By the Way, What Is God?
In this book I’ve used the word “god” in two senses. First, there are the gods that have populated human history—rain gods, war gods, creator gods, all-purpose gods (such as the Abrahamic god), and so on. These gods exist in people’s heads and, presumably, nowhere else.
But occasionally I’ve suggested that there might be a kind of god that is real. This prospect was raised by the manifest existence of a moral order—that is, by the stubborn, if erratic, expansion of humankind’s moral imagination over the millennia, and the fact that the ongoing maintenance of social order depends on the further expansion of the moral imagination, on movement toward moral truth. The existence of a moral order, I’ve said, makes it reasonable to suspect that humankind in some sense has a “higher purpose.” And maybe the source of this higher purpose, the source of the moral order, is something that qualifies for the label “god” in at least some sense of that word.
The previous sentence is hardly a fervent expression of religious faith; in fact, it’s essentially agnostic. Even so, I don’t recommend uttering it at, say, an Ivy League faculty gathering unless you want people to look at you as if you’d started speaking in tongues. In modern intellectual circles, speculating seriously about God’s existence isn’t a path to widespread esteem.
Indeed, the first decade of the twenty-first century made godtalk an even graver breach of highbrow etiquette than it had been at the end of the twentieth. In the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, antireligious attitude was central to a slew of influential cultural products (books by Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins, a film by Bill Maher, a one-woman act by Julia Sweeney). In the space of only a few years, the more-or-less official stance of intellectuals toward believers moved from polite silence to open dismissal if not ridicule.
So is there any hope for the believer who would like to be considered cool—or, more realistically, not too uncool? Maybe. After all, the version of God being ridiculed by the cool people is the traditional, anthropomorphic god: some superhuman being with a mind remarkably like our minds except way, way bigger (indeed, a god that, in the standard rendering, is omniscient, omnipotent, and, as a bonus, infinitely good!). And this isn’t the only kind of god that could exist.
Of course, we can’t rule out the possibility that some superhuman version of a human lies above and beyond the universe. Philosophers seriously discuss the possibility that the universe is some kind of simulation, and in one version of that scenario our creator is a computer programmer from a very advanced extraterrestrial—or, rather, extrauniversal—civilization. (And certainly if the human predicament is the creation of an adolescent hacker, that would explain a lot!) But we have no reason to assume as much, and there is precedent in theology for using the word “god” in a nonanthropomorphic way. For example, the twentieth-century Christian theologian Paul Tillich described God as “the ground of being.”
As critics of Tillich have pointed out, “the ground of being” sounds a bit vague, maybe too vague to qualify as a god. In fact, it sounds a lot like the “ultimate reality” invoked by some mystics who consider themselves atheists. What good does a “god” this abstract do for traditional believers, who envision a superhuman, anthropomorphic god—a “personal” god that they can talk to and thank and love and apologize to? In what sense could their belief be vindicated by the existence of a god so abstract that, really, “god” may not be the right word for it? (“Divinity,” maybe?)
Vindication lies in the eyes of the beholder. But one plausible ground for vindication would be if it turned out that a personal god, as commonly conceived, is a reasonable approximation of the more abstract god, given the constraints on human conception.
Suppose, for example, that we accept as our abstract conception of God “the source of the moral order.” (Tillich’s equally abstract “ground of being” is something I’m not qualified to articulate, much less defend. I brought it up only as an example of theological abstraction.) Could it be that thinking of this source, and relating to this source, as if it were a personal god is actually an appropriate way for human beings to apprehend that source, even if more appropriate ways might be available to beings less limited in their apprehension?
This sounds fishy, I know. It sounds like a strained, even desperate, intellectual maneuver, a last-ditch attempt to rescue a prescientific conception of God from the onslaught of modern science. But, oddly, an argument that it’s not comes from modern science; physicists commonly do something that is in some ways analogous to believing in a personal god.
The Ultimate Reality of Science
It’s a bedrock idea of modern physics that, even if you define “ultimate reality” as the ultimate scientific reality—the most fundamental truths of physics—ultimate reality isn’t something you can clearly conceive.
