THE EXISTENCE OF GOD
Earlier, we discussed the effect that the Big Bang cosmology has had upon the scientific perspective of the possible existence of God. Indeed, the response of scientists was polarizing. Astronomer Geoffrey Burbidge of the University of California at San Diego expressed concern that many of his colleagues were dashing away to join “the First Church of Christ of the Big Bang.” In fact, Burbidge’s own work involved the creation of an alternative theory to the Big Bang which we will discuss as a part of our examination of cosmology.
As Burbidge saw, the Big Bang theory certainly allows for – perhaps implies -- creation of the universe by a supreme being. However, it tells us very little about the nature of that being. Religions through the ages have had much to say about God’s nature. It would seem natural to summarize the development of theology at this point, but doing so presupposes a particular worldview that is not universally shared. Some people through the ages have believed that the history of humankind records continuous, gradual progress: growing development in bodily capabilities, knowledge, socialization, organization, and even theological understanding. “Gradual Progress” is the view of most historians. Other people, including the adherents of some very significant religions, posit the existence of a prior “golden age” from which humankind has gradually fallen. In this latter view, prehistoric views of God – not necessarily those suggested by archaeologists – are closer to the truth than most modern views. Thus summarizing the development of theology would require that we can all agree that theology has progressed, not retrogressed, during known history.
Therefore, let us discuss views of the nature of God without reference to any chronological frame of organization. We can do so by examining significant characteristics that at least some people attribute to God. This examination will inform our later examination of the science/religion dialog.
The Nature of God – Creativity
Having begun our discussion with the implications of the Big Bang theory, we can begin a discussion of God’s attributes with the ability and/or desire to create. Virtually all monotheistic religions, as well as non-theistic religions that do not identify their supreme creative principle as God, consider creativity to be God’s most basic attribute. This creativity of God is almost always assumed to be “ex nihilo” (from nothing); in modern scientific terms, God’s creation of the universe ex nihilo would mean that all matter, and in fact space-time itself, were/are created by God.
The Nature of God – Goodness
To those brought up in one of the Semitic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), the goodness of God is presupposed as a basic tenet, even though individuals may simultaneously hold beliefs about God that analysis reveals to be incompatible with goodness as ordinarily understood. Useful definitions of goodness include (1)moral excellence, virtue; (2) kindly feeling, kindness, generosity; (3) excellence of quality; (4) the best part of anything; essence; strength [http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/goodness]. Some Christians affirm that God is good, but that God’s goodness is of such an order that humans are incapable of comprehending it; thus, it may even appear as evil. Buddhism and Hinduism insist that the supreme creative force is neither good nor not-good; since any attempt to define Its attributes ultimately limits our conception of It. The multiple gods of polytheistic religions were of differing degrees of goodness; none was considered to be perfectly good.
The Nature of God – Omniscience
A majority of religious views see God as omniscient, or all-knowing. This has caused problems with the idea of human free will, as we will discuss later.
The Nature of God – Rationality
Many modern people would affirm without thinking that God must be rational. However, closer analysis calls this idea into question. Rational thought falls into two classes: deductive and inductive. Deductive thought begins with basic premeses, then draws logical conclusions which add to the body of knowledge possessed by the reasoning being. Inductive thought begins with observations and organizes them into basic patterns and laws, which add to the context of knowledge possessed by the reasoning being. If God is omniscient, God would have no use for reasoning. It is quite another thing to suppose that God creates according to principles that are part of God’s nature, which allow creation to be understood by rational means.
The Nature of God – Omnipotence
Although limitations on the powers of their gods were certainly permitted by virtually all polytheistic religions, most modern theists would consider that God must be omnipotent or all-powerful. The very old question raised by non-theists, of whether God can create a stone so heavy that God cannot lift it, is still raised periodically. However, this question is not really about God, but about semantics. Language provides us with the opportunity to ask self-contradictory questions. Envision a maker of dyes who advertised the capability of making any color of dye that could be desired. If I then asked him to make me a dye that is so green that it’s blue, my request would quite rightly be seen as illogical and frivolous. The “stone” question is of the same nature, as clearly discussed at [http://www.philosophos.com/knowledge_base/archives_5/philosophy_questions_519.html]. Another common logical error involving the omnipotence of God is the a priori assumption that God must use God’s unlimited power in all situations. But the ability to act does not necessarily entail the choice to act. For reasons that humans may not understand, God may be omnipotent, yet choose not to act in order to serve God’s own purposes.
The Nature of God – Personal
The Semitic religions describe God in personal terms; thus God can be known as Father, Lover, Mother, Friend, etc. In Hinduism, God can be known through mystical union or through God’s manifestations, which are distinctly personal. In Buddhism, the supreme creative principle is not personal in any way, but can be experienced through nirvana.
