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God

Before I begin, let me say what this is not.  Also, let me say up front that this is primarily directed toward objectivists who tend to deny the existence of god.  It is not a defense  (or a criticism for that matter) of anyone else’s definition of god or any dogma surrounding such a belief.  It is an attempt to start from scratch and define god in a way that is indisputable by definition.  Once this is accomplished we can argue about the nature of god all we want instead of arguing about whether or not god exists.  This approach treats god as a concept not a physical thing (of course it’s theoretically possible that god could still be a physical thing.  That is a question about the nature of god but this definition as a concept would still apply even if god is a human shaped being with a long white beard who sits in the clouds throwing lightning bolts and could potentially be hit by a 747 one day.)  If “god” is understood as a concept, then saying god doesn’t exist is the same as saying love doesn’t exist or 2 doesn’t exist.  When someone describes a feeling that they have as love it is not a serious intellectual argument to insist that they are mistaken because love doesn’t exist.  The feeling they are describing exists.   Whatever the feeling is, chances are they are conveying some useful information about it by labeling it as love.  If you don’t know what love means you can ask questions about the nature of the feeling and the meaning of the word.  But demanding to see “proof” that love exists is completely nonsensical.  The same is true of the number 2.  Numbers are a concept people came up with because they are useful for thinking and talking about things.  You can’t touch 2 it’s not a physical thing, it’s a concept.

The word love was invented to describe something.  People didn’t create a word that is completely useless to describe a feeling that doesn’t exist.  Certainly, different people may mean different things when they use the word, and some meanings may be more useful than others but these are questions about the nature of love.  Similarly, the word god (or what have you) was created to describe an idea that exists.  What I want to do here is to establish a baseline definition of this word that is inclusive of most (monotheistic) conceptions of god without adding any more meaning than necessary for this purpose.  This establishes a boundary between god and science which is necessary for the peaceful coexistence of the two.

As a starting point, take as axiomatic that the universe exists.  It is impossible for science to explain where it came from.  All of science is an attempt at creating a model of the universe.  The universe is therefore the boundary of that model (this is essentially the definition of “universe”).  To put this a different way: whatever information we discover and incorporate into our scientific understanding is part of the universe.  But it is impossible for this model to address the question “where did the universe come from?”  To see the impossibility of this, notice that the laws of physics (at least as we understand them) do not allow for the universe coming from anywhere.  Matter cannot be created or destroyed.  Energy cannot be created or destroyed (these are sort of archaic statements of these laws but the recognized exceptions don’t contradict what I am saying here to the best of my knowledge).  Therefore, if you want to talk about the origin of the universe, you must be able to conceive of a force lying outside the laws of nature which govern the universe.  So basically, whatever this force may be, call it god.

With this definition in hand we can derive some properties of god.  First of all, if the universe is a chain reaction governed by immutable natural laws, then everything that has ever happened or will ever happen was determined by those laws and the initial conditions of the system (as I have said previously, you may prefer to think of reality as consisting of many dimensions of which we only observe one, but this is just a more complicated way of thinking about the same concept).  To put it another way, the position and motion of every particle at the moment of the big bang led to me sitting here right now writing this article.  If a particle had been somewhere else at that moment, something different would have happened.  So if everything that happens is a result of the laws of nature and the universe’s initial conditions, then whatever unobservable force determined those laws and initial conditions caused everything that will ever happen to happen.  Or in other words, by definition, god is omnipotent.

Notice that this is exactly the opposite of what I consider the straw-man notion of omnipotence commonly considered by atheists.  That notion is that omnipotence means that at any moment god may arbitrarily choose to do things that violate the laws of nature.  This is not a refutable implication.  To see what I mean imagine something impossible and then imagine that happening.  If you were a scientist, what would you do?  You have two options: you could refuse to believe it, in which case you would be a terrible scientist, or you could change the laws of science to account for it.  Naturally, science must generally do the latter.  Considering this fact, it shouldn’t be surprising that everything (for the most part) we have observed (or at least confirmed) fits our current laws of science.  God cannot do things that contradict the laws of nature (note that these are not necessarily the same as the laws of science).  If he (she/it/whatever you prefer) could, then the law in question wouldn’t be such a law.  So this position would be identical to believing that there are no laws of nature.  This is certainly not my position, nor do I think it is widespread among the god community.  Once you notice this, it is obvious why people on the science side who suffer from this misconception of omnipotence find the concept so repulsive.  The purpose of science is to discover the laws of nature.  obviously, people engaged in this pursuit will not get along with those who seem to deny the existence thereof.  But once god has been defined as the source of the laws of nature, the two concepts are perfectly compatible.  In fact it is the very existence of laws of nature which makes god, as defined above, omnipotent.