Think of an electron, a little particle that spins around another little particle. Wrong! True, physicists sometimes find it useful to think of electrons as particles, but sometimes it’s more useful to think of them as waves. Conceiving of them as either is incomplete, yet conceiving of them as both is … well, inconceivable. (Try it!) And electrons are just the tip of the iceberg. In general, the quantum world—the world of subatomic reality—behaves in ways that don’t make sense to minds like ours. Various aspects of quantum physics evince the property that the late physicist Heinz Pagels called quantum weirdness.
The bad news for the religiously inclined, then, is that maybe they should abandon hope of figuring out what God is. (If we can’t conceive of an electron accurately, what are our chances of getting God right?) The good news is that the hopelessness of figuring out exactly what something is doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Apparently some things are just inconceivable—and yet are things nonetheless.
At least, some physicists believe electrons are things. The fact that nobody’s actually seen an electron, and that trying to imagine one ties our minds in knots, has led some physicists and philosophers of science to wonder whether it’s even accurate to say that electrons do exist. You could say that with electrons, as with God, there are believers and there are skeptics.
The believers believe there’s something out there—some “thing” in some sense of the word “thing”—that corresponds to the word “electron”; and that, though the best we can do is conceive of this “thing” imperfectly, even misleadingly, conceiving of it that way makes more sense than not conceiving of it at all. They believe in electrons while professing their inability to really “know” what an electron is. You might say they believe in electrons even while lacking proof that electrons per se exist.
Many of these physicists, while holding that imperfectly conceiving subatomic reality is a valid form of knowledge, wouldn’t approve if you tried to perform a similar maneuver in a theological context. If you said you believe in God, even while acknowledging that you have no clear idea what God is—and that you can’t even really prove God per se exists—they would say your belief has no foundation.
Yet what exactly is the difference between the logic of their belief in electrons and the logic of a belief in God? They perceive patterns in the physical world—such as the behavior of electricity—and posit a source of these patterns and call that source the “electron.” A believer in God perceives patterns in the moral world (or, at least, moral patterns in the physical world) and posits a source of these patterns and calls the source “God.” “God” is that unknown thing that is the source of the moral order, the reason there is a moral dimension to life on Earth and a moral direction to time on Earth; “God” is responsible for the fact that life is sentient, capable of good and bad feelings, and hence morally significant; “God” is responsible for the evolutionary system that placed highly sentient life on a trajectory toward the good, or at least toward tests that offered the opportunity and incentive to realize the good; in the process “God” gave each of us a moral axis around which to organize our lives, should we choose to. Being human, we will always conceive of the source of this moral order in misleadingly crude ways, but then again you could say the same thing about conceiving electrons. So you’ll do with the source of the moral order what physicists do with a subatomic source of the physical order, such as an electron—try to think about it the best you can, and fail. This, at least, is one modern, scientifically informed argument that could be deployed by the believer in God.
The Atheist Strikes Back
There are plausible rejoinders that an atheist scientist who believes in electrons could make, because there are places where the analogy between God and an electron breaks down. In particular, the scientist could say, “But something like an electron is necessary to explain patterns we see in the physical world. In contrast, something like God isn’t necessary to explain the moral order of the universe.”
It’s a good point. This book’s account of the moral direction of history has been a materialist account. We’ve explained the expansion of the moral imagination as an outgrowth of expanding social organization, which is itself an outgrowth of technological evolution, which itself grows naturally out of the human brain, which itself grew naturally out of the primordial ooze via biological evolution. There’s no mystical force that has to enter the system to explain this, and there’s no need to look for one.
Indeed, when the religious believer talks about the “source” of the moral order, the scientist could reply that the source of the moral order is … the electron—or, strictly speaking, other subatomic particles that are more fundamental than the electron. After all, the primordial ooze ultimately consisted of subatomic particles; if the expansion of the moral imagination can be explained in materialist terms, then its deepest explanation is the deepest explanation for the material world in general—the grand unified theory that physicists have been looking for. So why start talking about God?
