Friday, October 20, 2006

The Certainty Principle

How Christians and Scientists can stop irritating each other

[Yesterday as I was going into the university library, one of the cycle tour girls was just coming out. I loudly called her and waved, and she responded with a glare at a small fly buzzing a few centimetres in front of her nose. Odds are she is the source of the hatesms I received about a week ago, decrying the fact that I wrote an article that was more about me than God. I reminded her that go! is not an NG Kovsie Kerk publication, but happens to be a magazine about the outdoors.]

Brian Fleming starts off his documentary (The God Who Wasn’t There) by making a really good point. He says, simply, that ‘The Earth revolves around the sun.’
Of course, he says, this wasn’t always so. In the days when Christians rooled (intentionally spelling btw) the sun (and everything else) revolved around the Earth. It’s a particularly clear sign of how egocentric people turn out to be when they become collectively confident that their beliefs are right. Many intelligent people were killed or jailed or worse if they were found out to be tampering with irrefutable ‘fact’ . Only one example is this one: the idea that the Earth was the centre of the universe.

Of course, it’s a matter of relativity and context. Depending on who you are, and what you think, you could well argue that the Earth is the centre of the universe. Unfortunately, you cannot argue that the sun and other celestial bodies revolve around the Earth because of one simple problem: they don’t. In that sense it’s not about perspective, or context – it’s simply incorrect, and one of the ways we explain why (quickly) is we say: ‘[that belief] goes against the laws of nature.’

Robert Winston’s The Story of God (he also narrated the Walking with Cavemen series) also paints an interesting (if worrying) portrait of the swathes of fundamentalist Christians in suburban America who are narrowly outnumbered by children of a lesser god. In his documentary he flies over the Grand Canyon and quotes Christians who believe this million years old riverbed is actually about 4000 years old. The Grand Canyon ‘happened’, Christians say they believe, when the great flood (the one that made Noah famous) emptied into the sea. Interesting argument, except why aren’t there hundreds of similar canyons? Another belief is that the dinosaurs coexisted with men (and their eggs were carried on board the ark). I’ve also heard that God also created the fossil record (meaning he placed dino skeletons in rocks as a sort of treasure hunt and puzzle by numbers for us to follow) and setup the missing link scenario to make sure we choose faith over facts, or something similarly nonsensical.

It’s plain that Christians see the bible as the literal ‘word of God’, and so spare no expense (or a single rational blip of consciousness) to force reality to ‘fit’ into biblical paradigms. Sorry, but it doesn’t work. I’ve tried. Some of it is useful analogy (eg. creation and evolution) and even the basics are fairly sound, but the bible can’t be said to be without errors or contradictions. Of course, as soon as you’re not taking the bible literally, it becomes difficult to know just how broadly symbolic a description like ‘6 days’ ought to be taken up. Which is more meaningful, 6 days or 3.4 billion years?

I personally feel that Christians usually focus on the wrong end of the stick. Why spend time dealing with pointless arguments about aliens or creations when the bible’s strong point lies in its moral philosophies. There is so much good that can be made out of the bible’s moral arguments: ‘love your enemy, love your neighbor as yourself, turn the other cheek, the meek will inherit the earth etc.’

Christians, I suppose, must hold onto their beliefs because to doubt their incontrovertible God inspired knowledge simply will not do. After all, admissions of uncertainty in the face of such an awesome boast (to know the mind of God – something perhaps only Hawkins and Einstein and perhaps Newton might realistically lay claim to) means they have almost certainly either made fools of themselves (or God), or a mockery of their own lives, and a full realization might initiate a shakier next chapter of their lives. Stepping into the light is often pursued awkwardly. Yes, it’san awkward progression into a brightly illuminated reality (which is quite different from illusion or subjective truth). Real truth, objective truth, tends to be humbling, and may hurt our sense of self importance.

Scientists are not necessarily the good guys in this adventure. It is often the scientists that are first to mock the newest ideas of fellow scientists, their own peers who might be great thinkers. Einstein, and recently I heard of a local geologist (who first spoke about plate tectonics) and people like Hubbert (who came up with an algorithm that predicted American Peak Oil) were all treated with skepticism and ridicule by other scientists who simply ‘knew’ better. Why? Because the truth, their truth in fact, their paradigm, appeared unshakeable.

No, life is constantly changing, and our explanations for reality therefore cannot be absolute, but can and should perhaps maintain some underlying (if not absolute) principles.
What is obvious is that life, the universe – okay, everything – is governed by change. With change comes uncertainty. And thus, intelligent reasoning on the nature of life, the universe – yes, everything – means that we have to accept a modicum of uncertainty about our own ideas. Think of it like being in love. There’s a certainty about the feeling, but an uncertainty about the degree of the feeling, the extent and potential for the feeling, and certainly how reciprocal those feelings are. Meanwhile, one can have a pretty certain gut feeling that the original feeling is genuine (or not). Nevertheless, by admitting to some insecurities (that simply must be present in any equation or deliberation), by conceding uncertainty, we open ourselves to discovering the fullness of the illuminated universe – that sprawls before us like a city sparkling under diamond filled skies.

The next time you’re in an argument with someone about a fact that is ‘indisputable’, say: “You know, I could be wrong (and so could you), but here’s what I think… I wonder…could it be?” The ability to keep two opposing thoughts in your head is a sign of higher consciousness, and it’s something we should all seek to develop in our collective stream of consciousness.

No comments: