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May 16, 2006

What Nonbelievers Might Believe In

Leonard_Cohen.jpgHow about this quote from Leonard Cohen?

"There is a crack, a crack in everything; that's how the light gets in."

The singer/poet once called this line his "credo." Cohen recently spent almost five years at a Buddhist monastery, which might disqualify him as a spokesman for nonbelief. (Our policy on Buddhists remains unclear.) But this notion of the value and beauty of "flaws" is an important one. The great Greek skeptic Carneades -- a hero of my book -- noted how gods, lacking flaws, must also lack virtues: How can you show courage if you can't be hurt?

Is it through the ability to be hurt that the light comes in?

What light?

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at May 16, 2006 1:21 AM


Here's a different take on the "crack" and where it leads from Auden's "As I Walked Out One Evening":

The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.

About which more soon.

Posted by: mitch at May 16, 2006 12:13 AM

We love the metaphors of the doors or perception, the crack in the tea-cup, the rabit hole.

Our inescapable problem is caused by the fact consciousness is a metaphor for reality. Since we buy into that one, we are by nature ready to reduce chaos to ordered metaphors. The crack in the tea-cup--cool. A lane to the land of the dead--ooooooowwwwww. Mix some fear into those metaphors and the soup becomes poison.

Life is a mixed metaphor.

Posted by: Jay Saul at May 16, 2006 7:49 AM

A REAL spokesperson for non-belief would be mute:o)

Posted by: Jay Saul at May 16, 2006 7:53 AM

Mitch, I think you're suffering from a stereotype about God. As a rabbi once pointed out to me, the words "omniscient" and "omnipotent" appear nowhere in the bible. Our notions of God's perfection derive from a Greek ideal, which includes the idea of immutability. This conception of God needs to be rethought--and it has been. Your research will be incomplete if you don't dig into the Process Theology of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne. A good resource is the Center for Process Studies: http://www.ctr4process.org/.

In the process model, God is essentially a developing mind. He is enriched by the events of this world, because they contribute data to His memory (pardon the gendered pronoun). An immutable God would be incapable of improvement,and that deficiency would render God imperfect. Anyway, there's much to say about this. The classical model of God's perfection leads to all kinds of logical absurdities, which the process model get around. Too often in science/religion debates "religion" is taken to be contemporary Christianity as espoused by the televangelist charlatans and medievalists. The concept is much bigger than that. I have more to say about the science/religion debate at http://starlarvae.blogspot.com/. I think you'll find it stimulating.

Posted by: Heresiarch at May 21, 2006 11:54 AM

I like an imperfect God better than the omnipotent, omnipotent variety. (And the old-Testament God does sometimes seems shockingly imperfect.) Thanks for the note on the Bible and on God as developing mind, which is interesting. But I'm still not sure what is gained by keeping the old, imperfect fellow (or gal) around. Why can't minds develop (or not) and events proceed on their own?

Posted by: mitch at May 22, 2006 2:04 AM

I came to a theistic view reluctantly, having grown up as a skeptic and with enough science education to question the need for God. It doesn't help that the charlatans (Falwell, Robertson, etc.) appointed themselves God's representatives, with little objection. But we shouldn't dismiss God just because idiots claim to speak for Him. We should dismiss the idiots.

Anyway, events can't proceed on their own, because they have no capacity to do so. From whence would come any such power? From a scientific principle? Science says everything just breaks down (entropy)-- Oh, sure, you can defeat entropy locally by pumping energy into a system. That's the standard answer. But if I throw some dirt and roofing nails, an old sock and some toothpaste into a pot and heat it up, I don't think any complex system will "self-organize". It only works in certain situations, but science has no power to define those situations. What principle of science would I appeal to to predict whether a concentration of energy locally would spur the matter at that location to organize itself into a complex entropy-defeating system? Sometimes it does; sometimes it doesn't. What are the requirements? Science cannot say.

But the real puzzler, for my money, is the problem of consciousness. The best science can do in terms of accounting for consciousness is to assert that it just "emerges" when neurological processes cross some threshold of complexity. What's the threshold? Nevermind. The more basic question is why any complex set of chemical reactions (as in a brain) would not simply occur as they do normally--why would complex reactions be accompanied by subjective experience under any circumstances? Not only that, but if consciousness is "emergent," if it is just a kind of waste heat radiated by the brain, then how can it act as a cause that affects physical objects? According to science only physical causes can produce physical effects. Yet, I can will my arm (which is made of matter) to move, and it does. I know that electrical signals from the nerves make the muscles contract, but if you follow the chain of casuistry back far enough you arrive at my will that the arm move. If you want to argue for a perfect determinism of particles in my brain, such that will or intent cannot interfere with the purely physical determinism, then you indeed are embarked on a hopeless quest.

In a nutshell, that's it. The scientific program breaks down because it assumes that nature is a perfect physical determinism. But we know that it is not, as demonstrated by quantum theory, let alone the ability of minds to move arms. So something other than physical causes can produce physical effects. But that something other is not a literal rendition of the biblical God. It must be something much stranger . . . .

Posted by: Heresiarch at May 22, 2006 9:01 PM


Please explain how you come to the conclusion that quantum theory demonstrates how non-physical forces produce physical effects.

The brain produces consciousness. We may not know how the "binding" that produces consciousness occurs, just like we do not know where Blue Whales spawn, but it exists just as do baby Blue Whales. And they are both products of the material world.

You seem to be positing that the existence of consciousness proves the existence of the supernatural. I don't get it.

Posted by: Jay Saul at May 22, 2006 9:42 PM

Blue whales are physical phenomena. They can be measured in determinable units: grams, cubic centimeters, etc. In what units would you quantify consciousness? It is not a physical phenomenon. Therefore it cannot be produced by the brain. Or, if physical phenomena can produce nonphysical ones, how does that work? Especially since science denies the existence of ANY nonphysical phenomena in the first place!

I do not use the word "supernatural." I have no idea what it could mean. If something actually exists, then it is natural.

Quantum phenomena are indeterminate. Physical phenomena are determinate. Therefore the resolution of quantum indeterminacy involves nonphysical factors. If the governing influences were physical, why would they be indeterminate? Much more to say about this. visit www.starlarvae.org and http://starlarvae.blogspot.com/

Posted by: Heresiarch at May 23, 2006 8:50 PM

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