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Sci Tech    H4'ed 6/16/09

On the Death of God

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The phrase “God is dead” has a number of meanings. Firstly, it is diagnosing a condition. People no longer believe in God. Not in the way that they use to. Some have done away with the belief in God altogether, but this is not all that secularization means. There was a time when God was the explanation for everything, and everything made reference back to “supernatural” causes.1 Not anymore. Natural explanations abound. There was a time when Christianity was the unquestioned, taken for granted truth in European culture. Not anymore. We live in a continually more global and pluralistic world. People are confronted every day with the fact that others do not ascribe to the same set of beliefs that they do. The process of secularization has been, as Peter Berger explains in The Sacred Canopy, the process of removing religious symbols from the public sphere. In place of this we are left with scientific understanding—the only worldview in which there could even conceivably be consensus, without force to prevent questioning or exposure to other worldviews.2 There are two types of religious reactions to this state of affairs. Religious moderates embrace scientific understanding and reinterpret their religion as being about values and symbolism, thus sacrificing the integrity of their institutions (loss of autonomy / pattern of vicarious living). Religious conservatives dig in their heals and reject scientific understanding wherever they feel it contradicts their tradition, thus sacrificing the connection their institutions have to common reality (loss of homonomy / pattern of noncommitment). But both of these moves bear witness to the fact that Christianity, along with any other religions in Western society, no longer hold the status of being taken for granted.

Secondly, there is no reason to believe in God, in the traditional sense, which is relevant to the actual truth of the matter. This is understood both empirically (through the institution of science) and logically (through the institution of philosophy). Throughout the history of Western philosophy there have been many “proofs” for the existence of God, but since Hume and Kant it has generally been understood that they are all fallacious. “Proofs” for the existence of God are presented in the form of deductive arguments. But deductive arguments only concern relations of ideas (If A is a type of B, and B is a type of C, then A is a type of C). They can only show whether something is theoretically possible based on its logical coherence (the validity of the argument being made). But whether or not something exists is an empirical question. You can rule out the possibility of something existing through deductive argument by showing it to be a self-contradicting concept (an unmarried husband, a mother without children, a triangle with ten sides, etc). But if it is logically coherent (a valid argument) and thus theoretically possible, you then have to show that there is positive empirical evidence for its existence to make the argument that it actually exists. Kant understood this when he said, “Existence is not a predicate.” And is there empirical evidence that suggests the primordial state of the Universe was any sort of God, in the traditional sense? No. The philosophical arguments that defend the belief in God now do so on other grounds—that the desire to believe in God is its own justification or that the belief in God is useful. I will not argue against them here. That they are not interested in the objective reality of the matter is all that I find it necessary to point out. For those who do not care about whether their belief in God corresponds with objective reality, I hope your belief serves whatever purposes you are seeking to achieve. I would appreciate it, though, if when talking to others about your belief you would make it clear to them that your belief in God is not based on whether God actually exists, objectively.

The question "Who created the Universe?" is without meaning because the Universe, if defined in any sort of coherent manner, constitutes everything that exists. The question then becomes, “What, if anything, was the primordial state of the Universe?” In arguing for Intelligent Design, individuals seem to think that it was some sort of person, but this does not make much sense. How exactly could a mind form and operate independently of a world? Without sensory input, there is nothing to think about, and without time there is no way to think in the first place. As Richard Dawkins points out, any being complicated enough to have designed the known universe would have to be very intelligent and therefore very complicated itself, and the existence of such a complicated entity requires as much explanation as the known universe does. The only process that we know of that can produce an entity complicated enough to design something is the process of evolution. Proponents of Intelligent Design try to argue that God does not require an explanation because God exists outside of time, but designing something is a process, and processes only occur within time. If you say that the universe could exist as a timeless idea independent of any process of design or construction, then it doesn’t make sense to then say that its complexity is a blockade to its existence independent of a designer altogether. Anything that existed outside time and space would be like nothing we have any experience with or could relate to, since all of our experiences and relationships exist within the context of time and space. It would be “as irrelevant to us as the chemical composition of water to a person caught in a storm” (Nietzsche). It would be nothing even remotely human—less human than the rocks or the stars.

