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Mystery

Mystery and Ineffability

Lactantius on Knowing a Little

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Among philosophers some have pretended that man might know every thing, — these are madmen; others that he could know nothing, — these men were not more wise: the former have given too much to man, the latter too little; both the one and the other have rushed into excess. Where then is wisdom? She consists in not believing that you know every thing — that is the attribute of God alone; in not pretending that you know nothing — that is the property of brutes: between these two extremes there is a medium which is appropriated for man — it is knowledge mixed up with darkness and tempered with ignorance.

Charles Townes on the Interaction Between Science and Religion

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Science has been digging deeper and deeper, and as it has done so, particularly in the basic sciences like physics and astronomy, we have begun to understand more. We have found that the world is not deterministic: quantum mechanics has revolutionized physics by showing that things are not completely predictable. That doesn’t mean that we’ve found just where God comes in, but we know now that things are not as predictable as we thought and that there are things we don’t understand. For example, we don’t know what some 95 percent of the matter in the universe is: we can’t see it – it’s neither atom nor molecule, apparently. We think we can prove it’s there, we see its effect on gravity, but we don’t know what and where it is, other than broadly scattered around the universe. And that’s very strange. ¶ So as science encounters mysteries, it is starting to recognize its limitations and become somewhat more open. There are still scientists who differ strongly with religion and vice versa. But I think people are being more open-minded about recognizing the limitations in our frame of understanding.

Why Us?

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In ‘Why Us?’, James Le Fanu explores the major implications of the most recent findings of genetics and neuroscience, challenging the common assumption that they must ultimately explain all there is to know about life and man’s place in the world. On the contrary, he argues, they point to an unbridgeable explanatory gap between the genes strung out along the Double Helix and the near infinite beauty and diversity of the living world to which they give rise, and between the monotonous electro-chemistry of the brain and richness and creativity of the human mind. “There is,” he writes, “a powerful impression that science has been looking in the wrong place, seeking to resolve questions that somehow lie outside its domain. It is as if we – and indeed all living things – are in some way different, profounder and more complex than the physical world to which we belong.” A N Wilson in his review described it as ‘an extraordinary work of science … quite wonderfully refreshing’; for Christopher Booker in The Spectator it was “enthralling”: “one of the glories of Le Fanu’s erudite and beautifully written book is that a sense of wonder is evident on every page, even as he lucidly analyses the limitations of the narrow intellectual prism in which science has languished too long.” ~ Publisher’s Description

We’re In This Together

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On a recent broadcast of the Infidel Guy (Sep. 16, 2008), a caller challenged Gary Habermas, the evening’s guest, to reconcile the omniscience of God with human free will. Habermas did his best to argue that there is no necessary conflict, that God knows because we freely choose, we do not so choose because God knows. For my part, I think it’s a legitimate and difficult objection. I’m not yet persuaded by either Molinist or Openness attempts to reconcile the two, much less compatabilism or the notion that it is solved by God’s being outside of time. But what followed is what struck me. Habermas took the opportunity to ask Reggie Finley, the host, whether he, as a naturalist, believed in free will. Reggie paused, then conceded that he was still trying to figure that one out. Good luck, because while free will may be problematic for the theist, it is probably a lost cause for the naturalist. For example, in his excellent and lucid work, The Significance of Free Will, Robert Kane manages to find a place for indeterminacy in matter (in quantum theory), but not for agency, the sine qua non of free will in my judgment. My point is not to wade into the deep waters of human freedom. Rather, I’m taking exception to the widespread impression that it is only the theist who must accept mysteries, antinomies, and quandaries. The truth is, all worldviews are beset by unique difficulties and internal conceptual problems. And, we remain perplexed by many mysteries that we share in common. That is to say, we’re in this together. With our amazing, but limited human faculties, the world remains puzzling to us all. In the ongoing debate about what is and is not real, it would serve us well to be mindful of the problems with which each worldview must wrestle. To that end, here are some that occur to me for both Christian theism and for Naturalism.

Stephen King on Mystery and God

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It’s a mystery. That’s the first thing that interests me about the idea of God. If there is one, it’s mysterious and powerful and awesome to even consider the concept, and you have to take it seriously. I understand where Bill Maher is coming from when he says, basically, the world is destroying itself over a bunch of fairy tales about talking snakes and men who are alive inside fishes. I’m very sympathetic to it, but at the same time, given the cosmos that we’re living in, it’s very persuasive, the idea that there is some kind of first cause that’s running things. It might not be the god of Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, it might not be the god of al-Qaida, and it might not be the god of Abraham, but something very well could be running things. The order of the universe as we see it, the interlocking nature, and the way things work together, are persuasive of the idea that there may be some overarching first cause.

