Monday, April 23, 2007
Why Believe in God?
I'm in the midst of another really great philosophical conversation with my new atheist friend Dan Harlow (and a few others) over at Dan's blog. The opening question was basically why bother believing in God. If it's possible for the universe to make sense without reference to a God, then what does the concept add?

It's a great question. Here's how I responded:

That’s really the question isn’t it. Why believe in God? Let me start by clarifying that my argument about the compatibility of faith and science was never offered as “proof” of God’s existence. I don’t think science can prove God. (Frankly, I think everyone needs a little more realism these days about the limits of science and what kind of questions it can and cannot answer.) I look at the natural world the way I do (i.e. as the handiwork of God) because I have a prior belief in his reality.

This belief is based on many things (not just “wishful thinking” as Darryl would have it). It would take far too long to explain all of my reasons here. Some of them have to do with my own personal experiences with God, while others are more philosophical. Let me see if I can summarize just one possible answer. But don’t mistake me as saying that this is “proof”. What I’m offering is not proof but a possibility.

What it comes down to is that I look outward at the natural world - with all the mathematical rationality of its design and seeming purposefulness in its operation - and then look inward at human nature itself - with all of our longings for ultimate meaning and purpose, for love and justice; and I find myself presented with a choice. Either:

1) The rationality of the universe (what Einstein called its “incomprehensible comprehensibility”) has occurred by chance, and arisen from we know not what (ideas about infinite multiple universes and the like are frankly just as metaphysically speculative and beyond the realm of science as any theistic ideas); and therefore the universe really is purposeless, and our human longings have no objective reference outside of ourselves - i.e. no correlation with the way the rest of the world really is. We are simply the tortured products of an absurd and cruel cosmos, desperately looking for ultimate meaning where there is none.


2) The universe is rational because it was designed by a rational being, and appears to have a purpose, because it was in fact given one by its Creator. Likewise, human beings’ longings for meaning and love and justice really do have some relation to the way the world really is. They are drives that have some hope of being fulfilled, because the ground of all being, the force behind everything is itself a relational being that likewise desires love, justice, and meaning.

Let me say right now that I don’t think that there is an absolute proof for either of these two options. We can choose which seems more likely to us, but there is no knock-down argument for either one.

And I should also point out that the first option is not necessarily the “scientific” point of view. We are dealing with metaphysical questions that go beyond the capabilities of science. Science can tell us about the natural processes that occur within our universe; but these two options both go beyond our universe to ask where the universe itself came from. We are beyond the limits of the scientific method.

So again, we are left with a choice of which of these two seems more likely. I choose the second option, because it makes sense to me that a rational, “mind-like” universe would have arisen from a rational mind.

And I choose the second option because it makes sense to me that all our longings as personal beings (i.e. displaying the characteristics of personhood such as love, justice, rationality, purpose) would have arisen not from an impersonal universe, but from a source of being that is itself personal. In other words, I choose to believe in God because we don’t seem to make much sense without him.

But I can understand why others choose the first option. The naturalist, non-theistic worldview makes sense to me too. Again, this is why I don’t think atheists are “wrong”. You base your worldview on one possible rational option. I have simply chosen a different possible rational option. I don’t think we have a means of ultimately deciding which is right. This is where the so-called “leap of faith” comes in.

Anyhow, I hope that explains where I’m coming from.

(BTW, I'd encourage you to go read the whole conversation, though it's rather lengthy. We cover a lot more ground than just this question.)

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At 4/23/2007 07:26:00 PM, Blogger John

I think science can prove God. A really neat website by a group I hear on the radio. Really nice program. Check it out.

When thinking about it I think it would take more faith to believe we all came from some pre-mortal goo than if we were all created by an all powerful God. It justs makes sense.




At 4/24/2007 09:52:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Thanks for the link John.

Personally I don't see evolution and Creation as mutually exclusive. I think it does violence to the biblical text to read Genesis 1 as if it were intended to be literal history. If we want to be faithful to the Bible (and to a God who reveals himself in nature - i.e. through science) then we have to stop reading Genesis as if it were written to satisfy our Modern scientific curiosity. When we force the Bible to answer our questions rather than letting it ask its own questions of us, we miss its point and fail to hear where God is speaking to us.

