A god question
The Other I is a blog I recommend to anyone interested in lucid and non-dogmatic discussion of serious things. (Not to imply it is only about ‘serious things’…)
Below is a response I wrote to one of the posts on The Other I: Why the existence of God isn’t a scientific question:
I don’t disagree with any of your explanation here – and in particular with what you say about falsifiability versus verifiability. What intrigues me are some of the implications.
To follow an absurd thought experiment – imagine an over-the-top Hollywood disaster movie called something like End Time. A bunch of privileged survivors witness the end of the world in all its technicolor glory. Nothing remains – apart from themselves, somehow, as disembodied souls. They next witness the creation of another world, from nothing. All the while an impeccable American English voice on the soundtrack tells the survivors what is happening, and that he is what is making it happen.
Now imagine this not as a movie but as really happening. For at least one of those survivors, that might count as ‘verification’, in a straightforward meaning of the word, of what he or she believed prior to the event. If however it later turned out that these poor privileged survivors had in fact been duped by a virtual reality extravaganza involving sophisticated technology and psychedelic drugs, that would constitute ‘falsification’.
Or to take a slightly less far-fetched example: a charismatic martyr is executed somewhere in the world and is pronounced dead. A few days later some of her former colleagues meet her and are convinced it is she, restored to life. Forty days later, in the presence of witnesses, she is lifted up into the sky and a cloud takes her out of their sight. Again the events themselves would be some sort of verification of the claims the charismatic martyr might have been making before her execution. And any subsequent discovery that the whole thing was an escapologist’s stunt would constitute falsification.
My point is that there was a significant historically continuous population who, for whatever combination of reasons, actually believed that phenomena like this were possible and had actually happened; and also were unaware of any reason to think any subsequent exposure had happened to falsify their picture. And that if this significantly populated and institutionally powerful tradition had never happened, there would not have been an army of theologians from Thomas Aquinas onwards to deconstruct and/or reconstruct the concept of god into something more philosophically defensible.
What I think is important is the light the history of belief might shed on what ‘faith’ is all about. I have a suspicion that ‘faith’ might in the end boil down to ‘wonder’ plus a nostalgic remnant of unreconstructed belief.
Questions like ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ and ‘why do the fundamental constants appear fine-tuned so as to allow a coherent universe?’ and ‘why is reality regular enough for the scientific method to be even possible?’ are legitimate and profound questions. Anyone who wants to define ‘god’ as the answer to these questions is free to do so, as long as no other content (eg any nostalgic remnant) gets smuggled in along with that word.
What concerns me in particular is the link with ethics. In a parallel sort of way, questions like ‘what is goodness?’ and ‘why do we feel moral imperatives the way we do?’ are also both legitimate and profound. And again, anyone who wants to define ‘god’ as the answer to these questions is free to do so, as long as nothing else (eg no nostalgic remnant) gets smuggled in.
Another thing I think should absolutely not be smuggled in is the previous definition of ‘god’ as the answer to cosmological questions. For that, I think, is a very dangerous fallacy. There is no reason to equate ‘god’ as ‘cosmological/metaphysical answer’ with ‘god’ as ‘ethical answer’, and every reason why not. The temptation to do so might well be another nostalgic remnant.