Saturday, July 14, 2012

Traits of Gods

            Perhaps the theists among you will be inclined to ignore anything a heathen such as myself might have to say about the traits attributed to the gods worshipped by all those various cults humans have invented over the last several thousand years.  Still, I think this is worth paying attention to.  Theists and atheists alike have claimed scientific authority for their opposition positions on the question of whether or not a god or many gods could exist, so closer examination of this issue is warranted.
            What I intend to do here is to offer several definitions and traits of gods that people actually believe in, and then discuss whether these gods may or may not be compatible with a scientific understanding of the universe.
            Let’s begin.

1) God is love. I’ve heard it more times than I can count.  Theists will ask me if I believe in love, and if I answer in the affirmative, they claim victory by defining their god as love.  Well, let’s consider this a little further.
            First of all, if you define god as “love,” you’ve already lost.  Love is an emotion, not a being.  If you want to call it god, you’re welcome, but you lose any claims of the miraculous, any claims that this god could exist as a real entity independent of the human mind, and all the stories about this being that fill your cherished holy scriptures.  The god that people actually worship is not “love.”  You may argue that this god has an infinite capacity for love, and that’s fine--we can then have a discussion about whether or not such a being is real--but saying “god is love” is linguistic trickery, and not even very good linguistic trickery.
            This also raises an interesting point.  What is love, anyway?  Well, it’s an emotion, which means it is a product of the physical brain.  What we call love has actually been identified by psychologists as a series of emotions each governed by a set of neurotransmitters (or brain chemicals) which evolved in such a way to make us more likely to reproduce and raise viable offspring.  We pass through stages of lust, attraction, and attachment.  Each of these are produced by different neurotransmitters, and our conscious “minds” (whatever that word means!) perceive the whole package as “falling in love.”
            York psychologist Professor Arthur Arun conducted an experiment in his research to determine how people fall in love.  He had his subjects complete three tasks.  First, find a complete stranger.  Second, exchange intimate details about one another for a period of approximately thirty minutes.  Finally, stare at one another’s eyes for four minutes without speaking.  After completing these tasks, many of Arun’s subjects felt deeply attracted and two were later married.
            None of this is to say that love is unimportant.  Just because we understand what is happening to cause us to feel emotion does not make the emotion less important.  We know that we evolved to feel these emotions for specific reasons, and we also know that for similar reasons, we find these emotions to be extremely important to us.  Love can be a great thing--just don’t assume it’s some sort of mystical power, because it’s not.  It’s neurochemistry, just like all other emotions.  Indeed, every conscious thought or feeling we have boils down to nothing more than neurochemistry, and I think that’s just wonderful.  I just don’t think most people want to think of their god as nothing more than testosterone and dopamine.

2) God is the universe. Again, if you want to define your god as the sum total of everything in the universe, fine.  But the universe, contrary to what a bunch of new age buffoons want to think, is not a conscious entity.  The universe is the result of a series of processes occurring in accordance with natural law.  Again, that doesn’t make it less beautiful--quite the contrary!--but it does mean it’s not the sort of god that people actually worship.
            When Einstein famously make remarks to “god” in his writings (perhaps most famously his declaration that “God does not throw dice,” in response to Heisenberg’s indeterminacy principle), he does not refer to any spiritual or conscious entity.  God is simply Einstein’s poetic way of referring to the sum total of natural law, or the order of the universe.
            Bypassing plenty of interesting (but ultimately useless) philosophy, we can say that yes, the universe exists.  But that certainly does not make it a god.

            With those two bits of linguistic elasticity out of the way, we can begin to discuss the character traits that people ascribe to the gods they actually do worship.  The gods we discuss here are the theistic gods, and the ones whose followers are demonstrating considerable influence in public policy, so this is where the discussion gets really important.  I’m going to separate these gods out so that each represents only a single character trait, but simply note that most people assume their god to possess some combination of several (if not all) of the following traits.  I separate them simply for ease of discussion, and without altering the relevance or accuracy of the arguments.