Sorry for the sermonette. I do appreciate the link. Opposing viewpoints are always welcome.



At 4/24/2007 05:04:00 PM, Blogger M James

One of the things that I like so much about your thoughts and writing is that you are very upfront with what you believe and why you believe it. You are very quick to point out that while this may be your belief, you don’t necessarily have proof for it – you just feel after years of study that’s it the best belief for you. I think that’s very respectable and actually strengthens your beliefs.

Too many people do themselves and Christianity a disservice by holding on to ideas such as that Genesis is literally true. And when that is obviously refuted by the things we see in the world around us, you suddenly get inane ideas such as a “trickster god” who makes it seem the world is more than 6,000 years old.

But I wanted to comment on a couple different things you said.

First, you state: “I look at the natural world the way I do (i.e. as the handiwork of God) because I have a prior belief in his reality.”
I find this statement confusing. It seems that you are saying that there is no evidence of God in nature unless you a priori believe in him? Correct?

Secondly, you present two examples of what you say are “rational choices.” The first choice has some things that I must respectfully object to, agree to and clarify.

1)What do you mean by “rational”? Are you using that word in a mathematical sense? Or in a more colloquial sense?

2) The universe was not created by chance. (I believe you are using the word “chance” to contrast with “purpose”. Taken with that meaning, IE:accident, I can safely say that nothing in the creation of the universe, evolution or science has anything to do with “chance” as you used it. It’s all governed by laws, even the creation of the universe, IE: Big Bang.)

3) Infinite multiple universes and the like are not scientific because they are not falsifiable. Just like theistic ideas. But, Big Bang theory and the creation of the universe, luckily, has nothing to do with any of that. We do not know, as of yet, what was before the Big Bang. General Relativity states that it was a gravitational singularity. But because of conformal time and a past horizon we cannot see what it was – yet. We can and one day will, through scientific pursuits, discover what was before the Big Bang. This is a scientific question that will be answered by scientific means. If it exists in the natural world, which it does, we can put it under our microscope. We may just need a bigger and more expensive microscope.

4) I agree with you, science cannot explain to us a purpose of anything. Science can only tell us the who, what, why, where, when and how of nature. It cannot deduce any meaning out of it. It’s a tool. The CTRL+F search function in Internet Explorer will find every instance of a word on a webpage. But like science, it won’t give you the purpose behind the search. That’s what we, as humans, bring to the table.

In my view, here are your two points: 1) The universe has no purpose and was a result of direct natural laws. 2) The universe has a purpose given to it by a creator who the natural laws are a part of.
Would you agree?

In my personal observations of the universe and life, the first option is the more simple and elegant view. And I think that’s why Brian asked why do you need God on top of such elegance that you already admit is true.

Moving on, you say that “the first option is not necessarily the “scientific” point of view.” I would agree with you, but for different reasons than you state. The words you use (rational, chance) in the first option exclude it from being scientific. Those words push it into the metaphysical. The purpose of the universe is a metaphysical question. How the universe was created is not. This ties into another point that I feel strongly about which I cover here ( ) (that we can’t adequately describe the universe with our words, so there is no point in trying.) Also, science really can’t tell us anything. It is a tool we use to discover things. We used the scientific method to prove the existence of the big bang. Someday, we will use the scientific method to discover what was before the Big Bang. We will never discover the purpose of the universe though, as that is a metaphysical question. We create the purpose of the universe and our lives everyday through our actions.

And finally, let me take umbrage with your closing comment: “Again, this is why I don’t think atheists are “wrong”. You base your worldview on one possible rational option. I have simply chosen a different possible rational option. I don’t think we have a means of ultimately deciding which is right. This is where the so-called “leap of faith” comes in.”
I think this is very unfair to the views of atheists and why a lot of atheists and theists talk past each other on this issue. Let me explain: You state that atheists are picking one rational option, while you are picking another rational option. (I personally wouldn’t call either rational until we reach an agreement about what rational means.) You make it seem, or the impression I get from this comment, is that atheists and yourself both look at the same evidence from the same perspective and you just happen to choose one choice while atheists choose another. But that’s not actually what happens. From what you’ve said (see earlier comments) you believe in God a priori, then look at nature and see his handiwork. An atheist (and I don’t want to speak for all of them) looks at nature first, and then asks more questions about nature. Each successive answer gives the atheist more questions which finally ends with “we don’t know – yet” Nowhere in their search do they encounter even the slightest hint of God, which as you’ve admitted, you only see because you already believe in him. I think those are two very different ways to view the universe and our questions about things.

Let me close this by proposing a thought experiment:

You live next door to an interpretative artist. Outside in his backyard are tons of statues. Some of them are trees, carved into different shapes. One of them is just a box, sitting on the ground. Another is a piece of iron standing upright with an olive branch affixed to the top. One morning you wake up and see a new sculpture in his backyard. This one is a pile of rocks stacked about eight feet high. You marvel at it’s intrinsic beauty and artistry, wondering what feeling, emotion the artist was trying to convey.

You think that this interpretative piece of art (the universe) was created by the artist (God) who lives there.

You’d be wrong.

You see, there was a rockslide (natural forces) the night before and this piece of “art”(the universe) was created solely by gravity, mass and velocity (natural law).

But maybe I’m wrong and after the rockslide (natural forces), the artist (God) took these rocks and shaped them into his interpretative art (the universe.) And judging from what I see around me in the world, it’s very “interpretative”!

The best response though, is that we should start by examining the art (the universe), using the tools at our disposals (science) and follow the evidence where it leads. If the evidence leads back to the rockslide, we shouldn’t assume the rockslide was caused by the artist (God), just so he could create his art (the universe), unless that’s the evidence.

Sometimes, “I don’t know” is the best answer.


At 4/24/2007 07:30:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Hey Michael,

Thanks for engaging with my post. You've given me a lot to respond to. I can see that I was unclear in my terms, and that by ripping my comment out of its original context I've made it more confusing. I think some of your comments/objections are based on a misunderstanding of what I'm saying. (Because I wasn't clear.)

For instance when I speak of the "rationality" of the universe, I mean precisely those mathematical natural laws that you refer to. So when I say that this arose by "chance" what I'm saying is that it is inexplicable why we would happen to live in a universe that is structured according to mathematical laws in the first place. (I'm sure you can see why it would be circular to say that such laws themselves exist because of natural laws.) It's not obvious to me that the universe would have to be this way. We could have very well have ended up in a universe where things happen for no apparent reason, and with no discernible mathematical regularity. Thus unless we posit a conscious Creator who deliberately purposed that our universe would be ordered according to discernible natural laws, I think we have to say that we live in such a universe simply by the luck of the draw - i.e. by chance.

The other point of clarification that I would offer is that this snippet comes in the middle of a conversation. For the full context go back and read the whole long blog post and subsequent comments at Dan Harlow's blog. Anyhow, when I say that I have a prior belief in God that then causes me to view the natural world as his handiwork, I was answering a previous question (about miracles and "God of the Gaps"). However, I was not saying that this prior belief is why I choose the second option of my two possibilities. Instead, the rest of my post was intended to explain why I hold this prior belief in the first place - i.e. why it makes sense to me to believe in a Creator.

So no, I don't "believe in God a priori, then look at nature and see his handiwork" as you say. You left out a step. Rather, I look at nature first, see that it is ordered according to discernable natural laws, and suppose that one possible explanation for this could be that these laws were created by God. Having made that choice, I am then able to view nature as God's handiwork.

As you say, I think the atheist starts at the same place, i.e. they start with nature too, but then they choose a different explanation for why nature is explicable to them, and proceed from there.

But that initial question of why nature is explicable in the first place is not something that I think any amount of reflection on nature itself will ever be able to answer. I can ask all the questions I want of nature and it will never answer that question of why it conforms to discernible laws in the first place.

