This is all very much an individual issue, and anything that one person says on the topic is ultimately inconsequential to one's own inner dialog, feelings, and conclusions. On the other hand, I'm privileged to have friends of just about every religious persuasion- Christian, Pagan, Athiest, name it- and a fresh perspective may expose me to ideas and possibilities that I hadn't previously been considered, so I'd really like to know everyone's opinion! I have many conflicting thoughts and feelings on the topic, and I haven't yet come to any final conclusions myself. I suppose part of my motivation in writing all of this is to help straighten it out in my own head a bit.
My approach to this all is a little, uh, "unusual". My world-view is very rational-based, which makes it difficult for me to accept a scenario that requires faith. Let me explain:
The concept of emergent behavior and the field of quantum mechanics present an interesting duality; they simultaneously provide means by which God can influence and control His universe without violating any of His own physics laws, and at the same time explain how the universe can exist without the need for a divine power in the first place. tacit provided some clarification on a couple of points that I still need to process, but I'm including my original thoughts here anyway.
When I was younger I never questioned the existence of the Divine, because I saw my own self-awareness as proof. My body is just a collection of chemical reactions, yet I am a living, thinking, more or less self-aware entity. The whole is obviously greater than the sum of the parts, and that's only possible through God, right? Well as it turns out, no. Emergent behavior is the idea that multitudes of simple agents (be they ants, bees, or body cells) working in concert following very simple rule sets can produce complex behaviors (finding food, harvesting pollen, waging war, writing long, rambling LJ posts). It's a relatively recent AI model, but surprisingly easy to test both through observation of the natural world and computer simulation (many computer games, in fact, utilize this principle).
As I got older, my faith in God was further bolstered by Pascal's Wager, which provides a rather rational, logical argument in favor of the existence of God- or so it seemed at the time.
Pascal's Wager works like this: Pascal (the mathematician) tried to deduce, in a logical fashion, whether or not it makes sense to believe in God. He came up with four possible scenarios (a matrix of two variables (belief in God and existence of God) with two possible values each) and compared the outcomes:
If one chooses to believe in God and He does, in fact, exist, then one earns eternal reward in Heaven.
If one chooses to believe in God and He doesn't exist, one neither gains nor loses.
If one chooses not to believe in God and He exists, then one is punished with eternal torment in Hell.
If one chooses not to believe in God and He doesn't exist, then one neither gains nor loses.
Based upon this, Pascal chose to believe in God. Makes sense, right?
I'm not so sure. The exercise seems to me to be predicated on several potentially flawed assumptions. First off (and most minor), there is a cost to believing in God. Cult victims, poor people fleeced by corrupt televangelists, and Islamic radicals who crash airliners into skyscrapers because they think that God wants them to are all examples of the potential negative effects of blind faith. Since I'm not planning on joining a cult or hijacking a plane, and I watch almost no TV, however, I think that I can safely dismiss this argument.
Conversely, though, it could be argued that there is value in believing in God even if He doesn't exist. There is an internal peace in knowing one's place in the universe, and in knowing that our lives have meaning. Now that I think about it, this actually kind of gets into the whole Santa Claus debate. Do you teach your kids something that you know is false, but which will make them happy and have no harmful consequences? Fodder for another post.
Second problem: If I strive to lead a good life, and to be a loving, kind, and moral person, why would a just God condemn me to Hell simply because I couldn't bring myself to believe in something without proof? I don't think he would, and I'm not so sure that even most religions support this idea.
Branching off from this for a moment, why does religion value blind faith, especially when in every other aspect of our lives it's inarguably a bad idea? Why would God want his followers to behave in such a counterintuitive way? I don't claim to be capable of knowing His thoughts or motivations, but if I was a god I'd want my followers to be intelligent, reasoning people who are not so easily swayed just because someone told them so. In the end are we displaying blind faith in God or in the people who tell us that we must have faith without proof?
If God does, in fact, require faith without proof, does that mean that all of the people for whom Jesus performed miracles went to Hell? Their faith in God is not blind faith: they believe in Him because his Son healed their leg or fed them spontaneous fish or raised uncle Lazarus from the dead ("Brains!" :-) ). I feel that there must be a simple counterargument to this somewhere, but I'm at a loss to come up with it. Any ideas, guys?
Okay, back on track. Third problem: What is the quality of my faith if it springs from fear of punishment? What kind of servant of Christ am I if my primary reason for serving him is fear that his dad is gonna kick my ass? Certainly God looks not just at my actions, but at my motivations and intentions. Intimidation hardly seems like a foundation for a positive relationship (though it does seem to be God's modus operandi in the Old Testament!).
