Jun 29, 2008

Framework of a Theodicy: Omnipotence Afresh

God has all power to bring about His purposes. God has the power to bring about any situation or thing consistent with the natures of eternal existences.

So what could those eternal principles and laws regarding eternal existences be? What if something inside of us that was a main component to our moral agency was eternally existent? Consider that God put this eternal moral agent, likely what most refer to as a spirit, into our bodies which were formed by natural processes. Here is what one man of God has said about this possibility: “Who told you that man did not exist in like manner upon the same principles [of eternality as God]? Man does exist upon the same principles. God made a tabernacle and put a spirit into it and it became a living soul…How does it read in the Hebrew? It does not say in the Hebrew that God created the spirit of man. It says ‘God made man out of the earth and put into him Adam’s spirit and so became a living body.’ The mind…which man possesses is coeternal with God himself.”

The implications of this statement are larger than the scope of the logical problem of evil, but this Christian thinker at least makes the case that his point of view fits within the given Judeo-Christian umbrella, albeit not traditional. If we assume that people are actually agents in and of themselves from an eternal perspective, and that God works in all-power consistent with the natures of eternal existences, we have the framework to solve the logical problem of evil.

I cite the following, written by an ancient Jew, “Adam fell that men might be, and men are that they might have joy.” He explains that, in order to attain this joy, there must be “an opposition in all things. If not so…righteousness…could not be brought to pass neither wickedness nor holiness…neither good nor bad…neither happiness nor misery.” He goes on to state that “to bring about his eternal purposes in the end of man…the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself. Wherefore man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other [good or bad].”

Thus, if we are allowed to be moral agents, to choose between good and bad (obviously influenced by the biological make-up of our bodies and our experiences) then that agency would be destroyed if one of the choices were removed; we could only choose good things. In other words, truly free agents could not exist in a world without bad, because if limits were imposed on the experiences of moral agents, they would no longer have agency.

I believe that we are moral agents. I believe that we are seriously influenced by our environments, biochemical makeup, neural physiology, and psychological constructs, but that there is an underlying moral agency, spirit, whatever you want to call it, that says, “You can be more than you currently are. You are not defined by your biology: you are defined by your moral capacity. You are defined by your agency. And you can become something more through God.” Instead of being a bag of meat with a name and some pre-programmed responses, we become an individual with potential.

There will likely be more discussion on agency later, but for the present, we will assume that people’s internal moral compass, however influenced by our experiences, is at least some part uncreated—eternal. We will also recognize that in order to have a moral compass, there must be an opposition, opportunities to experience badness, or else we would be pointing north no matter what direction we were facing.

To add to these points we have the commonly held notion that we will live after this life, and somehow this suffering will help us get there. These thoughts were addressed by an earlier reader, who mentioned an analogy about intentionally burning a forest (pain) to allow newer, greater growth (reward). Another reader commented, referring to an afterlife, “As bad as things can get here, perhaps there is something valuable to be gained from the experience.” This has been called by some philosophers as a “soul-making” theodicy; our souls are being made into something better through our painful experiences. This is the final point of my conclusion of the logical problem of evil.

Paulsen, a philosopher with whom I personally resonate organizes a solution to the Logical Problem of Evil, as follows:

  1. God exists. He is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly loving, and created (or organized) our world employing eternally existing entities and structures
  2. evils occur
  3. A perfectly loving being prevents all the evil he can without thereby preventing some greater good or causing some greater evil
  4. an omnipotent being can do anything consistent with the natures of eternal existences
  5. Thus, given the natures of eternal existences, whatever evils occur are either:
    a) unpreventable absolutely,
    b) unpreventable by God, but not absolutely (ie, unpreventable by God because He will not remove our agency, but those who have the agency could prevent them), or
    c) unpreventable by God without thereby preventing some greater good or causing some greater evil.

Now, I recognize that this isn’t necessarily the most comforting solution. There are still a lot of questions to be asked about “why must I suffer at all?” There are many instances where merely solving the Logical problem of evil doesn’t seem helpful. This treatise may not heal the wounded heart, but it hopefully gives breath to the troubled intellect. I hope eventually that I have something to console those who have experienced poignant pain; for I do believe that there are answers in spiritual belief systems for many questions. All I have done with this is shown that an all-loving God is not logically incompatible with the evils of this world.

There are likely believing readers who will not agree with some of the declarations I make, distancing myself from various forms of Greek metaphysics, passed-on through theologies. I allow all men to continue to worship and draw closer to God in their own respective ways, and only offer my views as an opportunity to think about things in a slightly different way.

There are likely readers who feel that I have overlooked some detail, since thinkers have been struggling with the Logical Problem of Evil since at least the time of Epicurus. However, the parts of the Western thought tradition, stemming from our Greek ancestors, that are troublesome are ones I have never had personal reason to believe; hence, their elimination provides for a cogent argument. Whether or not one accepts the principles as I’ve laid out here is another matter. I have read other explanations on the matter that are not satisfying to me, but this does not mean they are not satisfying to others or in general. Though I may not fit the stereotype for many believers in God, I hope I’ve presented the case that there are at least some who do have a cogent conclusion to the logical problem of evil.

The pragmatic problem of evil, however, is sometimes more difficult to answer. The pragmatic problem of evil asks, “But why doesn’t God stop this particular suffering, since it doesn’t seem to be helping me grow. It seems useless and inane.” I will post some thoughts on this topic, but I hope as I progress this blog, more answers come out of the woodwork. I can’t possibly answer all the instances of suffering, but I will try to provide comfort to those who believe in a loving God in the face of the evils and pains of the world.

Jun 22, 2008

God and the Problem of Evil: Unpacking and Repacking

The following is an outline for the discussion on the logical problem of evil and God. I will be populating this post with links as I have time to write. Please do not comment on this short post, because I will be deleting it and re-creating it to keep it as the forerunning outline.

The Problem of Evil

The Logical Problem of Evil: Hume and Flew

Roots and Underlying Assumptions: What led to this Problem?

Old Assumptions Anew: Finding a Solution

Resolution to the Logical Problem of Evil

Comments on Theodicy and the Pragmatic Problem of Evil

Jun 19, 2008

Creation Redefined: Implications

The previous post was concerned with creatio ex materia, or creation from preexisting stuff. This is relevant to the Problem of Evil because ex nihilo creation—creation from absolute nothing—makes God the Ultimate source of evil: all things came from Him and hence He and He alone is responsible for both the good and evil in the universe.

This post lays some groundwork for another aspect of the Problem of Evil, God’s omnipotence. In a nutshell, the issue is this: if God is capable of doing all things and does not prevent evil, how can He be loving or good? I feel the key to this question lies in what God is capable of doing, so here I will ask questions about the scope of possibilities regarding God’s interaction with the universe.

To start off, we recognize that there are apparent laws that govern the universe, at least physically speaking. One man of God taught that this extends to spiritual matters as well, saying there are “laws of eternal and self-existent principles.” In other words, there is an ordered framework of laws for eternal existences (And I am not referring to just those laws we've discovered so-far; we can make the assumption also that the laws of nature could entail a lot more than we understand at this point). In any case, we must ask, does God supersede these laws, or does He work within them? Can He break them? Can He do anything that we can think of (or that He can think of), or are there limits beyond the logical impossibilities?

For example, can God make the stuff into whatever He wants? Can He make a proton act like an electron or give a photon mass? I don't know. But if He couldn't, would that make God any less powerful? As I will explain, for me the answer is no. God would not be less able to save us, to create worlds, to do His work. But it would make the absolutist form of omnipotence in need of redefinition.

At this point, I realize that some people cringe at altering perfect absolutist omnipotence: all things that are logically possible are possible. When I first read the idea that God can’t do everything, I shuddered. How could you trust or worship a being that couldn’t do everything logically possible?

Before I explain this I want to be clear on one issue and will not budge: irrevocably God's power is great enough to accomplish His purposes. Also, I recognize there are a variety of opinions on this matter; I do not wish to offend, but I want to try to explain this idea. I am aware that many readers may not agree with this, but I submit it for the sake of open-mindedness.

Returning to our discussion, we realize that most agree there are some things which God cannot do. Much of the Judeo-Christian and Muslim world supports the notion that God cannot lie: this is one thing that is logically possible, but not possible for God (see Heb 6:18 for one Christian example). Whether or not He is unable to lie or it is a self-imposed restriction, He cannot do it—and that’s a good thing, I think we’ll agree.

So, we see that at times it appears better for God to abstain from even some logically possible actions. There are two possibilities to evaluate: 1) Are there other actions that, while being logically possible, God avoids in order bring about some greater good? Or 2) are there actions that He does not undertake because somehow, given His higher laws, they are not actually logically possible?

