Proof of God: Introduction (2)


My first task is the hardest: what is a god, anyway? A definition of something acts like the foundation of a building. Everything is built upon it, so if the definition is even slightly loose the entire thing could topple over at the slightest touch. The sheer variety of religions suggests a single definition of god is impossible.

Which is why I’m using two:

God: Something which can or could perform an action which is, or was once considered, impossible to duplicate by any entity that is not a god under any circumstance.

God: Something which can or could perform an action which is, or was once considered, contrary to the physical laws of the universe.

To save my poor typing fingers, I’ll nickname them “practical” and “theoretical,” in order of appearance.

Obviously, I must spend some time challenging and probing my definitions for weakness, otherwise you’d have little reason to take them seriously. I’ll have to get a little philosophical at times, but I’ll try to keep it to the bare minimum needed for this roast. The end goal is to ensure these definitions meet three criteria: they will not call a non-god a god, they will not call a god a non-god, and if there’s uncertainty in the definitions we’ll find disagreement in real life as well.

I’ll begin with a triviality: is an orange a god? Both definitions talk about actions, not objects, so they might seem ill-suited to the question. Oranges occupy a space and time, however, reflect a certain spectrum of light, and have an outer skin that protects soft, juicy innards. All of these are actions, even though an orange performs them passively. So we can apply both definitions by cataloguing all the attributes of an orange, transforming them into actions, and adding these new passive actions to the list of active things an orange can do.

“Theoretical” says oranges are not gods. For each that has been studied, all have followed the laws of the universe. You might get smug and point out this isn’t proof that every orange is so obedient, and you’d be right. Why, then, aren’t we hurriedly searching every orange for this potential violator?

The answer comes from, of all places. a monk. William of Ockham’s[4] original phrasing of this principle doesn’t quite roll off the tongue:

Numquam ponenda est pluralitas sine necessitate

[Plurality must never be posited without necessity]

Fortunately, in the intervening centuries other authors have developed variations that are much easier to understand:

If two or more theories explain something equally well, the theory that makes the least assumptions is the most likely to be correct.

The “simplest” or least assuming answer is usually the correct answer.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.[5]

I lean on Ockham’s Razor pretty heavily, so I’ll spend some time defending it. Let’s consider two theories:

  1. In the next hour, a meteor will crash down from above and smack your foot.
  2. In the next hour, nothing special will happen.

As of now, you’ve got no way to tell between the two theories and no way to tell what will happen. Should you start piling pillows on your foot?

Let’s break both theories down. In order for the first one to be true, we need:

  • A meteor to be on a collision course with Earth.
  • Said meteor to be coming in on a trajectory aimed at where you’ll be in an hour.
  • Said meteor to be large enough for at least one part to survive re-entry.
  • Said meteor piece to have enough energy to break through whatever structure is currently above your head.
  • Said meteor piece to travel through the atmosphere and architecture in a path guaranteed to hit your foot.

For the second one to be true, we depend on:

So while both theories may look identical right now, one requires far more extraordinary events to fall into place. It makes sense say that the first theory is unlikely to happen, even though we can’t put a number on how unlikely it is to happen, and even though we have no proof that it won’t happen. This is Ockham’s Razor in a nut-shell; it’s a heuristic or guide to what’s worthy of consideration, which deals with theories that have equal amounts of evidence going for them, based on the assumption that the most likely thing to happen will most likely happen.

This is not Ockham’s Razor:

According to Occam’s Razor, the simplest explanation or the one with the fewest assumptions that explains the facts is to be preferred. Creation makes one assumption—that God is who He says He is in the Bible—because if this is so, then He must have done all that He said He did. This adequately answers all the problems of origins posed above.

Evolution has many assumptions and none of them provides an answer to anything.

According to Occam’s Razor creation wins!
( “Occam’s Razor and creation/evolution,” by Russell Grigg., retrieved July 31, 2012)

What’s wrong? While it’s true that biological evolution relies on several assumptions, all of those are fairly simple and easy to show in real life. Evolution does not require the existence of a god, at all. In contrast creationism, or the theory that a god created the universe, depends on the existence of a god merely to make sense. That would have far-reaching, profound effects on the entire universe, and thus counts as an extraordinary assumption.[6]

To properly use Ockham’s Razor you need to do more than just count assumptions, you also need to consider their relative likelihood and their net effect on the world too. A long string of probable events beats out a single improbable one. A vast number of small changes to the world are more likely to happen than one big change.

Back to the orange problem. We have two theories: an orange that violates the laws of the universe is lurking out there somewhere, or all oranges obey the law. If the first one is true, then we have to assume that at least one orange is special, in that it can bend laws that appear rigid according to every test we’ve thrown at its boring peers, while those peers, and indeed everything else we know of, is not special. If the second is true, we’ve made no further assumptions; the very term “law of nature” implies that there are no exceptions, so we’re already covered. Ockham’s razor tells us a frantic orange search is unnecessary, for now at least.

