Perception and knowledge are different, of course, but which is the most real?
Knowledge seems the obvious answer, but perception is the raw material of existence, which is why knowledge tends to lag behind instinct and first impressions, and why its intrusions are often resented.
When we look at the night sky, we know that the stars we see are an almost unimaginably vast distance away, and their charming twinkle is fuelled by savagely violent nuclear fusion reactions. But that is not what we actually see. Our ancestors looked at the stars and saw tiny lights, almost touchably near, spread across a dark blanket in the sky. And so do we. We know differently, but we still perceive the same.
The theistic worldview comes under the same category; it is a perfectly reasonable first guess at the how and why of existence. But for largely incidental emotional and political reasons, it has endured while all other pre-scientific accounts and explanations have fallen away in the light of empirical data and reasoning. Despite its enormous simplicity, which makes its internal fallacies and inconsistencies incredibly easy to identify, an evermore sophisticated body of explication has built up around it, not to genuinely illustrate its accuracy, but to shore its defences against falsification, simply because of the writer's emotional attachment to it.
Historian Paul Johnson puts the case for it thus:
(Of) possible explanations of life-time-space-and-everything-else… only one in the end makes sense. First, there is simple materialism. This, as I say, provides a bleak and totally unattractive picture of what it is all about; notably by eliminating the moral content of life altogether. If it came to be generally accepted, which is highly unlikely, then the future of the human race would indeed be nasty, brutish and short. However, it cannot be accepted by intelligent people who trouble to work out its implications, not least because it doesn’t solve the time problem. It is possible work out how life on earth will end, and how our own portion of the universe will end or even how the universe as a whole will end. But then the inevitable question arises: what happens afterwards? To this, there is no possible answer, so as an explanation of existence the materialist theory is hopelessly incomplete.
To put the problem the other way round is equally baffling. How did the universe begin?… The Bang may be a neat explanation of how the universe came into being, but it immediately raises the question: who or what detonated the Bang? And what was there before the Bang? There are no present answers to these questions, and it is hard to see how there ever can be, so long as you rule out God… Moreover, this theory can only be demonstrated mathematically. I can no more be confirmed by observation than the story of the Old and New Testaments…
The only explanation which makes sense, it seems to me, is that time, and all that it embraces, including the universe, is a projection of God’s imagination… The only ‘fact’ is the imaginative deity and this fact is spiritual not material, existing outside space and time and therefore not definable by any words we can use.
This is a good, robust philosophical defence of the theistic position.
My first objection, however, is to Johnson's claim that a materialist position does not “make sense”, but only on the grounds that it is “bleak and totally unattractive”.
The latter may be true but it says nothing whatever about whether it makes sense, unless we are presupposing that the universe has our interests at heart: the very proposition we are testing.
Johnson then goes on to say that it is inadequate because it does not answer important questions about time, telling us that the Big Bang does not make an acceptable ultimate cause of existence because it cannot explain what happened ‘before’.
There are two objections to this. One is the obvious one: that exactly the same can be said of God: who or what created him, what was it like before he showed up, etc. Neither theory is knocked down by such questioning: it reveals only the current limits of our knowledge, or perhaps the permanent limits of our reasoning capabilities.
The same goes for the objection that the Big Bang cannot be proved by observation. This is axiomatic. But neither can the existence of God. Or rather, and more tellingly, it can be but hasn’t been. And the whole concept of time, even divorced from such ultimate questions, is simply far more strange and complicated than Johnson allows. (This is something I will discuss at length in forthcoming posts.)
Nothing here has been proved or disproved. We’ve merely said something pretty basic about the limits of obtaining definite knowledge of anything.
Neither is any theory invalidated by incompleteness, as Johnson proposes. Clearly, an incomplete theory is not necessarily a wrong one, and why should our brains be capable of explaining everything anyway?
An ant or a tiger or any other living thing has as much right as a human to seek these answers, yet their brains are not even up to formulating the question. If all humans were wiped out tomorrow and only creatures with uncomprehending brains left, would that make the question meaningless?
So why should the human brain, which evolved as all others did to meet the immediate survival needs of the bearer, be expected to go all the way into these areas of dense speculation?
These are deep, deep mysteries, and nothing on earth has ever come anywhere near as close to solving them as the human brain. We should neither be too hard on it for failing to penetrate all the way, nor too proud to grasp that its limits may not match those of reality.
Finally, Johnson makes the theist’s characteristic ‘great leap’.
After dismissing scientific theories because they do not quite provide an answer to everything, he posits the theory that he says ‘makes sense’.
And it is entirely unproved, unprovable and lacking in any empirical or evidential validation.
Why should mere familiarity and consensus make the notion that we and everything are the imagination of an undetectable supernatural being ‘make sense’ more than any other unproved explanation, let alone one which reams of empirical data support?
Even if these were truly equal theories as far as relative proof goes, Johnson’s is surely the less sensible.
I mentioned earlier that reasoned supposition, even without proof, is not to be despised, and we can still reasonably speculate as to the likeliness and unlikeliness of unproved or unprovable propositions, based upon the observed nature of other things, and the questions we have answered already.
And the history of science has been the history of discovering natural laws, some easily comprehensible, some wildly counter-intuitive, but all of which work of their own steam. Nothing, yet, has ever suggested supernatural intervention in natural laws. So however unsatisfying the Big Bang theory may be, we are entitled to say that it seems more likely than a thinking, deciding, active agent outside of time and space.
This seems even more so when we anthropomorphise still further, adding elements of personality and behaviour, and the idea that this cosmic intelligence decided to make other thinking agents, place them in a landscape, see how they fare, and then judge them.
This, then, is where the argument usually ends.
But there is one point that Johnson makes that is easy to overlook, but is of the utmost importance, albeit to a very different argument.
He wrote that the materialist view of the universe, and by extension any society that was organised according to materialist principles, would be “bleak and totally unattractive”. I replied, correctly, that this made no difference as to whether it was true or not.
But could not Johnson turn around and say, just as correctly, that whether it is true or not makes no difference as to whether he is right?
Perhaps it is its centrality to ethical theory that makes theism so hard to dislodge as an account of existence.