Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Boundary theory

From conversations or past entries you'll notice several of my thoughts are preoccupied with the conflict between faith vs. agnosticism vs. atheism, and the overall role of religion. As a churchgoing Catholic for over two decades who then became agnostic in what one might call a long term, reverse vocation, this is a conflict which I often contemplate in between thinking about monetizing user generated content and consuming massive amounts of alcohol.

On the walk home today, though, I think I can describe the inherent tension. First off, some gross simplifications about human thought. If we think about the sum of all human knowledge, we have to consider that as great a value currently is (and currently growing), this value is also finite. One might analogize to the universe; our sum total knowledge is consistently growing but not ever present. There are, to the chagrin of the most brilliant and arrogant members of our species, limits to what we know.

For centuries, when the "space" of human knowledge was relatively small, religion and faith played in both our understanding of the known and unknown. Why does the sun rise? Well it's one of the wheels of Apollo. Why'd you fall in love? Well it's Cupid's arrow. And so forth.

With science and knowledge we began to recognize that we could begin explaining more and more phenomena through experiments, analysis, and concepts. And so the boundary expanded. But not so much where religion and faith couldn't still play a role. Sure, the earth revolves around the sun, explaining the appearance of rising and falling, but something had to create the sun? Ah yes, that must have been the Big G. Why'd you fall in love? Well, that was probably due to hormones and bad parenting (you always did like the boy Daddy wouldn't approve). But still, love as a concept still appears transcendent - the Big G strikes again!

As long as science played in the boundaries, while expanding those boundaries, religion and faith could coexist with it, kind of like that neighborhood kid riding outside your door. He seems harmless enough; sure he's a little loud with the crashing noises he makes but hey, he's only 7 and you deal with it.

But today, with the vitriol between theists and new atheists, the conflict has become somewhat unavoidable - they meet at that boundary. You can't blame the atheists/agnostics: within all the knowledge and learning we've uncovered, there hasn't been one iota of evidence to suggest a higher being or supernatural phenomena. And it must piss off these skeptics when fundamentalists want to REVERSE proven theories like evolution with factless concoctions like intelligent design. We've expanded the boundary so far, we can no longer accept the old myths of virgin births and rising from the dead. Certainly, there is great symbolic and significant value of such stories, but we cannot delude ourselves in believing without evidence such obvious fables (though certainly well written). And the religionists can only run further away, hiding in the shadows outside the boundary (what Dawkins refers to as Gap theory, in that religion exists in the "gaps" of human understanding.)

But here's the rub: as much as we've learned and continue to learn, we're still at a boundary. It's still and always will be finite. I'm not saying we give up our question for knowledge - we must push forward ever diligently to expand our understanding of this universe. There will, however, be things which evade not just understanding, but even our basic attempts at comprehension. These are things like Taoist/Buddhist doctrines, the idea of consciousness and what comes before/after, and which Olson twin is hotter.

While I doubt the existence of a higher being (but not doubt it completely), I admit that there are probably some cosmic phenomena out there which we can see but never truly understand. And at the end of the day, I don't want to yell or shoot or bomb anyone about that. I just want to acknowledge this ignorance, do what I can understand it, but if not, have my own peace of mind.

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