Thinking Simply about Addiction by Richard S. Sandor, M.D.

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How can I reconcile stories from the Bible with science?

The Bible contains many stories that contradict each other, and that very fact tells us something important.

Faith, Science, and the Question “Why?”

Written By Richard Sandor

QuestionsOne of the perks of having my own office is receiving complimentary magazines for the waiting room. I don’t usually spend much time on them myself, but on one occasion, while glancing through a free copy of the magazine Discover (May, 2007), I was hooked by the tag line of an interview with the Harvard evolutionary biologist, Marc Hauser. Even stranger, I then carried it around in my briefcase for several months. The article concerned Dr. Hauser’s new book, Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, and the intriguing tag line went like this:

 His new theory says evolution hardwired us to know right from wrong. But here’s the confusing part: It also gave us a lot of wiggle room.

Something about this statement wouldn’t leave me alone, and for quite some time I had no clue why. Then, one day, two seemingly unrelated factors converged to solve the puzzle.    

First, I began re-reading C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, and re-discovered that the very first chapter was titled “Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe.” A light bulb went on in my head, and I retrieved the copy of Discover. And there it was:  “Right and wrong,” front and center in the thought of both C. S. Lewis, a Christian apologist, and Dr. Marc Hauser, an evolutionary biologist.

The second factor was far more mundane—stumbling on the strike-out font in my computer’s word processing program.  Of course, this way of showing words that had been deleted from a document (usually legal) wasn’t new to me. I just didn’t know how easily I could do it myself. A few mouse clicks on a highlighted phrase, and poof! Words both deleted and still there.  I picked up the magazine, copied the tag line into my computer, and began to fool around—using the strike-out font on the original words and italics for my substitutes:  

His new theory says evolution God hardwired created us to know right from wrong.  But here’s the confusing part:  It  He also gave us a lot of wiggle room  free will.

Then came the question:  Why was it so easy to change a scientific statement into a theological one? What did it mean that the description of Dr. Hauser’s thesis could so easily be changed to say something so radically different from what the scientist intended?

The short answer is that science, like religion, has fundamental suppositions. The closer science comes to its ultimate truths, the more clearly those suppositions are revealed. The more clearly they are revealed, the more easily they can be transformed into the equivalent suppositions at the root of theology. Frankly, I admit, it was a surprise, and, being trained as a scientist myself, I was reluctant to accept this conclusion on a statistical sample of one. So, I put the whole business aside and thought no more about it.  Then, about a year later, I stumbled on another instance of the same thing—another Discover article tag line which just as readily lent itself to the same treatment.

This second article concerned the fact that a number of the fundamental physical constants inherent in the laws governing the universe (e.g., the strength of the force that holds subatomic particles together; the distribution of mass in the universe, the gravitational constant) are precisely what they must be in order for life (at least, life as we know it) to exist. Actually, it’s even stranger than that—the exactitude of these constants is what makes the entire universe itself possible. 

As Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal of Great Britain, put it, if any of these numbers were different “even to the tiniest degree, there would be no stars, no complex elements, no life.” On a more personal note—for you and me and Dr. Rees—it means that if any of these constants were only slightly different from what we observe, we wouldn’t exist to observe them.  Officially, it’s called the “fine tuning” hypothesis.

Many physicists recognize the extreme unlikelihood that all of these constants are “just so” by chance, but they aren’t sure what that means. Hoping to preserve the evolutionary principle of order through randomness (chance), one physicist, Andrei Linde from Stanford, theorizes that there may be (or have been, or will have been) billions upon billions of other universes which simply didn’t (or don’t, or won’t) work out—countless numbers of failed “multiverses.” By a sort of survival of the fittest on a cosmic scale, our universe just happened to have exactly the right set of physical constants, so it made the grade.

The whole idea  reminded me of the theory that a thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters for an infinite amount of time would produce the complete works of William Shakespeare—utterly by chance.  Parenthetically, some wonderfully enterprising English scientists actually set some monkeys to work on some typewriters, and found that when the monkeys managed to put their fingers on the keyboard, they seemed to prefer the letter “s.” Unfortunately, our primate cousins were also just as likely to defecate on the keyboard as type, and the scientists were forced to conclude that somehow the “infinite amount of time” theory didn’t quite hold water. In any case, the idea in the second Discovery article, the idea that life and the universe may not have happened “by chance,” was summed in another tag line, and I played with it too :

Physical laws clamor for life: the universe knew we were coming.

Here’s what I did to it:

Physical laws Creation clamor is meant for life: the universe God knew intended we were  our coming.

