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God and Reason

On November 1, 1755, Lisbon suffered a massive earthquake

On November 1, 1755, Lisbon suffered a massive earthquake

In a famous feud, Voltaire and Rousseau argued about the nature of God.    Both were Deists.   Deists didn’t doubt that there was a God.     Following Newton, a “world in motion” had to have a first mover.   Moreover, how could such an intricate and elaborate universe have come into being without a creator?   Beyond that, though Deists had different views.

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) believed that God was a loving God, with nature being God’s true Bible, his message to humans.   Rousseau was convinced that the worst mistake humanity ever made was to leave the state of nature and form communities, generating artificial “needs” and desires.   He would no doubt be sickened by how humanity is now literally poisoning the planet and producing genetically altered plants and animals.

Voltaire (1694-1778), the pen name of François-Marie Arouet, did not share Rousseau’s optimistic view of God.   On November 1, 1755 Lisbon Portugal had a massive earthquake.   It was as strong as 9.0 on the Richter scale, destroyed 85% of Lisbon’s buildings and killed perhaps 50,000 of Lisbon’s 200,000 inhabitants.  It inspired the philosopher Immanuel Kant to develop the concept of “the sublime.”

(At the same time the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria was in labor – on November 2, 1755 she would give birth to her daughter Marie Antoinette, who would later be married off to the future king of France).

French philosopher Voltaire helped define enlightenment values

French philosopher Voltaire helped define enlightenment values

Voltaire, who already was suffering from personal tragedies, visited Lisbon and was sickened by what he saw.  Utter destruction, massive death, and survivors in misery.  Horrific suffering thanks to nature.   How could this be the handiwork of a loving God?  Why would God allow such misery to occur?

Rousseau offered an answer.    Nature is God’s message, and God is love.   So the problem must be humans.    God clearly doesn’t want us congregated into huge crowded cities.    People living on the country side could avoid the massive suffering caused by the earth quake.  It was a message: cities are unnatural, if humans create them and natural disaster hits, blame people, not God.

Swiss philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau inspires naturalists to this day

Swiss philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau inspires naturalists to this day

This infuriated Voltaire.   He had seen the suffering with his eyes and could not believe that Rousseau was blaming innocent victims for their peril.   But Voltaire was not sure how to respond.   Could God really be a horrific brute that reigned terror on humanity?   But if God was loving, how could he allow such suffering?

He pondered Gottfried Leibniz’s (1646-1716) explanation for the existence of evil, that of all the possible worlds that could exist, this one was the “best possible.”   Yes, bad stuff happens, but you could not have humans with free will without the potential of negative consequences.   Thinking of the scenes from Lisbon, Voltaire wondered, “is this is the best of all possible worlds?”

So Voltaire did what most writers do when stymied, he wrote.   And wrote.   The product of his work was a book called Candide, or Candide or the Optimist.   It is long, humorous, fast paced and satirical.   Candide is studying with Pangloss, a teacher who follows  Leibniz and Rousseau in saying that all works out for the best.    Within the book they even visit the scene of the Lisbon earthquake.   Candide asks if he should save a man who is drowning and Pangloss replies that he need not bother – if God wants him saved, he’ll be saved.  (Pangloss in Latin means literally “all word”).

By the end of the book Candide rejects Pangloss’s argument that all turns out as it necessarily must, for the best.   Instead, Candide says, “we must cultivate our own garden.”

That still inspires artists and thinkers to this day – click below to watch a video of Rush’s song “The Garden,” which lyricist Neil Peart said was inspired by Candide:

To be sure, there’s considerable debate over what exactly Voltaire meant.   I read it to suggest that while there may have been a creator, it’s not at all clear that the creator cares about or even pays attention to his work.   Perhaps God is out creating other worlds.  In any event, God doesn’t need our love, other humans need our love.   Rather than worshiping God or looking to him for salvation or support, we should be help each other.

Voltaire’s pragmatic argument was the beginning of what is now called “secular humanism.”   It is humanist because humans are the center – we are to help others, improve the world and use reason to take responsibility for the world we construct.  It is not the best of all possible worlds, but a world in need of improvement.    It is secular because God is irrelevant.  Praising God does nothing to help feed the poor or take care of those in need.   Better to put our energy towards making the world we find ourselves in a better place.

Voltaire marked a move towards truly putting reason first for creating ethics.    We are to use reason to figure out how to make the world better, improving conditions for humans.    Given conditions in France at the time, Voltaire could correctly blame the Church and its traditions for a good portion of human suffering going on in cities like Paris – suffering that would ultimately lead the people to revolt.

Yet perhaps there is a middle ground.   This may not be the “best of all possible worlds,” but that doesn’t mean that reason alone provides meaning.   Reason only leads one to work to better humanity when you take as a goal a humanist belief that the well being of humans is the ultimate value.    Yet reason does not give us proof for that value; reason can be used by fascists, Nazis, racists, nationalists and communists to justify their ideology.   Reason is a tool, not a means to discover principles and value.  Indeed after the French revolution people who thought they shared common principles turned into bitter enemies and society broke down.

By 1793 the French revolutionaries ironically created a "Goddess of Reason" to sit in the Notre Dame cathedral

By 1793 the French revolutionaries ironically created a “Goddess of Reason” to sit in the Notre Dame cathedral

It does not have to be religious belief nor a traditional concept of God (though it can be).   But the fact we are alive in a world with no clear purpose or reason — the fact there is something rather than nothing — strongly indicates that we are only glimpsing part of reality, and not the part that tells us the “answers.”   Modern physics in fact says light is both a particle and a wave, and particles are actually just ripples in fields and not actually “stuff.”

Atheists often say that only things with measurable material consequences are relevant for understanding our world.   Yet that materialist view ignores the fact that perhaps the parts of reality we don’t experience in material terms do come through in our emotions, intuition, and inner sense.  For lack of a better word we call that “spiritual,” and it runs the gamut from magic new age crystals to Buddhist meditation and both traditional religious and non-traditional beliefs.  Perhaps we can use a “God concept” to explain whatever power gives substance to the universe.

That still doesn’t settle Rousseau and Voltaire’s dispute.     Rousseau believed that civilization muted our natural compassion.    Voltaire believed that civilization could be guided to better the human experience.  Perhaps both were right in their own way.   We must cultivate our own garden, but to do so we need to look both to nature and that voice inside, a voice that may have its origin outside the material reality we can perceive.  God?   Spirit?   Does it really matter?

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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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