Sunday, December 2, 2012

Of God and other Mysteries

Ancient of Days, William Blake, 1794
It's dangerous for someone like me to work in a library.  Sometimes I feel like a compulsive gambler working in a casino.  I get sucked in, taking home way too many books, and thinking about the big questions of existence more than, you know, doing laundry and going to the grocery store.  The other day I was arranging the books in the religion section, and noticed all the books about God. There were biographies of God, histories of God, books by scientists about how the idea of God is compatible with science, and books by other scientists about how it isn't.  I think about religion quite a bit, but that's mostly because religious extremism scares the crap out of me.  I haven't thought much in recent years about religion as it relates to me, because I'm one of those people who thinks you can be a happy, decent person without it.  But--and I guess this is another reason I think about religion a lot--it bothers me when I interact with religious people, often people I like, and then think about how they have a fundamentally different view of....well...fundamental reality than I do.  Someone who literally believes in the prophecies of Revelation, and someone like me who doesn't really believe in a supernatural at all; we're really living in two different worlds. Anyway, I started looking at those books about God, and decided to read some of them, to try to figure out what people actually mean when they talk about God.

Because I really didn't know.  When many people talk about God, they seem to envision some kind of heavenly father up in the sky, looking down on them and taking an active role in their lives.  Others see God as a more distant, ineffable entity; as the "ground of being", or the "first cause", or "ultimate reality".  I know people with both these views of God, and all kinds of variations in between.  So, when I hear people talking about God, I have this big, foggy question mark in my head.  "What do you mean when you say that?" I think.

Anyway, for the last 3 weeks or so I've been pondering two questions more than usual: 1. What are the most common conceptions of God? 2. Is there any concept of God that I, with my basically scientific, naturalistic view of the universe, could actually imagine existing? At the risk of killing the heart-pounding suspense of this post, I didn't satisfactorily answer either question.  I'm still confused by what people mean when they talk about God, and thinking about what kind of God I could see as plausible has left me with a terrible existential headache.  It didn't take me long to run into puzzles that leave the world's great intellects scratching their heads, and therefore leave me entirely slackjawed.  So, I'm not going to try to do some in-depth analysis of the issues in this post.  There are things I feel like I can discuss with some degree of confidence, and this is not one of them.  So I'm going to ramble, and just mention some ideas I've come across. If this post seems a little half-baked, that's because my ideas on this stuff ARE half-baked. I doubt anyone will, but please don't change what you think based on this amateurish screed.  If you follow up on some of these ideas and read people who really know what they're talking about, and then change your mind, that's different.

First, any concept of God I could believe in, or at least entertain seriously, would NOT be much like the God you find in Bible, who prefers one ethnic group over another, changes his mind, is jealous of other Gods, and so on.  The God in most of the Old Testament, and parts of the New Testament (and I have read them, though it's been a while,) seems closer to the kind of god most people these days see as pure mythology, like Zeus, Aries, or Odin.  Of course, the Old Testament was written when people really tended to believe in those kinds of gods, so this isn't surprising.  I also can't accept the concept of God, or many of the other beliefs, common to most branches of Christianity. If you look at the early statements of belief still accepted by most of them, like the Apostle's Creed or the Nicene Creed, they are full of things that are, for me and many of my peers, hard to swallow.  They affirm that Jesus was born of a virgin, died to atone for our sins (atonement being required so that God wouldn't send us all to hell for eternity), was resurrected from the dead, descended into heaven, rules at the right hand of God, and will come back someday to judge the living and the dead.  The Apostle's Creed says Jesus descended into hell.  Both talk about the resurrection of the dead, and the Apostle's Creed actually talks about the resurrection of the body--for most Christian denominations (though their members may not realize it) the standard historical belief, as set forth in the Apostle's Creed and other places, is that the dead will literally rise from their graves when Jesus returns.  Look it up.

I'm sorry, but all these things seems like ancient, pre-scientific mythology to me.  I don't say that to insult people who believe them; it's just what I think.  What also seems completely unbelievable is the idea of a three-part God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, who are of the same being but somehow distinct. This just seems made up to me, and no more believable than any of hundreds of other ideas of God that people around the world have had. Why should I believe this particular one...because I was raised in a predominantly Christian country? I don't find that convincing. The argument that, "I grew up thinking X, therefore X is true" just doesn't seem like good reasoning to me.  For one thing, anyone could make that argument, no matter what their beliefs (and they do).  Unless you believe truth is nothing but a social construction (and I don't) then if these beliefs contradict each other, they can't all be right.