3) God created life/the diversity of life. These two related claims are separated by a slash for a very important reason.  There is definitely a difference between creating life and being responsible for biodiversity.
            The second of these questions is the easiest to tackle.  Clearly a god who is responsible for biodiversity is incompatible with known data.  The diversity of life is the product of evolution.  Natural selection, which is defined as descent with heredity or nonrandom survival of replicators, drives the evolutionary process, creating the diversity of species we enjoy on our planet, each adapted to different circumstances.  If you disagree with this, then sorry but you’re just dead wrong.  While all science is tentative by design, evolution is as firmly established as anything else in science, and is such a powerful theory that it has implications in fields as diverse as agriculture, industry, and medicine.
            The first question is a little more difficult, because the initial origin of the first life (after which natural selection can handle the rest) is not fully understood.  However, though we don’t yet know the precise process, all evidence suggests that life is a result simply of chemistry occurring without any guiding hand under the correct circumstances.  Indeed, it may turn out to not even be that rare an occurrence.  There is considerable--though not yet anywhere near conclusive--evidence of life (albeit microscopic) on other worlds.
            There’s still plenty of work to be done here, and we could certainly use some more good biologists and chemists working on the problem to fill in what gaps still exist in our knowledge.  However, divine intervention isn’t the answer.  In the case of biodiversity, divine intervention is directly contradicted by the evidence.  In the case of abiogenesis (or the origin of life from nonliving matter--not to be confused with the discredited notion of spontaneous generation), though the data are not as conclusive, current evidence suggests a process devoid of conscious design.

4) God created the universe.  While we do not yet have a complete picture of the formation of the universe, we now do know that the formation of the universe is possible--without violating any physical law--without the need to invoke a designer.
            Thanks to Einstein, we now understand that there is a mass-energy equivalency which becomes key to our understanding of the formation of the universe.  If mass and energy are the same thing (and they are), we need only to understand how we got to a state of having energy rather than not having energy…or do we?  Actually, as it turns out, because there is also such a thing as negative energy which precisely matches the total mass-energy of the universe, the total mass-energy of the entire universe is exactly zero.  I’ll say it again because it’s a bit of a mind-bender unless you’re well-read in physics: the total energy of the universe is precisely zero.  Thus, the formation of the universe does NOT violate the conservation of mass-energy.
            Our understanding of exactly how this all works out is a topic for another (much longer) discussion.  The important point to remember here is that we now know that a godless universe does not violate the laws of physics.  This has been an enormous leap forward in our understanding of our universe and, for me, has proved to be the final nail in the coffin of belief in any sort of a creator-god.

5) God fine-tuned the universe for human life. This one boggles my mind.  In addition to being mind-numbingly self-centered and arrogant to assume that the entire universe (and you can really have no conception of how big it really is) is designed with our pitiful little species in mind, this claim seems self-evidently wrong.
            For one thing, it is clear that the universe predates humanity.  That much is obvious.  In fact, it predates us by more than 14 billion years.  Clearly, then, the universe isn’t made for us, but we are “made for” it.  Humans, like all species, are evolved to be well-adapted to our habitat.
            Let us also consider that, to date, we have found exactly one planet capable of sustaining our kind of life.  Personally, I think it’s likely we’ll find life elsewhere.  And I even think it’s likely that there’s plenty of intelligent life in the universe (though less certain that we’ll ever be able to cross the distances necessary to find it).  Nevertheless, we know of only one place habitable to humans.  On this planet, even, most locations are not habitable.  Even our own planet is full of deep oceans, icy wastelands and violent volcanoes, not to mention the biological threats to humanity that come in the form of all the plants and animals that can kill us.  The vast majority of the universe is absolutely uninhabitable to any life at all.  Even those places where life is possible, human life is still impossible.  Clearly the universe is not fine-tuned for us.  We’re as well adapted to it as we can be, but most of it is still completely hostile to us.

6) God performs miracles. There is no reliable evidence to substantiate any claim of the miraculous.  Many have been demonstrated to be frauds.  For the rest, the evidence simply isn’t there.  Considering how many people claim to experience the miraculous, however, we should expect to see tons of such evidence.  It would not be all that difficult to substantiate.
            Furthermore, any god capable of suspending the laws of physics is incompatible with our understanding of what these laws of physics are.  A law is different from a theory.  While a theory is an explanatory framework of some series of facts, a law does not do any explaining.  What it does is describe a relationship between two entities that always occurs.  Yes, all science is tentative, but a miracle is a direct violation of what our current understanding says is inviolable.

