Culture and Religion

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Is What We See All We Get?

The BreakPoint article includes an alternate question: Our scientific understanding of the cosmos doesn’t leave any place for god, does it?

The BreakPoint answer: When your children start asking about the origins of the universe, start answering their questions by pointing out that many basic “scientific” judgments are not scientific (they cannot be proven). They are philosophical judgments, even religious ones. The idea of a self-existent universe is a prime example. This is not a conclusion of science. It’s a presupposition — a starting point — of the atheistic philosophy of naturalism.

Naturalism is defined as ‘The system of thought holding that all phenomena can be explained in terms of natural causes and laws.’

The simply stated goal of science is an understanding of nature. Anyone who walks around in a park can see and hear how everything in nature is connected and interacting. The plants that are present exist due to the climatic conditions. The animals that are present depend on the habitat, either the plant life or the other animal life (depends on their diet). As you walk about this park, most animal inhabitants will probably react to your presence (probably running away, perhaps chirping or such audible reactions). Depending on the weather and on the seasons, all of this life in the park will be different (trees are probably dormant in the winter, very green in the summer; many animals have a mating season so their behaviors change accordingly).

The scientist will seek to understand the interactions that are readily apparent. For example, the transformation of the trees over the seasons is somewhat predictable but not exactly as it depends on the seasonal variations (more or less precipitation in conjunction with higher or lower temperatures in a year can alter its timing). Scientists can study these influences to better understand these natural events.

At any particular point of this endeavor, there is inevitably uncertainty. Nature is such an intricately woven labyrinth that this is a never ending pursuit of understanding.

There are even fairly simple natural phenomena that remain unexplained. The force between two magnets can be felt, it can be measured and it can be predicted. However this ‘force at a distance’ is not yet understood. Perhaps someday it will be understood, just as many years ago so many other aspects of nature were not (like thunderstorms, earthquakes, volcanoes, etc.).

No matter what scientific principles are offered or debated, the context remains a deeply philosophical one. Either one believes that we are also an intricate part of nature (influenced by it, just as it is influenced by us) or we are just a puppet in the show being run by the unseen God (see Acceptance of Life and Attitudes in science and religion, among others in this site).

Naturalism is offensive to those that see us in this preordained show (having its ‘master plan’) because an understanding of the natural processes implies that there is not a need for an unseen hand to be involved. If the Sun rises every day at the same predictable moment, is God doing that or is that just a natural event? If a combination of two air masses result in a thunderstorm, is God doing that or is that just a natural event? If two parents raise a child that looks like one of them and behaves like them, is God doing that or is that result just what happens when the chromosomes of the parents join and the child learns from its parents? If scientists learn how stars and planets are formed and how life can arise in such primitive conditions, is God doing that or is that just the result of a natural process?

As science achieves an understanding of these natural processes, there is less in nature that remain unknown. Two thousand years ago, much was unknown. The ancients could feel they were subject to the whims of nature - to the chaotic whims of their god or gods. Now much is known so that we do not feel we are at the whims of nature. We understand those disasters known as ‘acts of god’ like hurricanes and now warnings, where possible, can prevent much loss of life. The debate on naturalism is left on those remaining aspects still to be adequately understood, such that the unseen hand of God, an unexplained intervention, is no longer needed for those natural events. To these fervent believers uncomfortable in feeling part of nature but rather determined not to be coaxed by reason, the hand of God is left for only those things that are still unexplained (to their satisfaction or dissatisfaction! - depending on your perspective).

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created - Mar 2005
last change - 03/06/2005
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