Setting Fire to Scarecrows

I first published this in 2013 but although an oldie it’s a goodie

Atheists like setting fire to religious scarecrows they have themselves constructed. Marooned forlornly in their fields, with odd bits of straw sticking out at absurd angles, and arms held straight out in crucified position, crowned by vacuous cartoonish faces and funny old hats (for what would religions do without funny hats?), don’t those straw men just blaze. But instead of constructing scarecrows with which to ward off any predatory birds who might happen to land on our patch, we all need to struggle as best we can with the inextricably intertwined issues posed by both religion and science. Religious people sometimes excuse themselves from this arduous intellectual and emotional challenge by simply declaring cosmological science to be all nonsense (not even worth going in to, the world was created in seven days, God told me). But atheists do it too (religion is all nonsense, not even worth going in to, Hume told me). I find it extraordinary how atheists are so confident that they know what religious believers actually believe, when they have probably never opened a theology book in their lives. Here is an example. Lawrence Kraus begins his otherwise wonderful book A Universe from Nothing with these words: “In the interests of full disclosure right at the outset I must admit that I am not sympathetic to the conviction that creation requires a creator, which is at the basis of all the world’s religions”. But this idea is not at the basis of all the world’s religions.

The idea that God created the universe as a watchmaker might make a watch is an aberration peculiar to the kind of fundamentalist Protestantism that found its classical expression in Paley’s Natural Theology. Unaware of any other theological tradition, for this was the sole mythology that informed the development of English science until scientifically minded people very rightly saw through its flaws, atheists, most of whom have never even turned a page of the Natural Theology let alone anything else, on this basis cavalierly dismiss “all the world’s religions”. Catholicism doesn’t think creation requires a creator. Aquinas would have been very happy with the idea that the universe has existed for ever. I know of no primitive religion that thinks there was a being outside being who made everything that exists. Not given to abstract thinking, they think a creator god fashioned all we see around us out of materials that already lay around, stones or water or in the case of the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish, which was the template for the first chapter of Genesis, the body of the creator hero’s mother whom he had recently killed. Has Lawrence Kraus read Enuma Elish?

Nor does Genesis think this. It says God made the world out of the tohu bohu, an undifferentiated wasted chaos that was already there. In fact Genesis tells us that God didn’t create the world in the watchmaker sense at all, but instead God said ‘let there be…’. Let the laws of physics do what they do, let evolution unroll. God didn’t make it, God saw it. The relation of God to the world is not that of a watchmaker to a watch. It is more like painter’s relation to his picture. A picture is not a machine. It is an expression of the artist who painted it. We rightly say ‘that’s a Picasso’ because it has something of Picasso in it, his being, his style, his person, although at the same time the picture is not Picasso. Or you could say the material universe is the body of God. God is not the maker of the universe. God is the mind of the universe.

The religious question is not ‘somebody must have made this world, who was it?’ but ‘does this extraordinarily intelligible world in which we find ourselves require a cosmic intelligence to make it so?’ Either the intelligible world is just unintelligibly there or it must be the expression of a cosmic intelligence. Kraus or no Kraus, the latter is, to say the very least, at least as rational an answer as the former. It is a framework of thought in which a universe from nothing fits very nicely. Even in our own case our most creative thoughts come out of the blue. It’s not like a footballer taking a free kick, so we think ‘Eureka, thanks my internal Beckham for kicking things off’. I have intelligent ideas because I am intelligent. Can you even have intelligibility without an initiating intelligence? Every law of nature has its own rationality. The rationality of Boyle’s law is not the same as that of Newton’s laws of motion. But at the same time they are not as different from each other as teaspoons are from golfballs. They are rational because they share rationality. To be intelligible things must have an intrinsic intelligibility. I don’t imagine anybody looks at a sloppy sludge of undifferentiated splurge and says ‘My God, how creative is my intelligence, I’ve just created a chromosome’. This intrinsic rationality, the intelligibility of everything that is intelligible, we call, for want of a better term, by the in itself meaningless syllable God.

In Catholic theology the world was created through the divine Wisdom. ‘I was with him when he laid the foundations of the earth….when he drew a circle on the face of deep’. ‘The Word was with God and was God’ says St John. How can you be God but only with God at the same time? The divine Wisdom is this withness with God; God is not outside but present in the creation (Picasso’s picture both is and is not Picasso). Wisdom is a kind of halfway house, a vector, between God and creation, as Picasso’s idea, soaked in the personal style of Picasso himself, is a kind of halfway house between Picasso and his picture. ‘The universe is a book and its language is mathematics’ wrote Galileo. In the neo-Platonic traditions of the Italian Renaissance within which Galileo conceived his ideas the divine Wisdom, the language of the universe, was essentially mathematical. In Galileo’s view God created the universe through mathematics. Perhaps we are not so very far from Kraus and Stephen Hawking after all.

Is mathematics just a counting system or a kind of creative force, a language in which a cosmic intelligence’s thoughts become thinkable? How do we account for the intrinsic intelligibility and creative power of mathematics? As scientists dig further and further into the foundations of things they discover their intelligibility is more and more simply mathematical. How like the tohu bohu the undifferentiated hot chaos of the Big Bang is, and how intractable the quantum fluctuations which began to differentiate that undifferentiated chaos are to anything but mathematical investigation. But why is mathematics so intelligible? Is it that it itself is the language of intelligibility itself? The word that both is merely with but also is God, as Picasso is both is and is not his picture? It is the mystery of mathematics, not “creation requires a creator” which is at the basis of all the world’s religions, little as the world’s religions might have appreciated that, as science makes clearer and clearer to us. “How dare you hijack science in the name of religion? Keep of my patch scarecrow!”.

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