A simple, but hopefully helpful analogy follows: suppose God had all power in the universe to do anything logically possible, except make neon-green giraffes. Would that make Him any less powerful? Would it make Him any less venerable? For me, God and the world wouldn't change at all: we would still have complete confidence in Him and His power. In all points that make God our God—the reasons why a relationship or knowledge of Him would be important—dismantling absolutist omnipotence for an omnipotence that works within an environment, pragmatically does not diminish God in any way. (We’d each have to answer these questions; for my part, I hope it wouldn't make a difference: it would be similar to thinking less of George Washington for having wooden teeth—his wooden teeth had no bearing on the measure of his greatness.)

But now imagine instead that there were actually a law we didn’t know about, which governed preexisting entities: the Law of Colored Giraffes. This law states it is physically impossible in this Universe to have a neon-green giraffe. Now we look again at God's omnipotence: God can now do everything possible in the Universe, and is therefore omnipotent. Hence, our understanding of what laws God follows informs our understanding of the definition of omnipotence. And this can have bearing on the Problem of Evil as we look at the degree to which God is free or willing to interrupt, override, or alter our decisions that cause pain to others.

For the more scientifically musing reader, I've included some of my own musings on some of these thoughts in the first comment. The views there are only my musings, which views could change on whims, but perhaps they may provide a little food for thought.

Jun 11, 2008

Ex Nihilism: Getting to the Beginning

Aristotelian metaphysics provides some insight into how many people conceive of God. Aristotle taught that if something happened, then something else must have made it happen. We follow the reasoning back until we reach the ultimate, the primordial Something: God, the Unmoved Mover that started everything else in motion. Now, Aristotle thought that matter was already there, but the Gnostics, though they couldn't deny the simplicity of Aristotle's logic hundreds of years later, insisted that matter itself would have to be a happening that required a beginning. For the Gnostics, Aristotle's Unmoved Mover was the Monad: the One, the beginning who was the beginning alone, creating all the universe from nothing—the ex nihilo creation.

There may be things that are appealing about the explanation of creation ex nihilo, or creation out of nothing, following Gnostic logic. By the end of the second century, the appeal of this reasoning had made inroads within Christian theologies, inroads which have grown now somewhat ubiquitous in Christian, Jewish, and Muslim theologies. In the face of so many who espouse this belief, I state that I don't see why it must be the only way to view God's creative power, as some claim. For me, it presents more problems.

If we assume that God created all things out of nothing, omnipotently, we likely assume He has unlimited creative powers. We also assume that He created it with some purpose: most link their belief in God with some form of afterlife, usually a heaven and hell . We go to heaven to glorify God forever and to hell to be punished forever. I will not talk in depth about my problems with that statement now, but I will say, if God intended us to go to Heaven forever, why did He not just create us already there? Why bother suffering? If He could create anything logically imaginable (no married bachelors or other illogical conundrums), He could have created us with the memory or experience or development or righteousness or whatever we needed from the very beginning to bypass all the hurt. Whatever may be beneficial from suffering and evil could be avoided by a logical, omnipotent ex nihilo creator. Whatever learning we would need could be programmed into us, like kung fu being programmed into Keanu Reeves' matrixed brain.

The problem with this Gnostic view of ex nihilo is that it makes God the ultimate perpetrator instead of the ultimate source of goodness. If we can create things ex nihilo, why bother with means? Ever? If all we were created for in this life is some ends, but that ends could have already been made from the beginning, for me, life seems to lose some of the purpose that is discovered through belief in God. God could have made me already in heaven, but didn't. This move undermines His love.

Therefore, I reject the notion of ex nihilo creation by absolute omnipotence, and I do so on philosophical, scientific, scriptural, and spiritual grounds. This only serves as my explanation as to why I choose to believe as I do, and is not intended to discount those who believe in boundless ex nihilo creation.

Momentarily leaving the realm of philosophical arguments, I turn to scientific laws. I believe in the law of conservation of matter. In relatively unscientific terms, this law says that matter is not created or destroyed. In other words, I believe that matter is eternal—it has always been around. For the scientifically oriented reader, I assure them that matter, energy, strings, branes—or whatever stuff the fabric of the cosmos is really made up of, deep down inside—that stuff is what I'm referring to; there has always been stuff around. Stuff will always be around. (Define "always"? Read Stephen Hawking: he opens up possibilities that are fascinating.) Regardless, there is room for my belief based on scientific grounds.

Some readers may insist that their holy writ suggests that God unequivocally created everything out of nothing. I will presume that my readership is likely most familiar with the Judeo-Christian creation. As a note to the reader, I will not be arguing at this time for any stances on the authority, symbolism, fallibility, or humanity of holy writ: for my purposes here, I will assume that the Pentateuchal description of creation is credible enough to be discussed to our advantage.

As I understand the Hebrew text that recorded the account, the word throughout the creative account usually interpreted as "create" comes from the Hebrew word "bārā'" which means to fashion, to shape, to organize, etc. In other words, God organized things from a chaotic or entropic state to fit His needs. So, without diving into the other symbolism and wording in that record, I find plenty of room to allow for my belief on scriptural grounds. I feel I am vindicated in the Judeo-Christian text; however I recognize that there passages in the Quran which I cannot exegete.

On spiritual grounds all I can write is that the experiences that I have had with God allow room for such a theory. I do not claim absolute truth, for I cannot claim at this point how the world came to be, but I do claim it being a valid option, spiritually.

So, if we believe that the universe was created from already existing something, it opens up a number of possibilities: maybe the universe was all wound up into a Planck-length spot, and maybe God initiated a massive dispensation of the stuff, an exodus, if I may wax allusive. Or maybe He knew of the explosion and used what He needed for His purposes. Or maybe hyperdimensionality provides an alternative entrance for matter which God facilitated. For me, there are numerous possibilities, enriched by science, philosophy, scripture, and personal experience.

The possibility that I hold on to about God's creation is that He organized all (or at least some significant portion) of the flying debris that now composes the universe into something to suit His purposes. Now this cannot be proven or disproven by science, but the more I study science, the more I learn about possible tools that God may have used.

Now, my point with this post was not to explain why not believing in ex nihilo creation helps solve the logical problem of evil. That will come soon. Rather, my point was, observing that most who believe in God seem to take the stance of ex nihilo creation, that someone such as I who does not believe in this Gnostic calculation may still have valid beliefs. I submit that, if we remove some of the restraints on God's attributes that even great thinkers have imposed, we may find innumerable possibilities of the existence of God unfolding.

Now, I have used observations from various fields to suggest that my belief system is rational. No matter how rational, how scientific, or how cogent our argument, we can’t let that undermine the truth that the only way to know something that cannot be proven by science is through God. May we continue to use our intellect, studying the sciences and educating ourselves, remembering that the knowledge we can acquire here is a pale shadow of the knowledge that is available from a benevolent God.

And a short post-script, I would like to state that I find no contradictions between God and science. I will likely have more posts on this statement, because it seems to be troublesome for a good number of investigators on the topic of God. I have read a number of people's views on the matter, coming from varying belief systems, some obviously closed-minded, fixated on their eloquent point of view: for example, some of the authors of the recent John Templeton Foundation essays on the question "Does science make belief in God obsolete?" Though I will not be arguing for the compatibility of God and science here, I restate: I don't find the God I believe in to be in anyway incompatible with science.

That said, I have heard of other views of God that seem to me to be incompatible with science. But even with that statement, I believe that people with such notions of God can still be educated: perhaps they are satisfied with some explanations that do not satisfy me. I try to use my brain as logically and as thoroughly as I can. No matter the belief system, I need to encourage my intellectual and spiritual pursuit and the intellectual and spiritual pursuit of others: let them worship, study, or dwell upon how, where, or what they may. I would only expect to receive the same. Together we can thrive.

I will likely write similar statements again and again, because I believe that searching for understanding is one of the most valuable pursuits we can have in this life, regardless of belief system. More comments about God and science will come later.

Jun 5, 2008

Historical Roots and Weeds

At the outset, I acknowledge that my viewpoints do not necessarily represent some readers' conceptions of God. My point is not to discount differing religious opinions, but to share what I have come to understand in my pursuit of truth. At the same time, I want to assure the reader that many of the theological points that I will share hereafter are not my own concoctions. I am not just trying to calculate a God that fits what I want; rather, in this blog I will set forth the theology I have found best suits what I understand and have experienced of God.

