Sunday, February 19, 2017

God as Judge: Heaven and Hell

The Afterlife, Part II, Heaven and Hell
Do the concepts of Heaven and Hell pass the test of reason and justice?

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today
“Imagine” – John Lennon

Please don’t tell what train I’m on, so they won’t know which way I’ve gone.
                                “Freight Train” – Elizabeth Cotton, modified by various folk singers.

Death is perhaps the most unsettling aspect of our existence as sentient beings.  We exist.  As Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.”  We know our existence had a beginning at conception or at birth, although we do not remember it.  And we know that our existence (as we know it) will cease at death, although it may be impossible to actually contemplate our own non-existence. 

The question of what happens at death has been with us for a long time.  Socrates had something to say about it after receiving his death sentence for impiety and corruption of the youth.  Socrates always had something to say.  That was part of his problem.
“….we shall see that there is great reason to hope that death is good, for one of two things: - either death is a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness, or, as men say, there is a change and migration of the soul from this world to another.”

“if you suppose that there is no consciousness, but a sleep like the sleep of him who is undisturbed even by the sight of dreams, death will be an wondrous gain…for eternity is then only a single night.”

“….if death is the journey to another place, and there, as men say, all the dead are, what good, O my friends and judges, can be greater than this? If indeed when the pilgrim arrives in the world below, and he has escaped from those who call themselves jurymen in this world, and finds the true jurymen who are said to give judgment there, Minos and Rhadamanthus and Aeacus and Triptolemus, and other sons of God who were righteous in their own life, that pilgrimage will be worth making. What would not a man give if he might converse with Orpheus and Musaeus and Hesiod and Homer? Nay, if this be true, let me die again and again.”

                                                                                Socrates, 399 B.C. in Plato’s “Apology”
“Apology” is the account of Socrates self-defense in his trial for impiety and corruption of the young, in which he was sentenced to death.

American Views about the Afterlife
Socrates framed the question of what happens at death as a duality; either nothingness, or judgment in another place.  In Socrates’ view, judgment was not given by God, but by men who had been righteous in life.  The question of punishment for the sins of this life is not considered. 

In the 2417 years since Socrates, we are no closer to a consensus about what happens at death.

A large majority of Americans believe in life after death, though the specifics of their beliefs varies considerably.   Somewhere between about 70% and 90% of Americans believe in some kind of life after death.  Only a small minority of Americans do not believe in an afterlife.  There is wide divergence of belief in the details of life after death, with a number of inconsistencies in the range of beliefs about immortality. 

Most Americans (about 80%) believe in Heaven.   Curiously, according to one survey, a higher percentage believe in Heaven than those who believe in life after death.  A smaller number (about 60%) believe in both Heaven and Hell.  A minority group believes that a person exists after death and lives on in a spiritual form in another dimension, but not heaven or hell.  About 50% of Americans believe in ghosts here on earth.  About 20% believe in reincarnation.  There is considerable overlap among individuals’ various beliefs about the afterlife, whether about heaven, hell, a separate spiritual existence, ghosts, reincarnation, or some combination of these.

Dante: Inferno, Purgatory, and Heaven
The Divine Comedy, an epic poem written by Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321), set much of the popular imagery about heaven and hell.  The poem tells of an allegorical journey through hell, purgatory and heaven, as guided by the Roman poet Virgil, and Dante’s life-love, Beatrice.  Each realm of the afterlife is divided into ten circles, representing gradations of sin, circumstance, and merit.  The construct is an attempt to render the afterlife comprehensible from the standpoint of justice.  The simple duality of damnation and paradise is too stark and simple as judgment for the complexity of human experience.  Thus, the souls of pre-Christian philosophers and babies who died before baptism were sent to limbo, in purgatory, according to tradition. 
Illustration of Hell from the 11th century manuscript Hortus Deliciarum (Garden of Delights).

The Christian View of Heaven and Hell
The remainder of this post will focus on the mainstream American Christian belief in Heaven and Hell as destinations in the afterlife.

Jesus will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead.
                                                                -- Nicene Creed
He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty:
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
                                                                -- Apostles’ Creed

It is interesting to note that in the language of the creeds, judgment does not occur at the moment of death, but happens later, at the second coming of Christ.  This is contrary to a common belief about the immediate disposition of the soul at the time of death. 

The ideas of Heaven and Hell are cornerstones of traditional Christian belief.  These beliefs are directly rooted in the teachings of Christ.   In the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, Jesus says that people who ignore the needs of the poor are cursed, and will be thrown “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”.  Jesus also spoke directly of heaven, saying to one of the thieves crucified with him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise”.

The fundamental question here is whether the concepts of heaven and hell pass the test of reason.  Why do we briefly live on earth, if we are to exist for eternity after we die?   And if existence has such an asymmetrical duration, why did God create the realms of life and death? 

The Heaven of the Old Testament is quite different than the Heaven of the New Testament.  The Old Testament (Genesis, Daniel, Nehemiah, Kings, Ezekiel, Exodus, Psalms) describes Heaven as the skies above, and the place where God and angels dwell.  Except for Elijah, who was specifically chosen to rise to heaven, it is not described as a place where humans go after death. 

Heaven in the New Testament is quite different.  Jesus speaks often of heaven, of God the Father in Heaven, and of the Kingdom of God in Heaven.  Jesus tells his disciples that they can aspire to Heaven, although he cautions that rising to heaven is not easy.  Jesus says that unless his followers are more righteous than the Pharisees and teachers of the law, they will not enter Heaven (Matthew 5:20), and says that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God (Matthew 19:24).   

