This week I had a “discussion” with an ardent, antagonistic, hyper-vocal atheist. I’m often comparing notes with people with worldviews very different from my own. It helps me learn: what’s the point in only ever talking with people who think exactly like oneself, and who never challenge one to really evaluate what one believes?
In this case, though, it would be overstating things to call it a “discussion”: it’s hard to call it that when one person’s doing all the talking. Loudly, aggressively and peppered with profanity (I’m told that’s a sign of a weakly held position or conviction … just sayin’). I’m thinking his fervor comes from a bad Irish Catholic upbringing when Protestants and Catholics were doing everything they could to give Christianity a bad name. Another version of a toxic religious experience masquerading as something divine, but really only confusing and repelling those who suffer under it. I’ve got one of my own.
Like me, he’s a scientist. But he’s completely against the whole God-thing. He even attended an Atheist’s Conference in Australia a couple years ago. He and I have often “compared notes,” and despite it being more of a monologue than a dialogue, I still value the interaction.
One question that comes up repeatedly in our conversations is how can I as a scientist continue to believe. I can only answer back: “how can an honest scientist not leave open the option to believe?”
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that science proves theism, let alone Christianity.
I am saying, though, that you can’t rule it out. The data just aren’t there to let you do that. We’re so limited in our ability to perceive and comprehend things that it’s completely arrogant or self-deluded to say otherwise. I’ve blogged before about how we’re so limited in our sensory abilities: we perceive only a small fraction of the complete spectrum of light, sounds, tastes, and smells around us. Our brains have such a limited capacity for memory and comprehension. Our grasp on time is brief and fragile. A couple weeks ago I compared our situation to two bacteria debating on whether or not humans exist. From their limited perspective, there’s no definitive proof in our favor. I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel the least bit threatened by their uncertainty on the question.
In our discussion, I shared an analogy that, for me, best makes the point that none of us can be so confident in dismissing things beyond our senses. I’ve used it before … I hope long-time readers won’t mind me dusting it off again.
It’s a thought-experiment. A bit of a strange one actually, but some of the best advances in science have come out of thought-experiments. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity came from a thought-experiment involving a ride on a train. You may have heard of “Schrödinger’s cat” and how that showed Erwin something important about quantum mechanics.
This thought-experiment involves a world without the third dimension. Beings in this world can move around in the left – right dimension and the forward-backward dimension, but the up – down dimension just doesn’t exist in their experience. Their world — we’ll call it Flatland — is like living entirely within a sheet of paper. Like one of those brain-teasers which present you with a maze that you have to navigate from one end to the other without lifting the pencil off the sheet of paper … you can only trace your path in those two dimensions of left – right and forward – backward. It isn’t simply that Flatlanders are able to look up but are merely incapable of jumping off the page. Instead, the up-direction doesn’t even exist for them (nor does the down-direction).
It all sounds bizarre, but it’s useful just the same: as you’ll see in a moment, you and I actually live in a different kind of Flatland.
Flatlanders go about their daily business, completely oblivious of anything in that third (vertical) dimension, until I decide one day to stick my finger through their two-dimensional world. All of a sudden, I pop into their existence looking like a circle (the only part of my finger that intersects with their flat universe) that grows and shrinks in diameter as I move my finger around. Then I pull my finger away and just as suddenly disappear from their existence. I repeat that a few times in different parts of their world, amusing myself by watching them frantically try to comprehend how I pop in and out of existence all over the place.
Then I try something which really blows their minds. I extend three fingers into Flatland. Now they observe three different circles suddenly popping into their existence simultaneously. Each is completely separate, and yet they somehow know that those three circles are part of one being (which they therefore call a trinity).
The point in this strange analogy is that those Flatlanders in their two-dimensional world just can’t possibly comprehend much of what you and I can do routinely in our three-dimensional world (three and a half if you want to include time … I count time as half a dimension because we can only move forward in it, not backwards). And yet physicists tell us that there are many more dimensions in our own universe. As I noted a few weeks ago, some with brains much bigger than mine predict at least 10 dimensions, and others talk about as many as 26 dimensions. Imagine the possibilities for any Being that could operate in any of those other dimensions!
I’m sure some find this kind of talk so mind-boggling that they just dismiss it. “How can there possibly be ten dimensions, let alone twenty six?” One way to try to answer this is by describing the other dimensions as being squashed down in size, or curling in on themselves, to incomprehensible proportions. You might find it easier to visualize this by imagining the left – right dimension and the East – West dimension from two different perspectives.
When you’re standing at an intersection and giving someone directions to the next town, those two separate dimensions are both real and relevant. You can tell that person to go four kilometers to the left, or to go four kilometers to the west, and both instructions will be meaningful to that person and will take them to their destination.
But if you now take a few steps back until you’re standing on the rings of Saturn, looking down on earth from 1.5 billion kilometers away, and tell that person to go four light-years to the left or four light-years to the west, you’re now talking about two completely different destinations. Four light-years to the left will take them to Alpha Centauri (the star system nearest to us in our galaxy). But four light-years to the west will have them circling the earth about a billion times: at the end of their trip it would look like they never moved at all. From that perspective, the East – West dimension has curled in on itself around the Earth’s axis, and it’s no longer a meaningful dimension when you’re talking about distances measured in light-years.
Okay. Time to put away this talk of light years and multiple dimensions and Flatlanders, and return to my “discussion” with my friend.
In the end, you can’t have any certainty standing with Friedrich Nietzsche declaring “God is dead.” You can choose to believe one way or the other, but don’t deceive yourself by saying “there’s absolutely no proof.” As a good scientist with an open mind, I can’t rule out the possibility.
On top of that, I know people who have a personal experience that is real and convincing to them.
Some describe dramatic encounters: at one point in time, they’re fully committed to a certain life-style or world-view, and overnight they’re a completely different person, and they attribute that change to a personal encounter. What do I do with that? I can’t dismiss them as “flakey” (a term that my atheist friend threw around quite a bit during our “discussion”) simply because I don’t want to believe their story.
Others describe an experience which is much less dramatic but no less real to them.
Few of them fit the standard stereotype of being intellectually weak or emotionally needy. Some of them are actually pretty smart and stable people.
Not everyone experiences those kinds of encounters. I haven’t myself. But unless I arrogantly declare all those other people as liars or deluded, I have to accept that there’s more to reality than the little sliver on which I’ve got a handle. My own encounters have been a lot more subtle. More like gentle nudges to do or say something against my nature. The “still small voice” that Elijah “heard” in a particularly meditative moment. An agreement I find with other seekers of all faiths. An inner feeling that resonates with truth. My atheist friend just dismisses that as “warm fuzzies.” I think it’s more like the perception an amoeba in my pond might have about the possibility that “there might be humans out there.”
I’m still feeling my away around on this question.
But I’m keeping an open mind.
Let me know what you think …
Leave a comment at the bottom of the page.
Check out my Archive for previous posts on other topics in the Faith-Science dialogue.
“Follow” my blog posts here (lower right corner) or on Twitter, or “Friend” me on Facebook, to get notices of the next post(s).
And please share this article with your friends (links below).