Many things I just don’t understand. Off the top of my head, here are just a few:
Mathematics in 248 dimensions.
People who worry all of the time.
Michael Jordan’s basketball abilities.
The meaning of life.
The popularity of American Idol.
Unlike many people, however, I resist ascribing the origins of things I don’t understand to a supernatural entity or entities pulling all of our strings.
But doing this is nothing new. Humans have invented rationalizations as long as we—and I use “we” assuming that you, dear reader, are human—have been living here.
The Mayans thought Huracan brought storms—for which the ancient Sumerians blamed Enlil. When thunder crashed, specifically, the Greeks gave (and a tiny subset of them STILL give) credit to Zeus; the Norse assigned responsibility to Thor.
As we have collectively learned more about our home planet, we’ve started to use science to explain the previously unexplained.
Weather results from a very complex series of interrelated physical events—which bedevil forecasters even now, annoying millions of travelers every day. And thunder is a shock wave that our ears detect as an aftereffect of a lightning bolt’s intense heat. The march of science makes unmagical more and more of the things thought to be magical.
Unknowns become known.
That said, plenty of room will always remain for supernatural explanations, for string-pullers in the sky, which will enable many people to live with the existential stress of knowing that we still don’t know everything.
One reason, ironically, may be physical in origin.
A recent CNN.com article related the work of neuroscientist and author Andrew Newberg. This enterprising medical doctor dabbles in neurotheology—a field focused on discovering how the human brain handles spiritual concepts and impulses. His early results are fascinating: Followers of diverse religious traditions have minds that contain similar patterns and processes during meditation or prayer. There may, in fact, be universal features of our brains that enable belief in some higher power.
Another reason for the persistent belief in various forms of deities derives form the very success of scientists in revealing the secrets of nature.
Simply put, the more we learn, the more we realize there IS to learn. The ancients didn’t study 248-dimensional mathematics because they hadn’t conceived of such things. Medieval thinkers didn’t fret over the chances of a black hole gobbling up our part of the galaxy because they hadn’t discovered black holes yet.
So don’t worry, believers in the supernatural. There’s plenty to still attribute to the god or gods of your choice. And as we learn more about the physical universe and strip away the things you need to explain that way, we’ll surely draw attention to additional unknowns that our ancestors could never have dreamed of, mysteries that they failed to even imagine.
For example, they did not anticipate American Idol.
I just have to believe that they would have found a way to warn us … or at least invent a god to explain how people’s strings are being pulled.