Log in

No account? Create an account

Previous Entry | Next Entry

Are you there, God? It's me, DataN0de.

At the risk of seeming cliche, I've been thinking about the nature of God- whether he/she/it/they really exists, and in what form. The Smoosh has already read all of this before, so you guys won't see much new content.

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.


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 4th, 2004 06:21 am (UTC)
The problem with using either science or religion to explain nature is teh same: Man.

The Bible was not spit out of the mouth of God. The Roman Emperor Constantine, humself a pagan, in order to develop an official religion that would unify Rome. He bet on the winning horse - Christianity was new and rapidly gaining popularity. He recast pagan holy days as Christian holidays so that everyone would be happy - same celebrations, just substitute a new God. Then, at the Council of Nicea, a group of 13th Century priests decided which writings of men about God were "The Word of God," and codified the Bible. They changed much of the contents to fit their political agenda. And Christianity is rooted in these myths and misconceptions.

Religion is a human construct to explain the unexplainable.

Science likewise is a human construct to explain the unexplainable. A different path to the same goal, only instead of God or myth underlying science's answers, there is method, theory, observation, and logic. As man's scientific exploration and knowledge develop, the answers to the unknown become more and more abstract. Ultimately, science has a problem with the point of origin, the place where physics and math extrapolate far enough the origin of things and conclude that at some point matter was created in a vacuum, from nothing. Which is illogical and cannot happen. But it did.

If the goal is to understand nature, we have to accept that man is fallible and may not ever know the answers because in the end the unknowable is unknowable (pardon the tautology).

How you choose to accept that is up to you. I choose faith, and I choose the Christian construct for that faith. Flawed but familiar to me, I at least see the cracks in the facade and know the difference between the word of man and the word of God. God's word is written in the stars and the ocean and the trees. The Bible is just one flawed attempt to capture God's truth. I do not see a conflict in accepting that there are other paths to knowing the nature of things, which to me is knowing God.

Sep. 8th, 2004 05:51 am (UTC)
Re: Ontology
Good points, though I don't see science as saying that the origin of the universe is illogical or impossible- just not yet adequately explained. Science does seem to have the advantage of being willing to acknowledge that it is limited by what we know, and is willing to change its models in the face of new data, rather than clinging to a dogma that more and more seems to be in direct conflict with our growing understanding of the universe.

This is actually what first caused me to start questioning religion. Originally, pretty much everything that wasn't understood (life, death, weather, etc.) was ascribed to the divine. As our knowledge of the physical world has grown, the divine has been all too willing to give up ground, to the point that religion has lost most of its day to day importance, at least in Western society. We no longer have to turn to God to explain the weather, and it's generally understood that sacrificing to the Rain God will do little more than upset the neighbors.

It could be argued that as reason has overrun God's turf, the playing field has expanded to compensate. We no longer wonder at the divine mysteries of lightning, but rather at things like quantum entanglement. I think that it's a weak argument, however, as it implies that these new mysteries didn't exist until our understanding grew to encompass them. As you said, science is a human construct to explain the unexplainable, but it uses a purely rational basis, which gives it considerably more weight in my book than the seemingly arbitrary religious constructs.

On the other hand, faith offers a much more positive long-term outlook for the universe, and gives it all a purpose. The best that science can currently offer in that regard is a few trillion years followed by a rather unpleasant end, and then nothing.

*Sigh* There's certainly much to ponder. Thanks for your input!
Sep. 8th, 2004 05:31 pm (UTC)
Re: Ontology
I guess what I'm saying is that I do not see science as being at odds with religion. They offer different ways of looking at the universe, not mutually exclusive ones.
Sep. 4th, 2004 09:36 pm (UTC)
Hard to comment, as this is much like thoughts I've had.  *ahem*
Sep. 7th, 2004 11:53 am (UTC)
I posted my thoughts in my journal entry for Sept. 5th because it is kind of long. I was just spitting out the thoughts as they came to me so it may not be as cohesive as it could be. I hope you can follow it and that it gives you some things to think about.
Sep. 8th, 2004 05:17 am (UTC)
Thank you so much! This is very interesting.

Incidentally, I seem to recall once reading in a Catholic catechism that people who live good lives but are never exposed to Christianity still have a happy afterlife, but not one with the full benefits of Heaven. It didn't specify where they went, however, and seemed to be rather vague on the whole subject. I'll see if femetal can dig up any further information.
Sep. 8th, 2004 12:48 pm (UTC)
I pretty much followed the psych text verbatim and lost my immortality at 25. For me losing my immortality wasn't about coming to grips with death, it was about realizing that death may not be a transition, but rather a termination of everything I am. Up to that point I had believed in reincarnation, the soul and a higher self and was comforted by the thought that my physical body was just a temporary vehicle on a very long road.

