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Frequently asked question

Steve at Guide to Reality is attempting to address the question of whether or not God exists. You can read his post for the details of his reasoning, but his conclusion is:
So, I conclude that the existence of some impersonal and limited divine essence in the world is plausible. However, the existence of a God with the particular attributes offered by traditional monotheism is extremely implausible.
I was impressed by the stones it takes to try to answer one of history's most difficult and persistent questions in a blog entry. So I thought I would try to emulate Steve and chip in my two cents.


Someone once told me that the correct answer to most questions is: it depends.

Though everyone assumes I am an atheist (presumably because of my left-wing political views, but also perhaps because of my general aura of unholiness), I do not describe myself that way. In response to the question, "Do you believe in God?," my answer would be: it depends what you mean by that.

The greatest living philosopher, Noam Chomsky, is almost universally characterized as an atheist, especially by conservatives who view that as an insult. But he is actually far more equivocal on the question of God's existence than one might expect, and I find his remarks on the issue to be enlightening.
When asked at a public hearing whether he believed in God, Chomsky responded:
Suppose somebody says I believe in God, what are they believing in? What is it that they're believing in? I can't answer it because I don't understand the question.

We all believe ... that there's a world out there that we are inside of ... there are truths about that world whether we can find them or not and that's the end of the story. We may not be able to find the truths about the world, but if it's there, there are truths about it. Maybe they're not even explainable in our language.

On an online forum, Chomsky was asked how he defined God:
How do I define God? I don't. Divinities have been understood in various ways in the cultural traditions that we know ... we find ... conceptions of many kinds.

But I have nothing to propose. People who find such conceptions important for themselves have every right to frame them as they like. Personally, I don't.
And again elsewhere Chomsky expresses similar sentiments:
Do I believe in God? Can't answer, I'm afraid. I'm not being flippant, but I don't understand the question. What is it that I am supposed to believe or not believe in? Are you asking whether I believe there is something not in the universe (or the universes, if there are (maybe infinitely) many of them), and that somehow stands above them? I've never heard of any reason for believing that. Something else? What?

There are many concepts of spirituality, among them, various notions of divinity developed in the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic religions. Within these the concepts vary greatly. St. Augustine and others, for example, argued that one should not take seriously the Biblical account of God as an exaggerated human, and other Biblical accounts, because they were crafted so as to make the intended message intelligible to humans -- and on such grounds, he argued, organized religion ought to accept persuasive conclusions of science ... without clarification of a kind I have never seen, I don't know whether I believe or don't believe in whatever a questioner has in mind.

I think Chomsky nails the fundamental confusion behind the question "Is there a God?" I don't necessarily think, as Chomsky seems to, that this confusion is unresolvable, but I do believe that an enormous amount needs to be said before one can even begin to answer the question.

This confusion is also behind the dispute that occurs once in a while over whether some particular person believes in God or not. For instance, many religious types have tried to claim Einstein as a fellow believer, which has angered atheists, who insist that Einstein's frequent invocation of religious terms like 'God' should not be taken literally, since Einstein explicitly denied that he believed in what he called a 'personal' God. As it happens, his remarks regarding religion and God often parallel those of Chomsky:
During the youthful period of mankind's spiritual evolution human fantasy created gods in man's own image, who, by the operations of their will were supposed to determine, or at any rate to influence, the phenomenal world. Man sought to alter the disposition of these gods in his own favor by means of magic and prayer. The idea of God in the religions taught at present is a sublimation of that old concept of the gods. Its anthropomorphic character is shown, for instance, by the fact that men appeal to the Divine Being in prayers and plead for the fulfillment of their wishes.

Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion for the future: It transcends a personal God, avoids dogmas and theology; it covers both the natural and the spiritual, and it is based on a religious sense aspiring from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity.

I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.
What was Spinoza's God? This is difficult to answer briefly; very roughly, it is something like: all that is, or the only thing that exists; the Universe itself:
Whatsoever is, is in God, and without God nothing can be, or be conceived.
Was Spinoza an atheist or a believer? He was considered an atheist by some of his religious contemporaries, and Nietzsche, the mack-daddy of all atheists, called Spinoza his 'precursor'. But Spinoza has also been described as "God-intoxicated." That the same thinker could be interpreted in such radically different ways suggests that the question of God is more terminological than substantive, as Chomsky claims.

But Chomsky thinks there is no reason to use this particular terminology. I'm not so sure. Indulge me a final quote from Einstein:
... science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion. To this there also belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason. I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith. The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. It was the experience of mystery— even if mixed with fear— that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds: it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity. In this sense, and only this sense, I am a deeply religious man.
It is important, I think, to behold the world in this manner, to recognize the marvelousness of a universe, an existence, which is partially comprehensible but fundamentally mysterious. Call it God, Nature, the Ultimate, the One, the Real, whatever.

In other words: God is the universe looked at in a certain way. The question, then, is not whether God exists, but rather: what is his nature?

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