Monday, 12 September 2011


Why i believe in God

It’s not important to me whether you believe in God or not.  It may be important to you whether you believe in God.  That’s up to you to decide.  However, i hope you might be interested in knowing why i do believe in God.

I should probably define what i mean by God.  God to me is the supernatural consciousness whose existence does not depend on the existence of the Universe, and i also believe in a God who is emotionally involved with humans, which is much more specific than simply believing in God.  So that’s the kind of God i’m arguing for.

To dispose of the usual arguments for God, namely the cosmological, ontological and teleological, i would say the following.

The cosmological argument is that all things are caused, therefore the Universe has a cause.  This does not work for God for several reasons.  Firstly, cause and effect operate within time.  Since God is independent of time, cause and effect cannot apply.  Secondly, if God is seen as subject to time, it seems sensible to apply the idea of a cause there also, or just to eliminate the whole idea and say that the Universe either has no beginning or caused itself.  Thirdly, there do in fact seem to be uncaused events, for instance quantum effects.  However, i do believe the existence of the Universe depends on God, which is somewhat similar to the notion of a cause, though not something about which i currently feel confident to argue.

The ontological argument is that an existing object is more perfect than the idea of one and since the idea of God involves perfection, God must also be real.  This argument is so flawed to most people that it’s rejected out of hand whether or not they believe in God and it’s also a classic example of an argument which is wrong for interesting reasons as well as boring ones.  I would offer an extra reason why it’s wrong:  perfect objects are generally the ones which don’t exist and their real versions are flawed.  For instance, there are no perfectly flat or perfectly spherical objects made of atoms.

The teleological argument is also known as the “design argument”, and goes like this:  objects in the Universe and the Universe as a whole is intricate, complex, and works well, which implies a designer.  I strongly disagree with this argument.  There is the common reason for disagreement – that the existence of an observer means the Universe and that observer must have a certain structure, so we could be a rare example of a Universe which has produced observers among many which haven’t.  I personally have other reasons for opposing this idea.  One is that a design which suggests a designer is a poor design, or a poor work of art if you will.  An artist might include their own fingerprints in a painting, or some of their hair might get stuck in the wet paint, but if that happens accidentally, it is more likely to be considered a poor work of art.  Similarly, if a design draws attention to its designer, it’s a poor design – think of a flashy magazine page with garish colours and loads of different fonts in different sizes and positions, for example.  It might have the designer’s style “stamped” on it but that would distract the reader from the textual content.  So it doesn’t really work as an argument, because it would suggest that God is a poor designer rather than, as most theists would claim, a perfect one.  It also detracts from free will.  If God shows us that the Universe is designed incontrovertibly, we have little choice but to believe.  Our rationality would force us to see the world in that way and we would not be able to make our own choices.  A clearly designed universe would be coercive.

I would go further than that and say that not only is that so, but that on top of that, anything about the Universe as a whole or anything which can be apprehended appropriately using the techniques of natural science which suggests design is a mistake.  A Universe which suggests God exists is unworthy of God.  However, that only applies to the detached, dispassionate eye of the scientist, not to the involved and centred heart of the whole person, who may also be that same scientist.

So to me, those arguments all fail, though in instructive ways in some respects.  Nevertheless, i do believe in God.  I want to interject something here:  i don’t generally feel drawn to argue that God exists any more than i feel drawn to argue that human beings of my acquaintance exist.  It seems an odd thing to do in some ways:  perhaps it’s intellectually stimulating but it’s not the kind of thing one should best be spending one’s time on considering there are meals to cook, pestilences to avert and clean water to be made available in the southern hemisphere of the planet.  Nevertheless, here we are.

These are the arguments i generally use for the existence of God.  I don’t claim that they’re particularly good or strong, but they’re mine.  I don’t know if other people argue this way.

Firstly, in apparent contradiction of my rejection of the teleological argument, i believe that the existence of God is in a sense a testable hypothesis.  It differs from a testable hypothesis in natural science because it has to be experienced in a personal realm, though not necessarily at first hand.  This is how it can be tested.

