Sunday, January 1, 2012

The ultimate theological question

Here's a great post from Lance Parkin:
I may be wrong about this, but I think there is a theological issue that, when we consider the whole sweep of human history, troubled a far higher proportion of the human population from far earlier and for far longer than any single other question. It’s not a question we ask today. ...

The ultimate theological question is: ‘Where does the Sun go at night?’.

The answer that so many civilisations agreed for so long was: ‘The Sun is driven by one of the gods, and at night it goes under the Earth to fight a battle. There is at least some risk that the god will lose this battle, and so the Sun may not rise tomorrow’. It’s something the human race understood was a cast iron fact before they knew how to cast iron. It survived as the working model twenty-five times longer than the four hundred years we’ve understood the Earth goes around the Sun. It was understood to be the literal truth, not some metaphor or piece of symbolism. ...

This was a religious outlook held for far longer and by a far higher proportion of the human race then living than has ever believed ‘there is only one god’, ‘the god I worship created the universe’ or ‘God’s a paragon of virtue’. It’s a religious belief that can rightfully be said to have been ‘universal’, in the parochial sense human beings use the word. For thousands of years, it appears that all human beings believed it. ...

I can’t answer the question ‘when was the latest someone could suggest a god moves the Sun across the sky without everyone just laughing at them?’. In the West … well … here’s Bill O’Reilly, United States of America, 2011, and he’s not saying exactly the same thing … but he’s not saying something that’s all that different, either. Whether he knows it or not, he believes in Dyeusphaeter’s Solar Chariot, via Aristotle, via the Catholic Church. ...

We know where the Sun goes at night. It’s settled law, now. There will be people who say it doesn’t count as a theological question. But understanding that it was a theological question – for at least three, possibly five, times longer than we’ve had any Christian theology – is important to bear in mind. It’s easy to dismiss the Solar Chariot as primitive superstition borne from ignorance, and to say that it doesn’t need to be studied in any great depth … well, yes. But isn’t that what the Courtier’s Reply says about modern theology? ...

‘Life’ and ‘the divine purpose’ and ‘the greater good’ are so big and seem so confusing and inherently paradoxical that it’s impossible even to expect we might ever understand them. But we have to understand right from the outset that theologians in the past told us the same things about disease, harvests and the weather – equally vast, immensely important parts of our experience (and also all things attributed, for most of human history, solely to the capricious nature of the gods).

I think it’s an awkward fact for theology that, as far as I can see, a lot of theological issues have been conclusively solved, but all of them were solved outside the field. ...

As Bertrand Russell put it, ‘Science is what you know, philosophy is what you don’t know’. Whenever we find ourselves concluding that a question is just too large to ever answer, I think it’s instructive to remind ourselves that we solved the biggest problem of them all: where the Sun’s hiding at night.

Great stuff, isn't it? Note that I slashed the original post pretty severely to condense it enough to put here. I recommend that you read the whole thing. But I think this still gives the gist of the argument.

It's easy to look back thousands of years and think of how ridiculous those people were for believing what we now know is pure fantasy. But we know that because of the slow accumulation of knowledge since then.

You don't think that it's silly believing that we live on the surface of a rapidly-spinning ball, floating in empty space. But that's because you've been taught it since infancy. When you think about it, that's a remarkable thing to believe. If you didn't already know it, that's not an explanation that would readily come to mind.

And I've read that, when Isaac Newton came up with his ideas about gravity, it seemed like spooky action-at-a-distance to most people, pretty much just magic. But we don't feel that way today, because we grew up with the idea of gravity. It was taught to us as settled fact, so we don't find it odd at all.

Most of us still leap to supernatural explanations when we don't know the real cause of something. It's that notorious "god of the gaps" argument. It's not valid, but it's still used by pretty much every theologian on Earth.

We skeptics don't like "I don't know" much, either, but sometimes it's the only true answer. And it's not in any way a bad one. "I don't know" just means that we've got a lot of work ahead of us to find out - and that we're not going to leap to a conclusion without good evidence backing it up.

"God did it" is not the default, or it shouldn't be. And this ancient theological question of where the sun goes at night should demonstrate why.

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