The Universe is not only stranger than you think; it’s stranger than you can imagine.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
And he (Moses) said: “Show me, now, Your glory!” He (God) said: “I will let all My goodness pass before you; I will proclaim the name of the Lord before you, and I will favor when I wish to favor, and I will have compassion when I wish to have compassion. And He said, “You will not be able to see My face, for man shall not see Me and live.”
Thus, from the very start of human thought about the central issues of life, there were limits. On could not see the face of God, the kernel of existence, and live to tell about it. Of course, nothing could stop man from asking questions and seeking to learn the secrets of the universe. The Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Chinese started the search. Things went dark for over a millennium; but around the time of William of Ockham the search for truth through science resumed.
When Isaac Newton had finished a clockwork universe was up and running. According to this view of physics, if one had perfect knowledge of the past one could predict the future. We might think we had free will, but it was an illusion. The search had proved dangerous and even fatal – Giordano Bruno (burned at the stake) and Galileo (lifetime house arrest); but it appeared we had seen the face of God.
Samuel Johnson could say, “Sir, we know our will is free and there’s an end on it.” But most scientists doubted it. For several centuries it seemed there was no question science could not answer. Then both science and mathematics began to describe their own limitations.
Einstein initiated a revolution he came to dislike – quantum mechanics. Kurt Gödel formulated his incompleteness theorems in 1931. These theorems proved that it was impossible to find a set of axioms sufficient for all mathematics. More recently, small particle physics has shown that two particles identical in properties and history can have different futures. Thus, perfect knowledge of the past does not convey knowledge of the future. The clockwork universe is dead. In fact, it never existed other than in the imagination. Thus, regardless of whether it exists or not, there is no scientific argument against free will.
The noted physicist Richard Muller, he’s at UC Berkeley, has described a host of problems that are not amenable to scientific solution. For example, blue. When you and I look at a blue object we agree that it’s blue. We can use the tools of physics to define blue, but is what you see the same as what I see? There’s no way to know. We seem to agree that we have souls – forget about if they’re immortal or not. Most also seem to think dogs have souls. Where is this soul housed? Can science prove or disprove its existence? Nevertheless, many scientists still try to use the tools of their trade to answer questions that cannot be addressed by science. Muller calls this scientism. You can do all the brain MRIs and PET scans you want and you will never understand ethics or why the first four notes of Beethoven’s C minor symphony have such a powerful impact.
More than two centuries ago the Scottish Enlightenment, a group that includes Lord Kames, David Hume, Adam Smith, James Boswell – and literally scores of first rate thinkers, inventors, and scientists – concluded that the central problems of human existence could not be solved by politics. So what’s left if these issues are not the province of science and politics. Religion and Philosophy. Don’t worry about science there’s still plenty for it to do that is interesting and useful. As for politics make your own decision as to its use.
Consider Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Plato has Socrates describe a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them; they give names to these shadows. The shadows are the prisoners’ reality.
Socrates explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall are not reality at all, for he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the manufactured reality that is the shadows seen by the prisoners. The inmates of this place do not even desire to leave their prison, for they know no better life. The human condition is forever bound to the impressions that are received through the senses. Even if these interpretations are an absurd misrepresentation of reality, we cannot break free from the bonds of our human condition – we cannot free ourselves from our clouded view just as the prisoners could not free themselves from their chains. If, however, we were to miraculously escape our bondage, we would find a world that we could not understand – the sun is incomprehensible for someone who has never seen it. In other words, we would encounter another “realm”, a place incomprehensible because it is the source of a higher reality than the one we have always known.
Plato’s Allegory is a parable telling us that we cannot see the face of God. Religion, in its truest reality, reminds us, among other things, that our understanding is far smaller than “a little less than divine.” Ultimately, our behavior and understanding can only be imperfectly based on reason. Philosophy and religion cannot be discarded without irreparable loss. While we will never see the face of God, we can and must glimpse His shadow.