Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Deus ex machina

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 confines.  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, for instance, 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.
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 joyous 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 week!


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