The Existence of God?

I'm writing this for my atheist friends who see no reason or justification for believing in God - not to convince them, but to give them a window into my own thought processes, and an alternative to many of the things they've probably encountered.

Most arguments for theism end up suggesting something along the lines of a first cause - that all events come from other events, and following these lines of causation, everything must ultimately come from a single point somewhere. This argument is vividly borne out in the modern picture of the big bang.

But as many people rightly point out, first cause doesn't have to mean God. It could be that something quite stupid got the universe going - or it could even be that there are an infinite chain of "first causes" behind the first cause.

So those traditional theistic arguments don't help us out much. In fact, they mainly serve to reveal what isn't relevant. We are not actually interested in the existence of a creator, we are interested in the existence of a creator who cares about us.

But that gets tricky. How would we discover such a thing? How would we know if a super-intelligent being actually loves us?

This is the difference between theism and deism. Deism argues for a first cause sort of God, but then tells us we can never expect to really find him. He remains forever detached and beyond us. Theism, on the other hand, makes a far more interesting claim - God not only cares, but is actively involved in the world. And so, if we are to test out theism, we can give up looking for the metaphysical limits of existence, and begin looking at the world in front of us.

Here's what I see. Every year, the world gets a little better. Diseases are cured, violence is reduced, injustices are eliminated. Even in down economies, the overall state of the world is improving. Just compare things now to how they were a thousand or even a hundred years ago.

But this isn't just true for human beings. All over the natural world, order is arising from chaos, complexity is increasing, life is springing from non-life. And it reaches beyond earth - the composition of the universe has gone from uniform hydrogen gas to highly complex stars, galaxies, and super-structures. And each generation of stars has led to greater and greater complexity, each one's death sending a payload of highly complex matter out into the universe, to become the seeds of the next generation of star growth.

This isn't a meaningless trajectory - it's exactly what we humans value as most important about ourselves and the world. What it represents is the growth of cooperation and intelligence on every level of reality. We can even say (without too much of a stretch) that this is love filling the universe.

But of course, there are explanations for this, including natural selection. And I would respond by pointing out that natural selection is only one principle, and we see this dynamic everywhere, even in places natural selection does not apply. But other principles can be brought up, and there is no doubt that we can capture each of these dynamics in some set of concrete principles.

But then I would ask why? Why is it that all of these principles conspire to endlessly increase cooperation and complexity? Why is it that reality itself seems to want life and organization and compassion?

And I suppose the answer would be: it just is. There is no need for why, it's just the way things are.

And I would agree.

But if we accept this, then we've entered new territory. Because if we are simply saying it just is, then we're no longer explaining away, we're describing. We've reached the endpoint of our chain of causes, and we're simply stating what we see.

And if we're saying that reality itself seems to want the increase of cooperation and complexity and embedded intelligence and compassion, then we're not describing an atheistic reality, but a theistic one - one that cares for our ultimate well-being, one that works all our efforts together into one upward dynamic motion, one that is always bringing life out of non-life, and existence out of darkness.

Comments

Thank you for sharing your perspective, Micah. Where I personally get stuck is the leap from “there is no need for why” (which is where I am) to the following (which is where you are):

“And if we're saying that reality itself seems to want the increase of cooperation and complexity and embedded intelligence and compassion, then we're not describing an atheistic reality, but a theistic one …”

I understand your connection of explaining versus describing, but I just don’t see why a reality that seems to want order is a theistic reality. Couldn’t it just be a function of time?

And, for the record, I totally realize that’s exactly what you’re saying. :-) We just have different worldviews, so I see time and increasing order as something natural that does not necessarily indicate God, but you see time and increasing order as something higher that does indicate God.

Of course, the waters get muddied these days because the word “God” has so many different definitions. Some would say that time and increasing order IS God, while others would say that time and increasing order is time and increasing order. That’s a whole other post.

Amanda, thanks for the response. I'm struggling with a difficult matter of definition, that is hard for a lot of people to see. I'll be writing more on this, but I think it's similar to how we interact with other people.

Science can explain the workings of a person's brain, and how that gives rise to different effects and actions, and how that means that there is probably not some supernatural force making someone's arms move, but that instead, people's arms are moving due to the signals traveling along their neural pathways.

The mistake would then be to assume that since we've explained all the workings of a person's brain, that therefore the person doesn't exist. Clearly, the person does exist - we just now have a better understanding of what a person is, and how a person works.