Gustave Dore, Paradise, 1892

But what is heaven, when we get past the cartoons of popular culture -- the pearly gates of Saint Peter and the white-winged angels standing on puffy clouds and holding harps.  What would eternal life be like?  What would it be like after one hundred years?  After the first million years?   After the first billion years?  After the hundredth billion years?  Would any aspect of the human personality persist over such lengths of time?  What is the meaning of eternal life, as promised by Jesus Christ? 

We’ve previously considered the qualities of the human soul, as expressions of the human self: memory, will, self-awareness, thoughts and emotions.  How could these persist for a billion years?  What would remain after these things fade?  Why did God create the realms of life and death, if life in Heaven resembles life on earth?  What does the survival of the soul mean if life in Heaven is different for eternity?  We might consider that the human soul could transform into something else, into a higher kind of being, but for what purpose?  Certainly, whatever might remain after a billion years would no longer be human.  What would such a being do?  What would it think?  Why would it exist, and why would it have begun its existence as a mortal human life? 

Our idea of Hell as a place of fire and torment is drawn directly from the Bible and the words of Jesus.  It is also clear from the words of Jesus that heaven is reserved for only the exceptional few, the most worthy in the sight of God.   What, then, happens to the rest?  By default, they are consigned to hell, or the middling realm of purgatory, as described by Dante in 1320.

Purgatory, Gustave Dore
Theologians and others have spent considerable mental energy in trying to rationalize the justice implicit in consignment to Hell.  Dante’s Inferno is typical of these rationalizations, where different levels of Hell are allocated according to differing levels of sin.  (I have not read Dante, to my regret.)  For example, pre-Christian philosophers such as Socrates was assigned to the relative comfort of the first circle of Hell, because they lived their lives with honor, virtue and integrity, but were not given the opportunity for baptism or salvation.  Dante’s vision of Hell continues in incremental fashion through moderate levels of torment to the deepest levels, reserved for the greatest sins.   Botticelli’s painting of Hell follows this pattern, with the caverns of hell connected vertically by staircases.  Tormented souls lie prostrate along the halls, and the dungeons become smaller with depth.  [The model implies a skewed statistical distribution of wickedness, with relatively mild sinners greatly outnumbering deeply evil human souls.  The model is intuitively correct.]
The Map of Hell, Botticelli, circa 1480 -1490.

But there is limited fairness in this.  Why did God design a world where honorable men had no opportunity for salvation, simply because Christ arrived too late?  

Calvinists take this idea to a horrifying level based on the presumed omniscience of God.  In the Calvinist view, each soul is predestined at conception for either salvation or damnation.  Indeed, since all is known, each soul is predestined for heaven or hell at the beginning of creation.   What kind of justice is this?   What kind of God would call souls into existence, knowing they are doomed for eternal torment and suffering?  What does this say about free will of humans, individual morality and judgment?  What does this say about the goodness of God?  I am reminded of a scene from Disney’s “Fantasia”, during the piece by Mussorgsky, “Night on Bald Mountain”.  The Ukrainian demon Chernobog (literally “Black God”, representing Satan) conjures a handful of flames into beautiful flaming dancing women.   He then torments them through several transformations, each uglier than the last.  Finally, bored with his game, he crushes them out of existence in his fist.   What is the difference between this and the Calvinist view of God, except that the Chernobog eventually ends the torment of his victims, and the Calvinist God torments his created souls for all of eternity?

What kind of God would construct hell?  Do the ideas of Heaven and Hell pass the tests of reason and justice?

An Eskimo hunter asked the local missionary priest, 'If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?'
'No,' said the priest, 'not if you did not know.'
'Then why,' asked the Eskimo earnestly, 'did you tell me?'

We tend to rationalize our visions of divine judgment by constructing models which meet our standards of reason and justice.  Thus, we have Dante’s concentric circles of Hell, with degrees of punishment aligned to degrees of sin.  We have the vision of Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates, checking his list like a bouncer at an exclusive nightclub.  But what basis do we have for imagining reward or punishment?   We have scripture, scripture contains none of the detail which is needed to answer questions of justice.  Further, Judeo-Christian scripture is only one of 3000 competing visions of what divine justice means.   We also have our human instinct for fairness, which we share with many higher creatures.   But to construct models of judgment which meet our standards of reason and justice, and then justify those models based on our instinct for sense and fairness is circular reasoning. 

The idea of Hell fails the standard of justice, because the punishment of eternal torment is disproportionate to any conceivable sin.  The idea of hell is also incompatible with the idea of a good and loving God.  Christians who embrace the idea of a loving God must logically reject the idea of eternal damnation, torment and suffering.  Eternal torment is an asymmetric and unjustified punishment for any temporal sin.  And yet we have no basis for ameliorating the model, simply to satisfy our desire for fairness.  The idea either meets the standard of justice, or not.  And it doesn’t.  Either God is not a loving God, or there is no hell.
William Blake, The Book of Urizen

The idea of Heaven fails the standard of reason.  The immortal existence of the soul, extending into infinite time as a coda to our brief lives, also has an illogical asymmetry.  Why is life in the material world so brief, if the soul lives in Heaven so long?   I have a lot of things to do.  There are a lot of things I should do, but I lack the lifetimes to do what needs to be done.  And I could pass eternity in Heaven with a harp, but that will not allow me to take care of real problems here on earth.  A loving and omniscient God working with intelligent design would have given me a little more time on earth and a little less time in Heaven.