Since any degree of complexity would seem to require explanation, the only primordial state that would seem to not require explanation would be a primordial chaos, or quantum foam. As simple and unstructured as possible. A sea of unintention and divine accident, with infinite force and without focus of any kind, that would necessarily produce a sub-universe capable of producing life through "trial and error.” This is the same way that evolution works: the incrementing of random mutation, the continuation of what is structurally sound, and the collapse of what is not structurally sound—structure arising from non-structure.3 If we look at the way things develop, we find that complex forms are preceded, generally, by less complex forms. To believe in Intelligent Design is to think that complex forms are preceded by the less complex, and then the less complex, and then the less complex, etc., until we get all the way back to…the infinitely complex. What? Why would you expect that?4

If we thought that the known universe was designed, it would make sense to ask what it was designed for. As Richard Carrier discusses in the movie The God Who Wasn't There, if it was designed to produce intelligent life like us, we would expect it to look pretty much like what people in the Middle Ages thought it looked like: the Earth at the center, the Sun revolving around the Earth, four elements, 6,000 years old, etc. Why would God make it any other way? But the universe that we are given doesn't look like that. The Earth is a tiny speck circling around another tiny speck in a galaxy that is filled with many stars and that is one of countless galaxies. Why all the extra space? Why is the Earth’s position so seemingly insignificant? 99% of all organisms that have ever existed on earth are now extinct. If there is a designer, he doesn't seem to be very good at his job. 99.99% of the universe is deadly radiation filled vacuum that you would die instantly if exposed to. That doesn't sound like it was designed for you. There are gases that you can't see or smell but which if you breath in you will die. Why does God hate us? If the lifespan of the universe up to this point were a year, the history of humanity would fit within the last second of the last minute of the last hour of the last day of the last month of that year. That doesn't sound like there is a designer that had human beings as its goal—why all the unnecessary time? Human beings speak, breath, and eat through the same hole, guaranteeing that a certain percentage of us will choke to death. To quote Neil deGrass Tyson, "Wouldn't it be nice if we could eat and breath out of different holes? And that is not an unreasonable thing to ask for, by the way. Dolphins have that, and they’re mammals, so...Santa Claus could bring that one."5 The list could go on and on. Returning to Carrier’s discussion, the best thing that this universe does is produce black holes. The cosmological constants are just right that this universe will produce more black holes than any other possible universe. So if the cosmological constants are also perfect for life, it would appear that life is just something that would necessarily have to be kicked up in a universe designed to produce black holes. So even from this angle, the argument from design doesn't get us very far.

Now, if to this line of inquiry you were to, rightly, respond, “These matters are beyond human understanding,”—fair enough. But an understanding of these matters is exactly what you pretend to when you say that God created the world. So either 1) Provide reasonable answers to these questions, or 2) Admit that you are ignorant about these matters and cease to say that you think it likely a God created the world. I will regard a failure to do the former as a silent admission of the latter. Perhaps more important than discussing why the creationist explanation is incoherent is pointing out that it is, after all, an appeal to ignorance. We don't know how the universe was formed, so why should we even play this game? Why should we guess? And why should we guess something extremely complex and self-serving at that? What leads you to believe that something produced in the course of human mythology which doesn't fit the evidence we empirically observe has anything to do with the reality of the situation? In Tyson’s presentation he explains how the belief in God, at every point in our intellectual history, has been the excuse to stop asking questions and looking for answers. He puts it quite simply and rightly, “Science is a philosophy of discovery. Intelligent Design is a philosophy of ignorance.”

Can we prove that the biblical God does not exist? No. Of course not. The biblical God could exist. It’s theoretically possible. But that’s true about just about anything. As soon as we start talking about what is theoretically possible, rather than what seems likely based on the information that we have, game over. There is no way to continue. Just about anything could be the case. We find ourselves at a stalemate. As Sam Harris rightly observes, there is no more evidence for the biblical God than there is for Poseidon or any of the other gods of human mythology. “It's not like someone in the third century actually figured out that the biblical God exists, but Poseidon doesn’t. This is not data that we have.”6 They could exist, but we have no reason to think that they do that is actually relevant to the truth of the matter. Pascal was right that we must wager about the nature of existence, and that we must do a risk-gain assessment of the situation. He was only wrong in thinking that there are only two possible options (Christianity or Materialism)—when in reality there are an infinite number of possible options. You could be a Christian because you believe that if you die this will get you into heaven if anything will, but find that the whim of the deity was for atheism and intellectual honesty, and thus they will be eternally rewarded and you eternally punished.7 You don't know. All we can do is our best to understand the nature of existence based on the evidence that we have. Our feelings about “what makes sense” fluctuate all the time. Reason and evidence are our only ticket through.8 That not everyone understands or appreciates this is beside the point. The understanding has occurred. The words, once spoken, cannot be taken back. God is dead in the same way that a mortally wounded patient or an inmate on death row is dead.