My faith had been degrading slowly - I had been strongly involved in the 'new age' community - attending weekly meditation groups and the like - when I was around 15, but I stopped around 20 and just let my faith comfort me from a distance. Every time my faith was questioned and I couldn't defend it I'd just say 'I choose to believe because it makes my life better. So what if I'm wrong?' But one day that just stopped working. One day I couldn't believe any more. I couldn't fall back on any other religion. I've always thought the idea of one life on earth and then an immortal afterlife was kind of nonsensical. Especially when you think about how many people die in their first year. Are there a bunch of infants wandering heaven? Why bother in the first place? I know that's kind of an awful thought, but I guess for me if a belief in reincarnation wasn't going to hold together then nothing else was going to work.

Things sucked for me very badly, very fast. It didn't help that Franklin and Kelly and I were miserable and every week I was trying to figure out how to leave someone I considered in my heart to be a life partner. But that's another story..

Basically I realized that the most plausible explanation was that I was going to disappear when I died. Additionally, I realized that I couldn't go back to believing in anything else without some kind of proof. Suddenly everywhere I looked I saw death. I remember walking through the living room when Kelly was watching Home Improvement and all I could think was all those people are going to die. Being in large crowds was horrifying - I just saw corpses everywhere - I wasn't depressed so much as painfully sober. After a couple of months I realized that I absolutely could not spend the rest of my life feeling this way. I started to try to think of ways I could trick myself into faith. But that *really* wasn't working.

Ok, so here's what I came around to. I need for there to be a purpose. Without purpose - I am miserable. Additionally, I need continuity. The idea that I might be completely erased from time is unbearable. Religion seeks to answer those questions and fill that void, but I found that the only thing that provided comfort for me at 3am in the morning was humanity. I needed for my species to mean something, to be something, to do something. If I was doomed to nothingness then all I had was my influence on the future. Luckily, I believe that an individual can have an enormous amount of influence. The missing puzzle piece? Transhuminism. The idea that not only can human beings become something better, but that I may not have to surrender to nothingness after all. And that I can have a lot of say in whether or not that happens. Well dayam, sign me up.

For me, the concept of God has settled into the universe. I believe that sentience is a way for the universe to try to understand itself. Without us, there would be nothing (else that we know of) to witness this absolutely *amazing* experiment. That makes us pretty fucking important. How's that for purpose? It's my job to understand the universe. Well, go me.

There's a really important point I want to make here. I think Pascal was wrong. There is a downside to faith and it's not just in the potential for using blind faith for acts of atrocity.

Faith leads to complacency. (cont'd)

Sep. 8th, 2004 12:49 pm (UTC)
(cont'd)As an experiment, let's just assume that death = nothingness. There is no god, there is no heaven and there is no purpose besides the purpose we give *ourselves*. What do you think might change in our society? For me, it erased my apathy and lit a fire under me that I have never felt before. It has empowered me and inspired me. I don't know what's going to happen when I die, but I know there's a decent possibility that *nothing* is going to happen. So I'd better do something *now*. If I had not lost my faith, this passion would never have been necessary. Because, hey, I can do it next lifetime/in heaven - right?

The problem with religion is that it answers questions that maybe we should be answering ourselves. Why am I here? What is my purpose? How does this all work? How do I avoid this whole ending/nothingness/death thing?

The trick is in believing that you *can* answer these questions - and in believing that the process will make all of us better. Well, that's what *I* believe - and I prefer that belief to heaven or reincarnation or any anthropomorphized god you can come up with.
Sep. 12th, 2004 12:14 pm (UTC)
OK, I've been trying to compose an adequate reply for 3 days now, and all I can come up with is "damn!".

It should be no surprise that your position/feelings are very close to where I seem to be leaning, but you've articulated it much better than I could've. Thank you.

By the way, you're one of the most "self-aware" people I think I've ever met. It's almost unnerving, particularly considering how young you are.

Anyway, I heard it said once that the greatest gift of life is the certainty of death, for it drives us to make the most of the limited time we have. Of course, I think that viewing death as a positive is complete bullshit, but the point is still somewhat valid. In that regard, cryonics provides the best of both worlds (boy, am I evangelizing or what?)- the potential for a radically extended lifespan removes the day to day specter of death (though like you I'm bothered by the mortality of those around me, particularly those for whom I care), but the uncertainty of whether or not cryonics will actually work keeps me from allowing myself to get lazy and complacent about the life I'm leading now.
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )