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El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Andrew

April 11th, 2007 · 7 Comments

Sully quotes a reader’s reaction to his now-epic running debate with Sam Harris. The gist of it is that atheists are awfully uncomfortable with “mystery” and so keep stubbornly demanding good reasons for things which don’t admit to any sort of deductive proof. The limited extent to which I think there’s something to be said for this is: I’ve always thought the most respectable grounds for belief was a simple appeal to a private encounter with something profound and ineffable that doesn’t admit to interpersonal scrutiny. Not that I think it’s good enough, since people have all sorts of experiences that they ought to recognize can’t necessarily be taken at face value, especially in light of various neurological findings about such states. Still, color-sighted people would probably sound nuts to a population with monochrome vision, and maybe there are just areas of radical subjectivity where dialog has to come to a halt.

That said, the theistic invocation of mystery often has a whiff of flim-flam about it, something of the perverse pride in unjustified confidence best exemplified by Tertullian’s certum est, quia impossible est.. It has its parallel in the tendency of pomo academics of the left (gleefully, if justly, ridiculed by conservatives) to conflate the incomprehensible and the profound. Consider, for instance, Michael Novak’s National Review essay on atheism’s most prominent soi-disant spokesmen. (His comments on their tone, alas, are not always off the mark: To proselytize for the absence of a belief, which most atheists feel no particular obligation to do, probably demands a measure of active repugnance for religion. And as John Bolton has taught us, contempt for one’s interlocutors is an unhelpful trait in an ambassador.) The single affirmative argument for theism in the rather long piece—which, perhaps wisely, Novak fobs off on his collegiate daughter—amounts to a metaphysically pretentious version of the argument from design. But when it comes to confronting the sieve’s-worth of holes in that argument, at least in its more familiar form, Novak gives us this stirring bit of misdirection:

They want to show that if there is a Designer, he is an incompetent one; or, more exactly, that there is too much evidence of lack of design. What kind of maudlin artificer do they think God is? Our God is the God of the Absurd, of night, of suffering, and silent peace.

In other words, arguments will be deployed precisely as far as they can be given a sheen of plausibility, past which point—MYSTERY, you rube.

But the more general point I want to make here is that Andrew’s correspondent gets it, I think, almost entirely backwards. Yes, the theory of evolution now gives us at least a partial answer to one of the great, pressing puzzles of our existence. But many remain for the atheist. I don’t know, or pretend to know, how life first arose on Earth, or why there is Something rather than Nothing, or whether I have any special purpose in life, or how subjective mind arises from objective matter, or why the physical constants of the universe are what they are, or even why there are any physical laws at all. To be an atheist in the face of those gaps in understanding is to refuse the temptation to tame our ignorance by affixing a name to it. We reject one Mystery, and receive many mysteries in exchange.

Tags: Religion



7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Joseph Hovsep // Apr 12, 2007 at 9:44 am

    Well put.

  • 2 Alex Mackenzie // Apr 12, 2007 at 11:47 am

    Uh, Robert Novak? That was Michael. While it’s easy to confuse the two, the giveaway was the essay was about God, not Lloth.

  • 3 Julian Sanchez // Apr 12, 2007 at 2:33 pm

    D’oh! Fixed.

  • 4 Ryan // Apr 13, 2007 at 9:46 am

    “To proselytize for the absence of a belief, which most atheists feel no particular obligation to do, probably demands a measure of active repugnance for religion. And as John Bolton has taught us, contempt for one’s interlocutors is an unhelpful trait in an ambassador.”

    Surely, like Christians, we can hate the sin and love the sinner.

    “I don’t know…why there is Something rather than Nothing…”

    I think Simon Blackburn puts it best when he says that not “every apparently well-formed sentence introduces a proposition, or issue, about which questions of truth and falsity arise.”

  • 5 empiricus // Apr 13, 2007 at 2:31 pm

    The last paragraph is not bad at all for an impressionistic manifesto (it got props from Ross Douthat!); the penultimate sentence in particular expressly poetically and pithily, and less condescendingly than I usually manage, my view of one of the key psychodynamic sources of theism. I may borrow bits of the idea in my dealings with theists.

    But I have to ask about a couple of your elements, which seem inconsistent with your gestalt as I pick it up (apologies in advance for misgrokking you):

    1) Do you really think it’s a Mystery that consciousness, qualia (if any), etc. are epiphenomenal to the neural substrate? Why is it a mystery (in comparison to say abiogenesis, where I agree there are at least presently some pretty wide gaps between for example iron-sulfur world/lipid bilayer and RNA World)?

    2) “[W]hether I have any special purpose in life” the way you seem to be using it pretty much presupposes teleological agency [in order to be a meaningful question], no?

  • 6 Julian Sanchez // Apr 13, 2007 at 3:22 pm

    (1) Right, I mean, at a sort of general level this isn’t that mysterious: What is the mind? Everything we know suggests it’s “epiphenomenal to the neural substrate.” The mysterious part is how and why–the set of puzzles that make up so much of contemporary philosophy of mind.

    (2) I meant to pick out one type of question theists think their faith helps to answer: How should I live? What meaning, if any, does my life have? And (less pressing for the theist, more so for us) supposing there isn’t one built into the universe, and that it’s up to each of us to create such meaning, are there more or less defensible processes for doing so, or is it just “whatever you pick”? Depending on what you meant by “teleological agency” in this context: I didn’t mean to suppose that the answer could only be provided by some transcendent “purposiveness” built into the universe, nor did I mean to suppose any kind of radical free will in humans. I can probably elaborate if it seems as though either of those things should be required to make the question intelligible.

  • 7 anon // Apr 13, 2007 at 3:50 pm

    So God is a 3 letter word meaning “I don’t know how it works”?