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Wed, 13 Oct 2010

Why There Very Probably Is a God - but Not the Kind Some People Want

Richard Dawkins' atheistic book The God Delusion contains a chapter titled "Why There Almost Certainly Is No God." The title of this post is a takeoff on that title, but my title ends with a curious phrase. This post won't be just another critique of The God Delusion. I've already written such a critique in a set of earlier posts. In this post, I want to make a point about the concept of God - a topic that I've discussed a lot, but perhaps not enough.

Not every believer in a Supreme Being thinks of that being as a supernatural creator. In The God Delusion, Dawkins defines God in such a way that only a supernatural creator of the universe can qualify as God. Actually, some religious and spiritual teachings have embraced belief in God while also denying that God is supernatural or that God literally is the creator. A Supreme Being doesn't automatically have to be a supernatural creator.

Dawkins' chapter "Why There Almost Certainly Is No God" gives an argument for the unlikelihood of a supernatural creator. Here is my own take on the likelihood of a Supreme Being.

To start, I'll mention some preliminaries. (I recommend reading all of these preliminaries. They might not be leading where you expect them to go.)

Most of us believe that there are real values in the world. These include, at very least, moral values. We think that some events are good, while others are bad, and still others are neutral (neither good nor bad). Many of us also believe that there are real aesthetic values in the world. We think, for example, that some sunsets are beautiful, or that the starry sky or the sea is beautiful. Scientists often feel that the underlying logical structure of the universe - its harmony and its system of mathematical laws - is fantastically beautiful. Some people may argue that beauty is all "in the eye of the beholder." However, as I've argued elsewhere, the fact that the recognition of beauty depends on an observer does not imply that beauty is unreal.

People often disagree about what has value - about what is good or bad, or what is more beautiful or less beautiful. People also often disagree about the origin of values; there have long been debates about whether values have a purely natural origin, and about whether the mind plays a role in constructing values. However, most of us agree that there are real values of some kind. This central idea is more important than all the disagreements over details.

To believe that there are no real values is tantamount to believing that nothing truly matters and that no wrongdoing, however abhorrent, can rationally be condemned. I doubt that anyone fully accepts this, both in theory and in the practice of everyday life. I doubt that any thinker who claims to believe that there are no real values really does believe it, fully and in practical day-to-day terms. (How does this thinker behave? If he even tries to stay alive, he's denying his own position through his actions.) The assumption that something matters or is worth doing - which implies that there is a value of some kind or other - is as much a part of our basic knowledge as are our sense experiences. This knowledge is independent of any theory of how values work, whether values are mind-independent, or where values come from. Given that this knowledge exists, the assumption that there are real values of some sort is a very plausible assumption. We might not be able to make a probability estimate for this assumption, but speaking qualitatively we can regard the assumption as at least very probably true.

If there are real ethical or aesthetic values of any kind, or any other real values, then these values share a common property. This is the property of being a value, or of being a good quality in a very broad sense. (By "good" in this context, I don't mean just morally good. I mean "good" in the sense of having real value or true worth.)

In my earlier writings I showed that if this common property exists, then there is an entity that accurately can be described as the most perfect entity or as a supremely good being. I won't repeat the argument here; it's available at this link. I want to emphasize right away that this argument has nothing to do with the idea of a God who enforces values on people. The argument does not even prove the existence of a supernatural creator, or of anything supernatural, or of a universal lawgiver of any sort. (Those are all separate issues.) The being in question would be a vast totality composed of known natural items and their abstract logical and mathematical features. This being would not include anything supernatural, unless something supernatural already happened to exist. (However, this being is not - I repeat, NOT - just nature or the universe renamed as God. I am not proposing an atheistic pseudo-pantheism here. For the details, read the original argument.)

This line of argument discloses a being that embodies and encompasses all that is good and beautiful - all that we can admire, idealize and love. Is this being a person? Perhaps not - but still it has features normally regarded as mental and spiritual. Though not a "person" in the conventional human sense, this being is more like a "someone" than a mere "something." It even encompasses personality in an indirect way, through its logical relations with persons like us.

Is this being God? That's a matter of how you define the word "God." Let me just point out that the notion of God as supremely perfect being is much more important to the real Western religious tradition than is the better known idea of God as supernatural creator! As I've pointed out elsewhere (here, here and here), there is more than one idea of God. Most ordinary good-hearted believers seem to have two different concepts of God without realizing it. Despite this ambiguity in the notion of God, the idea of a supremely perfect being is the most important idea of God. Many Western religious thinkers have defined "God" in just this way - as a perfect being, or a greatest logically possible being, or some similar definition that adds up to supremely good being. Many (probably most) of these thinkers also believed that God is a supernatural creator, but this was not their definition of God. Most religions today involve supernatural belief, but the concept of God can exist without supernaturalism. Some theists might not be comfortable with that fact, but it remains a fact.

The existence of real values in the world - even of values with purely natural origins - implies the existence of an entity that answers to a classic definition of "God." (Once again, the argument is at this link.) However, there is absolutely no guarantee that this being is supernatural. Further, this being does not "create" the universe in a literalistic, humanlike manner - though the being can be regarded as the source of all things in a more abstract way.

As far as I am concerned, this being is God. It embodies all good, is worthy of our highest love, and (though not literally a person) is partly mental and spiritual - making it more of a "someone" than a mere "something." This is the kind of God that very probably exists. By "very probably" I don't mean to imply a quantitative estimate of probability. I just mean that the existence of this being follows from very plausible assumptions. These assumptions are the existence of objective values and of the common feature that I mentioned earlier in this post.

What does all this tell us? Just that there very probably is a Supreme Being - but not the kind that people might want. Theists might be unhappy with this concept of God because it's different from their usual personal and supernatural concept. They might find this idea of God blasphemous. Atheists might be unhappy with this concept of God because their arguments against a supernatural creator are powerless against it. They might find this idea of God frustrating.

Maybe no one will be happy with this idea of God. Except, of course, the poet who feels the presence of God in the vast meadows, the mighty ocean, and the infinitely mysterious sky. And the lover who is so awed by the presence of the beloved that only the language of the divine and the perfect can describe the experience. And the mystic who discovers in the depths of the mind a God so vast that the ideas of "person" and "supernatural" are simply too small to fit it. All of these visionaries might find this new/old concept of God more congenial than the conventional theistic one. And from the standpoint of reason, they very probably would be right.

posted at: 21:28 | path: /religion | persistent link to this entry


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