Friday, November 13, 2009

Dividing by Zero

It's a common misconception that reason is the final arbiter in understanding our universe. Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.

“Don’t make common sense difficult.”
So spoke Kerneels Young, a man you most likely never heard of before. Still, his words ring true.

The only problem is we don’t really know what common sense is.
It’s like asking a psychologist what a “normal” personality is - we seem to recognize the term, but when we try to define it we run into difficulties.

According to Wikipedia, “based on a strict construction of the term, common sense consists of what people in common would agree on: that which they ‘sense’ as their common natural understanding.” But that is about as far as we get, because this “common natural understanding” appears as elusive as the original term.

Convictions, Beliefs and Decisions

We can however agree on one aspect of common sense – its reference to sound judgment. When a person has made a prudent or wise choice based upon the prevailing public opinion, we say that person exhibited common sense. So, common sense has a relationship to the way the mind comes to conclusions, or more accurately – how we make decisions.

Being human means we have feelings and emotions (our irrational side) that color the very way we perceive things. As António Damásio’s work has shown, it is not possible for people with damage to either their logical or emotional brain circuitry to make good decisions. We need both.

Taken this a step further, we can say that beliefs are therefore a set of convictions based upon a mixture of both our logic and our feelings. That is simply how our brains work. So when Atheists say they don’t believe in God, or the bible, it really is not that different from Christians saying the opposite. Since absolute proof for or against the existence of God seems impossible, we choose what to believe based upon how we see reality.

Science and Reason

Science has a similar problem. In the end, we simply have to believe that reality as we know it actually exists, or even science is toast. And in his criticism against the scientific method, Paul Feyerabend rejected the view that science is especially "rational" on the grounds that there is no single common "rational" ingredient which unites all the sciences but excludes other modes of thought.

If this sounds like an attack on the tendency to elevate Reason to the status of a god, the philosophers were not done yet. In the end, reason itself was used to show that reason is not enough.

This is pretty much what Kurt Gödel did with his Incompleteness Theorem in which he proved that within any consistent formal mathematical system there would always be some true statements that couldn't be proven using the rules and axioms of that mathematical system itself. You could of course go outside the system to prove those propositions, but then you would in effect expand the system itself – therefore just creating a bigger system with its own new unprovable statements.

Since this is true mathematically (which is not alive and has no motive), it presents us with a new challenge: our understanding of the universe will always have truths contained within it which cannot be proven using the laws of the universe itself. Or put another way - no matter how well we learn to reason, rational thought can never penetrate to the final ultimate truth.

As Steven Hawkins put it so elegantly, “Although Science may solve the problem of how the universe began, it can not answer the question: why does the universe bother to exist? Maybe only God can answer that.”


Houston, we have a problem. If science and reason cannot always verify our convictions or beliefs (because they depend upon their own set of suppositions), where do we turn? Is there even such a thing as the absolute TRUTH, or is everything relative? Can we even know the difference?

Amazingly enough, the bible seems to have anticipated this conundrum, despite the fact that it was written long before any of this modern thinking was even around. The kind of faith the bible talks about is more than just a set of convictions or beliefs – it is presented as a kind of first-hand knowledge gathered from an intense personal encounter or relationship with God.

Of course, this type of “knowledge” cannot be scientifically investigated, because science can only deal with phenomena which can be measured or inferred logically from repeatable experimentation. It also cannot be deducted from reasoning alone; that is why the bible is called a revelation. But it does not entirely upend reason. It just calls for a different perspective.

If God indeed exists and the bible is really his revealing Word to mankind, then (philosophically speaking) one has to admit the possibility that God might have created the universe in such a way that it would be impossible to prove or disprove his existence. This is indeed the message of the Bible, and the position of most theologians: Fundamentally, God has made it so that we have to choose what we believe (or not) without the benefit of first determining the answer using human qualities.

Therefore the real question becomes: Is there anyway that we could ask God (if he really exists and if he even cares about us) to give us the truth about this perplexing problem.

Some would say he already did.

As for the rest of us, we could do the same. If God is who the bible claims he is and we are sincere, he will answer.