But even the more subtle ideas about God run into problems.  Many people describe God as all-powerful, all-knowing, and all good.  But those things can lead to contradictory conclusions. For example, is God so all-powerful that he can sidestep logic? School kids ask if God can make a rock so big he can't lift it.  Well, they've got a point. And then there's the problem of evil.  If God is all good, why is there so much awfulness in the world? If God is both all-powerful and all-good, why didn't he, for example, stop the Holocaust, or the tsunamis in Japan and the Indian Ocean? As for human evil, people argue that God gave us free will, and that some people took that freedom and used it for evil purposes.  Well maybe, but free will is another one of those great unsolved mysteries, so I'm not sure. Besides, if God is all-knowing, can we really be free? If he already knows what we are going to do, is that really freedom? And why did he give us so much freedom to be evil anyway? I can see a benevolent God making a cosmic rule that an individual should have the freedom to hang himself with his own rope, but what is served by allowing a Hitler or a Pol Pot? (For that matter, if God can and does intervene in human affairs, why doesn't he just unambiguously show himself, in a way that convinces all reasonable people? That would solve a lot of confusion.)

Also, if God is all-good and all-powerful, why did he create, or allow to be created, a hell where people are tortured for all eternity? (I'm speaking rhetorically; I don't believe in hell).  As Robert Wright points out in The Evolution of God, you can't even argue that hell is for correction, because there's no escape--it's for eternity.  You're never going to think, "I'll be good now, I don't want to go back there!"  The ideas of a good God and of hell are simply mutually exclusive as far as I'm concerned. I can't imagine a (good) God saying that if I ask for evidence for his existence (or his Son's) instead of taking it on faith, I will go to hell.  Surely, if there is a God worth venerating, he wants us to use our reasoning powers? And surely no good God would decide that, ever since Adam ate the fruit, humans have been so tainted by this original sin that only the death--by torture--of his son would keep us from spending all eternity being tortured by demons? I've said it before, but I think that idea--that we are all born deserving to be tortured forever--is surely the worst idea anyone ever had. And once again, why should I believe it any more than I should believe in Hinduism, or Buddhism, or Islam...or atheism, for that matter? Because I'd better if I don't want to go to hell? That's just existential blackmail, and I can't imagine a decent God blackmailing us like that.

As for other arguments for the existence of God, we all know William Paley's argument from design: that surely all the intricate complexity of life on Earth proves that it was designed by an unimaginable intelligence?  Paley had an excellent point...at the time.  There was no other reasonable explanation, until Darwin came along.  Evolution by natural selection, combined with enormous stretches of time, really can account for the complexity of life on Earth.  Even the things people have pointed to and said, "That couldn't have just evolved, it's too complex" have been shown to be easily create-able by evolution.  The eye, for example, has evolved many times, and different creatures have eyes that display the whole range of eye-complexity, from light-detecting eyespots to the amazing camera-like eyes of humans, eagles, or octopuses.  The flagellar motor, beloved of intelligent design theorists, is also quite easily explained by evolution, and does have known precursors.

Besides, if God really designed life as-is, we could reasonably ask about some of his design choices.  Why, for example, does the male urethra pass directly through the prostate gland, which is prone to swelling and blocking things up? Why are the majority of non-photosynthetic species on earth parasites? Is that really how God would have wanted it? Why don't all those animals without hands have some way to remove ticks, fleas, and mites, which can sometimes get bad enough to kill them? Life on earth is astoundingly complex, and often beautiful, but can be horrible often enough to make me question the idea that an all-good God designed it, even if I had never heard of Darwin.

There are also problems with God as the creator of the universe: the "prime mover" or "un-caused cause".  People say that if everything has a cause, then if we trace things back far enough, we must surely find a first cause.  That cause, they say, is God. Well, why does it have to be God? Why should a first cause resemble the Judeo-Christian God?  And besides, what caused God? Did he cause himself? Maybe he did, but I would really like to know how that works.  Really, as Richard Dawkins and others have pointed out, it's more parsimonious to suggest that the universe evolved from a simple state than to say it was created by God, because surely a God capable of creating a universe is more complex than the universe itself, at least initially? If we want to keep invoking Occam's Razor--preferring the simplest explanation possible--then the idea of a God creating the universe doesn't really get us there.  And it still leaves the question of where God came from, and why the ultimate cause should be something we would recognize as a God.  Still, I recently saw it pointed out that not all true explanations of the world conform to Occam's Razor.  The philosopher Adolf Gr├╝nbaum points out that Thales said that all matter is made of water. That's a nice, simple theory that conforms nicely to Occam's Razor, but reality is more complex: matter is made of over 100 different chemical elements. Of course, those are made of a smaller number of elementary particles, but the point is still a good one.