Second, if one had knowledge of all the laws of nature and the initial conditions of the system, then one would know everything that would ever happen.  Of course, you may not wish to attribute conciousness to god as defined above, but the reality is that since god is a force existing outside our physical universe, this consciousness is impossible to refute or deny.  So what is important for our purposes is: can we imagine the existence of such a perspective?  The answer is yes, and from that perspective one would be omniscient.  In order to have complete knowledge of reality (possibly in multiple dimensions), all you need to know are the positions and vectors of all the particles at the moment of creation.  Notice here that we may consider the big bang as time t=0 but if we discovered tomorrow that we could explain what happened at some time leading up to that then that would become t=0 in our model.

Naturally we cannot achieve this level of knowledge but it is important to recognize the concept of this perspective.  This is what I meant in the earlier post about determinism vs. free will being a matter of perspective.  People who take the determinist side are imagining god’s perspective, people taking the free will side are imagining the human perspective.  Neither one is wrong (though for most applications the human perspective is more relevant).  Furthermore, this perspective is precisely what scientists are aspiring to, so why some of them feel the need to deny the very existence of the concept is puzzling to me.

When defined this way, god establishes the boundary of science.  But it is important for both sides to realize that this boundary is constantly moving.  It is not stupid to recognize that there are things you don’t know.   Any person, at any time, has some knowledge and understanding of the workings and origins of reality and this understanding is always incomplete.   If someone says god causes the tides, this is not wrong.  It may leave you desiring more information and you may discover the concept of gravity and realize that the Moon causes the tides but you are left with the question of where the Moon came from.  You may then discover that the Moon broke off from the Earth billions of years ago after a collision with a giant asteroid.  But you still don’t know where the Earth or the asteroid came from.  This process continues but every time you figure out something you are just moving the boundary.  When you get all the way back to the big bang you are still left with the question “where the heck did that come from?” And let’s not forget about where gravity came from.

A person may explain to their children that they came from their parents and their parents came from their grandparents and their grandparents came from their great-grandparents and their great-grandparents came from god.  This is not incorrect, it gives all the information they know and then identifies that any cause more primary than great-grandparents falls into a category defined in the manner above.  If later the children find out about great-great-grandparents, this doesn’t refute the notion of god.  Indeed there is no amount of information you could collect about the universe which would do this, it just moves the boundary between what we know and what we don’t.  But certainly this boundary is worth recognizing if your intention is to expand it.

Our understanding of the laws of nature leaves plenty to argue about.  So please, let us concentrate our energies on those things rather than “does god exist?”  Once you get over this hurdle, I actually think a lot of the attributes commonly attributed to god make a lot of sense.  But if you just say there’s no such thing as god you can’t even consider these questions.

 

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  1. Frank Stein
    July 30, 2011 at 2:21 pm

    “Second, if one had knowledge of all the laws of nature and the initial conditions of the system, then one would know everything that would ever happen.”

    Isn’t there a level where this determinism breaks down? Where you cannot know (even with perfect knowledge) how the system will be at time t2, just because you know everything about the system at t1? Hasn’t this indeterminate nature of reality been shown to be true, and actually used in practical applications (electron-tunneling microscope)?

    It is possible, I suppose, to say that it only appears indeterminate to us, but “us” would have to include all the observable and repeatedly-tested laws of physics – meaning the model which best describes reality includes at a fundamental level this indeterminism.

    So it would seem more likely that the ‘concept’ that created all the laws of nature and the initial conditions of the system would not know everything that would ever happen. It isn’t even clear that consciousness (self-awareness) is required, but omniscience is definitely not something that can be assumed, or even considered possible, given what we know of reality.

  2. Free Radical
    August 1, 2011 at 6:26 pm

    That’s what I’m referring to when I’m talking about multiple dimensions. I will write a post about models soon (when I say that it means in the next week or so) but even if it has been “proven” (and I don’t understand the expiriment well enough to know exactly what they prove) It only means that the perspective of god must account for multiple possible paths for reality, of which we only experience one particular path.

