How to Get God Wrong Wrong

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Internet lists have become a rather ubiquitous (if not annoying) thing, and can range anywhere from the banal to… hmmm- well, whatever is slightly above banal.

The best ones (by which I mean most amusing) are those which try to bring some sort of persuasiveness to an argument, either for or against something. And the cream of the crop naturally comes when someone tries to convince you that everything you (and everyone else) thought you knew about some subject is wrong, usually because Science.

Original in block quotes.

Why do we still think about God the way people did in biblical times when slavery was considered normal, women were subhuman chattel, and everyone believed the world was flat?

It’s fairly easy to see where this is going, but notwithstanding this somewhat clichéd
argument, I always find it interesting that authors who pen these sorts of arguments seem oblivious that the exact same argument could be pressed against them, and the comparison may not be as flattering.

Let’s reword this and see what happens.

Why do we still think about God the way people did in modern times when sex trafficking and sex slavery was rampant, unborn children were murdered- often because they were female or had some genetic defect-, millions were killed in massive wars and millions more for the sake of political ideologies, and everyone believed that a limited tool for measuring specific aspects of the universe was exhaustive of the universe’s meaning?

The point, of course, is that any period of history has its blind spots and moral failings, but by the same token neither is any historical period a monolith. As such, this sort of argument only has teeth insofar as it is an equal opportunity biter.

That old image of God is drastically out of sync with present reality — but it doesn’t have to be.

Curious; which image of God are we talking about here? What, precisely, is the “old” image of God?

Science and God can support each other if we are willing to rethink God in light of knowledge no one ever had before.

God is arguably the most powerful concept in the human mind. But there’s no single idea of God. Rather, they’ve been evolving nonstop for thousands of years.

Unconscious evolution of God-ideas is inevitable, but conscious evolution of God-ideas always seems to be harshly discouraged. This has to change.

Harshly discouraged in what manner? What does the author consider to be an evolution of God-ideas?

We’ve discovered that everything astronomers can see with the greatest instruments — all the stars, planets, and glowing gas clouds in our galaxy, and all the distant galaxies in the entire visible universe — total less than half of one percent of what’s out there.

Our universe is almost entirely made of two dynamic, invisible presences called dark matter and dark energy, which were unknown and undreamed of until the twentieth century.

For billions of years they have been in unending competition, with dark matter’s gravity pulling ordinary (atomic) matter together and dark energy flinging space apart. Their cosmic interaction with ordinary matter has spun the visible galaxies into being and created the only possible homes for the evolution of planets and life.

While science can’t tell us what God is, it can rule out the impossible —

There is a bit of a cognitive disconnect here. The author begins by stating that all we have been able to see and know about the universe by means of more recent scientific and astronomical advances amounts to a minuscule piece of what’s out there. But in the next breath we are told that science can rule out the impossible, but the difficulty here is that within the parameters already outlined, what science might deem impossible may actually not be impossible, since the overwhelming majority of what is out there is (admittedly) not known to us. The upshot is that what might be considered impossible may actually only be within the limited scope of what we know (or can know).

A more accurate way of phrasing this is that, as far as the limited toolset of the scientific method can determine, such and such is impossible. That is a long way, however, from providing definitive demonstration of the impossibility of something.

and really, nothing short of that will ever free us to discover a God that actually exists in the scientific universe.

There is of course an unsubstantiated premise here which will carry through the rest of the article: that God exists (or can be discovered) in the “scientific universe.” This is evidently contrasted with the ‘old’ view of God which would place him (presumably) outside of the scientific universe.

The sticking point, of course, is that the implicit scientism here cannot cash the check it writes, since the premise is not susceptible to the tools with which science can obtain knowledge of anything.

One might wonder from the outset how the author’s premise has any ability to threaten the traditional understanding of God (within classical theism at least, which I am using as interchangeable with traditional theology as it is about the only form of traditional theology with the pedigree to be used this generically), since it is a matter of doctrine that God is not a part of the material world. The author evidently believes it impossible for anything to exist which is not part of the material world (another premise that science cannot speak to), which means most of this exercise is speaking past the subject altogether.

But let’s press on anyway.

What’s surprising is that the major source of conflict between religion and science is simply traditional theology — these are not things essential to our relationship to God, which is fortunate, since they’re all impossible.

