Saturday, April 07, 2007

When the Earth is Young (tidbits 3)

The man laughed lightly, and almost, Matthew thought, with a touch of condescension. But he couldn’t be sure. “Because it would mean that all of the fairy tales are true,” he said. “Noah’s big boat and all the animals, fire from heaven, prophets getting swallowed by fish. The empty tomb. You’re not one of those kind are you?”

Matthew shifted uncomfortably at the man’s question. That he had seen the future he was now prepared to believe. And the fact that it was consistent with the Christian religion was undeniable. But the intellectual implications of this, as the man’s question showed, were troubling. He had been conditioned to believe that such things were nothing more than fables and legends. Yet the wonder of the stranger’s world challenged such assumptions. Who was to say that a prophet might not have been swallowed by a whale? Nothing seemed impossible anymore. The man’s incredulity at the mere possibility provoked a defensive posture within Matthew that otherwise might have lain dormant. “Why shouldn’t such things be true?” he asked. “Do you know for certain that they are not?”

The man laughed again. “I think the burden of proof lies on your side, my friend,” he said.

“I have not yet chosen a side in this,” Matthew answered, though this wasn’t entirely true. On an intellectual level he had already crossed an important threshold, but emotionally he was not yet ready to embrace all of its implications. Regardless, the half-truth went down better now than it had with the stranger. “But perhaps the burden of proof lie instead on your side.” he countered.

“The burden of proof always lies with those who would break from the conventional wisdom,” the man said. “All of modern science has demonstrated the utter veracity of my position. I’m not saying there’s no God,” he added. “But to suggest that a religion such as Christianity provides a credible testimony to the divine is demonstrably false. What you are suggesting is ridiculous by all reasonable, scientific accounts. Next you will be telling me the earth is flat, and that babies are delivered by storks.”

Matthew had always felt a need to be intellectually avant-garde. He had made a career out of qualifying every statement, nuancing every word. An arrogant intellectual sophistication attended his social circles and he had made every effort to not fall short of it. But the wisdom of his modern sages seemed less impressive now. “Of what use is the conventional wisdom here?” Matthew asked. “Perhaps this place has a different conventional wisdom. Besides, how have our sciences demonstrated the falsehood of the Christian claim?” Matthew surprised himself with his own question. He had always believed that the claims of modern science stood opposed to the supernatural claims found in religion, and he had trusted in them without hesitancy until now. “God cannot be put in a test tube,” Matthew said, “and the Christian faith is built upon stories that lie in history, a realm into which science cannot reach. Science reigns only in the present, where things can be observed. Past events cannot be scientifically verified or dismissed.”

“True enough,” answered the man. “But such an evasion gets you nowhere. Science may not be able to disprove the God hypothesis directly, nor test events that lay in the past. But Christianity’s claim to the miraculous is such that it breaks every known law of science, and as such is inherently flawed. If I were to tell you that, unassisted, I had floated up to the ceiling yesterday morning—an event that happened in the past—would you believe me? I think not. Though the event lay in the past and therefore could not be verified by observation one way or the other, still the laws of science would compel you to dismiss my claim. Tell me truthfully, would you not think it too incredible?”

“Likely I would,” Matthew replied. ”But that’s not the point. If you really had floated up to the ceiling, though I might think it too incredible, you would not—even if you had thought it so before. And your claim, though preposterous to me, would be completely justified—and scientifically so—to you. You were there. You observed it. Science is nothing more than observation. Its conclusions are drawn from what we see around us.” Matthew motioned toward the wood. “This is my science lab. This is what I observe. A poor scientist I would be indeed if I ignored such compelling data.”

The man waved his hand as if dismissing Matthew’s argument. “Yes, but data must be considered within the context of reality. Suppose that I really did have some sensation of floating to the ceiling,” he said. “Given the fact that such a thing would break every known law of science, even I, who had experienced the sensation of floating to the ceiling, would be more inclined to believe I had experienced a hallucination of some sort. Likely you would do the same.”

“Perhaps,” Matthew replied. “But what if I had been there with you and could verify the event? Or better yet, what if there had been two or three eyewitness that validated your experience, or recounted the same experience? Would that not make you more likely to believe that you really had floated to the ceiling?”

“Ah,” the man said, as though throwing down a trump card, “but the miraculous events of the Christian faith are locked in the past and can no longer be personally verified. So whatever we might conclude about the ceiling analogy is irrelevant to our present discussion regarding the veracity of Christian miracles.”

This logic annoyed Matthew. “Of course it’s convenient for you to dismiss the analogy,” he said. “You were the one that brought it up in the first place. But as far as the past events of Christianity are concerned, you are right. Yet this world in which we find ourselves is not locked in the past, and our present experience of it speaks to the reality of Christian witness. Is not this world—this present experience in which we now find ourselves—evidence for such faith?”

The man shook his head. “But one must be careful about trusting experience,” he said dismissively. “We are all immersed within our own unique social location, indebted to our past and conditioned to see things a certain way. We see what we expect to see. Two men hear the same speech; one believes the speaker to be strong and assured, the other believes the speaker to be defensive and insecure. Same event, but the two listeners enter the situation with their own assumptions and thus draw differing conclusions. Such things happen all the time. We cannot grasp things as they are, but only as we think them to be. We each look through colored lenses. Perhaps you have only seen what you have wanted to see.”

“It is true,” Matthew began slowly, “that we are inclined to see what we have been conditioned to see. It is because of this that I found, and still find, the world around me to be so troubling. But your illustration of the speech reaches too far. Though the two men’s assessment of the speech might differ in certain aspects, both would nonetheless be able to find unity on the basic elements of the event, things such as the subject discussed, whether the speaker was a man or woman, where the speech took place and so forth. Undoubtedly I have not grasped this world as it really is, nor have you. Even the stranger said as much. But certainly I have grasped it enough to know that it is very different than anything I have ever before experienced. Are you suggesting that my experience in this world is so tainted by my presuppositions that any appeal to experience is meaningless? If so, is not the very scientific method to which you previously appealed invalidated from the outset? Science is merely the product of each person’s experience. Do not both of us see trees and dirt? Are we not both breathing the same air? We may have different views of this world, but not so vastly different that we cannot find commonality. And it is in the commonality that we find that I am inclined to believe we have encountered something that validates . . .” he did not finish the thought.

“And thus likely a hallucination, as I said at first,” the man replied, as though dismissing their entire conversation. “And so you can see that we have come full circle. Undoubtedly you are part of my hallucination, and therefore your validation of my present experience is circular. Were I not hallucinating, you would not be here. It is quite likely that I have gone mad, or suffered some sort of stroke and am now locked in a comma, lying on a hospital bed somewhere.”

Matthew was openly frustrated at this turn. “It’s all well and good for you to think I’m part of your hallucination, but I know better. And besides, it is your logic that is circular. Your argument that anything that breaks with conventional wisdom is likely the result of a hallucination, no matter how much validation from others there might be, makes doing science impossible. Any scientific conclusion that resulted in a break with conventional wisdom would have to be discounted at the outset precisely because it didn’t keep faith with conventional wisdom. In such a case, only those tests which actually affirmed whatever everyone already knew to be true would be admitted as valid. What kind of scientific methodology would that be?”

The man’s composure broke for a moment and he leaned forward, his voice strained and fervent in the darkness. “But listen man! Don’t you see what that would mean?” The night hid the man’s face, but the voice sounded hunted, as though a demon long pursuing him was now plucking at his collar. The man collected himself suddenly, and then in a more controlled voice, “You can’t be serious.” It was a statement, not a question. He leaned back against the tree.

No comments: