The God Conundrum

By Sean Carroll | October 29, 2006 7:52 pm

Some of you may be wondering: “Does God exist?” Fortunately, Richard Dawkins has written a new book, The God Delusion, that addresses precisely this question. As it turns out, the answer is: “No, God does not exist.” (Admittedly, Dawkins reached his conclusion before the Cards won the World Series.)

Nevertheless, there remains a spot of controversy — it would appear that Dawkins’s rhetorical force is insufficient to persuade some theists. One example is provided by literary critic Terry Eagleton, who reviewed The God Delusion for the London Review of Books. Eagleton’s review has already been discussed among some of my favorite blogs: 3 Quarks Daily, Pharyngula, Uncertain Principles, and the Valve (twice), to name a few. But it provides a good jumping-off point for an examination of one of the common arguments used against scientifically-minded atheists: “You’re setting up a straw man by arguing against a naive and anthropomorphic view of `God’; if only you engaged with more sophisticated theology, you’d see that things are not so cut-and-dried.”

Before jumping in, I should mention that I have somewhat mixed feelings about Dawkins’s book myself. I haven’t read it very thoroughly, not because it’s not good, but for the same reason that I rarely read popular cosmology books from cover to cover: I’ve mostly seen this stuff before, and already agree with the conclusions. But Dawkins has a strategy that is very common among atheist polemicists, and with which I tend to disagree. That’s to simultaneously tackle three very different issues:

  1. Does God exist? Are the claims of religion true, as statements about the fundamental nature of the universe?
  2. Is religious belief helpful or harmful? Does it do more bad than good, or vice-versa?
  3. Why are people religious? Is there some evolutionary-psychological or neurological basis for why religion is so prevalent?

All of these questions are interesting. But, from where I am sitting, the last two are incredibly complicated issues about which it is very difficult to say anything definitive, at least at this point in our intellectual history. Whereas the first one is relatively simple. By mixing them up, the controversial accounts of history and psychology tend to dilute the straightforward claim that there’s every reason to disbelieve in the existence of God. When Dawkins suggests that the Troubles in Northern Ireland should be understood primarily as a religious schism between Catholics and Protestants, he sacrifices some of the credibility he may have had if he had stuck to the more straightforward issue of whether or not religion is true.

Right out of the gate, Eagleton bashes Dawkins for dabbling in things he doesn’t understand.

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology…

What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them?

These questions, of course, have absolutely no relevance to the matter at hand; they are just an excuse for Eagleton to show off a bit of erudition. If Dawkins is right, and religion is simply a “delusion,” a baroque edifice built upon a foundation of mistakes and wishful thinking, then the views of Eriugena on subjectivity are completely beside the point. Not all of theology directly concerns the question of whether or not God exists; much of it accepts the truth of that proposition, and goes from there. The question is whether that’s a good starting point. If an architect shows you a grand design for a new high-rise building, you don’t have to worry about the floor plan for the penthouse apartment if you notice that the foundation is completely unstable.

But underneath Eagleton’s bluster lies a potentially-relevant critique. After all, some sophisticated theology is about whether or not God exists, and more importantly about the nature of God. Eagleton understands this, and gamely tries to explain how the concept of God is different from other things in the world:

For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or “existent”: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.

Okay, very good. God, in this conception, is not some thing out there in the world (or even outside the world), available to be poked and prodded and have his beard tugged upon. Eagleton rightly emphasizes that ordinary-language concepts such as “existence” might not quite be up to the task of dealing with God, at least not in the same way that they deal with Al Gore. A precisely similar analysis holds for less controversial ideas, such as the Schrödinger equation. There is a sense in which the Schrödinger equation “exists”; after all, wavefunctions seem to be constantly obeying it. But, whatever it may mean to say “the Schrödinger equation exists,” it certainly doesn’t mean the same kind of thing as to say “Al Gore exists.” We’re borrowing a term that makes perfect sense in one context and stretching its meaning to cover a rather different context, and emphasizing that distinction is a philosophically honorable move.

But then we run somewhat off the rails.

This, not some super-manufacturing, is what is traditionally meant by the claim that God is Creator. He is what sustains all things in being by his love; and this would still be the case even if the universe had no beginning. To say that he brought it into being ex nihilo is not a measure of how very clever he is, but to suggest that he did it out of love rather than need. The world was not the consequence of an inexorable chain of cause and effect. Like a Modernist work of art, there is no necessity about it at all, and God might well have come to regret his handiwork some aeons ago. The Creation is the original acte gratuit. God is an artist who did it for the sheer love or hell of it, not a scientist at work on a magnificently rational design that will impress his research grant body no end.

The previous excerpt, which defined God as “the condition of possibility,” seemed to be warning against the dangers of anthropomorphizing the deity, ascribing to it features that we would normally associate with conscious individual beings such as ourselves. A question like “Does `the condition of possibility’ exist?” would never set off innumerable overheated arguments, even in a notoriously contentious blogosphere. If that were really what people meant by “God,” nobody would much care. It doesn’t really mean anything — like Spinoza’s pantheism, identifying God with the natural world, it’s just a set of words designed to give people a warm and fuzzy feeling. As a pragmatist, I might quibble that such a formulation has no operational consequences, as it doesn’t affect anything relevant about how we think about the world or act within it; but if you would like to posit the existence of a category called “the condition of possibility,” knock yourself out.

But — inevitably — Eagleton does go ahead and burden this innocent-seeming concept with all sorts of anthropomorphic baggage. God created the universe “out of love,” is capable of “regret,” and “is an artist.” That’s crazy talk. What could it possibly mean to say that “The condition of possibility is an artist, capable of regret”? Nothing at all. Certainly not anything better-defined than “My envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.” And once you start attributing to God the possibility of being interested in some way about the world and the people in it, you open the door to all of the nonsensical rules and regulations governing real human behavior that tend to accompany any particular manifestation of religious belief, from criminalizing abortion to hiding women’s faces to closing down the liquor stores on Sunday.

The problematic nature of this transition — from God as ineffable, essentially static and completely harmless abstract concept, to God as a kind of being that, in some sense that is perpetually up for grabs, cares about us down here on Earth — is not just a minor bump in the otherwise smooth road to a fully plausible conception of the divine. It is the profound unsolvable dilemma of “sophisticated theology.” It’s a millenia-old problem, inherited from the very earliest attempts to reconcile two fundamentally distinct notions of monotheism: the Unmoved Mover of ancient Greek philosophy, and the personal/tribal God of Biblical Judaism. Attempts to fit this square peg into a manifestly round hole lead us smack into all of the classical theological dilemmas: “Can God microwave a burrito so hot that He Himself cannot eat it?” The reason why problems such as this are so vexing is not because our limited human capacities fail to measure up when confronted with the divine; it’s because they are legitimately unanswerable questions, arising from a set of mutually inconsistent assumptions.

It’s worth the effort to dig into the origin of these two foundational notions of God, in order to get straight just how incompatible they really are. Until the seventh and sixth centuries BCE, Israelite religion was straightforwardly polytheistic, as much as the Greeks or Romans or Norse ever were. Originally, the Canaanite High God El (often translated simply as “God” in modern Bibles) was a completely distinct creature from Yahweh (often translated as “the Lord”). It’s not until Exodus 3:6 that Yahweh asserts to Moses that he should be identified with El, the God of Abraham. (Why do you think that Yahweh’s very First Commandment insists on not having any other gods before him?) Remnants of Judaism’s polytheistic origins linger on throughout the Scriptures, which are an intricately-edited pastiche of various earlier sources. Psalm 82, for example, describes Yahweh making a power play at a meeting of the various gods (the “Council of El”):

 1  God presides in the great assembly;
       he gives judgment among the “gods”:

 2  “How long will you defend the unjust
       and show partiality to the wicked?
       Selah

 3  Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless;
       maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed.

 4  Rescue the weak and needy;
       deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

 5  “They know nothing, they understand nothing.
       They walk about in darkness;
       all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

 6  “I said, ‘You are “gods”;
       you are all sons of the Most High.’

 7  But you will die like mere men;
       you will fall like every other ruler.”

 8  Rise up, O God, judge the earth,
       for all the nations are your inheritance.

The quotes around “gods,” of course, are nowhere in the original Hebrew; they were inserted by the translators (this is the New International Version), who were understandably squeamish about all this talk concerning “gods” in the plural.

The development of Hebrew monotheism from its polytheistic beginnings is a long and complicated story that contemporary historians only incompletely understand; see this review of a book by Mark Smith of NYU to get some flavor of current thinking. But the crucial point is that the emergence of One God was an essentially political transformation. The ancient Hebrews, surrounded by other unfriendly nations, promoted their tribal deity Yahweh to the position of the most powerful god, promising dire consequences for any backsliders who would choose to worship Ba’al or Asherah or other pretenders (as Ahab and Jezebel learned the hard way). From there, it was a short doctrinal leap (requiring only the imaginative re-interpretation of a few Scriptural passages) to declare that Yahweh was the only God out there — the well-known others weren’t merely subordinate, they were imaginary. Even in its own right, this claim was somewhat problematic, as Yahweh had to serve double duty as the God of the Hebrews and also the only god in existence. But the conception of God as some sort of being who cared about the fate of the people of Israel was relatively sustainable; none of the Prophets went around defining Yahweh as “the condition of possibility,” or even ascribing characteristics of omniscience and omnipotence to the deity.

