What “Proof of God” justifies your position? (part one)

What “Proof of God” justifies your position?

I begin a four-part series today.

Philosophers, theologians, and scientists have been grappling with the issue of God’s existence for millennia. Much of the discussion in past centuries may have been motivated simply by curiosity or by a protest against theological dogma. For many of us in the modern world, the notion of God is a very private one. God may show up in our prayers but frequently doesn’t have much effect in our daily decisions. Why might it still be important to ask whether or not God exists, today?

Why does God still matter?

Related imageLet me state up front that I don’t really care what you truly, deeply believe in the privacy of your own mind. You could believe you are the King of Narnia. You could believe Harry Potter or Peter Pan are real, for all I care. I know many people who believe things at least as improbable as this.

You may not believe it, but I don’t like debating people’s faith, no matter what arguments they use to justify or rationalize why they believe. I don’t think rejecting religious beliefs is the best road to atheism. In many ways, atheism is not really a belief system at all and is certainly not a replacement for religion. That’s why I’m an “empirical physicalist“; it seems more like a philosophical position than simply not believing the “God claims” of others.

But people’s beliefs, particularly the heartfelt ones, have a habit of making their way into public policy. If you say, “In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un,” you are now using your beliefs (without much, if any, objective evidence) to justify, recommend, or set public policy. And that public policy could lead to a proliferation of global nuclear war, ending the time of “God’s children” on this planet.

Is Trump’s authority from God?

proof of godThat’s where I have trouble.

Religious beliefs are among the most blatant and pernicious belief systems when it comes to influencing public policy. Religious beliefs gave us prohibition and help governments and other public groups justify their ongoing wars against drugs, abortion, homosexuality, the sexual revolution, feminism, evolution theory, Big Bang theory, science, and – most notably – against other religions.

In the United States, despite being in the vast religious majority, Christians feel they increasingly suffer from religious persecution. And they have begun to take steps to reverse what they see as their exclusion from public policy formation. Many atheists rush to point out that there is no persecution of Christianity, only a desired leveling of the moral playing field, a removal of the privileges commonly granted religious organizations such as freedom from taxation and the “right” to deny public service on the basis of Faith.

For this reason, it is important for those who hold religious beliefs to examine the reasons they use to justify their public policy positions.

For many people, a belief in God comes along with the religious beliefs they grew up with. There is no doubt that the emotional and social support many receive through the beliefs they share with their family and community provides great comfort. When asked why they believe, people will point to nature or the universe and ask how one could otherwise explain the existence of such beauty. They may claim they “feel” God or have a “God-shaped-hole” in their hearts that yearns for a connection to something greater than themselves.

These are emotional justifications; they simply assume that God must exist because that is the only way the believer can imagine their feelings having a source. I usually try to be more rational about something as potentially important as a belief in how the universe works. I certainly hope none of our politicians make their important decisions on the basis of their “feelings.” Psychological studies into paranoia and schizophrenia suggest that feelings or subjective experiences are not always the best basis for making good decisions.

Many people have fuzzy notions of God. God could be a “force,” a “presence,” or a “Guardian/Protector,” for example. For many, their idea of God has some basis in their holy texts.

Perhaps unique to the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) is a belief in a single God. Other religions like Hinduism and Buddhism either have a proliferation of gods or no god in particular. The central claim of the Abrahamic religions is that God is the Creator of all: the universe, the Earth, all life, and the human soul.

In the next post, I’ll discuss the nature or character of the God of the Bible and we can start examining the claims made of His existence in greater detail.