This is similar to what I see here. It seems odd to me that scientific atheists are increasingly in the position of saying, "There is no God, there is simply this vast reality that creates and cares and invents and protects us."

And I'm saying, "Hmmm...it seems like we're saying the same thing."

The problem, as I see it, is a confusion between explaining and debunking. Explaining a person's brain doesn't debunk that person's existence. Explaining how a magic trick works doesn't mean the trick didn't happen. And explaining some of the workings of the universe doesn't change the fact that reality is exhibiting all the traits theism has traditionally attributed to it.

I tend to believe that Reality is simply what it is, whatever it may in fact be. Reality must always be observed and interpreted by human minds, and human minds are not only very interesting neurophysical/psychological entities in relation with other similarly working minds, but then they consist of so many variables it's very difficult to discern the actual nature of the mind in all its vast complexity.

This is why I simultaneously believe there to be a Something More (whatever its constitution may be in Itself, which I refer to as Unfathomable Mystery), which seems to beg to be understood (metaphorically) by inquiring human minds comprised in such a way in that I doubt there are two of them experiencing the world in exactly identical ways.

If we begin with "things are as they are and yet we cannot state in a definitive manner as to why this is the case," and allow for multiple points of view to express their experiences and hypotheses concerning this Something More, we are less pressed to have to know all the ins and outs as to the nature of the elusive reality which people have--as far as I can tell--only speculated upon for what seems to be time immemorial.

I have become less interested (though still interested none-the-less) as to what the exact nature of "the universe" (including other possible metaphysical suppositions) is in itself, and more interested in how I as a human being (along with other human beings around me) experience this Something More, and whenever I find myself or others getting more specific as to what Its nature could possibly be, I hold my own imaginative constructs rather tentatively and respect other's as well. By doing this, I can still remain very committed to my participation in this world, without having to put down or condemn others' in the process.

So, "it just is" works well for me, along with "how you and I happen to perceive and conceive of this Something More" which it seems each one of us must deal with at some level, whether we put much thought into it or not. I'm not sure I feel hard-pressed to have to come up with either a theistic or atheist "answer" to this problem anymore, unlike used to be the case with me. I think this has to do with the idea that the evidence we have before us can be interpreted in multifarious ways, and I've learned to content myself with this, as much as I remain interested in the conversation.

I appear to be less consumed with the either/or of things these days and want to get on with how we can (as humans) practically get on with things to help aid in the process of making this world a better place to live, especially for those who are suffering at present, and for our progeny to come. Good thoughts, though, Micah.

Arriving at theism via universal improvement, eh?

"Diseases are cured, violence is reduced, injustices are eliminated. Even in down economies, the overall state of the world is improving. Just compare things now to how they were a thousand or even a hundred years ago." I generally don't give glory to God for what humans accomplish. We are designing better medicine, we are becoming less barbaric and more tolerant, we are feeding more people with less cost. I agree, and good for us, not God.

"But this isn't just true for human beings. All over the natural world, order is arising from chaos, complexity is increasing, life is springing from non-life. And it reaches beyond earth - the composition of the universe has gone from uniform hydrogen gas to highly complex stars, galaxies, and super-structures. And each generation of stars has led to greater and greater complexity, each one's death sending a payload of highly complex matter out into the universe, to become the seeds of the next generation of star growth." We can explain most of this, and the you seem to except the explanations. Accepting that evolution is HOW life has become more complex, WHY is evolution happening? This is just an extension of why is there something rather than nothing. Even if we understand every aspect how the Big Bang worked, we still have "why?"

To me, the question of why implies will. The universe doesn't have will. It is like asking a tornado why it hit my house. It's nature, not personality. Humans tend to anthropomorphize, and I'm certainly guilty of it. I ask "why" when I should be asking "how" or "what" quite often.

Ever wonder "why" humans ask why?

Why not?

I would gather "why not?" because said human being senses no need for the asking of why. As far as I am concerned, this is entirely acceptable, though it does appear that human beings in this frame of mind are in rather short supply. However, this being the case does not invalidate their holding to their position, nor so the position itself, at least in my estimation.

I like your reasoning. Indeed, the definition is the difficult part. We can say that whatever is behind everything that exists is God, but what does that mean? I'm working on that, too.