Sunday, October 17, 2010

Justice and the natural order

A recent article in First Things by Stephen M. Barr entitled, "Fearful Symmetries" argues that scientific reductionism has been misapplied by scientific materialists. Barr decries the "diminished ontological status" of the fundamental "stuff" of the universe in the materialist view of things. In contrast, he expresses the belief that it is precisely by looking at the basic building blocks of the universe that we see its underlying order, and thus we see the Mind of God at work. Working "down" from the complex to the simple does not mean explaining away the beauty of the universe; on the contrary, it means discovering that beauty.

His evidence of this underlying order is sufficient to make a point. From the principle of least action, to the ordered motion of the planets, to the theory of universal gravitation and Einstein's general relativity, science is filled with examples of "profound simplicity," a concept which for Barr is nothing short of divine. As we progress in science, we are motivated by a desire for profound simplicity to search not just for explanations, but beauty. We seek theories of nature for which "the slightest alteration would be disastrous."

For Barr, then, it should be clear that the universe is not a place where order arises out of chaos, but rather something complex built on beautiful simplicity. He expresses his conclusion in this way:
It is true that the cosmos was at one point a swirling mass of gas and dust out of which has come the extraordinary complexity of life as we experience it. Yet, at every moment in this process of development, a greater and more impressive order operates within--and order that did not develop but was there from the beginning. In the upper world, mind, though, and ideas make their appearance as fruit on the topmost branches of an evolutionary tree. Below the surface, we see the taproots of reality, the fundamental laws of physics that shimmer with ideas of profound simplicity.

I don't have any problem with Barr examining the physical world and finding an underlying beautiful order. I'm just not sure how this answers the claims of the New Atheists (or any other atheists) in any convincing way. If God is merely synonymous with the laws of physics, then you have the God of Stephen Hawking, who has no problem saying the same thing. If God is anything more than that, then nothing in this article really suggests it. The article might be useful, however, to some Christians who could learn more about the beauty of physics.

Moreover, for the remainder of this blog post, I wish to contend with the rationalism embedded in Barr's essay. On the one hand, he describes human mental faculties as being at the "top of the evolutionary tree." On the other hand, he writes,
Peering into the hidden depths, we see that matter itself is the expression of "a great thought," of ideas that are, as Weyl said, "in conformity with sublime Reason." And we begin to discover that matter, although mindless itself, is the product of a Mind of infinite profundity and infinite simplicity.
Barr focuses here on God's rationality, and views the underlying order of the universe as evidence for his existence. Thus Barr views both human and divine reason as clues to the meaning of the universe.

Instead of God's rationality, I'm interested in how God's justice characterizes the order of the natural world. The fundamental nature of the universe is to adhere faithfully to a set of laws. Science is merely the act of describing what is faithfully adhered to. Aside from consistency, we find another remarkable feature: a total absence of bias. The laws of physics hold no matter where you are in the universe; or so it is assumed, and we have no evidence to suggest otherwise. Our assumption is, I suppose, based on some feeling that there is justice in the universe; but this feeling is vindicated by an overwhelming array of evidence. All matter is treated equally in this universe. It is obvious, of course, that not all matter has the same fate, but it is always subject to the same rules.

(I'm aware that some will find my use of the word "law" here to be too literal. They would argue that these "laws" are really logical necessities; they are not enforced by anyone. I don't wish to get into that here. Suffice it to say, I'm not at all convinced by this argument. Can I not easily imagine a universe in which there is nothing that adheres faithfully to any quantitative rule, such as the conservation of matter and energy? It should also be noted that when I speak of God "enforcing laws," I do not imagine some policeman in the sky.)

Not one place in Scripture do I recall God's "reason" or "rationality" being praised, for those concepts don't seem to translate what is anywhere being described. Certainly the wisdom of God has a high place in Scripture; but in what does this wisdom consist? Is it not in his justice? When Solomon asked for wisdom, it was precisely that he might rule over his people well. Jesus says wisdom is vindicated by her deeds. Proverbs teaches that the "fear of the Lord" is the beginning of wisdom. Is wisdom, then, primarily about rationality, or is it not more about God's justice?

Is not God's judgment constantly revered in Scripture? Is not his faithfulness one of the most treasured of all of his attributes? I would suggest that the order of the universe can best be understood through these attributes of God. It is not that underneath everything there is a set of beautiful mathematical equations. Rather, the language of mathematics, which is constructed precisely based on the principles of faithfulness in meaning and relationship of symbols to one another, is fit to describe the world which God so faithfully governs.

The temptation is always to see ourselves in God, or rather to see whatever it is we are striving to become in God. I admit, it is no different with me. And to some extent this temptation is simply a byproduct of a fundamentally good desire, which is to emulate God; thus it is almost excusable. However, I do think that the desire to equate God with Reason has been particularly dominant in Western thought, with many disastrous consequences--not the least of which is the resulting tendency to replace God with Reason, thereby removing God from intellectual life, hence from public life in general. In my admittedly limited capacity to judge, Barr's essay fails to find any room for God that Reason has not already filled; therefore he has said nothing to challenge atheism.