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About Paul Anlee

Canadian author Paul Anlee writes provocative, epic sci-fi in the style of Asimov, Heinlein, Asher, and Reynolds, stories that challenge our assumptions and stretch our imagination. Literary, fact-based, and fast-paced, the Deplosion series explores themes in philosophy, politics, religion, economics, AI, VR, nanotech, synbio, quantum reality, and beyond. "When I was very young, a teacher asked our class to write about what we wanted to be when we grew up. My story was titled 'Me the Everything.' I've been fortunate to come close to fulfilling that dream in my life. Computer programming, molecular biology, nanotechnology, systems biology, synthetic biology, mutual fund sales, and photocopy repair; I've done them all. I've spent way too much of my life in school, eventually earning degrees in computing science (BSc) and in molecular biology and genetics (PhD). 'After decades of reading almost nothing but high-tech science fiction, I decided to take a shot at writing some. I aim for stories that are true to the best available science, while pushing my imagination far beyond the edge of what we know today. I love biology, particle physics, cosmology, artificial intelligence, cognitive psychology, politics, and economics. My philosophy is empirical physicalism and I blog regularly about the science and the ideas found in my novels. I believe fiction should educate and stimulate, as much as it entertains. "I currently live in Cuenca, Ecuador where I study Spanish and Chen-style Tai Chi , when I'm not working on exciting and provocative new stories. Visit my web site and blogs at www.paulanlee.com."

2 Responses to What “Proof of God” justifies your position? (part one)

  1. In the course of day-to-day conversation, virtually everyone has heard someone make the statement, “I am not religious,” in order to convey a lack of affiliation with theistic belief systems such as Christianity. But one can only doubt Christianity from the vantage point of another belief system, because everyone needs a belief system in order to make sense of one’s experience. Therefore, one can only be “not religious” from the vantage point of a different religion (or belief system), whether or not one chooses to apply the term religion to one’s belief system.

    Defining the term religion is very difficult:

    And, considering the difficulty of defining just what religion is, the meaning of a statement such as “I am not religious” is unclear. Dean Overman, a Templeton Scholar from Oxford University writes in A Case for the Divinity of Jesus:

    Defining what one means by the term “religion” is not an easy task. Keith Ward, former Regius Professor of Divinity and head of the theology department at Oxford University, wrote a highly acclaimed five-volume series on comparative religions. In one of his recent books, The Case for Religion, he notes that defining the term “religion” is not a simple undertaking: “Many colleges in America and Europe have courses on ‘Religion.’ These courses usually start with a lecture entitled ‘What is Religion?’ After running through a few dozen definitions, the lecturer almost invariably concludes that nobody knows what religion is, or is even sure that there is such a thing. The course continues to be called courses on religion, however, because that sounds better than having a course entitled, “I do not know what I am talking about.”

    There is no plausible benchmark for deciding when one can or cannot include a given set of beliefs as a religion:

    For example, some may try to define religion as “belief systems which include the existence of God.” But this definition would exclude religions such as Buddhism, Taoism, Jainism (an ancient religion from India), and certain forms of Satanism, etc. Atheists and agnostics can only portray themselves as “not religious” by first defining religion as belief systems which are theistic. But atheism and agnosticism fit many of the diverse definitions of religion present in religious scholarship.

    Everyone has a belief system, whether or not the word religion is applied

    And everyone (whether Christian, Hindu, atheist, or agnostic, etc.) has a set of beliefs, or an interpretive framework. This is the case whether or not one chooses to apply the term religion to one’s belief system. K.A. Smith comments in Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church:

    “We all – whether naturalists, atheists, Buddhists, or Christians – see the world through the grid of an interpretive framework – and ultimately this interpretive framework is religious in nature, even if not allied with a particular institutional religion.”

    Even the most hardened atheist needs an interpretive lens, through which to view the world, which is comprised of a set of beliefs. For example, atheism cites unintelligent natural processes of evolution working upon inanimate matter to explain the origin of conscious, intelligent, and personal beings such as ourselves.

