Tag Archives: naturalism

Why Does God Feel So Absent (Part One)?

Something has been bothering me for years, and I am obsessed with getting clear on it: why does living in modern culture rob us of a sense of God’s presence? When Paul spoke to the Athenians he could assume that they shared his vivid sense of a divine presence in human life and in nature. He was sure that they would agree with the sixth-century B.C. philosopher Epimenides whom he quoted: “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). For the Athenians and nearly all the ancients it seemed obvious that nature was moved and ordered and directed by the divine spirit and mind. Why isn’t it obvious for us? Perhaps there are many reasons, but I want to focus on one: the impact of the model of reality generated by early modern science.

Modern science began in the early seventeenth century with Francis Bacon’s and Galileo’s rejection of Aristotle’s philosophy of science, especially their exclusion of formal and final causality from the study of nature. A formal cause is the design plan or blue print that makes a thing what it is as opposed to something else. It is the unifying center of a thing that integrates all its components into one whole. It is the foundation of its properties. Clearly a design plan is not a physical thing and does not exercise causality in a physical way. It can be comprehended only obscurely, as imperfect image. For these reasons, Bacon and Galileo excluded it from their new empirical/mathematical science.

A final cause is the reason for which a thing is made. It is the aim at which its entire development and activity is aimed. Like a formal cause, a final cause is not a physical thing and cannot exercise physical causality. It exists only in the mind of the maker of the thing. Bacon and Galileo saw no way of studying final causes empirically. How can you study the mind that made a natural object or the inner striving of the thing toward a goal? Those things, if they are factors at all, are hidden from the practitioner of empirical science who always views things from an external point of view.

Bacon and Galileo redesigned natural science so that it deals only with empirically observable phenomena, which it comprehends exclusively in mathematical terms. In other words, the task of natural science is to figure out the mathematical relationships of things that are capable of activating one of our five senses. What sorts of things activate our senses? The impacts of material objects! Hence, for Bacon and Galileo, natural science envisions reality as bits of matter related in space in ways that can be understood truly only in mathematical terms!

Natural science and the technology it has made possible have been decisive in forming modern culture. Modern science’s way of explaining empirical phenomena and the model of reality that has guided its investigations have so shaped our understanding of nature that we unthinkingly assume that it describes the way things truly are: everything in nature really is just bits of matter related in space. There is no formal causality operative in nature and no final causality that directs it toward a goal. Hence we cannot immediately experience nature as the result of design and in movement toward an end. And this is why we cannot feel what Paul assumed the Athenians felt, that “in him we live and move and have our being.”

In my view one of the most urgent needs of modern culture is to rediscover formal and final causality in nature and ourselves. I am not a professional philosopher or a scientist, but I want to do something to help people see the world through a different lens. What follows is not highly systematic. But I hope it can nevertheless cause us to question the materialistic model that robs us of the feeling of living in the flow of the divine life and thought as it manifests itself in the forms and flow of nature.

To Be Continued: Part 2 will be posted tomorrow.

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Can Science Show There is No God?

For the past five weeks I’ve dealt with objections to Christian belief that arise from the experience of evil. Today I will begin to examine objections inspired by modern natural science. In general, people who object to belief based on science argue that science has discovered fully natural, lawful explanations for processes and phenomena that were in the past explained by the existence and activity of God. If belief in God is an inference from observed effect to unobserved cause, belief in God is no longer warranted. Since the beginning of the scientific revolution so many secrets of nature have been given natural explanations that there is no longer any reasonable expectation that we will find any place within nature for God to act. Even if natural science cannot prove there is no God, the argument continues, it has closed so many gaps in nature so tightly that belief in a God who created and is active in the world has been robbed of its explanatory power and hence of its rational basis.