I am a big fan of Plato and Aristotle. But being a big fan of them, I have no duty to espouse everything they taught. Much of the Western thought tradition sinks its roots into Platonic and Aristotelian thought, and without it, we would not have the scientific and social progress of our time. However, no matter how brilliant Plato and Aristotle were, assuming without question that their logical postulations can perfectly depict God would be, in my mind, a risky proposition.

From what we can tell, Plato was somewhat dissatisfied with the depictions of the Greek gods, perhaps cuing from his teacher, Socrates, who was tried and killed for allegedly leading away youth with his disbelief in the popular mythological understanding of the gods. Plato felt that God should be the infinite goodness, all positive attributes in their perfected forms, in stark contrast to the clumsy, blundering, moody, deceivable deities of the popular mythology. His student Aristotle and other neo-Platonists philosophers pushed the idea further, teaching that the greatest possible being would be immovable and unaffectable. Aristotle thought of God as an Unmoved Mover: one who creates and changes all, but cannot be changed or made subject to anything—to intellect or emotions, like love, pity, sadness, etc— and so completely other-worldly that He cannot be known or comprehended. We can follow these ideas through intellectual tradition, albeit with a few tweaks in semantics, to a God described as being abstract, absolute, transcendent, immanent, unknowable, without body, parts, or passions. As a response, the Gnostic philosophers were brewing opposing thoughts, with alternative views to creation, to contrast the abstracts of metaphysics.

Many early Christians, such as Origen, a devout Platonic Christian, and Augustine, a student of Greek philosophy and the most prominent early Christian theologian, espoused many of these philosophies, including those regarding God's attributes. Augustine showed not only his approval of Greek metaphysics but also his view of its compatibility with Christianity when he said in his True Religion, “If these men [Greek philosophers] could have had this life over again with us…They would have become Christians, with the change of a few words and statements.”

Much of Western religious text comes from these thought traditions, as manifested incrementally by the formation of creeds and the dominance of stalwart theologians (such as Anselm and Aquinas) whose views reflected these philosophies. These same philosophies have become a part of many of the arguments for and against God and, from what I can tell, have also mingled with other non-Christian religious belief systems.

I respect those who uphold such tenants, but I humbly submit that such attribution to God brings irresolvable questions for me. There are many that refer to part, but not all, of the Neo-Platonic philosophical description of God or to the Gnostic responses. I recognize that there are many who say that God loves but is still immovable and unknowable. I readily recognize that many believers in God have rejected the idea that He feels no emotion and therefore doesn’t love them in the sense that we think of loving, but they still see the need to hold on to other Neo-Platonic attributes. However, I don’t find the need to restrict my understanding of God’s attributes within Neo-platonic ideas espoused by theologians that followed suit, but rather I harness my understanding of God more often from spiritual processes, some of which are outlined in previous posts. I submit that this understanding of God, which I attempt to describe with this blog, is philosophically cogent, theologically sound, and pragmatically meaningful.

At this time, the reader will note that I am addressing the Judeo-Christian branch of theology, for it is under that umbrella that I classify myself. Searching in Judeo-Christian texts of God, I personally have found little to enforce the idea that God fits the descriptions of the purely Neo-Platonic or purely gnostic mindsets. One scholar of post-Biblical history and theology, George Foot Moore asserts that "Palestinian Judaism was innocent...of an abstract or transcendent or any other sort of a philosophical idea of god." And a historian-theologian of Christianity J.N.D. Kelly writes, "There is an extraordinary contrast, for example, between the versions of the Church's teaching given by the second-century Apostolic Fathers and by an accomplished fifth-century theologian like Cyril of Alexandria." Even the great Christian scholar Edwin Hatch observed, in a work that is considered a classic on the topic, that "a large part of what are sometimes called Christian doctrines, and many usages which have prevailed and continue to prevail in the Christian Church, are in reality Greek theories and Greek usages changed in form and colour by the influence of primitive Christianity, but in their essence Greek still." Even more fascinating is the paradox that arises from the trial of Galileo: he was put on trial not for contradicting the Bible, but for contradicting Aristotle—we know that the intellectual roots of our sciences, Greek philosophers, had flaws that we were able to recognize and uproot. These statements, among many others, suggest to me that there is a possibility that some depictions of God rooted in Neo-Platonic or Gnostic thought might be laden with human intervention and error. Though Greek philosophies provide us with the intellectual framework to pursue science (finding personally that science cannot prove or deny God), I don’t find it necessary to use their theological framework to pursue God.

For open-mindedness, I choose not to restrict the possibilities of God by forcing His attributes to be something (incomprehensible, unknowable, immovable) outside of what I have experienced. I, personally, must place the Neo-Platonic and gnostic depictions of God back on the shelf, with all respect, nevertheless accepting the grand sum of Greek philosophers’ contributions, knowing that without those philosophers our society wouldn’t have the intellectual foundation to pursue science as we now pursue. The God I and others trust is knowable, and as I have stated before, actively loving, and if God is those things, for me it could signify that other attributes of God from the philosophical tradition of Aristotle might be in error. Indeed Tertullian, an early Christian leader, taught, “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?…Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition!” The irony is that Tertullian wanted so little to do with Neo-Platonism, that he espoused thoughts of the opposing Gnosticism. Indeed with the further investment of these abstracted thoughts, Chadwick records that one early Christian monk cried out, upon being instructed that God had not the personal nature which he had previously believed “Woe is me! They have taken my God away from me, . . . and I know not whom to adore or to address.”

Able to free myself of the restraints placed on God by espousing all of the Neo-Platonic and Gnostic thought traditions, I am able to see more clearly some of the complications, and the major one for me I will likely address in my next post. I have left a traditional framework, and I intend to construct another with subsequent posts.

This discussion is foundational to understanding what has been, for me, a way to resolve the Logical Problem of Evil. To me it seems that removing those philosophical restrictions I’ve mentioned above relieves much of the problem. This is not to say that there aren't other solutions to the Logical Problem of Evil. C.S. Lewis wrote an excellent book called The Problem of Pain in which he argues many of the points I would eventually like to make far better than I could. There are also a number of defenses of the Logical Problem of Evil that I have come across. I suppose that many authors who have taken on the logical problem of evil argue that my approach of distancing myself from Neo-Platonic and Gnostic thought is unnecessary. But with the questions that I have, for me, it makes all the difference.

May 21, 2008

Comments on Comments

I have a simple site meter on my blog where I can see the number of unique individuals that come to my blog. With a steadily increasing number and many readers, I am afraid the fact that I moderate comments has become a deterrent to actively participating. For this reason, I am removing the moderation of comments.
I had initially chose to moderate the comments, because I've witnessed the onslaught of belittling and bigoted comments coming uniformly across all-belief systems. This I wanted to avoid. However, if such comments (comments without thought, aimed solely to demean other belief systems and not to discuss them) do appear, I will just delete them manually. I hope to have more of your thoughts, you hundreds that read this blog. I have heard it expressed through confidential emails that some of the topics are esoteric or beyond the expertise of the reader. I hope this invitation lets you feel like you can comment, regardless.
May we make this a thinkers' accord,

May 18, 2008

The Logical Problem of Evil: Hume and Flew

The fact that this world is full of pain and suffering has probably elicited more distrust of Deity than anything else I can presently think of. One only needs to read Wiesel’s Night to glimpse some of the horrifyingly powerful injustice that occurs. Wiesel’s holocaustic journey takes him beyond his threshold of belief in God because of human suffering. Surely there are many reasons for struggling with the problem of evil. Wiesel has resolved these seemingly insurmountable issues for himself and continues believing. But for others, these issues are left unanswered. I do not presume to have the panacea for all questions of injustice in our short lives. Some answers would appeal to some and some to others. I want to address one problem of evil in specific: the Logical Problem of Evil.

The Logical Problem of Evil claims that an All-Loving God and the fact that evil, pain, etc. exist are mutually incompatible: if God is claimed to be all-loving and omnipotent, then He is impossible. There is plenty of material on this train of thought. Many who are “ex-believers” or people who feel betrayed by God, spend much effort trying to destroy the belief systems of others. I hope that I don’t come across as destroying the belief systems of others, but I would like to explain how my understanding of God removes the seeming impossibility of His perfect benevolence.

In order to produce a meaningful explanation, I need to take the best arguments I can against this logical problem. I have nothing to hide, for the rhetoric is available to everyone. There were many great minds that contemplated this question. If I took the skeptics’ understanding of God, I would likely come to the same conclusion. But I hope to help people understand, as I do, that God is a God of love and that this is not illogical.