    Atheism is superstitious, not theism:

    Outspoken atheists are often fond on portraying theistic interpretive frameworks such as Christianity as superstitious or “woo-woo,” but it is not difficult to see why atheism is clearly the more superstitious worldview: Citing a non-conscious cause for consciousness, an unintelligent cause for intelligence, an impersonal cause for personhood, or a non-rational cause for reason, (etc.) is impossible to philosophically justify because, as Edwar Feser puts it The Last Superstition, “a cause cannot give to its effect what it does not have to give.” Feser skillfully elaborates:

    …the cause of a fire might itself be on fire, as when a torch is used to start a brushfire, or it may instead have the power to produce fire, as a cigarette lighter has even when it is not being used.

    The traditional way of making this distinction is to say that a cause has the feature that it generates in the effect “formally” in the first sort of case (e.g. when both the cause and the effect are on fire) and “eminently” in the second sort of case (e.g. when the cause is not itself on fire, but has an inherent power to produce fire). If a cause didn’t contain all the features of its effect either formally or eminently, there would be no way to account for how the effect came about in just the way it did. Again, a cause cannot give to its effect what it does not have to give.

    Material things such as atoms and rocks do not contain (either formally or eminently) many of the features we as humans possess…such as consciousness, intelligence, personhood, reason, morality, love, etc. Keith Ward, a member of the Council of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, makes the same point as Feser in his book Doubting Dawkins: Why There Almost Certainly is a God.

    “…there is force in the classical philosophical axiom that, for a truly explanatory cause to be intelligible, it must contain its effects potentially in itself. As the classical philosophers put it, the cause must contain more reality than its effects.”

    The implication of this philosophical axiom cited by Feser and Ward is that the cause of conscious, intelligent, and personal (etc.) beings such as ourselves must necessarily have the effects of consciousness, intelligence and personhood contained potentially in itself. A cigarette lighter contains the effect of fire potentially in itself (even when not being used), but inanimate material things such as atoms and rocks do not contain the effects of consciousness, intelligence, or personhood potentially in themselves. This is why the only logical option is to cite a conscious, personal, and intelligent cause (read: God) for conscious, personal, and intelligent agents such as ourselves.

    Did mind produce matter, or did matter produce mind?:

    Which came first, intelligent mind (read: God’s mind), or matter? Did God’s mind produce matter, or did intelligent mind only first emerge after human brains evolved as a result of unintelligent processes working on mindless matter? Keith Ward continues:

    “Is intelligent mind an ultimate and irreducible feature of reality? Indeed, is it the ultimate nature of reality? Or is mind and consciousness an unforeseen and unintended product of basically material processes of evolution?”

    “If you look at the history of philosophy, it soon becomes clear that almost all the great classical philosophers took the first of these views. Plato, Aristotle, Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Locke, Berkeley, Kant, Hegel—they all argued that the ultimate reality, often hidden under the appearances of the material world or time and space, is mind or spirit.”

    Although it is a mind-bending concept for many people who live in a society with a deeply entrenched tradition of materialism (the philosophical view that matter comes first, and that consciousness is the eventual product of mindless material processes of evolution), it is important to note that modern physics has verified what the classical philosophers long ago concluded: Conscious mind (read: God’s mind) comes first, and matter is a product of conscious mind. As Max Planck, the Nobel Prize winning physicist who founded quantum physics, put it:

    “I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.”

    Planck also said,

    “Both religion and science require a belief in God. For believers, God is in the beginning, and for physicists He is at the end of all considerations… To the former He is the foundation, to the latter, the crown of the edifice of every generalized world view.”

    Princeton University quantum physicist Freeman Dyson, who assumed Einstein’s professorship in physics at Princeton when Einstein died, echoes Planck’s above comments:

    “Atoms are weird stuff, behaving like active agents rather than inert substances. They make unpredictable choices between alternative possibilities according to the laws of quantum mechanics. It appears that mind, as manifested by the capacity to make choices, is to some extent inherent in every atom. The universe is also weird, with its laws of nature that make it hospitable to the growth of mind. I do not make any clear distinction between mind and God. God is what mind becomes when it passes beyond the scale of our comprehension.”

