The God Concept: One Form False, the Other Irrelevant
The concept of an almighty god brings to mind the vehicle Fred Flintstone drove along the cartoon roads of Bedrock. The vehicle didn’t do any actual work — that was up to Fred. But who wasn’t entertained by the idea of a car on stone rollers pushed along by bare feet sticking out the bottom? In the real world, of course, Fred’s vehicle would be more of an impediment than an aid to getting somewhere.
As it is with the god concept. When used, this archaic term is unlikely to help us get somewhere. And by that I mean gain an increased understanding of the universe.
Most definitions of the purportedly singular “God” can be placed into two categories: theistic and deistic. While a theistic god actively intervenes in the universe, the deistic god has simply set things in motion. I will refer to them as the T-god and the D-god, respectively. What is the epistemological value of these two forms of a god? Do they reflect a knowledge of the universe and/or can they help us better understand it?
The False God
A sizable percentage of the world’s population worships the theistic god of the Old and New Testaments. Overlooking the elements that give this “singular” god a seriously split personality, three characteristics are commonly ascribed by its worshipers to this god. The theistic god is said to be omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-benevolent: all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good.
Suddenly, by defining a god, by giving it qualities, we become able to test for the qualities. No doubt, this is one of the reasons why many of the more educated believers steer clear of clearly defining their god.
The T-god is said to be good because it answers prayers and provides blessings. If this god didn’t know what people wanted or needed, and if it didn’t have the necessary power, it would be unable to answer prayers and provide blessings; it would be unable to do good. The T-god’s omni-benevolence depends upon its omniscience and omnipotence.
Has the T-god answered prayers and blessed its followers? This question is answerable, and the answer is, No.1 There is no clear evidence of what could only be the act of a benevolent god; there is no data supporting the concept of a god who has and does intervene in natural events. Any prayers claimed to have been answered or blessings bestowed can be accounted for by naturalistic means and an understanding of probability.
Many Christians, including our past president George Walker Bush (if you take his words at face value), believe a T-god has abundantly blessed America. The tremendous wealth of this country, however, can be readily accounted for by the presence of natural resources, great waves of human immigration, and the contingencies of history (see Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies2). “Ah,” the believer may counter, “but who is responsible for those?” The ensuing downward spiral of point-counterpoint inevitably corners the believer into calling upon ever more remote gaps in our ability to explain the workings of the world.
The final frontier many an educated T-god believer arrives at, and plants his or her flag in, is quantum indeterminacy. So this is what it has come down to: Their god does not move mountains, it nudges sub-atomic particles into one state or another. In this way it causes a neuron to fire, a butterfly to flap its wings, a hurricane to form off the coast of Africa. So it only seems the T-god “plays dice with the universe.” It has its reasons.
In the case of the T-god who pulls levers on the quantum level, we have an anthropocentric agent acting as a single hidden variable that can be used to explain anything and everything. But in the words of physicist Victor Stegner, “Hidden variables that remain forever hidden are indistinguishable from hidden variables that are nonexistent.”3 I would add that one completely hidden variable is no better than any other in the expandable grab-bag of completely hidden variables. Some may be worse if their existence is not hinted at by some other class of well-understand phenomena.
In terms of what we presently understand about the universe, there are no grounds for concluding a T-god exists. There have been no clear blessings, no statistically significant response to prayers4, no violations of the conservation of matter and energy, no blatant breaks in the causal chains of events. Believers in the T-god have no greater luck in Las Vegas, they need car insurance, and they turn to medication to battle disease, just like non-believers.
The Irrelevant God
The second type of god, the deistic god, has been called “the creator”and “the prime mover.” The D-god designed and/or created the universe, then brushed off his hands (so to speak). We can know this god only by marveling at the world around us. By its work. This is a fully metaphysical god, because it exists completely beyond the physical universe.
There are two reasons why the concept of the D-god can be rejected.
First, its “necessary” existence is based upon faulty analogies. The most popular of these is contained in the initial part of the argument, “Because all creatures in the world were created (i.e., by their parents), we human beings and the universe itself must have an ultimate creator.”
Do parents “create” a child? The father contributes millions of sperm, produced by his testes from digested food hours or days before. One of those millions of sperm will join with the mother’s egg, which formed in her body when she herself was a fetus in her own mother’s womb. Both the father and the mother acquired their DNA from their parents, and their parents from their parents, etc. During the nine months of pregnancy, the mother’s body converts vegetables, grains, and the parts and products of other animals, into the child she births. If parents do create a child, this creation is not ex nihilo, “out of nothing.”
Likewise, when a potter makes a pot, or an engineer engineers some new gadget, they do not begin with nothing. They use materials in their environment and they employ the knowledge and tools of their culture.
No act of creation is a simple x spontaneously and individually giving rise to z. It is more complicated than that. No object or creature in our world is the product of a single, isolated agent.