The following are arguments for the problem of evil coming from David Hume. Hume was perhaps the most noteworthy skeptic from the enlightenment. This was his argument:

“Is [evil] from the intention of the deity? but he is perfectly benevolent. Is it contrary to his intention? But he is almighty. Nothing can shake the solidity of this reasoning, so short, so clear, so decisive.” (From Dialogues concerning Natural Religion)

Some tried to find exception to Hume’s argument, so one of the foremost atheist thinkers of the 20th century, Antony Flew, clarified the statement even further. His philosophies has evolved over the years (as every good learner should), but he still holds to this argument, which is accepted and used by the current skeptic community (whether or not they recognize it). His argument is the following:

“We cannot say that [God] would like to help but cannot: God is omnipotent. We cannot say that he would help if he only knew: God is omniscient. We cannot say that he is not responsible for the wickedness of others: God creates those others. Indeed an omnipotent, omniscient God must be an accessory before and during the fact to every human misdeed; as well as being responsible for every non-moral defect in the universe.” (From New essays in Philosophical Theology)

So the outline is as follows:

  1. God is omnipotent, omniscient, created all things ex nihilo, and all-loving.
  2. Evils occur.
  3. An all-loving being prevents all the evil that it can.
  4. An omnipotent ex nihilo creator can prevent all evils.
  5. God prevents all evils.

It is obvious from this explanation that points 2 and 5 are perfectly contradictory: one says “God prevents all evils” the other is “Evils occur.” This is the logical problem of evil stated by those who espouse it.

My subsequent posts will address this problem, explaining why this seemingly blatant contradiction is mutually incompatible with what I understand about God. I hope to show that God and perfect love are not logically contradictory.

May 12, 2008

Love: God’s Greatest Attribute

If there is anything that I’ve learned and known for myself about God, it is that His attributes overwhelmingly point toward one attribute: His love. Though this is not the place to attempt to describe the ineffable experiences that I have received to learn of His love, I know that He loves us, people, mankind. The reader can dismiss that because all I am giving is my word—or they can try believing that it is one of His attributes. I recognize that there are many who disagree with this statement: I have to be open-minded and recognize that God may only have emphasized this attribute to me, but it is His attribute nonetheless. I do have comfort in knowing that other people who appear to know God better than I do agree with this statement. Pragmatically speaking, it is difficult if not impossible to trust or believe in a God who you don’t think is on your side, in other words, who loves you.

With stating that He is loving, there arrives a series of logical complications from traditional views of God. I will list the most common questions, and I will have follow-up posts that answer these.

  • The first and foremost is the following: If God is loving, why is there evil, pain, death, etc? Didn’t He create all? To answer this question, I wish to address the best arguments of which I know that suggest this is illogical. Without addressing the claims of skeptic thinkers, we would not fully represent the logical feelings of people of non-theist belief systems. I want to show how the love of God is not logically impossible. Because this is an old problem, I intend on taking the next number of posts to explain this.
  • Second: What about eternal hell and punishment that is associated with so many religions? If God is loving, how could He knowingly consign someone who committed a finite crime in a finite world to some sort of infinite punishment after this life? This argument follows the same form as the previous.
  • Third: How can I trust that a God is loving who doesn’t curb all the blatant evil of bad people and destruction of natural disasters throughout the world? This is the practical question of evil: How can I trust that He is after my best interests?

There are probably more questions, but in answering these, most of the other ones will be cleared up.

May 5, 2008

The Experiment Going Awry: Attributes of God

There are a number of places where this experiment of belief can go awry, as we have already mentioned. I think one of particular note is given in the following question: what if someone attempted the experiment of faith, but believing in a God that had different attributes than God really has? What if they believed that He had to react in a certain way or do something, when He really didn’t have to?

People form a spectrum: from those who find it very easy to believe to those who find it difficult to believe. For those who find it very easy to believe, inaccuracies, misrepresentations, and misinterpretations don’t seem to hinder their belief. Such inaccuracies may lead to varying beliefs in God, a topic that will be addressed in later posts. For many, insofar as they have peer support, tradition, or desperation, they can look beyond or accept what I would call inaccuracies in God’s nature, and still find peace. I am not one of those people.

What about those for whom it is difficult to believe? For these, belief in something inaccurate may become as detrimental as not believing; the seeming inconsistencies or misrepresentations create a hostile environment for the more skeptical person who wishes to know God, or if God is real. In fact, it may bring them to depression, apathy, hate, total unrest, and even, in some cases that I have heard, suicide. This is not to say that those who find it easy to believe don’t suffer from negative side effects of misguided belief. But for the critical thinker, an inaccurate, inherently difficult view of God will make nurturing belief like planting a seed on asphalt. It’s not that the seed was bad to begin with; rather, the environment in which it has been placed is unsuitable.

It may be like the following analogy: the experiment gone awry through inaccuracy is like telling someone that if they believe a cat is a dog, that cat will be a dog. And when they find out that it doesn’t respond like a dog, when they believe it is, they will experience serious confusion. This is to say nothing of one believing that the cat is the popular flying spaghetti monster of Bobby Henderson.

I want to assure the reader that as a religious believer, one has to consider the many religious views that have been expressed by those who believe in God, who may have tried a similar experiment and failed, or who may have encountered other obstacles with this approach. Previously, I gave an analogy:

As an analogy, if God wants to paint a picture in our minds using bright oranges, reds, greens, and violets, but all we’re letting Him work with in our minds is gray (because we think that gray is the only thing He can use), the intended picture may come out sadly monochromatic; even if He does give us something of a painting, it is likely our restrictions on the answer that distort the picture.

I have found this particularly accurate. When I have been thinking about the way I think things should be, in my own closed-mindedness, if I pray to God and ask for guidance and direction and get something different than what I calculated, I feel betrayed. I feel that God has turned His back or that He neglected to take something into His planning. If I can recognize that I might not be right and let Him use whatever color He so chooses in the analogy of my beliefs, He undoubtedly and consistently gives me ideas and answers that far surpass my logical claims from before. God will not force us (or He would have done a lot more of that early on) to believe in Him, but will work with the tools that we make available to Him in our minds. If we can search in open-mindedness, He will have more to work with.

Why does it matter that we have the attributes of God correct? God, in all cultures as far as I know, expects that humans have some level of holiness or righteousness: some elements of character or behavior or experiences that are desirable. This holiness is usually a reflection of what God is. If a believer believes God is just, he/she also should want to be just. If a believer believes God is merciful, he/she also should want to be merciful. If a believer believes that God likes vanilla ice cream the best, then he/she also should like vanilla ice cream.

Obviously, from that last example, we have reason to question the extent to which some may take God’s characteristics. But if we do know His characteristics, it does help us understand what He wants us to become. As far as I know, most religions honor their God as being perfect, by some definition, and they try to acquire those attributes that they feel best reflect who God is. So, the greater the accuracy we have towards views of God, the greater the ability to apply this belief and experiment of belief.

The next number of blogs will reflect this intent: I wish to explain some of the attributes of God with the hope of making believing clearer.

Apr 29, 2008

Reflections on Answers to Prayer

This is a section of an interesting discussion with questions that many, myself included, have had to ask with regards to prayer. To see the discussion, click here. This is not a comprehensive treatise on the matter, but it has points worth considering for people of all belief systems.

Here is an excerpt:

I agree that many human beings exhibit a tendency to enjoy worship, for whatever reason. The annals of history contain much of people worshipping. One may take the stance that this tendency is explained by a nuance in their being, a psychological or sociological element that drives them to worship. Though these sociological and psychological elements have no doubt played into the fact that humans do worship, there is no evidence in these fields of study to declare that these are the only possible reason. We cannot observe a result only and say that we know the cause definitively. Many, with varying a priori assumptions, have conducted studies on the matter. Acknowledging that there may be psychological and sociological influences, I suggest that there is also genuine worship based on the existence of God, that the existence of God and our relationship with Him propagate some of this behavior, and that this statement cannot be proven true or false. We are left with the observation: humans worship. The cause is unknown, but we’ve definitely discovered influences. We have correlation, but not causation.

Your next statement takes us to the same question of underlying assumptions. “That prayer makes people feel different is certain.” Again, there are many records of people “feeling different” connected with prayer. But again, as third-party observers, we only have correlation, not causation. One can equally assume that the “feeling different” comes from God as they can assume that it comes from another source, like our hypothalamus or limbic system. To say that chemicals in our make-up have no part in our feelings would be utterly false. To say that series of chemical reactions were solely responsible for every reaction within our bodies is beyond the scope of science, or at least, humans’ ability to confirm. So again, we are left with the observation: prayer often correlates with “feeling different.” The cause is unknown for every situation. One may legitimately believe or disbelieve either claim.