The Nature of God – Love
Christians, in particular, point to the statement in the letters of John that “God is Love” as the most complete description of God. Some branches of Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism would concur. It must be pointed out, though, that there are four words for “love” in the Koine Greek in which the New Testament was written, and agape, the one used to describe God is most like the Hebrew hesed (or chesed) which is variously translated as “mercy” or “lovingkindness.” This agape love is not primarily erotic, grasping, or even aesthetic, but simply desires the best for the object of love.
Given all these ideas of what God may be like, plus the many sub-doctrines derived from the basis attributes, it seems clear that discussion of God can be clouded by the individual concepts of those doing the discussing. We must be very careful not to include unstated assumptions about the nature of God in our discussions.
A recurring question that influences many people’s belief or non-belief in God is the problem of theodicy: how can evil exist in a universe created by a good God? In order to discuss this question, we must examine what we mean by good and evil. The answer that comes most readily to mind relates good and evil to pleasure and pain. However, a little reflection reveals the weakness of this approach. Hedonism may feel very good, but it can also lead to very unpleasant consequences. Losing a baby tooth is painful, but making space for the new permanent tooth is an undeniable good. Wikipedia provides a helpful note: “the good is viewed to be whatever produces the best consequences upon the lives of people, especially with regard to their states of well being.” However, this definition is somewhat circular, leaving “best” and “well-being” undefined. ( It rather reminds one of a saying of that great sage, Mammy Yokum of Cartoonist Al Capp’s Li’l Abner: “Good’s better’n evil ‘cause it’s nicer.”) Those who adopt the view of earthly life as a school may define good as “that which brings about the greatest positive growth for all concerned.” Philip Atkinson has defined good and evil thus:
• Good is that which improves the community.
• Evil is that which weakens the community
But he goes on to say knowing which is which is a difficult task that can only be accomplished by wisdom. We still do not seem to have found a suitable definition. Those of religious persuasion can say that good is whatever corresponds to the laws of their tradition. This implies a moral absolutism. Those of non-religious persuasions may say that good can only be defined by majority opinion of a society at a particular time: moral relativism. So still there is no unanimity of definition.
Another approach to defining good would be to begin with particular examples of goodness, then attempt to proceed from the particular to the general, rather than to move from a general definition, as we have been attempting. Almost all people would agree that saving the life of a child is good, as is teaching others so that they can better meet their physical needs. These examples share the characteristic of helping others in the sense of maximizing the potential for satisfaction and fulfillment in the lives of other people.
Most religions espouse a tenet similar to “the golden rule” – treat others as one would like to be treated by others– and quite probably the vast majority of non-religious people would also consider this advice as good. Epicurus advised moderation in all things, as did Gibran. It may be noted that moderation excludes some of the more egregious examples of “pleasant-but-not-good” things, such as gluttony, thereby bringing pleasantness modified by moderation more closely into parallelism with good. The effect of adding moderation to our concept of good is to extend the evaluation of the results of an action to the long term, since most “pleasures of immoderation” are short-term by nature. When we add the consideration of the human community – local and remote – to these concepts, perhaps we can define good as “that which increases the long-term pleasure, satisfaction, and fulfillment of all people concerned.” More specific definitions are often found to depend upon one’s particular worldview.
As an aside, our difficulty in defining good without reference to a particular worldview emphasizes the genius of the Lawgivers in helping to define good in helpful way for the general populace in times of less advanced socialization and education. The Ten Commandments and the Noble Eightfold Path have provided specific guidance for many generations.
If we now have an acceptable definition of good, how then can we define evil? Evil can be defined passively, as an absence of or a perversion of good, or actively, an opposition to good. Evil can be defined absolutely by the religious ( even by those whose religion is humanism) as anything contrary to the tenets of the religion; indeed, the religion of political correctness provides a clear example of a secular religion that so defines evil. A more subjective view of evil would be that anything that goes against conscience is evil. This view presupposes that conscience is present and similar in all people, which is demonstrably not the case. The idea of conscience itself is fraught with difficulties: is it inherent in a person? Genetic? Socially induced? Many religions teach the idea that evil originates in human consciousness and as such is already morally defective even before it is manifest in the physical world. Does the designation of an act as evil presuppose volition? If I accidentally harm another person, is that evil, or is evil intent necessary for the designation evil? Does the evilness of an event depend upon one’s viewpoint, so that the killing of a vicious dog that is attacking a child is good from the viewpoint of the child, but evil from the viewpoint of the dog? Is there a moral calculus that says that the good of the many outweighs the good of the few, as explored in the Star Trek Movies? Recognizing that probably a definition consistent with our earlier definition of good must of necessity leave some open questions, we may define evil as “that which decreases the long-term pleasure, satisfaction, and fulfillment of some of the people concerned.” The percentage represented by “some” probably cannot be quantified in any systematic way: if a group of masochists torture a victim, then from a materialist viewpoint, a majority of the people concerned have increased pleasure; and if these people are deficient in conscience or are sociopathic, they may even have increased long-term pleasure. Yet I suspect that very few materialists would consider the torture anything but evil. Non-materialists generally believe in continuity of life (there is more to life than the physical), so the long-term pleasure of the masochists would not be increased; thus for them there is no problem with our definition.
