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Post no. 13

July 19, 2008

I remember reading a thought experiment called The Invisible Gardener from a book called The Pig that wants to be eaten while clearing the sofa to make the room look nice-ish. (It’s amazing how interesting newspapers and magazines become when you’re throwing them away or clearing out). The “experiment” goes something like this:

Livingstone and Stanley were sitting behind a bush in a clearing in a forest. The clearing looked like a well-kept garden. They had been observing it for two weeks but they hadn’t seen anyone tend to it. Livingstone was maintaining that the clearing was tended by an invisible and intangible gardener who works without anyone knowing. Stanley wanted to know what was the difference between an invisible and intangible gardener and no gardener at all.

Baggini (the author of The Pig) remarks that Stanley’s and Livingstone’s argument can be applied to the existence – or not – of God.

That the existence of God – even of a god at all – be debated is interesting. “Some say tom-ah-toes, some say tom-ay-toes” sort of thing. This dichotomy has reared its head quite often in the past and in its present guise the fork in the road is represented by scientism and religionism (no surprises there).

“Scientism” is generally used pejoratively to mean that all of reality is composed of empirically verifiable physical effects with physical causes- also presumably empirically verifiable. “Religionism” tells us that God exists and consequently all progress – in every field – must be interpreted in the light of this reality.

Who’s right and who’s wrong?

The issue reminds me a bit of Descartes. (Descartes believed in the existence of God so I know I’m not talking about the exact same problem here). The way I see it, his tussle with the dualism of mind and matter runs parallel to the religionism vs scientism match. At the end of the day he came up with a compromise between the two (i.e. mind and matter). He said that mind and matter inhabit two parallel but independent worlds that can be studied without reference to each other… neat sidestep.
Fast forward to more recent times. Cosmologist Lawrence Krauss half-jokingly told a conference, that included theologians, that he didn’t have to listen to them (theologians) because for theology to make any sense it must take into account what cosmologists have found to be true about the universe. Cosmologists, on the other hand, don’t need theologians.

What’s all this got to do with anything?

I think that I can compare Krauss’s cosmology and Descartes matter with a picture. You can study the picture or admire it or even buy it. You don’t need to know anything about how the picture came to be. For all we care the picture made itself. And this is where I see a second comparison. Krauss’s theology, Descartes’s mind and how the picture came to be.

There is a clear demarcation between the picture and the creativity behind it, mind and matter, cosmology and theology. You can touch matter, cosmology is an empirical science, the picture is there for everybody to see. The defining property of these three objects is that they can be somehow measured. The other three – mind, theology and the creativity behind the picture are a bit like Livingstone’s invisible gardener.

I cannot fathom why some people have to talk about the incompatibility of science and religion. If anything I dare say that they are highly compatible as they both claim to be chasing reality – or the truth. In science a set of techniques is used. In religion another set of techniques is used. You use a trawling net to catch tuna and you use a harpoon to catch a whale.

Remember the elephant.


From → The Elephant

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