Friday, April 20, 2012

Five Kinds of God

I was in a bar, having a beer with some friends, and the conversation turned to the existence of God. Only one person of eight claimed to be a believer. Most were dismissive, name-calling atheists, along with with a few rational, unmoved skeptics.

For myself, before jumping in, I wanted to know what we were talking about. Did we have a working definition of God? The atheists insisted we were talking about a delusion, a mental disorder of psychiatric proportions. They cited books by Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchins, among others. There was no possible definition of God, they said, unless we wanted to talk abnormal psychology.

I suggested we stipulate the Biblical God of the Old Testament as a working definition, for the sake of discussion. The atheists would not agree. One woman with a charming foreign accent insisted that we would just be discussing “a fairy in the tooth.”

What about Thomas Aquinas’s five proofs of the existence of God, someone suggested, the only person in the group with any formal training in theology? Even the atheists were familiar with these famous arguments (not really “proofs”) from 13th century Europe. “All disproven, every one of them,” the atheists insisted, and that settled it.

So the discussion went nowhere; never got started really. When students ask me if I believe in God, my standard answer is, “You tell me what God is, and I’ll tell you if I believe in that.” So after my frustrating discussion at the bar, I decided to formulate a list of definitions of “God,” and see which ones, if any, I could justify.

Five Kinds of God:

1. A readily available definition of God is the anthropomorphic, monotheistic God of the Old Testament and the Koran, a blend of many ancient pagan gods. This God is superhuman and supernatural, in other words, divine and not of this earthly world. It is the creator of all things, the bringer of death, the perfection of Good and The Righteous, and the ultimate judge of each person’s merit. This God is omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), and omnipresent (present everywhere). It is personal, hears prayers, responds to them (sometimes), directs individual lives, dispenses ultimate reward and punishment, and can intervene into personal, social, and natural events, either on request, or arbitrarily. This God also requires a great deal of praise and worship, and in return, might grant a strange kind of partial immortality.

A variation on this theme is the God of the Christian New testament, Jesus, a God cloaked in flesh for better communication with humans, but basically a messenger for the Old Testament God.

Do I believe in those Gods, or anything like them? Definitely not. I think the monotheistic God of Christianity and Islam is at best, crusty tradition, at worst, a projection of monumental human egocentricism. When we were children, each of us was, for a while, the unquestioned center of the universe. A lot of people never get past that. As adults they project and reify a paternal figure or tribal leader that will continue their infantilization. I think Freud nailed that analysis.

I don’t believe there is any need for such a God, except among those people who cling to childish egocentricism, believing that a benevolent, all-powerful parent still watches over them and assures them that everything is all right. That’s why this kind of God persists in so many cultures: it indulges a real human need. But taken at face value as a deity, it is too incoherent to be believed, or even understood, as anything but a human projection, and there is no evidence or non-circular reason to justify it otherwise.

2. An alternative is a social god, what Anthony Freeman called “God In Us” (Imprint Academic, 2001). According to Freeman, God is not "out there," in heaven, outside of history, distant, aloof, and silent. No, God is a force within human beings, alive and present to us. What kind of a force is it? Freeman is vague on that. It is whatever is the source of our highest values. What are those? The usual suspects: goodness, truth, justice, beauty, compassion and so on.

This approach has the advantage of dispensing with the trappings of churches, priests, idols, sacrifices, rituals, superstition, hierarchy, paternalism, and all the murky mumbo-jumbo that goes with traditional religion, while retaining the best of human values. Freeman's God is warm and fuzzy, but on the down side, it’s hard to say what makes a set of values into a kind of “God.” All values are culturally-agreed-upon principles. No educated person would propose that there are universal, cross-cultural, non-historical, transpersonal, absolute values. Would they? What would be the evidence?

A related idea of God, quite a bit more convincing, in my opinion, arises from the psychology of deep intersubjectivity, articulated by philosophers and theologians such as Emmanuel Levinas and Martin Buber. According to this idea, when you encounter another person honestly and authentically, not defensively, not egocentrically, but in the other person’s space, you find yourself facing something holy. You feel love, humility, and a sense of being in a sacred presence. This is not a personal divinity, but an inter-personal divinity. It’s not in you, but in us. The immanence of the other’s subjectivity defines that spiritual encounter. Meeting someone like that is what Buber called an I-Thou relationship, to distinguish it from the more mundane I-You relationship. Your response to the presence of that spirit defines ethics and morality in the rest of life.

