Monday, October 26, 2009

On Barbour's Natural Theology: Dissonance


Time is, like all halfway decent things, a slightly irregular sphere. I just want it recorded somewhere that this is my own damned idea, one un-disseminated in my rightfully un-published science fiction writings of the last several years. That I come to it via cut-rate literature rather than the quadratic equation betrays my own stance regarding science and theology: science is a tool. I don’t mind it, especially, and I certainly don’t fear scientific claims, but I don’t feel particularly beholdin’, to use the vernacular.

I don’t really think that Pythagoreans take the Holy Spirit captive, of course, but I do throw my lot in with the mystics. Forced to choose, I would vow with Blake that a ball rolling halfway up a ramp after its descent is simply the work of ten thousand sweating angels, if for no other reason than it’s more interesting that way. My own theology being primarily based in transformative experience rather than in inductive and deductive reason, I’ve always taken it as assumed that God creates the heavens and the earth; if one encounters Otto’s pneumen in any significant way one must consider scientific findings to be something beside the point.

Which is not to say that science has no say, but it is to say that I’m neither metaphysical realist nor biblical literalist and think that no matter what we might make claims about, all we get back from what we describe is more scientific and/ or religious language, or, failing that, everything we cannot essentially describe. One sees the theistic difficulty. God is both a synonym for transcendent reality and for human limitation.

To say all of this another way, science is only ultimately valuable in so far as it illuminates the nature of God and constitutes Augustine’s second revelatory ‘book of nature.’ Otherwise, I’m not particularly interested. Of course there will be conflict: if there were an evolutionary advantage to lying, say, one would have to ask hard questions about the right position of evolutionary development in human society, a task for which the language of creation seems more suited than the scientific language which describes evolution in the first place and does not necessarily surpass it.

So it is not that creation and evolution are ‘a collection of unrelated language games,’ as Barbour disparagingly phrases it, but that the language games, being all we have, are inescapable and intertwined, in no ways unrelated. As a Christian, I privilege one, but would hope to know both, and would hope that knowing one would improve my pronunciation of the other, especially as they both, of course, remain languages of God.

In my aforementioned fiction, time’s spherical – and thus nonlinear and noncyclical – nature means that time can have a center from which all events originate. The language is only poorly scientific. But it is particularly theistic, and creational. One of course would not have to press very hard to guess the event I would place at the center of the ever-expanding sphere (and no, it's not the Big Bang). What would such a creation say about the shape of God? About God’s intent and our dependence? And what would the irregularities imply?

So I avoid Barbour’s call for an evolutionary metaphysics. I don’t see the need to integrate something already inherently integrated in human activity: the same people, being human, after all (though too few of them) are speaking about both creation and evolution. We don’t need a system to combine them because we are the system, and, so far as we speak of them, they are thus already combined. What we need is not a metaphysical system but a system of people with the appropriate polyglot fluencies. Will they be synonymous? One would hope not: that would erase the point of our twin tongues.

So I would beware of any sort of synthesis: it doubts the ability of the intelligent to hold two disparate ideas together, and it certainly would erode the value of each one to sharpen the other – as iron sharpens iron, so to speak. To affect a system, one must introduce something external to the system. One would certainly not want to advance the problem of the Disappearing Theistic Evolutionist (behold, a system! And he vanishes, no longer being necessary). No, no, my own language of faith would insist that a certain tension must endure, however little we might like it.

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