Three other points about evil seem apropos. The first is that, contrary to the behaviorally-expressed beliefs predominant in our society, physical death is not the ultimate evil from the non-materialist viewpoint. Modern societies spend vast effort and resources in an attempt to delay physical death as long as possible, to the point that the most common reason for personal bankruptcy, and the largest expense item for many national budgets, is medical costs. There is the feeling that any cost and effort are justified in an attempt to prolong physical life. Yet if there is continuity of life, whatever awaits us beyond this physical experience is unlikely to be worse than the experience of a moribund person. And many materialists assert that the non-existence that they suppose follows physical death is preferable to continued suffering.
The second point is that some thinkers divide evil into two camps: that due to human causes, and that (so-called “natural evil”) not due to human causes. In this thinking, hurricanes and tsunamis would constitute natural evil, which may logically be of different causation than evil caused by humans.
The third point is that, as permitted by our definition, some seeming evils may ultimately have good results. Those that do not have such results are often called “gratuitous evil.”
Hindus insist that good and evil are co-necessary polarities: one cannot exist without the other. The yin/yang emblem of Taoism expresses the same idea. In this view, evil is a part of consciousness, and when it is manifested in the material world, it serves the purpose of allowing consciousness to explore itself. Experiences that are regarded as evil simply result from ignorance through which humans accept illusory physical manifestations (maya) as real.
This understanding has been criticized as denying the existence of evil, although a careful reading of the Hindu scriptures does not support this criticism. The Hindu understanding is that a thing appears as evil because of the values we attach to it, values which in the play of consciousness are not essentially connected with the thing in itself.
Buddhism sees evil as resulting from human attachment to things, ideas, thoughts, plans, etc. Such attachment springs from and leads to illusion, and hence – as in Hindu thought – to the appearance of evil.
Dualistic religions such as Zoroastrianism see creation as morally dualistic: There is a supreme good power personified as Ahura Mazda (God), and a supreme evil power personified as Ahriman (the devil). These two principles are in perpetual conflict until the end of time at which point the good will win. Some Christians also subscribe to this view, although most think of the devil or Satan as a tempter who was divested of all power at the Resurrection.
The ancient Hebrew religion attributed earthly evil to the fall of humankind, in which the first or prototypical humans broke God’s commandments and thus by the natural laws of consequences and “like begets like”, creation was infected with imperfection. Zoroastrian Dualism seems to have entered Hebrew thought during the inter-testamental period (ca. 420 BCE - early CE). Thus Christianity, though sprung from a monotheistic source that agreed with the ancient Hebrews: “The LORD thy God, the LORD is One,” accepted the existence of a personal agent of evil that they called Satan. This belief was not truly dualistic, though, because Satan was seen not as an independent agent of evil, but as one who, having been created by God, was given free will, which he subsequently misused, leading to the “fall of the angels” which preceded the advent of humans. Thus evil comes from a misuse of free will. In some Christian thought, evil has the purpose of “soul-making”; only by rejecting temptations to evil can humans develop spiritual strength.
The so-called “free-will” theodicy clearly does not apply to natural evil, although the “soul-making” theodicy can explain natural evil as a means of helping humans to develop faith. Non-theists have long argued that the existence of evil, particularly gratuitous evil, disproves the existence of God. The various theodicies explain otherwise. Non-theists now most commonly accept the free-will theodicy, (although as we will discuss later on, some even deny the existence of free will), but point out that it does not apply to gratuitous evil. Theists have several answers, the most common of which is that since we do not know the mind of God, we cannot say with surety that gratuitous evil does indeed exist, however things may appear from our limited perspective. A newer perspective based upon the concept of the primacy of consciousness is that all consciousness is interconnected, and so evil choices and actions by humans ultimately cause earthquakes, tsunamis, etc., even though their proximate cause can be found within the “natural world.”
One argument used by non-theists is, if God is omniscient, he must have known that free will would lead to evil, so why did God allow free will? Answering this question entails examining the nature of time and how that nature intersects God’s omniscience, as well as the nature and extent of free will. These topics will be a part of our next discussion.
A complete discussion of theodicy is beyond our scope, but the interested reader may want to check out:
By acknowledging the importance of theodicy, we have set the stage for later points at which our discussions will impact this topic.