As you say, "I don't know" is definitely an acceptable answer to that question, and I respect atheists who make that choice. Unfortunately it doesn't satisfy me, and so I'm willing to take an uncertain stab at a different possible answer - to replace "I don't know" with "Well, maybe it's this..."



At 4/26/2007 09:48:00 AM, Blogger M James

This comment has been removed by the author.


At 4/26/2007 09:49:00 AM, Blogger M James

Mike -
Thanks for the response. That clears up a lot of confusion I had when first reading your post. I did go and read Dan's blog and then followed the links from there, but it was confusing as to who was saying what to which answer!

Two further clarifications I would ask for:

I would assume we would both agree that if there was a universe "where things happen for no apparent reason, and with no discernible mathematical regularity" then humans, as we presently know them, would not exist. It's only because of the "fine-tuning" (I really dislike that term) of this universe that carbon based life was able to flourish. My question is: would you say your views fall in line with the Anthropic Principle?

Finally, I understand that you see these well-ordered laws as evidence that a conscious Creator put these laws in place so that humankind would come to pass, but if tommorrow, scientists proposed a cosmological model that showed how, before the Big Bang, everything was chaotic and there was no natural law, and the BB threw the universe into these natural laws, would that tinge your belief of a Creator? Or would you feel that the Creator used the Big Bang to form order out of disorder for his creation?

In closing, this whole discussion has been about why you feel we need a conscious creator to explain the wondrous things we see in nature, but I don't think the question was ever answered (or perhaps, not even asked) of why it needs to be the Christian God. I can make assumptions, of coure, but it's something that I would be interested in hearing from you.

Once again, thanks for your time and keep up the good work on your blog.



At 4/30/2007 01:47:00 AM, Blogger Richard Wade

Hi Mike,
This is a really good discussion. You and Michael James have illuminated your views very well. I would only wish to add one slightly different angle: When you say you see the mathematical rationality of the universe, I think the universe is not rational, you are. Rationality is both a human trait and a human construct. You see the universe through your rational/mathematical filter. The universe is what it is and does what it does. We perceive it through our very strong filters and we project our own version of rational reality onto it.

The human brain is wired to find and respond to faces. It’s what made children crawl toward their mothers rather than to the edge of the cave. So when we see random shapes in nature such as clouds or craggy rocks, we very often see faces, and are amazed by the resemblance to human features. But the clouds and rocks aren’t what’s amazing, we are. We organize chaotic and random stimuli into groups, into patterns and into things we’re fond of. That particular organization isn’t necessarily intrinsically in nature itself; we project it onto nature. We’re also open to the suggestions of other people’s organization. For instance there’s a superstition that airline crashes come in three’s. Once people hear that idea they often perceive the grouping to be true, even though a display of airline crashes on a calendar actually shows a random scattering. So we can pick up the prejudicial filters of others, and then assume that they are universal, and therefore reflective of the universe itself. No, they only reflect ourselves.

The projection of our own rationality onto the universe is similar to mixing up of cause and effect. Once a kid in my 6th grade class was marveling at how wonderfully convenient it is that numbers just happen to fall into groups of tens, and people have ten fingers. He didn’t realize that counting to ten and then starting again is an invention of ten-fingered creatures. If people had twelve fingers we’d count differently, and multiplying by twelve would be the easy one rather than multiplying by ten. The same fallacy happens when people are amazed at how earth is so hospitable to carbon-based life, and they assume it must have been made that way for our benefit. No, it’s not well suited for us, we’re well suited for it. That fallacy is like marveling at how easily the Mississippi River slips underneath all the bridges spanning it. They are getting cause and effect mixed up.

I hesitate to knock out the legs from under your perception of the universe as intrinsically rational, because the alternative that you describe sounds so depressing. But it doesn’t have to be. You say,

“…and therefore the universe really is purposeless, and our human longings have no objective reference outside of ourselves - i.e. no correlation with the way the rest of the world really is. We are simply the tortured products of an absurd and cruel cosmos, desperately looking for ultimate meaning where there is none.”