Before Galileo and all the way back to Plato and before, the world was conceived as a combination of body and soul. In analogy to the human being, the world body was animated by a soul that enabled it to move. The distinction between dead matter and living soul was self-evident. Matter possesses no power to move itself or cause any change in something else. Only soul is active and causal. When people living before Galileo looked up into the sky they assumed that the movements they saw there were the result of the rotation of all things around earth, which is the center of the universe. The Sun, Moon, the planets and the stars moved around earth propelled by the world soul. It was a spiritual universe in which the activity of God and the spiritual world was obvious. Movement (the visible effect) was explained by soul (the invisible cause). And all of this was made doubly certain by our experience of our minds and souls in relation to our bodies and the external world.

Galileo and those that followed him argued that we should adopt a new analogy or model to help explain how the world works. Instead of the organic model of soul/body in which soul exercises its causality mysteriously by an internal organic connection, such as that we experience between our minds and our bodies, we should think of the world as a machine in which wholly material parts (ultimately atoms) interact with each other only externally. Movement is transferred from one body to another by external impact. In this way the mystery is removed from movement and change within the world, because mechanical interactions involve only relative spatial location, magnitude and direction and these can be comprehended by the clearest and most precise of all the sciences, mathematics.

Perhaps Galileo believed that there were spiritual and organic aspects to the world whose working cannot be explained by the mechanical analogy. But soon there were those who argued that everything and every process in the world can be explained exhaustively by mechanical principles, that is, by external relations comprehended in mathematical language. All movement in the physical world is cause by impacts of physical objects on each other. All phenomena are caused by atoms that come to be arranged spatially by purely natural means. Hence no inference from the beauty, intelligibility, fittingness, complexity and order of the world to a spiritual cause, i.e., God, is warranted.

Much more could be said in response to this argument than I am going to say. Those who know something about contemporary physics know that the mechanical model is no longer held to mirror everything and every process in the physical world. It applies only approximately to a narrow range of the world. The idea that the world is made of unbreakable atoms that relate only externally has been exploded. Other analogies and models now play a part: fields, waves, strings, etc. Causality is no longer central to scientific explanation and quantum discontinuity or indeterminacy has been added to continuity and determinacy, introducing again a sort of mystery into nature. Many of the arguments against belief that were forged in the post-Galileo era no longer carry any weight. Nevertheless the impression still remains that somehow scientific explanations of physical processes exclude the activity of God.

In response to the arguments derived from the mechanical model, I want to remind you that what occurred in the early scientific revolution was a shift from the organic analogy to the mechanical one. But why should we prefer a mechanical analogy? From where do we get it? The answer to this last question is obvious: From everyday experience. We see simple machines like the fulcrum and lever or complex ones like the mechanical watch and are impressed with how easily we can understand them and how readily we can describe them simple spatial and quantitative terms. But machines are outside of us and we have no capacity to get inside them. Hence we assume they have no inside, no consciousness, no soul and no mind. Then we extend this analogy to the whole universe and conclude that the universe has no inside, no consciousness and no mind. But we do not know this! We have assumed it based on our experience of simple external objects.

My simple answer to the argument from natural science to unbelief or skepticism is as follows: The metaphors of machine, fields, waves and all the others derive from common sense observation of the external world. But there is one object in the world to which we have a most intimate relationship, not external but internal, that is, our own being, body, mind and soul. We experience within our very selves the power of causality and movement and freedom as our own acts. And that is something one can never experience in an external way! All physical science is but an extension of common sense experience of the external world, so of course science will never reveal the spiritual/mental dimension of the world. Only by taking our internal experience of ourselves as primitive and self-evident can we gain access to a spiritual dimension of the world.

Why not take our most direct experience of reality as the deepest window into that we can experience only indirectly? I consider it completely absurd to allow external and indirect experience to overturn the compelling impression of internal and direct experience! After all, both are human experience understood only in the mind. In empirical experience we use without noticing the power of our minds to construct internal images of things outside the mind from sense impressions. But in the mind’s experience of itself we experience the creative and constructive power of the mind directly. If we allow internal experience to have its proper say, the world will no longer appear as a meaningless machine or a mindless interplay of energy fields or a random world of quantum probabilities. (Don’t forget that these are but images or models in our imaginations!) It will appear as beautiful, meaningful, intelligible and spiritual. It would make perfect sense to view it as an expression of the mind of the Creator.

