Saturday, December 27, 2008
Twenty-five years ago or so I read a book: Gödel, Escher, Bach An Eternal Golden Braid. Gödel was a mathematician, Escher an artist, and Bach a composer. The book has to do with artificial intelligence and thought and systems of logic. . . Maybe this wasn't the author's intent, but it also has much to do with systems of religious belief. The topics are heavy and require some work to comprehend, but these complex issues are presented in such a way as to be relatively understandable (with effort). The author uses the art of Escher, the music of Bach and a mathematical proof written by Kurt Gödel to explore the ability of machines to think. In 1931 Kurt Gödel discovered a mathematical theorem that if I might paraphrase says:
Any system, sufficiently powerful, contains elements within it that are unprovable within that system.
Here is a page which gives more complete restatements of Gödel's proof. Gödel, Escher, Bach An Eternal Golden Braid is a fascinating book. I have a copy around here somewhere, if any of you are interested let me know and I'll dig it up and lend it to you for a while. As I said I read this book 25 years ago. This was probably at my peak of atheistic hardness of heart. This book has great implications for atheism, but I had not thought about that at that time.
As an atheist, I became an expert at finding questions, at coming up with seemingly contradictory puzzles that Christianity could not answer. The mistake that many Christians made in speaking with me, was to try and argue that Christianity had no such difficulties, but according to Mr. Gödel's proof, Christianity must if it is a powerful enough system, must have within it things which cannot be explained from within it. Now from my enlightened perspective, I know that this is not a fatal weakness of Christianity. It merely means that ultimately Christianity must come down to a foundation of faith. . .
I would ask a question such as, "Can God do anything?"
A tenet, an axiom of Christianity is that this is so, therefore believing in the omnipotence of God, the Christian must answer, "Yes"
I would respond, "Can He make a weight so heavy that He cannot lift it?"
You cannot answer this question from within the system of belief of Christianity. This is not a trivial question. This is a concrete question of what God can and cannot do. If He can do everything, then He must be able to construct this immovable weight, but then He cannot do everything. . .
If I were asked this question today:
"Can God do anything?"
A tenet, an axiom of my belief is that this is so, therefore believing in the omnipotence of God, I must answer, "Yes"
Again, "Can He make a weight so heavy that He cannot lift it?"
I would reply, "Yes He can and then He would lift it."
"But that's not logical."
"You're right. God is not bound by logic. God is outside of anything we can understand."
From a logical perspective, nothing much about God makes sense. We don't like to dwell on such issues, but they are there nonetheless:
If God knows everything, then doesn't that mean that everything is predestined and we have no real control of outcomes? The end is already known by God. You can drive yourself crazy, if you focus on these issues and it will end up destroying your belief in God, but. . .but. . .but!!!! Every system has such a weaknesses inherent to it. . . even atheism. I did not see this correlation at the time that I read the above mentioned book. I did not see it as applying to atheism, but you cannot hide from having to depend upon faith, no matter what your belief system:
"Does God exist?"
"How do you know?"
"I've never seen him."
"Have you ever seen your liver?
What about your heart or brain?
Have you seen them?
Have you ever seen China or the far side of the moon?. . .
A blind man has never seen a rainbow. . .
but that has nothing to do with whether rainbows exist.
How do you know that you're not a blind man?"
A blind man not seeing has nothing to do with the existance of rainbows and everything to do with the weakness of blindmen. . .
To re-paraphrase Mr. Gödel's theorem:
Any system, sufficiently powerful, contains elements within it that are unprovable within that system. . . and thereby in the end must rest upon the faith of the believer in that system.
The only religious belief system that would not have this weakness of unanswerable questions is agnosticism. That is the admission that you do not know whether God exists or not. For years I vacillated between calling myself an atheist or an agnostic. I finally got tired of taking the safe route. I got tired of being what I saw as a fence sitter. I began to look upon that as a weakness in myself and decided from that point forward that I was definitely an atheist.
Agnosticism is a defensible system, but by its very nature, it is not a system of belief, but rather a state of unknowing, a system of uncertainty and therefore it is inherently not a powerful enough system to have this weakness of unknowability and incompleteness that Mr. Gödel proved.
In fact agnosticism is everyone's starting point. It is the connection, it is the common center between atheism and Christianity. Agnosticism is our communal foundation. Christians and atheists both have uncertainty. The difference being that we move from that uncertainty in opposite directions. If we have the honesty to admit it, if we can only realize it, if our eyes can only see it, we both cover that lack of certainty with faith. . .
I love you my God. . .
I love you my Lord. . .
I once was blind, but now I see. . .