Meanwhile, the ancient Greeks were developing monotheism for their own purposes — essentially philosophical rather than political. They had quite the robust pantheon of individual gods, but it was clear to most careful thinkers that these were closer to amusingly anthropomorphic fairy tales than to deep truths about the structure of the universe. Unsurprisingly, the monotheistic conception reached its pinnacle in the work of Aristotle. In the Metaphysics, he presented a version of what we now know as the cosmological argument for the existence of God, which (in Wikipedia’s rendering) goes something like this:

  1. Every effect has a cause.
  2. Nothing can cause itself.
  3. A causal chain cannot be of infinite length.
  4. Therefore, there must be a first cause; or, there must be something which is not an effect.

Admittedly, this is merely an informal paraphrase of the argument. But the more careful versions don’t change the essential fact that these days, the cosmological proof is completely anachronistic. Right after step one — “Every effect has a cause” — the only sensible response is “No it doesn’t.” Or at least, “What is that supposed to mean”?

To make sense of the cosmological argument, it’s important to realize that Aristotle’s metaphysics was predicated to an important extent on his physics. (Later variations by theologians from Aquinas to Leibniz don’t alter the essence of the argument.) To the ancient Greeks, the behavior of matter was teleological; earth wanted to fall down, fire wanted to rise toward the heavens. And once it reached its desired destination, it just sat there. According to Aristotle, if we want to keep an object moving we have to keep pushing it. And he’s right, of course, if we are thinking about the vast majority of macroscopic objects in our everyday world — which seems like a perfectly reasonable set of objects to think about. If you push a book along a table, and then stop pushing it, it will come to rest. If you want it to keep moving, you have to keep pushing it. That “effect” — the motion of the book — without a doubt requires a “cause” — you pushing it. It doesn’t seem like much of a leap to extend such an analysis to the entire universe, implying the existence of an ineffable, perfectly static First Cause, or Unmoved Mover.

But the God of the Judeo-Christian Bible is very far from being “Unmoved.” He’s quite the mover, actually — smiting people here, raising the dead there. All very befitting, considering his origin as a local tribal deity. But utterly incompatible with the perfect and unchanging Aristotelian notion of God.

For the past two thousand years, theology has struggled to reconcile these two apparently-conflicting conceptions of the divine, without much success. We are left with fundamentally incoherent descriptions of what God is, which deny that he “exists” in the same sense that hummingbirds and saxophones do, but nevertheless attribute to him qualities of “love” and “creativity” that conventionally belong to conscious individual beings. One might argue that it’s simply a hard problem, and our understanding is incomplete; after all, we haven’t come up with a fully satisfactory way to reconcile general relativity and quantum mechanics, either. But there is a more likely possibility: there simply is no reconciliation to be had. The reason why it’s difficult to imagine how God can be eternally perfect and also occasionally wistful is that God doesn’t exist.

In fact, in this day and age the flaws in Aristotle’s cosmological proof (just to pick one) are perfectly clear. Our understanding of the inner workings of the physical world has advanced quite a bit since the ancient Greeks. Long ago, Galileo figured out that the correct way to think about motion was to abstract from messy real-world situations to idealized circumstances in which dissipative effects such as friction and air resistance could be ignored. (They can always be restored later as perturbations.) Only then do we realize that what matter really wants to do is to maintain its motion at a constant speed, until it is explicitly acted upon by some external force. Except that, once we have made this breakthrough, we realize that the matter doesn’t want to do anything — it just does it. Modern physics doesn’t describe the world in terms of “causes” and “effects.” It simply posits that matter (in the form of quantum fields, or strings, or what have you) acts in accordance with certain dynamical laws, known as “equations of motion.” The notion of “causality” is downgraded from “when I see B happening, I know it must be because of A” to “given some well-defined and suitably complete set of information about the initial state of a system, I can use the equations of motion to determine its subsequent evolution.” But a concept like “cause” doesn’t appear anywhere in the equations of motion themselves, nor in the specification of the type of matter being described; it is only an occasionally-appropriate approximation, useful to us humans in narrating the behavior of some macroscopic configuration of equation-obeying matter.

