Some theological/metaphysical musings

Last week, a friend of mine sent me part of a written conversation he’d been having with another friend of his, as they were discussing some big questions of life, the universe and everything. He asked me how I would reply to some of the points and queries. I think this lays out quite well my thinking on a few issues and how I tackle such problems on metaphysics.

I don’t know how that conversation is progressing, but I hope it’s positive. I hope you find this helpful too. The original message is in red and my responses are those in black. Any hyperlinks have been added for this blog post only and were not included in the original correspondence.

Sorry for not getting back sooner. I’ve been a bit busy. No need to apologise for the length of your reply. I’d much rather that than a pithy response. I can appreciate that it must be a difficult question to try and answer.

I have to admit that as I read through your message there were a couple of things that stood out to me as confusing. There first being the notion of “trusting in the unknown”.  I find that a difficult concept to comprehend. For me, it makes much more sense to put trust in things you know. In fact, I would go so far to say that putting trust in the unknowable seems logically paradoxical. But that right there might be where I struggle with understanding a person’s faith. Or rather their leap of faith.

I would rather put it as trust in that which we not 100% sure about. To my thinking, the word “unknowable” means we can’t even start to know anything about it. Rather, I would say that God cannot be completely understood; we can’t give a neat definition of God that encapsulates every idea we have about it and which allows for a dissection. To put trust in God then is not a leap into the dark. It is a step onto ground where we don’t know if the footing is good.

To extend the metaphor (which, by nature is flawed), my view is that God is more like a foreign country to be explored. We may all have started at different points and explored a locality, but no one has had the time to cover all the ground, some of which is smooth, some of which is rocky. So for me, the idea of faith is being willing to poke around in this strange land.

The other bit that stood out to me as a difficult thing to get my head around is this bit, “and feel I know to be true”. I really don’t understand how feeling something is related to knowing it it’s true or not. For me, the only way I can make a judgement on whether something is true or not is by reviewing what evidence is available. Whilst I think that having a feeling, or a hunch or even a belief is important it shouldn’t influence the outcome of whether something is true or not. Again all I might be highlighting here is my inability to accept a leap of faith.

I would agree with you here. Subjective feelings are not the best basis for one’s worldview. It raises an interesting question as to whether someone can believe something that is true for wrong reasons. I would suggest that the answer is ‘yes’ and that this is such an example.

I know people who have been lost their faith because of the way they have been treated by other people in churches. Does the fact they’ve been treated badly show the non-existence of God? I don’t think so. All it shows is that christians can be just as capricious as anyone else. Likewise, someone may believe in God because of a coincidence that saved their life. Some friends of my sister were due for a tour of the World Trade Centre on 9/11 but stayed at the hotel because one of them had a cold. Does that prove God’s existence? No. Not least because it would be an insult to the families of those who died.

For my part, the reasons for my belief have changed in the years since I became a christian. Like you, I favour an evidenced-based approach over a subjective one. For all the clever arguments both for and against the existence of God, as interesting and as persuasive as they may be, I am not convinced that either side has ever given conclusive proof of their point of view. It’s like two people on either side of a brick wall trying to push it over.

While belief in God is a very important question that must be addressed, I am no longer convinced it is the best way to approach the claims of various world religions. Instead, I prefer the historical approach – what can we reasonably know about their origins? So for me, as a christian, I would start not with the idea of the creator God in Genesis, but with the man: Jesus of Nazareth.

Likewise, if you are to look at Islam, I don’t think it’s best to look at the ideas that are (and aren’t!) preached by Muslims, but by looking at Muhammad.

In Jesus, there is a huge swing in the belief that sprung up in his wake. He was raised as a Jew, and lived in a Jewish community under Roman occupation. Yet what he said and did clearly rattled the cages of both the Jewish and Roman authorities at the time. Some of those who followed him thought he was a Messiah – a special kind of prophet who would end the occupation. But he was by no means the only one of that time (c.f. Monty Python: “You are the Messiah. I should know; I’ve followed a few!”).

But what distinguished Jesus from the others was that the movement didn’t die after he did, it erupted. The rapid growth of christianity (as a radically reformed form of Judaism) was unlike any other religious movement, as was the claim that Jesus had risen from the dead. Comparing to other post-mortem ideas in the cultures of the time, this was a variation on the Jewish idea, but was still markedly different.

