(This is the second post in “The Rock” series)
The other day, while on some train of thought I can’t now remember, it struck me as suspicious that Christianity is really the only show in town when it comes to monotheism and that monotheism is very definitely not humanity’s default. I decided I wanted to explore these two suspicious-looking facts in a blog post (or two). Suspicious of being true, I mean. Suspicious that the Christian God really is the solution to the “whodunnit” of the universe. Why should monotheistic religions be such a rare find when monotheism looks to me like the obvious solution to “whodunnit”? Why isn’t the obvious humanity’s default? (Well, the Christian explanation offers an explanation for these puzzling facts. It boils down to that Theology of Self I referenced last post.)
There are other world religions that are monotheistic, so let’s say Christianity and its relatives are the only monotheistic religions (and I’ll try to defend the statement in the next post as well as try to explain why I find Christianity the only solid option among the monotheistic religions.) For starters, however, I’d like to do a brief comparison of all the other wider belief systems outside of monotheism and show where I find them lacking (which is why I think it should strike us as odd that monotheism has not been our historical default).
Throughout history, pantheism has been one norm—All is God, and God is All. The other norm has been polytheism—the belief that there are a plurality of gods. And the latecomer, atheism (no-god-ism), has in recent times been putting up a brave struggle for its existence.
Let’s start with atheism as the bottom rung of the ladder of belief systems as the most basic of them all (as defined by present-day atheists). The modern internet atheist evangelist likes to dodge the burden of proof by defining atheism as simply the lack of a belief in God. But this lack leaves such a vacuum for human nature to abhor that it inevitably must fill itself with some kind of explanation for our reality. In our modern understanding, atheism generally manifests as materialistic naturalism—the belief that all is matter and energy, space and time, and there are no realities beyond the purely natural. Why would I, personally, discard naturalism as a viable explanation for our reality? For starters: science. The discovery that the universe most likely had a beginning put a serious damper on atheistic hopes. Science relies on the principle that all effects must have a cause. The universe cannot be a self-causing effect. Something does not pop into existence out of nothing. This fact is the very basis of all science.
So if the universe began—if the universe is an effect—then it must have had an outside cause. This cause must have existed before the universe if universes do not pop into existence out of nothing. But if something cannot come from nothing and from nothing nothing comes, then in order for anything to exist now, something has always existed. Something must be eternal. It doesn’t appear to be our universe. It doesn’t look like it’s the space, time, matter, and energy that make up the universe. If the universe had a beginning.
Then, once scientists began learning about the fine tuning of the universe in the constants of physics and how unimaginably precise these constants had to be in any inhabitable universe, the cause of the universe began strongly to look like a superintelligence. And the proposed workarounds to the necessity for this superintelligence as the cause of the universe are not science but science fiction—pure speculation. And these speculations have many weaknesses in themselves.
There are innumerable difficulties with a kind of multiverse generator creating infinite universes, and in fact, treating “infinite” as a mathematical proposition, capable of existing in any sort of concrete or physical way, quickly turns nonsensical. “Infinite” just cannot be treated as a real number without making unconquerable madness out of it. (And if one’s best rebuttal to the “fine tuning” argument is, “Well, the fine tuning is only incredible to us because we’re here to notice it. If it hadn’t worked out, we wouldn’t know about it,” one should probably just admit defeat.)
Some committed materialists do admit defeat. To a degree. Not to the degree of admitting to a creator. But to the degree of denying the reality of reality.
There’s a “scientific” notion making a serious comeback called “the Boltzmann brains” which is a nod to the inherent problems of the universe creating itself. The “Boltzmann brains” idea is an admission of the impossibility of our universe creating and fine tuning itself by pure luck. Rather than embracing the concept that an entire finely-tuned universe could pop into existence out of… who knows what… quantum fluctuations perhaps… some chap named Boltzmann decided it was vastly more likely that brains do. Brains pop into existence and then imagine all the rest.
And to Mr. Boltzmann (whoever he is), I say, “Why a brain, Cousin?” Really? A physical brain? The organ of the brain? Random quantum fluctuations producing the brain? Like, a disembodied, spaghetti-like mass of jellied grey and white matter? Why, though?