In other words, the universe runs all by itself. The planets orbit the Sun, not because anything is “causing” them to do so, but because that’s the kind of behavior that obeys Newton’s (or Einstein’s) equations governing motion in the presence of gravity. Deeply embedded as we are in this Galilean/Newtonian framework, statements like “every effect has a cause” become simply meaningless. (We won’t even bother with “A causal chain cannot be of infinite length,” which completely begs the question.) Conservation of momentum completely undermines any force the cosmological argument might ever have had. The universe, like everything in it, can very well just be, as long as its pieces continue to obey the relevant equations of motion.

Special pleading that the universe is essentially different from its constituents, and (by nature of its unique status as all that there is to the physical world) that it could not have either (1) just existed forever, nor (2) come spontaneously into existence all by itself, is groundless. The only sensible response such skepticism is “Why not?” It’s certainly true that we don’t yet know whether the universe is eternal or whether it had a beginning, and we certainly don’t understand the details of its origin. But there is absolutely no obstacle to our eventually figuring those things out, given what we already understand about physics. General relativity asserts that spacetime itself is dynamical; it can change with time, and potentially even be created from nothing, in a way that is fundamentally different from the Newtonian conception (much less the Aristotelian). And quantum mechanics describes the universe in terms of a wavefunction that assigns amplitudes to any of an infinite number of possibilities, including — crucially — spontaneous transitions, unforced by any cause. We don’t yet know how to describe the origin of the universe in purely physical terms, but someday we will — physicists are working on the problem every day.

The analogy to a penthouse apartment atop a high-rise building is quite apt. Much of the intricate architecture of modern theology is built on a foundation that conceives of God as both creator and sustainer of the world and as a friendly and loving being. But these days we know better. The Clockwork Universe of Galileo and Newton has once and for all removed the need for anything to “sustain” the universe, and the “creation” bit is something on which we are presently closing in.

In fact, although it is rarely discussed in history books, the influence of the conservation of momentum on theological practice is fairly evident. One response was a revival of Pyrrhonian skepticism, which claimed that it was simply wrong even to attempt to apply logic and rationality to questions of religion — claiming that you had “proven” the existence of God could get you accused of atheism. The other, more robust response, was a turn to natural theology and the argument from design. Even if the universe could keep going all by itself, surely its unguided meanderings would never produce something as wonderfully intricate as (for example) the human eye? The argument doesn’t hold up very well even under purely philosophical scrutiny — David Hume’s devastating take-down in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, interestingly, actually pre-dates William Paley’s classic statement of the argument (1779 vs. 1802). Hume, for example, points out that, even if the argument from design works, it allows us to conclude next to nothing about the nature of the Designer. Maybe it was a team? Maybe our universe is a rough first draft for a much better later universe? Or even just a mistake? (Okay, that has something going for it.)

But then, of course, Darwin’s theory of natural selection undercut the justification for the design argument just as thoroughly as classical mechanics undercut the justification for the cosmological argument. Indeed, the unpurposeful meanderings of matter in the universe can produce the wonderful intricacies of the human eye, and much else besides. Believers haven’t given up entirely; you’ll now more commonly find the argument from design placed in a cosmological context, where it is even less convincing. But for the most part, theologians have basically abandoned the project of “proving” God’s existence, which is probably a good move.

But they haven’t given up on believing in God’s existence (suitably defined), which is what drives atheists like Dawkins (and me) a little crazy. Two thousand years ago, believing in God made perfect sense; there was so much that we didn’t understand about the world, and an appeal to the divine seemed to help explain the otherwise inexplicable. Those original motivations have long since evaporated. In response, theologians have continued to alter what they mean by “God,” and struggled to reconcile the notion’s apparent internal contradictions — unwilling to take those contradictions as a signal of the fundamental incoherence of the idea.

To be fair, much of Dawkins’s book does indeed take aim at a rather unsophisticated form of belief, one that holds a much more literal (and wholly implausible, not to mention deeply distasteful) notion of what God means. That’s not a completely unwarranted focus, even if it does annoy the well-educated Terry Eagletons of the world; after all, that kind of naive theology is a guiding force among a very large and demonstrably influential fraction of the population. The reality of a religion is manifested in the actions of its adherents. But even an appeal to more nuanced thinking doesn’t save God from the dustbin of intellectual history. The universe is going to keep existing without any help, peacefully solving its equations of motion along the way; if we want to find meaning through compassion and love, we have to create it ourselves.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Religion
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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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