What does it mean to say “God Exists”? That was what I examined Sunday afternoon on The Atheist Experience. The statement is brief–only two words. It should be simple, but for some reason, it’s always disproportionately hard.
What is god? Every theist seems to know. Yet no two theists seem to agree. And no one theist seems able to communicate it in a way that actually provides any real, informed data.
I think it’s safe to say a concept of god can exist in any mind. But most apologists put forward that god is not merely mental concept–an idea; god is, rather, existent outside the mind. Despite the often used refrain “god exists like love exists,” I have yet to meet the theist who will then declare that god, like love, is a mental concept with no external referent–solely an idea. God does not exist like love exists, to theists, when you explain how love exists, and ask them if this is what they mean by “god.”
I have been told on air that god is “ultimate strategy,” and tonight someone told me god is “the set of all [logical] possibilities.” What does this mean? I agree there is a set of logical possibilities–but how does that constitute a “god” any more than the set of all ipods constitutes a god? I’m less willing to agree there is such a thing as “ultimate strategy.” I have actually witnessed many times when there are equally efficient strategies for achieving any given goal. But even if there is a most efficient strategy–again, how is that a “god”? This might provide me some shred of information about an individual theist’s concept of a god–but it gives me no data about any god that exists outside this theist’s mind.
Without a god to compare to the theist’s idea, I must acknowledge no real information or data about a god has been provided to me. If a theist claims god is “ultimate strategy”, and I cannot examine god, then I understand his idea of god is “ultimate strategy”–but is there an existent god that actually is “ultimate strategy”? Telling me about an idea of god does not provide me with data about a real, existent god. And our argument is not about anyone’s concept of god. As I said, I fully agree that a person can have a mental model of a god. No one needs to convince me of that. But if a theist is claiming god is more than an idea, then providing me with more and more information about his idea of god helps me not at all. Explaining his idea of god does nothing to support the existence of a god outside his mind.
If his idea of god cannot be verified as correlating to any “god” in objectively verifiable, existent reality, then his idea of god cannot be said to be a god until some external referent can be provided with which to compare his claims. I don’t doubt the theist has an idea of god. I understand that he clearly does. What I doubt is that there is an external referent, “god,” to compare to his claims about his idea. I doubt that his mental model exists in any way outside his own mind.
Meanwhile, there are attempts to “define” god by putting god forward as the cause of particular effects. “God is the creator of the universe,” is one common example (but “the Bible” or “manifestation as Jesus” would work just as well). Ask this theist, “if we examine the universe to determine the cause, and it turns out to be a singularity–is that god to you?” You will find that is not god to the theist. So, “god” is not whatever the evidence asserts is the cause of the universe. God, to this theist is a preconceived concept that exists regardless of the actual cause of the universe. If a singularity turns out to be the best model of what caused the universe, but god, I am told, is not a singularity–then this helps me not at all to understand what it is this theist is calling god. And I am only confused now by his claim that god is what caused the universe. Going back to an earlier point, without a god to examine, I have no idea whether a god is at all connected to the production of any universe, holy books, manifestations of Jesus or prophets, miraculous events, or anything else we can drum up. What is this theist calling god, then? I have no idea.
There are also those who define god as “nothing.” God cannot be measured. Cannot be examined. Cannot be verified. Cannot be known or understood by mere mortals. God is transcendent, supernatural (and what does that mean?), outside time and space. In other words, god shares all the same attributes in objective existence as “nothing.” Except that god is “something,” insists the theist. God is exactly like nothing–except god is something. Not helpful.
In fact, definitions of “god” are as unhelpful as they are confusing. And the only external referents we are given are insufficient, to be kind. Intuition and instinct are often defined as evidence of “god” guiding believers. In my earlier post about Jung’s book “Psychology of Religion,” I discussed his reasons for pointing out that the subconscious mind is more than sufficient to explain why most people who believe in a god, believe in a god. Alternately, claims of miracles are sometimes provided. In fact, on the program, a woman claimed that several years back, she had an indeterminate mass in her chest one morning. She never went to a doctor, so we have no idea what it was. She prayed. It was gone the following morning. Ergo god. I feel no need to critique this “miracle,” as I trust any reader’s capacity to identify the problem here.
I don’t doubt such experiences. However, I’m highly dubious of the presumed interpretations and implications that people place upon them, unfounded.
In the end, I have no idea what any of these people mean when they say “god.” And explanations of what “exist” means only appear to cause more trouble.
Humans use the term “exist” in normal conversation to mean “manifest to humans”–to be somehow measurable in a way that is perceptible to human beings. If I say to you, “give me an example of an existent item,” you will, no doubt, point out something that clearly manifests. Certainly some things are more difficult to make manifest to us than others–but the things that we can measure–difficult or easy–are the only things we can legitimately toss into the group we label “existent.” And, again, just to clarify, I’m not referring here to the existence of ideas–but of the objectively verifiable items we think of as being existent outside our minds.
