Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Using a Foot Ruler to Measure God

I was amused to see this comment piece on the Independent Voices page: Atheists are more intelligent than religious people? That's ‘sciencism’ at its worst. It comes a few days after the Richard Dawkins "Trinity College has produced more Nobel Prize winners than all Muslism combined" debacle on Twitter, and throws into relief the age-old debate about whether or not you're stupid if you believe in God. 

I used to be stung by this atheistic assertion that my intelligence was lacking because I am a practicing Muslim, but I'm learning how to let it go and laugh about it. In fact, the scientific evidence for my intelligence all points to the conclusion that I am no less stupid than the rest of the knuckledraggers walking around on this planet.

Perhaps atheists are getting their own back on religious people who, for millennia now, have brandished the threat of hellfire and eternal damnation over them for their lack of belief. It's like watching two rugby teams beat each other senseless on the field over a small pigskin ball and wondering why they bother. 

It also amuses me to see how some evangelical atheists act as if they've "seen the light" or "found Jesus" when they talk about their atheism. Using the language of religion to describe their attitude is a mean trick on my part, I know, but it just goes to show that we can never really escape our cultural conditioning.

I can't help but wonder, sometimes, if all the brouhaha is really about mortality? The need to see everything through the lens of science can be a result of one's academic training, one's dislike of organized religion - but I sense a real fear of mortality in those who follow "sciencism" as opposed to any religion. The turning to science to explain what happens after we die, the firm conviction that there is nothing because it can't be scientifically observed, recorded, explained, the pooh-poohing of any possibility of an afterlife, the forlorn hope that science will one day help us to live forever sometimes seems posturing to hide the existential fear that we all have about our mortality. But that's just my own supposition...

(I'm not trying to be smug about this aspect of faith versus lack of. I've long said that none of us can really know what happens after we die until we get there, but that the hope there is something after we take our last breath is what faith really means to me.)

This book - The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief by Francis Collins - might interest those of you who are looking to reconcile science and faith. Collins refers to the sequencing of the human genome, which only happened very recently in scientific history, as the language God uses to encode all of life's properties on the planet. According to Collins, "the experience of sequencing the human genome, and uncovering this most remarkable of all texts, was both a stunning scientific achievement and an occasion of worship." He uses this as a starting point to discuss how a person of science can be comfortable with faith and religious belief, and vice versa, using his own life as the example from which he draws his conclusions. 

Here's an interesting extract from the review of the book in Scientific American:
"In my view," Collins goes on to say, "DNA sequence alone, even if accompanied by a vast trove of data on biological function, will never explain certain special human attributes, such as the knowledge of the Moral Law and the universal search for God." Evolutionary explanations have been proffered for both these phenomena. Whether they are right or wrong is not a matter of belief but a question to be approached scientifically. The idea of an apartheid of two separate but equal metaphysics may work as a psychological coping mechanism, a way for a believer to get through a day at the lab. But theism and materialism don’t stand on equal footings. The assumption of materialism is fundamental to science.

I would be loath to get into the debate about how evolution can explain most of our human behaviours. But survival of the fittest falls far short for me in explaining altrusim or sacrifice: a healthy, full-grown parent sacrificing her life, for example, for a weak baby that cannot survive on its own is not behavior you will see in the animal kingdom. Nor can it explain why a dog would want to adopt an orphaned rabbit rather than eat it. Or why some people turn into psychopaths and murder other human beings. Sure, science can measure the outcomes of all of these actions, provide a theory for why this or that action was to the benefit or detriment of the species, but it cannot tell us everything about life as we understand it.

For me, science cannot always explain that pervading spirit that runs through all living beings, and possibly non-living ones. It can tell me about the composition, functioning, and chemistry and biology of the human brain, but it cannot identify or measure the human mind. It can tell me why my heart is not working to full capacity and that I might have a heart attack based on the readings on an EKG. But it cannot explain the workings of the metaphysical heart, the seat of conscience, emotion, motivation. Certainly it can explain to me the physical rewards of certain behaviours and how those fit into the model of evolution. But it cannot explain to me the creation of art, the mysteries of the intellect, or the source of the life force that animates us all.

I'm friends with an eminent cardiac surgeon in the United States who has saved countless lives on the operating table, bringing people "back to life" as it were. One time a child died for forty-five minutes but because of the efforts of my friend and his team, the child lived in what was reported through the news as a "miracle" (I don't like that kind of language, to be honest - it sensationalises too much). This surgeon also believes in God and life after death. He once told me why: "I've looked into the eyes of countless people as they've died on my table. They change when a person dies: what was once alive and vital is now vacant. The moment between life and death - it's so obvious that there is something more, once it is gone."

I'm not going to argue with a man who's had fifteen years of scientific training from the best institutions in the world. His day job consists of opening people's chests, stopping and then taking out their hearts, holding them in his hands, and then putting them back in and restarting them again. If there's anyone who understands physicality and materialism, it is him. If there's anyone who understands mortality, it is also him.

As I've said before, using science to prove the existence of God is a lot like using a foot ruler to measure Mount Everest. No doubt I'll offend many atheists with this observation, but it's my personal belief and as such is protected by the Constitution and the UN agenda of Human Rights and ... you get the picture.

At any rate, this post is not meant to stir up any more debate about faith versus science, religion versus belief. I don't really believe that people who have taken years to form their positions will suddenly abandon them from browbeating on any side. Faith, or the absence of, or the adoption of, or the lack of, is a deeply personal experience - which is why it can never be quantified by science. At some point in our adult lives we all leave our childhood conditioning behind. Then we either choose to abandon faith, or engage deeply with it, or maintain an ambivalent relationship with it, or turn our back on it.

What you do about faith is entirely up to you. But not even science can explain why you choose what you choose. For that, we'd have to turn to philosophy, psychology (neither of them "hard sciences"), and even then, we'd never come close to understanding what makes a human choose to engage with or ignore divinity.

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