So if I am saying that prayer, as a third-party observer, gives no definitive answer to whether or not God exists, how is it a tool to give us knowledge of God? Prayer is only a tool with which we can perform the experiment of belief. It is faith (belief is the word that we have been using) that God is interested in cultivating, and prayer is an effective means to that end.

It is logical, therefore, that if God wants us to develop faith, many of the answers that we receive may reflect enough wiggle-room to make us turn to faith again. If the development of faith is a prerequisite to knowledge, there may be a number of answers received that seem frustrating: we want a definitive answer, but we only got “feeling different” or something that seems only coincidental or nothing at all. At these junctions of analyzing our experiences we are presented with an option: will I continue to believe or not? I have no outstanding evidence in either direction. Personally speaking, it is after these crux-moments, choosing to believe, that I gain added insight, clearer thoughts, and ultimately, knowledge.

Why would God want us to develop faith? The God I know definitely wants us to develop knowledge, but why also faith? Is there any intrinsic value to faith? Most conceptions of God are associated with some form of life after death. I do not presume to know all that such an existence would entail, but I believe that God would have a very good idea of what is expected in such a realm, and it is likely that faith development is important, for whatever ends God has in mind. I give the following example from our lives to illustrate a possible application: faith, on a rudimentary level, is the driving force in all things. I believe my car will start, so I go out and I turn the key. I believe that home owners insurance is helpful, so I pay for it. I believe that a scientific experiment will yield meaningful results, so I perform it. Our calculations or our expectations prior to any meaningful action lead us to that action, and in a very basic sense this is belief. Now, I do not submit that it is this rudimentary case alone that God wishes we develop. It could be that there is something intrinsically valuable to faith that is apparent to God, but not yet apparent to us. Considering that it often precedes action, the development of faith suggests an involvement or a worthwhile movement or meaning to our existence after this life.

When will God grant the knowledge we seek connected to our experiment of belief? God would be the only one who knows how much faith developed is sufficient. It may be immediate for some, or after a prolonged testing for others. I wish that there were a cut-and-dry measurable answer for belief, but alas, we have no ability to measure such a thing as belief.

Apr 21, 2008

One Method of Experiment: Notes on Prayer

With the appropriate preparation mentioned in previous posts, we can begin to perform an experiment. There are many methods to experiment our belief in God, I’m sure, and I can’t claim that the one I suggest here is the only possible way. I cite the following as a method that has been tried repeatedly with substantial success for many people (however I do recognize the varying responses outside of my point). For me, the most natural step forward in trying this experiment would be prayer.

For many, the word prayer is a foreign term. Many who describe themselves as having no belief in God occasionally find themselves reaching towards a Greater Source at important points in their lives. One such man, an antagonist of religion in general, said the following in a document wherein his goal was to debunk religions, “I confess that I sometimes find myself praying in times of great fear, or despair, or astonishment at a display of unexpected beauty.” I don’t say that this man has “given in” to believing, for I don’t think he would agree with that. However, I think we both recognize, at some point in our lives, we are likely to feel the desire to reach out to Something More. I believe that this Something More is God, and that as we reach out, we can cultivate the ability to understand God in our lives. And there’s no loss in trying.

The value of this experiment is that it can be done anywhere. To begin this aspect of experimentation on believing, one only needs to address God, whether in mind or vocal, at home or abroad, for relief or for gratitude, in inquiry or in awe, for strength or even for sleep. If this experiment is valid, He will hear us in our individual situations; we do not necessarily have to be in a specific environment for prayers to be valid. However, as persons who have prayed much have observed, that the more conducive our situation is to having reverence for the Divine, the more productive our prayers.

The response to prayer is not a function (meaning, I input x and can always immediately expect to receive y); many things factor into our receiving that response: our sincerity, our willingness to accept a response, our desire to know truth, our willingness to not distort the response, and God. God is a factor, because knowledge of this kind would not happen without His consent, as He would be in control of such knowledge. It is possible that the knowledge answer may not come for a while: not until a lot of effort and mental exertion and willingness has been put into it. I mentioned before that if we were to ask a question to someone that we revered as very intelligent, we could not predict their response, or we would have no reason to ask them in the first place. I think of Socrates and his disciples; when asked a question, Socrates could answer in many very-unexpected ways. (And as a side note: if God were to answer our question with a question as Socrates was wont, it would be in our best interests to try to figure out the answer to that question, bringing it again to Him.) I do not wish to paint the picture of God as Socratic guru, but I want the reader to recognize that God is not a computer, wherein we can simply upload our inputs and then download His outputs. If God, as far as many believers are concerned, exists, He is a supremely intelligent Being. (Some would argue that He isn't a Being, but for the case at hand, I'm just trying to point out that He is more intelligent than anything we could imagine.) If we couldn't predict the responses of Socrates, Admiral Nelson, Winston Churchill, or Nelson Mandela, why should we assume that God's responses can be predicted?

Nevertheless, the promise has been made; God will answer. The big caveat on that promise is that He will answer when and in the way that seems appropriate to Him. I give an imperfect analogy: if a father's child consistently asks for ice cream and candy every day, should the father give the child the ice cream? No, because fathers know better than that. To the child, it seems perfectly reasonable that he/she have ice cream and candy all day, every day. Isn't candy good? The child can't see the consequences, nor, really, is the child interested in the consequences. The father may respond with a "no" or with something healthier, or maybe with "later", or "after you've eaten your vegetables." There are many plausible responses, depending on a situation what a father could give a child, as he has wisdom, and the child does not.

While recognizing the weaknesses in the analogy, we can say that if we ask for something, it may seem perfectly reasonable for us to have it. Why shouldn't we get everything that we ask for, in the way we ask for it, when we ask for it? We would have to recognize that things in this life that seem good or convenient or reasonable may be just candy and ice cream to us in our lack of wisdom and foresight; if there is something more beyond this life, wherein God has interest, He may have a better idea of what we do and don't need and when. If the time, situation, and our state are right, we might just get our candy and ice cream. But even more, when the time comes, we may have changed, and we may realize that we want something better than candy and ice cream anyway.

I do not say the experiment has to be this way, only that it usually comes much slower than we think we need. Why? Because there’s something valuable in cultivating belief. Thus, God’s answers will come at the level that we can understand, the intensity that we can appreciate, and at the frequency that we can bear. I don’t presume to answer all the questions of prayer at this time, nor do I presume to know all the answers, but I have thought much on the topics of both answered and unanswered prayer. My guess is that there will be posts that explore some of these questions later on.

Apr 14, 2008

Desire for Truth: A Clarification

There is a very interesting exchange in comments that may be worth the read. For those who aren’t interested in the exchange, I’ve included here some responses. Most of these are in clarification of the previous post.

… the whole point of performing a scientific experiment is to provide empirical data. True. As I mentioned before, this is where the analogy with science fails. I continue to use the term "experiment" because it can be approached in an experimental way, i.e., there are (and will be) steps given in pursuit of knowledge, which steps will produce a result, likely immeasurable. I think I’ve mentioned that with the experiment that I will outline, the results will likely be based on personal experience and not based on empirical data through current scientific measurement. The logic is as follows: if God does exist, He has the power to make Himself known empirically, scientifically, measurably—yet He does not. Those who have come to a knowledge of God have done so through experiences that are rooted first in belief, insofar as I can tell. The experiment of belief, as I have called it, is not scientific, in that it uses unempirical methods. But it is, as far as the Oxford English Dictionary is concerned, an experiment, given that it is “an action or operation undertaken in order to discover something unknown” or “a test, trial”. So, even though it does not fit the terms of a scientific experiment, it is on all counts an experiment. (Interesting side note: as we dig into the etymological foundation of “experiment”, we learn that it has the same Latin roots as “experience”.)…

…We recognize that as a sentient being, God would not be a function; He is not restricted to predictable results like an algorithm or petri dish measurements. Just as we never know how an intelligent person will respond to questions, we cannot assume that God has to meet our answers in the way we thought best. If He exists, we cannot program His reaction or response, expecting that if we ask X, He will automatically respond Y in the way and with the timing that we want. While we cannot predict the manner or the timing of the answer from God, He has promised to respond to and answer the appropriate application of belief, according to those who have come to know Him. I suggest that there may be something in belief worth cultivating (a topic to be explored later), providing us with at least partial explanation for why belief may be a prerequisite for knowledge of God…

…implicit in our performing experiments, is the willingness to give up the status quo if it is not true. That same willingness is what I was trying to refer to as the prerequisite for the experiment of belief. We’re willing to accept the consequences of believing if that is what is required.

