Monday, February 19, 2007

The Great, Unsolved Mystery

This quote comes from Daniel Gilbert, a psychology professor and author of Stumbling on Happiness,
The human brain is the only object in the universe that can predict its own future and tell its own fortune. The fact that we can make disastrous decisions even as we foresee their consequences is the great, unsolved mystery of human behavior.
I want to briefly interact with this last line. Before doing so, however, I need to make the disclaimer that I have not read the book, or even the larger context in which this sentence is set. The fact is that I found this quote on the side of a Starbucks Coffee cup (The Way I See It #168).

The last line of this quote seems an echo down the ages of something written by the great French mathematician, inventor, philosopher, and founder of modern science, Blaise Pascal. For Pascal, human nature was the great enigma, the great mystery:
How can one species produce both unspeakable wickedness and nearly inexplicable goodness? How can we be responsible both for the most disgusting squalor and for the most breathtaking beauty? How can grand aspirations and self-destructive impulses, kindness and cruelty, be interwoven in one life? The human enigma cries out for explanation.
This characterization of Pascal's view (by Thomas V. Morris in Making Sense of It All: Pascal and the Meaning of Life) sounds quite similar to Gilbert's quote (on my coffee cup). But whereas for Gilbert it must always remain an unsolved mystery (if I rightly infer from the first part of his quote that he maintains an uncritical acceptance of naturalism*), Pascal found the solution. Morris again:
Pascal believed that only the tenets of the Christian faith can adequately account for both the greatness and wretchedness of humanity. And he was convinced that this in itself is an important piece of evidence that Christianity embraces truth.
The tenets to which Morris here refers are these. Man is created in the image of God, and hence his potential for greatness (in art, invention, science, philanthropy). But man is fallen in sin, and hence his tendency toward the depths of depravity.

Pascal believed (rightly, I think) that the explanatory power of Christianity was strong evidence of its truthfulness as a comprehensive worldview. On this particular issue--the human enigma--it provides a uniquely satisfactory answer where naturalism finds only "unsolved mystery."

* I will not take the time here and now to make the case for "substance dualism." I will simply assert (without support, for the time being) that it is not our brains that predict our futures and make decisions, but rather our minds or souls. Our brains are the hardware often used by our minds or souls while we're in these bodies, but there is no evidence for brains making decisions or producing thoughts. Indeed, thoughts and consciousness are very problematic things for anyone committed to materialism/naturalism.


Jack Niewold said...

James Sire, in the 4th edition of his now classic THE UNIVERSE NEXT DOOR, states that a valid worldview must cover four "bases" so to speak:

1. It must be internally consistent.

2. It must account for the data of reality.

3. It must explain what it sets out to explain.

4. It must be subjectively satisfying.

Most worldviews stumble badly on number two because they cannot explain either the goodness or the badness (evil) of creation. Cut off from a transcendent authority, they are without a basis in ethics and do not have the wherewithal to provide a reason why we should even consider some things good and some evil. Most worldviews merely shrug, and, like Indiana Jones, admit that they make it up their own morality as they go along.

Even from within a theistic worldview it is difficult to understand the presence of evil, ergo the perennial need for up to date theodicies, systems to account for moral and natural evil.

Incidentally, rambling on here, I have a much harder time with natural evil than with moral evil. I can understand and cope with, say, a terrorist act. It's a tsunami that throws me for a loop, a seeming random, senseless act of nature. Does anybody have any insights into this? I will grant that my theistic worldview tells me that nature, like humanity, is fallen and full of cruelty, but emotionally I am more thrown for a loop when I slam my finger in a door than when confronted with human barbarity. My worldview will explain natural evil, but I don't find that explanation subjectively satisfying. Do I have company here?

Rick Gerhardt said...

I agree completely. "Natural" evil is the more difficult to explain. I do have some thoughts on tsunamis, but will trickle them out on the blog site proper. (Hold me to that.)

Jack Niewold said...

Roger, Wilco (whatever that means). :-)