So, here’s an attempt to order some vague thoughts into a profound observation. (You’re probably used to that kind of approach from me by now.)
Mystery and the unknown are important in science. They’re what drive the whole thing. It’s all about asking “Why?” to stuff. “Why does the Sun move across the sky like that?” “Why does that apple – or anything else – fall down at the rate it does?” “Why did that happen when I prodded this?” Like a two-year-old, but with a budget and a lot of spare time.
It’s based on observation. We observe something, and say: “This is the data we have. Why do we seem to see what we seem to see?” The quest of science is to come up with an answer to that question, to imagine a model of reality which explains why we make the particular observations we do.
(There’s also the angle of “What if?” – as in, “What if I smashed these beyond-microscopically tiny particles together at almost the speed of light?” – but that’s just a way of finding something new to ask “Why?” about.)
The observation I wanted to make, though, is about the rather different approach to the question of “Why?” that’s often taken by religion.
Religious people often make a big thing of the importance of “mystery” as well, when it comes to God’s way of doing things. There’s so much that’s beyond our understanding, that’s deeply ineffable, that’s on some higher level of logic than mere mortals cannot hope to comprehend.
But it seems to be a different kind of mystery, with a different sort of “Why?” question that follows from it. A lot of them have a similar form to “Why do bad things happen to good people?”, but that’s not a question looking for a straight-forward causal answer, in the same way that a question about gravity is. There’s an implied clause in the question, which gets to what it’s really asking.
If God exists, then why do bad things happen to good people?
Science’s questions look to explore an unknown facet of the world we’re living in. Religion’s questions are a tacit admission of incompatibility with the facts. The fact that you need to ask why, given God’s existence, things are the way they are, tells you that the assumption of God’s existence is not easily squared up with what we observe. There’s an intrinsic challenge that the premise will have to find a way to stand up to.
Some of the “Why?” questions of science contain implicit challenges to their premises, too, such as: “If they’re all releasing phlogiston, why do some things gain weight and some things lose weight during combustion?” But this wasn’t treated as some ethereal wonder, or some intractable problem of philosophy beyond our ken. It was a statement that things shouldn’t act this way, if we have the right idea about phlogiston – and, eventually, the idea had to be abandoned.
When people talk about the problem of evil, the implication is that things shouldn’t be this way if God exists in the way he’s commonly understood. An all-powerful, all-knowing, benevolent entity can’t be reconciled with the cruel randomness of the suffering inflicted by nature. Why is this seen simply as an unapproachable curiosity and mystery of the way God is, rather than a challenge that needs to be resolved if our worldview is to make any sense – even if resolving it means giving up on the God idea, like we did with phlogiston, when it becomes incompatible with the data?
It occurs to me that I may be mostly just re-hashing Greta Christina’s problem of unfishiness here. But it’s come up recently from a few religious sources I’ve read, and I wanted to try thinking it through.