Actually, the major source of any conflict between religion and science is when either one begins to operate outside of its area of competence. Just as science has no competence to adjudicate any theological understanding, theology has no means by which to determine the validity of any scientific theory, at least as far as its particular aims and methodologies are concerned.

As such, the difficulty here isn’t actually traditional theology, but rather the latent scientism.

So, here are five things we need to accept to truly understand God:

No hubris to see here. The irony is that even the most doctrinally dense version of classical theism would not probably presume that accepting said doctrines was anywhere near “truly” understanding God.

1. God could not have existed before the universe.

The whole history of the universe shows that complexity evolves from simplicity. At the Big Bang there was nothing but free particles and energy, not even atoms, yet over time atoms, galaxies, stars, elements, planets, and life slowly evolved. That’s how our universe works.

Something as complex as a God who could plan and create a universe could not have been there to start things off.

Within traditional theology God is not understood as complex; in fact, God is conceived of as the only truly simple being since he is not a composite being nor defined by potency and act. Our universe does seem to work (as far as we know- see above) by moving from simplicity to complexity, but that is the nature of contingent beings and, within the standard view of classical theism, part and parcel of contingent beings composition of act and potency.

But the simplicity of God contrasted with the complexity of create being- as understood within classical theology- actually means something quite different than the sense of complexity mentioned here, since the complexity within question in traditional theology has less to do with the constituent components of any being but rather with its relation to act and potency. It is because God is simple (and thus pure act) that God necessarily exist irrespective of the existence of the universe. The notion of temporal relation expressed here is actually quite beside the point, as we will see more in depth later.

2. God did not create the universe.

There is no clear beginning to the universe. Cosmologists are continually pushing back the beginning. For a few decades it was thought to be the Big Bang, but a larger theory called “cosmic inflation” now explains what set up the initial conditions for the Big Bang, and cosmic inflation is now part of our origin story.

This argument is interesting due primarily to its anachronism. The Big Bang as a possible beginning to the universe is, within the scope of human history, a rather recent notion. Most human cosmologies throughout history have assumed an eternal universe of some sort, within which some form of ‘creation’ story transpired, but with the fundamental notion that the material world or matter is at base eternal, even within theistic presuppositions.

More curious is that the author sees a particular event (the Big Bang) not being the “beginning” as an implicit demonstration against what has been deemed traditional theology, even though traditional theology has never really argued that the Big Bang was, in fact, the beginning.

To be sure, within modern times many theists have latched onto the Big Bang as some sort of “this is how God started the universe” type of story, but that hardly constitutes traditional theology or classical theism.

As an aside, the author’s attempted point here is in fact a wonderful illustration as to why we should only let our methodologies stay within their fields of competence. To take the Big Bang as the creation event is a dangerous claim, for alternate theories such as those proposed here can easily dismantle what can become a supposed scientific proof of what is a theological concept, with the result being that the theological concept needlessly suffers the most. The truth here is that the Big Bang as creation event (or even the beginning of the universe) is something that cannot be demonstrated scientifically, and as such science is a terrible means of demonstrating a theological proposition in this case, and would be so even if it could be demonstrated scientifically, given the limited nature of its methodology and the scope of what is susceptible to its methods.

What caused cosmic inflation? A fascinating theory based on mathematical extrapolation but zero data describes a strange state of being called “eternal inflation” that may have come before cosmic inflation — and is still continuing outside our universe. There could be countless universes immersed in eternal inflation.

It is further more curious that in an article attempting to discover God within the scientific universe, the author buttresses her point with speculations which not only have no observational data, but which by definition could never have observational data and thus could never be demonstrated scientifically. But let’s leave that aside. It is, of course, entirely possible that there are an infinite number of universes engaged in eternal inflation. We have no way of ever knowing this, and even if mathematical models can incorporate such a state, we might create a model that explains (as far as its methodology is able, of course) the supposed conditions of the universe but which can never be demonstrated to be indicative of reality. But all of this is actually quite irrelevant to classical theology’s understanding of God’s relation to the universe vis-a-vis creation.