Judging God, rather than being judged, is a revolutionary idea.  I freely admit I stole the idea from physicist David Deutsch, in the book “The Beginning of Infinity”, which I highly recommend.  As reasoning beings, we are obligated to judge God (and our beliefs) according to the standards of reason, justice and goodness.   Belief in Heaven fails the standard of reason.  Belief in Hell fails the standards of reason, justice, and the goodness of God.  A reasoning person must reject these beliefs. 

Elizabeth Cotton (1893-1987), grandchild of American slaves, was self-taught on guitar and became a recognized folk artist in her 60s.  Cotton composed “Freight Train” at the age of 11, performed it in public for the first time at the age of 67, and won a Grammy award for the song at the age of 93.
Like many folk songs from 1850 - 1900, the song is an allegory of death, represented as a train.  

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Afterlife, Part I -- Ghosts, Spirits, and Reincarnation

“You don’t believe in me,” observed the Ghost.
“I don’t,” said Scrooge.
“What evidence would you have of my reality beyond that of your senses?”
“I don’t know,” said Scrooge.
“Why do you doubt your senses?”
                                                            “A Christmas Carol” – Charles Dickens

Some questions occurred to me as I considered the question of life after death. 
  • If we are to believe in the afterlife, why did God create the realms of life and death?  
  • For what purpose do we exist while we briefly live, if we are to endure for an eternity after we die?
I will consider these questions in greater depth in my next post, about Heaven and Hell.  In this post I will consider more prosaic concepts of life after death.  This post will consider souls that remain in our own world and walk among us as ghosts or reincarnated individuals.

The Contemplation of Non-existence
People are reluctant to admit the reality of personal death.  It is somehow counter-intuitive to conceive of ceasing to exist, despite the ready analogues of sleep, which we use so frequently as a euphemism for death.  Perhaps we cannot contemplate non-existence, because the contemplation itself presupposes existence.  How could we imagine the feeling of non-existence?  We cannot.  And so, people have developed beliefs based on the continuation of the human self, because we are unable to imagine actual death.

But, for the sake of argument, suppose we accept the idea that people possess an immortal soul.  What do we think about the afterlife?  What conclusions can we reach by thinking about the traditional ideas of ghosts, spirits, heaven and hell? 

A Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is an absolute masterpiece.  Often performed in film and on stage, "A Christmas Carol" is essential reading for everyone, because of its clarion call for human kindness.  [If you haven’t read it, go read it now.  Seriously, right now.  I’ll wait.]   “Christmas Carol” is also noteworthy for its unflinching look at the dark side of human character, in negligence and cruelty. 

The story is filled with non-human spirits, as well as human ghosts.  The human ghosts suffer for their misdeeds during life – not in hell, as is usually presumed, but through daily coexistence with a world they can no longer touch.  The souls of those who were good in life are not seen floating above the streets of London; presumably they are in a better place.  “A Christmas Carol” is a work of fiction, but it draws on beliefs that are still held by many people.   I suppose if such ghosts were real and sometimes perceived, as by Mr. Scrooge, they would play a rational role in the world, as a warning to others to treat others well during life, exactly as in the story.

I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghosts!
Ray Parker, Jr. ,“Ghostbusters”, song

Ghosts conveniently appear when there is no way to document the occasion, and leave no trace, direct or indirect, of their existence.  Some might ask why it is so hard to believe in the unseen, when physicists’ descriptions of reality include such concepts as dark matter and dark energy, which have never been observed in direct interaction with ordinary matter.  Another kind of unseen reality is contained in physicists’ description of the multiverse – an infinite number of alternate realities, existing in parallel with our own universe.   What is the difference between those versions of reality and the idea of ghosts?  The answer lies in the repeatable evidence of the weak interaction of those phenomena with our own physical reality.  Dark matter and dark energy are apparent, even inescapable conclusions, based on the variance of the motion of galaxies from the motion predicted by the theory of gravity.  And evidence for the multiverse is clear and repeatable in the interaction of quantum particles with unseen shadow particles outside of our reality.  What is lacking in the search for ghosts is repeatable evidence.   Is it possible that reality contains elements which are capricious, lacking in physical evidenced, taunting our logic and reason?  It may be possible, but I choose not to believe in such a perverse vision of reality.  (Or in a God who would create such a perverse reality.)   In my opinion (and this is only opinion), there will always be stories of earthbound ghosts, and those stories will always be false.

And I feel…

Like I've been here before.
And you know it makes me wonder
What's going on under the ground. 
Do you know? Don't you wonder?
What's going on down under you?
We have all been here before, we have all been here before.
                                                                        David Crosby, “Déjà vu”, song.

Reincarnation is another common belief, across many cultures, religions and individuals.  Reincarnation is one of the easiest answers to the question of how the individual self can continue after death.  When the ephemeral body expires, the immortal soul the dwelt within that body moves to another body.    It sometimes provides a rationale for visibly unfair events in an individual life; these are justified according to good or bad deeds in previous life. 

Many religions accept some form of reincarnation as part of the general belief in the eternal life of the soul.  Many of these accept the idea that people may be reincarnated as animals.  The soul’s progress towards perfection depends on willful actions of the individual and resulting karma during each life.   The doctrinal narrative that explains the process of reincarnation is very detained and complex, and of course, is completely different from one religion to the next.  These narratives are contradictory and cannot all be true.

