That which is obvious

July 31, 2006 | Atheism | 7 comments

I’m currently in a long email exchange with a former business associate of my husband’s, a brilliant European chemist. I don’t even know him very well but I emailed him to tie up some loose ends with some business dealings and happened to mention that we’re Catholic. He asked how I went from atheism to Catholicism and now we’re currently hashing out the age old science vs. faith debate at about 1, 000 words per email.

His emails basically consist of him throwing out scientific principles and facts in dizzying detail to show that even science-minded Christians who try to use physics and biology to bolster their faith in God have it wrong. Some examples:

[Responding to my comment that DNA is information:] DNA isn’t really information, it’s just a series of 4 chemicals chained together by sugars and phosphates, which make other chemicals. It just looks very slightly like the way computer code is put together, in a series of bits, so ignorant journalists tell ignorant tabloid readers it’s computer data. It ain’t.

and

[Responding to my comment that the big bang unfolded similarly to the description in Genesis:] And the universe didn’t become transparent until after about 300, 000 years, so there wasn’t any light at the beginning. Photons couldn’t condense out of the soup anyway until the temperature had reduced sufficiently. The beginning, depending on how you define that, was essentially the explosion into three big spacial dimensions of what we might call spacetime. Which begs the question ‘how did that come about?’ which has several possible answers, depending on how you define your terms, a current leading contender being that two other multidimensional spacetimes (what we call ‘branes’) collided spewing out our chunk of spacetime.

I post these just to give examples, not to start a debate about these specific comments. The point is, a lot of people hear this sort of thing and think that it does seem like the obvious truths of science just demolish the claims of religion. Honestly, it’s easy for doubters like me who were raised to believe that the scientific method is the key to all truth and knowledge to be intimidated by such claims. It just seems, you know, SO OBVIOUS that this debunks religious teachings.

But this is ignoring some other obvious truths as well.

I often think about a little incident that happened while I was on vacation last year (interestingly, it was just two days after writing this first post on my old site). My husband and I were having drinks with a friend, a successful lawyer who has always struck me as very intelligent. I happened to mention that I was exploring religion for the first time in my life, that I’d always been an atheist.

He let out a loud laugh. “You mean you think THIS, ” he said, playfully punching my husband in the arm, “just kind of randomly came about?” He took a moment and looked around the cheesy casino bar with the dinging slot machines, tacky neon lights and group of frat boys laughing loudly at the bar and outstretched his hands triumphantly, “What about this?”

I suppose you would have had to have been there, and perhaps that third gin and tonic made his explanation of his point less than Chesterton-esque, but the look of sheer confusion on his face at the notion that we’re soulless, purposeless creatures really struck me. I think of it often. At that moment it really hit me that if you put the scientific method aside for a moment and think of how you feel when you hear a beautiful piece of music, think of your love for your children, or hear about some great cruelty in the world, there is no doubt that we have a soul and are here for some purpose. It’s SO OBVIOUS.

7 Comments

  1. Jennifer

    The feeling of what’s real.

    The aesthetic as evidence of God–that human’s are conscious of themselves and their existince, struggle to find meaning, and experience intense joy during sensual and ecstatic experience does make it pretty durn obvious doesn’t it?

    As for the DNA being “just” four chemicals—I think he needs to check in with his Watson and Crick. And he thinks popular science journalism is reductive?

    Oy. I won’t go there since you asked that we don’t. 🙂

  2. Ersza

    Letting yourself get drawn into these debates reinforces the belief that science is at odds with the teachings of the Catholic Church. But it’s not. Our faith has no beef with Big Bang theory, evolution, quantum physics, etc. We are not biblical literalists. 🙂

  3. Jennifer F.

    Ersza – that’s true. I thought of that when I refered to it as “science vs. faith”, I didn’t mean to imply that the two can’t be reconciled. Actually, that was the point I was trying to make when he put the physicist smack down on me — I threw out some examples of what I thought to be science pointing toward God and he was determined to demolish them. Which doesn’t mean that science is at odds with faith, it just means that I’m not well schooled in the natural sciences and that evangelical atheists are absolutely determined not to believe in God.

    In general I don’t debate people about religion since it’s usually just two people blathering on with no intention of listening to what the other person has to say. This guy, however, has a slightly open mind about the subject so I find it worth my time to continue the conversation. If anything interesting comes of it I’ll give an update.

  4. knit_tgz

    A lot of physicists are believers. In fact, my Confirmation godfather is a physicist, nowadays studying black holes, but he previously studied branes and string theory. None of these theories (and I should emphasize: theories) are in any sense incompatible with Catholic faith.

    (About DNA being information: as far as my friends from Applied Mathematics and Computer Science can tell me, DNA is information. I can check with the big professors.)

    (About branes and string theory: Those theories have reached good results, it seems, but are somewhat stalled without progress, from what I’ve heard. This is not my area of knowledge, though. I am studying a branch of applied Physics, not theory).

