Anticipated Characteristics of Reality

by Karen A. Bellenir

For the past several blog entries, I've been discussing a series of statements made by Sean Carroll (theoretical physicist and professor at Caltech) regarding the assertion that the existence of a spiritual reality was a "failed hypothesis." His comments were made during a debate with William Lane Craig about the theistic implications of current cosmological understanding (watch the debate). If you want to follow my discussion of these points from the beginning, start with "Human Understanding Evolves."

This post concludes the series by looking at the remaining assumptions in which Carroll talked about the content of sacred texts, the relationship between biology and spirituality, the roles of justice and evil, and the idea of perfection. He seems to have compiled this diverse list of expectations in retrospect. To begin, he identified some observable characteristics within the human experience. Next, he claimed that these were the very things a naturalist would have predicted. Then, taking one more step, he relegated the opposites of observed reality to the realm of the spirit. Following this form of reasoning, he concluded that the spiritual realm did not exist because the predictions he ascribed to naturalists were more accurate.

The steps here seem backwards. For example, in the list of situations he considered, Carroll claimed that naturalists would create sacred texts consisting of a mish-mash (his term) of interesting parts, poetry, good parts, and not-so-good parts. He didn't explain why this particular mix would be favored, but because the world's collection of sacred texts falls in the mish-mash category, he concluded that there was no spiritual reality behind them. According to his reasoning, if sacred texts were spiritually inspired they ought exclusively to serve up the kind of information he felt was interesting and helpful. Facts about the germ theory of disease, according to Carroll, would qualify as evidence of divine wisdom.

From my perspective, this expectation seems to have its roles reversed. Because a naturalist—and Carroll identifies himself as a naturalist—looks for specific kinds of measurable evidence by which to assess the material world, it seems more likely that a naturalist (rather than someone interested in spiritual matters) would view straightforward facts about the physical realm as a supreme kind of information favored for inclusion in holy writ. Indeed, a sacred text developed by naturalists probably would talk about things like the germ theory of disease, the veracity of the standard model of particle physics, and the quantum wave function.

A spiritual being, on the other hand, would more likely seek to communicate in nonphysical ways across a wide variety of cultures with tremendously differing technological abilities. A spiritual entity would seek to help the human brain make connections and experience moments of illumination. The resulting sacred texts would offer stories filled with analogy, symbols, and metaphor. Contrary to Carroll's assertion, it seems more reasonable to expect that a spiritually focused sacred text would be a mish-mash, a compilation more concerned with the processes that transform narratives and poetry into revelation than a recitation of physical and material facts.

Carroll followed a similar process to assert that a naturalist would have predicted the kind of mutable biological forms that science observes. The opposite seems more probable to me. I would have expected a naturalist to look at other examples in the physical world—the ways molecules form in certain patterns or how specific crystals grow in standard shapes or how electrical charge is always preserved—and conclude that biological forms must also have uniform, predictable designs. On the other hand, I would expect a spiritual being to consider how human societies have evolved throughout their histories and how personal interactions can be shaped by their environments, sometimes in ways that seem quite arbitrary. A person following this line of reasoning would likely presume that a spiritual entity who created a universe where such changes occur would also endow biological forms with the ability to adapt in the face of change.

The last set of propositions claimed that if spiritual reality existed, life should be just. There shouldn't be random evil, and under a theistic rule the universe would be perfect. The mess we currently observe he attributed entirely to naturalism. Theologians have certainly grappled with the issues of justice and evil for ages, but the notions of justice and evil are in fact spiritual concepts. Nature provides for survival, not appraisals. If naturalism were the ultimate and only reality, we might observe its state but we couldn't name it a "mess." Spirit is what permits the discussion of good, better, and perfect.

Carroll summarized his arguments by offering three statements about which most philosophers agree: There is an external reality. Science can tell us about that reality. God does not exist. Many philosophers may indeed embrace all three statements, but the third doesn't flow logically out of the first two in a coherent manner. I propose that a more internally connected summarization would make these observations: External physical reality exists. The physical sciences help us measure and explore the realm of natural phenomena. The exploration of spiritual reality requires a different skill set and the use of different tools.

I hold on to the hope that Carroll, Craig, and many others will persevere in their efforts to talk about these issues. When people who can contribute scientific and spiritual insights to an ongoing discussion are willing to keep working on the conversation, the quest for better understanding regarding the physical and the spiritual components of reality can continue to move forward.