Touching The Limits Of Knowledge
Cosmology and our View of the World

Sources of Models for God
Lead: Katrina Seylor & Adam Walsh
Summary by Paul Eichorn:

The discussion this week started off by attempting to define the nature of a model. Models themselves can take on many different forms, i.e. the big bang theory or religious creationism, but they are all an attempt to create a comprehensible form or metaphor of reality. Now the question arises whether the model is one that we derive from nature itself, or one that we create ourselves and impose on nature. An interesting parallel can be found in our use of language. Language frames, and to some extent defines, the boundaries and meanings of reality within different societies. Through it we are able to organize and classify reality as it is presented to us. While this doesn't definitively answer the question, it does seem to indicate that what reality is and how we define it may not necessarily be the same.

The two main models that we explored were the religious and the scientific. The religious model has to do with meaning, such as that found in the icons that religions infuse with significance. It is an effort to create an understandable framework for the "big picture." To some extent, science doesn't offer this, as each of the disparate groups within science, such as micro-biology and quantum mechanics, are concerned with the specifics of their own field.

Religious models have a tendency to "move around." Their meaning is not necessarily fixed in that through developments within cultures the significance of past religious events or doctrines can be reinterpreted, and thereby their significance can change. Also, the routinization within religious rituals can lead to a loss of the meaning behind the metaphors. Joseph Campbell calls this a "hardening of the metaphor." When this happens, as it has to a great extent within Catholicism, the underlying significance behind the symbols and the allegories is lost.

The scientific model is by nature pragmatic. It is phenomenally centered and concerned more with intelligibility than meaning. Its ability to define the nature of the "big picture" relies upon a conglomeration of the efforts of all its fragmented groups, i.e. physics, micro-biology, etc. It is thought by some people in the field that through a greater understanding of the workings of nature we are coming to "know the mind of God." But now the question arises, even if the "Big Bang" is the right "story" to describe what is going on the universe, what is the greater significance of that to the individual? This question prompts a turn in the discussion towards why we need to create a model at all.

It is generally felt that these models are created out of necessity, that we need them in order to function in the world and society and that they give us a feeling of security. In the beginning (whenever that was), people used divine intervention or the existence of omnipotent beings to account for what was happening around them, i.e. drought, severe weather, life in general. As science has developed over time, and supplanted these early explanations of the events, the "need" to see God as an aspect of all things, or even as an aspect of anything at all, has diminished. The idea of God has moved, to some extent, from an aspect in all things, to the "man behind the curtain", and even to a complete denial of any divine influence at all. Interestingly, there has been a recent surge back to religion, as people perceive science as reaching its own limits.

Concerning the religion/science debate, the question arose as to whether we were comparing apples with apples or apple with oranges. Science seems to create a model of existence, while religion attempts to create a model of God. These do not seem to be the same, necessarily. To some extent this validity of comparison between the two depends upon your interpretation of God. In terms of panentheism and pantheism, God is within all things (and possible beyond). Science would then be treading on potentially religion's grounds, when describing the workings of nature. In Christianity, God is now viewed as outside of all things, thereby limiting any comparison with the goals of science. The Christian separation of the divine from the worldly has led to developments such as those found in Descartes who posited the mind/BODYdistinction.

With the general routinization of many of the world's religions, it was asked how we might "get to" the meaning that lies behind the symbols. The best way seems to be through direct mystical apprehension. Through it you come face to face with the mystery, ultimacy, and unexplainable nature of reality. Of course, one of the problems that was brought up was the strict fundamentalists' adherence to their certain methods for achieving this realization as the "one true" path, and their consequential intolerance of other faiths.

The source for this problem can be found in our need for security, and general willingness to do anything to get it. Once a group achieves a level of security, they have a tendency to raise the source of it to a level of almost preternatural significance. Once raised, the people then live in awe of it, and for another to defile, or disaggrandize, these beliefs becomes threatening to the very nature of their existence.

Ecology, and the systems thinking method were offered as a possible balance between religion and science. As our species has developed, we have slowly moved out of the natural loop of biological evolution. This has created a whole new level of ethical concerns. Through our separation from nature, we have created a dangerous tendency to objectify the Earth and its contents. Nature then becomes a "resource" (and, in fact, even space is now seen as a resource ready for exploitation!). While it is not possible to revert the world society as a whole towards a reintegration with the processes of nature, a combination of scientific developments with a reverence for Nature, in all its glory, seems to be the only way to avoid potential disaster.

May 8, 2000