So the question then has to be asked: why did this belief arise and why was it so potent? The answer I have come to is that something significant must have happened on that Easter weekend. It is from that conclusion that the rest of my christianity begins.

There are, of course, lots of questions that can be raised about the texts – such as textual criticism, form criticism and redaction criticism. Not all of those questions can be answered here, but I’d be happy to expand if you wanted me to.

You said you’d be interested to hear my thoughts, well I’ll try and convey them as best as I can. I have a deep interest and admiration for nature. For reality. It would be fair to say that I am in awe of it. That is why I think of myself as a pantheist as opposed to an atheist. Whilst I have no belief in a supernatural being, I am uncomfortable with the term atheist as I’m really not that interested in things I don’t believe. There are plenty of things I don’t believe in, and therefore I don’t see the point of defining myself by something that I don’t believe in.

As a pantheist, I would suggest that I often find myself thinking about the same big existential questions that people of faith must think. How and why are we here? etc. It also makes me marvel at the undeniable beauty that exists in reality. This is probably the closest thing I have to having a belief. Throughout nature there appears to be an aesthetic that is governed by principles of symmetry, structure and pattern. However, this does not in any way lead me to think of a creator though, but does lead to believe that whatever the process is that has created everything we can observe, at the very least, it is a process that has involved maths.

Take the Fibonacci sequence for example. This simple mathematical formula brings up a sequence of numbers that appears so frequently throughout nature that you could pretty much get rid of any other mathematical formula in history and still have trouble denying that maths has not played a part in creation.

I’ve read a quote before that “God is a mathematician.” Having done a maths degree, I was astonished to see how much of the universe can be described by maths. The “higher” I got in my education, the more physics and maths merged into one, so that even though I was on a maths degree, I still studied subjects such as quantum mechanics, general relativity, electrodynamics and fluid dynamics. Not that I remember much of the detail now, though!

I would be hesitant to say that appearance of design implies a designer. Such was the thinking of William Paley, but I think this was adequately countered by, say, Richard Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker (though, of course, I don’t agree with him on all fronts; you will not be surprised to hear).

The trouble I have with the pantheistic view of appealing to aesthetic and the beauty of nature is that it seems to look at the world through rose-tinted glasses. If I have understood you correctly, which I may well not have done, then your statement of pantheism implies that “nature is god” – no need for a supernatural being, because ‘god’ is a label that we use to describe the whole of reality. But then that would entail the violence we see in nature: the sickness, the death, etc. How does the cancer cell, the parasite and the volcano fit in with “the undeniable beauty that exists in reality” – is that ‘god’ too or is that something else? If so, what?

So there are my thoughts on the matter. I’d be interested to find out what your response to it would be? I’m glad you take no offence to me asking you frank questions. My only intention is to have an engaging discussion on the matter. In the past I have found that some theists react in a way that suggests I have offended them by even questioning their faith. A reaction which always frustrates me, especially as I have no intention of offending anyone.

There is no offence taken. How many answers were ever given when no question was ever asked? I think the reason some theists take offence is because they haven’t asked themselves the right questions first. There ought to be no shame in saying “I don’t know,” “Let me look that up,” or “Can I phone a friend?” – in writing this I’ve used the backspace key and rephrased things a few times; something I can’t do when I’m speaking, which is why and many other theists like may say stupid things sometimes. That’s not to say my writing is perfect either…

So back with the faith stuff (and I know I am replying before you managed to have a full ramble, so I hope you don’t mind)…

The first point I would take issue with is that the observation of pattern and order (such as the Fibonacci sequence) in the natural world, does not logically lead to the evidence of a designer or creator. In fact if anything, it is contrary evidence to that claim, as it shows how very simple rules can create massively complex outcomes. In other words, when we observe beauty within subjects through properties of pattern, symmetry and structure, we are simply observing the end result of simple rules repeated over and over again, rather than something that owes it’s aesthetic qualities to a grand plan from a designer or creator. Unless you are attributing this actual process as ‘God’. In which case I would say that this definition of God is more aligned to a Pantheist’s interpretation and has no correlation to a supernatural being.

