Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher who lived in the 18th century. Kant, like many others before him, was bothered by the discomfort raised by questions such as “Is there a beginning to time?” or “Is there an end to space?” He realized that we humans could find no satisfactory answers to such questions. Suppose someone tells you that the universe ends 15 billion light years away. This will immediately raise the question, “What happens beyond that?” in your mind.
Thus, scientific answers do not provide mental satisfaction for the person asking such questions. He or she needs answers in the sense that he or she seeks relief to this intellectual distress, so to speak. Open questions are bad and instant answers are good. This is like a small boy who hears his father’s complex explanations about their financial situation, but eventually feels compelled to ask again for that expensive toy in the window.
It is important to emphasize the aspects related to the term “nature’s wonders”, as commonly used. It is only natural for us humans to admire things that seem so wonderful and complex – for instance, the anatomy of the eye and its capabilities. Moreover, it would be appropriate to regard with suspicion a person who does not feel a kind of contradiction between such complexity and sophistication on one hand, and the simple laws of physics (as taught in school) on the other hand.
Part of this feeling is refusing to accept that what seems complex to us has been created naturally. This feeling is not based at all on any knowledge about the actual origin of things. It is based on the way our brain is built (or rather, evolved over millions of years).
It’s very difficult for us to perceive long periods of time. We don’t feel what “hundreds of millions of years” really is. Never in our history of evolution have we had any need for such a feeling. We cannot feel very slow development, so it is interpreted in our mind as something faster, which makes it absurd and unacceptable. As if it took three generations for fish to turn into reptiles, and for proto-chimps to become Homo sapiens. As a consequence, we obviously tend to reject such absurdity. Hence, our inability to perceive huge periods of times and enormous distances eventually causes our minds to seek a more comprehensible explanation of some divine intervention, creating things in much shorter times within a much smaller world.
The minds of people like Einstein or Darwin (and for that matter, yours and mine as well) are not essentially different in this respect. However, they managed to distinguish between these subjective feelings and objective facts, based on hard evidence. Indeed it seems absurd that the eye has been shaped by natural selection processes. Don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise. Yet, the facts and evidence we have confirm this process. Indeed there are wonderful things in the kingdom of animals and plants, but the wonder is found in the way we look at things, not in the things themselves.
Certain animals (snakes, butterflies and others) have pictures of big eyes imprinted on them. These are usually explained as a mechanism that has evolved to frighten potential predators, meaning those with bigger eyes survived more. Is this the real reason? Probably yes. Can we absolutely prove it? Not in mathematical terms. Can our mind feel this is the reason? Not really. Our mind imagines eye pictures that have been created quickly, thus having no natural explanation. With a bit of logic (exercising control over our natural feelings) we can find natural explanations for many wonderful characteristics of animals and plants.
Scientists do not take advantage of the lack of knowledge of others, as I heard once. Quite the opposite, scientists often fight their own feelings and instincts. They attempt sticking to facts, even if sometimes those facts are not very convenient, even for them as humans.
A somewhat related story has to do with our urge to assign reasons to various events. Our perfect imaginary world includes a cause for every thing that happens. If there’s no obvious cause, we may often invent one that serves our purposes. Many times we do it in our mind without noticing. We sometimes do it even against our will, like a person afraid of the dark, knowing perfectly well that the darkness cannot cause any harm. Reasoning is a basic quality of our world. Why was President Kennedy murdered? Why is this sword lying in the field (Joan of Arc, in case you missed it)? We easily adopt cosmic conspiracies. You know what? There is even a reason for this chapter to reach your eyes.
Analyzing this characteristic of ours, we may find that it has actually evolved over time. Many of our ancestors stood a better chance of surviving if able to assign reasons for events. Ironically so, the same quality we’ve developed due to evolution is now used to deny it. In other words: You refuse to believe that all those feelings of yours are in fact chemical processes, evolved during millions of years? Your refusal to believe so, is in itself a feeling, a chemical process, which has evolved during millions of years.
Following the huge tsunami in December 2004, some Jewish religious authorities (including one of Israel’s chief rabbis) simply knew why the tragedy took place. It was due to God’s anger at the gentiles – the non-Jews – for not keeping the minimal set of laws required from them by God. Those laws are known in the Jewish tradition as the 7 laws of Noah. Chief Muslim authorities, however, knew of a different reason: The tragedy happened because of prostitution and Zionist activity associated with the suffering areas.
For that matter, it was Rabbi Elazar Menachem Man Shach – a major religious leader in Israel of the 20th century – who published the evident religious thoughts about the necessary reason for the Jewish Holocaust: It was a punishment for Jewish bad religious behavior, and following its implementation, the Jewish balance with God has been reset (for now).
Religious thinking is especially fond of assigning reasons to things. We often believe in the reasons we wish to believe in and then feel that we see things we wish to see. People who deeply believe seem to know that if something good happens, it’s because they did what God expected them to do. If something bad happens, it means, of-course, that they didn’t perform as expected. Either way, for them, it’s an internal proof of what should be done, and for the existence of God. Certain creative religious minds may even twist the purpose of this book to be some sort of a weird test by God. People in the early stages of leaving their religion tend to associate their physical problems with their new deeds. Many conclusions are drawn just to calm down the God-seeking mind.
Seeking for a clear beginning and end, longing for a simple reason, it’s no wonder our most popular book (and the text we study as children) starts with the words “In the beginning God created…”