People pray and those prayers are, hypothetically, either answered or not according to whether there is or is not a God of the kind who answers prayers.  If there is such a God, it might be expected that relevant improbable events would occur at a frequency significantly greater than chance after prayer on that subject.  I would maintain that this is so.  Therefore, one way of ascertaining whether God exists or not would be to “shadow” someone who prays and see what happens, or of course to pray oneself, the problem there being that to do that sincerely, one might have to believe already.

I feel confident that this would in fact work because my experience is that it does.  Having said that, interestingly, it’s not a particularly specific test for the existence of God, for a number of reasons.

There are other possibilities which would explain this impression.  These include pareidolia, coincidence and psionics, though there may be others.

Looking at coincidence, a sufficiently improbable and relevant coincidence in someone’s life could be enough to convince them that God exists, and a string of less improbable coincidences, or for that matter more improbable ones (though those are more improbable!), could take place on a planet where there have been around 80 thousand million human lives.  Therefore, even if we’re all purely rational, it would be a rational conclusion for a few people here at some point in history that God does exist even if there is no such person, simply because for a few people the evidence in their lives would be enough by chance alone.

Turning to pareidolia, we do of course see patterns where there are none, and think of randomness as being devoid of patterns when in fact it’s full of them.  In particular, we see faces, for instance of Jesus in the clouds, on our toast in the mornings and elsewhere, because we’re genetically programmed to spot such patterns.  That is of course another possibility, and an attractive one because it chimes with the idea that God’s existence is never evident through the rational analysis of what can be observed.

Then there’s the possibility of psionics.  This goes as follows:  a combination of telepathy, clairvoyance and psychokinesis means that a religious community, individual or a more arbitrary group of people could bring about the same results as prayer seems to achieve.  My immediate problem with this is not rational – it just seems outlandish.  This kind of thing has been called the “argument from incredulous stare”, and isn’t very helpful because it’s not really an argument at all so much as an emotional reaction.  There is a better reason for rejecting it though:  the interestingly spelt principle of Ockham’s Razor – “entities should not be unnecessarily multiplied”.  The idea that God is linked to these improbable events is a simpler explanation than communities or individuals with several coordinated psychic powers of which there seems to be little evidence.

So that’s the first argument:  that the improbable relevant events following prayer are most easily explained by divine intervention.

My other argument is again not entirely adequate, but it goes like this. There are such things as hallucinations and mistaken impressions resulting from fallacious thinking or pathological processes, such as Charles Bonnet syndrome, phosphenes and dreams.  However, all of these involve experiences in the sensory modalities which already exist, such as smell, proprioception, vision and so forth.  These sensory modalities are sometimes reliable and detect phenomena in the physical world fairly accurately.  There are no senses which do not do this.  Even pain, though it is entirely internal, detects changes in the internal environment, which is of course part of the physical world.  Now, people have a sense of the numinous – spiritual experience.  This can be triggered off by temporal lobe epilepsy or by the use of powerful magnetic fields in brain-scanning machines (or whatever they are).  The fact that this takes place is compatible with the existence of real stimuli which cause these experiences, and in fact it would be odd if we mostly had a sense which was purely hallucinatory and never accurate.  I would argue that the stimulus for this sense is God.

Again, this argument is imperfect.  This “sense” may not be a real one at all and we do have an imagination too.  We can think that things exist which don’t, and we can come to conclusions about things along the lines of “I don’t trust him because his eyes are too close together”.  Moreover, whereas the stimulus may be real, it may also be unwarranted to conclude that that stimulus is God.  It may be esprit du corps, the Dao or Gaia.  Nevertheless, i would claim that it probably does represent something real.

Taking those two arguments together, i would say that they both provide support for the existence of God, or at least something supernatural which is beyond us.

So there you go, that’s why i believe in God, or at least one story i’m telling you about my belief.