The human longing for justice is different from the desire for reason. Reason is what we strive to achieve with our mental faculties, and there never seems any limit to what humans can achieve through reason. Justice, on the other hand, always feels elusive. The past century is witness enough to the fact that as a species, we have never progressed in our ability to rule justly.

Yet the whole universe testifies to the justice of God. Every day its order can be witnessed. Its consistency can never be violated. There is justice in the world. That is why the equations work. I can personally attest to how often mathematicians use phrases such as, "If there's any justice in the world," to describe their feeling about what the answer to a problem should be. The pieces fit because they must, not simply because they do.

The frightening part is realizing that justice does not favor us nearly so much as we'd like. We are mortal. The elements will destroy us, and even if they do not our bodies will break down eventually. This is a consequence of our being treated in all fairness. No wonder we prefer to glory in our own reason than to contemplate the justice of God.

And it is here where the atheist cries out, "That is why there is no God." It is not because he fails to see the beauty of the universe. It is not because he fails to behold its underlying order, and admire the way mathematics so perfectly describes it. It is not because he is unwilling to bow before the throne of Reason. No; it is because if God exists, then he is not good. What sort of justice will lead to man's death? What sort of justice will allow the innocent to suffer, while the wicked achieve enormous success? What good will justice do, if it means only that the laws of physics cannot be broken? Are particles more important than people? Therefore that very consistency which seems so beautiful when considered in one sense, now seems so very hideous.

Here we are at a crossroads. Shall we worship only the Reason that is within, or shall we search for a God who is beyond us, whose justice we cannot comprehend? God speaks out of the whirlwind; reason has no response to give. This gives us endless torment. We know how true and beautiful it all is, but we cannot accept it as good. We are divided in ourselves.

Christianity has only one response to give, which is Resurrection. We have no scientific explanation for it, but only eye-witnesses of it. We have seen beyond the justice of God. If God's creation expresses his justice, what does his new creation express? Reason cannot attain to it. Mathematics cannot describe it. We have only a story to tell, a story to which we now claim to belong. We do not claim to escape suffering, but only to redeem it. We do not claim to avoid death, but only that those who lose their life will find it. We do not overthrow God's justice with this message; rather we seek its true fulfillment. I have suggested that God's justice is evident in the world around us, and to a certain extent I think that's true. But the Christian claim is that this picture is profoundly lacking without Jesus Christ.

If I have seemed to go beyond the issue of science and religion, it is only because this is where it all eventually leads. Our hearts cry for justice, but will they ever be heard? And do we even know what it is we cry for? This is perhaps the fundamental question underneath the surface of all religious discussion, whether it involves science or not.


  1. Peter Kreeft notes that when Aquinas sought positive arguments, or proofs for atheism, he could find only two. One was that God is an unnecessary hypothesis, and the other was the Problem of Evil. One is much stronger than the other, yet both are still with us.

    I've found what you've said here to be true in my discussions with skeptics, and it has led me to a preference to hold the Moral Argument for the existence of God in its various forms above others. Because the Problem of Evil really is the strongest argument, and not one that can be defeated by logic and pure reason. I think one must understand it aesthetically i.e., through stories, in order to grasp it at all.

    I caught your three-fold distinction of what we love as humans; the true, the beautiful, and the good. Don't think that gets enough emphasis nowadays in philosophical discourse. I enjoyed the piece!

  2. I found this article interesting, but I would like to ask something of you. You state, "No; it is because if God exists, then he is not good. What sort of justice will lead to man's death? What sort of justice will allow the innocent to suffer, while the wicked achieve enormous success?"

