Sunday, December 10, 2006

Grandiose humility

In contemplating the recent shouting match between "evangelical" and "Neville Chamberlain" atheists that has raged across the blogosphere, I wonder if an element of humility is not in order.

From where I sit, the most crucial drivers behind questions of religious belief pertain not to origins, but rather to the severe human dilemma presented by the inevitability of one’s personal death. Although I happen to believe that oblivion will follow my own death, and indeed all deaths, I would be lying if I denied sometimes bolting upright in the middle of the night with the full realization of that reality, accompanied by a very cold fear. Although this quickly passes, and indeed I cannot reproduce this feeling at will (psychological denial and intellectualization quickly reassert themselves, I suppose), it seems clear that this is really the central human dilemma.

In view of that, I have enormous sympathy for those who cope with the spector of death by, in essence, denying its reality and positing an afterlife. In particular, having children and finding myself unable to even contemplate loosing one of them, I cannot fault those who have responded to such an unbearable grief by resorting to the comforting notion that death is not real. Probably one of the most severe costs that accompany what I perhaps vainly fancy to be my intellectual honesty is that such comforts will not be available to me should I be faced with a similar losses. Part of me is sympathetic to whatever cover an individual wishes to take in the face of those realities.

A second point vis humility pertains more directly to questions of science and religion. I recall reading – I think that it was in Timothy Ferris’ “The Whole Shebang” - a description of some of the implications of inflationary models of the origins of the universe. Ferris invited the reader to imagine the observable universe – that volume of the universe from which light (and hence any causation) will have had time to travel since the big bang - as a sphere with a radius of 13.9 billion light years. Ferris asserted that, if inflationary models prove correct, that volume stands in proportion to the actual volume of the universe as the area of a silver dollar stands in relation to the area of the surface of the earth (I hope I am properly recalling this – I don’t have a copy handy). That, frankly, blows my mind. Undoubtedly, even if this proves to be inaccurate, the realities that do emerge from cosmology will be equally mind-blowing.

My personal response to facts like these is one of awe and humility. Although we have mathematics based upon powers of ten with which to calculate on such scales, I find that it is not really even remotely possible to directly imagine the reality that such facts denote. Speaking for myself, I feel my level of comprehension of such things stands in relation to these facts much as an ocean going larva stands in relation to the Pacific ocean itself. Indeed, the universe being disclosed by contemporary science (and here I most emphatically include evolutionary biology) is so vastly larger and richer than any pre-modern view of any deity that I would argue that the concept of “God” is best properly viewed as an historical placeholder for these larger, vastly more rich realities, a placeholder that we could only just now have discarded. If some people are not quite ready for that, I understand completely.

What we don’t find in this contemporary view, however, is a larger agency that resembles human agency, nor refuge from death. That’s the tradeoff. I am an atheist in that sense: I don’t believe in life after death, and I don’t believe that something resembling the human capacity for intentionality and design underlies this particular shebang. I am sympathetic to those who believe that it does, but happen to believe that they are mistaken. I wouldn’t presume to steal that belief from them, however.

All that said, the battle over science classrooms at the K-12 level is over for now, and it had the right outcome. The battle was won at Doverloo. That was my primary concern.