Do I believe in that kind of God? Yes. It is attractive because while it is a transpersonal spiritual experience, larger than the individual, it is not supernatural, because it is a naturally occurring phenomenon in human experience. It is a well-acknowledged and documented experience among psychotherapists and other counselors, and ordinary people with a honed intersubjective sensitivity.

On the down side, encountering intersubjective holiness is not an everyday occurrence, at least not for me. For someone not susceptible to deep intersubjectivity, it is basically an inaccessible kind of spirituality. And I must admit, it is a “thin” God as far as deities go. In other words, it does not provide for worship, prayers, burning bushes, everlasting life, or any of the other alleged benefits attributed to a more traditional god. But it does exist, it is transpersonal and holy, and its existence can be verified on demand, empirically, not scientifically, but observationally, by direct personal experience. I believe it.

3. A third kind of God is a transcendent spiritual experience that some scientists attribute to specialized activity in certain parts of the brain, but which other people attribute to God. Psychotic patients hear God’s voice all the time, talk to God, and get along in jolly conversations with the Big Guy. But they’re crazy, right?

Social science and medical research reveal that most ordinary (non-crazy) people have had auditory hallucinations at least once or twice in their life (“Visions for All,” Science News, April 7, 2012, 22-25). These are non-psychotic hallucinations, and people having them report experiencing God in a physical, sensory way. Such experiences can be correlated with heightened activity in certain parts of the brain, the so-called “God-spot.” (Scientific American, October, 2007). For these people, God is real, “out there” and He/She presumably tells them things, like what to do or what is right.

Do I believe in that kind of God? Yes and no. I believe this is a natural phenomenon, a genuine neurological and cultural event that occurs in some people, and for those people, there is no denying their experience that they have encountered a self-transcendent “otherness,” which they name God. Do I believe these phenomena are best interpreted as evidence for a divine, supernatural God? No. A side-effect of brain activity is a better explanation, in my best judgment.

Dreams, which we have every night, are also mental phenomena that arise from activity in certain areas of the brain (e.g., Alan Hobson: Dreaming as Delirium. MIT Press, 1999). Dreams have that quality of otherness, that is, the feeling that they arise not from me, but from somewhere outside of me. Yet that feeling alone does not justify, in my view, the claim that dreams originate from a divine source. Throughout most of history, dreams were thought to have divine origin. But today, I think the evidence favors a brain origin.

4. A fourth kind of God is approached from one of Aquinas’ five “proofs,” the argument from contingency. Aquinas did not have a convincing argument but I believe it can be fixed up into a fair argument for the existence of God. First Aquinas’ argument:

A. Contingent things exist (those things that just happen to exist now, but might not have, and didn’t exist in the past, and probably won’t in the future. You are an example of a contingent thing, as am I, and as is everything in human experience).

B. Each contingent thing at some time does not exist (by definition –that’s what contingent means).

C. If everything were contingent, there would be a time when nothing existed (by definition of contingent).

D. If there was a time when nothing existed, that would still be the situation today (because nothing comes from nothing).

E. Hence if everything were contingent, nothing would exist today.

F. Things do exist today. Hence, everything cannot be contingent. Therefore a non-contingent (eternal) being must exist and that is God.

There are two obvious errors in the argument, in my judgment (and I am neither logician, philosopher, or theologian). The first is in statement C. It presupposes without justification that there had to be a moment when all contingent things did not exist. But why? Animals and plants, for example, go out of existence (die) at different times. Subatomic particles go in and out of existence at different times and rates, all through the vacuum of space. There is no reason to suppose that there must have been a single instant when nothing existed.

The second error is in statement D, which supposes that nothing comes from nothing. We know that in the quantum world, particles pop into existence all the time, for no reason at all. And more obviously, we know that creativity exists, and one definition of creativity is to make something exist where it did not before, like a bridge or a television. Aquinas would not have known about quantum mechanics, but he surely would have known about creativity.