As a prominent example, the exemplar of classical theology- St. Thomas Aquinas- famously argued that it is impossible to philosophically demonstrate that the universe is not eternal. Of course, within the rediscovered Aristotelianism that was all the rage in his time the eternality of the cosmos was taken as a given, and he saw no means within the tools of philosophy to demonstrate otherwise. He therefore maintained that the non-eternality of the universe was a matter of revelation, rather than of philosophy or even natural philosophy.

As such, in Aquinas’ arguments surrounding creation he took it as a philosophical matter of indifference if the cosmos was eternal or not, for the very fact that all creation is characterized by act and potency entailed that, irrespective of whether the universe was eternal or not, it could not by definition be its own principle of being, since there must be a cause to bring it from potency to act.

As a common illustration, it is entirely possible to conceive of an infinite train of moving boxcars stretching forwards and backwards without end. But the principle of movement is not inherent to those boxcars; as far as trains go there must be an engine that is providing the means of locomotion. Pushing the length of boxcars back into eternity to describe the motion of one boxcar pulling any other boxcar is merely an infinite regress, and does nothing to actually explain anything about the motion of the boxcars.

In Aquinas’ arguments about God and creation (and thus those of classical theism), the presumed eternality of the universe did not pose any particular problem because the relationship of God to creation is not primarily a question of some temporal priority but rather of ontological priority. Aquinas could grant philosophically that it is no contradiction to state that God created eternally (although he didn’t believe this), since the ontological priority of God’s relation to creation is not temporally predicated. An infinite number of universes in eternal inflation would, within the presuppositions of classical theism, exist in an identical relationship.

So where’s the beginning? Before eternity? That phrase doesn’t mean anything.

It should of course be noted that the author’s notion of eternity here is, as she admitted, something that has zero observational data, and is something that can never be known within a scientific universe. But further, the question here about beginnings- as noted above- really misses classical theism’s primary understanding of God’s relation to the universe, and as such doesn’t have any teeth. Even in an eternal universe the ‘beginning’ need not be understood by means of temporal priority but would actually be (in either case) primarily understood as ontological priority. The beginning (and non-eternality; at least in comparison to God’s presumed eternality) of creation is thus predicated on God’s ontological priority, rather than being a demonstration of the same.

If we insist that God can only be God by having created this universe, then we don’t understand what we’re crediting God with having created and never will.

There is a bit of equivocation here. In traditional theology the understanding of God creating the universe carries with it a much more indeterminate content. That is, the understanding is not that God created only this universe (as opposed to supposedly not having created other universes) but rather is more expansive; whatever exists that is not God was created by God. The notion of ‘universe’ is also somewhat anachronistic, since traditional theology is more inclined to speak of ‘creation’ in this broader and more inclusive sense. Further, it is a bit of an equivocation to employ the term universe (which in its traditional sense comprises the totality of existence) to other ‘universes’ which are imagined to somehow exist apart from it, as if the (another?) totality of existence could exist apart from itself without becoming conceptually nonsensical.

3. God can not know everything.

In our universe, no consciousness can know everything, because there is no possible unified view. According to Einstein’s theory of relativity, events don’t happen in the same order for two travelers moving at close to the speed of light with respect to each other.

The key terms here are “in our,” which actually may or may not hold for all beings within our universe (since Science may very well say otherwise in the future, as it is prone to do). But that is entirely beside the main point, which is that the conception of God that the author is arguing against here has nothing to do with the God of classical theism’s conception. After all, the theory of relativity postulates things as she has outlined, and for beings within the universe the conclusion would hold true (as far as we presently know). But that premise of being “in our universe” is the premise that is in question, since classical theism would postulate that God is “outside” of the universe; that is, is not part of the created order, no matter how many “universes” there may be. The author may argue that this is an impossible state, but the important point is that this premise of supposed impossibly is not a scientific conclusion, but is rather a philosophical premise since science cannot say anything about the possibility or impossibility of anything that is not susceptible to its methodology.

It’s not their perception: the same events really do happen in different orders in their frames of reference. So there is no absolute truth that God could even know. Much truth is local.

This is true (as far as we presently know) for observers within the universe, but what relativity cannot by definition touch on is the potential for an observation that is not within the universe. I hesitate to employ the term “outside” of the universe since, utilizing the terminology employed here and recognizing the equivocation that has already occurred, such a term might lead one to think that theism conceives of God as outside of the universe as if God somehow stands apart from it as another being looking in. However, while this might be a common misperception, it does not accurately reflect classical theism’s understanding of God’s relation to the universe.

