Thursday, March 4, 2010

Are gods real?

It's a big question. It needs a big answer.

Thomas Jefferson said that ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them. What he meant was that you can't discuss an idea until you have thoroughly defined it. The problem with the question, "Are gods real?" is that no one has really settled on the definition of "gods". Sometimes people are referring to the fictional characters of ancient Greek myths. Sometimes they mean Yahweh, the god described in the holy writ of the Jews, Christians, Muslims, Rastafarians, and a few others. Sometimes they mean a sort of non-descript benevolence in the universe.

Without first deciding what you're talking about, this kind of question is unanswerable. Unfortunately, the more you try to decide what you mean by "god", the more slippery the concept becomes. For example, say that by "god" you mean the aforementioned Yahweh. What does it mean to ask whether Yahweh is real? Does it mean "Is Yahweh a truly supernatural being who can suspend the laws of nature as we know them?" Or does it mean "Is Yahweh a perfectly natural product of the universe who just happens to have excellent technology, and perhaps a brain structure that makes him naturally far more powerful than we?" These two questions in particular show another problem: there is no way that humans could distinguish between a supernatural being and a very powerful natural being, which again means that the question is ultimately unanswerable. We could meet Yahweh in person, and allowing that he (it? Who says that our intuitive notions of male and female would apply to a supernatural god or an extraterrestrial?) is powerful enough to alter reality (or just alter our minds to perceive reality differently), we could never know whether he is a god or not, and therefore his existence and presence even before our very eyes could not be used as a basis for answering your original question.

Even if we could nail down the question as, "Is Yahweh, as precisely identified in the bible, real?" we still have a lot of work ahead of us. Do we mean, "Is Yahweh real in a scientifically testable way?" Or do we mean, "Is Yahweh real in a way that we could not test but could still affirm to be true?" Most people would mean at least one of these two questions.

Science has historically proceeded by consensus among people all using the same publicly available knowledge and mostly the same set of intellectual tools for determining truth. Most scientists and laypersons who subscribe to the scientific method consider the possible evidence for Yahweh to be sketchy at the very best, and conclude that there is no compelling reason to believe that Yahweh is real in any meaningful sense.

Also, many people who examine Yahweh closely via the bible find him to be quite the immoral character, especially in the old testament (the near-extermination of all life on Earth in the Great Flood, the near-sacrifice and permanent psychological scarring of Abraham's son Isaac, etc.), and conclude that the bible's claims that Yahweh is loving and merciful prove conclusively that Yahweh cannot exist, simply because his description in the bible is grossly self-contradictory.

If we go with the non-scientific form of the question and just ask whether Yahweh could indeed exist in a way that makes no sense to us whatsoever, then we must admit that the answer cannot take a form that would be of any practical use to us in day-to-day life (one may object that there are spiritual and/or moral implications in the answer, but those points are subject to vigorous debate, so they cannot be discussed usefully here). If a person asks you, "Is it safe to sit in that chair?" then a yes or no answer would be very pragmatically useful. The person asking could make practical decisions based on your answer. But if a person asks you, "Is Yahweh real in a way that can't be fully comprehended by human understanding?" the answer is irrelevant to any practical decision that could be made. Note that some might say that the answer could help one to decide whether to pray or not, and that would be practical. But the practicality itself of prayer is open to debate; it is not useful to use prayer as an example of practical behavior.

The only other practical benefit of the answer to this question is whether one's relationship with Yahweh determines one's eternal fate. One's eternal fate is definitely not a question of day-to-day existence, but it of course is a very important question, perhaps the most important that any human will ever ask. Therein lies both the use and the meaning of the question, "Is Yahweh, as described in the bible, real?" The real meaning of the question is, "Might I suffer even after my natural death, and if so, is there a way to avoid the suffering?"

It is obvious that this question cannot be answered scientifically, and therefore must rely on the type of mental representation known as "faith". Here I'll refer to it as faith-knowledge, to distinguish it from other aspects of faith, such as the trust aspect, as in, "I have faith that you will honor your promises to me." Faith-knowledge is a tricky concept. Some religious believers think of faith-knowledge as a body of proposals that is described in their religious doctrine. Others think of faith-knowledge as something infinitely more fluid than any particular religious doctrine. The only reasonable conclusion that one can make about faith-knowledge is that there is simply no way for any human to claim that his own faith-knowledge is more valid, more true than anyone else's faith-knowledge, even when the faith-knowledge of two persons is completely contradictory. Therefore, faith-knowledge must be a wholly individual kind of knowledge based on childhood indoctrination, personal inclinations, or even conscious choice, therefore entirely subjective.

Therefore, the answer to the question, "Are gods real?" depends on whether you mean per human reason or per faith-knowledge.

Per human reason, the answer is that we don't know, and any facts that might suggest an answer are in principle unusable, as we have no way of distinguishing between a supernatural being and a very advanced natural being. In the scientific, humanistic sense, there is no way to arrive at a meaningful answer in the affirmative. Therefore, "no", or at least "probably not", seems to be the safest bet.

Per faith, the answer is that you must decide for yourself.

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