A couple of months ago I wrote a rebuttal of Paul Williams’ critique of Buddhism. That got me thinking about theology a little; always bearing in mind the Hindu saying that one who loves God will get enlightened in seven lifetimes, but one who hates God will get enlightened in three!
I was reminded of something in Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. I read it a few years ago, and there was something that had niggled me about it. Of course, there are many things that one might take issue with in that book, but one thing struck me: even though he launched the most virulent attack possible on God, he said that we can be almost certain that God doesn’t exist. It seems to me on reflection that he is being too wimpy: in fact, we can, and should, be completely certain that God doesn’t exist.
The concept of God, in any recognizable form, involves not one, but a cascading series of impossibilities, incoherencies, and contradictions, any one of which is sufficient to dismiss the notion out of hand, but which taken together render the likelihood of God’s existence to be practically zero. Moreoever, there is precisely no evidence in favor of God existing. The only rational conclusion is that God does not exist.
Dawkins, of course, is being a good scientist, and operating within the conservative epistemological framework of modern science, according to which it is not possible to arrive at definite truth about anything. This is all fine and good, but it is not really how things work.
The reality is that we accept many things all the time as being certain. It is certain that today is Monday. It is certain that I am sitting on the floor. It is certain that I am breathing air. Sure, we might do a solipsistic fantasy where we doubt these things for philosophical purposes, but for any pragmatic purpose, these things are certain.
Another way of looking at it is to think of certainty’s opposite, doubt. “Question everything!”: so goes the slogan. Sounds great, but it is completely impossible. If you really questioned everything, you’d never get anything done. I’ll get a glass of water. But is there water? Is there a glass? Am I me? How do I go? And if we really questioned everything, we would not find wisdom, we would be paralyzed and unable to understand anything.
In this way, the standard of “question everything”, or its correlate, “nothing is certain”, becomes just another metaphysical absolute. It becomes an unassailable doctrine; and of course, it begs the question: can we doubt the idea that everything should be doubted?
What science, and Buddhism, actually operate on is far more pragmatic. Truth is approached in a reasonable way, contingently accepting most things as true, and identifying just one thing, or a set of things, as the object of inquiry. How we choose those things is largely based on what matters: for science, to have an improved understanding of the physical world; for Buddhism, to escape from suffering.
So we have a pragmatic approach to truth, and we question things when it appears that questioning is going to be useful. Of course, we don’t know until later whether it actually is useful, but we make our best guess, based on what we have previously learned, and then we see the results.
Rather than saying that everything should be doubted all the time, then, we would be better off saying that anything should be open to be doubted, if by doubting or questioning it we may gain some benefit.
In such discussions, it is customary for theists to say that we really can’t say what God is. This is apparently meant to be an argument in favor of the existence of God, but all it does is to affirm that the concept is ultimately meaningless. I will come back to the meaninglessness of God later on, but for now, I want to refute this idea as it stands.
The concept of God is not so vague that we can’t talk about it. While it can never be 100% pinned down, that is not the point. In fact, pretty much any concept, if pushed too hard, will break down and be impossible to define.
What is relevant is whether there are enough qualities that are commonly accepted to be part of the understanding of God in order that we can have a sensible conversation about it. And of course, there are. God is eternal, he is morally perfect, he is omniscient, omnipotent, infinite in extent, and he created the world. Pretty much any monotheistic theology will accept these and other similar claims about their God. If they reject these, we are probably in the sphere of the pagan small-g gods, to which my argument does not apply. However, any understanding of God that works within these and similar basic qualities will fall squarely within the “impossible”.
Why is God impossible?
If we take at all seriously any of these claims, it becomes immediately apparent that they are simply nonsense.
What could it possibly mean to say that an entity is omnipotent, for example? He can literally do anything: save a bird’s life, raise a man from the dead, start a universe, or shift the orbit of an electron in a hydrogen atom floating in the Horse-Head Nebula.
This is just ridiculous. It has no correlate to anything that we know of the universe. There is nothing in science, nothing in experience, nothing anywhere that gives the slightest credence to this idea.
