Wednesday, March 3, 2010

More on Miracles

My friend (and long-time reading group colleague) "LA Guy" over at PajamaGuy challenges my post on miracles and Purim. He and I agree on much, but end up in very different places. And I think a simple example -- colors -- will help illustrate where we disagree.

We both agree that modernity has been hard on more fundamentalist or literalist forms of religion. Empirical observation and science are the most important, and probably the only, way of knowing objective empirical information.

So far, so good. But when discussing miracles, I then shift the focus away from an objective description of reality to a more phenomenological description of how we experience things. LA Guy objects to this move: "I think the best you can say is science doesn't yet fully explain our subjective feelings. I'm not sure where this gets us. Does that mean we give up trying to understand them?"

No, not at all. I'm just asking a different question, and not a scientific question. Let me offer a simpler and (hopefully) less controversial example: colors.

Scientifically, we know what the color of an object is. It is simply light of different frequencies reflected from the physical object. But this objective account of light and color does not explain how we perceive color. We experience red as hot and exciting, and blue as cool and calming. Some colors or color combinations upset our sense of aesthetics (mud brown and lime green), while others (blue and yellow) are more esthetically pleasing. None of this is captured by an objective account of the physical properties of colors.

OK. Maybe we can help the scientific approach by shifting to an objective account of our brains and our eyes, rather than light and objects. That helps a bit. We might note that certain colors or color combinations trigger different neural paths and "light up" different regions of the brain. But it does not really solve the problem. Even this description does not capture our experience of perceiving color.

A better way of understanding this may be to turn to poetry. Homer's use of "rosy-fingered dawn" nicely captures the faint red before the sun rises. Or Robert Browning:

The gray sea and the long black land;
And the yellow half-moon large and low:
- "Meeting at Night"

Or perhaps turn to painters. Or even a book on how to paint. All of these things focus on our experience of color, not on the objective characteristics of color itself.

This is certainly not to deny the importance of a scientific understanding of color or even of our brains. But this scientific account simply does not capture everything.

LA Guy then argues that this is a "god of the gaps" sort of argument. That would be true if I were trying to rely on this experiential description or miracles as a substitute for scientific descriptions. I am emphatically not doing that. Objectively, the gaps in our empirical knowledge are simply gaps. They may get closed or they may not, and science is the proper way of doing that. Instead, I am simply asking a different question. In fact, extending LA Guy's argument slightly, I would argue that this "god of the gaps" does not really capture what God is. For example, a god of the gaps is simply a super-scientific principle. It explains some naturalistic phenomena, but -- like gravity and energy and matter -- it has no personality and is not deserving of being worshiped or even thought about all that much. We might occasionally note that gravity is a good thing, but that's about it for our "relationship" with gravity.

LA Guy then get to what I think is the key issue. We all have feelings, but why wouldn't we say "wow, it's amazing how the natural world supplies us with these awesome emotions"?

This is a causal statement. In response to an amazing feeling, LA Guy would identify the source of these feelings: nature. That's certainly one response, and a good one. But there are other responses as well. For example, how have other people experienced these feelings? How about my ancestors? Can I share these feelings with other people, either in some structured or unstructured way? Is there something I should focus on when experiencing these feelings? Are there other related feelings? These are all questions, but perhaps the deepest response to a feeling is not a question but the feeling itself. We should simply be mindful of the experiences of awe or amazement or gratitude when we have them.

And if one generalized from mere "feelings" to deeper questions about significance and our relationship with others, we are in a much deeper place.

My claim is that religion provides one good framework for experiencing all of these things. My example in my original post is that by giving charity on Purim, we help create a miracle as experienced by the recipient. Or to take a more significant upcoming example, the Passover story -- the narrative of freeing an oppressed people from a cruel and tyranical ruler -- is perhaps the paradigmatic example of life-altering goodness. In "Exodus and Revolution" political philosopher Michael Walzer traces how this story itself and many of its particular themes had been explicitly adopted in numerous liberation movements throughout western history. One can ask the scientific questions about this story: did it happen, was a supernatural God involved, etc. And science is the method we should use to answer these questions. But the significance of the story in our own personal lives and in the political sphere is not fundamentally a scientific question. It is an experiential one. The black American slaves singing about Moses and Pharaoh were not making historical claims, they were expressing hope and affirming the goodness of freedom.

LAGuy then argues that I have provided "a seriously watered down version of miracles." Yes, if the "real" question about miracles is their objective cause. But if the "real" question about miracles is how do we experience things that we perceive as miraculous, then a discussion about their stochastic or supernatural causes is watered-down. But of course, there is no "real" question about anything. We can ask whatever questions we want. My point is that the debate over the ultimate causes of things we perceive as miraculous is ultimately a futile debate (although sometimes fun). But the debate over how we react to spectacular things in life is not.

In a pre-scientific age, religion could make scientific claims. It was the best we had. But in a scientific age, religion cannot credibly make scientific claims, and in fact it gets into serious trouble when it does. But that does not mean that its account of things is not useful. To the contrary, Judaism has guided Jews for thousands of years and helped people live meaningful and sensitive lives.

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