Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Inventions or Discoveries?

(Cross-posted from my new blog: "More Than Words").

There are plenty of things in everyday life we don't think much about - but we ought to!

One thing I am profoundly grateful for, and amazed by, is modern technology. There is such a vast amount of technology involved just in the act of blogging that it is breath-taking

Just to mention a few...

  • The laptop it's typed out on. The processor, the display, the battery (power cuts happen here!), etcetera...

  • Then it gets beamed a short distance through the air to my mobile phone,

  • from where it gets beamed to the nearest mobile tower.

  • Then a combination of fibre-optics and/or satellites get it to blogger, somewhere in the USA, where it is stored on magnetic disks.

  • And then over to you!

I live in Africa, but because of the Internet in many ways the distance feels quite short. I can e-mail video clips and photos, receive e-mails, read the BBC news, send SMS messages, just as when I lived in the UK. If I really wanted to, I could do all of those things on a mobile phone handset costing about £80 (it's probably cheaper where you live!). A tiny thing that fits in my pocket and is so light I don't notice it's there can do all of that. Amazing!

The reason I find it amazing isn't because I think it's magic. I studied scientific subjects at school and university, and as a boy technology was always one of my interests. My understanding of how many of these things work doesn't make them seem less wonderful - it makes them seem far more wonderful. The above list includes the technology involved in electricity, electro-magnetic radiation, satelite technology, magnetism, fibre-optics. When we understand more, we don't marvel less: quite the opposite.

Coming To The Point...

So, what am I saying? Did you notice that I said I was profoundly grateful for these things? Where should that gratitude be directed, exactly?

Often we describe these things as being "inventions". And indeed, in an important sense, they are. There's a big step in between understanding the principles of fibre-optics, electricity, and so on, and then actually putting together all the equipment that uses those principles to make it possible for my thoughts to get out of my head, though the air, and onto your screen. It needed someone to make the long route from A to B.

Fundamentally, though, these things are not inventions, but are discoveries. For the human "inventor", they did not come out of nothing at all, but were a harnessing of things that already existed. In the days when our ancestors did not have electricity, mobile phones or e-mail, the potential for such things were all still latent in the world around them - they just had not been harnessed.

The Big Question

So, is that all just luck? Our "gratitude" is misplaced - a false emotion? We should just be saying, "that's a stroke of fortune"? It is just a wonderful coincidence that such "blessings" (wrong word again!) just "happen" to exist?

Such things are reasons why it's impossible to be a consistent atheist. To have to attribute these things, and many more besides, just to happy coincidence. Let's call it the "good-luck-of-the-gaps" explanation - denying the reality of God, who made all these things for our pleasure and his glory, we have to write off huge areas of human life as being mere fortune. An appeal to "luck", though, is not an actual explanation - it is a confession of ignorance. "Luck" is not a cause or a mechanism - it is a philosophical abstraction. Luck is not a person or mind, and cannot actually do anything.

Such things as the above also make it hard to be an inconsistent theist. By that I mean, acknowledging in our minds the reality of God, but failing to give him thanks or worship with our lives. Technology depends upon minds - human minds which piece it all together, understand it, and manufacture the wonderful little gadgets that result. Much more fundamentally, though, technology depends upon a divine mind. A divine mind, that constructed the creation where all those possibilities have lain latent until a spark of inspiration moved the human inventor to harness them. The enormous potential in the material world for technology speaks clearly of a divine mind behind it. A mind that made it all, and made us so that we might discover and harness it - and give him the praise. We, unless we totally refuse to think about these things, have a corresponding and correct sense that we ought to direct our gratitude and praise somewhere. That's a sense which shouldn't be suppressed, but yielded to.

Much better to live as a convinced worshipper. Or as the Psalmist wrote, 3000 years ago:

O LORD our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! who hast set thy glory above the heavens.

Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger.

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;

What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?

For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.

Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet:

All sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field;

The fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas.

O LORD our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!

(Psalm 8)

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