…Desire to know the truth… is enough, and with that desire, we acknowledge, there comes the equal willingness to pay the price to know…
…The first step in gaining any kind of knowledge is to really desire to know the truth. I belabor, but not regretfully, thoughts that might help others to develop the desire for truth, and with that, the assurance that they will have to seek after it. I was trying to convey our necessity of being open to new knowledge and of being willing to experiment, to seek, to move, and not just passively hope that knowledge will bonk us on the head like the proverbial Newtonian apple. I intend that for believers and non-believers alike…

… First, here is what I am not referring to: “God, I want you to be there, please be there, I really need it,” and then convincing oneself that what you really want is true…
… what I am referring to is this: “I have heard from a variety of people that there is a God; and if there is a God, and if You are God, will you help me to know You? I would give away my current lifestyle and thought tradition; I would give up whatever necessary to know this truth, that I may deepen the meaning and richness of my life.” The statement questions: what are we willing to pay for what would be the greatest knowledge in the universe? If it were knowledge that we obtained, would we be willing to take the truth, no matter what it implied? I think having that desire, that hunger for truth, is necessary. Desire for a certain outcome to occur is not what is required: it is the willingness to take the consequences no matter the punishment. I asked myself, would it be enough to say: “God, I have not previously believed in you, feeling there was no evidence to support it. But I am willing to change my belief system and who I have become if you are there. If you truly exist, I want to know you.” My feeling is yes, if the desire for truth produced sufficient humility to the point that one is willing to address God. Perhaps the greatest interference with receiving results from this experiment is in fact the willingness to receive an answer…
… The argument to “desire” to believe is more akin to the willingness to surrender one’s own opinion or viewpoint of something for more accurate information, if it exists. That is the desire that we all must have…

Apr 4, 2008

Prerequisite for the Experiment of Belief: Desire

If belief is the only tool, what of those who feel they can’t believe? There are many who may read this blog and say, “That’s nice that belief is the only tool that you can use to know God, but I just can’t believe at all. I feel I’d be giving in to superstition” or “I just can’t believe in something that I can’t see and for which I find no empirical evidence.” I can empathize with this statement. I personally hope and search for empirical things and am skeptical of some claims from believers.

Something has brought you this far. Whether to get an answer for yourself about these questions, or to try to refute my words; out of curiosity, or out of trying to objectively understand a believer’s point of view, or, perhaps, because you may already agree with me, you have come and you’re willing to read. And hopefully, you’re willing to try the only tool we have for knowing: to believe.

There are many who say they would be willing to believe if there was some great and irrefutable manifestation of God’s existence, such as the earth beginning to orbit the sun in the opposite direction and us not feeling the reversal or flying off the planet—then, they say, they would believe. And that desire to have such a manifestation is understandable; nothing speaks to our intellects like direct, objective accounts, preferably measured by third-party scientists (if such neutrality existed regarding belief in God).

But the problem is that such a grandiose manifestation doesn’t create belief. If it came from God, it would produce knowledge: He could make it very obvious. However, as we’ve already discussed, there seems to be some redeeming quality about belief that God wants us to cultivate. As far as I know, all those people who have come to an undeniable knowledge of God have not done so solely, even primarily, through empirical evidences; they have done so through the tool of belief.

(I can imagine many thinkers willing to attempt to prove that turning the globe backwards couldn’t possibly be miraculous or divine, or that nothing, for that matter, could have divine origins, no matter how creative the physical manifestation is. As I said before, there are many who just don’t want to believe, and as such, there will be relatively nothing, except an actual beholding of God after death, that will seem convincing. They may say, “Well, if divine events or miracles were possible, I would not deny them, but since I know that they are not possible, there must be another explanation.” There are many who share this circular reasoning: “I don’t believe that miracles, however defined, are real, therefore your belief they are real is unfounded.” To those, I share my thoughts, and encourage them to at least be open-minded to those who feel differently.)

Even with undeniable knowledge of God, if some supernatural bizarreness were to happen, there would be plenty of scholars willing to attempt to show why it was a natural occurrence. People always seem to be able to convince themselves to believe or disbelieve evidences, depending what they want to believe—I have to recognize this statement from my standpoint as a believer. (This point in greater detail: forthcoming.) Belief on the part of scientists is akin to the belief that we are talking about: they, in order to perform an experiment, have to have some idea of what they think is going to happen. They have a belief in an idea, which they test. We also must have belief in an idea which we test, but the test we perform cannot be done with laboratory study.

This is where the necessity for the desire to believe is apparent. Without a desire to believe, we definitely won’t go on believing. This point resembles in some ways my previous point about “don’t want to believe” and “can’t believe”.

For some, asking the questions “Is God there? Does He care? What is His role in my life?” can be liberating. It can provide meaning to life and answers to deep questions of identity. It can provide peace. In a previous entry I mentioned a modified version of Pascal’s wager. Now, I understand that there are arguments all around the wager itself; we won’t justify Pascal’s logic. But the wager does illustrate a point: If God exists and can provide a happiness and joy greater than anything that we can find in this life, wouldn’t it be worth any price in this life to find out if that is true?

Though this is not the case with all who don’t believe, I have noticed that there are many who don’t believe because of what that would entail. If there is a God, the ones who know of Him historically speaking, in their various ways, say He expects righteousness, however defined. I will site a story from a Judeo-Christian text that gives an example of people who have no desire to believe because of what it entails. I recognize that there are those who disregard sacred writ, so for those people, I offer it as an illustration of the principle.

Ahaz was a king in the time of the Judeo-Christian prophet Isaiah. He didn’t really want anything to do with God and didn’t really live in the way God would expect him to, even though his kingdom was about to be attacked, and he would need all the deus ex machina he could muster. Isaiah, who is the mouthpiece for God in this record, offered Ahaz a remarkable proposition that many of us wish that we could have offered us. Isaiah said, “Ask for a sign from the Lord your God.” Basically, ask for anything as proof that He exists, and you can know that God exists and is available to help you. God is actually concerned. I think many of us would say, “Yeah! Have God do such-and-such! Then I’d believe!”

There would be many who would take that offer, but if God is interested in cultivating belief, there must be something else. In response to this question, Ahaz said, “No. I will not ask, and I will not test the Lord.” Why? Why on earth would someone turn down the opportunity like this? He had everything to gain from the experience, didn’t he? Everything except one thing: if Ahaz knew or even believed that God existed, he would have to change his behavior to the way Isaiah told him God expected him to act. This story is illustrative of people whom I have met. Sometimes we are too concerned about protecting our small piece of intellectual turf or our demands for hedonic rights or our fear of losing something that is popular, convenient, individualistic, or prestigious. Being more concerned about maintaining our status quo than learning if God (or anything) is real gets in the way of even beginning to really try experimenting. The desire needed to move forward or to have belief is gone.

That is not to say that those who prefer to never ask the question are somehow inferior people. They obviously have found something worth living for, which can be commendable. But if God does exist, passing up the offer to come to know Him, just because we’ve found something satisfactory to bide our time, would deprive ourselves of greater richness, depth, and joy in life and eventually, a knowledge that discloses meaning in life.

I repeat: we have to desire the answer to this question before we can start asking the question. I have known another great many people, perhaps more than the refusing group to which I had just referred, who felt they performed the experiment of faith and received no results. I had shared with them some ideas as to how they could go about trying and verifying, which I will include here in an upcoming post. It seemed to me that they had tried these suggestions, but without the desire to believe. Sometimes they did it because they liked me and wanted to do it to please me. Sometimes they did it just to prove me wrong. But oftentimes they did it without the desire of knowing for themselves. And without that desire, they learned nothing. Though they went through the motions, they did not want to believe, and therefore never actually performed the experiment. It would be like trying to study the stars through a telescope, by looking through the telescope, focusing it very well, but never taking the lens cap off.

I know of people who tried suggestions given to them by believers with great diligence, and were frustrated that results did not come in the way they expected. When I asked them about believing, many had never actually started that part. They never desired to believe. I would ask them, “Just think hypothetically: if God did exist, and He did let you know what you’re asking for, but as a consequence you would have to change your lifestyle, leaving friends, maybe giving up some vice, or surrendering some behavior, would you still be willing to find out?” Those who felt like they had performed the experiment and had received nothing (from my personal experience only, N=about 45) invariably said either “No” or “I’d have to think about it”, meaning they hadn’t actually had the desire to believe up to that point. I was always surprised at the honesty of their answers, because I personally would feel sheepish for doing something like this just for the means and not for the ends. The ends in this case would usually entail that we change: we would have new experiences that we need to factor in to our calculations. If we were just going to ignore the experiences, why have them in the first place?