God doesn’t exist outside of the universe (nor within as anything within the universe does), but rather is related to the universe as its principle of being/existing. God is not an observer of events or beings or anything in a univocal sense with other observers, since anything that exists only does so by participation in God’s being. Thus, by this very principle God would necessarily know everything, since there is nothing that exists apart from participation in God’s being which is the only principle of existence.

Furthermore — from any point of view — most of the universe is forever beyond contact. Every galaxy is surrounded by a cosmic horizon, because there hasn’t been time enough in the age of the universe for information to arrive from beyond the horizon — that’s what creates the horizon. Nor will it ever arrive, because the expansion of space is accelerating, pushing the most distant galaxies out of our sight over the cosmic horizon, emptying out the visible universe.

For those within the universe this may be true, but since God isn’t conceived of relating to the universe either spatially or temporally (at least not in the sense things within the universe do), this sort of critique doesn’t even apply to the traditional conception of God’s relation to the universe.

So no intelligence anywhere could ever know what was going on or had gone on “everywhere.” Nor could God “be everywhere” (and thus know all local knowledge) or God wouldn’t even be in touch with its own self.

There is another conceptual error here, and the author is really arguing past the traditional understanding of the divine being. Her argument may hold as far as its premises go, but it is precisely the main premise (that of scientism) that is not substantiated and in fact cannot be substantiated by means of its own premises, thus rendering this argument fundamentally incoherent.

At the level of elementary particles, nature is random, according to quantum physics, and the behavior of any single particle can never be predicted. Probabilities are all that can be predicted.

A major difficulty here (and in the rest of this section) is speaking of randomness as if it is a cause, which it is not. To say that something is random is to really describe a level of ignorance about cause. This ignorance may or may not be predicated on the competence of our observational tools; it could very well be that there are causes to which we may never be privy.

For example, physicists can predict the number of atoms in a gram of radium that will radioactively decay in the next minute, but not which atoms. On the larger scale of biology, evolution is also unpredictable in principle because it depends on random mutations interacting with a changing environment.

By what principle, one might wonder, are certain things unpredictable? If randomness is not a cause, then the only principle by which something would be unpredictable is unsusceptibility to a particular methodologies ability to detect or define. One might perhaps be accurate in saying that within a certain methodology X is in principle unpredictable, but that does not speak to a lack of cause (“random,” “unpredictable”) but rather to the competence of that methodology.

Consequently, no God could have “used” the process of evolution to create us, because if such a God had any intention before starting — for example, to create human beings — that would never be what ended up evolving. For the same reasons God couldn’t intend us, God can’t intend what happens to us.

Again, this might hold if describing an agent to whom the limitations of that which the scientific method can observe and quantify apply, but such an argument in and of itself fails to determine the possibility or impossibility of an agent to whom such limitations did not apply knowing or “using” such and such process.

5. God can not violate the laws of nature.

Nothing that exists in the real universe can violate the laws of nature, since what exists is an expression of those laws. The belief that God can violate the laws of nature is based on the assumption that the spiritual realm is somehow separate and independent from the physical universe, so God is unconstrained by physics.

God might be roughly conceived as “separate” from the universe, but this is only an analogical means of describing that God relates to the universe as not being identical with the universe; in other words, God is not a contingent being, whereas everything that isn’t God is. On a more fundamental level classical theism would not conceive of God as separate from the universe since the universe only exists due to participation in God’s being, since God is conceived of as being itself. In this sense, it is incoherent to think that God stands outside of the universe as some sort of separate observer or actor.

Yet this nonphysical God can presumably reach across in some inexplicable way to affect events in the physical realm.

This is the type of language that underlines the conceptual confusion inherent in this post. One might roughly say that God “reaches across,” but since every being, every particle, everything in the universe is contingent and derives its existence by means of participation in God’s being, it is incoherent to envision God as “reaching across.”

This idea may have been attractive in an era when no one understood the nature of our universe, but that time is past.

For classical theism at least, this is certainly not the conception of God that is postulated, so the bit of historical snobbery here really has no teeth whatsoever.