“Practical” is less clear. My interior is soft, but not juicy, and I don’t reflect the same kinds of light, so an orange can already do two things that I can’t. Note that “practical” uses the word “any,” however. An orange tree can bud out a fruit that will eventually become an orange, and so can duplicate one. You might retort that you consider orange trees to be gods, thus saving the orange from being robbed of god-status, but I can counter by replacing the genome of some other seed with an orange’s and letting it grow. We wind up in an arms race, declaring more and more things to be gods until we run out of things, and at this point I’m all too happy to give in. After all, everything is a god when compared to nothing.

Ah, but perhaps I misinterpreted the question. Instead of asking if “any” orange is a god, we should consider if “that” orange is a god. Now you’ve pinned me; quantum mechanics puts a hard limit on what we can measure, so even if I tried to recreate a specific orange atom-by-atom, I could never perfectly duplicate it.

Fortunately, I don’t have to. “That” orange is an abstraction. Bits of the orange are constantly flying off into the environment and vice-versa, so the atom-by-atom definition of “that” orange is different from moment to moment. You can only come up with a useful definition by ignoring those changes, so my reconstruction doesn’t need to include them either. The same logic applies to the quantum fluctuations I was worried about last paragraph.  You might argue that I don’t have the technology to build an orange to the detail required to suit your definition, but “practical” placed no time limits or restrictions on what I could use. I’m permitted to take the age of the universe and use every atom within it in my efforts.

Both definitions have survived oranges, but what about the colour orange? “Theoretical” easily pins this as a non-god, since no definition of orange can be made without reference to light, which itself obeys the laws of the universe.

“Practical” is not far behind. I simply ask you what objects you consider orange, analyse the light coming off them, and duplicate it via some other object. If you instead want orange as defined by everyone, I simply repeat this procedure for everything that can detect a colour called orange and rig up something that matches every definition, on a thing-by-thing basis if need be.

Time for something trickier. In 1983, in front of a large crowd and a huge TV audience, the magician David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear. Removing a 225 tonne, 47 metre high sculpture is an impressive feat that puts many religious miracles to shame. Does this act make Copperfield a god?

Both definitions say no. Magicians do not honestly claim to bend space and time to their whims, or that they alone are capable of their feats. It’s all just a trick, even if that trick took years of training and no other magician alive now or ever could duplicate it. So long as it could be matched by another magician with sufficient time and space on their hands, “practical” argues that this conjurer should not be a god, and “theoretical” reached the same conclusion long ago.

Consider Thor next. He’s a Norse god that can control the weather. Tens of thousands of people believed in him a millennium ago; now, even those who’d like to revive the old Norse mythology don’t take that ability seriously. He’s still considered a god, despite this. Both definitions are careful to include forgotten gods, and controlling the weather seemed both unachievable and impossible to historic Vikings. Again, we reach the expected conclusion.

In Tripoli, Lybia on May 2010, a plane crash killed 103 people but spared one 10 year old boy. The Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, thanked God for saving this child. Surprisingly, he gave no reason why God did nothing for the other 103 people on the plane. Other theologians have thought more heavily and tried to explain why the Christian god can appear so lazy or fickle. Even if they are correct, it’s clear the Christian God can refuse to act. Both definitions permit this and pass the latest challenge.

Deism is a tricky case. There are only three central tenets to this religion:[7]

  1. God exists.
  2. God’s only action was to create the universe.
  3. Only god can create a universe.

This god is a bit cold and sparse compared to the compassionate, active gods of other religions, but there’s still clearly a god there. It’s not clear whether this god is or was, though, since it must have existed before the universe, and may only exist before time began.[8] Both definitions are fuzzy about when and where actions happen, so they still work on this odd god. “Practical” is nearly the twin of the deist god; both divide everything in two, and claim one group can do something the other can’t.

Surprisingly, “theoretical” is less clear-cut. Deism says nothing about the conditions before the universe, so its god could have acted entirely by the book. The third clause provides an escape; since nothing within this universe can duplicate the deist god’s feat, “theoretical” can declare it to be a god relative to the universe you’re reading this in.

It does make you wonder what the simplest possible god could be, however. Deism whittles it down to a only three beliefs; could we cut one out?

Statements two and three are compliments of each other, placing a wall between god and everything else, so for now I’ll treat them as one. The first statement must stay, because if we don’t know whether god exists the second and third statements make no sense. If the second and third statements go, we lose the grounds for claiming the first. The property of existence is unique, since it is only assigned to something that already has other properties. We can say a kitten exists because it has soft fur, or it is an infant cat, but if all you knew about kittens was that they exist, you couldn’t use that information in any meaningful way. You’d never be able to verify I was telling the truth. You couldn’t find a kitten, even if you were feeling the soft fur of an infant cat while thinking over places to look.

Worshipping a thing that you could never interact with, or know if it had interacted with you, is nonsensical. Gods must do more than merely exist.

