Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Physicist realizes that there is more to nature than materialist atheism can explain

Recently, Bob Estes kindly wrote to say,
I just came across your blogs. What a treasure trove! I don't know if I'll agree with everything there, not being Catholic or even a fully confirmed Christian of any sort yet, but there's a lot to read (not to mention the books).

Anyway, I'm a physicist who was a materialist/atheist for about forty years until the very evidence of the world forced me to start reconsidering, which then led to a dramatic conversion to theism—not deism as in the Flew case, as there was a personal encounter that took me beyond that.

I've written some about the topics on my blog. Relevant posts would include "On the Breaking of Bad Habits Acquired in One’s Youth: Smoking and Atheism, which is my pondering why I stayed stuck for so long in an immature view of the world, and a follow-on about exchanges with some commenters at an atheist's blog, Conversations in the Clubhouse of Truly Smart People. Since the first post I mentioned most have had some reference to God, actually.

Personally, I see no problem in life being a totally natural phenomenon, given that the universe has been created for it to happen.

I'm not sure what your view is yet; but I'm sure we agree that the idea that evolution makes an explanation of ultimate origins unnecessary is pathetic.
Bob, like many thoughtful people, you have way more questions than I have answers!

However, here are a couple of thoughts:

1. Don't worry that you will be put off by something I may say because you are not a Christian or a Catholic. The distinct positions of Christianity - and of the Catholic Church within Christianity - do not turn on the things we observe in nature, animate or inanimate, but rather on human nature. For example, Paul writes, in anguish,
18 I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.[a] For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

21So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22For in my inner being I delight in God's law; 23but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. (Romans 7: 18-23, NIV)
As we all realize, Paul's problem is not one that neutrons or magpies have. They follow the laws they can recognize but we don't follow the laws we can recognize. That requires an explanation - one that we cannot derive from studying them. They can't do it but we can. That is, by the way, the central error of "evolutionary psychology." The most important things we need to know about humans are precisely the things that differentiate us from magpies, moles, voles, rats, spider monkeys, chimps, and so forth.

2. Re theism vs. deism: Most deeply spiritual people have had personal experiences that confirm their belief that something beyond the material here and now governs this universe.

For example, many scholarly pow-wows have been held about whether remarkable healings described in the Bible really occurred. I find, by experience, that people who are awakened to the spiritual dimension of their own existence through a remarkable healing simply do not give the view that it "can't happen" much consideration. Presumably, they consider themselves living refutations of that view.

How such healings happen, we do not always know, but the explanation, when available, will not be merely reductionist. And, as Mario Beauregard and I pointed out recently in The Spiritual Brain, this is a time for exploration, not dogma.

3. Re life being "a totally natural phenomenon": That's okay with me. But we need to ask, what is the nature of nature? What does nature include? What does it exclude? If nature is "all that exists" then by definition, all explanations must be naturalistic. Otherwise, we do not have an explanation.

Now, the available evidence does not point to life getting started by a random swish of chemicals, because life got started so soon after the planet cooled that something else was likely involved. This need not be divine intervention or a miracle. It could be an unrolling of a previously coded event.

Consider, for example, the robotic vehicles on Mars. How would an observer who did not know about Earth's space program account for them? Considerable time might be wasted coming up with a naturalistic (= random) explanation when 30 seconds of accurate explanation would set the investigator straight.

Today's top post at Este's Onscreen Scientist blog is about animal suffering and the nature of the universe.

He makes the reasonable point that
Without denying the truth of animal suffering, I usually just try to put it out of my mind and avoid it. I eat meat. I love to eat meat, I might even say; though I do it without thinking about what I am eating or how it came to be on my plate. This is a rather unnatural situation. Until very recently the slaughter of animals was not hidden, so almost all people were either involved in it or witnesses to it. I even killed some chickens at my grandparents’ as a boy, and the image brought to my mind by the expression “running around like a chicken with its head cut off” is vivid and rather disturbing.

We can also note that there is a wide gap between the hunter and the non-hunter in the industrialized world.
Off the top of my head, I can comment on only a couple of points here:

- death, as such, is only a problem to humans. Only humans know that we all must die. I am not saying that other life forms do not care about their emotional losses, but they are not likely to abstract death, as such, to a general proposition.

- suffering is only possible for those creatures that have the type of nervous system that enables an idea of "self," related to the suffering body and to the time spent suffering. From what I have seen and heard of insects, for example, I doubt that insects have any such sense. Please understand, I am not advocating cruelty to any form of life; I am simply saying that we need to be clear about the fact that the badly burned child probably suffers indescribably more than the cockroach that was partly charred in the same fire.

Also, Bob: We share a life experience in common! When I was a small child - a half century ago and more - on the O'Leary farm near Avonlea, Saskatchewan, I sometimes watched as Grandma O'Leary expertly whipped off the head of a hen that had stopped laying. That hen, of course, was the main course of our dinner.

On the whole, I do not think that Grandma's hens would have survived longer or more comfortably, left to themselves on the open prairie, than they did in her coop. Quite the reverse, to judge from my father's recollections of night-time coyote attacks. So I doubt that any wrong was done to the hens.

Anyway, welcome aboard, and great to hear from you!