In Search of a Confident Faith

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In Search of a Confident Faith is an excellent comprehensive apologetic for establishing trust in God "for real." I wanted to review this book due to my own interest in Christians becoming confident in their faith. The book reaffirms the Christian faith as one of propositional knowledge confirmed through personal experience; but does so at a very accessible level. Moreland and Issler address many helpful points concerning the influence of Western culture in creating doubt in Christians’ faith. First, the authors address the misuse of the term "faith" in today’s culture as a "blind leap" or as in place of reason. The term historically entailed a much richer meaning of trust and confidence, which crucially required the proper exercise of reason, evidence, and knowledge. Second, they describe the essential role of knowledge in the Christian faith; through a look at the Biblical view of knowledge, through breaking down the concept of knowledge, and through addressing our plausibility structures (explained more thoroughly later). Third, the authors attend to intellectual and emotional doubts: both through logical arguments and then through practical steps in handling these doubts. Fourth, Moreland and Issler handle doubt caused by low expectations of God’s intervention into a believer’s life and make practical suggestions for increasing trust in God. Their writing systematically and carefully treats each area without losing interest or bogging down in terminology. ~ Mary Jo Sharp @ Amazon.com

Andrew Sullivan on Making Distinctions

Go The reason I find fundamentalism so troubling — whether it is Christian, Jewish or Muslim — is not just its willingness to use violence (in the Islamist manifestation). It is its inability to integrate doubt into faith, its resistance to human reason, its tendency to pride and exclusion, and its inability to accept mystery as the core reality of any religious life. You find it troubling, I think, purely because it upholds truths that cannot be proved empirically or even, in some respects, logically. In that sense, of course, I think you have no reason to dislike or oppose it any more than you would oppose my kind of faith. Your argument allows for no solid distinctions within faiths; my argument depends on such distinctions.

Nassim Taleb on the Opacity of History

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History is opaque. You see what comes out, not the script that produces events, the generator of history. There is a fundamental incompleteness in your grasp of such events, since you do not see what’s inside the box, how the mechanisms work. What I call the generator of historical events is different from the events themselves, much as the minds of the gods cannot be just by witnessing their deeds. You are very likely to be fooled about their intentions. ¶ This disconnect is similar to the difference between the food you see on the table at the restaurant and the process you can observe in the kitchen. … the human mind suffers from three ailments as it comes into contact with history, what I call the triplet of opacity. They are: a) the illusion of understanding, or how everyone thinks he knows what is going on in a world that is more complicated (or random) than they realize; b) the retrospective distortion, or how we can assess matters only after the fact, as if they were in a rearview mirror (history seems clearer and more organized in history books than in empirical reality); and c) the overvaluation of factual information and the handicap of authoritative and learned people, particularly when they create categories — when they “Platonify.”

Anthony Kenny on the Mind of God

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If we are to attribute intelligence to any entity — limited or unlimited, cosmic or extra-cosmic — we have to take as our starting point our concept of intelligence as exhibited by human beings: we have no other concept of it. Human intelligence is displaced in the behavior of human bodies and in the thoughts of human minds. If we reflect on the active way in which we attribute mental predicates such as "know," "believe," "think," "design," "control" to human beings, we realize the immense difficulty there is [in] applying them to a putative being which is immaterial, ubiquitous and eternal. It is not just that we do not, and cannot, know what goes on in God’s mind, it is that we cannot really ascribe a mind to God at all. The language that we use to describe the contents of human minds operates within a web of links with bodily behavior and social institutions. When we try to apply this language to an entity outside the natural world, whose scope of operation is the entire universe, this web comes to pieces, and we no longer know what we are saying.

