Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Doubts and Worldviews

I have been struck this past week with a moment of profundity. I have tried more than once to capture this moment in words, but have found every effort to be inadequate. I have had a feeling much like Thomas Aquinas, next to what I have seen, all my efforts to express it are but dross. As such, I am stepping back a few paces. I do not know if what I have seen in inexpressible, but it is beyond my skills in the moment to express it, and I must let it abide. Therefore I chose now to express a smaller bit of thought and contemplation which has occurred to me to get my mind and hands back into the proper gear of sharing what I am capable of expressing.

The idea I want to share today is not unique to me, and indeed I think that the expression by Chesterton in Orthodoxy is in many ways superior to my own efforts. I would even say that these thoughts are a natural cousin to Hobson’s Dilemma, and thus even farther from being my own. Nevertheless, I will endeavor to share them in my own style and with my own interpretations, in the hope that they may enhance the body of thought on the subject, and perhaps allow someone stymied by the works of others a new chance to grasp the message.

Let us start with a hypothetical synopsis of a short work of science fiction. We posit a world in which the advance of science has allowed not only the gestation of children outside the womb, but the raw creation of eggs and sperm from a laboratory, the ability to create a truly artificial man. The individual genes may be patterned on those of known people, but no individual could in any true way be called the parent of these artificial children. The materials and techniques of this artificial creation are beyond the skills of manual work and so an elaborate, and somewhat chaotic, computer complex with robotic workers has control of the technology and creates children from a seemingly random process.

Our narrative will look in on two children in this world, both have been raised by kind and loving parents to the age of sixteen. At this point, both are informed that they are adopted, their real parents are not known. They both decide to try and discover their true parents, and put earnest effort into the undertaking. In time, one discovers that he was created artificially and has no biological parents. The other learns he was left anonymously at an orphanage many years ago. With dogged perseverance and many exciting false starts and chance encounters, the orphan is eventually able to track down his birth mother. They meet, and in a shocking twist it turns out his birth father was in fact the man who adopted him and had raised him.

From that time on, both men have moments of doubt and confusion. Both wonder if what they know about their parents could in fact still be false, if they may not be who they think they are. Both are able to lead their lives in accordance with their new knowledge, but the experiences never leave them, and the doubts are never fully gone from their lives.

As readers of this tale, we know the truth of these events, and we do not have to suffer the same doubts which confront the characters trapped within the limits of their story, but we can still empathize, and think about similar doubts we have had. We can look at the options each child had, and consider what we would likely have felt.

Looking at the artificially created child, I see four positions. He can accept with certainty after some period of doubt and questioning that he is truly without parents and a creation of chance. He can remain in doubt for the rest of his life, but in general act as if he was indeed artificial. He can remain in doubt but act as thought he had normal parents that he simply has not been able to find. I regard as highly unlikely that he could choose to act as though he had parents free of any doubt having been shown that he was a child of the machines.

On the other side, the orphan has a related set of options. He can accept with certainty that he know knows his father and relate as a natural child free of doubt. He can live with moments of doubt for the rest of his live, but generally accept and behave as a child of his true father. He can live with doubt and decide in his heart he is probably not his father’s child, perhaps he is the child of another or a machine child. I consider quite unlikely that he would live with a certain belief that he was not the child of his father and was surely a child of chance.

From the view outside the story we can assign values to each of these choices. For the either child, the first choice is correct and true. The second option leads to him relating to the world as if it were true, but having moments of contrary thought and behavior, moments that might make him a richer person even if untrue. The third option may also make him a more complex person, but leads to us knowing he is living a lie. The fourth option is simply false and would likely lead to us consider him insane.

Hopefully by now you were expecting me to reveal this as an extended allegory, and indeed that is the case. The framework in this story has the foster parents standing in for childhood faith, being raised in a church, and the revelation is an adolescent crisis of faith. In this tale, the reality of the artificial child is reality if atheists are in fact correct, while the orphan is the nature of reality in which there is in fact a God. In either case, if they are right, then their behavior and beliefs make sense. If they are wrong, an outside observer who knew the truth would consider them insane. But once we enter the realm of doubt is where things get interesting.

Once we enter the realm of doubt a fascinating thing happens… the atheists go away. Once they admit doubt into their world and accept some thoughts and actions driven by a theist mindset, they have betrayed the limits of their beliefs, admitting the possibility of a God. One may find numerous agnostics and "Spiritual but not religious" among those who usually act as though there was no God, but admit elements of worship or belief into their lives, but no actual atheists. The reason for this is simple, the universe does not have an Anti-God which is there for atheists and who is absent when they turn away. If you turn to God even once and feel his comfort or his presence, it is difficult to fully deny Him going forward, no matter how frequent and deep your doubts may be.

On the other side, we find that allowance for doubt in no way restricts one’s ability to be Christian. We have such prayers as “Lord I believe, help though my unbelief” and examples such as Peter walking on water in the very presence of Christ and then being seized with doubt so that he fell. I would argue that God welcomes our doubts and indeed even hopes for them. I have said before that I think “Choose Again” is a powerful creed. If we do not ever question our faith and question our beliefs, then we are never afforded the opportunity to try them and find that we do still believe and that our faith is the stronger for having wavered. All this is possible for the simple reason that in the theistic world, God is a fact. He does not cease to exist when we doubt in him or even deny him, and so we can always return to him and find him waiting for us in love.

It is certainly not a scholarly claim or academically rigorous argument, but to me I find it telling that the world view of an atheist can only be weakened or denying by allowing in the smallest element of faith and the divine which may make an individual a richer more complex person, while the world of the faithful is welcoming to the one who doubts and respects the character that a journey away from your faith may bring, and is even able to accept most discoveries and ideas from the minds of atheists while they remain locked away from our spiritual journeys. This leads me to feel that it is certainly a cosmos displaying the Divine nature of mercy that allows us to be enriched by both knowing the truth and allowing ourselves the freedom to doubt it.

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