adam's sin? Was that our sin: taking into ourselves the knowledge of good and evil, trying to make it part of us, to be found within us?  
This is how I see humanism when its trappings are stripped away: "... you will be like God, knowing good from evil..." 

Humanism is believing that we are god.  Isn't this the root of every sin - that we believe we are god?  Is it not simply a claim to be greater, to know more, to be more perceptive than God?

Is it not the root of our suffering?  How could we possibly be content or at peace while engulfed in such a glaring inconsistency as the delusion that we are god in a universe in which the deepest truth is that God is God?  Is not the source of our deep discontent exactly that we want to be god, believe we are, and yet the universe does not obey our will?  Do we not suffer because we want and do not have, because we lack and cannot fulfill ourselves?  We continue in this delusion that we are god, and the incongruities sting.

We tire, we ache, we hunger, we age.  A god does none of that, so we are frustrated and painfully perplexed.  But who has ever heard of a god who is perplexed?  This is another fresh source of misery.

Then we rage that the true God does not end our pain, stop our dying, and explain our confusion.  In other words, we rage at God for not making us gods.

When I look deep inside myself, I see this so clearly.  I want to be god.  This is my true nature.

So is my fall not of my own doing, when my soul utterly rejected God's supremacy?  What is Hell but having one's deepest longing most absolutely thwarted?  What is Hell but a being who longs for nothing more in all the universe but to be god, but knowing full well that it most certainly is not and never shall be?

Yet I cannot free myself of it!  Some part of me longs to be god so deeply that it believes the delusion that it is.  Yet having my deepest-held beliefs blatantly shattered every day is agonizing. Who will save me from this body of death?

This is just my late-night musings, and only that.  I'm just another human being, and a young one at that.  But this is what I wonder about.

Last thought of the day -
What, then, does it mean that now we eat the Body and Blood of God, by God's own command?  When God became man, a way was provided to free man from his delusion of being god.  Is Eucharist the antidote to the clutches of humanism?

Inspired by: