Saturday, October 13, 2007

Spero: Question 4, take 2

Q: What do we mean by God?

A: At some level of the Universe more fundamental than our own, there exists an entity which is omniscient and omnibenevolent with regard to our universe. That is, it knows everything there is to know about our universe and wills what is good, without exception, for everything in our universe. This entity is God.

Omniscience, and therefore omnibenevolence, will be limited by the amount of information coming from yet more fundamental levels of the Universe, unless it is also true that God is the fundamental self-existent uncreated thing upon which everything else is dependent.

God can interact with us as a person, although what God is really like is as unknowable to us. This person is not a face put on by God, but is a valid ‘cross section’ of God, like the Sphere in Flatland being able to interact with A. Square as a circle.

This is the point that winstoninabox said he wanted to hear more about- in those happy days of long ago when the world was young- the intersection between God and Man.

I hold two ideas which sit somewhat uncomfortably together and make it hard for me to get hold of how this works.

The first idea is that we obtain all our information about the Universe through sense impressions, so that God must interact with us through the universe. In every instance of God interacting with us there will be material causes in the universe that make material changes in our brains.

The second idea is that the universe as we see it has the properties it has because of interactions between God and free-willed entities more fundamental than we are. God would not by fiat alter the properties that have arisen because of the free decisions of these entities, because that would make a mockery of their free will.

Thus, God acts only through the rules of the universe He has constructed, and can only interact with us- transient emergent phenomena emerging from the interactions between more fundamental beings- when the freely willed actions of those more fundamental beings allow. So I am stuck saying on the one hand that we cannot tell what God is like by observing how the universe is, but on the other hand that we do not have any other means of obtaining information.

I think the only way out is not to restrict ourselves to the means of knowledge that are ‘at our disposal’, but to consider also the means of knowledge that are not at our disposal: our observations of how the universe ‘ought to be’ are just as much part of the universe, even if they are not verifiable, as our observations of how the universe ‘is’. Hence the importance of the unwieldy term ‘physico-psychical’ in the quote below:

Just as long acquaintance with a man of great character may greatly influence one’s whole manner of conduct ... so if contemplation and study of the physico-psychical universe can imbue a man with principles of conduct analogous to the influence of a great man’s works or conversation, then that analogue of a mind- for it is impossible to say that any human attribute is literally applicable- is what he means by God.” (C. S. Peirce, ‘The Concept of God’)

I first read this a while ago and did not agree with it, but after thrashing around unsuccessfully looking for a better explanation I have read it again more carefully and think that I do. Though this contemplation of the universe will always be looking ‘through a glass darkly’, we should still see features in the universe which point us towards God. I think these are:

* The morality, C. S. Lewis’s ‘Tao’, which we seem to share.

* Our sense of the numinous which William James made so much of.

* The fact that science actually works, which ought to keep us all in a state of continuous total amazement.

Beyond this, I would suggest that God communicates with us through apparently chance combinations of events. God can hold the whole universe in His mind the way we can hold an equilateral triangle, and see that if these uncountable trillions of fundamental particles here, and here, and here can be persuaded to take various actions {N1, N2 ... Nlots}, it will present a particular set of circumstances to a particular transient being such as you or me. Since God is continually active in the universe in this way, maybe it would be true to say that all our experiences are experiences of God, if we chose to interpret them in this way. If these experiences make us feel like we ought to behave as though God exists, then we ought to.

How can we have an idea of God which is consistent with the reality of God? Putting things in terms of Peirce’s four ways of making our ideas clear:

* We could just stick to whatever ideas we happen to have, come what may.
* We could try to conform with the ideas of the people around us.
* We could define some a priori rules.
* We could make a study of our own and other people’s experiences.

I think in this particular case authority and experiment are uniquely conflated as ways of knowing. If we try to abstract the things that are common to human experience of God, it is hard to get anything much except the ‘Tao’. Therefore I am going to propose only one a priori rule, that we should respect this largely common moral teaching of humanity, and seek to hold an image of God that conforms with it.

In the absence of evidence outside our own experience of God, we have a duty to hope for the Best God Possible. We know (or think we know, or hope) that there is such a thing as Good. The Best Possible God will therefore be perfectly Good, and that is the God we should seek.

I hold that this omnibenevolence is the critical characteristic of God. (Omniscience is only necessary because in order to act towards the optimal outcome in a system, you need perfect knowledge about that system. Omnipotence is incapable of definition.)

An Omnibenevolent God will desire us to do any small thing that is good, but will not be satisfied until we are perfect.

What father is not pleased with the first tottering attempt of his little one to walk? What father would be satisfied with anything but the manly step of the full-grown son?” (George MacDonald)

So if anyone tells us either that God will reject our first tentative moves towards good, or will ultimately be content for us to remain as something less than perfectly good, we should ignore what they say.

I worked with a Mormon once who was quite scandalized by the idea of deathbed conversions.

‘You have these Mafia people who spend their whole lives doing horrible things, then on their deathbed they repent, and that’s okay, they go to Heaven? Where’s the justice in that?’

This opinion is to be rejected because it is in conflict with omnibenevolence.

If the authority of very many Saints and Prophets tells us something is wrong, while our conscience can see nothing wrong with it, then the omnibenevolence of God suggests that we ought to swallow our pride and accept that ‘the white we see is black’, because progress in goodness can only mean becoming more good.

If on the other hand we voluntarily wish to reject something that our Saints and Prophets have historically had no problem with- e.g., owning slaves, or eating dead animals- we may possibly be right: Ignatius Loyola never said that we had to accept that ‘the black we see is white’.

If there is anything in our inherited idea of God that suggests He is not omnibenevolent- such as, for example, the idea that non-believers will be subjected to eternal torture;
or the idea that He just happened to create a world full of pointless animal suffering-
then we must reject these ideas and try to interpret our observations of the universe, or the probable reality behind what authority has told us, in a way which does not call God’s omnibenevolence into question. We must cut away from our idea of God anything that we would consider unworthy behaviour in a human. How much more would such behaviour be unworthy of an omnibenevolent God?

Following the principle of omnibenevolence is one way that reason can give us a clearer picture of God. Ultimately, experience of God is the only way to know God. Here, reason can also help us to form a clearer picture of God by considering the experience of other people, since as individuals we are such a tiny sample of humanity.

If our idea of God is in conflict with our personal experience of God, either our idea of God is flawed or we have misinterpreted our experience of God. Authority- the cumulative experience of God and the ideas about God developed by those who have gone before us- can help us to judge whether we have interpreted our experience of God correctly. Finding out what other humans think about God, and their experience of God, will always be valuable. Do we behave in a similar way because of our experience of God as other people who have had experience of God? Is there something obvious we have missed? If we maintain a respect for Authority, and are very very reluctant to contradict any of the Prophets, we will be most unlikely to end up like Thomas M√ľntzer or Jim Jones.

1 comment:

winstoninabox said...

I'm still here and I'm still reading.
Thanks for still writing.