Sunday, September 27, 2015

Miracles on a pale blue dot

Over the years, after reading some of my blog-posts that I have packaged into collections, my father has understood that I have wandered far, far away from the religious reservation.  He also knows that I am not one of those atheists who goes around dissing religions for the sake of dissing them.

I stay silent when he talks about one of his beliefs--miracles.  I remember all too well how as a faithful young boy everyday I waited for miracles to happen.  The older I got, and the more I understood science, I figured that there are plenty of things wrong in interpreting the happenings via miracles.

As the polymath physicist Alan Lightman writes in this essay,
Miracles, by definition, lie outside science. Miracles are incompatible with a rational picture of the physical world. Nevertheless, even in our highly scientific and technological society, with most of us profiting enormously from cell phones and automobiles and other products of science—indeed depending on the consistent workings of science—a large fraction of the public believes in miracles. Most of us do not ponder that contradiction. One of my aunts was certain that her dead father visited her house and spoke to her every few months, and she got a tape recorder—a device of science—to document his voice. (Thereupon, the ghostly visits ceased.)
Miracles come from the world of imagination, of dreams, of desire; science from the world of practicality, of logic, of orderly control. I’ve always been fascinated by our ability to live simultaneously in these two apparently opposing worlds. Each in its own way, they reflect something deep and essential inside of us.
That excerpt gives away why I was drawn to that essay.  Through a number of posts in this blog, I have been trying to understand the simultaneous existence of people in "two apparently opposing worlds."  For a number of years now, I have asked quite a few science-educated people, including one who has a doctorate in astronomy--about their "faith" and how they reconcile the two.

I have also come to understand via this maniacal inquiry that people believe in their gods because it gives them that concise narrative of why we are here.  Without that clear narrative, we will be forced to think about questions like: who am I? What does life mean? What happens to this "life" after death?  Why is there death?  How did all these come about?  Those are all troubling questions.  Religious narratives, whether it is Buddhism or Catholicism or Scientology, provide answers to those questions.

And that is exactly what Alan Lightman also says:
Belief in a spiritual universe, I would suggest, arises to a large extent from a human desire for meaning, meaning both in our individual lives and in the cosmos as a whole. While science provides the psychological comfort of order, rationality, and control, it does not provide meaning. Such deep philosophical questions as “Why am I here?” “What is the purpose of my life?” “What is the meaning of this strange cosmos I find myself in?”, and such moral questions as “Is it right to kill an enemy soldier in time of war?” “Is it right to steal in order to feed my family?”, cannot be answered by science. Yet these questions are vital to our mental and emotional lives. We turn for answers to the spiritual universe, the realm that contains eternal truths and guidance, the realm that has some kind of permanent existence, in contrast to the fleeting moment of our mortal lives. In such a realm, logic, rationality, and regularity are not even part of the vocabulary.
It is like when we play a sport like football or cricket.  There is internal logic to how that is played, of course, but if you are not a "believer" then you find that the rules are irrational, bizarre, and comical.  We make fun of off-side and ineligible receiver and more.  But, to those who are passionate about the sport, well, there is nothing funny about those rules.  It, therefore, does not surprise me one bit that atheists are rarely found in the sporting world--way rarer than in society, I think!

I believe that father has also understood my profound appreciation for this universe that is awesome, beautiful, and mysterious. Which is why sometimes he even says things like "you refer to that as the cosmos."  To me, a wonderfully sunny day in fall is a miracle. So is the sparkling river, a rainbow, the blue waters of Sahalie Falls, the loving lick of a playful puppy, the unadulterated laughter of a two-year old,  ... Which is why I so easily agree with Lightman's concluding comments:
My wife and I spend summers on a small island in Maine, far from any town. At night, the skies are quite dark. Sometimes, when there is no wind blowing and the tidal flow is small and the ocean is very still, I can see the reflection of the stars in the water near our dock. At such moments, the water looks like a dark carpet with a million tiny sparkles of light, which gently bob and ripple with each passing wave. Even though I know all the science, I am totally mesmerized and awed. For me, that is miracle enough.
Have yourself a miraculous Sunday!


Ramesh said...

Faith does not equal to miracles. I don't believe in miracles but have faith.

I'll argue about that connection between atheists and sport. Really ?? All the Tim Tebow phenomenon is all extremely rare. Sportsmen simply play the game. There may be a prayer before a game or during a play - but that's just no different from what anybody might do in a different walk of life. And there are enough atheists around.

A wonderfully sunny autumn day in Oregon ???? Now that IS a miracle :):)

Sriram Khé said...

Alan Lightman has this in that essay I linked to:
"A recent Harris poll found that 74 percent of Americans surveyed believe in God, and 72 percent believe in miracles"
I suspect that the respective percentages are even higher in India.
While you with faith and I without one might not believe in miracles, an overwhelming majority does.

The piece I linked to about sports and atheism is a must-read in the context of your response. Or, watch this: While he says "secular" in other places he was identified himself as an "atheist"

Yes, a glorious sunny day in fall here in Oregon is an awesome miracle ;)

Anne in Salem said...

I have faith and believe in miracles. We have now covered all the bases.

I disagree that faith answers the existential questions and that faith provides a concise narrative of why we are here. Faith provides a component of, perhaps a framework for, the answers, but it does not provide the answers. For example, I know no more about why I am here than you do. My faith provides a basic outline; the Catechism says we are here to know God, to love God and to serve God. How do we do each? That is our choice. Faith does not provide that answer. We must search it ourselves, if we so choose. If faith provided the simple answers, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas More and Thomas Merton, among others, would be unknown names and would have had very boring lives.

Faith adds an equally unanswerable question with which atheists might not wrestle - How does a merciful, loving God allow starvation/war/cancer/murder? My son asked just the other day why God allowed his 41 year old aunt die of metastatic breast cancer, causing much grief and questioning and doubt among the surviving.

Life after death is perhaps the only question you pose the faith does answer. For Christians, heaven - eternal life with God - is the answer. Attaining heaven is also answered. We can never know if someone made it, just pray that he did.

I completely agree with you list of miracles, especially sunny fall days in Oregon. My list of miracles some days is more mundane - that I make it home alive given the nutjobs on the road - or more personal - that my grandmother might exceed your expiration date by 24 years next month, that my children are good kids despite so many influences to the contrary, that love can be found a second time, etc. Some days the best miracle is that the internet can bring together people from opposite sides of the world to discuss miracles.

Sriram Khé said...

"his 41 year old aunt die of metastatic breast cancer" ...
ouch! That's a toughie. 41--how young that age is!!!

Yes, that is always a tough theological question, right--how does a god allow for bad things to happen, especially to good people? Theodicy, as they refer to it.

So, yes, given that we won't have the combination of an atheist who believes in miracles, we seem to represent all the other three combinations. My position as an atheist who does not believe in miracles is the easiest to defend because of its simple internal consistency, I would think--you two have to jump through some complicated hoops to arrive at your respective places.

The internet making this discussion possible would have been way outside the wildest of imaginations for people even a couple of hundred years ago leave alone a thousand years ago. They would not think of this as a miracle, but would be scared shitless that we talk into air and voices, characters, and even faces appear ;)

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