Saturday, November 10, 2007

A reality utterly inscrutable

The penultimate paragraph of Jeremy Campbell's The Many Faces of God: Science's 400-Year Quest for Images of the Divine:
In the early days of Darwinism, the nineteenth-century scholar Herbert Spencer wrote that religions tend to harbor a secret fear that everything may some day be explained, which suggests they are hiding a residual doubt as to whether God as an Incomprehensible Cause is really as incomprehensible as they supposed. What they must face up to, Spencer said, is that it is only in the assertion of a reality utterly inscrutable that religion can be reconciled with science. "A permanent peace between science and religion," he said, "will be reached when science becomes fully convinced that its explanations are proximate and relative, while religion becomes fully convinced that the mystery it contemplates is ultimate and absolute.
Which pretty much summarizes what I have been urging in books and blog.

As Campbell notes, the first of Spencer's two conditions has arguably been met. As we enter the 21st century, I don't know any scientist or philosopher of science who does not admit that scientific knowledge is partial, tentative and subject to change. There is no theory of science so thoroughly entrenched that it would not be overthrown if the evidence demanded it or if a more economical theory came along.

But we are no closer to meeting the second condition than we were in Spencer's time. Indeed, it could be argued that God as Ultimate Mystery is in full retreat. Billions of people right across the planet claim to know God's mind, or claim a personal relationship with the presumed creator of the universe. The God of many churches, mosques and temples is not Ultimate and Absolute Mystery -- to which all of us might reasonably bend our knee in adoration -- but a cross between an avuncular Bill Gates and Michelangelo's po-faced Moses, a God who turns his ear to the congregant's every prayer and asks nothing in return but a generous tithe, or perhaps blowing oneself up in a crowded marketplace.

Ironically, it is from science that we learn the extent of our ignorance -- and just how incomprehensible is the Incomprehensible Cause that has from the dawn of human consciousness been an enduring source of religious feeling.