When I was a graduate student not too far off half a century ago, I remember addressing the question in philosophy asking if the human mind is capable of ever fully understanding the universe and how it works.
The answer is that, although we will never exhaust our potential for learning more, we will never achieve a complete understanding of the world in which we live either. Our minds are not sufficiently capable of transcending the kind of time and space in which we were created to survive.
This rarely emerges as an urgent problem for most of us. Many of us (and I include myself) don’t even understand what it is that we don’t understand. I don’t really understand, for instance, how negative and positive electrons whirling around the nucleus of an atom produce electricity, which in turn runs all the appliances in my house with a simple switch. Some people do. But even physicists have no idea how some of our most basic, even everyday processes work. Gravity is one example. Thanks to Newton, scientists can describe gravity mathematically, but even Newton said it was a complete mystery how objects can act on each other over distances of millions of light years. We still can’t explain it, and the number of events in which this kind of thing occurs has expanded with the evidence leading to quantum physics. In fact, the more we learn, the longer the list gets of things we can’t fully explain.
Some people explain everything we don’t understand – and a lot that we do – with the concept of “God.” They conclude that there must be a God, for instance, because there isn’t any other explanation for how the universe came into existence. What people mean by the term “god,” however, varies. God for some is a kind of all-powerful dictator whose all-encompassing love seems subject to irrational tirades during which anybody in the way gets punished for displeasing him. Others have a more transcendent, even mystical, idea of god, beyond simple anthropomorphic description. Finally, there are those who decline to use the god explanation at all, and prefer to live with unanswered questions, or even in mystery.
The interesting thing for me, though, is that our certainty about some of the most important questions in life does not seem to depend on whether we believe in god or not. I’ve been accused of being on my way to hell for straying from the Path of Righteousness, but I’ve heard non-believers make accusations about the pig-headedness of believers with the same level of intolerance.
I have convictions by which I live, and for which I would fight. I think, for instance, that it is morally despicable to refuse an abortion to a woman to save her life and who is in the process of a miscarriage which was going to result in any case in the death of the fetus. Yet that is what happened in Ireland, and members of Parliament who have just voted to change the law so this will not happen again have been accused of a sin so grave that they deserve to burn in eternal hell-fire.
But how do I know that some of my convictions are not as wrong-headed as I think some convictions of others are? And would it not be as wrong for others to follow my convictions simply because I tell them I am right as it would be for me to follow their convictions because they say I’m destined for hell?
No. Difficult as it is, we each have to follow our own conscience, and respect others who must do the same.
Even if they do disagree with me.