    Considering how mind-bending and strange the concept of conscious mind preceding (and producing) matter must seem to the average person raised in a society with deeply seated materialistic assumptions, readers are encouraged to read my essay titled God Is Real…Why Modern Physics Has Discredited Atheism, Johns Hopkins University physicist Richard Conn Henry’s essay The Mental Universe, and University of California, Berkeley physicist Henry Stapp’s book Mindful Universe for a more thorough exploration of this topic.

    http://henry.pha.jhu.edu/The.mental.universe.pdf

    http://godevidence.com/2012/02/god-is-real/

    Please also view the following two videos which discuss the science which have led scientists such as Planck to reach the above conclusions:

  2. “Anybody who has seriously been engaged in scientific work of any kind realizes that over the entrance to the gates of the temple of science are written the words: Ye must have faith. It is a quality which the scientist cannot dispense with… Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. That is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are a part of nature and therefore a part of the very mystery that we are trying to solve.”
    .

    –Max Planck, the Nobel Prize winning physicist who founded quantum physics, and who is therefore one of the most important physicists of all time.

    ————————-

    Being an atheist must be truly frustrating. Struggling to talk reason into all of the obstinate faith-heads, who stubbornly insist on holding beliefs that are not solely the result of scientific inquiry, is surely exhausting. But the atheist who is thus frustrated would be well advised to just give up trying to talk sense into such people…because he is himself a faith-head.

    Many atheists would have you believe that they hold no beliefs which are not the product of scientific inquiry. But, unfortunately for atheists who believe this, such a state of affairs is actually impossible. The person who disbelieves in God can only do so from the vantage point of some other belief which precedes and therefore underlies scientific inquiry…not from the vantage point of a “skeptical“ lack of any belief.

    It is impossible to be a complete “skeptic” since to be skeptical of all beliefs would entail having no beliefs:

    Timothy Keller deftly points out that even the most hardened “skeptic” has a faith, in The Reason for God:

    “But even as believers should learn to look for reasons behind their faith, skeptics must learn to look for a type of faith hidden within their reasoning. All doubts, however skeptical and cynical they may seem, are really a set of alternate beliefs. You cannot doubt Belief A except from a position of faith in Belief B. For example, if you doubt Christianity because, ‘There can’t be just one true religion,’ you must recognize that this statement is itself an act of faith. No one can prove it empirically, and it is not a universal truth that everyone accepts. If you went to the Middle East and said, ‘There can’t be just one true religion,’ nearly everyone would say, ‘Why not?’ The reason you doubt Christianity’s Belief A is because you hold unprovable Belief B. Every doubt, therefore is based on a leap of faith.”

    Atheists are “skeptical” of Christianity (etc.), but are very rarely skeptical of the belief system that is alternately referred to as materialism or naturalism. This belief system says that the material world is all that exists and that therefore all natural phenomena will eventually be explainable in materialistic terms. The eminent philosopher of science Karl Popper contemptuously refers to this belief as “promissory materialism,” since it promises to eventually explain everything (including consciousness, the origin of life, the origin of the universe, etc.) in material terms.

    And the philosopher of science Michael Polanyi (who was also an Oxford University chemist, elected to the Royal Society) demonstrates why it is necessary to first believe before one can know. In other words, belief precedes knowing. Mark T. Mitchell discusses Polanyi’s philosophical insights in his article The False Dilemma of Modernity:

    “…the rationalist, who refuses to begin with any commitment or faith and instead seeks to proceed on the basis of reason alone, actually cannot avoid beginning with faith. At the simplest level, he necessarily begins with a faith in his rational faculties. Furthermore, as Polanyi argues, all thinking persons necessarily depend on a tacit commitment to a particular tradition, which includes one’s language and one’s culture, and even to articulate a rejection of one’s tradition requires a dependence on resources provided by that tradition.”

