A Reasonable Paradox or The Paradox of Reason: Reasoning over the Problem of Death

Christianity has always been comfortable with paradox. The Trinity (three persons, one God) is the ultimate paradox and the heart of the Christian faith. The incarnation (Christ as fully man and fully God) is the paradox of our salvation and life. Living in and with paradox is the solution that Christianity presents for most logical contradictions (assuming it is a true contradiction, and not just an apparent one). Christians are to be “reason endowed sheep” who “live by faith”: logically working through problems, but willing to find answers in mystery beyond logic. Thomas was called by Jesus to empirically observe the evidence of his crucifixion: the holes in his hands and wound in the side. “See and touch the evidence of death, but also observe that I am alive and speaking to you”; therefore rationally know that the resurrection has occurred (even if cannot explain the mystery of how).

 Unlike traditional Christianity, the reasoning of modern post-Kantian science does not like paradox but seeks for logical consistency (but cannot avoid the paradoxes of light as both particle and wave, or the theories of electromagnetism and quantum physics). To achieve logical consistency, the problems of science and religion have standardly been handled by either denying the validity of religion (it is not logically valid) or relegating it to sphere of ‘faith’ that is unrelated to ‘reason’. Both solutions make religion something ‘outside’ of reason and hence apart from science.

While both approaches have a lot of popularity (both within science and within religion), I find that this approach is ultimately a failure – to both religion and science. It is only a paradoxical approach that is ultimately workable, as science reasonably destroys itself without religion.

 The crux of the problem between science and Christianity involves history1. In particular the historicity of creation and the Fall as found in the Old Testament book of Genesis. The creation and Fall, if taken as history, are seen as contradicting science. Amongst the Church Fathers, how, or whether Genesis can be treated as history has always been open to some debate (this is not a new discussion brought on by modern science), and there are problems on both sides of the issue.

The Problem of Genesis as History

Events recorded in the early part of Genesis (or at least their interpretations) seem to contradict accepted reasonable facts. Adding up the genealogies from Adam to persons known from recorded histories produce a time-line shorter than what standard science accepts (Bishop Ussher, 17th century Anglican Archbishop of Armagh, calculated the first day of creation to be Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC). The universal flood of Noah does not seem to fit standard theories of geology. It is hard to explain the existence of dinosaur fossils (and their associated time-lines), or the time-lines of astronomy with a creation taking place within seven, 24 hour days.

Those (frequently labeled as ‘fundamentalist Christians’) who have attempted to logically defend a “literal Genesis” have generally been relegated to the sidelines of philosophy and science. The other standard solution has been to remove Genesis from history, to define it as timeless mythology outside of space and time, which is free from the logical critique of pre-historical research.

 The Problem of Genesis as Mythology

Relegating early Genesis to mythology is not a satisfactory solution for its own reasons, both literary, theological and practical.

Reading scripture backward, from the dateable events of the New Testament back to Genesis provides no clear point where the language changes – from a historical language to a mythical language. Scripture does not treat itself as mythology, but gives a consistent wording of genealogy back to the first person Adam(“and then he died…”). Decades of trying to apply textual and literary criticism (“Higher Criticism”) have produced little scholarly substance, most often only concluding what the author originally assumed. The best of recent textual scholarship (ie. NT Wright on the New Testament) and archeology have only strengthened scripture as valid historical documents (at least for the New Testament, and the Old Testament back to Abraham).

Theologically this is also a problem (and also one debated since the early Church). If there is no historical 1st Adam who at a particular point in time falls and brings death into the world, then we do not need a historical 2nd Adam (Christ) who overcomes death through a space-time resurrection. If the problem only exists in mythology, then the solution needs to be no more than mythology (this position toward the New Testament has had a varied range of support in modern times).

Death is Not an Easy Problem:

 While Scripture clearly defines death as the central problem, the definition of death is not absolutely clear. Without question it includes human physical death, but the ‘fringes’ are not always obvious. Did the fruit which Adam ate before the fall “die” (experience cellular senescence)? What happened to the food Jesus ate after the resurrection? How did Evil exist before the Fall without death? Without a clear definition of death as the problem, we need to be careful in assuming the full scope and conditions of the solution.

 Scientific Reasoning as the Defeat of Science: The Problem of Value & Meaning

 We want science because it is technologically useful, it has value in achieving many of our goals in life. Post-Kanatian rationalist materialistic evolution explains a lot about astronomy, quantum mechanics and molecular biology. It helps us find new information which enables technology: from how to make the steam engines of industrial revolution to antibiotics, iPads, weapons of mass destruction and the creation of environmental catastrophes.

There are two problems here: 1) the goals and values are not a part of science, and 2) modern biological science comes at a price: the normality of death.

Survival of the fittest is predicated on death – the elimination of the less-fit. In this context, death is not a problem, at the least it is a simple fact of reality, at best a necessary part of the solution; it is not ‘evil’ (abnormal) and needs no “salvation”. Death is normal, both at the individual level and the cosmic. Everything ultimately dies – everything in the universe either collapses into a black hole, or becomes an ever more isolated cinder caught in the cold entropy of an ever expanding universe.

The problem is that death negates meaning. If anything we do ultimately makes no difference, it hence ultimately has no significance or meaning. There is no ‘ought’, only ‘it is’. Pure science (in the modern sense) can tell us ‘how’ something works (what ‘it is’), or the likely consequences of a particular action; but it cannot tell us what we should (or should not) do – it cannot speak to values (what ‘ought’ to be). Death is not good or bad, right or wrong, it is just a fact of science. Scientifically we cannot say if we should cause a death or stop a death, at best it tells us what happens at death, and the possible consequences to the species population.

“Save the Rain-forest”, “Stop global warming” have no scientific meaning. Science may be able to tell us that certain actions will produce more carbon-dioxide, which will raise the average global temperature so many degrees, which will benefit or hurt certain species populations. It can tell us that certain actions will speed up, slow down, or stop this process. But it cannot tell us that we should continue global warming, stop it at a percent of 1990 levels (the Kyoto treaty), or restore the earth to Ice Age conditions (or any other condition). In the long term, saving the rain-forest, or destroying it will not ultimately change the fate of the universe. Rationally, such appeals are at best a delayed selfishness (“save it for your children to enjoy”). Achieving these goals ultimately have no more meaning than the direct selfish exploitation of the world for extending personal survival/comfort – these goals (or any goal) have no scientific basis or meaning. Scientifically (psychologically), they are at most empty screams against the irrational fear of death and meaninglessness.

Thus within this framework the pursuit of science (and science itself) is ultimately meaningless. The philosophy of modern post-Kantian science is a suicidal philosophy.

 When science cuts itself off from Christianity, it cuts itself off from the context that gives science meaning, and hence its justification. As a witness to the resurrection (the defeat of death) we are called upon to ‘feed the poor and heal the sick’; science can gives us the tools to grow more food and find cures to illnesses – these values can give meaning to, and justify the existence and practice of science. Modern science needs Christianity, much more than Christianity needs science. This is not a rejection of science (or Christianity), but a necessity to paradoxically stand in the position of Thomas and hold two apparent contradictions in a logical tension, with a willingness to suspend judgment and live in mystery.

1 The definition and nature of history is a discussion in itself, which I shall not go into here. It is sufficient here to say that history references events that occur in space and time. These historical events may mean more that than the particular space/time occurrence, but they never mean less.

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