Presumably, all the years of learning of anatomy through dissecting bodies and all historical science generally is all illusion and false memory in this notion, so why would the brain be real at all? This organ that we know about only through imaginary science? Why not say quantum fluctuations produce some sort of momentary conscious experience without attaching the baggage of the physical organ of a brain? Except, of course, according to Boltzmann, we only conceive of quantum fluctuations because of those same illusions and false memories of eons of history of scientific research. So rather, why not take the next logical step? Why not decide that everything outside of consciousness is illusion, and we (if there is more than one experience… whatever “we” can possible mean in this scenario) can’t know where it came from because “we” can’t get outside the illusion, so science is an illusion?
This is where we are led. This is the inevitable conclusion. At least my inevitable conclusion. The only other acceptable alternative outside of a personal, creating intelligence is, “Everything is illusion.” Which is logically consistent and possible, at least. But, “All is illusion,” equals, “All is confusion.” We just can’t know reality.
In short, the egomania of a “science” that pigheadedly refuses to accept the possibility that any realities may be beyond the reach of science produces nothing except the death of science. Anti-God “science” leads us inexorably to, “Everything is illusion.” In other words, anti-science. Anti-God science is anti-science. The legs atheism purports to rest on are kicked out from under it by the belief system depending on it for support.
So let’s climb off that broken bottom rung of atheism and move next to primitive humanity’s default position: polytheism. Is polytheism a likely option that matches what we now know about reality? It’s an old, popular idea. But again, the more we learn about the universe, the less likely polytheism begins to look. Think about what we call it: the “uni-verse.” The word itself is a commentary on the unity through diversity we see our greater reality imbued with. Our physical universe is a symphony with many different instruments playing their parts in harmony, not a cacophony of many different competing compositions by many different competing composers. Scientific discovery is likely the reason traditional polytheism has fallen out of fashion. No, the universe does not seem to have been caused or to be ruled by many competing gods or even many cooperative gods with all their separate domains. Polytheism just does not look like the best explanation for reality, either.
In fact, Mormonism (which teaches that, while our planet only has one head god, the universe is populated with innumerable gods, all ruling their own individual spheres, and that faithful humans can someday join their number) is the only modern example of true polytheism that comes to mind. I don’t believe there is a coherent and cohesive explanation for the coherent and cohesive nature of the universe to be found in Mormonism.
But now we have the also very ancient but now also new and trendy polytheism of pantheism. We can all be god in this view. But there is no real plurality of gods in pantheism. The plurality is illusion. All is One, and One is All. All is God, and God is All. God is not somehow distinct from the universe. God is the universe. And everything in it.
Because All is God and God is All, the “god” of pantheism is an impersonal one. (There are variations that leave room for a personal god of sorts, but these would be considered panentheism—God is the universe and yet … something beyond, as well. Let’s consider panentheism a mix between pantheism and monotheism and sort it out later when considering the monotheistic options.) The god of pantheism is impersonal because, well, All is not personal. A rock is not personal in the sense of having awareness, an individual experience, a sense of self, an “ego” as it were. So if the rock is just as much “god” as I am by virtue of its having existence, then the “god” of pantheism cannot be personal.
But I rule out the god of pantheism in all its various flavours, ancient and modern, on the basis of its impersonal nature. “God is All, and All is God,” is exactly synonymous with the statement, “All is All, and All is All.” Practically, we are no further ahead with this kind of “god” than with atheism. What difference does it make that all is all? Who cares that the universe is the universe? This may give us a warm, fuzzy feeling of spirituality of some sort, but it gives us no explanations at all. With pantheism, we are left with no causes for the universe if the universe had a beginning as science tells us. “All” could not cause and create itself. “All” still cannot pop into existence out of nothing just by calling it “god.” If science has any value at all, if the law of cause and effect (the basis of science) is fact, then pantheism leaves us with no more explanation than pure, raw, materialistic naturalism. We are no “forrader” if “god” is impersonal. An impersonal God could not will a universe into existence. Purpose implies personhood; intent implies intelligence; meaning implies mind. The only out for the pantheist is to deny the science that tells us the universe had a beginning and that what begins must have a cause. Reality is not what it appears. (Again, “All is illusion.”)
