Sunday, March 06, 2011

What is God?

What are people talking about when they talk about God?

Let’s start from some assumptions. Let’s assume that human belief in an almighty God is more than just foolishness and ignorance. Let’s give the billions of believers through the millennia some credit and grant that they see something at work in the universe that they cannot deny. Religious people are often heard to say, “Look around you! The evidence for God is everywhere!”

Let’s also assume a scientific approach to the question. This is no small step, for the great majority of believers don’t believe science has much to say about this question (and some say about any question!). But the scientific method has proven again and again it can come up with useful answers to difficult questions, and actually each and every one of us relies on the scientific method to some degree in practically everything we do. All the method needs to go to work for us is solid evidence.

So two assumptions: the religious believers are seeing evidence everywhere for something they call God; and the scientific method might be able to look at the evidence and tell us what God is.

Can we know what God is?

All knowledge derives from experience. That is to say, whatever we know comes in some direct or indirect way from something that has really happened. Either we can see it for ourselves, or we learn of it from someone who has seen it. Or, importantly, we know it by induction, which is to say, we infer it because all evidence seems to point to it and it looks like there is a high probability that it is so.

As I have argued in an earlier blog post, we can never be 100% certain of anything – we can only say there is a very high (or very low) probability of something being true. We know the sun will rise in the morning, because given our past experience it’s a pretty good bet. But we also know that an asteroid could strike the Earth overnight and ruin the morning for us.

How can we “know” that the sun will rise in the morning, and at the same time “know” that it might not? Because neither is certain. They are only probabilities based on real-life observation of the movements of heavenly bodies. No knowledge is certain. Knowledge is nothing more than a reliable guide to action. Science, and all knowledge, are all about probability, about reasonable certainty rather than absolute certainty.

Every day in life we assess the probabilities of this or that happening and plan and act accordingly. Common sense – and the best science – tell us that the physical world usually behaves in predictable ways. Our brains are therefore wired to look for patterns, and out of patterns to infer cause and effect, history and trajectory, the better to make intelligent decisions.

Our ability to identify patterns is critical to our survival as a species, which is why it has been hard-wired into our brains. For example, take a look at the photo above. It’s just a rusty piece of antique machinery, but we instantly see a face. This effect is called Pareidolia. (For some fun examples of this effect, see the Pareidolia group on Flickr.)

When we look at the universe, we immediately see patterns emerge. Some take this as evidence of the craftsmanship of a human-like intelligence. And it is. It is because the intelligence of the universe resides within us. Our intelligence is an expression of the intelligence inhering in the universe itself.

It’s important to understand that we see humanity in the universe because we are of the universe. The logic of the universe is our own logic, the “logos” (or “point”) of the universe is our logos. We are so inextricably bound to the cosmos as to be an expression of or a microcosm of the universe itself. We carry the logic of the universe into our daily lives. Unsurprisingly, therefore, we see ourselves reflected in it.

While the bible says that God created man in his own image, atheists tend to believe that God was created in the image of man… In fact when we look at the universe, we stand before a sort of mirror that reflects our own characteristics – and it does so because our own characteristics are inherited from this universe and are not separate from it but indelibly a part of it. To use the words of the religious, we are one in God.

This, I think, is what religious people are getting at when they say God is everywhere, God is omnipotent and omniscient, etc. They are saying God is actually the universe. Scientists would say the universe is actually the universe. If we assume that what the religious people are referring to is not an old-fashioned, anthropomorphic, and fundamentally pagan view of God as an old man with a white beard and robe living on a mountaintop or cloud, but is actually the universe itself, then we have some evidence we can work with.

Many religious people would agree that God is the universe and all that is in it. Others, led by more sophisticated theologians, would argue that God is supernatural, outside of the natural universe. God can only be known by his works. This is of course the showstopper for intelligent discussion and the ultimate hidey-hole for the religious. If the existence of God lies outside the world of evidence, it lies outside the world of knowledge, and we must throw up our hands and say, “We don’t know.” It’s just a way to say, “We don’t have any arguments left, but our blind faith will see us through.”

But we are here to take religion seriously, and if God can only be known by his works, does that in the end make any difference to a scientific analysis? After all, His works are the universe, and the scientific method has proven itself the most robust approach to understanding the universe. There are scientists who carry on the business of science in a perfectly rigorous way, and yet believe that there is something outside the natural world. Very well, it makes no difference, science carries on.

Could it be that God is really the universe and all that’s in it and therefore that science is the best and most reliable method to understanding God?

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