by A L Katz
It all comes down to this: do you really, really, REALLY need to know? And how will you handle it if you can’t know?
In his excellent lecture “Beyond Belief“, astrophysicist, author, science communicator and Director of the Hayden Planetarium in NYC Neil deGrasse Tyson points out how even the most brilliant human beings in history — Isaac Newton (perhaps the MOST brilliant human ever) for instance — went to “magical thinking” when they reached the limits of “what they knew”.
Isaac Newton was so smart that he invented calculus (because the math didn’t exist to solve the multiple moving bodies problem he was trying to solve). And yet, when Newton found inexplicable variables that confounded even HIS knowledge (when the calculations to describe multiple multiple moving bodies became even too much for HIS mind to get around), he ascribed the answer to God. God understood it and that’s why it worked the way it did.
Had Newton’s answer — “It’s God” — stood the test of time, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But, as Tyson points out, before too long, another mind came along and — using information built on Newton but not available to Newton — and answered Newton’s question without relying on God — the “God Of The Gaps”, really — to explain it.
Over time, religion answers less and less because its answers become more and more demonstrably false. In religion’s defense, it usually tries to answer the Big Questions using only the information available to it at the time — even if only contextually. Had the authors of the Old Testament known about germ theory, for instance, or had access to telescopes and microscopes or the internet, would they have written what they wrote? Of course not. They wouldn’t have felt compelled to invent things to explain how the world works. They’d have known how it works. Science would have informed them.
As an atheist, I accept that as curious as I am to know how exactly the universe works, it is unlikely my curiosity will ever be answered. I will never know for sure, for instance, what lies on the other end of a black hole — beyond its raging singularity. I accept not knowing. That means I accept the uncertainty that rides shotgun with it.
How did the universe begin and how will it end? I don’t know. And I can live with that.
But that’s just me. Not everyone feels the way I do or thinks this way. Not everyone can live with not knowing. Faith doesn’t require certainty to work — except certainty in the faith itself. Certainty that the faith is correct — regardless of whether it really is or not. Abrahamic faith would tell you that it (and it alone) answers every question a person could have about the world.
How did the universe begin? Well, “In the beginning…”. How will it all end? “Fear God and give him glory, for the hour of his judgment has come” says John in Revelation (14:6). Everyone not fearing God will end up this way, in “…the great wine press of the Wrath of God” and their blood will flow “…from the wine press, as high as a horse’s bridle, for a distance of about two hundred miles.”
That’s a lot of blood. A lot of certainty, too — about things that absolutely will not happen. Faith’s advantage (such as it is) is that no one ever has to check it’s work. In fact, no one wants anyone checking faith’s work. That would mean faith always failing because faith’s “work” never checks out. “Trust me” is not the same as “Trust the data — as much as one can”. It’s a whole other way of thinking, in fact.
And that’s the point. How do you feel about certainty? Do you need to “know” where we came from, where we’re heading and what it all means or are you willing to accept doubt? Can you handle not knowing why we’re here — or (the harder assignment still) can you handle the task of assigning a purpose to yourself?