Magical Thinking, Part 2: Magic and Scientism

We are seeing the flourishing of a strong atheistic world view that holds that that the universe is governed by natural law, as the monotheists first proclaimed (see previous post), but not because of a divinely designed creation, but because, well, that’s just how it is. According to atheistic scientism, why questions are not worth asking – bad things happen for no reason at all, and the same can be said for good things. In this view, the axiomatic laws of nature came into being at the beginning of the universe for no particular reason or cause. There are in fact no reasons or causes in the universe – all events are ontologically random and unguided, and anything that follows the fixed laws of nature can happen, and in fact has happened. The philosophical commitment to contingency as the ultimate cause of all natural events may have been inspired by an over-emphasis on the part of some prominent atheist evolutionists of the unguided nature of Darwinian evolution.  This view has been applied to the behavior of stars and starlets, the earth and the earthworms, and everything else.

On the other hand, the extreme form of the purely materialist scientistic worldview seems to have some form of an answer for everything, even if the answer is somewhat empty. Why did the earthquake bury the village? The magical view says an angry god or demon was taking vengeance; the scientistic view says it was a random event caused by various geological forces with no significance or meaning, and the loss of life, while tragic, is not something that enters into the cause. Some religious views will also attempt a vague answer about God’s will, but many theists will admit to having no answer, other than the acknowledgement of the mystery of the existence of evil. While this latter view is not very satisfying, and in fact has turned people away from religious faith, I think it is the only possible view to take.

But while magical and scientistic proponents claim to have answers for everything (or at least the methodology to find them), the truth is they don’t really. When I hear Sam Harris or Lawrence Krauss say that scientism is not a real thing, since in fact science really can answer all questions (sometimes “worth asking” is added), it reminds me of a believer in astrology who claims that with the right chart, all can be known. In reality, if there is one over-arching fact that we are taught by science, I believe it is that the answers to most questions lead to more questions.

That fact is actually quite strange. If scientism were right, that should not be a universal truth. There should be at least a few broad areas of the natural world where all the answers are known. I can’t think of any. What actual science (not scientism) and good religion (not cults) have in common is the acceptance of mystery, of not having all the answers, and in some cases knowing we will never have the answers.

We know from Job and from Christ’s healing of the man blind from birth that bad things happen to good people through no fault or sin of their own. So why do they happen? Answers have been given, most recently by Thomas Oord, who says in his latest book, that God cannot intervene in his loving gift of freedom to humanity and the creation. This means that in order to stop a mudslide or earthquake, to heal a disease, to prevent a war-time atrocity, God would need to constantly intervene and limit the freedom that he gave in love. While logical, that answer is not terribly satisfying. In a review of Oord’s book, Derek Rishmawy writes:

Job’s friends wanted a neat and tidy answer to the problem of evil. Job is suffering? He must have sinned. They couldn’t sit with the tension of watching a righteous man suffer. It had to be one or the other: either he’s righteous, or he suffers. (Their perspective, for what it’s worth, offers marvelous explanatory consistency.) Ironically enough, they failed to understand that it’s quite rational to believe many of God’s ways are beyond us. 

The idea that God’s ways are beyond us is not new. It can be found in Kabbalistic writing, in Christian mysticism, and in the ideas of many theologians and philosophers. I find it as close to the truth about theodicy as we are going to get. In other words, we may never know the answers to why there is suffering.

This is in contrast to the magical thinking of the cult of young earth creationism, whose website, Answers in Genesis, admits to no mystery in the understanding of God and theology. Every question has a definitive answer, even when such answers are physically impossible, inherently illogical, or self-contradictory.

The claims of scientism that everything will someday be clearly understood sound very similar and just as foolish. Not only do such claims ignore subjects like why tragedies happen, but also questions like “Why is Plank’s constant 6.62607004 × 10-34 m2 kg/s?” And of course, fundamental principles like the Uncertainty Principle are disregarded. The materialists of this type will either state that apparently unanswerable questions just need more time and research, or the questions are declared to be meaningless and silly.

When I was first getting instruction in Christianity before my eventual acceptance of the faith, my instructor, a Catholic priest, asked me if I had any more questions. I said, “There is one thing I really have a hard time understanding. How does the whole thing with a single God and the Holy Trinity work?” He smiled and said, “I can’t answer that. It is a profound mystery.” I also smiled and nodded. “OK”, I said. “I am ready.”

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6 Responses to Magical Thinking, Part 2: Magic and Scientism

  1. Jon Garvey says:

    Good piece, Sy.