I would agree with you here. The ‘argument from design’ or teleological argument is certainly interesting, but I wouldn’t like to let my faith live or die by it. A great example of simple rules leading to complexity was demonstrated by John Conway’s ‘Game of Life’ – a little computer programme you can download off the web. It uses simple rules to decide if a square on a grid is black or white, depending on the colour of its neighbouring squares. Then, you decide the starting set up and let the programme run. It’s fascinating!

The interesting thing is that the rules still needed to be determined by a computer programmer. The analogy being that God designed the rules of physics, maths, chemistry and biology. Now I would say this reflects how I think God acts in the universe, but I would be hesitant to use it as an argument *for* God. I think that’s putting the cart before the horse.

But it does raise one further interesting point: Which is greater? The God who created the universe in six literal days, fully formed and teeming with life or the God who created the rules which allowed the universe to create itself? I’m not saying I have a definite answer or that either side is a great reflection of different worldviews, but I do think it’s interesting.

I don’t think I have come across Louis Giglio, but I’d certainly be open to seeing any of his videos that you fancy linking me up with. However, the second point I’d like to expand on is (I know I might be accidentally misinterpreting what you meant btw) the misleading response to aspects of scientific knowledge. I got a sense from what you said above that Louis Giglio is referring to bits of science which seems to incredibly ‘lucky’ or ‘unbelievably find tuned’ that it would suggest it must have been specially created. If tiny, minute details had been ever so slightly different then the outcome would mean that we could never exist. Whilst that might be true, it holds no logical ground for defending the existence of a God. If the conditions had been different then the universe would not have been able to spawn creatures of conscience and intelligence. In other words, any being capable of observing the universe is bound to marvel at how finely tuned it appears to be for their existence. If the universe wasn’t like that then they would not be there to observe it. It is more a case of being inevitable rather than incredible chance.

I’m not sure if you’ve read the term, but what you’ve just described is known as the ‘anthropic principle’. In the past I’ve used this as an argument for God, but I don’t anymore. I now think that it’s another appeal to the ‘God of the gaps’ hypothesis.

As I said earlier, there are bad reasons for belief, and I now think this is one of them. What takes care, though, is not throw the baby out with the bathwater. As various ‘proofs of God’ have been put-forward by various well-meaning (and maybe some not so well-meaning) people and have been refuted, to my way of thinking this only shows that that particular reason is faulty, but not the idea of God itself. To do that, I think, would need a more proactive theory on the part of atheists. Will either side ever come up with a convincing argument? I don’t think they will, at least not in my lifetime. But then I believe that on the balance of the evidence I’ve seen so far, but lacking the certainty that comes with mathematical proof; or as I call it, faith.

I hope you’re enjoying this exchange? I certainly am. I enjoy thinking about these things and I am genuinely interested in how a theist interprets the world around them. If you are interested, I would be happy to point you towards some videos that explain some of my views more articulately and in more detail?

It would be unfair for me to refuse to view any videos or read any books, if I am to suggest any to you (as I am about to)! So by all means, send anything my way. I would not suggest Louis Giglio; as interesting as he is, I think some of the arguments he used, not least about a crucifix-shaped protein, are rather lacking in substance. Instead, I would suggest checking out the Veritas Forum. If you’ve come across TED talks, these are in the same vein, but with a more religious/philosophical/metaphysical bent than TED. There are quite a few videos on there, the most of watched are those by NT (Tom) Wright – a former bishop of Durham and an excellent communicator.

If you want to follow up with any writers more eloquent than I, I would suggest a book called ‘Belief: readings on the reasons for faith’ – which is a compilation of various writings from well known figures such as C.S. Lewis, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, etc. and some lesser known figures.

You’re more than welcome to borrow my copy if you want – but only if you suggest reading for me!

One response to “Some theological/metaphysical musings

  1. What, then, do we have to complain about? Well, a bit of contemplation should reveal that this kind of reasoning might, if we grant you a certain definition of “nothing,” explain how the universe could arise from nothing. But it doesn’t, and doesn’t even really try to, explain why there is something rather than nothing — why this particular evolution of the wave function, or why even the apparatus of “wave functions” and “Hamiltonians” is the right way to think about the universe at all. And maybe you don’t care about those questions, and nobody would question your right not to care; but if the subtitle of your book is “Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing,” you pretty much forfeit the right to claim you don’t care.