Another statement in the same article yielded more changes which were just as interesting:

In some strange sense a great mystery, it appears that we are not adapted to do not happen to fit in the universe; the universe is adapted to created for us.

Now, lest anyone imagine that in rearranging these statements I’m saying we should be especially pleased that a whole universe has been created for us—for our enjoyment, so to speak—let me clarify.  I mean something much more humbling.  I mean simply that the ease with which these statements can be changed from scientific to theological, suggests that science itself is nudging up to the idea that we are a part of a universe which has been created to serve some purpose, a purpose in which we ourselves are meant to play a part. 

The critical language here is “has been created,” because the inevitable corollary of a created universe—as opposed to something which has “just happened”—is that there is a Creator, a God. If the phrase “created for us,” still seems ambiguous or arrogant, simply drop the idea of that we humans are the all-important, central characters in the whole story and you’ll see right away what I mean.  Better yet, let’s bring the whole idea down to earth in a form which is not so difficult to understand, something which all of us can grasp:  a certain Mrs. Jones and her car. 

The two statements about the universe and its physical laws and constants—as they stand before I fooled around with them—are a bit like saying this: After cars and Mrs. Jones came into existence (“happened,” “emerged,” “evolved,” “was adapted to,” whatever you like), Mrs. Jones discovered that she had one. Shortly thereafter, she also discovered that she could use it to drive to the supermarket (how convenient!). 

Now, these statements about Mrs. Jones and her car are grounded, like science, in an unstated assumption (which, in the case of Mrs. Jones and her car, we know to be absurd)—the assumption that the car just “came to be,” that it was not created by somebody or something who intended that someone like Mrs. Jones should drive it somewhere. Exaggerate the absurdity just a little to make it more obvious and the story goes like this:

For no particular reason, Mrs. Jones happens to have discovered that a car happens to be in front of her house, and that, amazingly, she can drive it places. 

In the case of science and the physical laws which govern the universe, the fundamental assumption that it “just happened” sounds pretty much the same:  

For no discernible reason, the universe just happens to exist and we just happened to have appeared in it.  And since we’re a part of the universe, it follows that we just happen to know that. 

In other words, unlike Mrs. Jones’ car, the universe wasn’t made by someone or something for some purpose. It just is.

Now, just as with the Discover articles, subjecting this story about Mrs. Jones and her car to the “fun-with-fonts” game yields some very interesting results.  In the italics version of the story that follows, Mrs. Jones is no longer merely the owner of a car, but the possessor of a mind, in fact, a person, a physicist by trade.

In some strange way, Mrs. Jones finds out that she herself has a car is a part of the universe. After driving it in and out of the garage (what fun!)  doing experiments in it, she also finds that she can drive to the market and back  figure out, to some degree, how it works. And then, quite unexpectedly, after having studied it intently, she discovers that if the car  she (as a part of the universe) weren’t constructed just so—if the injectors didn’t deliver just the right amount of gas to the pistons at just the right moment to meet the spark, for example force holding subatomic particles together were a little different, or if matter had been a little less or more evenly distributed throughout the universe, for exampleshe couldn’t drive it anywhere, much less to the market and back she wouldn’t exist, because the universe itself wouldn’t exist, much less exhibit life and mentality

Naturally, because she’s a fine physicist, Mrs. Jones begins to wonder why this should all be so.  It’s a truly great question, “Why?”, but there’s a problem with it. Let me illustrate it this way:  Imagine that you and I are standing on the corner of 30th Street. Mrs. Jones drives past in her car. I turn to you and ask, “Why is Mrs. Jones driving up the street?” Being as thoughtful a person as Mrs. Jones, you might be a little confused by my question, because there are two different ways of answering it—not just two different answers, but two different kinds of answers. And I wasn’t clear about which one I had in mind when I asked you.

The first kind of answer is a consequence of using the word “why” to mean “how”—as in “what makes it possible for Mrs. Jones to drive up the street?” If you think that’s what I meant by the word “why,” then your answer will go something like this: “Mrs. Jones is driving up the street because the pistons in her car’s engine are forced up and down by an exploding spray of gasoline. The force of that explosion is transmitted by a series of steel rods and gears to a set of wheels on top of which she sits, etc.” (My apologies to mechanical engineers throughout the world). The answer to this meaning of the word “why” will be as complicated as your knowledge of the car permits.  There isn’t anything wrong with this explanation, it’s just that it’s limited to one particular meaning of the word “why”—“why” as synonymous with “how.”