D. Z. Phillips on Theories of Everything

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What kind of theory is a theory about the structure of the world? If by “the world” one wants to mean “everything”, there is no such theory. Certainly, science has no such theory, nor could it have. “Everything” is not the name of one big thing or topic, and therefore, there can be no theory concerning a thing or topic of this kind. To speak of a thing is to acknowledge the existence of many things, since one can always be asked which thing one is referring to. Science is concerned with specific states of affairs, no matter how wide the scope of its questions may be. Whatever explanations it offers, further questions can be asked about them. It makes no sense to speak of a last answer in science, one that does not admit of any further questions. Science is not concerned with “the structure of the world”, and there are no scientific investigations which have this as their subject.

Jonah Goldberg on a Mysterious God

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So let me answer the question even though I find it distasteful. Yes, I believe in God. But I suppose I would emphasize my belief that He is a mysterious God — a very mysterious God — and that the best way we have to understand Him is through metaphors which we will, and almost always should, find wanting. God may be able to make a boulder too heavy for Him to lift, but even He couldn’t do better than “I am that I am.”/ “I am Who am.” Or He could, but we wouldn’t understand it.

Joe Firmage on Scientific Knowledge

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You are not alone in a lack of understanding about the nature of inertia. Physicists do not know why objects resist acceleration — why objects push back when pushed. They do not know for sure why your head snaps back when your car speeds up. Inertia “just is.” Also, contrary to popular assumption, scientists don’t understand the mechanism that causes matter to attract itself — the force of gravity that makes objects fall to the ground. To be sure, scientists have painstakingly measured the rates of fall and resistance, and so we can build all sorts of technology that work flawlessly within the equations of these everyday forces. But we do not know why these forces work the way they do.

Philip Yancey on Being Mostly Ignorant about Hell

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Still, I must insist that the most important question about heaven and hell — who goes where, whether there are second chances, what form the judgments and rewards take, intermediate states after death — are opaque at best. Increasingly, I am grateful for that ignorance and grateful that the God who revealed himself in Jesus is the one who knows the answers.

Michael Martin on God, Mystery, and Evil

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On most interpretations of the theistic God, He desires His creatures to love Him. However, the mystery of evil conflicts with this desire. It is difficult for rational humans to love God when they do not understand why there is so much evil. If the reasons for evil are beyond humans’ ken, God could at least make THIS abundantly clear. Why does He not do so? Moreover, why does not an all-powerful God have the power to raise human intelligence so humans can understand why there is so much evil? If there is reason for not doing this, then why is THIS not made clear? There is mystery on top of mystery here which seems to conflict explicitly with God’s desire to be loved.

Marlene Winell on Ambiguity

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Intellectual ambiguity can be very uncomfortable. It is always easier to be sure of something. A religion that neatly provides all the answers saves you the frustration and anxiety that inevitably accompany a struggle with difficult questions. Fundamentalism is especially dogmatic and detailed in describing a grand scheme. The Bible is offered as the inerrant word of God, revealing the path of history, a plan of salvation, and predictions about the future. Reasons and justifications are given. And for questions that still remain, there is the ultimate comfort that comes with trusting that a benign father God had everything under control.

Gordon Kaufman on Language and Theology

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The central problem of theological discourse, not shared with any other "language game," is the meaning of the term "God." "God" raises special problems of meaning because it is a noun which by definition refers to a reality transcendent of, and thus not locatable within, experience. A new convert may wish to refer the "warm feeling" in his heart to God, but God is hardly to be identified with this emotion; the biblicist may regard the Bible as God’s Word; the moralist may believe God speaks through men’s consciences; the churchman may believe God is present among his people — but each of these would agree that God himself transcends the locus referred to. As the Creator or Source of all that is, God is not to be identified with any particular finite reality; as the proper object of ultimate loyalty or faith, God is to be distinguished from every proximate or penultimate value or being. But if absolutely nothing within our experience can be directly identified as that to which the term "God" properly refers, what meaning does or can the word have?

Aldous Huxley on the Darkness

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Man inhabits, for his own convenience, a homemade universe within the greater alien world of external matter and his own irrationality. Out of the illimitable blackness of the world the light of his customary thinking scoops, as it were, a little illuminated cave — a tunnel of brightness, in which, from the brink of consciousness to its death, he lives, moves, and has his being. …. We ignore the outer darkness; or if we cannot ignore it, if it presses too insistently upon us, we disapprove of being afraid.

