Let’s Get Philosophical

By Dr. Jim Ferguson

It has finally quit raining here in Knoxville, though flooding in Texas continues and another hurricane is threatening Florida. Suffering Americans and Caribbean islanders remain on my mind and heart, but I just can’t write about rain, flooding and misery this week. So, to paraphrase Olivia Newton-John,  Let’s get physical… no, philosophical.

There is a big difference between facts and truth. Read John 18:38 and hear what Jesus says about truth. I received a pretty good education and I was taught foundational facts. And over time I organized these collected facts into a compendium of workable knowledge. I have used that knowledge over the years and have acquired a modicum of wisdom through observation, trial and error.

A friend of mine challenged the scientist in me with the notion that facts are conditional. I said, “Wait a minute,” but he continued by defining a fact as something observable in all places and times. And he opined that at some level all facts begin with faith. That really wrinkled my brow.

Do you remember when your six year old asked, “Why” and your answer led to another “Why” and another until you ended the incessant rhetorical questioning with, “Because I said so.” When my girls were young, I was the go-to parent for non-social or non-fashion related questions. I soon learned that I needed to preface my answers with a complexity quotient. Like my children, Americans want fast food and simple answers. Sometimes there are no simple answers, and my children learned to consider the extent of their curiosity.

Scientists make observations by comparing data against a standard. The Rosetta Stone found by Napoleon’s troops during their conquest of Egypt contained three languages. Ancient Egyptian and Greek texts appeared alongside an unknown language which we now know as hieroglyphics. By comparing the ancient symbols with the known languages, linguists were finally able to read the mysterious hieroglyphics. Science works the same way. At the most fundamental level a “standard” must be accepted on faith by which new data can then be compared.

Perhaps Democrats and Republicans could agree that 1+1=2 is a fact everywhere. But is this true? The universe is wondrously complex and incomprehensibly vast. Reality as we know it extends from quasars to quarks- and perhaps beyond. Quasars existed at the dawn of the universe and are so far away their light is just now reaching us. The Ancient Greek,  Democritus, imagined a fundamental building block of all matter, coining the term “atom” or something which could not be split or cut. We now know that atoms can be split and are made of smaller protons, neutrons (and electrons) and these are composed of even smaller quarks which come in six flavors or types!

Scientists test their thoughts or hypotheses with experiments using comparison. The results lead to theories of the way things work, and if the results are confirmed in subsequent tests the theory may subsequently become a fundamental law of the universe. Examples are Newton’s laws of motion. For all practical purposes, Newton’s laws work beautifully to predict where an eclipse will occur or why we don’t float off the earth into space. However, Einstein proved Newton’s “laws” wrong. We now know that massive bodies like the earth, sun and black holes warp or bend the fabric of space and time, and only appear to exert gravitational effects. And at the event horizon of a black hole or at the quantum level of an atom’s nucleus all our foundational observations and facts break down and require a leap of faith for even partial comprehension.

Materialism holds that anything which cannot be explained doesn’t exist. Determinism holds that everything occurs through purpose and plan. I recently came across a quote from Einstein. He said, “There are only two ways to live your life: one is as though nothing is a miracle; the other is as though everything is a miracle.” A miracle might be described as an extraordinary event. And there is the implication that a Divine agent is operative in an otherwise inexplicable occurrence.

I believe atheism requires a leap of faith that would make Kierkegaard uneasy. Mostly, our lives are based on probability more than possibility. It is possible that the sun blew up seven minutes ago and we just don’t know it yet. I think this is so improbable that I don’t consider it and trust the sun to rise tomorrow morning. To think that the wonders of the universe occurred by chance is so improbable that a rational mind would discount that perspective.

The apostle Paul was extraordinarily well educated and was no shabby philosopher. He addresses the question of atheism in his reasoned letter to the Romans (Romans 1:20). Though I am a rank amateur philosopher by comparison, I have the knowledge and wisdom of 2500 years to broaden my horizon. And as Newton once said of himself and his discoveries, “If  I seem to see farther than others it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants.” Likewise, I stand on the knowledge of all those before me and I see an Intelligent Designer at work in the creation.

Why does it have to be either science or religion? For me it is both. I side with Einstein who said, “Religion without science is blind and science without religion is lame.”

The 18th century saw the rise of what would later be called humanism. It is the philosophy that humans are basically good and that societal issues can be solved by reason rather than religion. I can identify with elements of this perspective but, like most things taken to an extreme, they are errant and destructive. An example is the odious cartoon run by the liberal-progressive Politico news blog depicting government, not God, coming to the aid  of hurricane victims in Texas. I would ask why Texans felt the need to help each other. C.S. Lewis wrote of the motivation to help others. We are conscience driven. Professor Lewis and I both feel conscience is instilled in us by God.

The world is so much bigger and better when we use both religion and reason. Don’t limit yourself. Use your miraculous talents.

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