Is There A God?

(This reflects my own internal musings over the past few weeks, already discussed in a blog entry ‘The Nature of God?‘ last month.)

We’ve reached a time in history where most well educated people have developed a deep skepticism of religion.   Even those who still profess a faith often treat it as a minor aspect of life, something held on to out of habit more than conviction.   In Europe only 20% of the population still believes there is a God.   Even here in the US core biblical knowledge that all used to share is becoming rarer.   When I was a child everyone learned about, say Jonah and the Whale, and knew who Abraham and Isaac were.   If I ask a class that now a days only one or two out of thirty students will know.

The skepticism of religion seems to answer the question “is there a God” with “no.”  But really, the question goes unasked.  Instead a particular belief system is being replaced by another one.   Atheism generally is an embrace of materialism (belief in the dominance of matter, or things which can be seen and measured in the world) and rational logical thought.    This was the enlightenment alternative to religious faith and tradition, after all, and the enlightenment is winning.

A belief that matter is all that matters (pun intended) has to be called into question, especially as scientists learn more about the nature of matter, time-space and the universe/multiverse.   A focus on reason or rational thought discounts the entire emotional side of human existence, relegating the part of our experience that gives us a true sense of meaning — joy, anger, happiness, sorrow, etc. — to second class status.   In short, even if one thinks that particular theological perspectives or religious dogmas cannot be believed, that shouldn’t automatically lead to an embrace of materialism and rationalism as the proper way to understand life.    Reason, after all, cannot provide ethics or morality, it is only a tool that can lead to conclusions based on evidence and assumptions.   Reason does not tell us what our values should be.

So I would start by going back to the question: is there a God?

The first aspect of answering any question is to define the term.    What does God mean, especially if we’re asking in the abstract, rather than asking about a particular God-story.   The Christian, Muslim, or Hindu Gods may all be fiction, but that doesn’t mean there is no God.    For any of their beliefs to be right, there first has to be a positive answer to the central question on God’s existence.

There are various ways God can be described.   God is the prime mover, the one who set the world in motion.   Before Newtonian physics was modified by Einstein the need of a prime mover caused most people to accept the need for a God.   And it does seem like science requires if not a prime mover, at least something to cause the “big bang” or to generate space-time.   So part one of a viable God concept is that God is something that is outside space time that in some way caused this universe or world we experience to come into being.   At this point there is no requirement God be a conscious entity, just a causal mechanism.   And, being outside space-time, there is no need to ask “what created God” – creation and a “beginning” are attributes of being in space-time.

God could also be seen as  a spiritual presence.  Here the going gets trickier.  Religious experience is real, documented over time (famously by William James), and has the capacity to create happiness, improve recovery from disease and yield a more satisfying life.   But how do we understand that experience?  It doesn’t seem to matter what religion one believes either — all Gods seem capable of miracles.   The usual way to approach this in a materialist sense is to see it as a psychological aspect of humanity; religious experience is a chemical reaction of the brain.

But that’s unsatisfying.  Depression, for instance, is linked to chemical imbalances in the brain, but do we really want to say that all ‘negative’ emotions and experiences can be “fixed” chemically?   Can we find a “religious” chemical treatment that gains the benefits of religious experience without actually having the faith?   Such a “brave new world” approach to psychology is scary.   Perhaps chemical imbalances are caused by a mix of stress, negative thoughts, and cultural pressures.   To focus just on treating the symptoms would be to ignore the causes and the possibility that human mental health is more than just chemical reactions.

The spiritual/emotional/inspirational side of life can’t be found in purely material terms, it’s the stuff of dreams, internal meditation, reflection, imagination and art.    We have to have a different standard of observation, more subjective and comparative than use of the scientific method.   If we do that, then a wide realm of possibilities open up.

So I would posit the following God concept:  God refers to an essence outside space and time.   As such it is likely immaterial, in that it would not be subject to the laws of nature as we experience them in our space-time universe.  As I noted last month, if we see reality as primarily spirit (or consciousness) rather than stuff (or matter), then there is a good chance that a God would have consciousness.

