Wednesday, 13 November 2013

The Unknown

Isaac Asimov, introducing Poul Anderson's Is There Life On Other Worlds? (New York, 1963), compares human beings in general and scientists in particular to Pandora, Bluebeard's wife and Adam. Making the third comparison, he says:

"...surely He must have known that man being man, the fruit of that tree would be eaten..." (p. 7)

I think that Asimov and I would agree in interpreting Genesis as a collection of "myths," or meaningful stories, not as a literal account of cosmic and human origins. However, I am interested in one logical implication of a literal interpretation. The phrase " being man..." assumes the viewpoint of someone who finds mankind already in existence whereas, of course, in a literal interpretation, the viewpoint here is that of mankind's creator.

Thus, He made us as we are and could have made us differently. To say that we have free will is to miss the point. If we know someone's "nature," then he is most predictable when acting freely. I suspect that we all accepted Asimov's statement that " being man, the fruit of that tree would be eaten..." because we are all familiar with human curiosity. Probably no one thought, "But Adam had free will so he could have refrained from eating." However, an omnipotent creator could, if he had wanted to, have created Adam without curiosity. That would not have been mankind as we know it but it could have been mankind as created by omnipotence.

Walking through town, I overheard an Evangelical preacher saying, "God created us to be his companions but, because it is in our nature to do so, we turn against him." So he didn't create our nature? It is in our nature to contradict our creator's purpose for us? It is in our nature to turn against the being whose companions we were created to be? Again, the preacher was assuming a "human nature" that somehow preceded the creation of humanity and that even the creator of humanity had to accept as a given.

On my way back through town, I heard the same preacher say, "In my experience, an explosion just makes a big mess!" Clearly a comment on the Big Bang from which emanated gasses that gravity condensed into galaxies. We don't understand how this happened? Then we need to keep looking for answers, not just say, "God did it."

Asimov goes on to say, paradoxically:

"Increasing knowledge has vastly increased the volume of the unknown..." (ibid.)

Yes. Increasing knowledge increases both the known and the unknown. Reality is an infinite plane. Human knowledge is a finite circle somewhere on the plane. As the circle grows, its area, the number of things known, increases and its circumference, the point of contact with the unknown, also increases. Thus, the more we know, the more we realize how little we know. Someone with a very small circle has a very small circumference. "What does he know of England who only England knows?"

A Kurt Vonnegut novel contains the song:

"My name is Yon Yonson.
"I live in Wisconsin.
"I work in the paper mills there.
"When people ask me my name, I say..."

That expresses someone who knows who he is, where he is, what he does and nothing else and probably won't hear anything else because he will be too busy saying, "My name is..." Even the name, "Yon, son of Yon," implies no change from generation to generation.

Nucleic acid molecules, matter near absolute zero temperature, cosmic rays and neutrinos "...all meant nothing to the wisest Greek philosopher..." (ibid.) because he did not know about them.

So the moral is, "Let's enlarge our circle."

Asimov rightly says that Anderson has the knowledge, writing ability and disciplined imagination that are necessary to address astrobiology.


  1. Hi, Paul!

    A few hasty comments before I have to get ready for work. The Catholic belief is that the stories in Genesis about the creation, fall of man, the Flood, etc., is that the inspired authors used allegories and myths to teach revealed truths. So, we Catholics don't have to LITERALLY believe God created man as we see it described in Genesis. Only that, at a time and by means God chose, he did create man. And He could have used evolution as the means of creating man. Evolution has never been a problem for Catholics the way it has been for many Protestants.

    And I see you touched on the ancient and difficult question of whether God's foreknowledge of what man will do is the same as forcing him to do what God foreknew. Far too briefly, I don't agree that foreknowledge is the same as compulsion.


  2. Sean,
    I don't expect an immediate reply because you are going to work (whereas I am about to eat an evening meal)!
    Again, I think the logic of theism is not that God foreknows anything. He is outside time so he atemporally knows everything. (I mean I do not believe this myself, just that I think it logically follows from theistic premises.)
    However, if he omnipotently creates us not from any recalcitrant pre-existing material but literally from nothing, then he creates every part of us including the motives that determine our actions.

    1. Hi, Paul!

      Yes, I like your formulation better: "He [God] is outside time so he atemporally knows everything." I think other writers have said things like that since God is outside time, all that had existed, exists, and will exist is eternally present in the mind of God from all eternity.

      And, yes, your last comment is about a point which gives much difficulty to many Protestants. And, for that matter, Muslims. IF I'm correctly recalling what Harry Austryn Wolfson said in his THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE KALAM (a study of how the early Muslims reacted to contact with Classical and Christian thought) the dominant view among Muslim theologians is that God is eternally creating the universe second by second. There are no secondary causes, iow.