The meta-existence of God
Without arguing for or against any particular religion I’d like to examine an especially childish version of atheism.
The Flying Spaghetti Monster was invented by a 25-year-old physics graduate to mock the notion of a divine Creator and oppose the teaching in Kansas schools of ‘intelligent design’ as a competitor theory to evolution. As it happens the ‘spaghetti’ element may indeed be a relevant explanation of the Universe, if it is true that everything is composed of 10- or 11-dimensional ‘superstrings.’
However the ‘flying monster’ bit is completely wrong, because motion involves not only matter and energy but space and time. All four of those are features of the Universe itself and if we are to avoid circular argument then whatever is responsible for the existence of the Cosmos is not part of it and is not likely to be describable in any terms our experience can suggest.
Here is a graphic from NASA to show how we think the Universe developed:
This representation is potentially misleading if you look at it superficially, because the Universe has no ‘outside’; and there is also no ‘before’ since time (or space-time, to be Einsteinian) is contained within it. (By-the-by, its age may be twice the 13 billion years in the illustration if recent research is correct.)
Although this picture inevitably affords such scope for misunderstanding it is merely intended as an aid to understanding, integrating things into a coherent narrative. It might be better if both Bible students and militant ‘rationalists’ took that approach to some of those heterogenous texts that survived the Fall of Jerusalem and were collected together centuries later in one book.
The notion of ‘intelligent design’ may be incorrect in detail yet a valid implication of what we observe. The Earth is not the centre of the Universe (or is not the only one), the heavenly bodies do not rotate about it like clockwork and living things were not made just so, once for all time and unchangeable. Yet we see a Universe that seems to obey certain laws everywhere and forever, and even more amazingly we are able to discover those laws. We haven’t perfected our investigations - I suspect that one day a better theory will discard ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’ just as ‘the ether’ was jettisoned after the Michelson-Morley experiment; but a supranatural intelligence is at least hinted at by such order.
Arguably there is no possible scientific First Cause of the Cosmos; why as Leibniz asked (section 7 here) there should be something rather than nothing. Yet here it is (and if it is an illusion, here is the illusion and here we are, dreaming it.)
That doesn’t stop cosmologists from trying to account for it. About ten years ago a mathematical theory proposed that the Universe might have spontaneously arisen from nothing because of ‘quantum fluctuations.’ Not being a mathematician I can only imagine that it’s something akin to 0 being broken down into -1 and +1 and then somehow losing one of those terms. However I have two amateur’s questions: if it arose spontaneously, when did it do so, time being an integral part of the Universe? And isn’t their definition of ‘nothing’ rather a convenient one for them, a peculiar kind of ‘nothing’ that has within it this capacity for quantum fluctuations? Not, in fact, nothing?
There is another conjecture, that the Universe is indeed nil when you add it all up, though apparently it presupposes fields of ‘positive’ matter and ‘negative’ energy. A further thesis (‘false vacuum decay’) proposes that, just as some religions say, the world could end without warning and a hole in its fabric could spread at the speed of light; it might be triggered by ‘the creation of high-energy particles or through quantum-mechanical tunneling.’ This speculation came long after Oppenheimer but even the more parochial danger of setting the globe’s air on fire didn’t stop the Manhattan Project, so who knows what future research might give us an omniterminal surprise.
So much for Kali, the destroyer of worlds; now back to Shiva the creator. Since to exist is to be a part of the Universe, it is logically possible to say that God does not exist while still believing in something responsible for existence that is utterly inconceivable. Like NASA’s graphic, the Indian dancer-god is a metaphor, a ladder for our imaginations.
As with Hinduism, early in the Bible God has a humanlike avatar, upbraiding Adam and Eve in Eden and allowing Moses to see Him from behind at Mount Sinai; but later to carve His image or even to say His name is forbidden. Even for the later sect of Christians He is invisible before the tenth century, appearing in Western art only in part at first. It is the assertion that Jesus was both human and divine that permits the gradual anthropomorphisation of God the Father, something heretical for orthodox Jews and Muslims.
Humanity cannot help trying to build on the ineffable and making their theological edifices like Towers of Babel, and then pursuing their favourite pastimes of othering and persecuting; but religion is not the only thing for people to argue and fight over. Mankind can find such an excuse anywhere - land and resources, race, even sport.
Nor, to an extent, is religion incompatible with science. Clearly the American billionaire Charles Simonyi thought otherwise when he paid Oxford several million pounds to establish a professorial chair to promote The Public Understanding of Science, stipulating that Richard Dawkins should be its first holder. It is claimed that Simonyi’s ulterior motive was to use the University’s authority to promote atheism; all it proves to me, not for the first time, is that there is little that my alma mater will not do for money.
Sir Isaac Newton did not see such a conflict. He increased our scientific knowledge enormously and yet for him it was little more than a hobby, since he expected God to bring an end to His Creation sometime soon and so spent much intellectual effort trying to find out when from hermetic signs in the Bible.
Atheism is a dogmatic religious position and can suffer from simplistic literalism just as much as the faith of a fundamentalist Bible-basher. Atheists should accept that there are certain questions that are meaningful but cannot be arbitrated by science, which answers so much else. While there is plenty to dispute and criticise about organised religion and its often intolerant and violent adherents, they should also try to develop some empathetic insight, to look at the ‘ladders’ and instead of mocking them as ridiculous objects ask themselves what they are for and how they may be beneficially used.
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