The universe doesn’t need a purpose, and it isn’t any less wonderful for the lack of one. Our own lives do need purpose because we are purpose-driven creatures, and the inventing of purpose for ourselves is to me an exquisitely beautiful thing. My purpose, to be of loving service to my family and my fellow man is vivid, solid and immensely satisfying. I’m an incorrigible do-it-yourselfer, and “meaning” is one of my ongoing projects.

We’re not entirely “the tortured products of an absurd and cruel cosmos.” Life is full of suffering and full of satisfaction too. The universe is punctuated by dangerous events separated by long periods of relative safety. We are the descendants of superb survivors. We can do better than stay alive, we can BE alive.

The “desperately looking for ultimate meaning where there is none” is such an unnecessary source of suffering and frustration simply because the search is usually for something outside of life, outside of the universe. It’s right there in front of you where you have built it, Mike. In the smiling eyes of your wife and daughter, the laughter of your friends, the companionship of your church community, and the gratitude of the people you have selflessly helped. Your purpose is rich and diverse, full of innumerable possibilities.

Consider the possibility that the a-rational, (not irrational) purpose-free universe is not so gloomy a prospect simply because of the genius of purpose-inventing human love, imagination and humor.


At 4/30/2007 10:08:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Hey Richard,

Very interesting thoughts. Very "postmodern" actually. ;-) I agree to a degree. Actually, you seem to be making two points: that we project our own rationality onto the universe and that we project our own desire for purpose onto the universe. The latter very well could be true, the former, I think, can only be true to a degree.

It is indeed true that we often impose our own categories of knowledge and science onto nature, and yet there must be some actual correlation between our "filters" and the way things really are, or else how could science be so effective at producing airplanes and vaccines and televisions and pretty much anything else. You say that the universe just "does what it does" and yet if what it does wasn't inherently mathematical then how could we possibly find equations that so perfectly fit what it does? If it is only we, and not the universe, who are rational, then why should our equations "work"?

For instance did we just invent E=mc2 or did we discover it? And if we did discover it (i.e. discover something inherently true about the universe regardless of whether we had discovered it or not) then we are still left with the question of the universe's "incomprehensible comprehensibility".

As for your second point, that we have imposed our own desire for purpose on the universe - that is a very real possibility. As I said, I don't discount that that is one valid explanation. We are purpose-creating beings as you say.

And yet I'm still left with the question of why beings like us exist in the first place. If the universe really is a-rational and purposeless as you say, why would such a thing produce rational and purposeful beings like ourselves? It's this question that leads me to believe that there is a correlation between how we human beings are and the way the world is. It's not a confusion of cause and effect so much as a choice of which you think is the cause and which the effect.

But I could be wrong. It may very well be that all we have is proximate, not ultimate, meaning.

However, I should clarify that by "ultimate meaning" I am not necessarily talking about something "outside the universe" as you say. I still find meaning in all those things within this universe that you mention (i.e. my wife, my daughter, etc.) What I'm talking about is a meaning beyond myself. Something bigger than just myself - a sense that we are all part of a story that is going somewhere, and that this story isn't just our own creation. I think all human beings have longed to be part of this big story throughout history - and as much as you (or other atheists) say that it doesn't exist and has to just be created by ourselves, that advice isn't really helpful to those of us who still desire something more. That is why I use words like "tortured" and "absurd". "Get over it" just isn't effective advice for those of us who still feel the existential angst of wanting our lives to have some ultimate meaning.

Of course wishing doesn't make it so, but I don't think it's irrational to suppose that maybe (and only maybe) we feel such existential angst because there actually is a larger purpose in the universe. Maybe the existence of this hunger for something "more" within us, is itself a hint that something "more" - i.e. something that can satisfy this hunger - also exists - just as the existence of biological hunger suggests that something like food exists.


At 4/30/2007 11:39:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Hey Michael,

Sorry it's taken me a while to get back with you. Julie was on vacation down in your neck of the woods, so I was spending most of last week trying to get caught up on things at home without her and Emma around to distract me.