Some versions of reincarnation are attributed to only people.  For example, actress Shirley McClain believes that she has lived many previous lives, beginning sometime in our pre-human past.  (The fact that McClain’s version has no resemblance to archeological or biological evidence doesn’t dissuade her from her belief.)  There are books and websites on how to find and remember our previous lives. 

The on-line literature regarding reincarnation is filled with tangential ideas, equally without a basis in evidence, and contrary to known facts in established science.  The literature references extraterrestrials; the possibility of extraterrestrial past lives; fabricated and incorrect cosmology, evolution, and geology.

When I researched this topic, I found, somewhat to my surprise, that many more people have died than are living today.  In rough numbers, about 100 billion people have lived and died since 50,000 B.C.*, and roughly 7.5 billion people are alive today.  So, for every person living today, about 14 people lived and died before that us.  In concept, enough prior humans existed that all of us could have lived a previous life, or many lives.  Most of those lives were lived sometime between about 200 B.C. and 1950 A.D. 

*There is an open question about when humanity began.  The demographer who produced this research chose 50,000 B.C. arbitrarily, whereas anthropologists might choose 100,000 to 250,000 years ago.  The truth is there is no clear dividing line between humans and pre-human progenitors.  We cannot say “This being has a soul, but its parents did not.”  This was the point of my childhood question, “Does a virus have a soul?”

Many people believe in reincarnation today, including about one-quarter of American Christians, although reincarnation is not part of Christian theology. 

The possibility of reincarnation is even the subject of serious academic research at the University of Virginia.  For over 40 years, researchers there have been gathering evidence that young children remember previous lives.  According to the researchers, these memories fade by the age of six. 

But if only a few children out of millions remembers a previous life, and if those memories fade by the age of six, can we even say that the previous soul survives?  If we have no memory of our previous selves, do those souls still exist, or have they evaporated, to be replaced by the soul of the presently living individual?

Further, why should memories of past lives only occur in a tiny handful of cases, in children?  Isn’t it possible that parents have misconstrued things said by children, or unconsciously planted ideas in the children’s heads, that later appear to be memories?  Is it possible that all of these stories are some kind of fraud?   The evidence for reincarnation is sparse, not systematic or repeatable, and of questionable authenticity. 

Carl Sagan advocated a principle which should be part of the foundation for any system of belief.  That principle was first proposed by French mathematician Laplace, in 1812: “The weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness.”  Sagan’s formulation is more succinct: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”  The claim that an immortal soul exists for each human, leaves the body at death, and resumes its existence in another person, or an immaterial place, is certainly an extraordinary claim.  And the evidence for that claim is weak.

Most modern people have stopped believing in ghosts.  There are always legends, and there are always things that startle us in the dark.  But those things have more to do with our human senses, and our brain’s tendency to fill in the blanks when deprived of sensory input.   No clear, repeatable evidence for ghosts has ever been gathered. 

Similarly, there is no convincing evidence of reincarnation.  Accounts of individuals remembering previous lives are very sparse and poorly documented.  The instances of remembered past lives are not sufficiently abundant to rule out fraud, or unwitting communication of information to the “reincarnated” individual.  The idea lacks the robust evidence required to validate belief in something unseen.

The idea of life after death, whether as a ghost, or reincarnated soul, fails the basic test of reason.  Why should life of the soul continue after death?   At some point, early human individuals must have possessed “original” souls.  Why would later individuals receive “recycled” souls?  If reincarnation were an actual phenomenon, perceptible to humans, then the beliefs of various cultures and religions would be expected to be parallel, because they are describing the same real phenomenon.  But world beliefs about reincarnation are not at all parallel, and for that reason, we must conclude they are false.


Does a Virus Have a Soul? -- Summary
An earlier post in this series explored the question of the immortal soul.   (“Does a Virus Have a Soul?   To summarize the earlier inquiry, there are qualities of life which give us personal identity -- memory, will, self-awareness, thoughts and emotions.  There is considerable evidence that these capacities are located in the brain, and are erased at death.  There is no compelling evidence that the components of the individual self exist past the moment of death.  There is no evidence of any other receptacle for the self which can hold the self beyond the moment of death.  So the existence of the soul, which is considered the immortal continuation of our self, our personal identity, is without basis.  Further, when we consider the connectedness of life, through evolution and the complexity of the human organism, the notion that only humans possess a soul develops logical contradictions.


Scientific research into reincarnation:

History of past lives:
6.5 % of the people who have ever lived are alive today.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

God as Sustainer of All Things

In the book The Beginning of Infinity, physicist David Deutsch imagines the following dialogue between the philosopher Socrates and the Greek God Hermes:

Hermes, speaking to Socrates: “How many [Athenians] are willing to criticize a god by the standards of reason and justice?”
Socrates, [ponders]: “All who are just, I suppose.  For how can anyone be just if he follows a god of whose moral rightness he is not persuaded?  And how is it possible to be persuaded of someone’s moral rightness without first forming a view about which qualities are morally right?”
“A Dream of Socrates”, in The Beginning of Infinity, by David Deutsch, 2011
The dialogue was drawn from themes in Plato's "Apology", the account of Socrates' self-defense in his trial for impiety and corruption of the youth.

In the traditional Christian view of God, God is creator of all things, sustainer of all things, and judge of all people.  From Scripture, particularly John 1:3, we learn that nothing was made without God; nothing exists without God.  God is in all things, rules all things, determines all things.  In this post we will consider the role of God the sustainer of the world. 

I recently attended a session of Alaska’s excellent story-telling forum, Arctic Entries.  The monthly programs allow people in the community to tell stories of their lives.  In the most recent show, a story-teller told of an improbable and horrific accident.  While swimming in a lake with other young people, a rope from a boat somehow became wrapped around his neck, just as the boat departed at high speed.  The young man survived, but suffered a stroke which left half of his body paralyzed.  The young man was a church leader in a mentoring program for high-school students; he had given of his time and wisdom to make their lives better.  So why, of the eleven people on stage, was he the one to suffer a physically and mentally crushing random injury?  Where is the God who is in all things, determines all things, and rules all things?

If we take David Deutsch’s dialogue of Socrates to heart, we are not only permitted, but obligated to question God’s performance as the sustainer of all things, according to rational standards of justice and goodness.

God the Father, Julius Schnorr, 1860

Making Excuses for God -- When Bad Things Happen to Good People

Everybody knows that bad things happen to good people.  Theologians and religious people acknowledge that this is one of the most difficult issues with faith.  There is a huge volume of religious literature dedicated to the topic of explaining the injustices of life to those who have suffered pain, injury, and tragedy.  The literature tries to help people make sense of their loss, to reconcile the evil they have suffered with the fundamental goodness of God. 

People make excuses for God.  When bad things happen, people can always provide an explanation.  Here is a short sampling of the excuses I have heard for why God allows suffering to exist.  I have taken many of these verbatim from religious websites; others I remembered from sermons and teachings from childhood.  The essence of these excuses is that bad things happen, but it is never God’s fault.
  • God has a higher purpose.
  • God is testing our faith.
  • God is not responsible for all the evil that is happening around us; Satan is. 
  • People are wicked.  The innocent suffer, along with the wicked.
  • God always answers your prayers, just not always in the way that you want.
  • God allows suffering because troubles make you stronger.
  • God allows suffering because people have been granted free will.  Other peoples’ sins and decisions cause the innocent to suffer, but it isn’t God’s fault.
  • Good people suffer on Earth, because the reward is in Heaven. 
  • God wants the loved one in Heaven.
  • Suffering in this world doesn’t matter, because eternity makes the difference.
  • Pain awakens us to God.
  • If we understood why innocents suffer, we would be unmoved, and that would be unthinkable.
  • God is able to restore the life of the child, so from God’s perspective, there’s no loss.
  • All people have sinned, and people share the sins of others, so there are no good people.
  • God allows bad things to happen to good people to teach them lessons, to discipline them, to improve their character, to encourage them to depend on him, etc.
  • God did not create people to suffer, but sometimes we do suffer because we live in a fallen world.
  • Evil entered the world when Adam and Eve disobeyed God.  We live with suffering as a consequence of their disobedience.
  • Trust in God; God knows what he is doing.
The sheer number and variety of excuses for God suggest to me that there is no appropriate answer for God’s apparent indifference to human suffering.

If we continue along the path suggested by David Deutsch, we should question God according to the standards of reason and justice.  It is easy to frame responses to each excuse for God’s indifference, as follows:
  • Is God, the omnipotent, unable to accomplish his higher purpose without causing suffering?
  • Is God unable to differentiate the good from the bad, and treat each accordingly?
  • Why does the reward in Heaven require suffering on Earth?
  • What kind of kindness is represented by testing humans with cruelty?
  • God has all of eternity; if he wants somebody in Heaven, why can’t he wait?
  • If a prayer is for mercy and goodness, why would it be denied?
  • Why is it necessary to cause suffering in order to teach someone?
  • What kind of relationship relies on punishment to enforce loyalty and obedience?
  • Why should anyone suffer for the sins of others?
Despite promises in the Bible and liturgy, God doesn’t intervene to provide justice in human affairs.  As I have done in other posts on this blog, I could provide examples; lists of injustices in human experience.  But that is unnecessary.  For every article about faith repaid by divine intervention in Guidepost magazine, everyone knows there are innumerable examples of undeserved tragedy, throughout history.  Many of those tragedies are of human doing, but many are natural disasters – in legal parlance, Acts of God.  And if natural disasters inflicted on the innocent are in fact, acts of God, should we not judge God according to the standards of reason and justice?

Mercy is innate, through-going and consistent behavior.  God’s mercy should not be capricious or biased, threatening or conditional.  We should criticize God according to the standards of reason and justice when we consider the problem of suffering in the world.

When Good Things Happen to Bad People
Good things also happen to bad people.  This is the converse of the usual paradox, although it is examined less often.  In fact, we know that good things happen to all kinds of people, and bad things happen to all kinds of people.  Throughout history, the innocent and good have suffered equally with the wicked; the wicked have prospered as much as the deserving and just.  It’s pretty clear that ethical or moral merit just doesn’t matter when it comes to cancer, debilitating illness, and early death.  And wicked leaders such as Ivan the Terrible, Josef Stalin, Robert Mugabe, Muammar Gaddafi, Idi Amin and others survive and prosper, unless brought down by the concerted efforts of men, not God.

In the course of writing this post, I realized that Hans Christian Anderson’s story “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is perhaps about religion.  People generally believe what they are told by a person of authority.  When people are taught from birth, they will fiercely believe in those things despite evidence from their own experiences and senses.  In Anderson’s story, only a child could acknowledge what was plainly seen by all – that there was nothing there. 

People stubbornly hang on to what we were taught as children.  Some people who were taught that Pluto is a planet are deeply distressed by the scientific re-classification which changes that status.  People are taught to trust in God, as they trust in their parents.  Some psychologists even say that that we are pre-wired to believe in God.  And so, people retain their belief in God, regardless of their life experiences, and regardless of how contradictory those experiences may be compared to the teachings about God from childhood.  Gaining release from those beliefs requires critical, objective thought, contrary to some of our earliest instruction.  It isn’t easy.

The reality that we experience is incompatible with the traditional concept of God – omniscient, omnipotent, infinitely good, Creator and Sustainer of the world and mankind.  The suffering which mankind endures is simply incompatible with such a God.  God, if he exists, is either not infinitely good, not infinitely powerful, or not interested in mankind.

David Deutsch, 2011, "A Dream of Socrates", pp. 223 - 257, in The Beginning of Infinity, p.496.
Plato, Apology, c. 399 BC.  (Apology is Plato's account of Socrates' speech at his trial for heresy and corruption of the youth.  The trial ended in Socrates death sentence, which was carried out some months later.  In my view, Socrates was approaching the idea of monotheism, and used the term "the god", whenever he spoke of his own faith.), in Plato, Five Dialogues, translated by G. Grube and J. Cooper.
The Bible, John, 1:3.  

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Does the Creation of the Universe Imply the Existence of God?

“Is there a God?  Who knows?   Is there an angry unicorn on the dark side of the moon?”
Edward Abbey.

God, the Creator
This post will consider the question of God himself.   As discussed in the first post of this series, the question of belief in God first requires a definition of God.

The traditional Christian view is that God is omnipotent; omniscient, infinitely good, and above all, interested in Mankind.  Traditionally, God is believed to be Creator of all things, Sustainer of all things, Redeemer of Souls and Judge of all people.   This post will consider God as Creator of the Universe. 

God as Creator
Of all the arguments for the existence of God, the idea of God the Creator seems the most compelling.  The universe exists.  Science is clear that the universe began in a discrete moment of Creation about 13.8 billion years ago.  At that moment, in a flash of pure energy, all of the matter, energy, forces and dimensions of the universe, including space and time, expanded from a single infinitesimal point.  Scientific theory and astronomical observation agree that the Big Bang event occurred; that discovery and proof is one of the greatest achievements in the history of human thought.  And for all of the complexity of the scientific story, it is amazingly similar to the much simpler account in Genesis: “God said, ‘Let there be light.  And there was light.’” 

If Creation occurred as a distinct event, doesn’t that imply a Creator?  Perhaps it does.

To me, the fact of Creation is the most reasonable of all arguments that God exists.  But what kind of God is implied by this moment of Creation, and what is humanity with regard to God, the Creator of the Universe?

Further Evidence of a Creator:  The Fine-Tuning Problem

Recent thinking in physics and cosmology gives further credence to the idea of a Creator.  There are physical constants which govern the forces in the universe and which bind matter together.  These constants form a set of parameters which allow matter to exist, allow atoms and star systems to form, and allow you and me to exist to contemplate these questions.  It turns that the values of these constants are necessarily very specific.  If any of these constants varied from their known values by even a tiny amount, then the universe would not be filled with molecules and galaxies, but might be filled with ionized plasma or pure energy, or perhaps some other dimensionality of space.  Physicist David Deutsch calls this the “fine-tuning problem”. 

One branch of modern physics deals with the fine-tuning problem by invoking the idea of the multi-verse – an infinity of universes encompassing all possible values of the fundamental physical constants.  Our universe, in this view, is not special.  We are simply one of the universes in which matter, life and bloggers can develop.  We are writing about it because life in this universe is possible.  In this view, our existence simply represents survivorship bias, not a specially constructed universe.  We are writing about the fine-tuned universe because life is only possible in the fine-tuned universe.  The problem with this interpretation is that there is no evidence of other universes.  In the absence of evidence, whether we believe that the universe was purposefully designed for life by a Creator, or is simply a random occurrence is still a question of personal preference.

Does the Existence of a Creator Validate the Traditional Concept of God?
Some philosophers argue that the evidence of a Creator proves the existence of Judeo-Christian God, omniscient, omnipotent and good.  A good example of that thinking can be found in Jim Holt’s interview with Oxford professor Richard Swinburne, in Holt’s book Why Does the World Exist?, chapter six.  But does that necessarily follow?

Does the act of Creation necessarily mean that the Creator is also omniscient, able to foresee all details of Creation through time?  I don’t think so.  The Creator may have started something with no idea how it would turn out. 
Does the act of Creation give the Creator omnipotent powers to intervene in what has been created?  Again, I don’t think so.  In our own earthly endeavors, we sometimes start something which is beyond our ability to influence or control.

And does the act of Creation demonstrate that God is good?  The Gnostic religions provide an interesting interpretation of Creation, which casts doubt on whether the Creator is necessarily good.

Gnosticism is a set of religions which developed in the second century, drawing on a variety of earlier sources, including early Christianity.  Gnostic belief holds that there are two levels of reality, a lower, corrupt physical reality, and a higher, perfect spiritual reality.  This aspect of Gnosticism may derive from the teachings of Plato, who lived six hundred years earlier.  According to Gnostic belief, the physical world was created by the demiurge, a lesser spiritual being than God.  Because the physical world is intrinsically corrupt, the being that created it is also believed to be corrupt.  The demiurge is sometimes considered to be Satan. 