    “Since all knowing rests on a fiduciary framework, belief, as we have seen, precedes knowing. [Fiduciary is defined as ‘involving trust’] But belief requires an object, and this role is filled by tradition operating within a community committed to its perpetuation. For example, at its most basic, language requires belief. When a child learns a language, he believes that the language-speakers who surround him are not uttering gibberish. The acquisition of skills, as we have seen, requires submission to a master even though the novice does not yet comprehend the meaning of that which he is practicing. Science is no different, for the aspiring scientist must submit himself to the authority of a scientist, and such submission requires belief. ‘Thus,’ in Polanyi’s words, ‘to accord validity to science—or to any other of the great domains of the mind—is to express a faith which can be upheld only within a community. We realize here the connection between Science, Faith and Society.’ The connection is that science or any other area of knowing, depends on a fiduciary framework in which belief necessarily precedes all knowing. This belief, though, cannot exist apart from a community of believers who sustain the tradition by passing it to the next generation through a process of apprenticeship.”

    Because we are so accustomed to taking our rational faculties for granted, the idea that we rely on a faith in these faculties in order to participate in activities such as science may seem strange to many in modern day society. But, as Albert Einstein famously said, “The most unintelligible thing about the universe is that it is intelligible at all.”

    Because we are so accustomed to taking our rational faculties for granted, the idea that we rely on a faith in these faculties in order to participate in activities such as science may seem strange to many in modern day society. But, as Albert Einstein famously said, “The most unintelligible thing about the universe is that it is intelligible at all.”

    And unless one has spent some time studying various philosophical and cultural traditions, one may fail to realize that there have been, and continue to be, many such traditions which reject the belief that our rational faculties are reliable, and therefore that the universe can be intelligible to humans. The most up-to-date example would be the philosophical stance known as “postmodernism”. As this article mentions:

    “In the postmodern understanding, interpretation is everything; reality only comes into being through our interpretations of what the world means to us individually. Postmodernism relies on concrete experience over abstract principles, knowing always that the outcome of one’s own experience will necessarily be fallible and relative, rather than certain and universal.”

    Postmodernism is ‘post’ because it is denies the existence of any ultimate principles, and it lacks the optimism of there being a scientific, philosophical, or religious truth which will explain everything for everybody – a characteristic of the so-called ‘modern’ mind.”

    One is compelled to ask: How could scientific progress ever occur in an intellectual climate which lacks belief in such a thing as scientific truth? How could scientific progress occur among a group of people who don’t believe human rational faculties are reliable because there is no objective world for our rational faculties to study?

    In short, scientific knowledge can only be constructed upon an adequate framework of underlying belief. The concept of scientists advancing science without a suitable underlying belief framework, upon which to build, is as absurd as the concept of a child advancing his/her understanding of the world without a language structure (as Polanyi alludes to above).

    Here, the important question is which belief framework fits best with reality, and therefore, best allows for scientific progress. The physicist, philosopher of science (and Catholic priest) Stanley Jaki demonstrated that belief frameworks other than Christianity failed to allow for the rapid growth of science. This article, titled The Origin of Science details Jaki’s insights:

    “Modern experimental science was rendered possible, Jaki has shown, as a result of the Christian philosophical atmosphere of the Middle Ages. Although a talent for science was certainly present in the ancient world (for example in the design and construction of the Egyptian pyramids), nevertheless the philosophical and psychological climate was hostile to a self-sustaining scientific process. Thus science suffered still-births in the cultures of ancient China, India, Egypt and Babylonia. It also failed to come to fruition among the Maya, Incas and Aztecs of the Americas. Even though ancient Greece came closer to achieving a continuous scientific enterprise than any other ancient culture, science was not born there either. Science did not come to birth among the medieval Muslim heirs to Aristotle.”

    “….The psychological climate of such ancient cultures, with their belief that the universe was infinite and time an endless repetition of historical cycles, was often either hopelessness or complacency (hardly what is needed to spur and sustain scientific progress); and in either case there was a failure to arrive at a belief in the existence of God the Creator and of creation itself as therefore rational and intelligible. Thus their inability to produce a self-sustaining scientific enterprise.”

