Sunday, October 17, 2010

Review of "Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves"

At the book club I attend, we recently discussed the book "Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves" by James Le Fanu. The author believes that as science has progressed, it has become clear that the boundaries of human knowledge are within sight, and science has fallen short on the promise to reveal all of nature's secrets. He supports his thesis by highlighting three areas of research: evolution, the double helix, and the brain. He believes that it is abundantly clear that the philosophical materialism that has dominated science since the enlightenment, has, through its own efforts, revealed its inability to fully explain the human experience. Le Fanu views this state of affairs as an indication of a non-material realm that exists along the material. Though he never speaks directly of God, he clearly believes that material explanations alone will not suffice in answering questions that continue to persist about who we are, how we came to be this way, and how exactly we work. I will take a look at some of these questions in my next post.

There certainly is much we still have to fathom. We and our world continue to be objects of mystery. This is why I would have difficulty ever confidently declaring myself to be an atheist. There is so much we don't know and so much that we experience as transcending material explanations. However, that doesn't mean material explanations can't someday suffice. Le Fanu, though, would beg to differ.


  1. Like you, I could never confidently become an atheist, just as I'll always have doubts with Christianity. I was just at a talk on Friday arguing that the lack of certainty in science somehow was a proof for God's existence (ie. no certainty in either science or religion)...but my question is if there is no certainty in either discipline, how do you take sides? Sounds like a great book club - is this part of a church?

  2. Like a Child,
    I actually began the bookclub at church several months ago as part of the Biologos bookclub program they are trying to develop. However, after we read the first book chosen by Biologos, we decided we'd rather chose our own books relating to science and religion. We'll discuss this book again in November and then in December we'll read Monkey Town.

  3. Never say “never.” *wink*

    Yep, there will always be uncertainty. At this rate, about the only thing we can confidently state is that we won’t know even 1% of everything there is to know. Not only the rate of knowledge acquired in the past 50 years demonstrating how little we knew the previous 2950 years, but the recognition of variability at the atomic and sub-atomic level giving us almost infinite future possibilities.

    The question does surface, though—can I start to eliminate some possibilities? I’m pretty sure there is no Santa Claus—yet even as a non-Santa-Claus-believer, I get caught up in the wonder that is Christmas. The lights, the family, the feeling of charity in the air and carols on the radio. With all that (not to mention “Miracle on 34th Street”), dare I eliminate the possibility of Santa Claus?

    Why…yes. I look at the proposals regarding the proposition, study the evidence, view the myth creation, and come to the conclusion, contra-Virginia, there is no Santa Claus. Now, I am still open to the possibility of his existence, but I do think it would take some significance evidence to convince.

    On a much larger scale, I feel the same way about a god. I have yet to see a theist propose a viable method where we can differentiate between, “That is something with a physical cause we just don’t know yet” and “That is something with a physical cause that we will never know” and “That is something without any possible physical cause.”

    Worse, I haven’t seen a coherent definition of god. It seems (to me) the more one wants to argue as to a god’s possibility, the less concrete the description must be. It becomes “timeless” (how does something do anything without time?), “immaterial” (how does nothing do something?), “actually infinite” (a claim made by apologists who say there can’t be an actual infinite) and so on. Words we use begin to lose all meaning (like “love,” “justice,” “mercy”) when talking about a god.

    At some point I could not make myself believe in the Christian God…then even a theistic god…then even a Deistic God. What else could I be, but an atheist?

    Of course, if someone wants to provide proof of such an entity—I would be happy to review it.

  4. DagoodS,

    One of the primary questions I had walking away from the book was how to differentiate between the very things you described:
    "“That is something with a physical cause we just don’t know yet” and “That is something with a physical cause that we will never know” and “That is something without any possible physical cause."

    Maybe no one has a good way to discern the difference.

    I must admit my definition of God seems to grow less concrete with time as well. Regarding coherence, I don't believe I can adequately evaluate definitions of God given the difficulty I have truly understanding concepts such as time and the immaterial. Sometimes, reading philosophical works on the nature of God feels like I'm trying to carry sand in a sieve.