Wednesday, July 23, 2008

It's All Supernatural

For the past several weeks, I have been working very hard at not only my primary job – which has been going well, by the way – but also my sideline gig as a ghostwriter. The ghostwriting is very challenging, but I do like it. The wife said recently she could see I was in my element, which I guess means I am a natural scholar. It certainly can’t mean I’m smart or anything, but it might imply that I gravitate to the work of reading, researching, adding my own stuff. I certainly would do it all day if I could.

What I am ghostwriting is a book on science and religion. The idea is to survey the current state of the religion and science debates, critique the science of religion and carve out a legitimate space for modern religious belief. I’m researching a whole bunch on the science and religion sides, and I’m charged with throwing in as much as I can of my employer’s existing writings on the subject.

I face a few critical challenges because (1) I don’t always find my employer to be rigorous in his argumentation and (2) I am, as I have only recently accepted, an incorrigible agnostic. My employer resembles most of the pro-religion crowd in using a fairly small battery of arguments and lines of evidence. Part of what I want to do is push the boundaries of these arguments and create something really fresh, interesting, provocative and maybe even true. The science-side arguments are really wonderful, and if I am successful, then it will actually be because of them.

Last night, I believe I came to a bit of a breakthrough, and I am very excited about it. Up until now, I have been exploring. I’ve been looking to make that argument which is truly unique and challenging, something that will make the science side pause and have to deal with it. Last night I think I finally touched on the claim and the argument that need to be made. Essentially, I am arguing that the scientific dichotomy between natural and supernatural is false. This in itself is not so radical. I have seen other articles in this vein, but they are short and not well supported. I think I can make a sustained case, and I think I can frame the supernatural as a testable hypothesis. This last bit may be too ambitious. Perhaps the best I can hope for is to propose a new dichotomy: natural and supernatural versus neither-natural-nor-supernatural.

I arrived at this line of thinking when I was trying to introduce the argument from design. I was critiquing the design argument as formulated by atheist mathematician John Allen Paulos, who is really sharp and a great writing mind. I didn’t like the way he presented the major premise of the argument from design: “Something – the diversity of life-forms, the beauty of the outdoors, the stars, the fine structure constants – is much too complex (or too perfect) to have come about randomly or by sheer accident.” My opinion was that complexity wasn’t the main criterion by which the possibility of supernatural guidance could be reasonably deduced. My logical problem then became explaining how to infer a qualitative difference between natural and supernatural. My conclusion was that either one could not make the distinction at all or that the difference was one of productivity: the supernatural creates something new while the natural does not. Basically, I’m trying to re-define something that’s been in front of us the whole time as something more than what we thought.

There’s more to say on this, and I don’t know that I will legitimately be able to make the argument stick. I would love to get some feedback from people outside my employer – people who will really challenge me to sharpen the reasoning or chuck it altogether. Yet I do know that if I can make this claim well and connect it throughout the chapters of the book, then the book itself stands a good chance of being very noteworthy, marketable and influential. Real scientists would be called upon to critique the argument. Religious people would be called in to voice their support.

So far, the book does a good job of undermining the rhetorical pretensions of the scientific and materialist models. At the beginning of the book, I thought I was trying to get science and religion to walk away from each other. Now I’m trying to put them on the same team.

Strange how life can work.

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