Sunday, November 7, 2010

Are Humans Better Natural Theologians Than Cats?

Human beings make for modest natural theologians. Hand natural theology over to a human and what you get is an animated view of the world in which every physical object is imbued with consciousness. We know that we are living thinking beings, with will and intention; we can be bribed, flattered and convinced to follow one path or another. Such rules of the mind are outside of, though not contradictory to, the laws of physics. To use C. S. Lewis' example, the laws of physics can predict the motion of a billiard ball, when hit, as it moves across the table. What the laws of physics cannot tell you is whether I will reach down, grab the ball and throw it across the room. For that you would need a psychiatrist. We naturally apply these assumptions of consciousness to the world around us; other people and animals are assumed to be conscious beings. Man, though, has traditionally gotten himself into trouble by making the perfectly reasonable assumption that the existence of consciousness should be extended to everything in the natural world. Clouds decide whether to rain or not; the sun decides to shine; the ground decides to give up it bounty. This leads to the conclusion that these forces can be convinced through bribery and flattery to act according to our wishes. Fashion this into a coherent system and what you have is crude polytheism. The rain, the sun and the ground all become gods or at least manifestations of gods to pray to and offer sacrifices.

Correcting this flaw in human reasoning has proven to be a long term project. Over the past several thousand years, starting since the union of Greek philosophy with monotheism, manifested in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and culminating in the Enlightenment, Western thought has undergone a shift, specifically away from an animated view of nature toward a mechanistic one. Today most people recognize that the rain, the sun and the ground do not have minds; they are physical objects that operate solely according to fixed natural laws. Of course looking at how people yell at printers and computers would tell that not much has really changed. (It is here, I would argue, that philosophical monotheism becomes important, allowing us to hold the line. We live in a world of physical laws authored by a deity. It is this same deity who has also created consciousness. Both exist as different, but equally valid and non-contradictory non-overlapping magisteria.)

There is a trap in this mechanized thinking as we risk going to the other extreme and believe in a completely naturalistic universe. In such a universe there would be no gods but there can also be no consciousness, no will and no intention. I have had atheists tell me point blank that there is no difference between me tossing an empty coke can into a recycling bin and the coke can moving through the air. That I think that I am thinking and making a decision to go green and recycle is simply an illusion; I too am just an object in motion, acting according to Newtonian mechanics. It cannot be under emphasized to the extent that the existence of consciousness is a trap for atheism, exceeding even that of evolution and theism. The moment I admit that I think and therefore are, we have to consider what we are. If our minds really exist and are not simply an illusion created by brain waves then we have to be something not of our bodies. We can conceive of existing while not having our bodies; we cannot conceive of existing without our minds. Call it what you will; mind, soul or spirit. Admit consciousness and you have accepted the supernatural and placed it as the foundation of existence.

That is how a human thinks. Anyone who has ever watched a cat obsess over a piece of string or a computer cable can see that cats are natural animists as well. Cats, though, clearly have reached different and far grander conclusions from that of human beings. Does a cat believe in God? A cat has no need to believe in God; a cat knows that he is God. A cat thinks therefore he is … God. A cat looks out at his creation (whether or not he designed it, it clearly was designed for him) and sees a universe full of living beings, existing to serve him. What kind of God would our cat be if there was an object unable marvel at his greatness? Our cat keeps the universe in line by lording over creation and making sure he is properly worshipped by his creatures, giving them a good pawful smiting every once in awhile to keep them in line and make sure that the universe is kept to its proper functions with him at the center. A cat therefore has no need to vex its minds over natural theology; it can leave that to simple more humble creatures such as human beings. It is in human nature to wonder and doubt. Cats have better things to do, sitting in the sun and basking in the worship of all lesser creation.

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