Mar 10, 2008

God’s Existence and Open-mindedness

In order to learn anything, we have to be willing to surrender what our current conceptions of that subject are, starting afresh. This process is usually easier in a school setting, where we oftentimes have little preconceived notion about the things we are learning. But in the instance that we meet someone and receive a horrible first impression, even if they really are a great person, it is a difficult change to try to see that person for who they are. It requires our willingness to realize we were wrong, or at least acknowledge the possibility of being wrong, in order to eventually be right about that person.

Based on experiences and what we have been taught, we all have preconceived notions about God’s existence. We must give everyone the benefit of the doubt: we’ve all experienced life differently, we may see things differently, and we’re doing the best we can to understand what we’ve experienced. Nevertheless, if there is a right or a wrong answer concerning God’s existence, we need to each be willing to clean our plates of all the intellectual horseradish and vinegar we’ve been eating when a right answer may require us to savor more sublime and subtle flavors. Just as it is with learning something new, we must start on a clean plate, with no residues tainting our palate.

The existence of God is either true or false. It cannot be half-true (“He sometimes exists.”) or relatively-true (“He exists for that person, but not for me.”), because His existence once, for one person, is His existence for all people. (We discard the philosophical notion that the existence of God is contingent upon the belief of man, suggested, I think, by Nietzsche. I make the argument that God is an independent entity and exists whether or not we choose to believe in Him. What we think about God doesn’t change God; it changes us.) If He exists at all—ever—His existence is real. If He has never existed, He does not exist. Since it is a yes/no question with an unambiguous answer, and He is considered to be the greatest entity in the Universe, it would seem in our best interest to find out if the answer is “yes” or “no”. If we are honest with ourselves, we will seriously ask the question.

I acknowledge that there are many who are ignorant or prone to superstition who readily look to God for hope, perhaps in part because they have very little hope in this life. Sometimes it is difficult for non-believers to accept their belief system as convincing, given their lack of intellectually sophisticated rationales for believing. Notwithstanding, of the billions that do believe in God, if just one actually finds out that the answer to this yes/no question is really “yes”—not a spiritual understanding based on superstition or gullibility, but actual knowledge from a source of truth—then God would exist for all those who haven’t found out whether or not He exists: including the educated and the successful.

But like the clean plate analogy, if what the one believer says is right, we may have a lot of our own predetermined responses to flush out in our learning process. Truly, there have been many successful and educated people that have used the one tool and found out for themselves the answer to that age-old question.

In a previous entry, I mentioned the idea that the only tool used by people who claim that God exists is belief. That is the method and the tool used by those who say they know. As we explored, there is no science or philosophy that can prove or disprove His existence. So we’re stuck with belief as the tool, and we need to continue to use it until we’ve successfully cleaned all our preconceived notions and have received definitive results.

When a scientist comes from an experiment with controversial results, the first thing other scientists and scholars want to know is: how’d he or she do it? The method must be repeatable and testable. No matter how smart we are, we cannot overturn someone else’s results unless we can perform the exact same experiment to obtain irrefutably contrasting data. Deciding not to do an experiment because one already assumes to know the answer is similar to when Einstein, arguably one of the smartest humans ever, dismissed de Broglie’s particle-wave theory without doing the experiments himself. Even though Einstein was educated, his gut-response having not performed the experiment himself led him to be incorrect.

Thus it is with God. The only way to overturn the results of one who has known God is to perform the same experiment. It is everyone’s opportunity to dismiss or perform the experiment, and those of us who have never performed it cannot discount those that have, and vice versa. To refute someone without knowing for oneself exhibits one of the symptoms of closed-mindedness: claiming to have understanding, but never trying to understand. There must always be respect from both sides.

Please entertain this thought, derived from Pascal’s famous wager. We can act as if God exists or we can act as if He doesn’t exist. If He doesn’t exist, the only thing we might lose could be a few hedonic pleasures; some argue that we wouldn’t lose anything. However, if He does exist, acting like He doesn’t exist could be a serious problem, depending on our notion of punishment from Him. But acting like He exists, when He indeed does, would be the greatest investment of our time imaginable.