And consciousness is a problem that any denial of a personal God leaves unanswered. If the cause behind the universe is not personal—not conscious or self-aware—why are we? What possible explanation for consciousness can there be if there is no consciousness back of the universe?
Materialistic naturalism tells us that our awareness is really just matter experiencing itself somehow (we’re not sure how), and the common New Age teaching (the most popular version of pantheism in my culture) would agree. Pantheism then goes further and teaches that our matter needs to let go of its experience of itself. The goal is to empty the mind—to decrease self-awareness, to lose the sense of self, to blur the ego into the great, amorphous mass of … All.
This line of thinking, if taken to its logical conclusion, would teach us that a rock (or any other inanimate object) is the ultimate example of being. By virtue of its unawareness. I reject any belief system that teaches me to think that becoming a rock would be a promotion. The old idea of my individual cup of water becoming more its true self by being poured back into the ocean is simply fallacious. “I” will have ceased to exist when “I” no longer know myself as myself. If I become god by becoming “one with the universe,” by losing all awareness, “I” will have ceased to exist. There would be only “All” and no “I” at all if “I” is not somehow differentiated from “All.” There’s no explanation for the beginning. And there’s no hope in the ending. And there’s just no evidence for its truth. There’s no good reason to accept pantheism—other than that it sounds pretty and poetical. (And it gives the illusion of perfect autonomy.) But no evidence-based reasons, I mean.
So that brings us to monotheism as our last option—the idea that one, separate, ultimate, eternal, self-existent, self-aware, wilful, intelligent, personal reality is responsible for all the rest of reality.
Why is this option so hard for humanity to swallow? I think one emotional objection to the idea is that it’s too obvious! We look at ourselves as unique individuals—as selves with an awareness of self—and think God can’t possibly be of the same nature—that God can’t possibly be a unique individual self with an awareness of self. It seems too childish, too predictable, too prosaic. Too much like something we would come up with by just looking around at reality and ourselves and our own experiences.
Are we made in God’s image, or did we make God in our image? The latter is the accusation directed toward those who give in to the obvious and accept the reality of a personal God.
The odd thing is that the obvious solution is not humanity’s default (as I hope you’ve been seeing through this discussion). We don’t want the obvious. We want “god” to be much more esoteric. We crave secret, hidden knowledge. We want “the least likely suspect.” We don’t want the apparent to be real (as it, in fact, usually is—outside of fictional stories).
Let me set this emotional objection at rest. Don’t worry! There is plenty of room for a personal God to be surprising. While the obvious is usually true, it is also usually a lot more complex than it first appears. The obvious may be true on the surface and then go on to have miles of layers below the surface.
I remember one time reading a statement on this subject made by a scientist (in a magazine I can no longer lay my hands on, so I am quoting from memory). He blustered that science exists to show us that what seems obvious isn’t true. After all, can’t we see just by looking that the earth is flat? Isn’t it apparent that the sun moves around the earth? But what is obvious in these cases is wrong. Science exists to correct such misperceptions.
And yet, the two exceptions the scientist dredged out hardly disprove the rule. They show us that what appears obvious can sometimes be misleading. But he neglected to mention all the other scientific facts that humanity has always accepted as obvious that are, in fact, true. Humanity has survived and arrived and thrived by acknowledging the obvious as true. We’ve known for a very long time where babies come from. Modern science gives us more knowledge on the subject, but certain assumptions have always been made about pregnant women. We’ve always known that we need to eat food to survive. Science tells us more about calories and nutrition and what our bodies do with the food we put in them, but we’ve always known we needed food. We’ve always known that falling off of high things hurts. Newton came along to explain why this is so in the form of his law but not to contradict the basic knowledge we’ve always had.
A scientist stating boldly (and absurdly) that science exists to show us that what appears obvious is false makes one true thing obvious: this particular scientist’s bias. We have a bias against the obvious: a personal God back of the universe. It’s a good idea to try to overcome a bias if we can start to see that the bias may be misleading us.
So there’s the briefest explanation I can muster of why I reject the other belief systems outside of monotheism as false. Let’s get around to that comparison of all the various branches of monotheism. Next post…