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The end of mysteries and the rise of atheism

The linguist and political analyst Noam Chomsky once divided up the questions that linguists study into two categories, mysteries and problems. That division has since been seized on and expanded well beyond the field of linguistics and used as a tool to classify all problems of scientific research. For example, Steven Pinker writes in How the Mind Works (1997, p. ix):

When we face a problem, we may not know its solution, but we have insight, increasing knowledge, and an inkling of what we are looking for. When we face a mystery, however, we can only stare in wonder and bewilderment, not knowing what an explanation would even look like.

Where religion and god have found their strength in the past was in their ability to “explain” the many mysteries that confronted people in the early days before modern science. Of course, such explanations are not really explanations at all in the conventional sense of the world. What we usually expect of an explanation is something either in simpler terms or as an intelligible cause of the phenomenon. To say “god did it” doesn’t really advance the discussion in any way.

The progress of science has seen the steady transformation of mysteries into problems. The great mysteries of the physical universe were made into problems with the advent of Newtonian mechanics. For the first time, the behavior of the solar system became comprehensible in terms of natural laws and we had tools to investigate its behavior and make predictions. There were still huge unsolved problems, but that is what they were: problems, not mysteries. Of course, the big questions of the properties of the large scale universe had to await the advances in 20th century physics and big bang cosmology, but Newtonian physics provided such a satisfactory materialistic basis for explaining so many things, that it was hard not to feel that the nature of the universe was no longer a mystery.

This does not mean that all the major questions have been solved. Scientific research is always springing surprises on us. For example, right now dark energy and dark matter are thought to have a pervasive and widespread presence in the universe but have eluded detection for some time. But while they are mysterious, these phenomena are not mysteries but problems, since scientists have fairly well-defined research programs to study them.

After Newton, the next major mystery to fall by the wayside was the mystery of the complexity and diversity of life. The origins of the seemingly exquisitely designed features of nature had to have been totally baffling to people living before the 18th century and one can understand why they might have thought that god was the only explanation. But the arrival of evolutionary ideas with specific mechanisms for how they might work, starting with people like Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), started the chipping away of that particular mystery. Although his theory that animals could pass on acquired traits to their progeny is no longer accepted and his name is nowadays sometimes mentioned disparagingly, his work published in 1801 was groundbreaking in that it suggested that the diversity of life was due to natural laws and not necessarily due to some miraculous intervention by god.

Lamarck laid the groundwork for taking these questions out of the realm of mysteries and into the world of problems, work that reached its culmination with the brilliant work of Charles Darwin. Darwin himself in 1861 acknowledged the debt to his predecessor: “This justly celebrated naturalist. . .first did the eminent service of arousing attention to the probability of all changes in the organic, as well as in the inorganic world, being the result of law, and not of miraculous interposition.”

Richard Dawkins argues in The Blind Watchmaker (p. 6) that it was Darwin’s successful theory of natural selection that broke down a great mystery that had prevented the easy acceptance of atheism:

An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: “I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn’t a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one.” I can’t help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.

So are there any mysteries at all left? I can think of only three possible candidates: the first appearance of life on Earth, consciousness, and the origin of the universe.

The first appearance of life is, I would argue, no longer a mystery although it remains a hard problem. We already have some idea of what the initial conditions of the Earth were and what kinds of properties the earliest replicators need to have in order to evolve and grow in complexity. Experimentalists and theorists are actively working on the problem using many plausible scenarios.

We have not advanced as much with consciousness, but I would argue that the tremendous work that has been done in the area of brain research, artificial intelligence, and artificial life has also shifted this former mystery into the realm of problems. (I will write about these things in the future but the website MachinesLikeUs is a tremendously valuable resource for getting updates on the state of those fields.)

Only the origin of the universe can still be considered as a mystery. Part of the problem is that it is hard to envisage what is “before” the beginning of the universe and what is “simpler” than it, two elements that are needed to construct a satisfactory explanation. The conditions of the very early universe are so very different from the present that it is hard to get a handle on how to handle them. Explaining the origins of the universe may mean going back “before the beginning”, if that even makes any sense, and it is not clear how to do that. So for the present, believers in god have a good mystery candidate, the last refuge where perhaps god can act without being subject to scrutiny from those pesky scientists. In fact, in almost any discussion of religion and god, when plausible scientific explanations are given for other things, believers almost invariably resort to the claim that the origin of the universe had to be an act of god.

There are those who will resist the drive to convert mysteries into problems, not for religious reasons but because it threatens to destroy the sense of wonder. There is a romantic streak in many of us that yearns for mysteries, that enjoys the sense of awe that accompanies the feeling that there are things beyond our ken. We are drawn with a curious fascination to stories of the supernatural, of spirits, of “ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night.”

While the disappearance of mysteries undoubtedly makes atheism easier to accept, would it be a bad thing not to have mysteries anymore? Would we be losing a sense of awe and wonder? It don’t think so. The difference is that while most people have a sense of awe in the presence of unexplained phenomena, atheists have a sense of awe at the power of the mind that can comprehend the phenomena.

Richard Dawkins in Unweaving the Rainbow says: “I believe that an orderly universe, one indifferent to human preoccupations, in which everything has an explanation even if we still have a long way to go before we find it, is a more beautiful, more wonderful place than a universe tricked out with capricious ad hoc magic.”

I agree with him. Consider the fact that we humans, tiny specks each living for a brief time in an infinitesimally small part of the universe, have been able, by painstakingly building upon the work of our ancestors, to uncover so many deep mysteries of the cosmos, of who we are, what we are made of, and how we got here.

If that is not awe inspiring, I don’t know what is.

POST SCRIPT: The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy

Professor John J. Mearsheimer (University of Chicago) and Professor Stephen Walt (Harvard University) caused quite a stir with their article The Israeli Lobby and US Foreign Policy. They now have a book out with the same name.

They will be speaking at 7:00pm on Wednesday, September 26, 2007 in the Ford Auditorium in the Allen Building on the CWRU campus, at the corner of Euclid and Adelbert. The event is free and open to the public.

They will also be speaking at noon that same day at the City Club of Cleveland.

Although I have not read their book yet, I did read their article in the London Review of Books, and the more detailed working paper on which it was based.

I also wrote a four-part series on their paper and the aftermath. You can find the last part here, which has links to the earlier parts.

You can listen to a Fresh Air interview with Walt here.

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