It violates, in fact, every observable fact about the universe. Everything we have seen, every physical reality that you or I have ever experienced or will experience, operates according to certain well-understood principles. And these things are always limited. Stuff falls down. Energy flows to an equilibrium. Push something and it pushes back. And so on and so on. Every single observation that anyone has ever made of the universe is of this kind.
Sure, there are plenty of details that need working out, and plenty of areas where our knowledge is inadequate. But the only way to extend our knowledge to to start with what we have actually observed and understood, and to work out from there. You can’t just pull out of your hat a kind of thing that is utterly different from every other kind of thing and assert that it is worthy of serious consideration.
And what of omniscience? To know literally everything that is happening now, and in the past and future? Nice idea, but it contradicts everything that we know about how consciousness works. As the Buddha pointed out ad infinitum, consciousness works according to conditions. Those conditions are, like all conditions, limited, impermanent, temporal, and localized.
As I have argued earlier in discussing the “infinite consciousness” ideas that sully much Buddhist mysticism, the notion of a consciousness that has not evolved, that is not embedded in time, that has no relation to the actual consciousness that you and I experience every day of our lives, is nonsense on a stick. You can’t just take away all of the conditions that make consciousness possible and say, a-ha! That’s a consciousness! Omniscience is deeply impossible.
Eternity? Same thing. No one has never experienced anything eternal. It is, in fact, quite impossible to do so. You can’t use a limited impermanent consciousness to experience an infinite period of time, any more than you can take a limited ruler or measuring tape and measure an infinite distance. Even the existence of the past and the future is dodgy enough, much less the notion of eternity.
Impermanence is not merely an arbitrary thing that happens to consciousness: it is how consciousness works. Change is how consciousness learns and grows and becomes. In deep meditation, sure, this process is radically arrested, which is why with limited insight, and the power of attachment to self, it is easy to mistake such states for eternal. But they are not, they are merely dependent on subtle conditions. This was one of the chief insights of the Buddha.
Hopefully I don’t need to continue. The point is simple enough: every quality that is commonly attributed to God is simply a baseless assertion, which contradicts everything that we know about the world as it is, and for which there is no evidence.
Not only is there no evidence currently, it is not possible for there to be any evidence. How could one ever prove that God was omnipotent? What possible means of knowing could there be that could establish this? None whatsoever.
But the impossibility of God goes deeper than this, for not only is every quality of God impossible individually, they are also impossible taken collectively. The most powerful argument here is the argument from evil. God knows all, so he knows not only every bad thing that is done, but how to avoid it. He is all powerful, so he can prevent every evil without harmful side effects. And he is morally perfect, so he will always do the right thing. Yet there is much evil in the world, evil that even a morally imperfect person of limited knowledge and power can eliminate. How is it that God allows this evil to persist?
The theists have been back and forth on this argument for centuries, but I won’t go into all the defences here, and why they don’t work. Suffice to say, the argument from evil is highly robust, and more than that, it is spiritually important as it goes to the heart of why we engage in spiritual practice: the problem of suffering. Any doctrine that aims to address suffering, and does so while leaving such a gaping hole in its heart, is grounded only in the irrational.
The argument from evil is only one of many arguments that philosophers have developed over the years to show that God cannot exist. When we start to take seriously the claims that are intrinsic to the notion of God, the impossibilities cascade one after the other, multiplying the improbability, which was already at vanishing point with the first quality of God.
In addition, there are many other considerations that we could bring to bear. Take, for example, the criteria of usefulness, which is one of the basic standards that any scientific proposal must satisfy. If it was the case that God created the world, surely he would leave some fingerprints somewhere? Surely this fact would be the primary datum underlying any successful physical theory? Surely it would be the single most important fact about the world? Yet those who do science know that not only is the God hypothesis utterly useless in explaining any physical phenomenon whatsoever, it has a positively pernicious influence, which has frequently held back science.
The most pertinent example of this today is of course the ridiculous creationist doctrine in the US and elsewhere. I refuse to dignify it with the term “intelligent design” since what it depicts is neither intelligent nor designed. It is the doctrine that God created the world, and that this explains how all the different animals and plants came to be. Yet this silly dogma has added precisely nothing to our understanding of biology. Nothing, after hundreds of years and countless proponents. It is an utterly barren and useless hypothesis for understanding anything about the world.