So, could it be that our universe, at least originally, was designed by some hyper-intelligent, complex being who set it all in motion at the time of the Big Bang?  Right now, we're at a point with that question somewhat similar to someone pondering life before Darwin came along.  Because there is something weird about the universe.  Respectable physicists talk about the Anthropic Principle, the idea that any explanation of how the cosmos works must be compatible with the fact that we exist.  At first, that sounds pretty trivial: if someone proposes a theory of, for example, how oxygen atoms form inside stars, that theory can't be true if it means that the universe would have turned out different than it actually is.  Another way of saying it is that we could only exist in a universe in which our existence is possible.  These statements are ways of describing what's known as the Weak Anthropic Principle (I hate the word "anthropic"--"Complex Life Principle" would be much better, and less...Ptolemaic).  The weak anthropic principle is more or less a tautology. Of course we exist in a universe in which it's possible to exist! But what keeps the idea from being trivial is that scientists actually have used it to constrain their theories: the theory has to predict results compatible with a universe in which complex life could exist, because, well...here we are.

But there's also a more arresting and controversial version of the anthropic principle, called the Strong Anthropic Principle, which states that the the universe seems to be in some sense fine-tuned for complex life to emerge in it.  And in fact, if you changed the numbers of some physical constants just a little bit, life would be impossible.  Not only that, but the universe as we know it would be impossible. If the four fundamental forces of nature--gravity, the weak nuclear force, the strong nuclear force, and the electromagnetic forces--had slightly different values, we wouldn't be here. For example, the electromagnetic force is enormously stronger than gravity--many, many zeros stronger.  If gravity were a little stronger, the universe would have all collapsed back together again after the Big Bang. And we wouldn't be here. I'm not going to go into all the ways in which the universe had to be just so in order for complex life to emerge. You can google "Anthropic Principle" and find much better explanations than mine. Suffice it to say there are many examples.

Now, this might also seem trivial if you compare this idea to another one: that Earth seems so well-designed for life.  Earth is just the right distance from the sun, and has the right amount of carbon, oxygen, etc., to support life.  Well, sure it does, because we evolved on it.  It's not so much that the earth fits life as life fits the earth.  Of course there are many imaginable worlds (and many actually-discovered planets) where life remotely resembling Earth's would be impossible.  But it's not a big coincidence that there are planets in the universe hospitable to life, since there are apparently countless planets in the universe.  Of course we live on one of the ones hospitable to life, and of course it seems perfectly suited for life, since life evolved to fit it. There's absolutely no reason to think the earth was specially created for life.  Thinking otherwise would be to think like the puddle in Douglas Adams' wonderful quote: "Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, "This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!"

Now, why isn't the apparent fine-tuning of the universe just another example of this "puddle thinking"? Maybe it is, but it's not as simple as the case of the earth. The reason is that we're talking about things that describe the entire observable universe, not just one of many planets.  Why do we find ourselves in this particular universe, which really does seem to be far more hospitable to life than it has any reason to be? There really does seem to be something that needs explained here, though some people obviously disagree.  Several answers have been proposed.  One idea is that the universe was designed this way, perhaps by some sort of inconceivably superior being, and that life was basically part of the recipe, if not the initial ingredients. If there is only one universe, then that idea seems about as plausible to me as any other. Another idea is that it's just an enormous coincidence that the universe has the characteristics it does: yes, it's incredibly unlikely, but some coincidences happen, right?  Yes, they do, but I honestly don't see how that's much more plausible than the designer scenario.  We're talking about a gigantic coincidence here.  It would be like if only one person were allowed to pick from millions of lottery tickets, and she picked the winning ticket.

