Arts & Letters Daily - ideas, criticism, debate

God & Tsunami:

Arts & Letters Daily has picked up on the latest echo of an eternal debate. It arises each time there is a natural disaster of particular magnitude. The debate forms around the question, "If God exists, and is both all powerful and good, how can evils such as this disaster occur?"

The technical term for this, in philosophy and theology, is theodicy. Partisans of atheism generally argue that the disaster in question proves the nonexistence of a benevolent, all-powerful God; partisans of theism generally argue that the question is misstated. Arts & Letters Daily has collected arguments on all sides: An anti-God argument from the UK Guardian (which is to be expected), a pro-God argument from the Wall Street Journal (likewise), and also arguments from the India Telegraph and Australia's Sydney Morning Herald, which is by the way one of the world's finest newspapers.

The Journal piece points out that Voltaire made the same argument in 1755, following an earthquake off Lisbon. It is, as I said, an eternal debate.

And yet, that very fact astonishes me. It seems to me that the Bible itself addresses the question directly and at length, in a fashion that is largely set aside by theists and apparently ignored by atheists. This very question is the subject of the Book of Job.

Then answered the LORD unto Job out of the whirlwind, and said,
Gird up thy loins now like a man:
I will demand of thee, and declare thou unto me.
Wilt thou also disannul my judgment?
Wilt thou condemn me, that thou mayest be righteous?
Hast thou an arm like God?
Or canst thou thunder with a voice like him?
Deck thyself now with majesty and excellency;
and array thyself with glory and beauty.
It seems to me that the proper argument from a belief in the supernatural is to assert the supernatural. Indeed, this answers not only the crisis posed by the question of earthquakes, but that posed by the sciences:
The vulgar metaphysics we all carry round with us includes the vague idea of a self, an “I,” imagined as a little homunculus crouched inside our heads an inch or so behind the eyes, observing and directing all that goes on in our lives. It seems probable that this is as false as the medieval notion of the sky being a crystal sphere. Yet if the self is indeed an illusion, then what is to prevent that dissolution of all values foreseen by Nietzsche? .... The deconstruction of self is not a new thing, of course. It has been 250 years since David Hume, by the rigorous application of pure reason, concluded that neither the inner world of the self nor the outer world of physical matter could possibly exist. Hume then turned and laughed at himself and at what he had accomplished: "This sceptical doubt ... is a malady, which can never be radically cur'd, but must return upon us every moment, however we may chace it away ... Carelessness and in-attention alone can afford us any remedy. For this reason I rely entirely upon them; and take it for granted, whatever may be the reader's opinion at this present moment, that an hour hence he will be persuaded there is both an external and an internal world..."

Although the neuroscientists are chasing the self through ever narrower and darker passageways of the brain, they have not caught it yet, and there are good reasons to believe they never will. Roger Penrose’s book about fundamental physics offers one of those reasons. Physicists have been pursuing matter for much longer, and with much more fruitful consequences, than neuroscientists have been pursuing mind, yet still the nature of physical reality eludes us. What is the physical world composed of? If you make it through the 1,000-odd pages of Penrose’s book, through the explanations of tensor calculus, Clifford algebras, spinors, twistors, Riemann surfaces and Feynmann propagators, you may have an inkling, but that is all you will have. If you can’t hack all that heavy-duty math, you won’t even have an inkling, ever.
The point is not that science is wrong, but that human wisdom is limited: what science cannot find is not untrue, but beyond human understanding. The "hour hence" restores belief in the external and internal worlds for the same reason described by Edward Abbey, himself no friend to religion:
In metaphysics, the notion that earth and all that's on it is a mental
construct is the product of people who spend their lives inside rooms. It is
an indoor philosophy.
Try it on the mountainside, or by the angry sea.

But if science cannot answer these questions, what remains except religion? In these great mathematics and terrible physics, we have girded ourselves up like men. We cannot answer, now or ever. In that yawning gap, faith forms: and we have no answer, no more than Job was answered by the whirlwind, or Loddfafnir by Odin:
It is best for man to be middle-wise,
Not over cunning and clever:
No man is able to know his future,
So let him sleep in peace.
Sleep in peace. Happy New Year.

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