The desire to believe can be cultivated for some by contemplating those difficult questions of “why am I here?” and “does life have meaning?” and “can these answers be found?” I leave it to the reader to figure out what questions they have, what they’d be willing to give up in response to those answers, and ask themselves if they have the desire to perform such an experiment.

Mar 27, 2008

Answering “Does God Exist?”: Being Teachable and Colored Thoughts

I constantly talk of the experiment of belief. Part of my intent with this blog is to provide some guidance and direction in trying this experiment of belief. But what about those who may say, “So how am I going to try this experiment if I can’t believe at all? I can’t bring myself to believe in something like that. But I want to try the experiment.” The following comments apply to this topic, but also may be applied learning anything in academia.

We have to make the distinction between the claims of “can’t believe” and “don’t want to believe”. There is a very important difference: those who “don’t want to” try the experiment will never begin because of a difference in attitude; this could be because modifying belief systems can be very difficult, and the prospect of doing so is not worth the effort for them. Those who “can’t believe” have a number of thoughts, ponderings, beliefs of their own, philosophies, etc. that make believing in God a significant challenge. Those who “don’t want to believe” something feel that never truly asking a question is somehow more liberating than knowing for themselves—perhaps an ignorance-is-bliss mentality. For those who feel that really asking the question of God is not something he/she wants to know, I don’t think many of my comments will be interesting. I cannot help someone understand something that he/she is choosing not to understand, whether it be developmental psychology, solid-state physics, political economy of women, minimalist artistic movements, or God.

A man of God, who first introduced me to this method of an experiment, said, “if [you] will [try] an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith … even if [you] can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until [you] believe in a manner that [you] can give place [in your heart/belief system] for a portion of my words.” I think that this man was partly teaching that if you can’t believe because it seems like the claim is constantly too far removed from reality then ponder on the fact that the only way to really know is to try the experiment: believe. Deep pondering, contemplative reflecting, and/or serious consideration will eventually and hopefully open one up to the option of trying an experiment, or at least open us to the recognition that since we have not tried it, we cannot determine the validity of another’s experience. However, if we are to try something this monumental, such as a change in our belief system, we have to bring ourselves to the point where we can say,

“I want to know the answer for myself, and not because others have insisted it is so. I am concerned enough about learning this thing that I am willing to sacrifice my previous opinions about the subject to know. I am willing, with all its implications, to accept knowing: being ostracized by close ones, losing status with friends, possible stereotyping, possible implications with regards to my employment … whatever the consequences of changing my belief system in an intolerant world may be. Coming to a knowledge of this is more important to me than being right up to this point: I want to know either way.”

We all should reach this point of willingness to learn about God sometime in our lives. Without having actually tried the experiment of belief, we cannot really say that we’ve tried to answer the question as it has been asked. If we don’t reach that point of being honest with ourselves, it could be that we don’t want to know the answer yet.

From personal experience, however anecdotal, I must say something that I’ve observed in my desire to know God: I have not come to know anything, to truly comprehend anything, to receive anything, or to be anything without reaching the point where I’ve said to myself, “I don’t care what the answer is, whether I’m currently right or wrong; I just need to know what it really is.” In the case of belief in God, I have had to reach the point where I’ve broken down my preconceptions of what I think God should or shouldn’t be or how He should or shouldn’t act. When I’ve reached that point, I can begin to understand. As an analogy, if God wants to paint a picture in our minds using bright oranges, reds, greens, and violets, but all we’re letting Him work with in our minds is gray (because we think that gray is the only thing He can use), the intended picture may come out sadly monochromatic; even if He does give us something of a painting, it is likely our restrictions on the answer that distort the picture.

That analogy is worth pondering and reflecting. Could God prove Himself to the individual? Yes. Then why does He leave it also to our own willingness to let Him into our belief system? Again, there must be something valuable in learning to learn, in allowing God to choose the palate, or in being willing to surrender our own hard-earned thoughts if greater insight is available. Again, there must be something valuable in learning to believe, because God is not forced to use only unquantifiable personal experiences.

We have to open up our minds to the idea that “you know what? I could be wrong on this one.” As one reader pointed out, oftentimes we reach a point where we just stop questioning. The only legitimate reason to stop questioning is if we knew something, coming from an indisputable source of truth, where all other possible options are removed, assuming that such a source were available. Otherwise, we should continue to inquire. I hope to give some insights as to how we can do this.

Mar 25, 2008

Analogy to Science and the Value of Belief

A quick recap:

If God exists as defined by theists, then He is fully capable of unequivocally proving His existence. Why does He not? Because there must be something in our learning to believe that is important to Him. I hope to have later posts that expound on the importance of that cultivation.

I have stated that belief is the tool by which we can start to know God and that it is the tool used by those who have claimed to have known Him. Therefore, knowing God cannot be refuted until that person uses the same tool in the way that God would have it be used. And the fact that the results may be immeasurable (like the Being that they are trying to discover) makes our scientific standardizations inadequate, no matter how rigorous we apply scientific methods. All who believe in God would claim that if He didn’t want to be measurable or known in an indisputably objective way, there would be nothing we could do to discover Him empirically or scientifically. He has the power to keep Himself known only to individuals who seek Him.

Analogous to science, an experiment can be refuted in three ways a) proving the method wrong, b) the underlying principles wrong, or c) by duplicating the method and finding definitively opposing results.

I have already suggested that the method of believing cannot be proved unsound intrinsically, because the assumptions made to make a claim that belief is automatically unsound contain either circular arguments or unfounded claims, such as, “I don’t think that beliefs are adequate proof, hence your beliefs aren’t adequate proof, therefore there is no God” or “You can’t use belief because I don’t think it’s valid.” We also recognize that even a scientist believes his/her experiments will produce results, and that belief, in its various forms will often lead to events with productive results.

I have already suggested that the underlying principles, the facts that God exists and that He can manifest Himself as He chooses, cannot be refuted by our available scientific methodology. In theory, if we found some proof, the best we knew how, that God didn’t exist, He could still exist.

So we’re left with the third: we need to duplicate the exact method. Without having tried the experiment of belief, we have no ability to refute claims on God. I recognize that there are many who have tried this experiment and have received a variety of results. There are various explanations, some of which are because this is solely an analogy. Other reasons for these differences will be given in later posts.

I recognize that there are many brilliant scholars and philosophers who have made it a point to show why God cannot exist. Scottish philosopher of the Enlightenment David Hume, for example, might say that all of this talk of the requirement of believing first is irrational. In Hume’s thought tradition anything that was not empirical was considered irrational. But the problem is that there has been few, if any, meaningful claims to know God without having first believed. Despite the powerful intellects of some of those who wish to make belief in God a logical impossibility, we cannot reason Him into or out of existence. We cannot find him through science alone, nor can we show that He does not exist with a litmus test. Believing, no matter how unappealing this is for the scientists in all of us, is a requirement that precedes knowledge. I am familiar with much of the work of these great minds. A man who claimed to have a knowledge of the existence of God, taught, “God is known only by revelation; he stands revealed or remains forever unknown. He cannot be discovered in the laboratory, or by viewing all immensity through giant telescopes, or by cataloging all the laws of nature that do or have existed.” Just as it is an experiment of belief that anyone can try, by “revelation” this man of God means that the results of the endeavor will only be manifested only to the experimenter, the individual who took the opportunity to believe.

There are many believing scholars who have tried to prove, both from science and philosophy, the existence of God. They have irrefutably, in my opinion, argued the possibility of God’s existence, they but have not proved His existence. Indeed, if God would not have it so, it would not be provable. Belief must be something He values in us. I stated in a recent comment that I feel that God can be knowable unempirically and empirically, if He so desired. I have had no experience with empirical knowledge of God, meaning I haven’t seen or touched God or another heavenly entity in some measurable way. However, just because I haven’t experienced such a thing does not make it impossible. I have to leave those things which I have not experienced as still possible. Therefore, I will focus on knowledge coming unempirically, something that may seem oxymoronic for some.

As for me, though I feel that I have received a worthwhile education, I feel that my philosophical statements may reflect my intermediacy in the field. I am not afraid to speak my mind in philosophy, but perhaps sheer epistemology is not the best use of my efforts. I am somewhat of a pragmatist and an experientialist. My points will be comparatively simple, but I will expect the reader to care about the argument enough to consider trying suggestions.

Mar 21, 2008

Thoughts on God and Measurability

I have posted a comment on another post in a most interesting discussion with another reader. These are some thoughts as a follow-up to the most recent post. It is fairly short. I recognize that I have a hard time restricting myself to shorter posts, because I have many thoughts that I wish to share. Enjoy.