Another idea is that there are actually multiple universes, all with different characteristics.  If there are countless universes, then it's not surprising that one of them will happen to be hospitable to life, and obviously, that is the one we will find ourselves in. This is the same as the logic of why the Earth is so hospitable for life, but on a much larger scale.  But here we're back to Occam's Razer: isn't positing an enormous number of universes incredibly unparsimonious? Just as much as positing a designer, even if "he" would have to be more complex than the universe he designed? I don't know, since I don't know what a designer would be like. But I do know that there are scientific grounds for speculating about multiple universes.  According to some theories, the visible universe may be a miniscule part of a larger, possibly infinite universe, which may have different characteristics in different places.  Also, since space and time seem to pinch off into unreachable regions inside black holes, it may be that each black hole creates another universe.  Some interpretations of quantum mechanics suggest that every time  a quantum particle does one thing instead of another, the universe divides. Seriously, they say that. This sounds crazy, but other interpretations of quantum mechanics are also crazy (though maybe not AS crazy).

Anyway, there are plenty of respectable, if speculative, scientific reasons that our universe could be one of many.  There are also other, even weirder proposals, about how life and consciousness might retroactively cause the universe to come into existence and evolve life (I urge you to read The Goldilocks Enigma, by Paul Davies, which brilliantly, and mind-bogglingly, explains all these ideas).  Personally, I do think the weird fine-tuning of the universe needs an explanation, but I think the multiple-universes one is more plausible than the designer one, since it does have precedent on a smaller scale.

But who knows? Maybe there is some sort of cosmic designer who created our universe.  Maybe life is somehow necessary.  Maybe consciousness is even necessary, or preordained? If the kind of God we're talking about is the God depicted in the Bible, who is often violent and petty, then yes, I'm an atheist. I don't believe in him any more than I believe in Marduk or Isis.  But if we're talking about some kind of inconceivably grand cosmic designer, then I think it would be rash to be an atheist. Who am I to say what's out there in other dimensions, or beyond the farthest galaxies? There are still plenty of profound mysteries that we are nowhere near solving: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why does mathematics work, and where does it come from? Could it be that information, or logic, is what's really fundamental? I can imagine a universe without matter, but I can't imagine a universe where 2 + 2 = 5. Could some of these unsolved mysteries contain the key to whether there's a God or not?

One of the truly great mysteries, for me, is how consciousness works.  How is it that a certain arrangement of matter--my brain, for example--can feel like something? I can understand (at least in principle) how it can process information, but I can't even begin to imagine how this processing is sometimes accompanied by awe, or pain, or the color red.  I read recently where someone said we're about 5 Einsteins away from explaining why the universe exists at all.  Maybe so, and I think that's about how far we are from explaining consciousness--not self-consciousness, or thinking, but the actual feeling of being awake and alive.  Some people say that this amazement at consciousness is just a kind of mystery-mongering, like a sort of vitalism of the mind. Maybe it is.  But vitalism--the idea that some extra "spark of life" is necessary for life, above and beyond the physical processes of life--seems silly to me.  We may not know everything about life, but it seems perfectly explainable in terms of biochemistry and evolution and other scientific ideas.  We know the basic mechanisms of life, though there are details to be worked out. Consciousness is, I would think, perfectly explainable in terms of some mechanism, too, but we don't know that mechanism yet.  At least I don't think we do.

Some people suggest that consciousness could be a fundamental property of the universe, like gravity: that any time information is processed in a certain way, consciousness arises.  I don't know.  If that's true, could there be something "divine" about consciousness? Could it be a sort of "divine spark" in every conscious thing, as Hasidic Jews and others might suggest? Maybe, maybe not.  Karen Armstrong, the historian of religion, is always saying in her books that God could never be something easily defined in language or other symbols, and that you can only begin to know God (whatever he or she is) through practicing awareness and compassion.  In fact, she says that most of the Bible, and other sacred texts, were never meant to be interpreted literally, and that such fundamentalist literalism is a product of the modern world.  I find that last part pretty hard to believe. True, there have been people interpreting scripture allegorically and mythically ever since it was written down, but many others--probably the majority--have also thought it was literally true all that time.  The Nicene Creed and the Apostle's Creed talk about what Christians believe, and I think they mean that literally, not metaphorically.  But still, maybe she has a point about the practice thing, and that you can attain something that at least feels like "the divine" by widening your awareness, especially if that includes cultivating a sense of compassion for other conscious beings.  I'm not the most compassionate person, but I've certainly experienced awe, and it truly does have a sacred feeling about it.  Maybe if an experience feels truly divine or sacred, it really is "divine" in some sense, whether there's a God in the literal sense of a cosmic supreme being or not. But...but...what if someone gets that feeling from murdering people who don't believe in his God? That's plausible, and definitely argues against the "if it feels sacred, it is" theory.

