Metaphysics and the Middaymoon
So the combination of reading Flatland, talking to NuTang[middaymoon], and going to our church group's night on the intersection of religion and science meant that I had a lot of pondering to do.
I will start at the end, since that seems to make the most sense. Our church group is made up of grad students and med students from every different discipline. Since a lot of us are scientists, we wanted to talk about how science and religion do (or do not) conflict. While they likely won't admit it, most quasi-religious scientists tend to do a little something called "Doublethink" to use the words of George Orwell in 1984. Here is how it is explained in 1984:
Doublethink: The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them....To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies — all this is indispensably necessary.
The religious scientist has two hats. He wears the religious hat while at religious functions, and the scientist hat while in his lab, and outside of either he exists in a realm of doublethink, where he appears to hold two contradictory ideas of reality, one where man evolved from one-celled organisms, life arose by clay, carbon chains, and chance, and the Universe is 13.5 billion years old. In this reality, all of our thoughts and emotions are simply colorful byproducts of millions of years of evolution. Reaction to outside stimuli and competitive advantage lie behind every variation of biodiversity or nuance in the human psyche. We don't understand it simply because we have not studied it long enough. When we die our neurons cease to fire and the illusion we call "existence" is extinguished. We rot underground.
In the other reality, Man was created by God in His own image. Man exists in two parts: a body and a spirit, the body which is mortal, and the spirit which is immortal. We are attended by a watchful and ever-present God, and part of this God lives inside each of us and affects the way we make decisions, if we listen to Him. When we die, if we fulfill the requirements, we ascend to Heaven where we live eternally.
You can see right away the Doublethink of these statements. Most Christian groups won't let you talk about them because they're afraid that thinking about the Doublethink might cause doubt. After all,
Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.
Once we were finally able to get to talk about these elephants in the room, my fellow christian scientists had quite a few problems right away with the above simulanteously held world views. We begin as any logical thinker must, with an examination of our assumptions.
First, in the scientific mindset we have made the assumption that nothing in the natural world may be caused by supernatural powers. This is an important assumption, because it carries with it the requirement that natural happenings must have natural explanations (no miracles), that experiments must be repeatable, and that the laws of the Universe cannot be broken. I would say that this is a fundamental tenet of science which makes all scientific inquiry possible and anything that does not make this assumption is not science (i.e. Intelligent Design). Science is a game, and one of the rules is that nothing can be a result of the supernatural. If you break the rule, you're no longer playing Science.
In the religious mindset, you are operating in a reality in which science is a small subset of existing space. For those linear algebra fans among you, it's as if you had a vector space consisting of all of the Real Numbers, and you specified that within this space there was another space that consisted of all integer numbers. What we call natural processes (integer numbers) are certainly a subset of the real numbers, but by no means all of them.
Here's where we get into the relevance of Flatland. Flatland is a book which tells about the adventures of a square who lives in two dimensions. The square knows nothing of the third dimension, indeed, the thought that there might be a third dimension has never crossed his mind. The author deals with the many difficulties of life in two dimensions, including the fact that no matter what two dimensional shape you are, people only see you as a line, or, if you are a line looking at them end on, a point. The people of Flatland have devised all sorts of ingenious methods to determine each other's shape, including feeling each others verticies as a kind of handshake, or, in misty regions, recognizing that a line sloping away from you with greater steepness would fade more quickly into the mist.
One day the square is visited by a sphere from the third dimension. The sphere seems to call out to the square with a disembodied voice, because he is not in the plane that defines the square’s limited world. When the sphere enters the square’s plane, he appears as a point, and then a tiny circle, and grows larger and larger until a great circle, his radial plane, sits in the plane of the square. The square is astonished and believes it to be sorcery, witchcraft, a miracle, or a trick of the eye. He is further amazed to hear that from where the sphere floats above the square’s plane, he can see what everyone is doing, what shape everyone is, and indeed, what is inside of every shape. He can even pass right into what the square feels to be his guts. The sphere tries to tell the square in which direction is the third dimension, but the square cannot comprehend it. The third dimension is up, but not north. It is a dimension that is infinitesimally close at every point in the square’s world, but yet it is unmeasurable. One cannot even point in its direction. It isn’t until the sphere takes the square forcibly out of the plane that he can see like the sphere and he realizes that his view of the world has been extremely limited… he lived in one plane of the infinitely many planes that exist in three dimensions.