Future Posts: What is science, and what are its limits? Do the Big Bang Cosmological Theory and the Theory of Biological Evolution contradict belief in a Creator who exercises providence in and over the world?

Is God Merely the Mind and Conscience of Nature?

For the past three weeks we’ve been considering the second decision point on the road toward Christian faith, that is, the choice between an impersonal and a personal God. As with all the decision points on this journey, here, too, we cannot be compelled to choose the option that moves us closer to Christianity. Nor can I claim to have proved the existence of a personal God beyond any doubt. As I have insisted all along, our judgments in these areas are fallible and we cannot exclude all risk from our decisions. Nevertheless, I argue that this judgment is reasonable and the decision responsible.

Before we move into the third decision point, I’d like to clear up a possible misunderstanding. I am not arguing that this path and these exact decision points must be followed in the order I outline before one can legitimately accept Christianity as true. This path treats the background beliefs that must be true if Christianity is true. It follows an order in which philosophers often treat these questions, an order of priority in being that moves from things that seem basic and necessary to those that appear derivative and contingent. One need not examine these beliefs or even become aware of them to come to Christian faith. People have moved from atheism to belief in God by encountering the beauty and wonder of the universe or the depths of human love. One can be moved from atheism to Christian faith simply by listening to the gospel of Jesus Christ. You don’t need to work your way out of materialism by reason alone or get beyond the idea of an impersonal god solely by intellectual means. But if you do come to believe in God and Jesus Christ by hearing the gospel or experiencing love, it still remains true that you implicitly accept all the background beliefs that cohere with this decision. You cannot believe in a personal God and believe that matter is the ultimate explanation for all reality. Nor can you believe in gospel of Jesus Christ and believe in an impersonal god.

My hope is that thinking through this series in order will help non-believers by showing that the background beliefs that make atheism plausible are questionable, if not simply false. If I can show that materialism is flawed or false, atheism is undermined even if the immediate motive for denying God’s existence is the presence of evil in the world. Showing that the idea of an impersonal god is incoherent may motivate the “spiritual but not religious” group to seek a relationship with the personal God and, hence, be open to full Christian faith. Believers can also benefit from following the path I’m tracing. Making explicit and seeing the truth of Christianity’s background beliefs may strengthen the believer’s conviction that judgments in favor of Christianity’s truth can be reasonable and decisions to follow the Christian way can be responsible.

The Third Decision Point

The third decision point confronts us with the choice between thinking of God as the highest aspect of nature or as transcending nature. Is God supernatural or natural? Is the world God’s creation or God’s body? The issue can also be framed as a decision between theism or panentheism. (Panentheism is the theory that God and the world of our experience are two aspects the one ultimate reality.). Before we go into this discussion, perhaps I ought to say that we are getting close the limits of what we can achieve by reasoning from our experience of the natural world and our own minds. If God really transcends the world and our minds as their Creator, there can be no natural continuity between us and God. Our reasoning can at best take us to the limits of nature and to the limits of what is given with our minds. It cannot take us beyond them. Reason can follow natural law to its limits, but if there is a reality not subject to natural law, we cannot find it in this way.

Nevertheless, there is work for reason to do even at this point. If we begin with the presumption that God is intelligent, personal, and free—a conclusion we reached in the first two decision points—we can examine the reasonableness of thinking of God as a part of nature, subject to basic natural law. If we find this view of God incoherent or inadequate to experience or intuitively unsatisfying, we may find the alternative of a transcendent Creator attractive. And even though we cannot reason directly from our experience of nature and our minds to a transcendent God, we may be willing to consider other ways in which we can achieve such knowledge. If we cannot ascend to God on the ladder of reason, perhaps God can descend to us. If God transcends the laws of the natural world God has created, why should we think the limits nature places on us apply also to God?

Next week we will examine the idea that God is the higher aspect of nature. Does it make sense to think of God as only partially transcending nature, as finite and limited in power, presence, and knowledge, and as developing and growing? Or does it make more sense to remove from our thinking about God all limits and presume that God is infinite and perfect?