Ravings from the Author

Figuring Things Out

People are born hardwired to try to figure things out. That trait generates behaviors essential to the species’ survival; we hear an odd sound in the forest and immediately begin to speculate as to its potentially dangerous cause. But the instinct goes much deeper, and presumes a more profound quality of nature, than the mere avoidance of predators. The ancients looked at the stars and wondered what are they? How did they get there? In answer, they found heroes and heroines in the night sky and read in the constellations glimmers of majestic events not otherwise accessible to human knowledge. Underlying that exercise was the most important aspect of our hardwired drive. At our core, we sense that the universe means something, that there is a greater reality behind its façade, and that our observations of it are clues to ultimate truths.

Propelled by this same intellectual engine, every culture spun its experience of the natural world into its own creation story in an effort to solve the basic mystery: the existence of existence.

Fast forward millennia. Our hardwired drive to figure things out has spawned science, which shows us that the universe operates according to rules we call the laws of nature. Yet that discovery only opens one curtain to reveal, not an answer but instead another curtain, and we again ask, from where did those rules originate? How did they get there?

According to Einstein, the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible. At every level, from the subatomic to the cosmic, nature evidences structure, pattern, consistency, predictability, organization. The deeper we penetrate the universe’s mysteries, the more its laws seem like software algorithms and the more its workings seem like an elaborate computer program.

Which of course begs the ultimate question: is there a programmer?

Until 150 years or so ago, few doubted that there was. Order does not spontaneously emerge from chaos; emptiness births nothing. Then Darwin proposed an idea that accounted for the diversity of living things without the immediate need for an overseer, but again, his theory left the same undrawn curtains. Darwinian evolution assumes, but does not explain, the origin of life, much less the universe. Ironically, it was the educated theists, not the scientists of Darwin’s day, who first embraced his work, celebrating that he had discovered, in part, how God did it.

But the idea of autonomy in the natural world caught on, which trendsetting thinkers labored to expand beyond biology, to turn the universe into a self-contained, self-generating, self-propagating thing without a creator behind it. The problem, though, was that they lacked an empirical, scientific basis for such an expansion. To solve that problem, they crossed from science to philosophy, from proof to postulate, by concocting the doctrines of naturalism and materialism—similar if not identical axiomatic decrees that matter and energy are the only things in existence and that reality lacks any metaphysical or spiritual dimension. Thus, drawing any inference of a Divine hand from the inner workings of the cosmos is forbidden, not because it’s necessarily wrong or has been scientifically disproven, but just because they say so.

When you place an artificial limitation on the hardwired human desire to figure things out, you end up imposing constraints much like the ones that freethinkers indict religion for imposing on science. Galileo can’t say the earth moves because of then-perceived Biblical edicts; a scientist can’t find design in the universe because naturalism forbids it. Neither reason makes sense, and both potentially impede the goal of figuring things out.

Figuring things out in science supposedly involves the so-called scientific method’s separate steps of observation, hypothesis, prediction, and experimentation. Like most paradigms constructed after the occurrence of the creative event whose dynamics they seek to explain, this approach works for some but not all applications. The most notable outlier in that regard is Darwin’s theory, in part because the vast time frames postulated for evolution to occur render it unsuitable for laboratory testing, and in part because the theory itself is a bit of a moving target with enough elasticity to harmonize discoveries that defy initial expectations, such as the notable absence of transitional forms (i.e., “missing links”) in the fossil record.

I’d simplify the scientific method to “using all the faculties and resources available to you to figure things out.” Of course, there needs to be some verification demonstrating good reason to believe a given result is correct.

In real life, one big challenge in figuring things out is to separate the meaningful clues from the random details. The clock in the murder victim’s room stopped at 10:35 p.m. Is that when the batteries just happened to run down, or is it associated with the killing in a way that shows the time of death? Do the cigarette butts in the ashtray reveal the murderer’s brand or some irrelevant third party’s? In real life, you first have to decide if an observation is merely an accidental detail, at least as it relates to the event you’re trying to figure out.

When reading a book, however, say a mystery novel, you don’t have that problem because you know with absolute certainty that nothing in it is accidental. Every detail was consciously inserted by the creator of the work. Granted, and especially in a mystery novel, the creator may have intentionally injected an element of misdirection, but it’s still not random or accidental. It’s supposed to be there, and it fits with the other components of the book in a cohesive way.

Many people say that nothing in life is accidental. Behind such statements is the belief that, in one form or another, God (or some by-any-other-name stand-in such as fate, kismet, destiny, etc.) directs everything. If so, then, assuming the exercise is not too complex for the human mind to perform, perhaps one could “read” the events of life the way a scholar reads a book, to understand the overarching vision that unifies everything and thereby glimpse the intelligence and meaning behind the design. And so we’re back to the assumption that drove people to find information in the night sky—that the physical world gives clues to metaphysical truth.

In a way, it seems that looking for physical clues to metaphysical truth presumes the answer in the activity, because without a metaphysical dimension, there are no clues infused with meaning; it’s all just stuff that happens. But one need not prejudge the outcome to engage in the experiment. You can assume the clues are there, look for them, see what they add up to and, depending on what, if any, picture you draw from them, determine the validity of your initial hypothesis that meaningful clues exist. Sort of like the classic scientific method.

So to figure out the fundamental metaphysical mystery—whether God exists—one must tune in with an open mind and sift the universe for clues. Bring all your faculties (intelligence, reasoning, logic, intuition, memory, conscience) and resources (science, philosophy, history, and the accounts of previous detectives) to bear.

There is a single, correct answer.

You will find it if you diligently look.