Once more, we could continue in this vein indefinitely. There is literally no end to the nonsense that can be argued and justified based on the single mistaken assumption that God exists. So much so that I propose the following: any subject whatsoever, if investigated rationally, disproves the existence of God.
What could be more impossible than God?
Here I’d like to propose a sliding scale of impossibility. We’ll start with things that we can all agree don’t exist, and see how weird we can get before encountering something less likely to exist than God.
How about Unicorns? They don’t exist, right? Even hardened scientsist are agreed on this, I would presume. Yet they are not all that improbable. Basically, a horse with a nice horn; we’ll leave aside the more magical varieties here. They might have existed, but evolution didn’t happen to take that particular step. Now, given the size of the universe, could we not argue that Unicorns probably exist on some world? Sure, why not? But let’s rephrase our tenet: that Unicorns don’t exist on earth. This works just as well for us.
Now, there is still some chance that we might be wrong. After all, new species, including some sizeable mammals, are still being discovered. And Unicorns don’t violate any known laws of science. So they are not completely impossible, but still, so unlikely that no-one gives their existence any serious thought. Yet they are far, far more likely to exist than God.
Next, take Santa Claus. With his flying sled, reindeers with shiny red noses, workshop on the North Pole, and his astonishing ability to visit all the homes of children all around the world on one night (excepting of course the poor and the homeless), he is far less likely to exist than a Unicorn. He violates multiple laws of physics. Moreover, like God, the fact that lots of people believe in him is easily understandable as a wish-fulfilment. We can trace the cultural, historical, psychological, and commercial forces that have led to the cultural phenomenon of Santa Claus, and there is no need to invoke a supernatural explanation.
So he’s impossible, he doesn’t exist: and yet he is still much more likely to exist than God. Flying through the air on a sled is pretty much impossible, but hey, maybe there is some super-advanced technology that might make it happen. And who knows what advances plastic surgery might bring to the burgeoning field of reindeer nose enhancement? Getting to every home on a single night: well, not so easy to explain. But a ton easier than explaining the ability to literally do anything whatsoever. That is far more impossible, if not infinitely more impossible. So God is many, many orders of magnitude less likely to exist than Santa.
Okay, so how about something a little less fanciful? Is it possible, for example, that 2+2=5? (We can rephrase this in ontological terms, if you like: what is the probability that there exists a true statement that “2+2=5”?) Surely there is no-one, not even the most skeptical scientist, who would treat this as possible.
Now, mathematical statements are true or false by definition. Once we know the terms of the problem, we can derive the result that 2+2=4, and it never equals 5. We can do this in pure mathematics, and if we like, we can confirm by empirical observation, as has been done countless thousands of times.
But the history of science is full of examples of apparently self-evident axioms turning out to be anything but. A classic example is the Euclidean “a straight line is the shortest distance between two points”. Self-evident, provable by theorem, and confirmed by countless tests: yet still wrong. Einstein showed that the shortest distance between two points is in fact a curve, due to the influence of gravity.
It is this kind of example that leads to the idea that everything should be questioned. Yet Euclid’s theorem served perfectly well for thousands of years, as indeed it still does today, except when calculating spaceship trajectories and the like. It only became useful to question it when certain theoretical developments forced a new approach, which was subsequently confirmed by observation.
So it is possible that “2+2=5” might turn out to be correct. Perhaps our notion of a number is faulty. Perhaps we are living in a tiny pocket of a much larger Universe where a different mathematics applies. Of course, incredibly unlikely, but still more likely than that God exists.
To make 2+2=5 we would have to revolutionize our understanding of numbers and their relations. This would lead to some changes in our culture, just like changing the idea about straight lines led to some changes, such as improvements in astronomy and understanding of the cosmos. But the existence of God would require an even bigger, wholesale rejection of everything we have ever seen and learned about the Universe. No law of physics, no conception of time and space, no moral principles, no history, no nothing would escape revision. To conclude: the statement “God exists” is vastly less likely to be true than the statement “2+2=5”.
