Society and God
An Inquiry into the Foundations of the Human World
A Lecture Series with Prof. Thomas Patrick Burke
Lecture 2: The Question of God
As the Gospel of John says, "No man has at any time seen God." God is not an object of empirical or sense-experience. This means that a certain amount of caution is needed in making statements about him. Fundamentally, human beings have only two sources of knowledge: experience and reasoning. Since we do not experience God by means of our five senses, it follows that our only source of knowledge about him can be given through reasoning. Of course we all receive a great amount of our knowledge through the words of other people. This is not an additional or independent source of knowledge, however, but a form of reasoning, since it depends on our prior judgment that the statements made by certain people are trustworthy.
The first question some people will undoubtedly want to ask is: why bother about God? Nobody has ever seen him or heard him, apart from some fantastic stories. He does not seem to make much difference in the real world. People who pay attention to him, who pray to him and worship him, seem to suffer just as much from the evils of life as those who don’t. It is not a question of saving morality, for people who ignore God or disbelieve in him seem able to live lives that are just as moral, just as concerned about the needs of others, as those who go to church. At least this is widely maintained. Some people talk about a future life, an existence after death when we will be judged by God, but there is no genuine evidence that our conscious existence continues after death. On the contrary, all the evidence we have is that death is final. This is one thing that Darwin definitely achieved. Although after his work it is still theoretically possible to believe in God’s existence, since the two are not in absolute contradiction, it is much harder to believe in an afterlife, since few people believe in it for animals, and Darwin’s work seems to have shown beyond any shadow of doubt that we are descended from animals. And notoriously, no one has ever come back from beyond the grave to tell us what that alleged life is like. What do we gain, then, by bothering ourselves about God? We have enough to do already. The problems of this world are real; those of the alleged next are just a distraction.
More than that, God is unnecessary. He is not necessary to explain the world, because whatever is capable of being explained will one day most likely be explained by science. This at least is the view we hear from scientists, such as Steven Hawking. And he is not necessary to explain the rules of morality, because they can be explained sufficiently by reference to human experience and intelligence or reason. All together, then, it seems a waste of time to obsess about God.
Even if we should decide that the mere slim chance there might be some kind of continuing existence after death, contrary to all appearances, warrants us in being at least concerned about God, there are weighty reasons for thinking no such being actually exists. The main reason, which has always been the strongest argument against God, is the existence of suffering and evil in the world. As David Hume argued, what we mean by God is a being who is all powerful and all good. But if God is all-powerful, he has the power to abolish suffering and evil. And if he is all-good, he must certainly desire to abolish them. But the fact is, they have not been abolished. On the contrary, they are unfortunately very much with us. So it does not make sense to believe in God. What is God for, if he exists?
Finally, the arguments that some philosophers and theologians have devised to prove God’s existence have been thoroughly discredited, it seems. For everyone agrees that the ontological argument put forward by Anselm and Descartes is discredited, namely that the mere concept of God suffices to prove his existence; and Kant argued persuasively that all the other arguments are just disguised versions of the ontological argument.
In this brief summary, we have given, I believe, the main elements of the objections commonly raised against belief in God. Is there anything of substance to say against them?
In these lectures I would like to explore certain contrary theses. They are:
Life must precede non-life.
There exists a necessary being.
The order of the world can be explained only by an intelligence.
The moral order can be explained only by the existence of a supremely good, moral being.
A supremely moral being must have certain other characteristics of much interest to us.
Thesis 1: Life must precede non-life.
In the previous series of lectures I argued that life cannot be reduced to non-life (the inanimate or dead) or completely explained by non-life. If that is the case, it makes no sense to believe that non-life can produce or give rise to life. From which it follows that, in the totality of things, life must precede non-life. In other words there must have been a living being that existed before the natural and inanimate world came into being, and that indeed caused the world to come into existence.
This is Plato's argument for the existence of God in the Laws. He was perfectly clear and certain in his belief that life cannot possibly arise out of non-life. His reason was that life involves a unique kind of causality: living things have the power to move themselves, which dead or inanimate things do not. But Aristotle disagreed. He argued, first, that nothing can move itself, not even God. For according to Aristotle's theory of change or motion, it would be a contradiction in terms. Change, he maintained, including all motion, is a transition from potentiality to actuality. This can only be induced by something that already possesses the actuality. When something that is cold becomes hot, for example, that happens only because there is something that is already hot, such as a fire, which acts upon the cold object and heats it up, said Aristotle. For something to move itself would involve a contradiction because it would have to be both in potentiality and in actuality in the same respect at the same time: both cold and hot at the same time.
