Q: Why do so many people these days question whether there really is a god?
A: Because so many religious believers take literally various supernatural phenomena that are well understood to contradict the laws of nature.
Would Christianity change fundamentally if I said, “Jesus was only in a coma.” No. If Jesus was in a coma it doesn’t invalidate the Sermon on the Mount. The symbolism of the Christ would remain in tact. But it would defy the very dogma of the Church and would cause a crisis in the faith of millions who would pick such a matter as invalidating everything. It is therefore a kind of fatal flaw of disciplined religious faith that the supernatural must be believed. Keyword Spinoza.
‘So many people’ doesn’t make the difference. The difference is one of principle. It is illogical to believe in the supernatural. It doesn’t matter how many people do. It matters that somebody can identify the illogic. Any number of people can stumble into that idea and make something out of it. The Pope or whomever is the the head of the religion still has to answer the question once it has been posed.
There have always been people who question the validity of any and every god. That’s why there is more than just one religion. Human beings have lots of different ideas and reasons why a particular religious discipline works for them and what that says about its god. Beyond that, there are varying degree by which people accept or apply those disciplines, and even those vary during the lifetime of every individual.
What if God = The Universe? That’s what I say, by the way. More specifically, God is nothing more or less than the ultimate rules by which the universe functions. Science in this context is a religion of discovery towards which mankind must ultimately discipline themselves, for their own good. And yet people who claim to revere the scientific method make up fairy tales about global warming and renewable energy all the time. Should that make anyone question if there really is a universe? No. It simply invalidates everything they illogically claim. What then is the supernatural? It is anything that defies the laws of the universe, whatever those laws may ultimately prove out to be - not that we’re ever going to figure them all out. Still, we know quite a bit more of them than we did when most prominent religions ossified into their respective dogmas.
Again, it doesn’t matter how many people make illogical claims or how many people discover the rational flaw. Ultimately the question must be definitively answered once it has been posed. People will have to admit at some point that they are invoking what I call their evolutionary fitness to take some matters on faith. After all, faith and hope are evolutionary useful to us. They give us heuristics of survival. In other words they give us methods to make decisions under conditions of uncertainty. “Don’t just stand there, do something.” That’s what we say. We demand action, because action is a survival mechanism. You don’t try to estimate the exact number of wolves in the pack when you hear the howls, you get your ass home. You hope you’re closer to home than they are to you. You have faith that you are actually hearing wolves, not a recording of them playing from a hifi in the cabin up the hill. You can’t scientifically prove either, but you run anyway.
The matter of faith is cultural. The business of science is meta-cultural. The answers that science provides gives people more places to go, or perhaps more efficient ways to get there, but ‘science’ doesn’t answer what to do when you arrive other than an ability to Instagram a selfie. The war between religion and science is childish and overblown. I dislike scientism precisely because it is evangelical but not instructional. I say blessed are the theologians and philosophers. They understand the value of reconnoitering the mysterious unknown. Everybody else just seems to want to prove that they can comprehend God and the Universe. Good luck with that. BUT, you can see how this is just another way of not just standing there and doing something. That ties them both as a matter of human desire, of will, of evolutionary fitness in the absence of perfect clarity.
The Axis of Magic
There is something which unites magic and applied science [=technology] while separating both from the “wisdom” of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men; the solution is a technique. --C. S. Lewis
Last year I happened on a conversation by @swardley, one of my favorite tweeters. He was describing magic in the realm of corporate desire. The thread is here:
X : Culture eats strategy for breakfast
Me : Magic eats culture for lunch
X : What?
Me : I asked 20 tech executives - “Do you think your workplace is magical compared to others” and 40% said yes. Magic is real.
X : This is bullshit
Me : You started it with culture.
— Simon Wardley #EEA (@swardley) August 27, 2019
And the idea of magic occurs to me in two contexts. The first is the series Magic 2.0 by Scott Meyer. My review of the first book is here.
What a fun book, and what an exceptionally diabolical villain. Scott Meyer's protag is an ordinary bumbling, self-deprecated cornball of a 'Greatest American Hero'. All good intentions and smarmy sentimentality of a Millennial Charlie Brown, Martin Banks can't figure out a purpose for his life and becomes a marvelous fish out of water in the series. And having read the audiobook, one of the greatest voice actors in the business does a pitch perfect mentor in Phillip, the wise and conscientious mentor to Martin the Magnificent. But the true genius of this book is found in the character of Jimmy, social engineer par excellence. I cannot think of a villain who exemplifies so much of what is wrong in this world than this ruthless manipulator. He is the kind of glib evil that permeates so much of American society that recognizing the lengths he goes to is a revelation.
The book is an excellent meditation on ethics and power, wrapped up in fantasy and fun, a brilliant and entertaining combination. Trekkies will immediately recognize the centrality of the Prime Directive in this work.
But Lewis' idea of magic is deeper. I remembered what he said about the expertise of technologists. He said that they cannot explain what it is they do, because they're all wrapped up in technique and their specialization has a necessary measure of opacity and obfuscation. I think I'm feeling this right now in my profession, and mustn't we all eventually? I mean if we really become proficient, we learn the underside of our business. Lewis said however, any child can understand magic. If you want to explain why all rockets don't explode on the launch pad, someone who understands all of the 735 components of the the rocket assembly couldn't explain it in a year. But if you say "It's magic", everybody gets it.
There's another tangent to this which is the explanation of the infinitely contingent nature of human decision making. Jordan Peterson made a remarkable impression on me in describing how humans handle tools. A car, for example, is just a tool to get you from point A to point B. It's only when the damned thing breaks that you bother to look under the hood. You will spend as little effort in using this tool as possible so you can accomplish your goals. When the tool begins to fail you, it becomes a problem and so you get into its innards, yet only up to a point. You then decide that all of its complexities are a waste of your time & money and you discard the entire thing. It is no longer relevant to your purposes. You find an alternative tool. In that respect, it doesn't matter if your car runs on electricity, squirrel farts or vampire blood. It's technology you're never going to learn unless that is your purpose.
Philosopher Peter Kreeft writes in clarification of Lewis:
Science and religion both aim at conforming the mind to objective truth, objective reality (science conforms our mind to the nature of the universe, and religion conforms our mind to the mind of God and our will to the will of God).
Magic and technology, on the other hand, try to conform objective reality to the human will. That is why they both arose at the same time—not the Middle Ages but the Renaissance, not the Age of God but the Age of Man. Both are Faustian, Promethean. The difference is, of course, that technology works while magic doesn’t (usually). But their end, their goal, the purpose behind them, the human values and desires and state of soul that set them in motion, are the same.
What I need to think about is - oh never mind I just figured it out. Wow!
The abuse of religion always is involved in the establishment of the illusion of supernatural magic. The charlatan seeks the authority granted by inverting the idea of approaching God, the sacred divine by objectifying God as the ultimate authority to which the charlatan naturally appeals. The abuse of science always is involved in the established of the illusion of supernatural technology. The charlatan seeks the authority granted by inverting the idea of practicing the scientific method by objectifying Science as the ultimate authority to which the charlatan naturally appeals.
Belief in God therefore is a disciplined commitment to explore mystery and make sense of it while resisting the temptation to make a prophet out of yourself. This is the same process whether you see God as the the rules of the Universe or the ruler of the Universe. Besides, you’re only a human being. What does it matter what you can actually comprehend? Get back to me when you’ve made it to one more planet.