Looked at in this way the question of “Is there a God?” has three possible answers:  a) Since we cannot not determine for certain yes or no, it’s a pointless question; b) the probability is that there is no conscious God and any causal mechanism for the world’s existence has a natural/material basis; or c) the probability that there is a God is great, with God defined as a force/source outside of space time (at least in part) with some form of consciousness.

“C” is a superior answer since “a” requires us to dismiss thoughts about the nature of life and our purpose as irrelevant since we can’t have certainty.   I’m fine with uncertainty.  “B” requires dismissing as unlikely the possibility of anything outside of matter and relegates consciousness to mere chemical/material reactions.   That may be the case, but it seems a leap of faith to assume that’s the case.   “C” leaves open a vast range of possibilities from pantheism to a kind of deism, virtually all existing religious beliefs, and a variety of spiritual and philosophical perspectives (including Plato’s notion of the ideal).

So yes, there is very likely a God with some kind of consciousness existing at least in part outside space/time.   But what God is remains ill defined.   Is it a part of all of us (are we all aspects of God?), is it a spiritual force, is it an entity with individual identity?    Those are harder questions.    So I guess for now I’m a Deist.

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  1. #1 by Black Flag on May 12, 2011 - 16:21

    All questions of “is there a God?” really must start with:

    “What do you define as God?”

    If one takes Aquinas’ “First Cause” argument, then we can theorize that God must – indeed, is required – to exist if we live in a consistent Universe.

    Godel postulated in his theories of Completeness, that any set which contained itself would be inconsistent and irrational. He said that any set or system that is rational and consistent must start with an axiom or an unprovable premise.

    Applying this to the Universe, one asks “Do I see the Universe as a rational, consistent set of “natural” laws, or is it irrational?”

    Consistency is the #1 feature of the Universe. Contradictions simply do not exist in reality.

    The set we call “the Universe” cannot contain itself. It must have a “premise” or an axiom, unprovable.

    If you agree with Aquinas… we can call this “God”.

    • #2 by Scott Erb on May 12, 2011 - 16:30

      But modern physics is moving towards accepting the necessity of this being not a universe, but a multi-verse, with the possibility that “universal laws” in this universe are contingent to this particular universe and not other parallel universes. Moreover, the multiverse may or may not have a consistent set of universal laws. That doesn’t make it irrational (beware of linguistic dichotomies — rational vs. irrational is a linguistic dichotomy that can be used to make a difficult and complex issue seem clear cut). A claim that “contradictions do not exist in reality” is also a linguistic construction that can be deceiving.

      Not only could universal laws in different parallel universes contradict each other (even while being internally consistent) but conditions and context may create the appearance of a contradiction (I would call them paradoxes). One would be tempted to find a quick and easy way to define paradoxes away because they seem impossible — they appear to be contradictions (this happens a lot in quantum physics). However, the reality is probably simply that we don’t know enough about reality to truly understand why paradoxes appear.

      • #3 by Black Flag on May 12, 2011 - 16:38

        Scott,

        Modern physics does not -at all- depend on any “multi-universe” hypothesis.

        When you come up with an experiment for such a theory, let me know.

        Until then, our Universe works as I describe.

        You can certainly entertain whatever fantasy you have about it, however.

        “Contradictions do not exist in reality” is a Truth, not some linguistic construct.

      • #4 by Black Flag on May 12, 2011 - 16:43

        Scott

        One would be tempted to find a quick and easy way to define paradoxes away because they seem impossible — they appear to be contradictions (this happens a lot in quantum physics). However, the reality is probably simply that we don’t know enough about reality to truly understand why paradoxes appear.

        Science does not deal with paradox. Paradox is an illusion of perception and understanding.

        If Science sees what you think is a “paradox”, Science says Obviously we are ignorant of some of the natural laws working here, and efforts to understand.

        It says that because there exists no contradictions in the universe – therefore, this event and our lack of understanding can only be an ignorance of the natural law at work that we suffer.

        The Universe suffers nothing and it is never confused.

