Against Mystery

Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too? – Douglas Adams

This post began as a response to Jenny’s article, but it got a little tangential.

I just watched the first in a series of programmes on the history of the Bible, presented by the novelist Howard Jacobson:  “Creation”

I’m wary of entering religious discussions, because they rarely, if ever, go well unless you’re already in agreement with the person with whom you’re discussing.

Nevertheless, I feel, as an atheist, somewhat denigrated by that programme. I feel almost cast as if I was an robotic automaton, in thrall to the iron certainty of my science, of “mere fact”, so blind to art and literature that I would come out of a performance of King Lear and wonder if the man really existed.

They complain about the so-called “New Atheists” campaigning against the straw-men of religious believers; I say that they’re talking about straw-men atheists.

Personally, I love myth, and legend. If we weren’t called atheists, I would love to call ourselves Prometheans, stealing fire from the jealous gods for the benefit of Man. I love reading the modern myths of an author like Neil Gaiman, spinning stories of Dream and Death. I love the musings of Hamlet on death and existence, and I read the philosophy of Sartre and Nietzsche, trying to get to the nature of existence and the human condition.

I see no reason why Genesis should be venerated over and above, say, the Theogony, or the creation tales of the Shintoists, or any other work of literature. The artistry is incredible, but I see no reason why I should be compelled to find truth in it, other than the truths it reveals about the people who wrote these stories.

I find myself most agreeing with the wonderful A.C. Grayling; people wrote these stories to find agency, meaning, in a disordered universe. There’s a good reason most of them start with the division of disorder into order! Jacobson recoils when the ancients were described as ignorant, as if it’s a perjorative; the truth is that they were, they simply did not know then what we know now, after years of struggle and careful experiment. Newton was ignorant of quantum mechanics; that’s hardly a slight on his genius.

As usual, the non-scientist’s misunderstanding of the nature of science is dredged up; that we possess a cast-iron certainty, blind to everything else.

This is bollocks of the absolute highest order. Science is doubt. Science is questioning, science is about looking at the universe and admitting that our understanding of it is fragmentary and incomplete, and that we should rectify that.

Take, for example, particle physics. We have this awesome theory, the Standard Model, that describes to a truely astounding accuracy the behaviour and interactions of every known fundamental particle. It’s a staggering intellectual achievement. We’re not sure about it yet; one component of it (the Higgs particle) is still as yet unobserved, and we know that the theory will break down at higher energy scales.

This isn’t blind certainty, it’s a diligent quest to know and understand more.

What men like Jacobson and his hero, Keats, fear is that all the important things in life lie in the gaps between our knowledge, and that as science carries on it will stitch up those gaps one by one until there is nothing transcendent left in the universe, because something can be transcendent only by being unknown and mysterious, clouded in haze. They fear that the God-of-the-Gaps will be driven out.

One, if your faith is only in a God-of-the-Gaps you deserve to be driven out. What does your faith really mean if it must be constantly modified so that it isn’t obliterated by the encroaches of science? The only way I can see that ending is in a God that has been so declawed as to be nothing more than a vague spirit, not even finding a refuge beyond space and time or after death as he does now.

Two, they ignore the beauty in the truth that science reveals. The inconceivable age of the universe, the bizarre era of the condensed quark-gluon plasma, the last fading microwave echos of the time the universe was opaque, the twisted time and space of a black hole, the wonderful mad complexity of life, the nuclear-powered twisting fury of the Sun, the emptiness in the heart of the atom… the examples of wonderful ideas that come out of science and mathematics are innumerable.

Keats blamed Newton for destroying the poetry of a rainbow by explaining it; I say that a rainbow is still as beautiful today, and I think more so because I understand it; I understand how light is refracted through a drop of water, reflecting off the back surface of the spherical drop. I think that’s beautiful. I think that the solutions of the Maxwell equations of a dielectric interface that describe the reflection of light are beautiful.

Jacobson and Keats would have us give up. To throw our hands in the air, and declare that some things should be unknown, un-sought for. Thank goodness nobody listened to Keats; I dread to think where we would be if Newton’s ideas had been suppressed. This is why we should never, ever give in to irrationality. Some things are far too important.

I think our own origins as creatures who have evolved and transcended our ancestors, who have toiled against the odds to create our civilisation and our knowledge is a far more beautiful story than any that could be told by a religion, and I feel that it is ever the better because it’s what actually happened.

The title of this post is a reference to John Bell’s paper “Against Measurement” which you can read if you happen to be on a University campus. It is a piece of essentially scientific doubt on the admittedly dubious interpretation of the concept of measurement in the foundations of quantum mechanics.

5 thoughts on “Against Mystery

  1. I like this post a lot. Sadly I'm so tired i can't typstraight (oh, I'll leave that one in. See?) otherwise I'd reply more sensibly. I don't believe that my god is a God of the Gaps but having been an atheist nor do I believe that you would come out of King Lear and think, well, did he really exist? – however, I hope that program didn't entirely anger you and was actually interesting too, and perhaps also made you see that although plenty of religious people are a bit dotty, so are plenty of atheists (Richard Dawkins is a case in point, albeit an obvious one). What I don't understand why people can't see is that there is no correlation between being religious and being intellectual and a thinker and believing in science and things. That I consider my position as carefully as any atheist might (and more carefully than most), that I challenge and am challenged by my beliefs and by the beliefs of others, and that it is possible to be completely open-minded and intellectually curious, and to still, actually, come out at the end of hte day and say that looking at all the things I know and feel, I still believe there is a God, not just of the Gaps but of everything.

  2. I wasn't entirely angered, but I think there are a lot more interesting things to say about Genesis and creation than he ever bothered to mention. He was far too fixated on the actual moment of creation; I personally find the story of the Fall much more intriguing.

    Dawkins can go a little too far, I will agree. He is a very excellent scientist, but not necessarily the best advocate for atheism. I can see some of his points, though; he makes a very good one about children being described as “Christian children” or “Muslim children” before they've ever really had a chance to make up their own mind about what they believe.

    Personally, God was just never mentioned at home with my family. We had what were in retrospect fairly heavily Christian assemblies and the like at primary school, where we were encouraged to pray at the end and the like. I came to my own decision that I just didn't believe God was real, and I stopped saying “Amen” after the prayer, because I just didn't believe it was real. I think I was lucky that I was essentially allowed to make up my own mind. Apparently that quite shocked my fairly religious neighbour when I said that out loud…

    I have no trouble with belief, in and of itself. Sometimes I even envy the comfort people say they find in God. I have a problem if you're wishy-washy about it, or you haven't engaged your brain about it; an awful lot of people have never really stopped to think critically about their faith, they just hold it reflexively out of custom.

    I also have a problem if your faith flies in the face of reality; I have pretty severe issues with the Pope, for instance. He could do a lot of good if he just told people in Africa to use condoms. He could save the lives of a lot of people; that he doesn't fills me with rage and contempt. I have nothing good to say about the Catholic Church. Nothing.

    I like to think I'm an atheist who takes his atheism very seriously, I'm glad you're a believer who takes her belief seriously, even if we're not going to agree entirely!

    Sorry if I'm reading that wrong, but did you say you used to be an atheist?

  3. Dawkins is an easy target, I think, because he's so outspoken. That said, from what I've seen/read, I think (for instance) Sagan or Feynman were much better advocates of atheistic viewpoints.

  4. I have the hugest man-crush on Feynman. He's just so awesome. I would recommend anybody sit down and read his “Lectures on Physics”, great read, and you'll learn something.

  5. I did definitely used to be an atheist, yes, up until I went to uni. Never heard of Feynman or Sagan so will have to look into that!

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