I think an argument similar to Aquinas’ can be made without these errors:

A. Creativity exists as a natural phenomenon, observed in nature, and known personally by introspection and other human experience.

B. Creativity produces something out of nothing. This depends on how you define “something” and “nothing,” but surely we can say with confidence that humans have produced gunpowder, airplanes, and computers which did not exist before.

At a fine grain of psychological analysis, we can argue that human creativity is inherent in every act of intentionality (e.g., Brentano, Psychology From An Empirical Standpoint, 1874), and that creativity therefore is a fundamental property of human psychology. That can be verified by introspective observation and reasonable generalization.

C. Everything that exists was created. Nothing comes from nothing (in other words, nothing is uncaused), but creativity is something rather than nothing.

D. Humans exist; the world exists.

E. Therefore, there is a supernatural creator of all things not created by humans or other natural sources of creativity.

This argument establishes the existence of a superhuman, supernatural creator, which easily falls within the scope of entities that can be called “God.” This is not a personal god, only a divine creator, like Brahman, or the Creator of the Deists.

By implication, we humans are gods also, demiurges, if you will, because we are also endowed with the quality of creativity, the power to make something out of nothing. This in turn suggests, but does not prove, that we humans can know God the creator, inasmuch as we have the same or similar power of creativity.

The weak point of the argument is statement C, nothing comes from nothing, or more exactly, nothing is uncaused. That can’t be proved and it might be wrong, but I side with Einstein, who said, “God does not play dice.” I don’t think there is such a thing as pure randomness, only limits to our powers of pattern recognition. That’s an article of belief based on life experience, but I admit it could be mistaken. Certainly it is contradicted by principles of statistics and the physics derived from statistics, but so be it.

If we allow the assumption in statement C, I think this makes a pretty good argument for the existence of a divine Creator – not the bearded guy on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and not the Old Testament creator whose actions were documented (by whom?) in Genesis. This argument establishes only a principle of supernatural creativity. It’s not much, but it’s something, not nothing. Do I believe it? Yes.

5. The fifth and final kind of God is approached in a way similar to the previous one, and also derives from Aquinas, this time his argument from design. Like the previous one discussed, I think Aquinas’ argument here is fatally flawed, but can be fixed up. First, Aquinas’ argument:

A. We see around us evidence of intelligently designed objects, such as the wing of a bird.

B. Things do not design themselves.

C. They must have been designed.

D. Hence a great (superhuman, supernatural) intelligent designer must have designed complex natural things.

The rebuttals to this argument are well-known and well-worn today. Chief among them is the fact that the theory of evolution shows that natural objects, even those as complex as the wing of a bird, come about not through the efforts of a divine designer, but as a result of accidental mutations and arbitrary environmental selection pressures.

Evolution is an extremely compelling theory that has withstood many thousands of empirical tests and observations. People who do not accept this rebuttal do not sufficiently understand the theory of evolution.

So basically, Aquinas’ argument fails because its first premise is unsound: the estimation that a complex thing was intelligently designed is an opinion, a judgment based on ignorance. It is not a necessary inference or a defensible assumption. A wing looks complex, yes, but that is not sufficient reason to say it was created by an intelligent designer. A brain is complex too, but also a natural product of evolution. There is no basis for the assumption of statement A.

A common counter-argument is a question: If you found a pocket watch on a deserted beach, would you assume it was the natural fruit of some exotic tree, or would you assume it had an intelligent designer? I would assume intelligent designer, of the human variety. Humans are intelligent and we design and build many complex things, from calendars to computers. The things we design and build are indeed the products of intelligent designers. But we’re not God and the existence of our own complex products are not arguments for the existence of God, unless you want to argue, as some have, that humans invent God by analogy from themselves.

And yet, I think there is some merit in Aquinas’ argument from design, that can be salvaged and reshaped.

What if there were empirical evidence of a transcendent creator/designer, one that designed and produced complex natural phenomena and whose existence was independent of human intentionality (or that of any other animal or plant, just to be complete).