  2. #5 by Black Flag on May 12, 2011 - 16:21

    This is the (Notify me of follow-up comments via email.) post.

  3. #6 by Scott Erb on May 12, 2011 - 16:50

    It doesn’t depend upon a multiverse, but those theories are becoming more popular and accepted. I’d recommend Brian Greene’s book “The Hidden Reality” for a good, critical review of the various theories.

    Any sentence you can put together is a linguistic construct, subject to various interpretations. That’s why philosophies that rely on dichotomies and apparently simple statements can usually be seen to be importing a lot of hidden assumptions and simplifications. The claim “contradictions do not exist in reality” is meaningless without context. We may see numerous apparent contradictions but not understand why they exist.

    To limit speculation by calling anything you can’t directly measure or experience in material terms “fantasy” is a choice you can make. It does not appear to me to be a rational choice, and it probably limits rather than provides a better understanding of a reality which could include much more than those material phenomena our senses can perceive. As I said, I am fine with uncertainty and consideration of possibilities that at this point cannot be proven. Doctrinaire materialism is as much a faith as any religion.

    • #7 by Black Flag on May 12, 2011 - 18:19

      Scott,

      Yep, I knew your nihilist tendencies would not remain muted.

      Anyway, in general, it was a good post.

      Cheers!

      • #8 by Scott Erb on May 12, 2011 - 22:16

        You seem to always just yell out “nihilist” when you can’t deal with an argument. If you think I’m a nihilist, then clearly you have no conception of what nihilism means!

  4. #9 by modestypress on May 12, 2011 - 16:53

    I am a doctrinaire skeptic.

    • #10 by Black Flag on May 12, 2011 - 22:18

      Scott,
      I know what nihilism is, and you use it often.

      “I am fine with uncertainty and consideration of possibilities that at this point cannot be proven”

      • #11 by Scott Erb on May 12, 2011 - 22:23

        No, you do not know what nihilism is. If you think accepting the reality of uncertainty and the possibility that there are unprovable truths as nihilism, then every rational person must be a nihilist because to do otherwise would be to live in denial of reality. But that’s not what nihilism is!

      • #12 by Black Flag on May 12, 2011 - 22:25

        No, Scott.

        It is that you use this argument for everything, even the things that are real, provable, and in existence – but those things that you don’t like.

  5. #13 by Scott Erb on May 12, 2011 - 17:04

    I assume you don’t mean exactly skepticism as a philosophy, Philosophical skepticism ultimately leads to absolute uncertainty of everything, even the existence of a knowable universe.

    I would label myself a philosophical pragmatist. What matters is what works in the world. In everyday life, what works very much corresponds to Newtonian physics, and thus I live operating with the expectations of Newton’s laws functioning just fine. Quantum paradoxes don’t often impact macro phenomena, so they are not relevant for my daily choices.

    However, there is no harm in speculation about those things outside of knowledge, especially since science and reason cannot themselves give us ethics, values or a sense of meaning in life. Those things connect to emotion, art, and a part of human experience that goes beyond rational thought (which is a tool). One could argue that “what works in the world” is a pragmatist form of ethics. Machiavelli’s “The Prince” was a fine example of that (and he decried Plato’s ideal Republic). So in that realm — in blog posts, reflecting on life, thinking about its purpose, etc. — I learn about modern physics, paradoxes, religions, etc. I have kept a journal of dreams where I knew I was dreaming, trying to explore whether or not my mind seems to have access to parts of reality outside of material existence. I also entertain subjective evidence — my own experience and intuitions.

    Pragmatically, that stuff does not alter my daily interaction with the world and reliance on Newtonian physics. It does, I think, give me pleasure, helps me see the richness of what this life may be all about, and helps me determine my values. As a pragmatist, I’ve embraced uncertainty as a simple fact of life, and in that sense see life in a more playful way (I don’t take things as seriously as I might otherwise). So it works for me, given my particular personality. But that’s just me.