In any case, consciousness is one of the big mysteries, and those mysteries are the reason I'm an agnostic and not an atheist.  I think we always have to stay humble about what we know, but not so humble we can't rule out clearly outmoded ideas. Yes, the old, anthropomorphic God seems totally implausible to me.  But, to paraphrase Shakespeare, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in my philosophy, so maybe some far grander idea of God is plausible.  I think about it this way: In 1900, many physicists thought the basics of physics would soon be a solved problem.  At that time, for all they knew, the universe was pervaded by an invisible ether which light moved through, the Milky Way was the entire universe, and the atom was the smallest unit of matter (if it even existed, which some physicists denied).  In just a few years, they had learned that there is no ether, that space and time are malleable and matter and energy interconvertable, that the atom is made of smaller particles, and that the Milky Way is just one of countless galaxies in a gigantic, expanding universe.  The universe turned out to be far more subtle and astounding than they had ever imagined.  I suspect it will turn out to be far more subtle and astounding than we are imagining today.

There's a lot of mystery still out there.  Is some of that mystery where we might find a God? Many theologians wouldn't like that question.  They call this the "God of the gaps", and they are right to worry.  If we only see the possibility of God in the places where there are mysteries--in the parts of the map labeled "Here Be Dragons"--what happens when we solve more and more mysteries? Does God shrink? Will we find that he doesn't exist, any more than those dragons do? Maybe. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't keep solving mysteries, and see if we find out, one way or another.  As any decent philosopher will tell you, the fact that an idea has consequences you don't like does not make that idea false.  If the possibility of God shrinks with the gaps in our knowledge, that will be true whether the theologians like it or not.  And, whether they like it or not, there are still mysteries, and I'm not ready to take the leap of faith that would be required to say there isn't some sort of God out there in them. 

But I'm not ready to take the opposite leap of faith either. I figure that if I don't know, what I should believe is: I don't know.  But that doesn't necessarily mean I want to talk you out of your religion.  Some of the more aggressive atheists and humanists argue that all religions are bad, and inevitably lead to violence and debilitating superstition. While I think they commonly lead to those things, I don't think they always do, and they also lead to good things like homeless shelters and hospitals.  Also, I've had people tell me that if they lost their faith in God, they would see no reason to have any sense of morality at all (!).  If they really think that, I hope for all our sakes that they keep right on believing. If people don't have some basic sense of morality to replace religion with, then we're all better off if they stay religious.  But not fundamentalist.  If you believe that the Earth was created in six actual days a few thousand years ago, or that your non-Christian friends are going to burn in hell forever, or that non-Christian lives are less valuable than Christian ones, then yes, I would like to convince you not to believe those things, because they can be very, very harmful.  I won't try to force you not to believe those things, but I will try to convince you.

But if you're a moderate of any religion, I may not agree with you, but I see no reason to hound you about your religious beliefs, as long as you don't try to get them written into law, or make me conform to them some other way.  That doesn't mean I think nothing should be illegal, of course.  Law and morality don't require religion, and laws can and should forbid murder, theft, and so on without appealing to religion.  If you want to impose additional rules on yourself, based on your religion, that's your business.  Basically, if you're not hurting anyone, and you're tolerating me, then I'll tolerate you. We might even be friends.

Richard Dawkins has claimed that moderate religion leaves the door open for religious extremism, because if you think it's OK to belief "moderate" things based on faith instead of evidence (e.g. Jesus was divine), then you could just as well believe extreme things without evidence (e.g. it's OK to burn suspected heretics). It's an interesting point, and while I prefer not to believe things without evidence, I don't think the slope from "moderate" to "extremist" is quite that slippery.  Most decent people are far more skeptical about ideas telling them to hurt people than ideas that don't.  But even if Dawkins is right, moderate religion isn't going away any time soon, and certainly not because some outspoken atheist denounces it. As for me, I'm not going to convert most religious moderates to my way of thinking, and I'm not sure it's a good idea anyway.  If I antagonize them, then they are more likely to see me as the enemy.  I would rather have them as allies, pushing with me against fundamentalism and extremism. Besides, many of them are truly great people, whose selflessness I would do well to emulate.  Some of them may even read this blog, and if you're one of them, and you've made it this far, then hats off to you. I hope I didn't offend.

And I'm still curious about what people mean when they talk about God.  What's your idea of God, if you have one? Tell me in the comments. I'd really like to know.