So, upon reflection, the Big Bang and the existence of the universe may suggest the action of a Creator, but there is no evidence that this Creator is the God of Judeo-Christian belief.  The Creator may be good, evil, or indifferent; perhaps even unaware of the existence of mankind’s brief existence on a small planet in an unremarkable galaxy. 

Mankind’s Place in the Universe

For a moment, let’s accept that the Big Bang and the structure of our universe imply the existence of a Creator, and that our universe is deliberately fine-tuned for life, by design.  Let’s consider our place in this universe. 
Hubble Deep Field Image, showing galaxies of the early universe.
The image covers an area of sky equal to about 1/100 of the size of the full moon.

According to current estimates, there are about 100 billion galaxies in the universe.  Perhaps coincidentally, there are about 100 billion stars in the average galaxy.  The number of planets orbiting stars is still unknown, but the recent discovery of over 4000 planets outside the solar system suggests that planets are relatively common.  For a simple calculation, let’s assume that there is an average of 1 planet per star.  This means that earth is one of about 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 planets in the universe.

Let’s also consider how long humans have lived on earth, and have had a relationship with God.  Anatomically modern humans first appeared about 200,000 years ago.  Since the earth is 4.6 billion years old, people appeared only in the last 0.000004th fraction of the life of the earth.  If we take Earth as an average planet, then humans have occupied 1/23,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 of the available planet time in the universe. 

As I consider the scale of space and time, in comparison to the scale of humanity, I think it is fair to say that whatever the purpose of the universe is, it isn’t about us. 

The Relationship between Mankind and God, and Revelation of God to Mankind.

The current year of the Jewish calendar is 5775, counted from the believed creation of the world.  The Jewish religion is one of the earliest monotheistic religions, and archeology places the origin of Judaism at about 3500 years ago.  One might ask why God waited until 3500 years ago to reveal himself to mankind.  Perhaps we only know of God’s revelation to humans after the development of writing. 

According to some sources, there are an estimated 4200 distinct religions.  Many of those are now extinct, and an unknown number have been lost without record.  There are artifacts and evidence of ritual dating to as early as 35,000 years ago.  Ancient Egyptian religious traditions were already established 5000 years ago, and persisted for about 3000 years.  Many early religions were polytheistic, animistic or related to ancestors.  There is a bewildering variety of traditions about spirits and gods, and customs of worship.  Modern Western philosophy has tended toward monotheism, exemplified by the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions, but developed independently by Greek philosophers and by other middle-eastern religions. 

The question is, why is the revelation of God to humans is so muddled?  Was the one true revelation of God given to Akhenaten or Zoroaster?  To Abraham or Pythagoras?  To Siddhartha Gautama, Confucius, Zeno, Jesus, Mohammed, Joseph Smith or L. Ron Hubbard?  Or to any of thousands of other prophets?  If divine guidance is present, shouldn’t we expect a little more consistency?

Certainly, there is sometimes deep wisdom in the teachings of these prophets.  But it seems to me that it is a particularly human kind of wisdom, filled with contradictions and errors, rather than a perfect, divine revelation. 

The Nature of Reality I – The Multiverse
When we consider the question of whether God is the Creator of the Universe, we tend to focus on the question of God.  But we should also consider the question of what God has created.  What is reality?
Modern physics continues to produce ever-stranger evidence for the nature of reality.  Physicist David Deutsch writes convincingly of the evidence for the multiverse, an infinite series of alternate universes composed of all possible events, down to the level of sub-atomic particles.  Deutsch is the world’s leading expert in quantum computing, and is using these ideas in a practical sense to build computers that work.  By analogy, it may not be absolutely necessary to accurately understand electricity in order to have a glowing light bulb, but it certainly helps.  Deutsch’s working quantum computers give credence to his notions about the multiverse.

If Deutsch is correct about the multiverse, everything that can happen has happened, or will happen.  In such a reality, where is there a place for good or evil?  For mercy or cruelty?  For anything good is matched by something bad in an alternate reality.  What is the role of God in this vision?  As creator, he created all possibilities, and all realities.  But in this view, there is no good and no evil, just endless variation across all possibilities.  And the first criterion of our conception of God – that he is good – is void.

The Nature of Reality II – Is Reality Material or Non-material?
A different problem exists with the possibility that reality is non-material.  Perhaps it should make no difference whether matter and energy and human beings are physically real, or some digital representation.  We might consider God the Great Programmer. 

If we are merely a digital representation, it is more plausible that Creation is all about us.  Perhaps a forest is only a statistical model, until a person walks into it.  Perhaps leaves on a tree are only a blur, until we put on our glasses to see individual leaves.  Perhaps the stars were only diffuse light, until the invention of telescopes, and distant galaxies only shapes that approximate the gravitational aggregation of matter into stars.  If so, our very history may be suspect.  We may have been created yesterday with our memories pre-formed.  People who deny evolution sometimes approach this idea, when they say that God planted fossils in the ground as a test of our faith when He created the world 6000 years ago. 

But I have to ask why God would be so deceptive.  If we take the idea that we are special further, perhaps humanity lives on the only inhabitable planet – all the rest may be illusion.  It is solipsism for a species.  Perhaps other races, other people are also illusion.  Perhaps God is only concerned with you, the reader, and I am an illusion typing this blog post.  And the Great Programmer created the illusion of a philosopher to invent the word solipsism for this situation. 

I believe that the idea of solipsism is absurd.  I believe in the physical reality of the universe, the reality of the people around me and in the truthfulness of my senses and scientific instruments.  I do not choose to believe that God would be deceptive towards mankind, in creating illusions of any kind. 