The believer has a reply, and it takes us back to chapter 18. There we saw something that modern biologists and the nineteenth-century Christian theologian William Paley agree on: the existence of animals—compared to, say, the existence of rocks—demands a special kind of explanation. And the reason isn’t that the creation of an animal can’t be explained in material terms; indeed, with growing success scientists understand how an animal’s intricately integrated functionality (organs of digestion, of perception, and so on) grows from a fertilized egg via explicable physical processes. Rather, the idea is that this emphatically material process—the emergence of integrated functionality via biological maturation—seems like the kind of physical system that wouldn’t “just happen”; it must be the result of a creative process that imbues things with functionality—either a designer (such as a god, as Rev. Paley argued) or a “designer” (such as natural selection, as Darwin later argued).
Turns out it was the latter—a “designing” process, not a designing god. But, however big a setback that fact is for Rev. Paley’s religious beliefs, there is a moral to this story that modern believers will want to emphasize: biologists agree that a strictly physical system or process—whose workings can be wholly explained in material terms—can have such extraordinary characteristics that it is fair to posit some special creative force as its source and ask about the nature of that force. Darwin inquired into the creative force behind plants and animals, and his answer was evolution. Surely the believer is entitled to ask the same question about evolution: Where did the amazing algorithm of natural selection come from?
Such a believer, by the way, would not here be making an argument for “intelligent design,” the idea that natural selection isn’t adequate to account for human evolution. On the contrary, the idea here is that natural selection is such a powerful mechanism that its origin demands a special explanation; that evolution by natural selection has patterns and properties every bit as extraordinary as an animal’s maturation toward functional integration.
We spelled out some of those patterns in chapter 18: as natural selection ground along, creating more and more intelligent forms of life, it eventually created a form of life so intelligent as to give birth to a second creative process, cultural evolution; and as cultural (especially technological) evolution proceeded, the human species exhibited larger and larger expanses of social organization, and eventually this expanse approached global proportions; and in the process there appeared a moral order, linkage between the growth of social organization and progress toward moral truth. This moral order, to the believer, is among the grounds for suspecting that the system of evolution by natural selection itself demands a special creative explanation.
This suspicion may be wrong, but the argument behind it is intelligible and legitimate—parallel in structure to the argument that, before Darwin, provided motivation to search for the theory of natural selection. And if the believer, having concluded that the moral order suggests the existence of some as-yet-unknown source of creativity that set natural selection in motion, decides to call that source “God,” well, that’s the believer’s business. After all, physicists got to choose the word “electron.”
Of course, you could ask why the believer is entitled to suspect a creative source as exotic-sounding as a “god,” when the creative source of organic life turned out to be a mere mechanical process known as natural selection. To which the believer might reply that a physical system exhibiting moral order demands a more exotic explanation than a physical system exhibiting only a more mundane form of order.
Even if the atheist scientist found this argument persuasive, the believer would still have some work to do. For there’s a formidable argument the scientist could make against the whole idea of comparing the conjectured existence of God to the conjectured existence of the electron. It’s a very pragmatic argument. Namely: Granted, we believe in the existence of the electron even though our attempts thus far to conceive of it have been imperfect at best. Still, there’s a sense in which our imperfect conceptions of the electron have worked. We manipulate physical reality on the assumption that electrons exist as we imperfectly conceive them and—voilą—we get the personal computer. However crude our conceptions of the sources of material order, these conceptions have brought material progress.
The Believer Replies
To which the believer can reply: Well, thinking about the source of the universe’s moral order crudely has on balance brought moral progress. Our conception of God has “grown”—that is, the moral compass of the gods we believe in has grown, and our moral imagination has thereby grown—as we’ve moved from hunter-gatherer societies to the brink of a unified global civilization; and, if we make it over that final threshold, we’ll have gotten closer still to moral truth in the bargain. So to quit thinking about God now would be to abandon a path that has been successful on its own terms—not a path of scientific inquiry that has brought scientific progress, but a path of moral inquiry that has brought moral progress.
The atheist scientist probably wouldn’t buy this argument, and the resistance might assume roughly this form: Even if it’s true that the idea of God helped get us to our present stage of moral evolution, can’t we jettison this idea—this illusion—and go it alone from here? Can’t we pursue moral truth for the sake of moral truth? Do you really need God in order to sustain moral progress the way physicists need the electron in order to sustain scientific progress?
