God as Love

The Greek philosopher Empedocles wrote that the universe was characterized by conflict between two cosmic forces, Love and Strife.  In his view, the universe originally existed in a state of perfect love and unity, with no distinct elements or separate life forms.  However, the force of Strife emerged and began to destroy this unity; separate parts broke off from the whole, forming the elements of matter.  The attractive force of Love exerted its remaining influence by bringing the elements together in different combinations, creating animals and humans.  But these beings were mortal, as the force of Strife gradually pulled the elements apart again, leading to disintegration and death.

There are obviously fascinating parallels between Empedocles’ philosophy and Christianity in terms of the centrality of love, though in contrast to Christianity, Empedocles viewed cosmic history as cyclic.  But whether we accept Greek philosophy or Christianity, or both, is it helpful in understanding the order of the universe If we think of God as Love?

From a purely scientific standpoint, the notion that particles come together to form larger structures, including life forms, because of love sounds ridiculous.  Do hydrogen atoms really come together with oxygen atoms to form water because of love?  It makes no sense, many would argue, to anthropomorphize mindless matter and attribute human desire and emotion to particles.  However, I would argue that it makes sense to think of love as a broader phenomenon of attraction, with attraction between humans being a highly complex and sophisticated type of love, attraction between animals being a less complex type of love, and attraction between particles being a very primitive type of love, but love nevertheless.

Although it used to be thought that animals had no real emotions, we now know that animals do have emotions, that they are capable of love between their own kind and love of those from other species.  The question of whether insects have emotions is less settled, though some scientists who study the issue argue that at least some insects have primitive emotional responses originating in rudimentary brain structures.

It seems unlikely that there would be emotions in lower life forms, such as cells and bacteria.  However, even though we can’t know exactly how lower life forms “feel,” scientific studies have demonstrated forces of attraction and repulsion even in these lower life forms.  Paramecium will swim away from unfavorable environments (such as cold water), but remain in favorable environments (containing warm temperatures and/or the presence of food).  Egg cells in both humans and animals will exercise choice in determining which sperm cells with which to join, weeding out bad sperm cells from good.  In fact, the human body itself has been described as a cooperative “society of cells.”

Given that forces of attraction and repulsion exist in even the lowest life forms, is it really absurd to posit such forces as affecting even atomic and subatomic particles?  I believe that the general principle is the same, if love is defined simply as an attractive force that brings separate entities together to form a greater whole.  The only difference is that the principle is expressed in a very primitive form among lower forms of order and in a more sophisticated form among higher forms of order, such as animals and humans.

Physical Laws and the Mind of God

The American philosopher of science Charles Sanders Peirce once wrote that the physical laws of the universe were the expression of an evolving cosmic mind.  As he put it, physical laws were the outcome of a mind become habitual: “matter is effete mind, inveterate habits becoming physical laws.”  However, he notes that the cosmic mind is not merely habitual, but has a powerful element of indeterminacy and spontaneity, which is why the universe continues to evolve and to produce life.  The evolution of the universe, in Peirce’s view, is the gradual crystallization of mind.

There is much merit to Peirce’s idea — rather than seeing the physical laws of the universe as separate entities that pop out of nowhere and have no unifying foundation, Peirce’s concept expresses the underlying unity and order of the universe, which is still developing even as the human mind itself develops.

One criticism of conceptualizing the physical laws of the universe as being part of a cosmic mind is that physical laws by their nature have an unvarying determinism and regularity that contradicts the notion of a conscious being capable of thinking, planning, and exercising free will in order to shape events.  But the physical laws of the universe are really only part of the universal order.  On the large, astronomical scale certainly, there is determinism and regularity; but on the very small, subatomic scale, there is a high degree of indeterminism and unpredictability; and life forms have the freedom to partially evade or escape the bounds of physical determinism.  In this conception, determinism and regularity provide a foundation of order on which freedom and creativity can flourish.  One can analogize this conception with the human mind, in which many essential functions of the brain (control of breathing, heart rate, sensation) occur mostly or entirely without conscious planning or control in the lower part of the brain (the “brainstem”), while higher thought processes are conducted on top of this primitive foundational order.

Granted, there are limits to employing the metaphor of “mind” to the cosmic order, as there are with any metaphor.  But metaphors are often a necessary tool to describe things that simply can’t be communicated with literal precision.  Even the most rigorous and skeptical of scientists cannot do without metaphors.  The “physical laws” of the universe is itself a metaphor; the “Big Bang” is a metaphor; and the “selfish gene” is a metaphor.

Omnipotence of God

 Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?   —  David Hume

The passage  above from the Scottish philosopher David Hume succinctly summarizes the reasoning behind the decisions of many to adopt the position of atheism, whether they are aware of Hume or not.  In fact, the challenge posed by this short argument has rarely been answered to the complete satisfaction of many.  Theodicy is the term that has been used to denote philosophies that have attempted to reconcile God and the existence of evil.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, God is conceived as having the attribute of omnipotence, which is usually defined as unlimited power, the ability to do whatever one wants.  However, this conception of God was not held by many ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, who saw God as being very powerful but not all-powerful.  The Roman physician and philosopher Galen argued that God was limited by necessity and matter — God could not do whatever he wanted, and this conception was different from the Jewish and Christian conception:

This is where our opinion, and that of Plato and all others among the Greeks who correctly deal with the rationality of Nature, differs from that of Moses.  For Moses, it is sufficient to say merely that God “willed” to order the universe in a certain way, and it was done.  For he [Moses] thinks that everything is possible for God, even if he wanted to make a horse or a bull out of ashes.  But we know that is not the case.  We say, on the contrary, that certain things are impossible by nature.  God does not even attempt those things, but from what is possible, he chooses the best to come about.  (On the Usefulness of the Parts of the Body, quoted in Dale B. Martin, Inventing Superstition )

In this view, the existence of evil does not pose a problem for the existence of God, because God is not all-powerful to begin with — God is simply very powerful.

