“Come out, come out, wherever you are!” So says an attempt to flush a hidden deity into the open. Setting up scientific criteria to accept evidence to prove something is a reasonable endeavor, but how well does it work in proving the existence of God? Like many philosophers, I maintain it’s impossible: there is no way to objectively prove the existence of God scientifically and any attempt to set up such a proof is doomed to failure from the beginning. The reasons would be similar to my post last week about finding a perfect holy book through objective reason.
Before I go farther, I do believe that God has spoken to the human race in many ways and through various media. God intervenes in the world, but not often, and although we can guess why he doesn’t do more, we don’t have a way to know for certain in this plane of the multiverse. Trying to figure out why a possible God doesn’t speak to us clearly, definitely and often must be part of a logical inquiry into the existence of God. Yes, I’ve already heard: “It’s because He doesn’t exist.” Please pardon me if I don’t see that as obvious, and I’m not saying that just because I’m a Catholic priest. In my book, we should consider this possibility more before rejecting it.
Bob Seidensticker, in the post I cited last week (Atheism: What Would It Take to Change Your Mind?) finishes with his characteristics of a divinely guided religion:
-The religion would have no internal divisions or doctrinal conflicts. To take a Christian example, Docetism (the idea that Jesus only seemed to be a human) was put to rest only at the First Council of Nicaea in 325. Other heresies took centuries more to resolve. One could pretend that the various twists and turns taken by Christianity were divinely guided, but where is the evidence for that?
Would Free Will account for human division and conflict? I think so, given our human nature and inclination to argue about almost anything, violently at times. Could a deity override this? Sure, but at what cost? Perhaps the qualities cited above about meddling with Free Will would serve. A postulated higher being would seem to put a primary value on human Free Will, from the experience of the human race, I believe. To say we could have Free Will and all make the same choice may be possible (even desirable), but doesn’t agree with the experience of history or seem to be likely, in my humble opinion.
-It would not only celebrate reason, it would provide necessary evidence and wouldn’t require faith.
The nature of evidence of God’s existence and human acceptance of it is another problem. Is there evidence for anything that is universally accepted? I’m not talking about what all scientists or all theologians or all people in a particular subset of the human race might accept (not that I can think of anything any of these classes accept universally), but something all human beings can accept without exception.
Belief in the Resurrection of Christ is one issue that illustrates the difficulty of accepting evidence. (Please bear with me if you believe there is no evidence of that, or that he existed in the first place.) The Apostle Paul says that the risen Christ appeared to the Disciples, to 500 believers at once, and lastly to him, who never knew him before the Crucifixion (as far as we know). Of course, Paul is the only commonly accepted eyewitness that’s written directly about the event (the Gospels are second hand accounts) and it could be difficult to believe Paul over almost two millennia and the distance of three cultures and languages. If Paul were living and breathing today, would everyone believe him? What if he took a picture with at time marker, or got the 500 to sign an affidavit? Would the testimony of Lazarus, brought back to life, be sufficient? Paul didn’t convince everyone he knew personally in his lifetime, and perhaps Lazarus didn’t either. Jesus surely didn’t convince everyone he came into contact with he was the Son of God, or else he wouldn’t have been crucified. What has changed in 2000 years? There are people who reject proven scientific fact for reasons unknown; there are people who still believe the Earth is flat, or was created in the year 4004 BC. And if we got to God’s hiding place to ask, the answer we might get if we asked this definitive proof to be repeated for our benefit might be: “Wasn’t once enough?”
As a teacher, I know repetition is important to learning, but some things can only be done once. If I want to show a class what happens when you blow up a car, I may only have one car to blow up. There might be a reason a supreme deity wouldn’t want to prove itself to every generation periodically.
The problem of evidence is nothing would be completely satisfactory at all time in all places: that seems to be a general characteristic of the human race. It’s not true just because some people delude themselves and won’t see what’s in front of them. It’s the nature of human perception and acceptance.
Mr. Seidensticker has also advanced the notion that in opposition to C. S. Lewis’ trilemma that Christ had to be a lunatic, a liar, or a Lord, that he would be best described as a Legend. To some extent I could agree with that, but would go on to say that the genesis of any legend lies in an event (or events) beyond ordinary comprehension: they do not arise from thin air, or an individual’s imagination. Part of the wonder of mythology is figuring out the events behind the stories, such as the theory that the Black Sea inundation and related events in prehistory triggered the various flood stories from antiquity. Even if we don’t take the account of Christ’s Resurrection literally, I think it reasonable to say something far from the ordinary happened, something that defied description, perhaps something unique in human experience. Saying that any Biblical event is a Legend doesn’t disqualify it as proof of the existence of God or Christ acting in the world on its own.
How and why someone in antiquity would manufacture a religion such as Christianity from thin air is difficult to comprehend, especially since that author would have no idea of what the shape of its future history would be. Christianity wasn’t inevitable on its own, and its success in dominating Europe in the First Millennium wasn’t inevitable either, from a purely human perspective. From Julian the Apostate on there are many points history could have taken a different turn. I might offer that in many ways through history, the ideals of Christianity have yet to succeed at all, and Chesterton’s observation they really haven’t been tried at all has some merit.
Like the problem with a proposed perfect holy book I wrote about last week, human nature would make a religion with no internal divisions or doctrinal conflicts is as impossible as creating a workable, one world government. Would a possible God would let human beings try work things out on their own? Depends on the deity’s priorities, I guess, He’s probably have to suppress some Free Will to get it done. Would it be a reasonable goal, or hope? Of course it would, and is. Unfortunately, it would probably take a hostile alien invasion to bring that about either a one world government or a one world religion. Reconciling the Protestant Reformation and the Great Schism of 1054 would probably take a global catastrophe, at least.