Dropping the second statement but keeping the third is also senseless. If only a god can create universes, and we live in a universe, then something like statement two must be assumed anyway.

Things get interesting if you drop claim three. A thought experiment will help show why.

Suppose you look up from this book to find a space alien sitting in front of you. It politely raises a tentacle and says “hi;” you politely faint and scream, though not necessarily in that order. With those pleasantries out of the way, Alien A explains how it got there. A million years ago, it was carefully frozen and placed on a giant ship hovering above its home planet, tens of light-years from Earth. That ship slowly plodded across the vast distance, gathering energy from the random junk in between stars, and once in a few aeons raising Alien A from stupor to let it repair the damage caused by a few cosmic rays that wiggled through the ship’s shields.

Just as Alien A finishes its tale, Alien B appears next to it, seemingly out of nowhere. After more pleasantries, B explains how it got here: in the far future, it learned how to manipulate space and time. Due to the laws of the universe, it guiltily adds, nothing else can or will do the same.

Is either alien a god?

A few would claim the first one is. If you were to explain the physical and engineering challenges faced by their race, however, most will change their minds. Why? On the face of it, Alien A is far more advanced than we are, and thus able to do things we can’t. However, the Voyager space probe is travelling faster than that alien’s ship. We know of animals that can suspend all activity for years, survive freezing temperatures, and repair their genome after having it blasted to bits by radiation. We have power sources that can last that long, and can build things in space to save us from lifting everything against Earth’s gravity. In short, while we can’t arrive on Alien A’s doorstep at the moment, it’s plausible that we could drop by later. Once they realize that we could duplicate the alien’s feat, most of those who called it a god would change their mind.

Here we find matching ambiguity in “practical” and “theoretical” as well. Alien A seems to be capable of something that nothing else can do, at first. As we examine the facts more closely, however, we realize that Alien A’s trick could be done by us “in practice,” and so change our minds.

On the other hand, we find that while Alien B’s skill is forever beyond our practical abilities, it could be done by anyone else “in theory.” The two definitions of god conflict, creating ambiguity.

This tale of two aliens has a real-life counterpart: pantheism. In that tradition, “god” is taken to mean the entire universe.  “Practical” agrees with this declaration; the “non-god” portion of the universe is empty, and thus incapable of doing any action the “god” portion can get away with. “Theoretical” disagrees, since by definition this god obeys the laws of the universe. The ambiguity is mirrored in real life. Some atheists, most notably Richard Dawkins, regard pantheists as poetic atheists who can’t give up the word “god.” At the same time, both Taoism and Christianity were initially very pantheistic, while Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam all have sects that take pantheism to heart.

I can’t conclude without sharing the most troublesome case for my definitions: kings and queens. The first ruler to claim a “divine mandate” might have been an Egyptian some five millennia ago, but the documentation is too sparse to call it.[9]

Most of us are more familiar with the European rulers and Asian emperors of midæval times. The majority never claimed to be gods, content to “merely” act out the divine plan.

Even the Egyptian Pharaohs fall into this category: they claimed to be descended from the gods, and would become gods upon death, yet were only messengers while alive. Gilgamesh, one of the first and beet known god-kings, was only declared divine after his death.

True human gods are rarer. Naram-Suen of Akkad is the first we know of, but it’s not clear on what grounds he claimed divinity. Neither definition is much help, since the feat of being king or queen is easily duplicated by their successor. These human gods might solve this by claiming to be reincarnations of some deity, but this doesn’t explain how their successor can be alive at the same time without ruling as well. I’m content to dismiss this corner case by claiming these rulers are “gods” for purely political reasons, and don’t see them as much challenge to my definitions.

I hope I’ve convinced you those two definitions are reasonably robust and future-proof. Which one you choose as the ultimate definition is a matter of opinion, but at least all opinions fall somewhere between the two of them. In the process, I’ll have removed the objection that a god cannot be defined, and at least weakened the argument that I haven’t considered every possible god. Time for the next objection:

[4]  His last name has a number of spellings. “Occam” seems to be the preferred choice of Merriam-Webster, but even “Hockham” is considered kosher. There’s also evidence that Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas

[5]  This invokes the Razor from the opposite side, when too many assumptions have been thrown into the pile.

[6] Not buying it? I go into far greater detail in my chapter on the Teleological/Design proof, which hopefully will be enough to convince you.

[7] I’ll admit I’m abusing the term “deist” here. Most deists add additional claims, for instance that reason is a divine gift, and that a god does intervene in an entirely mechanistic way, with no personal element. Since those claims are quite similar to what most religions already propose, I’ve stripped my definition of deism down to a minimum to make it a greater threat to my arguments.

[8] I’m using “begin” in a very loose sense here. I have no idea if time exists “outside” the universe or space existed “before,” and my brain is unable to cope with a timeless space-less expanse (see?), so I need to abuse a word just to attempt to explain a concept. The worst part? I know it’s doomed to fail.

[9]  For good reason: writing had just been invented, by the Egyptians!