7) God endows people with immortal souls. While this isn’t directly related to the question of whether a god exists or not, it is peripherally related, and is important enough an issue that it merits brief discussion.
            The simple fact of the matter is, we know as thoroughly as we can know anything that there’s no such thing as a soul.  At one time in history, the human character or mind was attributed to this invisible entity.  We now know that everything that happens in the “mind” is the result of a physical process in the brain.  Changes to the brain result in changes to the mind or soul that would not occur if these processes were not entirely controlled by neurochemistry.
            Though I would prefer otherwise to prevent misunderstanding, it’s still possible to use the word “soul” in the way that we use “mind,” simply to describe these emergent properties of the brain.  But in this case, it’s just a bit of poetic license.  The god-granted immortal soul is just a myth.  When the brain stops functioning, so does the mind or soul.

8) God dictates morality. This one bothers me quite a lot, and on a number of different levels.  The idea comes in both a hard and a soft format.  In the former, the theist claims that one cannot be moral without god.  In the latter, they claim simply that god is responsible for endowing us with a moral sense, or that our codes of morality are based on the scriptures.
            The last of these is the first I’ll tackle.  It is true that some people have taken moral codes from the scriptures.  However, it is untrue that modern codes of morality are scripturally based.  There is an evolution of morality and scriptures were one step in that evolution, but we have moved on.  At the time the Bible was written (for just one example--the same kinds of arguments apply to all scriptures), slavery was not considered an immoral act.  Indeed, the Bible contains specific instructions regarding how slave-owners could treat their property.  We would no longer consider this moral.
            Indeed, as morality changes over time, we can infer that morality is a social construct.  Social constructs can be easily identified by two criteria: that they change over time and vary by culture.  Morality is just such a phenomenon.  While humans have evolved a moral sense which seems more or less innate (I won’t go into all the data on this particular topic of heated debate), the specific moral prescriptions both vary by culture and change over time.
            Morality is a trait shared by all peoples, regardless of religion.  Clearly one does not need gods to be moral.  Further, it has been argued that secular morality is superior, particularly on two grounds.  First, it is considered to be more moral to do the right thing for its own sake, rather than because it’s what an external force (in this case, a god, though the same argument could be made of legal systems or any force) commands.  Second, secular morality does a better job of keeping up with the changing moral zeitgeist.  It’s not the secularists, after all, who would deny marriage to homosexuals, ban abortions, et cetera.

9) God communicates through personal revelation. The evidence of this is nonexistent.  It might be strong evidence if someone’s claimed revelation revealed information they could not otherwise have known, but this has never happened.  Further, we can now explain many of the visions of god that people have which would once have been considered indicative of reality.  As we’ve learned more and more about the functioning of the human brain, more and more of these communications from the divine are now understood to be simple hallucinations.  The brain is a funny thing.  It’s capable of comprehending the universe, and can be fooled by the simplest illusion or imbalance.
            In addition, there’s an added problem regarding the character of a god who would communicate with only some people but not the rest of us, which brings us to our tenth and final trait.

10) God is simultaneously omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.  The idea of an all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful god is both internally logically inconsistent and inconsistent with the evidence.
            First, an internal inconsistency.  Omniscience and omnipotence are incompatible.  For one to be omniscient, one must know the outcome of the universe.  To be omnipotent, one must be able to change the outcome of the universe.  This is a paradox that doesn’t interest me very much as an atheist, but for which the theist can have no answer.
            Now, to omnipotence on its own.  The problem here is that if there is an omnipotent being, the laws of physics should not be stable.  The fact of the matter is, the laws of nature remain consistent and are never observably violated.  This should not be the case if there’s an omnipotent being out there somewhere.
            Omniscience actually isn’t exactly impossible.  It’s only impossible in the way it’s presented as a godly trait.  If the universe is fundamentally deterministic (and I go back and forth regarding whether I think it is or not--I would say yes but quantum mechanics makes me question this), then it is possible to imagine that a hyper-intelligent being could know the outcome of the universe.  Such a being is far removed from anything humans can imagine, and the source of knowledge would not be supernatural but advanced mathematics.  Practically speaking, there’s no such thing, but physics does allow for at least some approximation of it.
            Omnibenevolence is a real problem because we’re supposed to believe in a god that does only good, and yet plenty of bad shit happens.  It goes back to that old chestnut: Is god willing to prevent evil but not able?  Then he’s not omnipotent.  Is he able but not willing?  Then he’s evil.  Is he neither willing nor able? Then why call him god?  Is he both willing and able?  Then whence cometh evil?  The fact of the matter is, the world is a beautiful place and a horrible place.  If there were a loving god, it should just be the former and not the latter.

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