Okay, so what is less likely than this? What about something that is just plain meaningless? There’s Chomsky’s classic “green ideas sleep furiously”; a sentence that is grammatical but meaningless. Can we say of this that it is true or false? In other words, can we make an ontological statement of the form: there exists a true sentence thus: “green ideas sleep furiously”? Well, it would seem unlikely, and the philosophers would mostly say no. But for our purposes, perhaps it is still relevant. Such a statement, unlike 2+2=5, is not even wrong. It simply doesn’t have enough semantic clarity to be the kind of thing that might exist. If anything, then, we could say that it is less likely to exist.
Yet it is still not entirely out of the question. The statement, like the statement 2+2=5, depends on meaning, and meaning is a slippery beast. There have been multiple attempts to create a linguistic context where “green ideas sleep furiously” is in fact meaningful. Whether these are successful or not, it is still the case that the statement might be made meaningful. And if it is meaningful, it might be true.
As with the previous example, if we were to find a way in which this statement were to be made meaningful and even true, it would involve some revision in our understanding, in this case, of linguistics, and possibly in the nature of colors, ideas, sleep, or furiosity.
Yet this would be far less of a revolution than if we discovered that God exists. To work it out would require no more than some rational philosophy, whereas to apprehend the reality of an existent God requires an entirely new way of knowing the world, one that has no relation to anything that anyone has ever experienced. Once more we conclude: the statement “God exists” is vastly less likely to be true than that there exists a true sentence thus: “green ideas sleep furiously”.
I’m reaching here. I’m finding it hard to come up with things that are less probable than this. Maybe someone can help me out! But I suspect that the point has been made.
God doesn’t exist. If we are to use the word “certain” of anything, it is this. The existence of God is not merely unlikely, but of such monumental improbability that the word “impossible” doesn’t do it justice. We simply don’t have language that fully captures the degree of improbability of God. The normal things that we call “impossible” are infinitely more likely to be true than that God exists.
If this argument is correct, then we might wonder why so many people believe in something so improbable? There are plenty of intelligent, sensitive, and sincere theists: if it is really so obvious, how have they missed it?
I don’t want to get too much into the psychology of religion here, but I will return briefly to the question of meaning. It was an axiom of the logical positivists that metaphysical statements, such as “God exists” are, in a profound sense, meaningless. They constitute a use of language which, while outwardly following the normal grammar and syntax of language, has no content.
I think there is something to this idea; but it is not something that happens incidentally. God must be understood in a way that is beyond the reach of reason and evidence, despite the efforts of countless theologians to the contrary. As soon as God comes within the sway of ordinary evidence, of logic, or of meaning, he enters the profane world; he becomes sullied by the world and withdraws from it it in fear. This is a fundamental drive of the religious impulse; it moves towards the irrational. And there, as a symbol or a feeling or an impression, God has a genuine place.
It is the meaninglessness of the concept of God, the utterness of its impossibility, that makes it such a fertile and powerful idea; that allows it, in fact, to become the focus of meaning for so many people. It is precisely God’s lack of linguistic meaning that endows him with a surplus of spiritual meaning.
This points to, I believe, something more subtle about the notion of God. For some, he is a signifier of a higher reality, a reality that cannot be captured by words and reason. And there is something true about this: there are genuinely higher levels of consciousness that are not accessible to the rational mind, and in this sense the notion of God can genuinely lead towards spiritual development.
The problem is that God is a confused bearer of this meaning. Some things are not rational because they go beyond reason; but other things are not rational because they fall beneath reason. So while God can raise some people to a higher spiritual realization, he is just as likely to drag his followers beneath reason, back to the mire of irrationality, fundamentalism, and dogmatic immorality. The reason for this is not hard to find: God has evolved from the brutal warrior deity of a primitive tribal people, and he still keeps alive many of his traits from the bad old days. While some enlightened believers find a way to get past that, the old ways are still there, and can be backed up by countless passages from scripture.
If we are interested in moving beyond reason, there is no need to invoke a set of theistic beliefs; the Buddha showed this 2500 years ago. The important thing is the expansion of consciousness, and for this God is irrelevant. In recent surveys, many theists agree that atheists are just as likely to be good people, and sometimes they even say that religion does more harm than good. We need a framework for genuine spiritual development which inspires, as God sometimes does, a movement towards greater compassion and wisdom, while avoiding the brutality, the sexism, and the ignorance that God all too often draws in his wake.