It is worth our time, no matter our previous experiences, to constantly be willing to surrender our preconceived notions of God, using the tool of belief to discover whether or not He exists. Again, it is the only tool used by those who have claimed to have come to a real knowledge.


hembireko said...

I like this section because it leads to the question if one can really know with certainty those things with are typically relegated to the realm of faith. Our relativistic society, while so comfortable saying “Well, it’s true for him,” at times struggles with the conception of absolute truth—that what is true for one person is likewise true for another. Is it that it seems like spiritual compulsion or manipulation to say, “I know this is true, so you have to believe it, too”? In any case, for myself one thing that helps in this is what you mention, namely that each of us is entitled to try this experiment of belief (experiment being a nice scientific word not normally applied to spirituality but one which, nonetheless, I feel is apt in this case). If such an experiment of faith resulted in an answer of “yes” to the existence of God, a then-enlightened individual would not have to just tell others dictatorially that God indeed exists; rather, she or he could invite others to attempt the same experiment, confident that a similar outcome would result for other sincere truth seekers.

Diogenes said...

I agree that the concept of using belief as "an experiment" for learning of the existence of God sounds nicely scientific; it may serve as a convenient analogy for those who feel the need to rectify their religious beliefs with science. But the "belief" experiment (as described in the post) isn't very well defined. What do we choose to believe, and what exactly validates that belief? Is our belief in God vindicated when we cease to question His existence? When some seemingly miraculous event occurs in our lives? When a pious nation prospers? When we start "feeling good" about the idea? In the end, the results of the "belief" experiment seem impossible to quantify, being hopelessly subjective and (ultimately) anecdotal.

Mikha'el said...

I appreciate the comments contributed thus far. I acknowledge that the experiment, as listed, is intended to be analogous to science. However, it is not an attempt to rectify science and religion, but rather an effort to explain religion in terms that will make sense for those more used to the language of science.
What validates belief? Excellent question, because the “experiment” would be without purpose if there were no way to handle results. I affirm that belief in something untrue is something we all want to avoid; we do not want to be deceived, or to deceive ourselves. So the question of how to identify and interpret an answer is well put, Diogenes, and it is a question I have asked, too. Part of the answer is contained here, and parts will come hereafter.
Should we wait for miraculous events? No, a miraculous event can be interpreted as a miracle, a coincidence, a scientific anomaly, or as any number of things. For one who believes in God, it would be a fortifying experience; for one who does not believe in God, it would be meaningless, bizarre, or merely coincidental. Besides, a miracle that proves definitively the existence of God would negate any future need for using faith which, as I will discuss below, may be an important opportunity.
A pious nation? That would be nice, but I don’t think that that is necessarily evidence for God. Again, for those who have tried the “experiment” it might be fortifying, and for those who haven’t or don’t believe, the cause of the success would be some other source. But even pious nations can be conquered; this is not an effective measuring device either.
“Feeling good”? That may be a colloquialism used by those who believe in God to try to explain some of their motivation for doing so. In this day and age, “feeling good” is such a loaded term that the expression is inadequate. Yes, there are experiences unique to the individual that come as a result from God; no, not all “feeling good” is divinely inspired. When it is of God and when it is not is left for another post. There is definitely an intrinsically internal element in the results for trying the experiment of belief. And this is where my analogy with science fails: though the method I have presented is objective, meaning, I claim that anyone, anywhere can try it, the results will not be objective to everyone, only to the individual as a function of the sincerity, persistence, and willingness they display. Some may call this subjective, which, if they define it as “something that someone else experiences that I don’t”, then it is subjective. It is something that must be learned on the individual level. But, as I can only speak for myself and others who have done likewise, that the “feeling good” would likely have elements of both concreteness and ineffability. This is where the perfectly reasonable comment of being “impossible to quantify, being hopelessly subjective” stems for many. But your last sentence leads me to believe that a sincere question for you is: if it is subjective, can it be trusted? Or, if something is not objective, isn’t it likely invalid?
Subjectivity and Objectivity
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 blogs, 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.