Will and Ariel Durant on Superstition

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Religions are born and may die, but superstition is immortal. Only the fortunate can take life without mythology. Most of us suffer in body and soul, and Nature’s subtlest anodyne is a dose of the supernatural. Even Kepler and Newton mingled their science with mythology: Kepler believed in witchcraft, and Newton wrote less on science than on the Apocalypse. ¶ Popular superstitions were beyond number. Our ears burn when others speak of us. Marriages made in May will turn out unhappily. Wounds can be cured by anointing the weapon with which they were inflicted. A corpse resumes bleeding in the presence of the murderer. Fairies, elves, hobgoblins, ghosts, witches, demons lurk everywhere. Certain talismans… guarantee good good fortune. Amulets can ward of wrinkles, impotence, the evil eye, the plague. A king’s touch can cure scrofula. Numbers, minerals, plants, and animals have magic qualities and powers. Every event is a sign of God’s pleasure or wrath, or of Satan’s activity. Events can be foretold from the shape of the head or the lines of the hands. Health, strength, and sexual power vary with the waxing and waning of the moon. Moonshine can cause lunacy and cure warts. Comets presage disasters. The world is (every so often) coming to an end.

Edwin Hubble on Empiricism and Speculation

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Research men attempt to satisfy their curiosity, and are accustomed to use any reasonable means that may assist them toward the receding goal. One of the few universal characteristics is a healthy skepticism toward unverified speculations. These are regarded as topics for conversation until tests can be devised. Only then do they attain the dignity of subjects for investigation. … With increasing distance our knowledge fades and fades rapidly. Eventually we reach the dim boundary, the utmost limits of our telescope. There we measure shadows, and we search among ghostly errors of measurements for landmarks that are scarcely more substantial. The search will continue. Not until the empirical resources are exhausted need we pass on to the dreamy realms of speculation.

Albert Einstein on True Religion

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The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his are dimmed. It was the experience of mystery — even if mixed with fear — that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds — it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man. I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the kind that we experience in ourselves. Neither can I nor would I want to conceive of an individual that survives his physical death; let feeble souls, from fear or absurd egoism, cherish such thoughts.

Bertrand Russell on Questions and Philosophy

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Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.

Ethics of Theism

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It has been said by a great mind, that confusion is worse than error.1 Erroneous statements and opinions, in their naked deformity, are generally too hideous to win the regard and confidence of men even in their present depraved condition; while the manifestation of what is true, in its simple grandeur and pure light, is often too bright and fair to be agreeable to the eye and the heart of man. The great work which a lover of truth finds to do, is to separate the conglomerate mass of knowledge, or what men call knowledge, into its two component parts, the true and the false. What is false owes all its plausibility and power to its being associated and mingled with what is true. What is true, is rendered dim and uncertain and weak by being blended and confounded with the erroneous. The human mind is like a thrashing-floor. The honest inquirer will be constantly using the fan, to separate the chaff from the wheat.

Thomas Reid on Conjecture and Empirical Science

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There is such proneness in men of genius to invent hypotheses, and in others to acquiesce in them as the utmost which the human faculties can attain in philosophy, that it is of the last consequence to the progress of real knowledge, that men should have a clear and distinct understanding of the nature of hypotheses in philosophy, and of the regard that is due to them. ¶ Although some conjectures may have a considerable degree of probability, yet it is evidently in the nature of conjecture to be uncertain. In every case, the assent ought to be proportioned to the evidence; for to believe firmly what has but a small degree of probability, is a manifest abuse of our understanding. Now, though we may, in many cases, form very probable conjectures concerning the works of men, every conjecture we can form with regard to the works of God has as little probability as the conjectures of a child with regard to the works of a man.

Thomas Reid on Rational Induction and Empiricism

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Although some conjectures may have a considerable degree of probability, yet it is evidently in the nature of conjecture to be uncertain. In every case, the assent ought to be proportioned to the evidence; for to believe firmly what has but a small degree of probability is a manifest abuse of our understanding. Now, though we may, in many cases, form very probable conjectures concerning the works of men, every conjecture we can form with regard to the works of God has as little probability as the conjectures of a child with regard to the works of a man. The wisdom of God exceeds that of the wisest man, more than that of the wisest man exceeds the wisdom of a child. If a child were to conjecture how an army is to be formed in the day of battle, how a city is to be fortified, or a state governed, what chance has he to guess right? As little chance has the wisest man, when he pretends to conjecture how the planets move in their courses, how the sea ebbs and flows, and how our minds act upon our bodies …

Immanuel Kant on Unanswerable Questions

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Human reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.