Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Proof That God Exists

If the title of this post led you to believe that I was going to provide you with proof that God exists, I suppose I better state right up front that this is not the case. And I probably should apologize for knowingly you misleading you as well, if you in any way feel that you have been misled by this. I can assure you my intent is not a malicious one, but rather that I feel a bit of play in not out of bounds even when approaching a serious subject.

This post has its origins in a bulletin board discussion on MySpace, one devoted to Judaism, where the topic had to do with whether it was possible to prove that the Torah is true, and that God exists, and whether atheists would ever accept such proof (one of the participants in this thread identified himself as an atheist, another was a strong believer). Anyway, what follows is my own extended comment on the subject, which brings up some themes dealt with in previous posts here on the subject of religion and Judaism in particular. I should add that the comments on proof and truth are pretty basic for anyone who has studied logic, rhetoric, or the philosophy of science. Anyway, here goes:

I just was looking through this thread, and thought I'd drop a few comments in. For one, the words "proof" and "true" mean different things in different contexts. For example, if you are working deductively as you would in a mathematical or logical system, then you can evaluate the internal consistency of your argument, as in, for example, the classic syllogism, all men are mortal, Plato is a man, therefore Plato is mortal. But this says nothing about the validity of the initial premise, and it would be just as true to say that all men are immortal, Plato is a man, therefore Plato is immortal, or all men are green, Plato is a man, therefore Plato is green. Religions of the book, that is religions grounded in literacy, and Judaism is the first in any real sense, tend to seek this type of internal consistency, trying to eliminate contradictions. But no evaluation of the first premises, there is a God, there is only one God, etc., is really possible, all you can do is accept or reject them.

Modern science, on the other hand, tends to work inductively, following the empirical method, which means starting with the facts on the ground, what is observable to the senses, building theories consistent with those facts, and testing them out over and over again to make sure they hold, are reproducible. And while scientists do talk about proving something true sometimes, they basically mean that it is highly probable, and that this is the best explanation they have come up with so far, but that explanation is always tentative and subject to further revision. Karl Popper, the great philosopher of science, argued that you can never prove anything true scientifically, because the possibility always exists of finding evidence to the contrary in the future. That's why everything is just a theory, including evolution, a point that fundamentalists have seized on and distorted to fit their agenda. What this does mean is that we can never achieve absolute scientific truth, but we can make progress by eliminating error, and thereby draw closer to the truth. And what this means is that any statement that cannot be tested and potentially falsified is not scientific. For example, if you cannot identify what evidence would falsify the statement that God exists, then that statement cannot be evaluated scientifically. It is simply outside of science's universe of discourse. And while not all atheists are scientists, part of the support for atheism comes from the fact that scientists simply cannot deal with the God hypothesis, and are able to go about their business, and are quite successful at understanding the world and making predictions about it, without the God hypothesis.

This is not to say that the atheists are right, just to say that their disbelief is entirely rational, and that scientism, by which I mean a belief and faith in science itself, has displaced theism for many people. Faith in science has been shaken in some ways, however, over the past half century, so it may also be a case of nihilism that leads people to reject the belief in God.

But one other point that I would make is that there has been a historical procession from what we might most generally term polytheism, otherwise known as paganism, animism, etc., to monotheism, to atheism. Tribal peoples as far as I know believe that spirits, supernatural beings, and/or gods exist all around us, they are legion, so to speak, nature personified as rivers, wells, ocean, trees, mountains, thunder and lightning, the sun, moon, stars, sky, etc. You might say that the default state is to see the sacred in everything, to be spiritual to the extreme, and to believe in a very concrete, immanent sense of the divine.

Judaism marks the first major transition from concrete polytheism to the more abstract concept of monotheism, one God who is transcendent rather than immanent, not in the world or any part of it, but separate from it, invisible and in a sense immaterial, by which I mean pure spirit, and abstract to the extremes of all knowing, all powerful, omnipresent, etc. The more we go over to this concept of the divine, the less personified and more distant God becomes. It is a very difficult concept to accept, which is why there are forms of monotheism that include relatively concrete intermediaries between God and humanity.

The trajectory from the concrete to the abstract coincides with the shift from oral cultures, societies that have no writing system at all or hardly use the one they have, to literate cultures where there is at least a class of people who know how to read and write—literacy facilitates abstract thinking, orality discourages it. Of course, it follows that Judaism is intimately linked to the aleph-bet and, as mentioned, is the first fully bookish religion. The problem that the founders of our religion had to face was not atheism, and in fact atheism would be all but inconceivable in oral/tribal cultures. No, the problem is getting people who are accustomed to concrete thinking and polytheism to think differently, more abstractly, in order to accept the concept of monotheism. Graven images were banned not only because they are an expression of polytheism, but also because they encourage concrete thinking and serve as rival to the written word.

But what happens when we continue to think ever more abstractly, as a consequence of becoming ever more literate (literacy having been encouraged, for example, through the invention of the printing press)? Well, the concept of allness, of everything-there-is, is highly abstract, but even more abstract is the notion of nothingness, the null set, zero, the vanishing point, etc. So, there is an evolution, if you like, from polytheism to monotheism to deism and atheism, as a natural procession.

Does this suggest that this same procession is indeed a progression, that we have moved forward in our thinking as we have conceived of the divine in increasingly more abstract terms, until we have abstracted God out of existence? It would be possible to make that argument, yes.

But it would also be possible to argue that monotheism is the middle ground between two extremes of polytheism and atheism, the moderate position, the mediator between two polar oppositions, and the ultimate synthesis between polytheism as thesis and atheism as antithesis.

Which returns me to the point that we have not found any way to prove any of this true, or false, at least so far. And I suppose that why we refer to religions as faiths.


antonia said...

It is the end of an exhausting and fitful week, and like you I find the Internet a place to pass time in a contemplative sort of way. I was googling the term God between the thunder and the sun, and happened upon your blog.

I am wondering, since you speak of the historical progression from polytheism to monotheism in your blog, whether you do not also see a recent pattern that prompts believers in something akin to God to progress from monotheism to pantheism. If God in immanent, if God is within me, then I must be Godlike, or even God. If God is immanent, if God is within everything, then Everything must be Godlike, or even a god.

I am a convert to Sikhism, a rigorously monotheistic religion. Yet even in Sikhism the idea of an Immanent God leads followers to find God as gods in human forms. And this in spite of numerous scriptural lessons to the contrary, spoken by many if not all of the 10 gurus of the Sikh faith.

The pattern worries me some – as it too is illustrative of a dependence on the concrete.

Antonia D'Onofrio

Lance Strate said...

Thanks for the comment, and the interesting thoughts, Antonia. I do think that pantheism, especially in a modern sense, is a move towards increased abstraction. And it may seem to position God as immanent to say that God is within everything, but as much as God may be within each and every concrete thing according to this line of thinking, God conceived of as a single being is not just in one thing or another, but in all things. And it is exactly that concept of allness that is not only abstract, but transcendent (for who can relate to or comprehend all that is?).

Pandeism Pundit said...

Well there is also, of course, pandeism, which basically says that God started out as all that was and became immanent by making itself into a universe designed to end up with the likes of you and me in it. So, yes pandeism shows that we are all part of God, but we are not God, just like a tiny drop of water is not the World Ocean (but the drops, collectively, are integral to it).