You asked about the Anthropic Principle - I guess there's a relation, as you say, but that wasn't really my point. Even if humanity didn't exist, or if the laws of universe were different in such a way that human life couldn't exist, we'd still have the question of why there are laws in the first place. (Assuming, as I argued with Richard, that such laws exist and operate whether we discover them or not.)

You also asked:
"...if tommorrow, scientists proposed a cosmological model that showed how, before the Big Bang, everything was chaotic and there was no natural law, and the BB threw the universe into these natural laws, would that tinge your belief of a Creator? Or would you feel that the Creator used the Big Bang to form order out of disorder for his creation?"

It's an interesting question. I guess I'd have to say that even on your scenario the basic question of why the Big Bang would produce a rational universe (or why the Big Bang would happen at all) would still remain. Even if the universe has always existed and was only "formed" at the Big Bang, it would still be a reasonable possibility to infer an "outside" Creator that directed its formation.

(Interestingly, some Jewish and Christian theologians have suggested this possibility as well, based on the first few verses of Genesis 1 which describe the earth as "formless and void" before the spirit of God spoke into it and brought order from chaos. Either way - pre-existing chaos or creation ex nihilo - I don't see that it affects the underlying question of why we have order and not chaos.)

You also asked about how I get from the existence of a Creator to belief in the Christian God (no, that question wasn't part of the original discussion). That's a huge question! There are so many factors to it that I'm honestly not sure how to answer.

I guess first I'd want to clarify that I don't believe in the "Christian" God, if by that you mean a God that is exclusive to Christian belief and is contained by Christian theology. If a Creator God exists then I think traces of him/her can be found in every culture and every religion - including Christianity - and I don't think our attempts at describing him/her should be limited to only one set of descriptions.

And yet I do believe that this Creator God who can be found everywhere, is also the same God told of in the Bible - the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob (and Ishmael) and the God of Jesus and the Apostles.

Why? Again, there are personal, experiential reasons, and there are also philosophical reasons. The philosophical journey is a step by step progression of considering the various alternatives and deciding that the God of the Bible resonates most deeply with me. (I'd actually recommend Brian McLaren's book "Finding Faith" for description of part of this journey.) If God exists, then I would hope him to be a God of compassion, of justice, of love, of grace - and a God who is not just distant and disconnected, but one who is intimately involved with his creations; i.e. a God who fights for the poor and oppressed, who encourages the downtrodden, and with whom we can have a relationship. But also a God who is wild and untameable and not always easily reducible to our descriptions or our expectations of what he should act or be like. I believe that is the God the Christian faith ultimately points to. (Though again, that's not to exclude the validity of other complementary descriptions in other faiths.)

And more specifically, when I look at Jesus I see a reflection of what I think that God is like. I am a Christian primarily because I have been attracted to the person of Jesus and want to follow in his way of love and justice.

I guess what it comes down to is that even if it isn't true, it ought to be. If God isn't like that, then even if he exists, I'm not sure I want to follow him.

Or, as Puddleglum put it in The Silver Chair:

"Suppose... suppose we have only dreamed and made up these things like sun, sky, stars, and moon, and Aslan himself. In that case, it seems to me that the made-up things are a good deal better than the real ones. And if this black pits of a kingdom is the best you can make, then it's a poor world. And we four can make a dream world to lick your real one hollow.

As for me, I shall live like a Narnian even if there isn't any Narnia. So thank you very much for supper. We're going to leave your court at once and make our way across your great darkness to search for our land above"

I'd say the same thing: "I want to follow the God of Jesus even if there is no such thing. And I'll keep searching for him in hopes that perhaps there actually is."

Anyhow, there's a lot more to my reasons for being a Christian than just that (more, I think, than just wishful/hopeful thinking) but that's one answer.



At 4/30/2007 06:13:00 PM, Blogger Richard Wade

I really appreciate your indulging my argumentative nature. This is fun, although exhausting.

