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Mystery… To Minimize Or Not To Minimize

September 7, 2010

Cambridge Philosophy Professor Tim Krane has written the most accurate distillation of the difference between scientific thinking and religious thinking I’ve yet come across (the New York Times posted it as part of its “The Stone” series which includes contemporary philosophers writing on all sorts of interesting questions). The piece is all the more impressive, given the fact that Krane is a self-proclaimed atheist.

My only quibble (and this is my usual complaint whenever someone who isn’t religious tries to explain religiosity) is that one can never fully understand religious thinking without recognizing the importance of religious modes of behavior that are inextricably linked with religious thinking. No religion is merely a particular kind of “attempt to understand the world,” to use Krane’s language. All religions are also calls to particular sorts of action–ethical, communal and ritual action.

Anyway, here’s the excerpt I particularly liked from Krane’s article:

Religious belief tolerates a high degree of mystery and ignorance in its understanding of the world. When the devout pray, and their prayers are not answered, they do not take this as evidence which has to be weighed alongside all the other evidence that prayer is effective. They feel no obligation whatsoever to weigh the evidence. If God does not answer their prayers, well, there must be some explanation of this, even though we may never know it. Why do people suffer if an omnipotent God loves them? Many complex answers have been offered, but in the end they come down to this: it’s a mystery.

Science too has its share of mysteries (or rather: things that must simply be accepted without further explanation). But one aim of science is to minimize such things, to reduce the number of primitive concepts or primitive explanations. The religious attitude is very different. It does not seek to minimize mystery. Mysteries are accepted as a consequence of what, for the religious, makes the world meaningful.

This point gets to the heart of the difference between science and religion. Religion is an attempt to make sense of the world, but it does not try and do this in the way science does. Science makes sense of the world by showing how things conform to its hypotheses. The characteristic mode of scientific explanation is showing how events fit into a general pattern.

Religion, on the other hand, attempts to make sense of the world by seeing a kind of meaning or significance in things. This kind of significance does not need laws or generalizations, but just the sense that the everyday world we experience is not all there is, and that behind it all is the mystery of God’s presence. The believer is already convinced that God is present in everything, even if they cannot explain this or support it with evidence. But it makes sense of their life by suffusing it with meaning. This is the attitude (seeing God in everything) expressed in George Herbert’s poem, “The Elixir.” Equipped with this attitude, even the most miserable tasks can come to have value: Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws/ Makes that and th’ action fine.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. KateM permalink
    September 7, 2010 7:43 pm

    I find this to be the hardest thing to try and explain to people about faith, even to people I am very close to. Trying to accept the vast amount of unknowable stuff out there is thrilling – and humbling.


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