Preposterous Universe

Sunday, June 20, 2004
God: threat, or menace?

I've learned from experience that the way to get a lot of comments is to claim that God doesn't exist. Some of the comments, unfortunately, seemed to imply that the statements in my post were naive, simplistic, patronizing, etc. My response was basically that the post was indeed simplistic, but not naive (patronizing I will leave as a judgment call); I was just blurting out some things I believe are true, in a rhetorically oversimplified fashion, and not trying to give any sophisticated arguments just then. But it wouldn't hurt to be more careful and explain what I actually do believe, even if restrictions of space, time, and interest mean that I'll still be pretty superficial about the reasoning.

One problem with "God" is that nobody agrees on the definition. Of course it's useless to argue about the "correct" definition, but we should agree on what we're talking about. So, when I say "God", I am thinking of something we would recognize as a conscious being, unique in the universe and playing some important role in its creation and/or maintenance, with apparently supernatural abilities (maybe omnipotence or some similar degree of ability, but certainly way above anything we're familiar with in everyday life). For many academic theologians (although certainly not all), the sticking point there is likely to be the "conscious being" part. In particular, I don't want to use "God" to refer to nature itself, or to a feeling we get in certain sacred situations, or to the abstract laws of physics, or to our capacity for joy and love, or anything so insentient. Those things might be interesting to talk about in their own rights, but I don't see why we should call them "God" -- they are quite different from the God of classical Abrahamic monotheism, as well as from an Aristotelian unmoved mover responsible for creating the universe. Nor are they what 90% of the 90% of Americans who profess belief in God really mean when they profess that belief, I'd be willing to wager. Whatever most people have in mind when they speak of God, it must be some being that is able to care about we humans. (If you'd like to define God as all of nature or as our love for our fellow persons, then fine, I agree that God exists. But as a good pragmatist who sees no practical consequences flowing from such an identification, I wonder why we should bother. Why not just use a different word?)

So, do we have reason to believe that God exists? There are two possibilities: either the existence of God is a logical inevitability and can be demonstrated through pure reason, or God is possible but not necessary and we must turn to experience, revelation, or something otherwise more contingent.

I honestly don't know what it would mean for some aspect of reality to be logically necessary; logical necessity is a characteristic of formal statements, not of the real world. Our descriptions of the world might involve certain logical requirements, but the world is whatever it is. In particular, there is absolutely no obstacle to imagining a world without God. It is perfectly straightforward to imagine a strictly mechanistic universe, consisting of certain dynamical objects obeying a set of immutable rules. (In Aquinas and elsewhere you can find the idea that the universe requires a First Cause to keep it all moving. Everyone these days should recognize that this is a perfect example of how you can trick yourself by sloppy use of language; ever since Newton, we've understood that motion is a perfectly natural state of being, and doesn't require any agent to keep it going.) I furthermore see no obstacle to imagining that some of those objects get together to form complex collections possessing what we would call "consciousness." (The details of how it might happen remain to be worked out, but that's not an obstacle in principle.) Such a universe could easily last forever as a self-contained entity, without the aid of any external creator or first cause. Indeed, I think our universe is really like that. And since I can perfectly well imagine it, there's no way to use pure reason to argue that it's not possible; we have to turn to the actual universe we find ourselves in to determine if God is playing a role.

So we need to examine our particular universe and decide whether it looks like God is a part of it or not. Of course, we ourselves are part of the universe, so we might in principle be able to look purely inside ourselves, appealing to contemplation or even revelation. Personally, I find those methods completely unreliable; we could come to all sorts of absurd conclusions by trusting them. Instead, we should be good empiricists, and try to judge as objectively as we can whether our universe makes more sense with God or without. In other words, we should consider the idea of God as any other hypothesis about how nature works, and test it using conventional scientific methods.

Although natural theology has a long history, it's not an especially distinguished one, with the argument from design taking an especially heavy beating (from Hume even before Darwin). Consequently, a lot of people don't like the idea that we should treat God as an hypothesis to be empirically tested. Stephen Jay Gould tried to argue that religion and science are compatible because they are strictly non-overlapping in their spheres of interest. But if you look hard at his argument, it only makes sense because his definition of "religion" is what most people would call "moral philosophy." It's certainly true that religion has important aspects other than a theory of the nature of reality -- moral and social aspects, most obviously. But it also makes claims about how reality works, and those claims can be tested by the same criteria that other claims about reality can be tested. (Furthermore, if the claims about reality fail to be supportable, there doesn't seem to be much reason left to put any stock in the moral or social aspects -- but that's an entirely separate kettle of fish.)

By the standards of conventional scientific reasoning, the idea that there exists a God that plays an important role in the universe does very badly as an hypothesis, as I've discussed in some detail elsewhere. Everything we've ever seen in the universe is completely compatible with a purely naturalistic description; we've never seen any reliable evidence of supernatural influence or design, and adding an entirely new metaphysical category to a perfectly self-sufficient universe is an unnecessarily drastic step in our attempts to fill in those gaps that remain in our understanding. (Again, plenty of people disagree; the argument from design is alive and well, and now typically refers to the exquisite perfection of the laws of nature rather than to the human eye. I just think adherents of this view are wrong.) It didn't have to be this way; I could equally well imagine a universe in which evidence for the existence God were quite manifest, with good alternate-universe scientists who were among the most devout members of society. It's just not the universe in which we live.

Of course mine is a minority view, if we were to take a poll among all the people in the world. That's exactly the reason why it's worth pressing the issue. It wouldn't be fair to call belief in God the Big Lie, as the people who argue in its favor are generally quite sincere. But it is the Big Mistake; of all the incorrect beliefs in the modern world, this is certainly the one that combines the widest prevalence with the most significant impact. So it's worth arguing against, gently but persistently.

Not that I expect to change anybody's mind (although one theologian did tell me that I had convinced him to give up on the argument from design, if not on belief in God). But at least now I can point to this post if the issue arises again, so the blog can concentrate on important issues like ice cream and performance art.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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