It depends on who “you” is. Some people can lead morally exemplary lives without the idea of God. Others need God—and not necessarily because they can lead a virtuous life only if they fear hell and long for heaven; often it’s because they can most readily lead a virtuous life if they think of moral truth as having some living embodiment. They need to feel that if they’re bad they’ll be disappointing some one and if they’re good they’ll be pleasing some one—and this one is the one whom, above all others, it is good to please and bad to disappoint.
This is hardly a surprising need. After all, the human moral equipment evolved in the context of human society, as a tool for navigating a social landscape; our moral sentiments are naturally activated with respect to other beings; we are “designed” by natural selection to be good out of obligation to others, for fear of the disapproval of others, in pursuit of the esteem of others. And for many people, carrying these human relations to the superhuman level works well. They are better people, and often happier people, thinking of a God who is aware of their daily struggle and offers solace or affirmation or reprimand; they can best stay aligned with the moral axis of the universe by thanking God, asking God to help them stay righteous, seeking forgiveness from God for their lapses. It’s nice that some people can be paragons of virtue without this kind of help, but in a way it’s surprising; the natural human condition is to ground your moral life in the existence of other beings, and the more ubiquitous the beings, the firmer the ground.
In other words: given the constraints on human nature, believers in God are interacting with the moral order as productively as possible by conceiving its source in a particular way, however imperfect that way is. Isn’t that kind of like physicists who interact with the physical order as productively as possible by conceiving of its subatomic sources in a particular way, however imperfect that way is?
Indeed, you might even describe both forms of interaction as a kind of communication. The scientist manipulates reality in ways that implicitly say, “I think the subatomic world has a certain structure,” and then reality speaks back, providing positive or negative feedback. The scientific process—the evolution of scientific ideas—is a long dialogue with nature. As we’ve seen, the evolution of God, and the attendant evolution of our moral imagination, could be described as a long dialogue with nature, too; our species, in the course of its history, has gotten feedback that has amounted to a moral education, feedback that has steered it toward moral truth. It is the profound directionality of this evolution that leads believers to suspect that the source of this feedback is somehow deeper than nature per se.
The average atheist scientist, if forced to read up to this point, would probably still be resisting the parallel between physicist and theist, insisting that there’s a difference between conceiving imperfectly of an electron that in fact exists and conceiving imperfectly of a God that doesn’t exist.
But this is a bit too simple. As noted above, some physicists think that electrons really don’t exist. Yes, they say, there must be some source of the patterns we attribute to electrons, and yes, it makes sense to think of that source as electrons, because thinking that is productive—but in fact the source of the patterns is so unlike an electron that electrons per se can’t be said to exist. (According to string theory, the patterns we attribute to particles are actually the “vibrations” emitted by stringlike entities. And even if string theory turns out to be empirically fruitful—which it hasn’t been yet—why should we doubt that someday we’ll learn that the image of vibrating strings is as misleading as string theorists say the image of a particle is?) In this view, the electron isn’t just imperfectly conceived; it’s an illusion, albeit a useful one.
Maybe the most defensible view—of electrons and of God—is to place them somewhere between illusion and imperfect conception. Yes, there is a source of the patterns we attribute to the electron, and the electron as conceived is a useful enough proxy for that source that we shouldn’t denigrate it by calling it an “illusion”; still, our image of an electron is very, very different from what this source would look like were the human cognitive apparatus capable of apprehending it adroitly. So too with God: yes, there is a source of the moral order, and many people have a conception of God that is a useful proxy for that source; still that conception is very, very different from what the source of the moral order would look like were human cognition able to grasp it.
