My Ongoing Agnostic Jacob-Wrestle with the God Question

Let’s posit that God exists and is, ultimately, the First Cause behind all appearances, but is hidden.

What would we find when looking about the universe? 

We would find material secondary causes everywhere, but God’s direct action nowhere.

And that’s exactly what we do find. It’s why science works. From the ancient Greeks on, scientists assumed (whether gods exist or not) that all things have proximate causes that are lawful and material. The assumption hit pay dirt. Science as a method for arriving at gnosis has been extraordinarily successful. God never seems to mess with matter’s lawfulness.

So the error of many religious ancients was this: they assumed that gods and devils were directly responsible for things that happened; that another world—a world of spirit—at least periodically intervened and interacted with our world, the world of matter and suffering.

The first ten minutes of Stephen Hawking’s Discovery Channel presentation, Did God Create the Universe?, dramatically presents the contrast between the ancients who entertained the gods and devils intervention hypothesis and those who did not, and raises my Jacob-wrestling intellectual question for the day: when I encounter natural phenomena, should I respond like a Viking or an ancient Greek scientist?

This was illustrated in Hawking’s film by dramatic depictions of sky-gazing Vikings (picture them unshaven and passionate in animal skins) contrasted with the sky-gazing ancient astronomer Aristarchos of Samos (picture him considerably calmer and cleaner, standing alone).

The Vikings, you see, mythologized eclipses, imagining them to be the result of a sky wolf moving through the heavens. They responded accordingly, gathering together to shout at the wolf whenever he appeared. This, they believed, would make him go away. The Vikings, therefore, not only misinterpreted what an eclipse is, they also committed a correlation-causation fallacy whenever one appeared (imagining that shouts at the wolf’s shadow caused the eclipse to go away).

The Vikings are a trope for the superstitious masses of mankind. They gather in passion-driven hordes, imagine the gods responsive to their collective cries, and mythologize and misinterpret their experiences.

Stephen Hawking wishes people would stop doing such things.

Cut, therefore, from the pathetic Vikings to rational, brave, and independent Aristarchos. He is depicted in Hawking’s film solitary on a beach looking up into an eclipse and contemplating it (like Stephen Hawking contemplates the sky from his wheelchair). Aristarchos concluded something very different from the Vikings about eclipses: he decided that they were governed by natural processes, not the activity of gods. He also drew a surprising conclusion from what he observed: the earth is a sphere and the moon goes around it, sometimes blocking the sun.

Hawking’s take-home message: all things we see have material causes, and all things that occur are best presumed to be physically lawful (never supernatural or contrary to the laws of physics).

So, given the pragmatic successes of science to date—it obviously wins hands down, again and again, the reality-testing contest with supernaturalism—should the gods and devils intervention hypothesis be abandoned completely?

I think the answer is yes. 

But, then, what (if anything) can at least be retained of the God hypothesis? Must God go the way of the lesser gods and devils? Is Richard Dawkins correct that the God hypothesis is no more plausible than the positing of fairies at the bottom of gardens?

On this, I’m reluctant to join Dawkins. The God hypothesis—the idea that there might be a First Cause—an unconditioned First Mind who underlies all conditioned secondary causes—has philosophical appeal. It’s a pleasing intuition. Of course, absent God coming out of hiding, the thesis can never know direct empirical support. It might well be wrong. But I do like Proverbs 8:22-31, especially if you think of physical law as part of God’s rationality—as part of His (or Her) Wisdom:

The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was. When there were no depths, I was brought forth; when there were no fountains abounding with water. Before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth: while as yet he had not made the earth, nor the fields, nor the highest part of the dust of the world. When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth: when he established the clouds above: when he strengthened the fountains of the deep: when he gave to the sea his decree, that the waters should not pass his commandment: when he appointed the foundations of the earth: then I was with him, as one brought up with him: and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him; rejoicing in the habitable part of his earth; and my delights were with the sons of men.

It’s a pretty passage. I’d like it to be true. Perhaps God set this clockwork universe going, and we only have access to the maze of its gears—its secondary causes: God’s Wisdom.

But, as Delos McKown writes:

The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike.

What’s the difference between the God who hides behind Wisdom and the God who doesn’t exist at all?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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