You point out correctly that we can understand much of the universe with mathematics. But to further say that the universe is therefore “mathematical” is jumping to a conclusion. It’s often regular in it’s behavior, so mathematics, a human invention can be used to our advantage. But to say that it is mathematical and thereby implies that a great mathematician is behind it is not a logical sequence. The fact that we can count things does not mean that they were made to be countable.

Regularity is not rationality. Rationality is a very human way of seeing regularity. Many things in the universe seem to follow steady and repetitive patterns. Tides flow, seasons change, planets orbit. To a casual observer it seems like the elegant celestial clockwork of Newton. But not all of the universe is like that, and none of it is like that over a long period of time. Much of it is chaotic, non-repetitive and unpredictable. We tend to pay attention only to the repetitive parts because we can take advantage of knowing ahead of time what will happen; when to launch a boat, when to plant a crop, etc. These repetitive patterns we say are governed by “natural laws.” (an unfortunate term, implying a law-giver) I would prefer “likely probabilities.” The apparent precision of these patterns breaks down when we take a closer look. Days, months and years seem to tick by with regularity, but in actuality the moon slowly spirals out away from the earth, the tidal forces slowly lengthen the days, and the earth slowly spirals in toward the sun. Eventually tides will not flow, seasons will not change and planets will not orbit. So if we only look at big things over short periods of time, the universe seems well ordered. If we also look at very small things over long periods of time we see it’s also very messy.

I think you’re saying that human minds are rational because they come from a universe that is rational, and the universe is rational because rational human minds have come from it. Forgetting the circular nature of that argument, let’s assume for a moment that is correct. Even so, it’s still a leap of faith to assume that the universe is rational because a bigger rational mind created it. This is not a 1,2,3 sequence of logic. You are creating God in your own image by attributing a very human trait to the universe. If you don’t really believe that God is an old man with a flowing beard and two legs, then why do you insist that he must have this other very human trait, rationality?

To think that the universe is possessed of a mind or spirit is from my point of view just really really big animism. It’s the same as believing in spirits of trees or rocks, just a much larger scale. I’m not making fun of that; maybe that’s really what you are saying. I’m only arguing with the method of your argument.

When you ask why would an a-rational, purpose-free universe produce creatures like us, so obsessed with rationality and hungry for purpose, I answer, well why wouldn’t it? The small things don’t have to resemble the big things, and the latest doesn’t have to resemble the oldest. This planet has produced hundreds of millions of species, most of which have come and gone. More than one species of big brained primates existed alongside our ancestors. We’re the only ones left. Rationality is just another trait that may or may not help us survive. (I’m not fully convinced it’s such a good idea for species longevity.) Billions of billions of other planets probably have simple life forms, and a few may even have things that think in their own way. They may recognize some things in nature the way we do, but their form of “rationality” might be utterly bizarre to us. Look at how odd and perplexing you and I can seem to each other, and we’re of the same species, even the same culture.

I don’t necessarily say that an ultimate meaning does not exist. I only say that your argument that it does is not sufficient. Using ourselves and our fondness for rationality is not acceptable evidence because it just starts circular arguments. Saying that humans longing for a meaning/purpose bigger than their own self-defining implies the actual existence of that bigger meaning/purpose sounds like saying if you can dream something up it must exist somewhere. Well I can dream up the complete lack of an ultimate meaning. So does that make it so too? One of us has to be wrong if we’re going to stay rational. I don’t use that argument because it’s the back door to the circular ones. The fact that you and I can both exist in the same universe suggests to me that our rationality does not flow inexorably from a rational background nature of the universe, because we can both use our rationality to come up with opposite conclusions. If rationality is not universal, then the universe is not rational. It’s amazing, it’s beautiful, it’s in the short term predictable and we can often manipulate small parts of it to our advantage, but to say that it thinks, or that it was thought out by a thinker is well, beyond rationality.