    In short, science was not rendered possible until the Christian belief in a rationally intelligible universe (anchored in a rational and intelligent God) provided a belief framework upon which science could develop.

    By rejecting God, the materialist/naturalist belief system fails to provide an adequate belief framework upon which to anchor the reliability of any human beliefs.

    The renowned philosopher of neuroscience Patricia Churchland, despite being a staunch naturalist, admits to this problem with naturalism in her article Epistemology in the Age of Neuroscience:

    “The principal chore of nervous systems is to get the body parts where they should be in order that the organism may survive. . . Improvements in sensorimotor control confer an evolutionary advantage: a fancier style of representing [the world] is advantageous so long as it . . . enhances the organism’s chances for survival. Truth, whatever that is, definitely takes the hindmost.”

    Prominent atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel admits to the same in his book Mind and Cosmos, and devotes much of the rest of the book trying to wriggle free from theism. He writes:

    “Evolutionary naturalism implies that we shouldn’t take any of our convictions seriously, including the scientific world picture on which evolutionary naturalism itself depends.”

    Naturalism, simply put, leaves us no reason whatsoever to think that any of our beliefs are reliable…such as a belief in naturalism. Please recall that naturalism insists that the evolutionary mechanism of natural selection is mindless and random. Also recall that natural selection selects for survivability, not for truth. And, if one stops to think, there is no reason to think that certain false beliefs could not provide just as much survival value as a corresponding true belief. For example, the belief that eating a particular plant should be avoided because doing so would cause one to turn into a werewolf provides just as much survival value as the belief that eating that plant should be avoided because doing so puts poison into one’s body.

    Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, atheist reasoning often deceives through the clever application of terminology. Belief in God (theism) is labelled a “religious,” whereas belief in naturalism/materialism is labelled “scientific.” But both theism and naturalism/materialism are belief systems that precede and underly science, and are therefore meta-scientific.

    In modern “secular” society, however, it is commonly accepted that people who go to church (or mosque, etc.) and believe in God are “religious”, whereas people who are atheist (or at least don’t participate in the worship of God) are “non-religious” or “secular.” This viewpoint, however prevalent in our culture, is nothing but a cultural artifact without any intrinsic meaning. Religious scholar William T. Cavanaugh writes in his book The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict. Although he writes in the context of discussing “religious” violence, his comments are relevant to the matter at hand:

    “What would be necessary to prove the claim that religion has caused more violence than any other institutional force over the course of human history? One would first need a concept of religion that would be at least theoretically separable from other institutional forces over the course of human history. …The problem is that there was no category of religion separable from such political institutions until the modern era, and then it was primarily in the West. What meaning could we give to either the claim that Roman religion is to blame for the imperialist violence of ancient Rome, or the claim that it is Roman politics and not Roman religion that is to blame? Either claim would be nonsensical, because there was no neat division between religion and politics.”

    “It is not simply that religion and politics were jumbled together until the modern West got them properly sorted out. As Wilfred Cantwell Smith showed in his landmark book, The Meaning and End of Religion, religion as a discrete category of human activity separable from culture, politics, and other areas of life is an invention of the modern West.”

    “…The first conclusion is that there is no trans-historical or trans-cultural concept of religion. Religion has a history, and what counts as religion and what does not in any given context depends on different configurations of power and authority. The second conclusion is that the attempt to say that there is a trans-historical and trans-cultural concept of religion that is separable from secular phenomena is itself part of a particular configuration of power, that of the modern, liberal nation-state as it is developed in the West.”

    Indeed, scholars have been entirely unable to reach an agreed upon definition of “religion,” as this article discusses. The modern cultural context which associates theism with “religion,” but materialism/naturalism with “science,” serves to persuade many that theism is faith-based, whereas materialism/naturalism is scientifically and empirically based. But this cultural context, again, is devoid of any intrinsic meaning since both worldviews are meta-scientific in nature. Materialism/naturalism is no more or less of a “faith-based religion” than theism.