  6. #14 by Jeff Lees on May 12, 2011 - 20:42

    I like the Kantian nature of your Deist belief in a God. I agree that if there was a God, God must exist outside of our faculties of understanding, and outside of the manifold of space and time (as Kant would put it). God would have to be, in Kantian terms, “unconditioned.” However this means that even if there is a God, we could never wish to know God in any way. To attempt to qualify God in anyway would be mistaken, including saying that this God has, in part, a consciousness.

    In my mind, because this unconditioned reality, because it is unqualifiable, cannot even be ascribed the title of God. And even if you decide to call it “God,” it existence in no rational way should affect our behavior. It need not be worshiped.

    So I do not believe in “God.” I’m happy to acknowledge that there could be a God, but because we can never know his traits, or experience him empirically, I’m no more incline to accept God’s existence than I am to accept the existence of the Flying Spagetti Monster.

    • #15 by Scott Erb on May 12, 2011 - 22:21

      I think you’re reading more into what I have as a God concept. Since a flying spaghetti monster would be a material entity that conforms to space-time forms, its not analogous to the God concept I’ve provided. As I’ve described it, it’s not an entity to be worshiped or given space-time/human attributes. But since consciousness can potentially exist outside space-time, consciousness could be part of a God concept. Consciousness or spirit is a concept that defies materialist certitude and thus could be a link between the world in which we find ourselves and a part of our existence that transcends this world. We can explore that, but not scientifically or with certitude.

      • #16 by Jeff Lees on May 13, 2011 - 00:40

        I have to disagree with you about consciousness. If God is the unconditioned, then our consciousness is the fully conditioned. Trust me I’m no fan of Newtonian materialism, but I reject this idea that our consciousness can “transcend” this world. The only reason we have consciousness is because it is conditioned as it is. To suggest that consciousness and our apperception is anything different from our ability to observe objects, or “matter” I think is a false separation. A transcendent “spirit,” separate from the body, is as false dualism, as it was when Descartes suggested it.

  7. #17 by Scott Erb on May 12, 2011 - 23:39

    Black flag, when you accuse someone of something, you need to show an example. You say I “use this argument for everything,” but clearly I don’t. You say “even when something is provable.” When? Show, don’t tell. When you make a blanket accusation like that with no evidence it’s just argumentum ad hominem.

    Finally, you seem to equate acceptance of uncertainty as nihilism. That is absurd — science is based on uncertainty that’s why all scientific knowledge is contingent on the potential development of superior theories or the discovery of new evidence. Uncertainty is at the core of scientific inquiry. So again, it appears as though you’re just making baseless accusations without explaining yourself. In a debate that’s a losing strategy.

    • #18 by Black Flag on May 12, 2011 - 23:53

      Scott,

      I have -already- posted my complaints in the past and it serves no purpose to repeat it

      • #19 by Scott Erb on May 13, 2011 - 01:20

        But I do believe there is an inherent value to life, I do believe there are moral truths, and I do believe in scientific inquiry. My view of uncertainty is common and scientific, and it’s clear if you look at the history of philosophy that certain questions of values, ethics, and meaning have eluded any kind of philosophical conclusion. Being able to accept uncertainty does not equate to nihilism.

        I do recommend you read Brian Greene’s “The Hidden Reality.” He has a great section on the nature of science and how to deal with things that can’t yet tested and goes through some of the debates. There are clearly contestable ideas here, but don’t confuse acceptance of uncertainty for a belief that there is no meaning.

      • #20 by Black Flag on May 13, 2011 - 01:27

        Scott,

        I will look for the book.

        Cheers!

    • #21 by Black Flag on May 13, 2011 - 00:13

      PS:

      And oh, my complaints however do not impact your post here.

      I do enjoy most of your posts.

  8. #22 by Eric Weir on November 2, 2012 - 11:05

    A multiverse does not seem less fantastic to me than God. That said, I think it is a mistake to say physics is moving toward acceptance of the multiverse hypotheses. At the very least, there is yet no consensus. There are physicists—by which I mean highly regarded physicists—who consider it pure, untestable metaphysical speculation. A major motivation of the multiverse hypothesis is to avoid the God hypothesis. The cosmological constants drive its proponents nuts.

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