Fourth problem (this is a big one for me): How can I choose to believe in something? I can choose to pretend that I believe in something. I can choose to go to church and lead the life of a good Christian/Jew/Muslim//Hare Krishna/whatever, but I can't make myself believe in something when my heart tells me that it simply isn't so! Must I be condemned to Hell because of something that, really, is beyond my control? Is that fair? I can try to pray for faith, but that seems like a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps situation, and there's no guarantee that my prayers will be answered.
Side note: what happens to animals, many of which I believe are as likely to have a soul as I am, yet which have no concept of God?
Fifth problem, and then I'll let poor Pascal rest: Pascal's Wager assumes that I know which God to worship. I don't think that that's a safe assumption, and there are billions of Hindus, Muslims, and Pagans who would likely agree with me. For that matter, there are many fellow Christians who would argue that I'm damned because I don't follow their particular brand of Christianity, even though we worship the same God!
I certainly favor Catholicism, but I'd be dishonest with myself if I thought that that bias wasn't very heavily influenced by the fact that I was raised Catholic. What's the statistical probability that the God that I was raised to worship is the One True God, and that I was raised to worship him the "correct" way? I don't think for a second that God is that picky, yet there are learned religious people who would have me believe otherwise. I have to question their motives, which in turn leads me to question their institutions.
Okay, deep breath now. Time for a potty break, or possibly a nap. :-)
Alright, so where does quantum physics fit in?
Quantum physics, in my estimation, offers the best hope for the existence of God. It doesn't prove that He exists, but it certainly gives him some convenient mechanisms if He does. It also provides an "alternative victory condition", wherein God is truly unfathomable to us mere mortals (I'll explain that in a bit).
We know what matter is, of course. It's the atoms and molecules that make up the elements, compounds, and mixtures that make up everything that we're familiar with. Down to the atomic level matter is definite and predictable. We can "see" atoms (using a scanning tunneling microscope) and measure their properties- location, orientation, mass, etc. (Heisenberg aside). Once we get down to the subatomic level, however, the rules change completely. Everything breaks down to probability. You can't really peg an electron down to a specific location within its orbit around an atom because it doesn't have a specific location- only probabilities. With respect to the photon-through-the-slits experiment (I can explain if anyone is interested), you can't tell which slit the photon went through because it's possible it went through both! Additionally, it's possible for subatomic particles to spontaneously come into existence and annihilate each other- freaky stuff.
The bottom line with quantum mechanics is, as femetal has always said, "'Ya never know!", which gives God a mechanism for doing anything He wants without violating the integrity of His rules. Matter can be created, moved, and destroyed spontaneously, so why not?
One last bit of quantum strangeness- Schrodinger's Cat. This example demonstrates another principle of quantum physics- that you cannot observe something without affecting it. The idea is this: you have a cat sealed in a box with an ampule of poison. You also have a mechanism with a bit of radioactive material with a known half-life that has an exactly 50% probability of decaying within the time frame of the experiment. If the material decays within the time frame then the ampule breaks and the cat is killed (sniff!). So after the experiment is run one would assume that the cat is either alive or dead, and that you can open the box to find out which. If the box is truly isolated, then according to quantum physics the cat exists in both states in simultaneous superposition until it is observed, at which point the act of observing causes the two states to actualize into a single state. It seems messed up and completely counterintuitive, but the theory has been proven.
Getting back to God, something that's always bugged me about religion (I touched on this above) is that with so many contradictory religions it seems almost impossible for a significant percentage of the human race to be "saved" (by whatever definition a given religion uses). My God is a loving, positive force (if He's not then frankly He isn't deserving of my worship), and it seems counterintuitive that He would create the human race in such a way that most of His children are doomed. I don't believe that He did.
So who's right? The Catholics? The Baptists? The Atheists? The Muslims? The ancient Egyptians? Perhaps they all are! There's really no reason why God can't exist in an infinite number of states simultaneously. It certainly would make God infinite and incomprehensible to humans.
No one living can directly observe God- perhaps this is to keep Him from actualizing into a single quantum state. Once you're dead (really dead- not just near death) then you're isolated from the physical universe- you can observe God as you perceive Him without affecting His state relative to the universe as a whole. Still, it certainly puts a lot of importance and power into each of us- determining the nature of God!
I'm not saying that I buy into this, but it's a possibility, and one which doesn't conflict with the laws of physics as we know them today. Damn weird, though.
Obviously I don't have everything worked out, but I'm curious to know what other people's thoughts are on the subject.