    (About science: nowadays, the fierce competition in science (there is no room for most of the young researchers post-graduating each year) has the sad consequence that most scientists are afraid to try something really different, because most tries will lead nowhere, and nowadays, one cannot risk to have failures. Even though this means most people will do variations on the same, safe, theme. At least this is what I see in theoretical Physics, and this is what my friends in the field tell me. I am quite disappointed with this situation.)

  5. SteveG

    I’d like to offer some thoughts as a veteran of discussions with the scientific minded for the last couple of years.

    First, off, from what you’ve relayed, it seems to me that he might be trying to intimidate you with his expertise.

    When I first encountered this MO, I was intimidated as well. But as I began to read up on some of the topics in question from other experts (even non-religious ones) I began to realize there’s a lot of bluster involved in order to cover up the shortcomings of their own worldview.

    In addition, dare to pull one of these guys off their area of expertise (into philosophy or such) and they are usually as lost as the next person.

    The truth is that they no more have answers to the fundamental questions of life than anyone else. If you push back on that, the best of them will falter.

    We should be careful, and we should not be overconfident, but we should not be overawed either. They are limited fallible human beings just as we are.

    I know you weren’t necessarily looking for comments addressing his specifics, but I just can’t let this pass…

    DNA isn’t really information, it’s just a series of 4 chemicals chained together by sugars and phosphates, which make other chemicals.

    …yes…other chemicals that contain the genetic instructions specifying the biological development of all cellular forms of life.

    Ummmm…genetic instructions? Sounds a lot like information to me?

    I think the problem is that we usually approach such a topic with a filter already in place and define it based on that filter, not based on the objective reality.

    He rejects it as information because he is predisposed to disbelieve there is anyone on the other end communicating. Therefore it CAN’T be information.

    But if we look at it in comparison to what we commonly understand information to be, it’s nearly undeniable that what you said is true.

    He doesn’t reject your understanding on anything more than the underlying principle he holds that God doesn’t exist and therefore this ‘stuff’ can’t be meaningful, therefore it can’t really be information.

    But read any definition of DNA and it includes statements like…

    DNA contains the genetic INFORMATION that is inherited by the offspring of an organism; this information is determined by the sequence of base pairs along its length.

    …and it seems that it’s a bit unfair to chastise journalists for referring to DNA as that’s exactly how it’s presented by scientists themselves!

    Ahhh…but then I can already see his next move. Something like, ‘But that’s just jargon we use to make it comprehensible to the layman.’ And that leads me into my greatest criticism of this type of individual.

    What they really are, are the priests of the new Gnosticism; the holders of the secret knowledge that we regular folk are to stupid to comprehend.

    Just trust us they say, we’ll eventually explain everything. Just have faith. Don’t believe us? Just look at the wonders we can perform! We can even travel to the stars! We are your saviors and the old ways must die!

    It is nothing short of a new religion as far as I can see. Read this quote from a forum discussion I recently participated in. It comes from a member who is a a physicist working in quantum physics.

    Bah! Humanity has only one useful purpose: the furtherence of science. Social injustice is unfortunate but entirely acceptable if it helps advance science. Art music literature and philosophy are interesting diversions, but they are irrelevant in the face of understanding the natural world and bending it to our will. Ultimately, we are all doomed if we do not learn to travel across space. All the resources of humanity should be directed towards this necessary goal. Then, and only then, will we have the freedom to engage in other pursuits.

    …If that isn’t a religion, I don’t know what is.

    But ask these neo Gnostics some simple questions like …

    Why does anything exist at all?
    Why does life exist?
    Why are we self-aware?

    …and the answer you will get is either 1) We just don’t know, and never will. Science isn’t built to answer ‘Why’ or 2) Shut up and sit down. That question isn’t meaningful.

    Sorry, sorry….I am ranting. I’ll stop now before I wear out my welcome. 😀

  6. melanie b

    Steve,
    Bah! Humanity has only one useful purpose: the furtherence of science. Social injustice is unfortunate but entirely acceptable if it helps advance science. Art music literature and philosophy are interesting diversions, but they are irrelevant in the face of understanding the natural world and bending it to our will. Ultimately, we are all doomed if we do not learn to travel across space. All the resources of humanity should be directed towards this necessary goal. Then, and only then, will we have the freedom to engage in other pursuits.

    Wow he sounds just like the antagonist scientist in Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra. That passage could be taken straight out of one of those books. Creepy. But it just goes to show how true to life that character is.

  7. Therese

    Faith is a gift–never forget that.
    You can always reject it. Most people do!! No use in arguing with anyone about it. They don’t really care about the conversation one iota…they only care about their own ideas and opinions. My father is a MILITANT atheist and I have no ability to compete with his “WIT”. When he insulted Christ though to me I told him to stop it –he went too far. I told him that I considered Jesus to be a part of my family (if you want a lasting faith you will need to do that also!) and I am not going to listen to that garbage just as I wouldn’t listen to someone say garbage about him–he is my family too. Shut my dad right up!! he couldn’t even respond. You need to always ask God for asistance in dealing with this type of struggle and if the words don’t come, take a hint and “shut upeth the mouth”. God can’t give me the same intellect as my dad, but He gives me His heart and His common sense…When I ask! Hard to learn.

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