I’ve spent a while pondering two questions:
Why do so many scientists embrace naturalism?
Why do so many Christians believe before/without carefully investigating the historical evidence for the miracles, teachings, and Resurrection of Jesus?
I ask these questions because neither of them describes my experience. I am a scientist, yet I do not find naturalism to be intellectually satisfying at all. I am a Christian, yet the main reason I believe in Christianity is because I find the historical evidence for Christianity to be stronger than any of the theological arguments against it. But about 95% of the people I interact with on a daily basis fall into categories 1) or 2) above. What gives?
First off, I reject the caricatures that some are sure to suggest. “Scientists
are smart and Christians are irrational.” “Scientists are arrogant and unwilling to acknowledge God.” Perhaps these are true, but it’s not enough to just throw out accusations and impugn the other side’s intelligence and character—I want to understand the thought process behind why the different sides believe what they do. I’m pretty sure that the explanation for the divergence in views is not that I am smart whereas all my friends
and colleagues are stupid.
Here is my conclusion: I think that naturalists—and especially naturalistic scientists—tend to view the world as a mathematical structure, whereas most other people (especially Christians) tend to view the world as a story.
Now, it is clear that the universe has aspects of both a structure and a story. The universe obeys a set of mathematical rules and equations, like a structure. On the other hand, (regardless of which theory of time you subscribe to), it is undeniable that we humans experience a subjective flow of time, as if we were characters in a story.
It is not hard to see why scientists tend to view the world as a structure: the entire enterprise of theoretical physics is to identify the fundamental laws of nature, the mathematical equations that describe our universe. When I do physics, my imagination leaves the everyday world that I experience and instead floats around in a world of mathematical equations and geometric shapes. And from the perspective of making progress in science, this is clearly a profitable way of viewing the universe.
It is also not hard to see why most people view the world as a story: we experience it that way! Our world has an apparent flow of time, characters, etc. And as characters, we seem to have moral imperatives; indeed, from the perspective of ethics, politics, and law, it is much more useful to view the world in this way. Even we theoretical physicists must leave our offices at some point and go live out the stories of our lives just as any other person would. Furthermore, to a theist, this view of the world leaves a clear role for God: to quote Chesterton, “I had always felt life first as a story: and if there is a story there is a story-teller.” One can naturally view our universe as a story, and God as its author.
But which is more fundamental? Is the world fundamentally a mathematical structure masquerading as a story, or is it fundamentally a story with the properties of a structure? With due caution, here is where I must part ways with my naturalistic colleagues and side with the theists. Our universe does seem to follow the laws of a mathematical structure, but it doesn’t seem like a very typical structure to me. The mathematical structures I’m familiar with—modules, topologies, vector spaces—don’t create the illusion of time flowing past. These certainly don’t give rise to self-aware beings with the perception of free-will, let alone a whole world full of such beings interacting with each other! Could it happen? Perhaps. But is it typical? It sure doesn’t seem like it.
Whereas our universe seems highly atypical when viewed as a mathematical structure, it appears much more typical when viewed as a story. Granted, there is selection bias here, because we tend to tell stories that look something like the world we experience. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that it is incredibly hard to imagine a story that takes place in a world without some sort of laws of physics. In other words, just about every story I can imagine features a world that looks at some level like a mathematical structure, but I cannot imagine any mathematical structure that would give rise to an apparent story with apparently-free characters.
But there is one major shortcoming in this “the world is a story” view: stories tend to have conflict, heroes, villains, a climax, and a moral or purpose. Our world certainly has conflict and villains—just read the newspaper! Indeed, from this perspective, the famous “problem of evil and suffering” isn’t really a problem at all—all great stories have evil and suffering, and happy endings are always forged in the crucible of sorrow and affliction.
But while our story does have conflict, it seems to be lacking a climax and point. The human race will someday die out, and our story will come to an end—a cruel conclusion to a meaningless story. To quote philosopher Bertrand Russell, “All the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system…the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.”
This story seems to be missing a chapter. It needs what master storyteller J.R.R. Tolkien called a “eucatastrophe”—a sudden, miraculous turn of events that snatches victory from the jaws of defeat. In fact, in all of the great stories, there is a very particular way in which this happens: Good does not simply strike down Evil, but rather Good is uncorrupted by Evil, and Evil destroys itself. Think of Harry Potter, where Voldemort’s own killing curse rebounds upon himself. Think of Wonder Woman, where Ares’s own lightning leads to his downfall. Think of Lord of the Rings, where Gollum’s obsession with the ring leads to the destruction of them both. Our story needs a climactic moment like this.
And in order to have such a moment, a story needs something else: a hero. Someone who rises from obscurity to fame, overcomes enormous odds, sacrifices for the good of the many, and ultimately triumphs over Evil.
And this is where Jesus comes into the picture, and the Christian story really starts to make sense of the world around us. On the cross, Jesus dies: the one sacrifices for the good of the many. Yet, as the righteous one, Death has no hold on Jesus. So when Evil nails Jesus to the cross and Death tries to take him, they ultimately just defeat themselves, and we have Resurrection: the turn of events that miraculously snatches victory from the jaws of defeat, the moment where Good triumphs over Evil forever. Tolkien writes, “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the ‘inner consistency of reality.’ There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits.”
The Christian story is a story worthy of a world. It’s a story great enough to merit elevation from mere fantasy to ontological reality. It’s a story compelling enough to warrant belief from the skeptic. It’s a story that resonates with the deepest longings of our hearts. But best of all, it’s the true story of our world.
Tom Rudelius is a postdoctoral researcher in theoretical physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He holds a Ph.D. in Physics from Harvard and a B.A. in Physics, Math, and Statistics from Cornell.