Postulating the existence of something requires a thorough definition that takes into account existing realities. So we are looking for an entity that capable of creating the Universe from nothing, infinitely intelligent and powerful, has the ability to affect that creation at will, and not confined by time and space. The entity also has the power to conceal an essential part of itself from us, and has chosen to do so for most of recorded history (and before, for all we know). Existence of something doesn’t depend on our belief in it, or there would be no purpose for scientific research, so God wouldn’t need us to believe in Him to exist, or else it wouldn’t be God (in my book). So how do we demand this God of superior reason and wisdom to come into the open? It might be the same as a 3 year old demanding the President of the United States order an invasion Canada because he or she hates winter.
Any definition of God, or any supreme deity must account for the reason God would be hiding most of the time. Would a fully revealed God, provable by science, fatally stifle human drive and creativity? Would it make us reckless, assuming God will bail us out of all kinds of self-inflicted trouble? Would we assume God would spoon feed us everything, and not use our minds actively to discover the nature of the universe? I think this kind of reasoning could give us a line or reasoning, an insight why God would want people to at least work to find Him. Even if we couldn’t deduce exactly why a superior being would be hidden, we might have to trust its superior intelligence provides a reason that’s logical even if we couldn’t comprehend it. A logic beyond our comprehension for part or the whole of reality is possible, I believe.
This possible God has also deliberately chosen not to impose a belief system or an active government authority directly on the human race. This is true whether we believe God has spoken to us or not, and there’s a difference between a God giving commandments we are free to accept or reject, and giving a clear mandate that can’t be rejected. (Yes, I know some will say we have a clear mandate; please bear with me.) If we were puppets of a deity, there wouldn’t be a debate about whether he existed or not, or any chance of doing something other than what he wanted. No independent thought or action, no discovery or investigation, no desire or drive would exist, either. So if we postulate the existence of God, a God who permits free will would have to be part of the theory, because that’s something that’s been observed throughout human history: there is no God who openly manipulates human history; or a God who brooks no rebellion without direct punishment.
If someone wants a God that micromanages the universe and issues clear, regular bulletins about what to do, that’s fine. It’s not happening, but it’s all right to want that. To say this has to be the definition of God is more than a stretch: if someone wants to prove the non-existence of God, then the existence of any possible God has to be included, not just the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God and not just one commonly desired. To draw up a description of God from a wish list and say He doesn’t exist because He isn’t what we want him to be doesn’t seem to be fair in my opinion.
A superior being could pretend to be a deity, absolutely. Saying a superior technological species could impersonate a god is logical, as Star Trek V demonstrated. To some extent, the Europeans who colonized the world under the guise of bringing true religion did this in the 16th-20th centuries. You could fool people for a while, but wouldn’t something give you away sooner or later? I vaguely remember a couple of science fiction novels about superior beings pretending to be divine, and I think the limits to this enterprise could be imagined rather easily: superior beings couldn’t be perfect and would be vulnerable in some way. Sooner or later, we’d realize they didn’t fit the job description. You can fool some of the people some of the time. . .
We can get an idea of what it would be like to be God from various God Games available for our entertainment. Andrew Greeley wrote a science fiction novel about such a game. We even know what’s its like to cheat at such games, access a code that makes everything work out no matter how we play things. The difficulties of a micromanger God would have is something we could put our hands on in a limited way.
For me, the issue is what part of human experience science and/or reason can’t answer for us definitely? A human being kisses another human being. Why? It could be an expression of love, it could be a greeting ritual, it could be an attempt to embarrass someone, in some warped culture it could be an expression of contempt. If it’s a sign of love, what kind of love is it: two lovers, parent/child, friends, enemies? We can ask and they can tell us. Why would we believe them, because they may wish to deceive us? Unless we can do a Vulcan mind meld, we can’t know the entire experience these two people have had, or whether they’re being honest with us or not. Maybe it’s part of a lifetime relationship, or maybe it’s just one kiss. Maybe it’s out of deep love, or maybe they’re just showing us they can do it. A kiss can prove everything and nothing. The question isn’t meaningless, but how we process the answer we get depends almost exclusively on our perceptions. The question can’t really be answered fully objectively, it can only be answered subjectively.
We can describe the biology of love, but not the motivation. Why might I love one person, and not their identical twin? Experience shapes a great deal of love, but a lover and an enemy can treat me exactly the same way for different reasons and produce different feelings. The essence of love goes beyond reason, but it’s part of the core of human existence. We choose who we believe and what we believe: it’s neither good nor bad, it’s just the way things are. Yet I don’t think many would deny love exists, be they theists or atheists.
So it would be with a supreme being. So it is with us: some of us see evidence for the existence of God all around us, and some don’t. Science can profoundly inform the question, but not answer it. So setting up proof for God to demonstrate existence conclusively isn’t possible, and probably won’t change anyone’s mind. Objective proofs for the non-existence of God are similarly flawed as well, which most students in Philosophy 101 would discover. If an atheist isn’t able to make a leap of faith or look for God beyond reason, that’s fine, I’m not going to stand in judgement of anyone. To say reason is the only way to answer the question is overreaching, I believe, because there are many things central about human existence, including the nature of love, where reason can only take us so far.
For me, the question of the existence of God begins with the question: “Why existence?” Science can answer the question of “How existence?” Science and reason can only inform the first question, not answer it, and expecting more than that doesn’t seem to be reasonable. Expecting a God that would mandate belief and micromanage creation doesn’t seem reasonable, if we are to exercise genuine Free Will.