“I wonder, though, whether as I come to the end of my exploration, I have changed my mind about declaring myself an atheist … with my definition of God as that which we cannot know, to declare myself an atheist would mean that I believe there is nothing we cannot know. … In some sense I think I have proved that this God does exist. The challenge now is to explore what quality this God has.”
The above quoted words were not written by Richard Dawkins. However, I encountered them in an article about “Oxford mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, current Charles Simonyl Professor for the Public understanding of Science, the position occupied by Richard Dawkins before he retired from it.” Now, Richard Dawkins is a name to conjure with in circles that embrace the atheistic view that faith in God has no place in truly scientific thinking. David Klinghoffer, who authored the report I read, goes on to observe that “this would seem to be the fabled God of the gaps, on stilts. Or maybe it’s just a matter of cute wordplay. Du Sautoy goes on to clearly reject anything you or I would likely call ‘God.'” [Hyperlink mine.]
Readers who take the time to ponder the column I wrote last year on personhood and God’s creation will not be surprised when I say that I do not agree with Mr. Klinghoffer’s last assertion. As I pointed out in that article, the Apostle Paul refers to the fact the men of Athens set aside an altar bearing an inscription to “THE UNKNOWN GOD,” whom they thus take account of, even without knowing Him. Paul says that this very God, whom the Athenians, “worship therefore without knowing, Him I preach unto you.”
The Apostle goes on to make it clear that “The Unknown God” is not a product of human ingenuity, but the one who produced “all nations of men for to dwell on the face of the earth, and has determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation. …” But our habitation includes the fleshly bodies, in which we live and move and have our beings, and all that the body can perceive and understand within the limits of that perception. In our day we know, better perhaps than ever before, the role the body plays in registering and ordering the artifacts of our perception.
But even though we can observe what part of the brain is engaged when this or that act of perception is underway, what we observe, including the very thoughts of our mind, appears as an effect, as something that follows from something else, which never appears. It remains, as it were, behind the eye, observing that which is observed, governed and organized by rules we must accept. But the reason they are what they are remains unaccountable to us.
This reason is the unknowable x (in ordinary terms of our perception) that accompanies even the most complex renderings of what we know as real. This came to my mind some time ago, as I grappled to understand the thought at the heart of the answer one mathematician gave to another who reported that “after teaching complex numbers, my students asked me the obvious question: Where is this math used in real life?” Though from an untutored layman’s perspective, the answer requires reading sentences written in a foreign language, the conceptual challenge is clear in the definition of a complex number. It is “a number that can be expressed in the form a+bi, where a and b are real numbers and i is the imaginary unit satisfying the equation i2 =-1. In this expression, a is the real part and b is the imaginary part of the complex number.”
Though their existence is predicated on an activity that cannot be expressed in real terms (taking the square root of -1), it turns out that expressing things in terms of complex number extends the scope of mathematical certainty because
… In the real numbers, there may not be any solutions. However, in the complex numbers there are, so one can find all complex-valued solutions to the equation, and then finally restrict oneself to those that are purely real-valued. The start and ending points of the argument involve only real numbers, but one can’t get from the start to the end without going through the complex numbers.
What is the square root of -1? It would have to be the product of one that, taken by itself, simultaneously affirms and negates itself, but is ultimately resolved to appear in the form of that negation. This transcends human comprehension, which operates according to the rule that one cannot at once be and not be. Yet in the Scripture it says that Christ “… being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God, yet he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” But being as God is perfect unto Himself, this equality involves no difference. What can it mean, therefore, for being perfectly one, wholly and without exception, to void itself, and yet remain in some other form, still being?
To be and not to be, that is the answer. But it is an answer we human beings cannot ordinarily comprehend. In that respect, our being in relation to God is like a complex number, in which one we know exists in the presence of one we cannot truly know, yet which we also, somehow, never cease to be. As individuals, in terms of our own perception, we are knowable and real. But in apperception we directly experience an aspect of being that eludes perception, even as it both informs and shapes experience in terms we apprehend in effect, but which we otherwise simply are, after a fashion that, at every moment, escapes our notice, no matter how vigilantly we keep watch.
We should not simply dismiss the possibility that the mathematician who has taken the place of Richard Dawkins at Oxford is simply trying to express this elusive presence in being of what we experience as ourselves, and yet can never, by ourselves, with certainty know ourselves to be. It may well be the being about whom St. Paul preached. The one that fashions and informs our existence, and the existence of all things, by giving and yet absenting Himself, thus making the way of being, we appear to discover all on our own, yet could never fathom without Him.
Unlike the mathematicians’ “imaginary numbers,” God is unseen and, therefore, not imaginary, save insofar as we are made in His image. He is unseen and unknowable, except that He makes (and has made) us to know Him, in ways our understanding little by little comprehends. Yet without Him we truly understand nothing, for all the activities of our understanding are subject to Him, in ways we know in effect, but which otherwise, like our very selves, remain beyond our understanding. In this respect, we are real because He is with us. Were He not, we would be less than imaginary. We would, all unknown to ourselves, simply cease to exist. It is a humbling thought. Is this humility, perhaps, what has placed Dr. du Sautoy on the way to understanding that science, too, depends on faith?
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