Belief in the physical reality of the universe, in the scale that we observe, leads me to believe that mankind is a small part of the universe.  Mankind has existed for an infintesimally trifling part of the space and time in the universe; I don't think it is all about us.  Mankind is not the greater purpose of Creation, whatever that may be.  The existence of Creation may imply a Creator, but the Creator does not necessarily conform to the Judeo-Christian concept of God -- infinitely good, omniscient and omnipotent.  The Creator may be good, evil or indifferent to mankind; capable of intervention in the world or not.  The Big Bang is perhaps evidence of a Creator, but that Creator does not imply the existence of the Judeo-Christian God.

Jim Holt, 2012, Why Does the World Exist, 320 p.
David Deutsch, 2012, The Beginning of Infinity, 496 p.
Alan Lightman, 2013, The Accidental Universe, 176 p.
Richard Preston, 1996, First Light, 275 p.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Regarding the Power of Prayer, or Did the People on the Titanic Forget to Pray?

“Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours?”
Gordon Lightfoot
Prayer is an important facet of belief in God, particularly from the interventionist view of God.  Personal testimony regarding the power of prayer is quite common.  Many people deeply believe in the power of prayer, and believe that they have observed response to prayers in their own lives.  Occasionally, a post circulates on Facebook like a chain letter, urging friends to type “Amen!” if they believe in the power of prayer.  And thousands of “Amen” responses follow.  Guideposts and other religious writings a full of stories of prayers answered – a recovery from illness, a lost relative found.  A quick Google search lists stories of answered prayers: “Money Owed”, “Lost in the Mountains”, “Locked Out”, “My Broken Foot”, “Glasses in the Ocean”, “Class Ring”, and so on.  There are many stories of prayers answered, for life problems, large and small.

But what about the converse?  What about prayers that are not answered, especially in circumstances more dire than a lost pair of glasses?
In essence, does anyone suppose that the people on the Titanic forgot to pray?  

When Jews fleeing the destruction of Jerusalem were besieged by the Romans at Masada in 74 AD, and ended the siege with a mass suicide, does anyone think they didn’t pray? 

When Mongols attacked the religious center of Vladimir, Russia in the 1300s, about three thousand Orthodox Christians took shelter in the cathedral and were killed in the cathedral, in front of the icons.  The cathedral still stands, and you can walk on the same floor where they were slaughtered. Does anyone think that they forgot to pray? 

Does anyone believe that Jews ordered into gas chambers during the Holocaust didn’t pray? 

When Nazis systematically lined up and executed 250,000 Ukrainian Jews and families of resistance fighters at the ravine called Baba Yar in Kiev, does anyone think they didn’t pray? 

When 150 newly elected black legislators were besieged in a Louisiana courthouse by a white militia in 1873, the courthouse was set on fire.  The legislators massacred as they fled the building.  Does anyone think that they didn’t pray?  

When the Allies fire-bombed Dresden, killing 150,000 German civilians, does anyone believe that the victims didn’t pray? 

During the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centers, dozens of people were trapped on the roofs of the buildings, and suffered from blistering heat rising from the fires below.  There were helicopters within sight, unable or unwilling to land because of the updraft from the fires.  One by one, the people gave up hope of rescue and jumped to escape the heat, falling 1300' to their deaths.  Does anyone believe that they forgot to pray?

The endless horrors of history continue today, both of man’s making and of natural disaster.  And at no point is there systematic evidence of physical rescue beyond what we might expect from random events.

So it goes (with a nod to Kurt Vonnegut) for every disaster or massacre of religious people in history.  For certainly, among the thousands of victims, there must have been many innocent, faithful and devout followers of God, who prayed with all diligence for mercy and protection which never came.  From this, can we conclude that God will ease our suffering, cure an ailment, help us find our car keys or be on time to an appointment?

Communal Prayer
Another important aspect of Christianity is common prayer.  We pray in church, and we pray at meals.  Prayer brings us together in a meditative moment, and we communicate to each other our gratitude at the good things in life and our joy in each other’s presence.  It can be a good thing.

A common practice in modern American Christian churches is to join together in prayer for members of the congregation and their loved ones who are sick, or in some life crisis, or recently deceased.  I don’t mean to disparage communal prayer.  It is a way of communicating to each other our care, to provide comfort to friends during loss and to build a sense of community.  But I find it odd as a way of communicating with God.  I especially find it odd when people solicit prayer for someone through social media, as though gathering more prayers will somehow prod God into action.   Is that how people think prayer works?  Does God tote up the number of people praying for someone, and answer those prayers ahead of someone alone, without friends, and desperately praying for themselves? 

Is prayer like “Horton Hears a Who” by Dr. Suess, where it is necessary for every Who in Whoville to plead for a response, until the last Who’s loud “Yop!”  is sufficient to attract the attention of God?  I don’t think that’s how prayer should work.  If God is all-knowing, all-loving, and all powerful, the smallest prayer should be equal to a million prayers.  And in many cases, prayer itself should be unnecessary – God should already know.


It seems to me that the power of prayer is literally survivorship bias, writ large.  Those who survive speak about the power of prayer, and those who do not survive are not heard.   It seems to me that either God’s answers to prayer are incredibly capricious, without regard for devotion, merit, evil or innocence, or they do not exist.  I do not choose to believe in a capricious God.   

There is little consistent evidence for answers to prayer by a merciful, interventionist God.