Which brings us to a similar, faulty analogy. It goes, “Everything that moves was set in motion by something else, therefore there must be an original mover, which is the D-god.” Before examining how this reasoning fails, a few words about why it is commonly made—
In Religion Explained5 Pascal Boyer argues that the human brain cannot be considered a general information-processor. Instead, we come into the world equipped with distinct brain processes or “modules.” Just as kittens are born with the knowledge that something resembling a tail drawn before them is potential dinner material — even before having been exposed to a mouse — human beings come into the world with the propensity to “know” things without previous exposure.
Humans are exceptionally social creatures. We spend large blocks of our days interacting with our kind. We also, in particular places and times, have been predators of other animals. Additionally, our evolutionary history no doubt includes the experience of being prey ourselves — of needing to keep an eye out for dangerous predators. This is why, Boyer argues, we come into the world primed to find the work of agents in the events around us. When walking through a forest and hearing a branch break, rather than thinking “I wonder how that happened,” our first thought is “What was that!?” And by what we mean, What person or kind of animal?
Human beings, it seems, have an innate tendency to infer agency. And, generally, it’s a safe bet. But we can overdo it; we can be mistaken. The tendency wrongly applied is conspicuous in the person who gets angry at his car, exclaiming, “It doesn’t want to start!” Likewise, meteorologist often inform us that “mother nature” is sending a storm our way. It feels natural, it feels right, to speak about the work of distinct agents, even where there are none.
Knowing what we do about the universe, it is foolish to persist in thinking single agents — or even perfectly circumscribed, singular forces — are responsible for the flowing of rivers, the growing of plants, the behavior of people. A number of forces dynamically combine to generate events. Where a domino falls, not one, but countless others have typically crashed upon it.
The second reason we should reject the D-god is because it is a no more valid metaphysical construct than countless others proposed by differing people and cultures across the globe. Saying “my god did it” is no more justified and enlightening than, for instance, claiming our universe is the egg dropped by an infinite, cosmic chicken. Or that the two great opposites, in their endless dance of attraction and repulsion, gave rise to the matter and energy that is our universe. Etc. In terms of their epistemological value, mythological tales — as popular as they may be — are limousines devoid of wheels. Sure, they’re interesting, and they may serve some social or psychological function, but on the track of advancing human knowledge, they’re worthless.
The god concept may have poetic and metaphoric value, but we must be careful not to mistake poetry and metaphor with reality — with what all people can know. While poetry and personal experience is important and valid in its own domain, to claim it reflects universal truth is mistaken. Where outside input is absent, and where public verification impossible, no claim to knowledge can be classified above the level of personal opinion.
As for the experiences of mystics, an encounter with “the” unknown (as if it were a thing), likely consists of some class of neurological phenomena. My educated guess is that the mystical experience is akin to placing a seashell to your ear. Some claim to perceive a great, ineffable ocean. Others chalk it up to misinterpreted sensory feedback — sound waves resonating in a small chamber, blending into a white noise. A more serious example would be the Muslim Whirling Dervish achieving altered consciousness by spinning around and around. Does the ensuing breakdown of spatial orientation, induced by inner-ear chaos, provide a door to another world? Or, like a guitar amplifier with the volume turned too high, is the distortion perfectly ordinary?
Some will insist that the mystical experience is beyond the reach of science. Maybe. But judging from the history of science, probably not. It was once believed that love could not be empirically studied. We know differently. For example, researchers have found that oxytocin plays a fundamental role,6 along with other chemicals, such as dopamine and endorphins, that occur naturally in the human body.
While I believe the concept of the T-god is false, and the concept of the D-god irrelevant, I also believe that these concepts of gods can be worse than false and irrelevant. The word “god” can impede human progress if it keeps people from speaking the same language. It can divide groups and force them to defend an alleged reality others do not share.
The god-concept is a wooden cart on stone rollers. In the least, it should be kept out of the traffic of legitimate ideas. Ultimately it may belong on the junk heap of the obsolete.
1 Of course, all scientific answers are provisional and ultimately probabilistic. A more precise answer might be, “the probability that a god has intervened benevolently in earthly affairs is so low it can be reasonably dismissed.”
2 W. W. Norton, 1999
3 From The Unconscious Quantum: Metaphysics in Modern Physics and Cosmology, Prometheus, Amherst, NY 1995.
4 As for studies on the influence of intercessory prayer on heart disease, none have been clearly and noncontroversially replicated. The jury is still out, so to speak, on this particular matter. Until otherwise, it belongs outside the discussion.
5 Basic Books, New York, 2001.
6 Carl Hopkins from Cornell University reports that oxytocin, a neuropeptide synthesized by the hypothalamus, has been implicated in sexual and mothering behaviors http://instruct1.cit.cornell.edu/courses/bionb424/students/nzl1/oxytocin.htm).