"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Science, Faith, Or Philosophy–Which Is The Best Way To Figure Out What’s What?

Henry Tolliver had a solid scientific background but was raised in a conservative Baptist family in rural Iowa; and as a result he spent much of his life trying to square scientific fact with religious faith.  As a devout Evangelical Christian, he had a tougher time of it than most, for he had to square evolutionary theory and physical cosmology with Biblical interpretation.  One side of him accepted Darwin while the other rejected him.  For years he tried to reach an intellectual compromise, e.g. that God set the universe in motion and science took over from there, but it always seemed to him a tepid capitulation and one too open to speculation and atheistic criticism.  If the universe was indeed infinite in both time and space, then it needed no creation, i.e. no God.


He went through a period of belief in Young Earth Creationism (YEC), the belief that the Universe, Earth and all life on Earth were created by direct acts of God during a relatively short period, between 5,700 and 10,000 years ago as described in Genesis.  Although his scientific mind finally rejected this conservative theory, it forced him into a metaphorical interpretation of the Bible; i.e. that the ‘days’ of Genesis were not 24-hour days but only symbolic markers of the steps in God’s creation of the universe.   However, once one started down the slippery slope of metaphorical interpretation, the entire veracity of the Bible had to be questioned.  His dalliance with YEC raised more questions than it provided answers.

Young Earth Creationism

Recently he was encouraged by the detection of gravitational waves which seemed to prove the Big Bang Theory.  Up until last year (2014), scientists could only infer that since the universe was expanding, it had to expand from a particular point in time and space; but if the universe was curved, such expansion would be problematic.  The detection of gravitational waves appears to give those inferential conclusions solid evidence.  The Big Bang did indeed happen – there was indeed a moment of creation – and the waves prove it.


At first Henry wondered whether or not the discovery of gravitational waves set in motion by creation was as important as he had at first thought.   The issue of infinity nagged at him for months.  It was all well and good for there to be a Big Bang – a singular act of God’s creation – but what about existence prior to it?  God may have created the known universe in one explosive moment, but did he not have a hand in creating the limitless, ‘empty’ universe that preceded it?  If so, why was there no mention of this pre-creation in the Bible?

There was, of course - John 1:1-5, the most sophisticated and complex theology in the Bible, but far from the nuts and bolts of Genesis.  The Word – logos – preceded creation, John says.  The Logos was an ineffable presence that neither preceded nor followed.  It always was and always will be regardless of creation, destruction, or recreation.


This is where Henry stopped his inquiries, for John 1 combined religion, science, and philosophy.  It was very similar to verses in the Vedas which explicated Hindu cosmology.  There was indeed a creation of the universe, but there was a divine presence which was suffused through universal time and space before and after creation.  Long before John and Jesus Christ, Hindu philosophers had answered the impossible question of existence and put the matter to rest. Relativity, an expanding or contracting universe, Big Bang or little progressive bangs, gravitational waves or blasts of fire – all were within reason and of no particular relevance to the spiritual evolution of Man.

St. John

There was recently a program on the BBC World Service  (The Forum 12.8.15) which had as its theme ‘Religion, Science, or Philosophy – The Search for Meaning’.  Presenters included the director of the CERN particle physics laboratory, a Jain philosopher, a Catholic theologian, and a cosmologist.  Perhaps because one hour is impossibly short for anyone to present, explicate, and defend a point of view; or because the topic is by now so shopworn that there can be nothing new after Plato, Eusebius, Augustine, and Origen, Hume, Kant, Hobbes, Kierkegaard, and Sartre  all of whom reflected on the nature of reality, being, and divinity.  Or more likely because the three separate disciplines have always been considered separate enterprises.  There is no one unifying theory which satisfies all.

The only participant who made sense was Murray Lachlan Young, a British poet who recited a work about ‘nothing, something, and things’.  In his Ogden Nash-type philosophical ditty, he raised all the questions about existence, pre-existence, post-existence, reality, and knowability far better than the scholars on the panel.  “If beyond everything there is nothing, and nothing knows nothing of things, and nothing knows nothing of nothing, then everything is everything….”

A clever but insightful recapitulation of the Rig Veda, John 1, Augustine, and Paul Weiss.   Young’s poem reminded me of the Billy Preston song which got at the same thing:

Nothin' from nothin' leaves nothin'
You gotta have somethin' if you want to be with me
Nothin' from nothin' leaves nothin'
You gotta have somethin' if you want to be with me

I'm not tryin' to be your hero
'Cause that zero is too cold for me, Brrr
I'm not tryin' to be your highness
'Cause that minus is too low to see, yeah

Henry Tolliver went back and forth among the three realms of science, philosophy, and religion without ever settling on one.  At times he was as atheistic as they come.  He had been too well-versed in Descartes, Einstein, Bohr, and Planck to accept any Bible tripe whether John or the more elegiac Matthew.  ‘The Historical Jesus’ was the product of versatile myth-makers who told and retold the story of marketing geniuses who fashioned the new religion to suit the needs of disaffected gentiles and Jews, drawing on the stories of Greece, Palestine, and Rome for the foundation and the elegant fantasies of miracles and good works for the architecture.   The Ramayana was brilliant mythical history, a rip-roaring tale no different than the Old Testament.  Only the x-axis, probability curves, relativity, and quantum mechanics could possibly hold the keys to truth.

On bad days, he returned to the old-time religion of his youth in rural Iowa where Pastor Blevins begged Jesus to come down from his celestial throne to heal the sick and save the weak and the sinners.  Henry always walked out of church on Sunday happy and excited about his faith, his spiritual being, and his closeness to God.  In times of intellectual despair, he got down on his knees and prayed that Jesus would once again deliver him.


On still other days he read philosophy especially works by Bertrand Russell, Pascal, and Schweitzer – men of science and abstract thought – but also Kant and Hume.  He read Tolstoy’s A Confession, admired his lifelong search for meaning and faith, but hoped that his journey would not be so arduous.  Tolstoy read everything in science, mathematics, philosophy, and theology and came up dry.  There could be no answers through traditional inquiry.  In the end Tolstoy simply sighed and gave up.  If billions of people believed, he said, why shouldn’t he?

The last time I talked with him, Henry Tolliver was in his profoundly religious phase.  Perhaps because he was approaching his mid-70s, he was hedging his bets.  Science and philosophy wouldn’t be worth a wooden nickel as he faced eternity.  In any case he was not only deeply immersed in his faith, he was as evangelical as they come; and no conversation, no matter how secular the theme, always turned to Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of Heaven .

I think he has reached the end of the line.  This religious phase is probably it; although since Tolstoy after  A Confession wrote The Death of Ivan Ilyich, a novella whose ending suggests a return to his former nihilism, Henry might go back to ‘enlightened atheism’.

Ivan Ilyich

My outlook is simplified and derivative.  I buy the elegant theology of John and the Rig Veda; accept science is an excellent  tool for explaining how things work; and understand religion as elaborate, necessary myth.   I am most interested in philosophy, because as the old Yiddish expression goes, I don’t want to be ‘too soon old but too late schmart’.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.