In the contemporary, popular view, the conception of God as being less than all-powerful is regarded as blasphemous, ridiculous, or self-contradictory.  However, the notion of limitations on God’s power is found in a number of prominent Christian theologians, including Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, Edgar S. Brightman, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  In fact, there is an entire school of thought known as “Process Theology,” that conceives of God as being limited in power and acting gradually on the world over time.  This alternative conception of God is not an entirely satisfactory answer to the problem of evil, but I would argue that it holds much fewer difficulties than the popular conception of a God who can do whatever He wants but chooses not to.  It is also superior to an atheism that sees the universe as being composed merely of a set of physical laws and random events with no underlying, unifying, intelligent order.

Science, Authority, and Knowledge

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker argues in a recent essay praising the virtues of science:  “Most of the traditional causes of belief—faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, conventional wisdom, the invigorating glow of subjective certainty—are generators of error and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge.”

This is the sort of sweeping statement that one is apt to make when making an abstract case for the scientific method without examining too closely how scientists actually acquire knowledge in the real world.  The fact of the matter is that no one — including the most brilliant of scientists — can acquire knowledge without relying on social processes that include hierarchical authority and “conventional wisdom.”

How does a psychologist such as Steven Pinker know about the Big Bang theory of the universe?  Did he purchase a telescope, conduct his own observations, track the movement of the galaxies, and come to the conclusion that the universe began with a big bang?  No, like the rest of us, he was taught the Big Bang theory in school.  He had neither the time nor expertise to critically evaluate whether or not his teachers might have been wrong.  He had to accept their authority because there was no good alternative.  “Faith” might be too strong a word, but there is a certain degree of trust that when specialists in physics write textbooks and give lectures, they are providing the truth, as best as they are able to.  In an earlier time, Pinker would have been taught not the Big Bang theory but the Steady State theory of the universe — and he would have accepted that, without trying to verify it himself through empirical observation, because that was the conventional wisdom.

How does Pinker know that the theory of evolution is true?  Did he study living organisms and fossils for years and years, matching each empirical observation with the claims of Darwin, Stephen Jay Gould, and others?  No, he accepted what his teachers taught him, for the same reasons he accepted the Big Bang theory.  Like everyone else, he trusts the specialists that are doing their jobs, and when these specialists have a strong consensus that something is true, he accepts this.

What happens when there are outstanding disagreements among scientists, whether involving string theory, multiple universes, the “punctuated equilibrium” theory of evolution, or other issues?  Does Steven Pinker get right to work on these issues, making his own observations, and testing multiple hypotheses?  No, like the rest of us, he either pleads ignorance, accepts the findings of the most recent article he’s read on the subject, or tries to gauge the majority opinion of scientists on that issue and adopts that opinion as his own.

Now, I’m not trying to discredit science here.  I fully accept the Big Bang theory and the theory of evolution, and I have a low opinion of various attempts at “creationist” theory.  But I didn’t arrive at these conclusions by disregarding authority, but by embracing authorities that seemed to me to be genuinely interested in studying the real world, willing to share their methodologies and observations, accept criticisms, and change their minds when necessary.

We are born into this world as ignorant as the lowest animal, we gradually absorb knowledge from our parents, teachers, peers, and our culture, and we may — if we are very, very lucky — make one or two truly original contributions to knowledge ourselves.  Even the most hardheaded skeptic, the bravest dissenter, the most diligent and persistent questioner, cannot do without some reliance on authority and conventional wisdom.

Faith and Truth

The American philosopher William James argued in his essay “The Will to Believe”  that there were circumstances under which it was not only permissible to respond to the problem of uncertainty by making a leap of faith, it was necessary to do so lest one lose the truth by not making a decision.

Most scientific questions, James argued, were not the sort of momentous issues that required an immediate decision.  One could step back, evaluate numerous hypotheses, engage in lengthy testing of such hypotheses, and make tentative, uncertain conclusions that would ultimately be subject to additional testing.  However, outside the laboratory, real-world issues often required decisions to be made on the spot despite a high degree of uncertainty, and not making a decisional commitment ran the same risk of losing the truth as making an erroneous decision.  Discovering truth, wrote James, is not the same as avoiding error, and one who is devoted wholeheartedly to the latter will be apt to make little progress in gaining the truth.

In James’s view, we live in a dynamic universe, not a static universe, and our decisions in themselves affect the likelihood of certain events becoming true.  In matters of love, friendship, career, and morals, the person who holds back from making a decision for fear of being wrong will lose opportunities for affecting the future in a positive fashion.  Anyone who looks back honestly on one’s life can surely admit to lost opportunities of this type.  As James wrote, “[f]aith in a fact can help create the fact.”

Now of course there are many counterexamples of people who have suffered serious loss, injury, and death because they made an unjustified leap of faith.  So one has to carefully consider the possible consequences of being wrong.  But many times, the most negative consequences of making a leap of faith are merely the same type of rejection or failure that would occur if one did not make a decisional commitment at all.

There is a role for skepticism in reason, a very large role, but there are circumstances in which excessive skepticism can lead to a paralysis of the will, leading to certain loss.  Skepticism and faith have to be held in balance, with skepticism applied primarily to low-impact issues not requiring an immediate decision.