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Unseemly Glee at the Unknown

What is it that makes Christians frequently rejoice when told that something is unknown?

I received an e-mail today from Breaking Christian News, which discusses odd coincidences or perhaps weird happenings amongst organ transplant recipients. Now bluntly I don’t see that there is enough here to get excited about. I think the writers grossly underestimate the potential for personality change when one undergoes a traumatic experience, such as a major surgery. The illness before, the concern, and then the effort of recovery all make a very large impact. If one assumes changes in the personality of recipients, it would then not be all that unlikely that in some cases these changes would find some connection to the organ donor.

But all of that could be studied. My hunch that this isn’t outside of the range of reasonable probability could be proven right or wrong. If proven wrong, one could study the process and the potential exists to determine just what is going on and how it works. In other words, this set of observations might either prove not to be significant, or could provide the basis for further research.

The BCN article cites Dr. Danny Penman:

In his article entitled, Can We Really Transplant a Human Soul? Penman writes, “Virtually every doctor and scientist will tell you the heart is a mere pump.” But now, “A few brave scientists have started claiming that our memories and characters are encoded not just in our brain, but throughout our entire body. Consciousness, they claim, is created by every living cell in the body acting in concert…Our whole body, they believe, is the seat of the soul; not just the brain. (BCN source is this article in the Daily Mail

Now my point is not my personal feeling about this, which is admittedly not an educated opinion. I know very little about this field. My secondary point is that a scientist with one of the proper specialties, when confronted by this information would either use his existing knowledge to dismiss it if that was proper (for example, he knows the broader statistical picture, and thus knows that this is not significant) or he would find it significant, and then ask, “How does this work?”

My primary point, however, is that many Christians, represented here by Breaking Christian News, have quite a different reaction. They don’t seem to think of the possibility that this represents a question to be answered. Rather, they hope it’s a mystery that science cannot solve.

While as Christians we know how God created man in His image, it is nevertheless fascinating to see the scientific world confront the mysteries of life in a way that points to the power of an Almighty God.

But this article doesn’t describe science confronting anything. It reveals speculation. At best, it would reveal questions that research ought to answer. This is the attitude that lies behind the God-in-the-gaps argument. It puts spirituality and religion where our ignorance lies. There is little reason to complain when skeptics describe religion as anti-knowledge if we place our most important ideas in areas of ignorance.

This particular case is only an example. I’m confronted regularly with claims that science cannot possibly discover some particular thing, such as a natural explanation for the origin of life. These claims are not made in a neutral tone, nor are they made with disappointment that there is a boundary to knowledge. They are made with glee. Those who make them are glad that they have found something that science cannot do.

I think there is a ignorance, fear, and envy represented by this type of claim.

Ignorance, because people don’t understand what science does. Science explores the natural world. As long as something is in the natural world, don’t put up a stop sign. It won’t work. But science is not the study of everything. Excluding the supernatural, science cannot, as such, tell us what our ethical goals and standards should be. It can enlighten us as to the side effects of our decisions, and thus help us make ethical decisions. Science is also not designed to study the supernatural.

Fear, because people don’t understand science. Scientists constantly discover and explain things that appear to the uninformed to be things that ought to be true mysteries. Ignorance reacts to what it does not know with fear. This is a good example of the difference between “is” and “ought.” We ought to investigate the unknown rather than cower away from it with fear. The instinct of many people is to avoid the danger as long as possible, a course of action that often results is greater disaster later.

Envy, in that science explains things that used to be in the field of religion. Now they appear to be the province of very intelligent people. I see this type of rejoicing whenever people perceive that religion has “gotten a point” against science.

The bottom line here is that ignorance is, well, ignorance, and thus is in constant danger of being overthrown. If we, as people of faith, truly believe that God is the ultimate creator of everything, that reason behind all the reasons, the “uncaused cause,” then we ought to rejoice at those who use their divinely created brains to discover more and more about God’s creation.

I’m certain that God isn’t threatened. If he’s big enough to be the final cause, he can handle people figuring out where the seat of consciousness is in one species of creature on one planet in one solar system in one rather unexceptional galaxy. So it must be that some people of faith feel threatened. That, I suspect, can only come from not trusting God to be God, in other words, from seeing God as less than the creator of everything, as someone who might be dethroned by the next discovery.

Or perhaps it’s just personal envy that someone else knows more than we do. Could be!

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  1. Larry B says:

    I think you bring up a good point here, but I also think you overstated your case a bit here. Christians aren’t the only ones guilty of the type of feeling you describe here. I would postulate that all religions revel in the mystery of the unknown. Any encroachment on that pulls a little bit at a core sentiment for religion.

    Even secular philosophies revel in this mystery. I remember the descriptions of the “tune in and drop out” messages from timothy leary along with the electric kool aid bus tour by Ken Kesey where the “psychedelic” was supposed to be bringing a new awareness and level of living. Today, scientists can easily explain the psychedelic effects from the drug because the LSD molecule is chemically similar to a neurotransmitter and the flood of LSD molecules indiscriminately caused connections to fire that normally wouldn’t. But tell the people from the 60’s that experienced that they were just experiencing neurochemistry going awry and they’ll tell you that you just don’t get it.

    I think you have just touched a little bit on common human nature hear where we have a yearning for mystery.

    1. Larry, I responded to your comment in another post. I feel that I didn’t draw the line accurately. There will be a trackback below to the new post.

  2. Kievas Fargo says:

    Studying creation does, for many of us, only strengthen our faith in the Creator. It’s too bad that so many people (on both sides of the fence) see science and faith as mutually exclusive.

    1. Perhaps we need to realize that the wonder isn’t destroyed by studying the nuts and bolts. Science and faith can go hand in hand with no problems.

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