    I am wondering if we have a very narrow definition of what we deem good. I suspect that most would say justice is there, but they would call it free will. God being good could, as I see it, be good due to love. Loving MUST allow freedom. We can't hoard or corral love and if we do, it is no longer love. It is fear of loss of love. So, for me, I could easily see corruption of what may be deemed good by the act of free will. Now I know that certain philosophical bents (as in strict determinism) would argue for the lack of existence of free will, and of course, I suppose that could be possible. But I am not at that point. I hope I am making sense, but in this vein, I can see where justice is always happening; its just not happening in the way we humans see justice. Remember, if indeed God exists, then we are incompetent judges of what HE may be. I mean we can't explain much of anything at times and yet our brains try and wrap around this concept with little success. I think its more about existential anxiety and the associated meaningless, freedom, aloneness and death that is driving us. I see the underlying fear of being alone and death as a huge driving factor and I counsel people regularly. My views are continually evolving and I may think differently in the future, but right now I am thinking that, as a species, we are in need of love, of mattering, of being special in someone's/God's eyes. We fall into depression and worry and that existential anxiety if we don't have it. The problem with this is that we rely on God's existence to help us. I really don't think that is wrong at all. If God does exist, all the better, but I think it is cruel to try and take the identity of "divine child of God" away from people without a plausible alternative. That alternative here in this country tends to be atheism, at times. And this alternative is too damn scary for most of us to comprehend. I am one of those that feels that creating meaning is of the utmost importance in your life. Whether there is divine meaning in our existence or not, we have the capability to create meaning and interpret our existence out of experiences in life. What matters is that they are important and meaningful to the person individually. Others don't have to validate these meanings. It is likely started as a very personal journey, but can then extend to others. The problem I routinely see is that most people look to the external to validate and get what they THINK they need, and tend to allow all kinds of anxiety to interfere with self understanding and eventual internal validation and acceptance. As a species, we really tend to do this. At the heart of us, we are very selfish, but we can choose to change this and give and receive love without constant fear. In my experience, as I can't speak for everyone, FEAR and LOVE are the biggest motivators for all of us. I could go on, but I think you get the point here. I don't have the answers and I don't think anyone else does, but it is the taking of the journey, the wondering, the questions, the acceptance of life that is to be lived in the moment that is so precious. Because in the end, whatever happens after death IS GOING TO happen, no matter how much we do or do not worry about it. Your thoughts...I am always curious as to others interpretations of these types of questions.

  3. Dear Anonymous,

    One thing we agree on is that our concept of justice is limited. Though we have a word for it, we don't necessarily know what it really is we're talking about. The "free will" argument is posed by lots of people, particularly Christians arguing in God's defense. I think there are a number of immediate problems with this. First, it is just a fact that plenty (most?) of human suffering has nothing to do with human choices. Cancer happens. Hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes all come with unexpected force. Famine and drought can have devastating effects. While human progress can alleviate these things, it doesn't appear that human decisions ever caused these things in the first place. This is probably the most significant argument against the free will defense, although I also sympathize with another argument: if God created us, why did he give us such destructive capabilities? Isn't freedom possible without such capabilities?

    I won't say I have the answers, either, and in fact that is a key point: we can't be too quick to reject what we don't understand. I agree with what you say, "Remember, if indeed God exists, then we are incompetent judges of what HE may be." As a corollary, we are incompetent judges of what he does, although I'm not suggesting we just throw our moral intuition out the window.

    I take your point about humans needing love, and needing to create meaning. I suppose if there is no God, there still is benefit to believing in him. But for most of us, religious or not, this can't serve as an argument for belief. Granted, experience can and does serve as an argument for belief, and I agree that unless a plausible alternative is provided to explain religious experiences, there is no reason to reject belief in God simply because it is based on personal, subject experience. In fact, I would say experience is an extremely important part of any person's belief in God, and this is one of the reasons why none of us can ever know all that's worth knowing about God. Realizing this ought to help us avoid the presumption that we fully understand God.

    Thanks for your thoughts.


  4. Hey, i like this...just one point. Destructive capabilities..yes, but we also have constructive and empathetic abilities do we not. I might be overstepping here, but I am at the point where I see us as animals with a brain or a consciousness. And I think we are still operating in that mode much more than we care to admit. It is about our survival, individually and collectively. The fabric of society is oh so delicate. It can all come down so easily in times of stress. I have worked with the homeless and its amazing what you can justify when you want to survive. Due to this, I think humans have an inherent problem with learning good. Even though we can have good modeled to us all the time, we don't always DO good. Suffering is a way to appreciate when we have learned and what we have been given. YOu have heard this all before I am sure. I can see where as a race, we somehow have to put ourselves up there above it all, either thru religious theology or scientific thinking. Either way, we tend to assume we are a SPECIAL species in the universe, but I think all life is truly incredible. We just struggle with that anxiety of existence...does life have inherent meaning or not? Oh, and in God really is not either decide to have faith or not...i can't quite ever consider arguing for this or not...its a personal matter of faith and as such, not a completely rational thing. Just having this conversation tells me you think and consider your faith and beliefs. I wish more people would truly consider this...instead of defensive posturing that tells me they don't know what they think. Struggle is important. Ambiguity will always be part of the equation. Acceptance isn't easy..don't think it was ever intended to be. thanks a lot

  5. Dear Anonymous,

    I appreciate your thoughts, especially about humans making ourselves a privileged species. To me the best of Christian thought acknowledges the ambiguous place of human beings in creation. "What is man that you are mindful of him...? Yet you have made him a little lower than God." We are at the same time very limited and very powerful. That is as frightening as it is beautiful.

    You're right about ambiguity. It's impossible to approach questions of religion expecting things to be completely clear to us. There's an inherent frustration in that. It seems like so much is at stake, yet the path is not made clear. Personally, I doubt that "the answers" are out there if we just look hard enough, if by "the answers" we mean the explanations that will completely satisfy a curious person. But then, curiosity isn't just a habit--it's a way of life.

    Thanks for your comments.



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