I don’t take the harsh stance of saying “get over it” to people who seek an ultimate meaning. I used to be one. I would very much like to believe that the universe is rational and has a purpose. But I see where such belief eventually takes us. Another trait of humans is our very long childhood. We never get completely out of it. Most of us invariably turn our concepts of even the most abstract Overmind into a parental figure who will watch over us, protect and guide us. This tends to keep us immature. We never become fully adult, and childlike people with access to huge sources of energy are very dangerous. I cannot ethically participate in an inward behavior that so often results in destructive outward behaviors, but I remember how comforting it was and how difficult it was to extract. So I don’t say with a disdainful tone, “get over it,” I say with respect, compassion and humility “we can grow beyond that just as we have grown beyond other things.”

All this is a long-winded way of saying that I reject anything that smacks of anthropic arguments. Those promote a vanity and arrogance that is destructive to man and Earth. Whether one is saying that the universe resembles us or we resemble the universe, it’s implying that we were made for each other. Uplifting ourselves to so lofty a status has produced very regrettable outcomes. Mankind is both as noble and as base as he chooses to be by his choices of conduct.

You finish by stating that “maybe” these things can be so, and I can agree with that. Just my “maybe” is more like wellll maaaybeee. There are unfortunate possibilities that could come from both the ways we see things and good possibilities too. Maybe we’re both missing most of it. I like to counter Einstein’s “incomprehensible comprehensibility” with the idea of “incomprehensible incomprehensibility.” That’s an incomprehensibility that is beyond our comprehension.

We can probably both agree with Haldane's Law: “The Universe is not only queerer than we imagine; it is queerer than we CAN imagine.”


At 4/30/2007 07:08:00 PM, Blogger Richard Wade

You were posting your latest response to Michael James while I was writing my above comment. Much of what you say to Michael answers and clarifies what I was addressing, so please don’t think that you have to repeat yourself entirely. (whew)

One thing that I want to say is about the last few remarks you made to Michael about wanting to follow the God of Jesus even if there is no such thing. I can deeply respect that and I fully approve of that. That is a very courageous stance. From my perspective of emphasizing real world work to help people in the here and now, you are doing God’s work, whether he’s there or not. As far as I’m concerned that’s what’s important. Similarly I support following the way of Jesus in his loving of people and care for the poor and downtrodden regardless of his divinity. That from my point of view is entirely beside the point. Please keep doing what you do.


At 5/12/2007 04:03:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

This question is fallicious. Belief is not voluntary. When presented with information, you either believe it or you don't. You don't choose to believe something.


At 5/12/2007 04:54:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Socrates? Is that you?


At 10/11/2007 07:42:00 PM, Blogger MCpastor

I love it when pseudo's start fictionalizing Genesis 1. I mean... c'mon... Yeah, God is going to start out His story with something we can't really believe? Wow, amazing.

Makes me wonder if they believe the cross was literal. Why in the world would God offer a non-literal explanation of the crewation of the universe.

Sorry, but this sociological theology is a little to much for rational people to handle.

By the way... nothing is more Modern than the questioning of the reality of Genesis 1. It is almost the standard of Modernity. Post-moderns don't care, and emergents are riding the fence.

BTW, Mike, your posts are interesting enough to bring me back ;)


At 1/28/2009 08:56:00 AM, Blogger Mike L.


I clicked through to this from your recent "best of" list. I love your blog and your thoughts have really helped me, but I firmly disagree with the false dichotomy that you've setup here. Both options your presented are, in my opinion, horribly misguided.

The fact is that there IS a "knock-down argument" for the way science now understands the origins of the universe and the evolution of life. That doesn't mean all the detailed pieces of the puzzle are in place, but it does mean we have enough pieces to see what is going on. I think it does a great disservice to Christianity to present it as an either or choice between two bad options.

Much the way Brian McLaren explains the problems with our linear theological warfare (picking the sweet spot on a line between the polar left and the right), the answer is not on that line. Our answer is not in either of these positions or anywhere between. The answer is "above the line". Your two points ask the wrong question. I suspect that is because of a lack of understanding of evolution and origins of the cosmos and/or a over simplified notion of what a "God" might be.

It is a mistake to see evolution as an "accident" or "random". It is also a mistake to assume that if God exists, it must exist as a human-like being.

I hope that makes sense. I'm curious to know if your opinions have evolved on this issue since you first wrote this blog entry.


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