Mar 16, 2008

Subjectivity and Objectivity

This post came in response to a comment, and the whole response is not here. I hope it is worth your read:

The words subjective and objective carry with them a lot of meaning. We can define the term subjective as “something that someone else experiences that I don’t” or “something that someone else experiences that I can’t” or even “something that is not real”. The last one, on the issue of God is a circular argument, which says “God is not real, so what you experience is not real, therefore there is no God.” At least in theory, God could still exist if people drew untrue conclusions from experiences and then attributed them falsely to Him. We will dismiss that circular definition. There is a considerable difference between the other two definitions. If we say that a subjective experience is something that “I don’t experience”, we could broaden that definition to events, such as going to Morocco. This is a hard-line view of subjectivity. To condemn a person’s belief that Morocco actually exists, despite the fact that one has not been there and only relies on another’s word, would be incorrect. As for the other definition, that subjectivity is due to the fact that “I can’t experience” it, I will hereafter make the case that the method that I am suggesting, the “experiment” in these posts, is in fact objective, and that it is something that everyone can experience. Indeed, I hope it is something that we all experience. Therefore, according to the last definition, it is objective. But let’s first address some of the issues of objectivity.

All believers in God argue that the Deity they revere is powerful enough to make Himself known in an impacting, objective way; there is no God too weak to manifest Himself with remarkable objectivity. So if God does exist, He has the power to make Himself known to the entire world. However, this leaves believers with a difficult question to answer: If God exists, why doesn’t He more regularly use public, objective results? Those who do not believe in God may interpret this as proof that God doesn’t exist-- He does not manifest Himself because He does not exist. But another approach would be to explore why God, if He does exist, might use personal, and thereby often called “subjective”, experiences to reveal Himself; in the terms of this experiment, it is to explore why He might give us an objective method with subjective results.

So, if God could manifest Himself unto all in an objective way, why hasn’t He? For one, having a piece of evidence that one can hold in the hand with a proof that God exists (assuming that one could have such proof) would make believing in God an issue akin to believing that the earth orbits the sun, using machines and calculations to assert our claim. We know the earth orbits the sun, and believing otherwise would be foolish, and with that comes no real growth other than another fact logged away. I don’t presume to know the mind of God; but I think His non-use of objectivity may have to do with the fact that believing and having faith are, for whatever His reasons, things that He wishes we develop. There must be something of worth that comes to the individual cultivating a belief in God that is important to Him.

The power in the experiment of belief is that it is possible for every individual and that it teaches individually—by a tutor, as it were. A tutor, in this case God, will stay at our pace as we learn, giving us what we are able to take, when we are able to take it.

Take the example of God being concerned about us behaving ethically. If we believe God is just and He is concerned that we are ethical (i.e. righteous, loving, selfless, diligent, or how ever defined), He will judge our level of ethics based on what we know, just as children are punished to levels of severity according to their incremental knowledge of right and wrong. The experiment of belief is intended to allow us to know a little bit at a time about God, His existence, and what He would like us to become. If we knew, objectively, in one shebang all of that information, we would be held responsible for behaving perfectly ethically in thought, word, and deed, for we would know without a doubt that God does exist and that such-and-such is what He expects of us.

But instead, if He allows us to know and to learn incrementally, as this experiment of belief provides, He can judge us according to what we have received up to that point. Because He is just, He would also require that we put forth effort to seek more knowledge, for otherwise we would be ignoring opportunities for learning. While God is merciful towards those with incomplete understandings of His will (which surely includes all of us, to some degree or another), at the same time, willful ignorance of what God hopes of us and of His existence will not be as protective from God’s judgment. I say this because I know of people who chose not to try this “experiment”, not because they think it won’t work, but because they don’t want the responsibility of discovering that God expects them to be more ethical or “righteous” in the terms that they see some believers define. Since all are entitled to their belief, we, as humans, are expected to allow all men to live and pay homage whatsoever they choose, may it be God, various gods, science, money, sports, or nothing at all. However, I return to my original point: if God were to manifest himself objectively, there may be many, who perhaps would not have developed the kind of ethical living (however God may define it) to correctly live as He would instruct.

That is why the “experiment” that I am outlining is intrinsically sound: if God exists and wanted to make Himself known to the masses in an objective way, He could. If God exists and does not want to make Himself known in a great objective way because there is something about personal experience that is important to Him, He will confirm such to an individual. The experiment itself is objective: you can try it. However, if we are looking for results of the experiment to be measurable and quantifiable, we may find that the results lead to something that cannot be quantified. Such it is with God: He stands immeasurable, incalculable, and unquantifiable, for our intents and purposes. Only personal experience can measure the immeasurable. And if we make the claim that these personal experiences are, as a group, completely subjective, we don’t change the claim that personal experiences are the means by which the individual can know about God according to Him.

A common reply would be, “That is all too convenient. It’s too convenient just to say, ‘God cannot be objectively measured,’ because then there is no proof or denial.” If one’s purpose for believing in God was merely to rationalize His existence, then yes, this would be an easy claim. But I assure you that believers, whose goal is to know God and search for Him, are saying, “This is all too inconvenient. It would be so much simpler if God would just make Himself manifest to everyone.” Believers are not just looking for a scapegoat for their personal experience with the Divine. The inward searching for God is a process for those who believe, requiring dedication to that experiment of belief. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the more time we spend experimenting, the more likely we are to produce confident results. That commitment is not convenient.

I recognize that the goal for some is to refute the belief systems of those who believe in God. One cannot refute them by merely dismissing their experiences because they are not experienced by another, especially when I am suggesting that there is a way that all can believe. Though not a perfect analogy, can you say to a man who loves his son, “You do not love your son,” merely because you do not yourself experience it? No, and if he did love his son, what would be the units of measurement? Again, this has a level of ineffability, but that doesn’t mean that because he cannot quantify it, it is not so, or because it’s anecdotal, it isn’t reliable. We are left to either believe or dismiss his experiences on our own rationale—or, and this is my whole point, perhaps our own experiences of giving and receiving love would help us to understand, identify with, and believe the man, despite our lack of having the exact same experience.

These thoughts are in no way refuting the importance of objectivity. Much of our advancement as a species has come through measurable, more universally accepted objective results. As far as social policy, fiscal progress, science, engineering, business and many other applications in life, the most reasonable method of finding knowledge is all objective, quantitative and qualitative. Is this to say that God can’t help us on these issues? Of course He can, and I believe He has. But since there are things that are both important and unquantifiable, the “experiment” of belief becomes the logical standpoint. Besides, all objective results, including the whole of science, get to inexplicable or subjective assumptions when you boil it down.

I give you an example: why does a computer work? Because we have engineered transistors from semiconductive material to process logical operations. Why do these semiconductors allow us to operate? Because as you apply voltage to adjacent semiconductors with different conductivities, electrons’ behavior (electric current) will change dramatically. Why will the behavior change dramatically? Because we’ve observed these changes in the past. But why does the behavior change? Well, it’s in part due to the fact that sometimes an electron acts as a particle and sometimes it acts as a wave. Why is that? We don’t know. We base our calculations of electrons on these assumptions, that it has mass and also can act as a wave, but these are our best guess as to what’s going on with an electron. We have mathematical models that help us understand the behavior, but our mathematical models cannot tell us the “essence” of quantum mechanics yet or exactly what it is. As Sir Arthur Eddington said, “Something unknown is doing we don’t know what.” Down at the very bottom of all scientific assumptions we reach a point we have to accept subjectivity, because we have nothing objective. We just have to say “We don’t know what an electron really is. We will assume such and such, because our experiences have led us to believe that.” We have no real objective data; we just have to make the best use of things we’ve experienced and keep searching for more understanding. Yet, although we cannot completely quantify, or even explain, what the essence of an electron is, we can use electrons in powerful ways because we have experimented and observed how they act. Similarly, though we may not be able to quantify God or how He reveals Himself to us, we can learn in powerful ways by experimenting, observing, and experiencing how He acts in our lives.

That lengthy exposition said, there is no room in personal experience to not be open-minded and tolerant of other belief-systems. If God does exist and does value those results of personal experience, it should be respected on all levels. Thank you for your thoughtful response, as one who values science and empiricism and recognizes the intrinsic scientific difficulty with subjectivity. I’m sorry that the analogy doesn’t hold on all levels; alas, it is only an analogy.

There will be many posts in the future about these questions, for as a believer, I have had to come to terms with many difficult questions regarding believing in God. As I had to seriously ask myself these things, I hope that my blog will evoke some thoughts as well in the readership, and, if nothing more, the acceptance of people with belief systems in God as being a viable solution for finding meaning in this life.