To say again, what if you could verify, at any time, by repeatable, personal observation and conservative logical inference, that complex natural phenomena were being produced “de novo,” (not by evolution, but apparently from nothing).

I’m not talking about near-infinitesimal subatomic particles out in space, but great big, human-scale phenomena that you can bump into and which fit perfectly into the course of your life as if designed for it. And these phenomena are produced without a shred of ordinary human creativity, intentionality, or consciousness; and they are not produced over the span of millennia, but in the frame of hours, days, and weeks; and not gradually, in some drawn-out evolutionary trial-and-error, but right now, fully-formed.

You may be thinking it is a trick, a word-game. How about an apple? It fits perfectly into my life as if it belonged, keeps me alive, is tangible and real, and no human created it. Close, but wrong. Apples are products of natural selection, evolution over millennia. So not an apple, not an egg, not a horse. I’m talking about natural phenomena that do not arise from biological evolution (nor from the geological and cosmological processes of the environment that complement biological evolution by natural selection).

Okay, then it must be ideas or cultural products: Fermat’s last theorem, Shakespeare’s tragedies, Beethoven’s string quartets, Maxwell’s equations. Those are well-designed things that change lives. Close, but no. They are explicit products of human effort, intention, creativity and consciousness, all ruled out in this scenario. I’m talking about phenomena that do not arise from human intentionality.

It seems to me, if we could verify a process of production for important, well-designed, complex natural things such as I have in mind, outside the principles of evolution, and without the slightest touch of human intentionality, it would be justifiable to concede that there must be a superhuman, transcendent, intelligent designer of those phenomena.

Okay, that’s the setup, here’s the answer: the products are luck and insight. They are real and important phenomena of human experience, and famously they are not produced by human intentionality. You cannot “do” luck, and you cannot force insight. They happen to you, sometimes, for no reason, often when you least expect them.

In the vague category of “luck,” I include events that are positive, desirable, and fit into your life in an important way, like winning the lottery or falling in love or finding the perfect parking space. I’m ruling out so-called “bad luck” for now, because I’m not sure what that is. Luck is what we call the source of an outcome that is desired but apparently did not come about as a result of intentional effort or known natural processes. Saying that something was just lucky is tantamount to saying it was uncaused by nature or by oneself.

In the nebulous category of “insight” I include sudden knowledge about the nature of things, or of something in particular, or of relationships among things, or about how to do something, or what something means. Again, insight may come to you, but you can’t make it happen. Insight may favor the so-called “prepared mind,” but to say something occurred to you by insight is tantamount to saying it was uncaused by nature or by yourself.

Now all we need is to demonstrate that there is an identifiable, empirically verifiable, non-human, non-evolutionary source of those two products. Then we’d be in a position to say we had a case for the existence of a God, an intelligent designer.

Elsewhere, I have called this source, “the black hole of non-experience” (Adams: The Three-In-One Mind, Paperless Press, revised edition, 2012, ISBN 978-0-9837177-1-3).

It is essentially what it sounds like, a suppression of intentional consciousness that terminates all known experience. It is the culmination of certain well-known (among practitioners) meditative techniques. It is analogous to non-dreaming sleep, in which the sleeper has no experience, no awareness of self or world, and performs no action directed at self or world. The difference is that the Black Hole is accessible from full wakefulness.

If this so-called Black Hole is a non-experience, what justifies identifying it as the source of self-transcendent design? That comes retrospectively, after the encounter with the Black Hole. During hours, days, or weeks after the encounter, one notices a meaningful increase in the frequency and intensity of good luck and sudden insight in one’s experience. These are large effects, easily identifiable. Could they be mere coincidence? Yes.

However, the effects are repeatable and reversible (in the sense that their frequency and intensity decline over time). So it is possible to perform a traditional ABA quasi-experimental reversal study. When that is done, one finds that the effects are reliably prevalent and intense after an encounter with the Black Hole, noticeably less so in the control condition (the “B” condition), in which the Black Hole is not encountered for a period of time.

So based on that personal-empirical evidence and the arguments proposed above, there is reasonable justification to identify a self-transcendent creator/designer that is not a product of evolution by natural selection. That qualifies as a category of God. Do I believe it? Yes.