    The main point is that the perspective of god (so defined) is fundamentally different from the perspective of man. This is tied to the notion ofprobability. I can include a probabilistic even in a model (to the model I am god). That doesn’t mean I don’t know what happens, it means I know that multiple things “happen.” An actor within the model cannot know what “could have” happened (though they can have beliefs about it).

    Also, when I was reading about that experiment, I remember a way around it called something like “superdeterminism” or “hyperdeterminism” that sounded like it might be similar to what I’m talking about, I’m not entirely sure though.

    This is a little nit-picky but maybe important. It’s not the concept that created the laws of nature it’s that we have a concept of something creating them.

    • Frank Stein
      August 2, 2011 at 12:08 pm

      Do the multiple paths of reality exist in the same sense we do? Or are they just potentialities?

      If the former, then there are an infinite number of yous out there in other dimensions, and that number increases every instant as every quantum particle takes every possible position. Mind-boggling, but let’s grant it for the sake of argument. Such a view would seem even more ‘desolate’ than atheism – at least there there’s only one you. In this case you are but a drop in an ocean of your own hyper-existent self.

      If the latter, then ‘seeing’ all the possible paths is not the same as knowing what will happen. If I had the ability to see all the possible outcomes for next year’s Super Bowl, when the time comes and team X wins, did I know they were going to win? At best I could say that right now there was a 15% chance of X winning, and a week before the game I could see that 79% of the paths lead to X winning. But at no point would I know that X won, until the game was over.

  3. Free Radical
    August 3, 2011 at 4:07 am

    I don’t know whether they exist in the same sense we do. Actually it depends on your point of view. From my point of view only one path “exists” but from god’s point of view they all exist. Now, ataching no further meaning to god than I have done here (which I am not necessarily discouraging), I think it is either impossible or unhelpful (depending on how you look at it) to say whether from god’s point of view our path is anything special compared to the others. It’s kind of like saying we are a simulation of some model and asking the question “does god run other simulations? Perhaps every other simulation?” Well who knows? All I have to deal with is this one. Also, those other potential mes aren’t me they’re just other hypothetical entities that have varying degrees of things in common with me.

    As far as seeing the possible paths from our perspective I am willing to concede that it is possible for the true model of reality to be probabilistic in which case what you are describing is indeed the best you could do. But my main points from the probability post were:

    1. Most real world outcomes that people use proability to talk about are not truly probabilistic, at least on the level that we are making them probabilistic in our casual modeling of them. In these cases, probability is used to quantify our ignorance.

    2. If human decision is truly probabilistic that is the OPPOSITE (pardon the caps but I wanted to emphasise that and I don’t know how to do italics in a comment) of free will, that would truly be determinism because it would mean your decisions were bound to obey by some cosmic dice roll. If you truly have free will you must be able to choose things for sure. This point was sort of a carry over from a discussion I had at an objectivist club meeting.

    I will try to get “Models” up tomorrow. Thanks for the good comments.

  4. Klouddweller
    August 5, 2011 at 10:18 pm

    This is an excellent articulation of a point people have failed miserably to make.

  5. Free Radical
    August 8, 2011 at 11:31 pm

    thanks (=

  6. August 19, 2011 at 4:59 am

    Interesting philosophical post. I understand this completely. However, this still doesn’t cease to annoy me that people believe in and worship “god.” Why can’t people just say they don’t understand rather than pretending that they know something they don’t? I feel like that’s what the whole god thing comes down to. As long as I believe this, there is no way that I will believe in god or encourage others to. This post is the definition of god to you, and it definitely makes sense. However, when you talk to other people about “god” they will not think about it in the same manner that you do nor will they have the slightest conception or definition of what god is.

  7. Free Radical
    August 20, 2011 at 7:01 am

    Maybe other people have a different definition in mind but what’s the point in adopting their definition just so that you can not believe in it? I don’t think most people are “pretending they know something thy don’t” I just think that’s a way that you choose to characterize their way of organizing their knowledge. But so what if some people believe stupid things? It’s not hard to find people abusing statistics but I don’t go around claiming I don’t believe in statistics I just don’t believe in whatever conclusion they are using statistics to arrive at.

  1. January 5, 2012 at 8:07 pm
  2. February 14, 2012 at 9:34 am

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