A God that resides outside our universe cannot have any contact with us. It can’t be our God.

The first difficulty here is that the scientism from which this point is argued cannot in principle make such a determination. The second difficulty is that this conception of God residing “outside” of the universe is really a straw man, at least as far as traditional theology is concerned, for the reasons aforementioned.

Many atheists think these impossibilities prove there is no God, but that conclusion doesn’t follow.

The irony here is that the “impossibilities” mentioned cannot be substantiated by the very methodology arguing against them, and thus likewise as conclusions do not follow.

We’ve merely stated what God can’t be. We haven’t considered yet what God could be.

Unfortunately, Science is not very good at the via negativa since such determinations are simply not within its purview.

We’ve all grown up so steeped in some tradition or another that it’s hard to grasp our chance to re-define the uncannily powerful word “God.” But we can do just that, and the wisdom — or fear — we use will play a leading role in shaping the future of our planet.

How do we begin?

Perhaps by noting that the preceding arguments haven’t been about traditional theology’s conception of God?

With the bottom line. Once we let go of the grandiose, impossible claims, what is the essence that is still God? For me, to be worthy of being called “God,” God has to do for us the central things that the divine has always done: give us serenity, hope, confidence, and a big new perspective.

God has to nurture our aspirations and open our minds and hearts so we can feel our deep ties to each other, to the future, to our planet, and to this astonishing universe. God must inspire our personal quest for meaning and bravery in an often frightening world and give us common ground.

These are perhaps all interesting attributes one might want (or require) of God, but what about any of these attributes would actually warrant the title of “God” without severe equivocation? I understand that the author insists (on the basis of scientism) that God must exist in the physical universe, but why bother equivocating? Why not simply jettison the notion of “God” altogether and opt for something else?

Less than that is not worthy of being called God. But more than that is unnecessary.

This is curious, since the author is using the terms “less” and “more” in regards to unquantifiable notions. I realize that this is probably her only loosely speaking, but the real question is this: On the basis of the scientism under which this entire argument has been made, what possible reason is there to conceive of any of these unquantifiable things in such a way in a scientific universe? Aspirations, feelings, hope, etc.; all of these would necessarily be reduced to the firing of synapses which create certain brains states that we semantically term “hope”, “aspiration,” etc. But in the scientific universe these brain states have no content beyond the pure physicality of the event, which renders this entire positive understanding of God completely incoherent.

Ultimately, the author’s premise is not only self-defeating as a methodology, but must of necessity cannibalize the God concept she is trying to consciously define. Well, not consciously in an actual sense, since consciousness is also just another brain state that has no content above the physicality of its causes; after all, in what sense might we consider a couple pounds of meat to have consciousness in a meaningful sense, or, for that matter, to even presume that such a notion of “meaning” rises above its semantic signaling, ad infinitum…

If we humans are ever going to have a God capable of helping us survive in the long term, we have to take more responsibility for discerning what it is or might be. We need a God that connects us spiritually to the real universe and can guide our globally connected species toward a long-term and honorable civilization.

The difficulty, of course, is that within her premise of scientism “responsibility” has no content, discerning is not an actual process that can occur, spirituality cannot be more than a physical event, and civilizations cannot be honorable or not simply because concepts like honor have no meaningful content beyond the semantic import of describing a brain state.

To be sure, the author understands that God can only exist within a physical, scientific universe. While her premise is certainly open to question, the greatest difficulty this article suffers from is arguing against another premise as if it accepts her own. In other words, she marshals premises and arguments against classical theism as if the premises she employs are those employed by those who hold to classical theism, rather than trying to demonstrate an internal lack of coherence, for example. It does no good to argue against another’s position based on a premise they don’t accept (and which, in actuality, is itself self-defeating).

After all, in the midst of this post it hasn’t been argued that any proffered description of the scientific universe is incorrect, but rather I have been happy to grant those descriptions. The major line of disagreement is mainly when a specific premise (that of scientism) is brought to bear upon those descriptions so as to render a particular conclusion under the guise of science, as science is pressed into service in a field where its methodologies have no competence. And since that premise is not a scientific one but rather a philosophical one (and an incoherent one as far as its presuppositions go), the conclusions reached end up as non sequiturs, and for the most part talk past the interlocutor altogether.

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Jason Watson

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