How do theists tell the difference between existent and nonexistent items? Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? We all are called upon every day of our lives to perform this task. People who can’t perform it are sometimes locked away–considered too defective as human beings to function properly in reality. But never, under any circumstances, underestimate the power of a theist to confuse the simplest of things if they conflict with his belief in god. Don’t get me wrong–existence itself is a real wonder. I’ll be the first to agree that I’m amazed at the idea that I am “here.” I’m confounded by the properties of light. I have no idea what causes matter and energy act on one another as they do. But as odd and wonderful as existence can be, is it incorrect to claim that we can tell the difference between that which exists and that which does not exist? If we can, how can we? If we cannot, then how can it mean anything to say that any item or entity exists?
This is a fair question–and one I was repeating often on the program. But at a pivotal point, with a caller on the line, I failed to address it. Alisha called to talk about “The Void.” Apparently god is a physics model called “The Void.” Alisha is going to send us some information so we can look into this for ourselves. “The Void,” according to Alisha, is the set of all possible items. Somehow, we reached a later consensus of “logically possible” items. But, when pressed as to whether she believed in a god or not, she said it was possible. “All things are possible,” she quickly added.
My first failing was in not pointing out that not all things are possible. As I had noted earlier, logical impossibilities can be formed. There are no married bachelors. I might have asked Alisha how much she believes her own statement. If I drop a lead weight off a building on a normal day–does Alisha think we can predict accurately whether the weight will float away like a soap bubble or fall to the ground? Or is she unsure what the weight will do–since all things are possible?
Carl Sagan once repeated a quote that it is fine to keep an open mind, but it may not be wise to keep your mind so open that your brain falls out. Did Alisha mean that at the singularity, we cannot say what is and is not possible? I don’t know, because she didn’t mention the singularity. Did Alisha mean that relativity and uncertainty and subatomic behavior wreak havoc with our physical “laws”? Perhaps. That was my initial assumption. But should I have to assume and guess at what someone means? If a theist expects to communicate an idea, and he is unclear about this idea–how can he possibly hope to provide an understanding of it to another human being? If a theist can’t explain what he means, he will sound as though he is saying he doesn’t understand what he believes. And if that is the message, how can he then ask me, not only to share that belief, but to even comprehend it?
But I missed a golden opportunity. We asked the caller if she believes fairies exist. Her response was “It’s possible.” OK, I understand her framework. No matter how farfetched I make the example, I am going to get “it’s possible.” While this may be an interesting philosophical thought, is it not the case in reality that we operate as though certain possibilities are not possible, and that others are so probable that one would be a fool to doubt them? For example, there may be an invisible, pandimensional vehicle in the middle of my lane as I’m driving forward on the highway. Should I swerve to avoid it–since it is possible the cars on either side of me will not be impacted by my car as the mass of my vehicle moves through them effortlessly? Philosophically, we can acknowledge this is possible. Realistically, however, will it work? Does anyone who holds to this philosophical claim walk the walk in their life outside of their god claims? Not that I’ve ever seen.
Did my brain lock up? I’m not sure. But the next question I should have asked was “is there anything you are willing to acknowledge does not exist?” At this point I can only wager a guess–since I didn’t ask. But based on her response about the fairies, I’ll wager that Alisha would not be willing to state conclusively that any item-X does not exist. I do not think that is an unfair characterization of her mindset during our discussion. All things, after all, are possible, to Alisha. She cannot, therefore, say they do not exist. Gods, fairies–sky’s the limit.
Alisha scores a brilliant gold star for consistency. However, she presents a major dilemma for the claim “god exists.” What does it mean to exist in a reality where nothing can be said to NOT exist? If we cannot differentiate between existent and nonexistent items–does it mean anything to claim that any item-X “exists”? Rhetorical as that could be, let me answer for clarity’s sake: No.
In order for Alisha’s god to “exist” requires “exist” to be redefined to include all items–whether they actually exist or not. In other words, it’s the same as defining “red” as “all colors–whether they are red or not.” If we accept that, does it then mean anything anymore to call something “red”? No. It doesn’t.
I missed my chance to exercise the point of my presentation live and on the air. And I couldn’t have asked for a more serendipitous opportunity. My only excuse is that when presented with claims that are unfamiliar, unclear, and that defy my experience with reality, it is sometimes difficult for me to wrap my brain around them in the present moment. And it is only later, after some consideration, that the bizarre contortions of logic that were used become clear.
“God exists.” Three callers later and I still don’t have a clue what I’m even being asked to believe.