Tag Archives: theology and natural science

Why Does God Feel So Absent (Part Three)?

Physical Objects as Ideas

In our experience of the world in common sense and scientific study we seek to understand physical things. We name them, categorize them, enumerate their properties, experience their effects, and perceive their holistic integrity and stability. In considering a physical object, such as an atom or a living cell, we know the difference between its unordered components and the thing itself. In the thing, components are so ordered, integrated and coordinated that they constitute one thing, which possesses its own properties, functions and actions. What makes a natural physical object the particular object it is rather than an aggregate of unordered components or some other physical object?

Natural objects are much more complex and highly integrated than human-made objects. We understand the objects we make better than natural objects not only because they are simpler but because they existed as ideas or design plans in our minds before we gave them actual existence as physical objects. Natural physical objects are living or nonliving. Some nonliving physical objects are aggregates: sand stone, blocks of coal, piles of sand or gravel. The nature of an aggregate is revealed in that by dividing it you do not destroy its properties. Break a block of sand stone into pieces and you do not change its properties. Nonliving things possess their unique properties and inherent integrity only at the molecular or atomic level. Break them apart and they no longer exist.  We can gain some knowledge of molecules and atoms by breaking them apart to discover their components and internal relations. But the problem with this approach is that we have to destroy the thing to discover the cause of its integrity! Our understanding of the original thing is an abstraction, memory or model. It’s not the thing itself. We cannot experience a physical thing in its integrity except externally. But that is not the same as experiencing the cause of its integrity, that is, its idea, which can be experienced only from within. Yet physics, chemistry and every other empirical science makes no sense unless it aims at this ideal, that is, to possess the entirety of a thing’s cause as an idea in the mind—a goal that it can never achieve.

The smallest living thing is much more complex than the most complex human made machine. Yet living things achieve much greater integrity, harmony, and unity than human made things. Billions of components are integrated into the whole organism to the degree that each stands in constant communion with all the others and participates in the life of the whole. We can observe the properties and behavior of living things in their natural state and environment or we can attempt to discover how all the components, systems and subsystems relate to each other and the whole organism. We quest for the entire “blueprint” for the organism. Unfortunately, the quest to think the blueprint leads us to destroy the integrity and the life of the organism. And we never really get inside the thing to experience the cause of its unity and life in the act. But unless we imagine that there is such a cause, it would make no sense to search for it.

These reflections lead me to conclude that our quest for knowledge of the physical world makes no sense if the world is purely material, if everything is at bottom only bits of matter related in space. This quest for knowledge assumes that there is a real intelligible aspect to the world and every thing in it, living and nonliving. Only the assumption that our minds can think the blueprint and cause of a physical thing can explain our drive to understand it, that is, that the thing could in principle exist in our minds as an idea.

Hence our quest to understand nature assumes that the ideas of physical things exist and exercise causal force in things before we set out to discover them. When we direct our minds to them we find them thinkable and available to be united to our minds. Our minds can think them even though we did not invent them. What is the explanation for this amazing fit between our minds and the ideas that cause natural things to be what they are? From where did the ideas of things come? How did these blueprints come to be actual physical things?

Other Minds

In our interactions with human beings we encounter other minds. We can understand their thoughts and, since we are embodied in the same way, we can empathize with their feelings.  Other minds are not my creations and they are not material any more than my mind is. Yet other minds are not simply ideas either. Other minds affect us in ways bodies and ideas don’t, as active, free and creative, as bearing a likeness to our own minds. The same idea can exist in an infinite number of minds. There exists, then, a community of intelligent minds that share the same mental space, an extra human intelligible world, where they can meet.

The existence of other minds confirms for us the reality, creativity and freedom of our own minds, and underlines what I concluded previously: that reality is not synonymous with materiality, and knowing is not synonymous with empirical experience of external surfaces. By reflecting on how other minds and ours work we become convinced that information can be produced and thought only by minds. But non-human nature is teeming with ideas and loaded with information, which enters our minds through our experience of the world. As I indicated above, the ideal of scientific knowledge is to think the whole world and reproduce its blueprint in our minds.

What is the explanation for this state of affairs? Nonmaterial minds exist and live in a physical world ordered by ideas. Our minds can create ideas or discover them in nature. We can share ideas we create or discover with other minds. The multilayered intelligibility of the world can be in part discovered by experience. In my view the most plausible explanation for the deep-down and far-wide intelligibility of the world is the creative activity of a universal and all-inclusive Mind. The human mind, far from being a by-product of the chaotic movements of unintelligible matter is actually the place where the true nature of reality finally shows itself most clearly in its basic form—creative mind!

And it is this Mind to which Epimenides and Paul referred when they said that “In him we live and move and have our being.” Paul says God made the world in such a way that we could “seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:28). And in this series I’ve tried to show that it really matters where you begin your search.

 

 

 

 

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Should Believers Worry that Extra-terrestrial Life Really Exists?

As you may know from recent news releases, astronomers are excited to find 7 new earth-size planets orbiting around a star 40 light years from us. Of course 40 light years puts them way beyond our reach. It would take a space ship constructed with our current space technology 800,000 earth years to reach it. The main motivation for space exploration has always been our curiosity about ourselves, our origin, nature and destiny. So, we search for extra-terrestrial life or at least planets that could support life. Some people of faith are a bit skeptical or anxious about that possibility. So, I want to calm your fears.

What would it mean if space explorers found proof of extra-terrestrial life? Many people of an atheist bent would conclude that discovery of life elsewhere would disprove divine creation and prove that life here happened by chance. I suppose the argument would have to run like this: since we have another example of the evolution of life in the universe, we know that life on earth is not so unique and improbable that it requires a miracle to explain it. Instead, life tends to arise wherever in the universe conditions are right. And those conditions are not limited to earth. Hence we must assume that life arose on this planet by chance when the conditions made it possible.

Is this the only, or even the best, way to draw out the implications of such a discovery? I think the opposite is true. As long as earth life is the only instance of life we know, we could plausibly think of it as a freak accident unrelated to any purpose. Physical law made it possible, but chance made it actual. In truth, if we found life elsewhere it would make less plausible the idea that life on earth was a chance event. If we discovered that the universe was teaming with life, it would completely destroy the idea that life on earth came about by sheer chance. Why? Because it would demonstrate (at minimum) that the universe has a built in tendency to produce life, ultimately intelligent life. The occurrence of life could never again be attributed to pure chance. We would know it to be matter of law! The law of life would be as much a part of the universe as the law of gravity or any of the other fundamental forces. At its origin, the universe would have been programmed to produce life, to produce us. Producing intelligence is the universe’s goal. And when you and I think and dream and pray, we are enjoying the activity the universe has been aiming at from its origin! Our experience of our own minds is the most powerful telescope or microscope conceivable. It is a window into the beginning and end of all things.

But how could intelligence be the law and goal of the universe unless Intelligence was also present at the origin of the universe? As long as we think of the initial laws of our universe as mere regularities in a material universe—a rather unimaginative viewpoint—we did not have to raise the question of divine creation. But when intelligence comes to be considered an inbuilt aim–as the discovery of instances of ETL would force us to conclude–this explanation will no longer work.  Intelligence is not a mere regularity but a real thing indicating the presence of a mind. If the goal of producing intelligent beings is part of the initial conditions of the universe, the only explanation of this fact I can imagine is that a super intelligence programmed it that way.

Hence far from believers have something to fear from the discovery of extra-terrestrial life, we should rejoice at its discovery and say to our atheist friends, “See, we told you this universe was created by Life for life, by Intelligence for intelligence.” It is the atheist who should hope that we are alone.