This leads Aristotle then to view life in a very different light. When a living thing moves, that is, when it appears to move itself, that is because one part of it, which is already in motion, moves another part, says Aristotle. The dog lying asleep in front of the fire, for example, gets up and walks around because its heart is already beating, and that motion is transferred to its legs. How does the heart come to be beating? Aristotle answers that question ultimately in terms of astronomy: the universe consists, in his view, of concentric spheres, the earth at the center, and all the motion on the earth comes from the sphere immediately around it, that of the moon, which in turn is moved by the sphere outside it, that of the sun, and so on till we come to the outermost sphere, which is moved by the Deity. This movement by the Deity, however, is not caused by any action of the Deity, but by the Deity's inherent beauty or goodness, which attracts the outermost sphere into motion. As Dante put it, the universe is kept in motion by love for God. Life, then, in Aristotle's view, is mechanical or mechanistic. It never originates motion, for that would require it to change, but always just receives it from outside, and ultimately from the attraction exerted by God. Aristotle's universe is filled with teleology, but it is a mechanistic teleology.
Since life has no special form of causality, there is no intrinsic reason in Aristotle's theory why life should not arise from non-life. He is able, therefore, to tell us that it is obvious that aphids are generated by the dew in which we sometimes find them. This is commonly called "spontaneous generation," and it was universally accepted after Aristotle until modern times.
For the sake of clarity I'm going to introduce now two related terms: biogenesis and abiogenesis. Biogenesis in this terminology is the theory that life can only emerge out of life. Abiogenesis means the theory that life can arise out of non-life. (These are at least the current meanings of the terms, since Thomas Huxley; earlier they were somewhat confused.) So in these terms Aristotle's theory was one of abiogenesis, while Plato's theory would be considered a form of biogenesis.
Beginning in the 17th century a number of scientists undertook to prove that life could not arise out of non-life (Redi 1668, Needham 1745, Spallanzani 1768), but the question remained in dispute till 1864 when Louis Pasteur demonstrated to general satisfaction that life does not arise out of non-life. This was considered a triumph of biogenesis and science, exploding Aristotle's abiogenesis once and for all.
In recent years, however, this triumph has been reversed. As we have seen in previous lectures, modern science is mechanistic. It assumes as a principle that there is only one kind of causality in the world, mechanistic causality, from which it follows that there is no difference in that regard between what is alive and what is not alive. It seems natural for scientists then to assume that life can arise out of non-life. In other words, Aristotle's abiogenesis, which 100 years ago was considered definitively disposed of, is now all the rage. There are now many thousands of scientists around the globe who are desperately attempting to establish it experimentally. So far, it is true, this has not happened, but the scientific community is sitting on the edge of its collective seat in anticipation of its happening at any time. If life should be discovered on Mars, that will have great significance, because it will establish, despite Pasteur, that life can arise out of non-life after all (so long, of course, as it was not taken there from earth by one of the machines we have sent there). And in that event, Plato's argument for the existence of God will fall.
Until that happens, however, I am a skeptic. For there are strong reasons not to expect it. One of these reasons was highlighted by the celebrated physicist, Erwin Schrödinger, in his small book, What Is Life? published in 1944. He draws attention to the fact that life in a certain sense goes against the universally accepted Second Law of Thermodynamics, otherwise known as the law of entropy. Entropy is, roughly, disorder. The law of entropy is that energy degrades. Whenever energy is exchanged it tends to go from a higher or more organized form, such as electricity, to a lower or less organized form such as heat. Stated more scientifically, when a system that is not alive is isolated from outside influences it decays to equilibrium, a permanent state where no further events occur. Entropy is not a vague notion, but can be determined mathematically.
This decay into equilibrium is related to the fact that the laws of physics are statistical; that is, they are averages over very large numbers. They do not necessarily hold for individual items. Schrödinger gives the example of Brownian motion, which can be seen in the dancing particles in the air when a ray of sunlight falls against a dark background. This motion can be described with great accuracy by mathematical equations, but they hold only for large numbers of atoms. A similar example is given by the rules for the phenomenon of diffusion, as when you put a drop of colored liquid in water and the color spreads slowly throughout the water, as it were of its own accord. But these are only examples. It is a general truth about the laws of physics that they are statistical.
Living beings, however, are very different from this. They resist the decay to equilibrium: they possess devices to maintain their state of order. It is true that if you consider the whole system including the waste or byproducts of the living being, the law of entropy still holds good. But in the local area of the living being it does not: by itself it is anti-entropic. And the laws that govern living beings are not statistical, but apply to small numbers or even directly to individuals. The atoms and molecules that make our DNA, for example, cannot undergo the incessant heat motion that characterizes the atoms in a rock. If you wish to create life out of non-life, then, you must somehow create, out of objects that are subject to entropy, one that actively resists entropy, and at the same time you must create out of the statistical laws of physics a space where the laws of physics are no longer statistical. These are no small tasks.
In my recent lecture on Purposes (Lecture 6 of the series last spring on Science and Life) I gave a number of other reasons why abiogenesis is not likely to be proven true. For example, in purely mechanical events there is no basis whatever for assigning a concept of value, either good or bad, but as soon as a living being arrives on the scene it transpires immediately that some things are good for it and other things bad, irrespective of the intentions of human agents concerned with them.
The celebrated biologist Ernst Mayr gives a number of similar considerations regarding the differences between physical and biological systems in his paper on The Autonomy of Biology (Arndt Lecture, 2002).
For these reasons therefore, as I say, I am skeptical that life can arise out of non-life, until it has actually been demonstrated.