Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Those Pesky Theological Questions

How does one who's “religious” and intellectually or scientifically inclined deal with the most basic of theological questions — the existence of God? Barring God coming out and saying “Hi”, a rationalist would posit by Ockham's razor that God does not exist. For the record, I would be satisfied with an answer that belief in God is not rational. The only problem is finding an answer that is not irrational.

One simple response would be agnosticism. But, I don't think it's spiritually satisfying. Another is faith based in fundamentalism. To say I am commanded to believe in God, and therefore I do. I can then happily join those who ban all questions of the matter, and on all ideas that may contradict my own preconceptions. But, that is certainly not intellectually satisfying. Must one turn off his brain to believe in a religion so based on study and learning?

As DW observed, one potential answer is that God exists wherever science can't probe (“the god of the gaps phenomenon”). Over time, God will shrink to insignificance.

The turn towards Eastern religions and pantheism is another response. Mis-nagid put it best: The New Age religions are a response to the god of the gaps phenomenon and the kicking of humans and earth off the self-centered pedestal. The sun is just another sun among trillions? The whole universe is god. Humans are just another animal? All animals are godly or full of "life-force."

As far as I understand it (not very well), a mystical approach separates Godly activity into a separate Divine space which is influenced by what happens in the earthly space. (Yes, I know that Dovid suggested that DW read Tanya, and I'm not rejecting the possibility that maybe mysticism has a better answer than rationalism).

In the end, though, if the concept of God is to have any meaning, He must be able to have some influence over the physical world. At one point, I (and, I assume others) posited that if God exists beyond space and time, He could know all possible outcomes of both seemingly random events and active decisions. Note that this position solves the predestination-free will problem. By knowing all possible futures, God knows the future, and free will is not challenged at all. But, that still leaves the question of how God influences events in the physical world. At the time, I answered that maybe a God who knows all possible futures could make small manipulations that sum up to the result He wanted. I no longer like my answer. It poses a testable (but very difficult to test!) hypothesis, and, may this degenerate into the “god of the gaps” position. According to our understandings of physics, even quantum events that are not deterministic should obey certain probability relations. If God manipulated the probabilities, then the understood physics would be contradicted by experiment.

I've also neglected to mention another possibility: that God does not influence events in the physical world, but that humans should serve Him in order to earn a place in a World To Come. This position begs the question of why we bother making requests that God influence the physical universe in the first place.

I'm sure that there's nothing new in this post; it is the foundation of everyone's basic continuous(?) theological crisis, right? Anyone?

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Comments:
I don't have the tools (as I suspect most of us don't) to respond to the big questions of faith. However, I do doubt that human intelligence will ever be able answer all ontological questions.

If you take a purely secular view and see human intelligence as a product or artifact of our evolution, it is possible that our brains, while capable of some spectacular things, just are not capable of comprehending certain truths, just as we are not capable of seeing in infared. Steven Pinker refers to Noam Chomsky on this subject in How the Mind Works and calls the phenomenon "cognitice closure."
 
I do doubt that human intelligence will ever be able answer all ontological questions.

But, it's always fun to try, or at least to find that answers that are not satisfactory :-)

Ultimately, though, I've tried to take an unanswerable question of faith and bring it down to a physical level. As is the case with IR, while we can't see it, we can (easily?) see its effects, deduct its existence, then detect it with instruments. Your theory is attractive because it allows faith to coexist (to some extent) with rationalism, but, leaves open the question if your proposal (“it just works and we cannot explain how”) still poses any testable hypotheses. (And I think it might).
 
Dr. Pinker sayeth- "[Cognitive closure] is almost perversely unprovable, though it could be disproved if anyone ever solved the age-old puzzles of philosophy."

I understand that this theory begs to be accepted because it simply bypasses the hard questions. We are probably at the start of a huge leap into understanding human intelligence and the origins of the world. Some questions may never be answered though. Questions of "what was there before" and the epistemological questions that have never been answered will probably remain, becase they are not answerable.

Philosophy takes on the problems science cannot solve until the time comes when science does have the answer. I guess that is the role of religion as well.
 
> If God manipulated the probabilities, then the understood physics would be contradicted by experiment.

Not sure about that. He could shift some quantums one way, and balance it out by shifting others the other way. So ultimately it all works out, but whatever He wanted to cause happen gets caused. Alternatively He just pulls the strings and makes it happen directly.

Seriously though, it seems pointless to speculate, since we have no way of knowing what He's doing, much less how He does it.
 
The World to Come scenario does beg the question of why we hit upon the whole afterlife idea relatively late.

As for why we bother making requests that God influence the physical universe, that's easy -- they were written into the liturgy centuries and centuries ago, and we don't take anything out! I'm always amazed at how weird I feel about omitting something liturgical just because I don't happen to agree with anything it says, or because I would have more time to put meaning into my prayers if I left it out. People from other religious traditions must think that's the craziest thing ever.
 
I would suspect that the idea of Olam Haba came directly out of the inadequacy of the reward-and-punishment theology that kept people believeing in religion. Bad things happen to good people, and the reverse? It's ok, because it'll all be corrected in the next world!

It's not just old prayers. Have you ever added a name to the Mi She'beirach list?
 
I take issue with the premise of this discussion. Or maybe I missed something, but I don't see where you have stated anything which implies that belief in G-d is irrational.

As to G-d's interaction with this world, I am not the only person who has observed such interaction in my lifetime. Yet by definition I cannot give you an example that couldn't be called a coincidence by someone with a different outlook. Occam's razor cuts both ways... it just depends which side of the argument you are predisposed to accept. Meanwhile, being outside the scope of logic does not make G-d's existence irrational.
 
but I don't see where you have stated anything which implies that belief in G-d is irrational.

That's because I never said that. What I did imply (and said elsewhere) was that some conceptions of God may conflcit with known physical principles that we know work experimentally. And, those conceptions are irrational.

An explanation that relies on "I feel there is a God, therefore there is one" is not rational, but it is also not irrational, and, if it satisfies you, then, more power to you.
 
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