So, to return to our church group in the third dimension, they had some major problems which I think many Christians and non-Christians do. First: How can Man be made in the image of God if Man evolved from one-celled organisms? [An aside: I accept the theory of evolution as I do the theory of gravitation (with some caveats; and with the knowledge that the fundamentals of gravity are probably even less well understood than evolution). Evolution is a powerful and accurate way to understand the natural world within the framework of science.]
For my part, I asked the church group what they thought that God looked like. Does he really look like an old man with a white flowing beard and white robes full of lightning bolts? Every human being looks different; which one of us does God look like? I think most people would agree that God has no real current physical manifestation: he is a purely spiritual being. If he is a spiritual being then the outer shell that houses the image of God is of an arbitrary shape, and there is no requirement for what it looks like or even that it remains unchanging. The vessel of the image of God could look like anything, from a single-celled organism on up. The key is that the image of God, the spiritual being, would most likely be itself a spiritual being, that is, the soul. God filled the vessel of his choosing with a god-like soul, and thus Mankind lives as the image of God regardless of how Man achieved his current body shape (though there is no reason God couldn’t have had some hand in that, as well, or that other living things can’t also have some manifestation of a soul). This directly relates to the sort of dual existence of man, as a corporeal being and a spiritual being. I’ve talked before about how I think these two essences of man relate; that is, the body and mind exist here in this three dimensional space, and the soul communicates with the mind kind of like a two-way radio.
Secondly, the church group had a problem with God’s ever-presence. Already we have seen how the sphere could seem to be God-like. Merely by having the perspective of the third dimension, the sphere could see the shapes and locations of all of the people in the square’s plane; he could even see the inside of the square itself. It is natural for the scientific mind to scoff at the idea that God could be simultaneously everywhere and “invisible”, or that the soul could be at once inside you and yet located nowhere. But after all, the third dimension is infinitesimally removed from any plane, and yet completely unmeasurable by the people who live in that plane. Heaven, the realm of God, the plane of the divine, whatever you want to call it, could be almost tangent at every point to our world and yet completely unmeasurable. No one would even be able to point his finger in the direction to be measured. One could ask of my former ponderings, “How do the soul and mind communicate, and over what distance?” The manner by which they communicate is of course unknown (though NuTang[middaymoon] has some good ideas), but the distance across which they communicate could be practically nothing, with no logical gaps in our understanding of space.
So the question then is perhaps, “what is special about God?” To a square, any being of three dimensions might seem like a God. Is Heaven really just a fourth spatial dimension, along with many more (perhaps the 26 or so required for string theory?) I don’t think so. One must consider time, since time is another dimension, but one which is experienced completely differently than any of the other dimensions. Why is time different from the spatial dimensions? After all, a point which is translated through space is a line. A line, translated through space, could be a square. A square, translated through space could be a cube. A cube translated through space is perhaps a hypercube, but a person translated through time is a life, isn’t it? Why?
I would guess that the dimension of God would be a dimension like time in that it is experienced in a completely different way from the other known dimensions. Just as the sphere could create miracles by sliding in and out of the square’s plane, so God might create miracles by sliding in and out of the known Universe, disturbing the fabric of space-time.
Thus I end by saying that while many people interested in science tend to employ a type of “practical atheism” while in engaging the incredibly rewarding pursuit of the Game, this practical atheism does not have to amount to Doublethink or outright hypocrisy. The mere fact that such Doublethink exists in the mind of the Christian scientist undermines both his desire to be a good scientist and his desire to be a good Christian. One shouldn’t be afraid to think and reason and talk about the seemingly contradictory facts of religion and science. One shouldn’t shun scientific reasoning on the basis that it will undermine the faith. One shouldn’t shun religion on the basis that it will undermine the Game. Instead, we should see the Game as a vector subspace of reality, and see that all natural processes belong as elements of both the Game and of reality, but that all of reality doesn’t belong in the subspace of the Game. True faith would allow a person to explore every corner of the universe with the knowledge that the proof of the non-existence of God will not be forthcoming.