Unfortunately, one of the main culprits that we face in this process is actually language itself. Language is an extraordinary tool. We would not be where we are as a species without it. But because, as a species, we are so hardwired to respond to language with belief, because so much of what constitutes how we experience reality is the result of linguistic constructions, language can become a font of illusion as easily as it can be a tool for the enunciation of truth. Often, hearing is believing. Thus, when you are around people who constantly talk about God, always within the context of the unstated assumption that of course God exists, this has a profound effect on you. When they talk about God in the same manner that they would another person, who just happens to not be in the room at the time, the idea of God fits into the same place in your mind as such a person. The taken for granted becomes accepted unquestioningly as reality because it is taken for granted.

And this is not just true about the belief in God—it could be used for just about any belief. Children really believe in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and any number of other things primarily because these things are presented to them linguistically as being empirical realities. And adults believe in things no less fanciful, based on no better evidence. For example, when someone talks about hell, as if it actually exists, you probably think to yourself, “Oh man, I wouldn’t want that to happen. What can I do?” You respond to it, emotionally, as if it were a reality because you are being told that it is. Want to see how this works? Try this experiment: Hang out with people who believe different things than you do. Go visit a Mosque, a Hindu temple, a Buddhist meditation group, a pagan gathering, etc. Read their literature. Get people to talk to you about their beliefs and just listen, or better yet, listen as they talk to each other about their shared beliefs. And see if you cannot get the feeling, “Huh. From this angle, this sort of seems true.” Then go back to doing your own thing and watch this feeling dissipate.

It is the same thing with values. If you are around people who constantly talk as if something is wrong or is right, you will probably come to think both that values are objective and that the specific value judgments of that group are accurate, whatever they happen to be. Likewise, if you are around people who constantly talk from the assumption that God exists, you are likely to find this a reasonable proposition. In contrast, if you are around people who either talk from the assumption that God does not exist or who merely do not reference God at all, you are likely to find the belief in God a ridiculous proposition. (I think this, by the way, is probably the primary reason why religious groups want the word “God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and prayer to take place in school. The more instances something is mentioned in a positive context, the more taken for granted it will be. In contrast, having children spend the majority of their time at school in which the belief in God is not assumed is highly threatening to the indoctrination process.) The less you go to church or other faith activities to have your programming updated, the less sure about the existence of God you will probably become.

Language allows for these sorts of magic tricks, cognitive illusions, to be performed on you. From different perspectives, different things will “feel” true. If you come to understand and circumvent this process, to be able to say, “I know that this seems true because I am being told it is the case, but I also know I would feel the opposite in the opposite situation, and I will only base my beliefs about objective reality on reason and evidence,” you will become more powerful. You will become more able to see through bullshit and lies and to search deeper for the truth. This is especially useful when listening to politicians. Those that seek to manipulate you are able to do so in large part because of language. The masses are more powerful than the elite, and the elite know this. But the elite also know how to manipulate the masses through the use of words. Become you own magician, and show others how these tricks are performed.

Thirdly, the phrase “God is dead” can also be taken to mean that “God is death.” Monotheists, out of despair, seek to transcend life and existence, and so they disparage them. Life is seen as a disease, and death as the cure. Nietzsche’s words are best for this:

“The Christian conception of God—God as god of the sick, God as a spider, God as spirit—is one of the most corrupt conceptions of the divine ever attained on earth. It may even represent the low-water mark in the descending development of divine types. God degenerated into the contradiction of life, instead of being its transfiguration and eternal Yes! God as the declaration of war against life, against nature, against the will to live! God—the formula for every slander against 'this world,' for every lie about the 'beyond'! God—the deification of nothingness, the will to nothingness pronounced holy!”

To say that there is a God is to say that there is an upper limit on what life can achieve. To say that there is no God is to say that there is no upper limit. “The Godly thing is simply this: that there are gods but no God.” Thus spoke Zarathustra. To this I would add that there are heavens but no Heaven, devils but no Devil, sins but no Sin, hells but no Hell, and forgiveness but no Forgiveness. These things exist relatively, but not ultimately. You may “sin” against someone—act in such a way as to harm them, for example—but you cannot do anything objectively wrong. You are their devil, but there can be no enemy of being, since everything that exists is itself an incarnation of being. Someone can forgive you—bring you back into their trust—but the Universe cannot forgive you, because everything that you do it is also doing through you. There is nothing to forgive. You are never out of sync with it, so it cannot bring you back into sync with it.

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Ben Dench graduated valedictorian of his class from The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in the Spring Semester of 2007 with a B.A. in philosophy (his graduation speech, which received high praise, is available on YouTube). He is currently (more...)
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