This gets us back to square one. Some people question whether there is a moral order. Like Steven Weinberg (in chapter 20), they might say that there is no moral order “out there” independent of moral laws we assert. But it’s important to understand that this is where a lot of the disagreement lies: Is there a transcendent moral order or is there not? If there is, then people who take electrons seriously would seem hard pressed to deny the legitimacy of trying to conceive the source of that order; especially if you stress to them that the source of the moral order isn’t necessarily inconsistent with a scientific worldview—it needn’t be some kind of gratuitously interventionist anthropomorphic God or some mystical “force” that trumps the laws of the universe; maybe the laws of the universe, even when operating with normal regularity, are subordinate to the purpose, because they were designed with the purpose in mind. (Or, perhaps, “designed” with the purpose “in mind.” After all, the “designer” could be some meta-natural-selection process. For all we know, universes evolve by a kind of cosmic natural selection, and universes that spawn life that evolves toward a belief in moral truth and closer adherence to it do a better job of replicating themselves than universes that lack this sort of moral order and teleological drift.) Whatever we posit as the source of the moral order—anthropomorphic God who spawned natural selection or mechanistic selective process that spawned natural selection or something in between—the point is that if you believe the moral order exists, then the believer’s attempt to conceive of its source, and relate to its source, would seem a legitimate exercise even by the standards of science regardless of how crude the conception of that source, regardless of how circuitous the means of relating to it.
And, anyway, maybe feeling that you’re in contact with a personal god isn’t such a circuitous way to relate to the source of the moral order. I suggested a couple of pages ago that when people feel the presence of a humanlike god, they’re drawing on parts of the moral infrastructure built into them by natural selection—a sense of obligation to other people, guilt over letting people down, gratitude for gifts bestowed, and so on. And these things are in turn grounded in more basic components of the evolved moral infrastructure, including the very sense that there is such a thing as right and wrong. All these elements of human nature—all these ingredients of the sense of contact with a personal and sometimes judgmental God—are the product of non-zero-sum logic as realized via evolution; they are natural selection’s way of steering us toward fruitful relationships; they embody natural selection’s “recognition” that by cooperating with people (some people, at least) we can serve our own interests. And this non-zero-sum dynamic, remember, is central to the “Logos,” the underlying logic of life that Philo of Alexandria, for one, considered a direct extension of God. So you might say that the evolution of the human moral equipment by natural selection was the Logos at work during a particular phase of organic aggregation; it was what allowed our distant ancestors to work together in small groups, and it set the stage for them to work together in much larger groups, including, eventually, transcontinental ones.
If you accept this argument—if you buy into this particular theology of the Logos—then feeling the presence of a personal god has a kind of ironic validity. On the one hand, you’re imagining things; the divine being you sense “out there” is actually something inside you. On the other hand, this something inside you is an expression of forces “out there”; it’s an incarnation of a non-zero-sum logic that predates and transcends individual people, a kind of logic that—in this theology of the Logos, at least—can be called divine. The feeling of contact with a transcendent divinity is in that sense solid.
Of course, there are lots of believers—most, in fact—who won’t be on board for this whole exercise anyway. They don’t want to just hear that some conception of a god might be defensible, or that a personal god is defensible as some sort of approximation of the truth. They would like to hear that, yes, their specific conception of God is right on target. Well, if that’s what they would like to hear, this is not the book for them. (Maybe the Bible, or the Koran?) The best we can do within the intellectual framework of this book is posit the existence of God in a very abstract sense and defend belief in a more personal god in pragmatic terms—as being true in the sense that some other bedrock beliefs, including some scientific ones, are true.
Is God Love?
There are people who have it both ways—who harbor a fairly abstract conception of God, yet get some of the psychological perks of believing in a more personal god. One key to their success is their choice of abstraction. Perhaps the most commonly successful abstraction is love: God is love.
Is it true? Is God love? Like all characterizations of God, this one presumes more insight than I feel in possession of. But there’s certainly something to the idea that love is connected to, indeed emanates from, the kind of God whose existence is being surmised here.
The connection comes via love’s connection to the moral order of which that God is the source. That moral order has revealed itself via ever widening circles of non-zero-sumness that draw people toward the moral truth that mutual respect is warranted. As we saw in chapter 19, it is the moral imagination whose growth often paves the way for that truth, and it does so through the extension of a kind of sympathy, a subjective identification with the situation of the other. And as sympathy intensifies it approaches love. Love, you might say, is the apotheosis of the moral imagination; it can foster the most intimate identification with the other, the most intense appreciation of the moral worth of the other.
