Friday, December 04, 2009

Its a beauty-haunted world after all

Earlier this week in a fascinating piece on Slate, Ron Rosenbaum attempts to describe aspects which make this an "annoyingly mysterious world," also expressing why he takes exception to the "certainty" of both theists and atheists.

He critiques dodges of the 'new' atheism - faith in evolution as Blind Watchmaker, quantum-fluctuation cosmologies, and reductionary attitudes towards consciousness and qualia - rightly showing how they fail to provide any scientific solution, or take away the mystery (and Dawkins might still agree on that last point). 

He seeks to dispatch with "intelligent design" in much less time, noting that ID "doesn't explain what created the consciousness behind the intelligence of intelligent design." Sure, ID does not resolve that, and would not attempt to (nor should we assume that is ID's "job"). But to take the bait for its own sake, Rosenbaum's argument is assuming the same problem should push back to the First Designer - but that's not a reasonable assumption in this case, because our consciousness and a Primary designer's consciousness need not be construed as univocal entities, similar in all relevant respects. In fact, if the primary "intelligent designer" is a being which is non-biological, not to mention non-spatial and non-temporal (that is, eternal), as relevant arguments entail, then, while our consciousness may still bear some analogy to the First Consciousness(es), it cannot not be construed as similar in the bio-chemical senses that ID-theorists call "irreducible complexity."

Nevertheless, back to mystery. Approaching the matter through the prompts "what is consciousness?" "why is there something rather than nothing?" and "how did life come from non-life?" he praises recent writers for
what you might call a philosophical version of a punk rock attitude on these questions, a disdain for the nobs who sit on their fat certainties. I consider them heroic for entertaining heresies that dismay the religious and the irreligious, both of whom claim too much.
Well, his own summary of the matter is not what I would call "punk rock," but rather MOR:
I don't think religion has the answers, but I don't think science does either.
So: no one has everything all figured out, and he is not religious (just Mysterious). Avoiding snark, I think its worth pondering just how milky this is. Perhaps, the poverty of interest in his conclusion derives from the assumption that we are dealing in the first place with "mysteries to be solved." Which are insoluble. But yet "we need answers."

Murder- and criminologist-style mysteries are not like the "mysteries of existence" which he invokes. One involves a situation - who killed _______? what led to Hitler's Nazism? - whose narrative can be comprehended (at least in principle) by finite beings, even if putting all the particular pieces together may be extra-ordinarily difficult. Yet, this other sort of mystery directly involves capital-B Being. It involves the Infinite (not of mathematical sort, but in the sense of not having any limitations). It's not a difference in magnitude, but a distinction in kind.

But what makes a mystery? Not the search for solution (if so we would just call them "problems"), but rather their (often terrible and relentless) beauty. Perhaps this is even what makes mysteries dangerous; it is not that we haven't solved them yet, or, in this case, that New Atheists offer the Rational Solution and are Surprisingly Unsuccessful. Rather, like ghosts not found in stories or on screens but instead real and immediate to us, mysteries really do haunt us. So to make it about problem solving at all is to miss it; what attracts me about a Chagall painting is not found in my inability to give its cosine.

According to those pesky religious theists, Beauty is ultimate one of God's names. Dogmatic certainty about matters beyond our reach is a turn-off. But far be it from any 'religious' approach to set such limits. Agnostism, ironically, is compelled to do so. With the mysteries of the Infinite (the limitless of HaShem's being which undergirds contingent reality, the spark of consciousness which is His Life imparted to us), humility is not found in working out solutions, but in seeking the Source Who makes heroism possible.

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