    This is in contrast to the magical thinking of the cult of young earth creationism, whose website, Answers in Genesis, admits to no mystery in the understanding of God and theology. Every question has a definitive answer, even when such answers are physically impossible, inherently illogical, or self-contradictory.

    This point struck me a good few years ago, when animus had no particular against Young Earth Creationism, apart from disagreeing with it. One of the big names came to speak at a church in our local town, so I went along.

    His spiel and his Q&A were what I expected, but out of the blue some guy in the audience (obviously a church member with learning difficulties) asked some totally irrelevant question – I think it was something about divorce and remarriage. Rather than say, “Sorry, Sir, I’m a geologist, not an ethicist,” he started to attempt an answer.

    That, of course, does not mean that all those committed to YEC have that mindset – in many cases, it’s just that commitment to the Bible (which they know) trumps science (which they don’t, and which seems more provisional anyway) – and so they place the mystery preferentially in that area, which is fair enough as an individual position. It’s the Creation Science “any answer to everything” approach that you mean, and that seems an genuine, and primarily psychological, issue.

  2. Jon Garvey says:

    Woops – I’ve gone Germanic: I should have written “when I had no particular animus…”!

  3. Thanks for the anecdote, Jon. To be clear, I think there are individual YECs who would not do that sort of thing. But the attitude of AiG and Ken Ham, in other words, the official dogma, is “We can know all the answers, we just need to check the Bible.” Change a word and it reads “We can know all the answers, we just need to check the science”.

  4. Peter Hickman says:

    I’m with you that the answers to questions often lead to more questions, although it would hardly be desirable to accept for ourselves the epithet, ‘always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth’ (2Tim3.6).

    I think, however, that the word ‘mystery’ should be used sparingly. I’m not denying that there is such a thing as mystery, but perhaps too often it is used to suggest that something is unknowable when it would be preferable to say that it is (presently) unknown.

    I refer you to 1 Corinthians 2.6-16 which describes one particular mystery as something that was hidden, or secret, but that was subsequently revealed to us by the Spirit. If ‘we have the mind of Christ’ surely we can reasonably aspire to understand other ‘mysteries’ too.

    I think some mysteries may be mysterious simply because we have got our doctrine wrong.
    Your question to the priest was about how Monotheism can be compatible with the doctrine of the Trinity (God in three persons) and was answered with, ‘It’s a profound mystery’.
    Maybe it isn’t.
    Biblical Unitarians believe that there is one God, the Father, his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ (who is not God, but the Son of God) and the Holy Spirit (who is not a separate person, but the Spirit of God).
    If God is not a Trinity of three persons then the mystery disappears.

  5. Welcome to the Book of Works, Peter, and thank you for that comment. I agree that the passage from 1 Corinthians you cite is very relevant. But I see it as confirming my argument, since the revelation of mysteries through the Spirit is by definition not part of our human process of understanding mysteries through scientific investigation. That is how I interpret the meaning of “human wisdom” in that passage. And yes, I think it quite likely that Spiritual answers to many mysteries are accessible to us as Christ followers.

    As for your comment about the Catholic, vs the Unitarian concept of the Trinity, I will make no comment, since that issue is far above my pay grade as a mere scientist, with very little background in theology. If Jon Garvey shows up, he might have something to say about this.

    • Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Sy

      Not being a Unitarian, I think they have simplified the mystery of the Trinity simply by getting it wrong! But reading Craig Keener and N T Wright, both point out that Jews of Jesus’s time had a much more flexible, though still strict, concept of monotheism. That was probably because they thought of it practically, rather than “metaphysically”, until later Rabbinic times, when it became a watertight thing like Islam’s concept.

      And so there was a strong strand of thinking of personified Wisdom (as in the first chapters of Proverbs) as genuinely divine and yet somehow separate from God – and some other similar concepts, such as the individuality of God’s Spirit. That acccounts for why, although the deification of Jesus is a complete innnovation, it is undoubtedly present in the earliest levels of Christianity; and it was conceptually possible for faithful Jews to make that step and still be monotheists. Thomans’s “My Lord and my God” was not a capitualtion to polytheism.

      The “mystery” came later when it was necessary to engage with Hellenistic metaphysical concepts (because that’s where the intellectual challenges came from). As soon as you ask “How can Jesus be God” (which the Church affirmed) and yet “not the Father or the Spirit”, you have a mystery beyond anybody’s pay-grade, for which Trinitarian theology is the best working hypothesis.

      On “mystery”, you’re astute to point out the aspect of “revelation”, because the biblical picture is just that – not something unknowable, but something unknown that God has, or will, reveal. And so the plan of salvation was a mystery known only to God (including the Son – but not the angels) from eternity, but revealed to the world “in these last times”.

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