In this post I will begin to touch on the difficult subject of how to reconcile faith and science, and I'd like to begin by talking about 17th century philosophy. I know it seems a bit strange, but please bear with me.
Specifically I would like to talk about the concept of an omnipotent deceiver as it is presented in Rene Descartes' famous work, Meditations on First Philosophy, written in 1641. Even if you've never read anything by Descartes I'm guessing you are probably familiar with the concept. The omnipotent deceiver is a hypothetical person who is supremely powerful and intelligent. They are able to confuse a person's senses and thoughts so that that person can no longer be certain of anything. Anyone who has seen the film, “The Matrix” has a good idea of how that might work.
When Descartes tells the tale, however, the deception is perfect. There is no Morpheus to tell you you're dreaming and no blue pill to wake you up. There is no way for the subject to know that what he experiences isn't actually real. It is an intriguing idea and it forms the basis of Descartes' arguments in “Meditations.”
I want to talk about where I believe Descartes may have gotten this strange idea, assuming that he didn't have access to twentieth century science-fiction blockbusters of course. In “Meditations” he brings up this concept as a device to push skepticism as far as it will go. It might just be a contrived thought experiment used to advance the argument, but I believe that this concept is drawn from the life experience of Descartes himself.
Before “Meditations” was published Descartes had been working on a scientific text that, among other things, argued that the earth revolves around the sun. Descartes decided not to publish this text when, in 1633, Galileo was condemned by the Roman Catholic Church for publishing a work that argued that the Earth does indeed revolve around the sun.
At the time of Galileo's trial, Descartes was a Catholic living in a protestant country. He had enough faith in Catholicism not to convert despite the persecution he faced. At the same time he was intelligent enough to know that the evidence supported the idea that the earth goes around the sun. Given that the ruling caused Descartes to set aside four years worth of work I think it's fair to say that it had some affect on him.
What if Descartes had stopped to consider the possibility that the church was right, that despite all evidence to the contrary the earth holds still and the sun revolves around it? Descartes might have considered that God was actually a mighty deceiver who is able to provide false visions that lead men to false conclusions, not only about the heavens, but also about the very ground they stand upon.
In “Meditations” Descartes struggles with the idea that God Himself might be an evil deceiver. When we read the book in this light, the omnipotent deceiver is more than just an unusual thought experiment. It illustrates the core problem of believing that God conceals the truth from us instead of revealing it to us. The problem is that no knowledge is certain, so it is impossible to truly believe anything.
Descartes argues that because God is good we can trust that he will not deceive us. For Descartes belief in God forms the basis for a rational, scientific investigation of the universe instead of acting as an obstacle to such investigations. I, for one, think it's a belief that the church should embrace. You can let me know what you think in the comments below.