How do we deal with unanswered questions? Especially when it comes to the most basic things we believe in?
I once had a Christian friend tell me that she didn’t have a really good answer to this question, which she called the “problem of evil”. I was flabbergasted; it seemed that merely naming it was enough to keep its rhetorical force from having an effect.
It’s like meeting someone who thinks that everything in the world is made of fish, but when you ask why things don’t feel like, smell like, or behave like fish, they say “ah, the ‘problem of unfishiness’, it’s occupied our brightest fishists for many years!”
One of the peeviest of atheist pet peeves is the way so many religious believers, in the face of huge unanswered questions about their beliefs, essentially throw up their hands and say, “Yup, it’s a mystery.”
Exhibit A: the comment above from Paul Crowley. The question at hand is a familiar one: an all- knowing, all- powerful, all- good God, but evil and suffering in the world, blah blah blah. And the answer… well, the answer varies, from person to person and from sect to sect. But essentially, the answer is always some version of, “We don’t know.”
“It’s a mystery.” “God moves in mysterious ways.” “It is not up to us to question God’s ways.” “That’s where faith comes in.”
And as Paul pointed out, this drives atheists insane. Far too often, it’s exactly as he described it: you point out to an ardent fishist all the different ways that the world is not fishy, and they nod sagely and reply, “Ah, yes, the problem of unfishiness.” And then they go on blithely believing in the fish-based world: as if the unanswered question had no relevance, as if it didn’t reveal a major crack in their fishy foundation. (Possibly getting mad at you in the meantime, for being so intolerant.)
But are atheists being fair here?
After all, the world of science and secular knowledge is also full of unanswered questions. Big ones. What is consciousness? How did life originate? What happened before the Big Bang, i.e. what caused the Big Bang, i.e. why is there something instead of nothing? And the world of science responds to these questions by essentially saying, “Yup, it’s a mystery. We don’t know the answer. Sorry.”
But I think there’s a difference.
A huge one.
For one thing: When science is confronted with a question it doesn’t know the answer to? It doesn’t just give up. It doesn’t throw up its hands, gaze into the air, and revel in the glorious mystery. It says, “We don’t know the answer to that question — yet.”
“Yet” being the key word.
Science’s response to unanswered questions is to say, “Hm. Interesting question. What might the answer be? We really don’t know — but we’re working on it. We have a number of possible theories; we’re gathering data; here are some of the promising directions we’re moving in.”
Whereas, when religion is faced with questions it doesn’t know the answer to, it just gives up. It takes the empty places in the coloring book, the places we haven’t filled in yet with actual tested knowledge… and fills them all in with a blue crayon. And it calls that blue crayon God. And it thinks that’s an answer.
(In other words, when science is faced with a question it doesn’t know the answer to, its response is, “Processing… processing…” Whereas, as Ingrid put it, religion’s response is, “Error… error…”)
Which is a big problem. It’s a practical problem: for one thing, when an actual real answer to an unanswered question does come along, it can be damn difficult to scrape the blue crayon out of people’s brains and replace it with the right color. (Witness the difficulty many Christians have accepting the theory of evolution, or the age of the planet and the universe.) And in my mind, it’s a philosophical and ethical problem as well. When faced with an unanswered question, I think it’s a lot more honest to say, “I don’t know,” than to say, “The answer is God.” (And despite atheists being so frequently accused of arrogance, I think it shows a lot more humility as well.)
But I think there’s another difference as well. An even huger one. And it has to do with the nature of the unanswered questions themselves.
The questions that religion can’t answer? They cut right to the heart of their theory. They reveal profound inconsistencies of the theory with observable reality…and fundamental contradictions within the theory itself.
The obvious example is the one this whole post started with: the obvious contradiction of an all- knowing, all- powerful, all- good God who nevertheless permits horrible evil and suffering, and even causes it directly himself. I have never seen a theology or an apologetic that explained this without either (a) conceding some portion of God’s knowledge, power, or goodness… or else (b) copping out with “mysterious ways.” The hypothesis of the God who is all- etc. and yet permits and creates terrible suffering is fundamentally flawed: a theory that completely contradicts everything we see about the world, with a logical paradox at its very heart.
Whereas in science, the unanswered questions are simply unanswered questions. They’re gaps in the knowledge… but they’re not flaws in the knowledge. There’s a difference.
Example. Take evolution. As of right now, the question of abiogenesis — how the process of life originated in the first place — is unanswered. It’s a question that’s being worked on, but right now we don’t know the answer. But that doesn’t undercut the theory of evolution. The theory of evolution — the theory of how life forms became so well adapted to their environments, how complex forms of life descended from simpler ones, etc. — is still supported by a massive, overwhelming body of evidence from every field of biology… regardless of how the process started. Abiogenesis could have come from some chemical process whose exact nature we don’t currently know, or it could have come from visiting space aliens, or it could have come from the invisible magic hand of Loki… and the theory of evolution would still hold up. The unanswered question of abiogenesis is a big one — but in the science of biology, it’s not a flaw. It’s merely a gap.
And when actual flaws in scientific knowledge are revealed, then the knowledge gets discarded as mistaken pretty damn fast. In science, if your theory is shot full of internal contradictions, or if it conflicts with a massive body of data, then that’s it for the theory. Individual scientists may cling to their pet theories, but the scientific community as a whole discards it, and moves on to a new theory that better explains all the data, and that makes better predictions about the future, and that isn’t shot full of internal contradictions.
And scientists who cling to their pet theories, despite the contradictions, aren’t admired as “people of faith.”
Hanging on to the fishist viewpoint, coming up with elaborately contorted rationalizations for it, devoting your life to explaining either why it makes sense or why it doesn’t have to — and refusing to let go of even one aspect of the fishist hypothesis to make it more consistent both with itself and with reality — is not seen in the world of science as noble, or admirable, or a sign of strength of character.
Which is a big, big difference.