Sunday, March 19, 2006

Sunday sermon ...

The other day Maxine Clarke sent me a link to this discussion at 3 Quarks Daily about science and religion: Noam Chomsky, Lawrence Krauss and Sean M. Carroll, which in turn links to this at Science & Theology News: Noam Chomsky, Lawrence Krauss and Sean M. Carroll discuss evolution, atheism and why many intellectuals are empty suits .

I found myself most in agreement with Sean Carroll, because I too think that "the primary role of intellectuals should be to promote the truth, whatever it may turn out to be." I also agree with him "that the warrant for religion's ethical claims are based on its view of the universe, without which we wouldn't recognize it as religion."
On the other hand, though I rarely find myself in agreement with Noam Chomsky, he does make a number of important points here. One is this: "Not to underrate the theory of evolution, that’s a terrific intellectual advance, but it tells you nothing about whether there’s whatever people believe in when they talk about God. It doesn’t even talk about that topic. It talks about how organisms evolve. " Lawrence Krauss makes a similar point: "Evolution, as a scientific theory, says nothing about the existence or non-existence of God. It doesn’t yet address the origin of life either, but instead deals with the mechanics of how the present diversity of species on earth evolved."
Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett seem to think otherwise. And, speaking of Dawkins and Dennett, here is another worthwhile point that Chomsky makes: "When people ask me if I’m an atheist, I have to ask them what they mean. What is it that I’m supposed to not believe in? Until you can answer that question I can’t tell you whether I’m an atheist ..."
One of the few things I am certain of is that I don't believe in the God Richard Dawkins doesn't believe in. I could just as easily say that I also don't believe in the God that those who advocate Intelligent Design theory apparently believe in.
So what God do I believe in? Well, the God I believe in wouldn't have needed to design - "to conceive and plan out in the mind" - anything. That would have taken time and God has no need of time.
Here are some things we think we know about the world: One, that it began with something infintesimal exploding into all that there is. This turns out to have been a rather precisely calibrated explosion, enabling, I thinki it is fair to say, the chemistry of the carbon compounds to develop in the way that it has, guided by a simple but flexible code (or what we call a code).
So I begin by believing that the bang led to the code, that the bang initiated a process. This is exactly what the God I believe in would have done, as far as the mechanics of creation are concerned - set in motion a process that would work itself out and not require tinkering or revision.
I also think that, just as the oak is but the actualization of the potential contained in the acorn, so everything that is was implicit in the original infinitesimal spark. So intelligence didn't happen later. It was there all along, just as, in a sense, the oak's leaves and roots and bark were. I think the same regarding personality.
Neurologist W. Russell Brain wrote in Mind, Perception and Science, that "the receptive function of the brain is to provide us with a symbolical representation of the world outside it, not only distinguishing objects by their qualities, but also conveying to us the spatial relationships which exist between them, and at the same time giving us similar symbolical information about our own bodies and their relation to the external world."
In the same book, he also says:
... if the stuff of the universe that we know directly is mind, and matter is the same thing known only by means of conceptual symbols created by mind, it would seem as reasonable to call at least part of reality mind as to call it matter. And matter, even crude matter, is not what it was. It has turned into energy, and the atom has become a pattern and the molecule a pattern of patterns, till all the different physical substances and their behaviour have come to be regarded as the outcome of the structure of their primitive components. But we have already met with pattern in the nervous system, underlying and rendering possible the most fundamental characteristics of the mind. And pattern in some mysterious way possesses a life of its own, for it can survive a change in the identity of its component parts as longs as its structure remains the same. As a wave can move over the sea and remain the same wave, though the water of which it is composed is continuously changing, a pattern can shift over the retina and therefore over the visual area of the brain and remain recognizably the same pattern. The pattern of our personality though it changes slowly remains substantially the same, though every protein molecule in the body, including the nervous system, is changed three times a year. The ingredients have altered but not the structure.
As I have said here before, if Brain is right, then everything we know is a symbolical representaion of energy configurations. The schoolmen and the ancients thought in terms of matter and form. Perhaps it would be more correct to think in terms of energy and pattern. The brain is a pattern of electrical impulses whose function is to discern other such patterns. What we call matter is, to use Brain's formulation, a symbolical representation of those energy patterns. Indeed, the energy units themselves that we speak of -- atoms, protons, electrons -- would also be symbolical representations. So the key question is this: What is the basis of the symbology? From what does it derive?
In my view, it derives from a single thought, encompassing the whole of the reality we know, in the mind, as it were, of the Prime Thinker. And that is the God I believe in. But I believe in a bit more than that. I also believe that, just as the point of the acorn may be said to be the oak tree, or that - to change the analogy - just as the point of the pen, ink, paper, etc. that an author uses to tell a story is not the the pen, ink, and paper, but the story being narrated, so the point of reality is the drama taking place within it. And since I am a Christian, I further believe that the drama of reality required that the Prime Thinker, to borrow a phrase from Mallarme, introduce himself into the story.
But, as I have also said here before, quoting Eliot, "These are only hints and guesses,/Hints followed by guesses ..."


  1. All very interesting thoughts, Frank.
    I don't often agree with Chomsky either, but I am very fond of him! He is just *so* liberal you have to smile.

    Of course, this one will run and run, but here is a 3 Quarks Daily posting about the Observer's Robin McKie review of books by Dennett and Lewis Wolpert. Wolpert likes to try to get his readers to blow a gasket.

  2. I can't help thinking of the Arte Johnson character on Laugh-In, the German officer who used to observe something and mutter, "Verrrrry interesting ... but stupid!"