But there is a second sense of the word “why”—“why” as an inquiry into Mrs. Jones’s purpose or intention in driving up the street.  If you took my question in that way, then you might reply, “Mrs. Jones is driving up 30th Street because she wants to go to the supermarket to buy groceries.”  For that sort of answer you must have spoken with Mrs. Jones—or at least know someone who did. You might deduce her intentions by watching carefully to see where she ended up, but that would only be a guess. Maybe she started out to go the movies and changed her mind. We don’t know. And we can’t know without having some sort of conversation with her, or with someone else who did.  

Two important conclusions follow recognition of this distinction between the different senses of the question, “Why?”

The first is that if you do not know about or do not accept the second meaning of the word “why”—“why” in the sense of purpose or intention—then you will never discover anything about Mrs. Jones or what she has in mind while driving her car anywhere. Indeed, however much you may learn about her car and the way it works, the closest you will ever come to suspecting that she even exists, much less that she is driving the car, is in noticing the uncannily exact way in which each part of the car meshes perfectly with all the others to make it go somewhere.  

The unaltered tag lines from the second Discover article reflect precisely this sense of the word “why”—that the fundamental physical laws governing the universe make it precisely and uncannily fit for life. They tell us nothing about whether these laws were intended to produce life, much less about whether they were intended to create the sorts of minds which would be capable of asking what the purpose of such a creation might be. In fact, observation through the senses, and the inferences we make from those observations, can not prove or disprove the existence of such a purpose, but they do seem to make the possibility of a purpose somewhat more reasonable.   

The second fact that follows recognition of the different senses of the question “why?” is that even if you take the leap and abandon the premise that the car “just happened,” accept the idea that someone or something planned and built it, admit that the question “why?” as “what for?” is valid, then no amount of information about how the car works will ever tell you anything about where the driver wants to go.  Forces do not plan.  Physical laws do not intend. They just are. Only minds plan and intend, and only persons have minds. In the case of Mrs. Jones, it’s relatively easy to find out why she’s driving her car. We can ask her. She’ll probably tell us. But in the case of the universe, who are we going to ask?  Which brings us back to Dr. Hauser and C.S. Lewis. 

Since time immemorial, countless mystics, saints, philosophers and poets have told us that the conversation we need to have is with something inside us—that the sense of purpose and meaning is to be found within. When we do look within, one of the things we find there is a deep and powerful sense of right and wrong.  Dr. Hauser’s scientific work has led him to believe that evolution has built the knowledge of right and wrong into the very essence of human consciousness.  C.S. Lewis agrees, and adds, “on good authority,” that God put it there. 

At this point, I’m afraid I have to leave you to your own devices.  I’m not a theologian, only a doctor.  What I can tell you, after thirty years experience working with alcoholics and drug addicts, is that those of my patients who have become dedicated, active members of a 12 step group (like Alcoholics Anonymous) have a much better chance of recovery than those who have not.  AA and its cousins are unashamedly founded on spiritual principles.

The third of their 12 steps, for example, goes like this:  “Made a decision to turn our lives and our wills over to the care of God, as we understood him.” Taking this step means that irrespective of whatever happens to you, you are not free to do whatever you want. You belong to something greater than yourself—something that created you and cares about how you act towards your fellow human beings. 

I admit that encouraging my patients to join a 12-step group and work on the steps isn’t based on scientific analysis of the biochemistry and psychology of addiction.  It’s based on thousands of conversations with thousands of alcoholics and drug addicts—people whose awakening to a sense of meaning and purpose has transformed their lives and enabled them to endure profound suffering and yet remain sober.       

Over these thirty years, I have developed a good deal of sympathy with my patients.  I’ve discovered I feel just the way they do sometimes—a little resentful not to be able to escape the conclusion that I have been created to know right from wrong. Really, it would be a lot easier if it weren’t true. I wouldn’t have to be ashamed of myself when I lie or steal. I wouldn’t have to feel guilty about breaking any of the promises I’ve made. I could have anything I want, anywhere, at any time. And it wouldn’t matter if it belonged to you—I wouldn’t have to be responsible to anyone but myself. 

Once upon a time, I imagined that science was going to detach the meaning of my existence from all this God and conscience business—or, at least, make them something we humans could take credit for. Alas, it just doesn’t seem to be working out that way. Science itself appears to lead inexorably to the great likelihood that, as C.S. Lewis suggested,  “something that is more like a mind than anything else we know” God  has created is creating a universe filled with other persons, including you and me.  And it also looks like the universe  He wants us to treat one another as we ourselves would want to be treated. 

Copyright ©2010 Richard Sandor