Sometimes love, in the course of leading to this moral truth, fosters more mundane truths. Suppose you are a parent and you (a) watch someone else’s toddler misbehave, and then (b) watch your own toddler do the same. Your predicted reactions, respectively, are: (a) “What a brat!” and (b) “That’s what happens when she skips her nap.” Now (b) is often a correct explanation, whereas (a)—the “brat” reaction—isn’t even an explanation. So in this case love leads toward truth. So too when a parent sees her child show off and concludes that the grandstanding is grounded in insecurity. That’s an often valid explanation—unlike, say, “My neighbor’s kid is such a show-off”—and brings insight into human nature to boot. Granted, love can warp our perception, too—happens every day. (For an extreme illustration, Google “Texas Cheerleader Mom.”) Still, love at its best brings a truer apprehension of the other, an empathetic understanding that converges on the moral truth of respect, even reverence, for the other.
What’s more, this empathetic understanding, the foundation of the moral imagination, might never have gotten off the ground had love not emerged on this planet. Long before history, and long before human beings, animals felt something like love for kin. And it’s a pretty good bet that when animals first felt love is when they were first able to in any sense identify with the subjective interior of another animal. To put this point in physiological language: love probably sponsored the first “mirror neurons,” a likely biological basis of the moral imagination and thus an essential element in the moral order’s infrastructure.
There’s an even deeper association between love and the moral order. The expanding moral compass sponsored by the moral order, as we’ve seen, is a manifestation of non-zero-sumness, of the fact that cultural (and in particular technological) evolution leads more and more people to play non-zero-sum games at greater and greater distances. And natural selection’s invention of love, it turns out, was itself a manifestation of non-zero-sumness. Love was invented because, from the point of view of genetic proliferation—the point of view from which natural selection works—close kin are playing a non-zero-sum game; they share so many genes that they have a common Darwinian “interest” in getting each other’s genes into subsequent generations.
Of course, the organisms aren’t aware of this “interest.” Even in our species—smart, as species go—the Darwinian logic isn’t conscious logic; we don’t go around thinking, “By loving my daugher I’ll be more inclined to keep her alive and healthy until reproductive age, so through my love my genes will be playing a non-zero-sum game with the copies of them that reside in her.” Indeed, the whole Darwinian point of love is to be a proxy for this logic; love gets us to behave as if we understood the logic; the invention of love, in some animal many millions of years ago, was nature’s way of getting dim-witted organisms to seek a win-win outcome (win-win from a gene’s-eye view), notwithstanding their inability to do so out of conscious strategy. And at that point the seeds of sympathy—love’s corollary, and a key ingredient of the moral imagination—were planted.
Then, having been spawned by this biological non-zero-sumness, sympathy could be harnessed by a later wave of non-zero-sumness, a wave driven by cultural, and specifically technological, evolution. As interdependence, and hence social structure, grew beyond the bounds of family—and then beyond the bounds of hunter-gatherer band, of chiefdom, of state—the way was paved by extensions of sympathy. This sympathy didn’t have to involve its initial sponsor, love; you don’t have to love someone to trade with them or even to consider them compatriots. But there has to be enough moral imagination, enough sympathetic consideration, to keep them out of the cognitive category of enemy; you have to consider them, in some sense, one of you.
And, just as we’ve seen that love can foster truth within the family, this movement of sympathy beyond the family has also advanced the cause of truth. Because the fact is that other people are one of you. For better or worse, they are driven by the same kinds of feelings and hopes and delusions that drive you. When you keep people in the category of enemy you do so by, among other feats, willful blindness to this commonality.
It’s pretty remarkable: natural selection’s invention of love—in some anonymous animal many millions of years ago—was a prerequisite for the moral imagination whose expansion, here and now, could help keep the world on track; a prerequisite for our apprehension of the truth that the planet’s salvation depends on: the objective truth of seeing things from the point of view of someone else, and the moral truth of considering someone else’s welfare important.
Though we can no more conceive of God than we can conceive of an electron, believers can ascribe properties to God, somewhat as physicists ascribe properties to electrons. One of the more plausible such properties is love. And maybe, in this light, the argument for God is strengthened by love’s organic association with truth—by the fact, indeed, that at times these two properties almost blend into one. You might say that love and truth are the two primary manifestations of divinity in which we can partake, and that by partaking in them we become truer manifestations of the divine. Then again, you might not say that. The point is just that you wouldn’t have to be crazy to say it.