by Jonathan Lynch
Throughout history, people have grappled with the question of our existence and the meaning of life. Many have tried to find answers through religion, philosophy, science, and other forms of inquiry. Some have found comfort in the idea that there is a divine force guiding our lives, while others have rejected such notions and opted for a more secular worldview. My own personal journey towards faith was sparked, unexpectedly, by my curiosity of science and study of mathematics.
In spite of being raised traditionally Catholic, I questioned everything from a young age. There were many aspects of Catholicism, Christianity and religion in general that didn’t jibe with logic – at least the way I was taught it. I had a scientific mindset and believed that everything could be explained through empirical evidence and rational thought.
To my dismay, no one attempted to reconcile for me the seemingly incompatible ideas of science and Christianity. As a result, from the age of twelve or thirteen, I abandoned religion altogether. I viewed it as a relic of the past and saw no need for God, or anything spiritual, in my life at all. I became a self-avowed atheist. Not just a happy-go-lucky atheist. A radical atheist – one that reveled in the oratorical brilliance of Hitchens as he verbally dismantled cohorts of Christian apologists. One that saw no flaw in the writings of Dawkins and Dennett but scoffed at the glaring inconsistencies in the Bible.
Ironically, it was through my study of science that a seed was planted in me that would not be nurtured until much later in life. As a student of Computer Science, Physics and Mathematics, in college I learned about several fundamental theorems that established hard limits on our ability to reason about the world around us. In 1931, the Austrian mathematician Kurt Gödel proved that there can be no system of logic that is both consistent and complete. In short, modeling the world using a system of logic that is borne of this world cannot answer all questions about the world. That is, any system of reasoning must either lead to some false conclusions or have no answers to some questions.
There is a similar, though unrelated, theorem in Computer Science known as the Halting Problem. Proven by Alan Turing in 1936, it states, in simple terms, that no computer program can be written that can successfully determine the outcome of another general computer program. In fact, much less than that; a computer program cannot even be written to determine if another general computer program will run forever or stop running at some point in the future (or “halt” – hence “Halting Problem”.) This might seem a bit pointless and esoteric, but what it does is prove that there are limits on what is computable. Not just what is computable using our current capabilities, but what is computable using any future computer (yes, even a quantum computer.)
I had learned these formal proofs and many others in the context of reasoning about Mathematics and Computer Science. It wasn’t until decades later that I began to wonder how they related to higher-order ideas in philosophy, epistemology and theology.
What became apparent to me was that both Gödel’s and Turing’s theorems teach us that – in this world in which we live, and about which we attempt to reason – there exist unanswerable questions and unknowable truths. And so I began to wonder – as atheists do – quietly at first so as not to arouse suspicion, if it were possible that these unanswerable questions and unknowable truths could be evidence of something more than we could ever describe, let alone fully understand? Something perhaps that people from simpler times already knew – not through science and logic, but through the simple act of faith.
Fifty-something years have passed since physicists embarked on the task of creating a theory to unify the wholly incompatible (yet entirely mainstream) scientific theories of General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. As of today, no progress has been made. The brightest minds combined with the fastest computers and the biggest budgets have produced absolutely nothing that we could consider an improved understanding of our world. Singularities at the “big bang” and at the center of black holes continue to refute our best attempts to describe them, and the mystery of the quantum world appears ever more magical the further we intrude on its nanoscopic wonder.
I write this not to denigrate physics, mathematics or computer science. They are endeavors of our own conscious thought, and to denigrate them would be to engage in futile self-flagellation. But to highlight the inherent limitations of our ability to reason about the world around us.
Enthusiastic atheists might at this point accuse me of being on the verge of committing the “God of the Gaps” fallacy – postulating a God whose purpose is to explain everything we haven’t yet understood. If I were to be accused of that, I would enthusiastically disagree. I postulate a God, not of the gaps we might some day fill, but of those gaps we already know we cannot fill.
The author is a recovering atheist and former Colchester resident and candidate for the Legislature who has found peace in the hills of upstate South Carolina.