The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Nought God Proof

By Separating What We Truly Know from What We Fear/Desire, Science and Religion Can Find Communion

In Sunday’s New York Times, religious writer and editor Nathan Schneider finds himself ruminating over Anselm of Canterbury, the Eleventh Century Benedictine monk, philosopher, and theologian, who in 1077 had a self-described epiphany of logic in which he provided, most certainly to his own satisfaction, indisputable proof of God’s existence.

Subsequently published as his Proslogion, Anselm developed his proof along these lines. Humans recognize God as a Supreme Being who is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent – “that than which nothing greater can be conceived,” to use Anselm’s exact phrasing. Yet if this Supreme Being existed only in the intellect it would not be the greatest thing conceivable, since it would not exist in reality as well. Thus, Anselm concluded triumphantly, God must exist in reality.

Anselm loved his proof precisely because it rejected the cause and effect reasoning based on observations of physical reality that form the basis for modern scientific empiricism, relying instead on pure, abstract reason. It was an ontological argument, the goal of the Greek philosophers; what Aristotle called a “self-thinking thought.” Anselm’s critics, and there have been many, felt it was more derisively deemed a “self-satisfying thought,” in which humanity’s desire for God somehow proved God’s existence.

Atheists insist God is nothing more than a product of humanity’s collective desires. One of the most contentious battlefields on which believers and non-believers have waged their campaigns is the theory of evolution. Now some Darwinists are arguing that God is a direct (albeit regrettable) product of evolution. Writer Jeff Smith published a particularly pithy breakdown of this argument in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer back in 2006.

“It's our biology that gives us a long childhood. And our long childhood gives us time to learn all the things we need to know to survive in this world . . .

“We learn to learn. We learn to look for meaning and evidence, to ask questions. We learn that our parents know the answers to our questions – all the questions we know how to ask when we are young. In fact, we learn that there is always an answer . . .

“Our desire for certainty, even for absolute knowledge, is built into us just as surely as our brains are. And the anxiety of not knowing – about what's around the corner, about imminent danger, about the threats of the weather – has led us to fashion answers and a source of those answers . . .

“And all of this happens because it's the way we have learned to survive. If we didn't do it, we wouldn't survive as a species. It's the essence of natural selection. God is a product of evolution.”

Along comes Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, to make peace between the two camps. Given the title of his most recent book, The Evolution of God, one might think he was squarely in the atheist camp. In fact, the book is primarily about the evolution of religion. While Wright explores religion’s limitations and problems, he also gives credence to what it contains that is useful, even to non-believers.

He posits to have found just that in a long op-ed piece from Saturday’s New York Times, using yet another famous starting point for proof of God existence – the presence of a human moral imperative.

This line of reasoning runs that while cultural differences and individual experience can cause us to disagree among ourselves about what is right and what is wrong, an innate, universal sense exists within all people that there is such a thing as right and wrong. We perceive the distinction not as relativism but absolute law and feel guilt when we break it. The argument continues this moral sense comes from somewhere outside ourselves and then traces its source to God.

Wright has no interest in the metaphysical arguments behind a moral imperative but he argues there is a natural biological tendency toward “reciprocal altruism” anytime you have sufficiently intelligent beings thrown into social situations. Moreover, just as physical and biological laws ensure sufficiently complex protein chains become self-replicating, passing along their traits to their descendants, so the laws governing the infrastructures and interactions among intelligent social beings leading toward increased survival chances are consistent and have always existed.

In this sense, the set of rules and behavior we term “morality” are absolute and not human inventions, although our discovery of them helped codify and increase their usefulness to us. It is also in this sense that Wright feels non-believers can find religion (and God) useful and even admirable.

Doubtless, Wright is as self-delighted with his epiphany as was Anselm with his own nearly a thousand years earlier. This is because Wright’s insight exalts the importance of non-zero sum games, an old favorite of his, not only in our modern interconnected world but throughout human evolution.

Still, even if morality is absolute, it is still subjectively understood. And disagreement over what is moral, in combination with a moral imperative, is arguably a quality that has contributed to war and other forms of human suffering over our often-bloody history. The argument that we mortals but do the gods’ bidding or act as soldiers carrying out God’s Divine Plan has often been not a help but rather a hindrance to our survival. It would seem that revelation is dangerous when it comes without full understanding.

Of all Anselm’s critics, Immanuel Kant seemed to understand this best. In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant wrote –

“The concept of a Supreme Being is, in many respects, a very useful idea, but, being an idea only, it is quite incapable of increasing, by itself alone, our knowledge with regard to what exists. It cannot even do so much as to inform us any further as to its possibility . . . Time and labor therefore are lost on the famous ontological proof of the existence of a Supreme Being from mere concepts; and a man might as well imagine that he could become richer in knowledge by mere ideas, as a merchant in capital, if, in order to improve his position, he were to add a few noughts to his cash account.”

Schneider notes that, much like Wright, Anselm was less concerned over God’s existence in his famous proof (he already took that for granted) but rather finding some common ground about “how we think about God and about one another.” He describes how, despite being a young initiate in a monastery, Anselm was constantly reaching out, mostly by letter, to form friendships with as many people as possible. Anselm was both astounded and delighted by the selfless love capable between himself and others. Schneider concludes, “The God he conjured in proof he had learned from his friends.”

Anselm incorrectly believed revelation was full understanding, perhaps to his detriment and that of many others. But it is important to note that he was not wrong so much as he satisfied himself with an incomplete answer.

Likewise, it is wisdom to note that all human beings appear bound at some level by a shared moral imperative. Yet assuming this sense must come from some outside force is simply Kant’s equivalent of adding a nought to our intellectual capital. Make that outside force a supernatural being and add a few more noughts. Make that being the Supreme Creator of the Universe and we find “that than which nothing greater can be conceived” is mostly composed of noughts. At some point, we have left the path of wisdom.

Wright and countless other thinkers are correct that scientific empiricism need not be at war with faith. The trick is to understand where the real battle lies. Rather than spending wasted hours attempting to prove “not God,” reasonable men and women need to separate the Truths we can all agree on from the noughts which have been tacked on to them as a result of our all-too-human fears and desires.

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