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.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post Sarah!

    I think you'll appreciate apophatic theology, if you're not already familiar with the concept: