The idea of the divine or God is, if you think clearly about it, a very strange concept. To many contemporary scientifically minded people it is childish and even laughable to believe in God. They contend that the physical material world is all there is. So why invent ghost stories? For example, the prominent atheist polemicist Christopher Hitchens contends that as a child it was obvious to him that God did not exist and that the concept of the divine was inherently ridiculous.1
We are sensual creatures. We live by taste, touch, sight and sound but religion demands belief in something that does not come into contact with our physical senses – something we cannot prove. Since we cannot prove the existence of the spiritual realm, anyone who claims to believe in one may just as well be suffering from a delusion. Yet throughout history many people have claimed to believe the same things about an unprovable God. Were they all suffering from a collective delusion?
Well yes and no we would like to answer. We respond that early primitive humans who believed in the supernatural were just doing their best with their paltry knowledge of the universe. On the other hand, modern humans blessed with the depth of contemporary scientific knowledge should know better.
We assume that our less sophisticated ancestors were susceptible to religious beliefs because of their scientific ignorance. Now we have left these primitive beliefs behind and moved on. However, there are a couple of problems with this theory. First, religious belief, perhaps not in the orthodox forms of previous generations, but belief in some sort of spirituality – something more than the physical – is stubbornly persistent even in so-called advanced post-modern societies. Second, when examined in detail, the foundations of the assumption that ancient humans were inevitably drawn to belief in the supernatural are not as certain as some might like to think.
The common materialist (by materialist I mean the theory that there is nothing more than the physical world – no spiritual realm) explanation for the advent of belief in the divine proceeds as follows. Primitive humans found themselves in a big bad world surrounded by things they did not understand – things that could kill them. They were afraid. They were taught that everything they could not understand about the physical world was due to the existence of a spiritual realm that intervened in their everyday material world. As time moved on, gods became more sophisticated and some of their writings were “discovered”. Early primitive polytheism became monotheism. So far so good, right? But does this explanation make sense when we look at it more closely?
Did ancient humans who shared our reliance on the physical senses have a spiritual sense that helped them divine the existence of the supernatural? The materialist must of course respond to this question in the negative. To admit that ancient humans had some sort of spiritual sense would lead to questions about what happened to this sense and whether we still have it today. So, the materialist must fall back on the theory that some human or humans invented the divine, but in doing so he or she must be consistent. That is, he or she cannot maintain that modern humans are born rational materialist skeptics but that ancient humans were born irrational spiritual mystics. So, the materialist must wrestle with the following question: why would those who were just as dependent on “I’ll believe it when I see it” be so willing to structure their entire lives around the unseen and the untouchable?
Two assumptions underlie the theory that man invented God. First, some human or humans were born into a world without the concept of the supernatural. Second, some early human looked at the physical world (he or she must have been brilliant – a genius even) and came up with the theory that there was an unseen world higher than ours that exercised control over the physical world in some fashion.
This discovery or invention of the supernatural resulted from one of two motives. The first potential motive was the desire to explain the unknown in the light of unsophisticated scientific knowledge – the Einsteinian motive. If the inventor of the divine was driven but the Einsteinian motive, his or her goal was to help other humans understand the physical world better. The second potential motive was to invent God to gain control and power over others – the Machiavellian motive. If the inventor of the divine was animated by the Machiavellian motive he or she determined that if he or she told everyone there was a God in the sky who will punish them if they do wrong things he or she could control behavior and gain immense power. These are assumptions because of course we cannot travel back in time and find “believer zero” – the first human to invent the divine.
But the invention of the supernatural was a huge paradigm shift. Why didn’t the first person that heard the God explanation laugh and call the inventor a fool? If the divine was invented by some ancient genius whose name has been lost (of course the inventor would want to keep the fact that the supernatural was a human invention quiet) then others around him or her had no concept of the divine. Is it not more likely than not in such a scenario that people the inventor told about the divine, who were just as sense dependent as we are today, would have found the concept of non-physical beings ridiculous and wondered whether the inventor was delusional?
If you object that it wasn’t the invention of one particular person at a particular time because it was an idea common to all humans, the materialist explanation is in trouble. If someone did not invent the divine were humans born with a conception of the supernatural? If that is true, the supernatural was not invented and did not evolve over time into the religions we find today. Because if the idea of the supernatural is a concept that humans are born with, the materialist explanation for the supernatural is wrong and we must ask whether this spiritual sense persists today.
Similarly, if you object that it occurred to many at the same time this does not solve your problem either. Each of these discoverers would be subject to individual ridicule just as if there were one believer zero. Anyway, if we accept the theory that the first believers were primitive scientists positing the existence of the supernatural to explain the natural, it is more likely that there was a believer zero than not. Scientific breakthroughs are made by individual scientific geniuses like Newton and Einstein – they do not occur simultaneously to many different people. The same would hold true for the power-hungry Machiavellian genius inventing God to seize power. It is more likely that there was one originator of this idea. Moreover, if belief in the supernatural as an explanation for the physical world occurred to many people at the same time, or was obvious to many people, it has more of the character of divine message, which of course is thoroughly unscientific.
Believer zero looked at the world and concluded that it was governed by supernatural forces. Surely this was the greatest leap of human faith that has ever been attempted. But it appears natural to us that our ancient ancestors made this leap. Why? It goes back to our concept that there must be more to life than this. Our longing for utopia, our fear of death, the wonder of nature, the terror of doomsday, all point the way. Why did the ancients gaze at the sky and see heaven?
The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge. There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard. 2
This is not the argument from design. This is the claim that standing on a cold day when the deep blue of the sky is lit by the blinding winter sun or the full moon of mid-summer magically reveals the nocturnal world in a new light we cannot escape our smallness and the immensity of it all. At these moments we experience the transcendent, be it oneness with the universe, belief in God as creator, belief in ourselves as gods. We feel there must be something more. Lost in such reverie it is hard to maintain that we are experiencing the result of winning the cosmic lottery.
Shifting Scientific Grounds
There is a fundamental human need to explain everything because otherwise we feel scared and out of control. We cannot truly accept that everything is random chaos because we are wired to look for an overarching cause or theory to explain the world to us.
Today, we are still faced by an often hostile physical world that we cannot control replete with mysteries we cannot explain. Those who have abandoned God as an out-of-date hypothesis employ the same sort of thinking as the ancient scientists animated by the Einsteinian motive. Even though there is much about our world that contemporary science, no matter how sophisticated, cannot explain (take for example the persistence of many horrible diseases), we profess complete faith that the solution to the mysteries of the universe lies in that direction. Scientists would argue that we have abandoned the simple hypotheses of our primitive ancestors for shiny modern scientific ones. But is the motive the same, to throw all of our unanswered questions into one catch-all bucket – to take care of the inexplicable in one foul swoop?
Many people are convinced of the truth of the theory that God is man-made because they believe that science has proved it to be so. And if something has been conclusively proven true by empirical science, who am I to argue? But, if you believe that science has proved that God is man-made it is important that you have a firm grip on what science is and is not. It may seem ridiculous to some readers to question science because science is based on fact – seeing is believing. And if this were the scientific paradigm exclusively used to evaluate such theories I would agree with those readers. However, the philosophical basis of science that some thinkers have proposed may surprise some.
What is presented as science has shifted over time from pure empirical research to something more pliable. If you consider science to consist solely of information that can be empirically verified, what I will call the enlightenment version, there are many facets of our world that will fall outside of its scope.
In the early twentieth century a group of philosophers called logical positivists took the position that statements that could not be empirically verified were meaningless.3 This meant that ethical statements and statements about art and beauty were relegated to the status of nonsense. These kinds of ideas, moral and aesthetic, are not easily subsumed under the rubric of enlightenment science. To bring such concepts under the scientific umbrella they must be either explained by reducing them in some way to elements that can be empirically verified or science itself must be reworked to fit these ideas in. Because many things that we consider to be fundamental human characteristics, or part of what it is to be human, are not capable of reduction to empirically verifiable terms, the latter course has been adopted by many thinkers. This has entailed a fundamental rethinking of what many of us have been taught to consider science. Thinkers like Richard Rorty and W.V. Quine contended that science does not provide us with objective truths about the world but instead pragmatic descriptions of our world, which are true only in the sense that they are useful to further the goal of the scientist. Rorty wrote:
Some philosophers have remained faithful to the Enlightenment and have continued to identify themselves with the cause of science…they insist that natural science discovers truth rather than makes it…Other philosophers, realizing that the world as it is described by the physical sciences teaches no moral lessons, offers no spiritual comfort, have concluded that science is no more than the handmaiden of technology.4
This viewpoint holds that there are no absolute truths out there waiting for brilliant scientific minds to discover them. Instead truth is made. It does not matter whether a particular scientific theory is true in an absolute sense so long as it helps us describe the world in some way.
…great scientists invent descriptions of the world which are useful for purposes of predicting and controlling what happens, just as poets and political thinkers invent other descriptions of it for other purposes. But there is no sense in which any of these descriptions is an accurate representation of the way the world is in itself…the very idea of such a representation as pointless.5
In other words, science does not present us with objective truths about the world around us any more than a poet does. This is a pragmatic theory of truth. That is, if it works for you, it’s true for you. So science is true if it furthers the scientist’s theory.
W.V. Quine, in his influential paper, Two Dogmas of Empiricism, also embraced a pragmatic picture of science. He rejected the principle that factual statements were only meaningful if they could be verified by experience. He argued that science is only affected by experience at the edges. He described science as a field touched at the edges by experience but whose internal beliefs are not true because they correspond with experience by because they agree with each other. Therefore, beliefs in the center of the field can conflict with experience and still be held to be true. Quine even suggested that if beliefs at the edge conflicted with experience we could change logical laws so they would be true. For Quine the existence of physical objects was no more objectively true than the gods of Homer but subjectively or pragmatically true because physical objects provide a more useful description of the world than Homer’s gods. He wrote:
…total science is like a field of force whose boundaries are experience. A conflict with experience at the periphery occasions readjustments in the interior of the field…But the total field is so undetermined by its boundary conditions, experience, that there is much latitude of choice as to what statements to re-evaluate in the light of any single contrary experience…Even a statement very close to the periphery can be held true in the face of recalcitrant experience by pleading hallucination or by amending certain statements of the kind called logical laws.6
Quine is putting the desire to believe what he wants to be true, or more charitably what he thinks is useful, above having scientific statements correspond to objective truth. In other words, he is privileging pragmatism over objectivity. This approach was taken by Rorty, Quine and those like them because they realize that if science reveals objective truths about the physical world, there is the possibility of objective truth in other areas of human experience such as morality. The objective truths of empirical science are located in the physical world. But other objective truths, for example objective moral truths, are not so easily tied to the physical world. The potential solution to the problem of where such truths come from is that these truths transcend the physical world because they are metaphysical or spiritual in nature.
The presentation of the theory that God is a human creation as a scientific theory is a great example of the shift from objectivity to pragmatism in scientific theory. This theory is not capable of empirical proof. Of course I will concede that it cannot be empirically disproved either. What is undeniable is that we have a sense of the supernatural – where that comes from is for each person to decide. But it is not enlightenment science to pretend that the theory that man created God is on the same scientific truth level as the discovery of DNA. But this frequently occurs. Why is this done?
Perhaps because traditional natural science with its underlying bedrock of empirical verification has made many amazing leaps since the enlightenment but has also shown how many gaps are still left – ethical, artistic, political, etc. These gaps, I believe provide us with an unshakable sense that there is something more to this world than the merely physical, aspects of it that cannot be explained by traditional enlightenment science. Moreover, the recognition of the existence of these gaps leads to the contemplation of the spiritual. So those opposed to metaphysical or spiritual reflections needed to find another way to fill these gaps. Thus less emphasis was put on empirical verifiability and plausible theories that were essentially unprovable in the traditional empirical natural science fashion have gained currency because they give us “useful” descriptions of the world. However, if you unmoor science from empirical verifiability it becomes subjective and so someone has to decide whether a particular theory provides a useful description of the world. As humans our biases inevitably come into play. So the decider, faced with two theories, both equally incapable of empirical proof, one of which squares with his or her biases and one of which does not, will choose the theory which confirms what they already thought.
As there is an overwhelming first principle belief in the post-modern western academy that there is no metaphysical or spiritual element to the universe, it is inevitable that scientific theories that favor this bias will be given prominence.
A clarification is probably unnecessary, but to stave off the charge of anti-science that will no doubt be leveled at me, let me make the following clear. I have no quarrel with science. I am not going to declare that the world is flat or that the sun revolves around the earth. Empirically based science has made many amazing discoveries that have given us great insights into the world around us and that have improved human life beyond our wildest expectations. Such science is a noble pursuit.
Instead I am disputing the placing of subjective unprovable theories on the same level as the discoveries of such giants as Galileo, Newton and Einstein. I am protesting the presentation of subjective pragmatic truths as objective scientific gospel truth. I have nothing against those who like Rorty and Quine admit the subjectivity of the science they are affirming, and in the case of Rorty at least, openly acknowledge that they would like to promote pragmatic truths that further their personal political and social goals. The problem is that when it comes to conjecture about the origin of the spiritual instinct many thinkers are content for the public to view such statements in the light of the enlightenment version of science taught at school.
Where does this leave us? We have seen that the theory that man invented God has many problems when the underlying assumptions are given a thorough examination. It is also clear that many who live in the contemporary post-God world still believe there is a spiritual element to our world. There may not be the common acceptance of orthodox Christianity, but spirituality in many forms, many of which entail belief in non-physical entities, thrives in the contemporary scientific post-modern world. Further, the common perception that God has been proved not to exist by science must be abandoned.
True, empirical science cannot make sense of God, but neither can it deal with art, love or politics. Essentially there are realms of human existence where we must authentically choose the answers for ourselves instead of pretending that the test has already been taken for us.
1. Christopher Hitchens. God is Not Great – How Religion Poisons Everything. Twelve, 2007; 2-4.
2. Holy Bible. Cambridge University Press. Genesis 19 v. 1-3. Authorized King James Version.
3. See, for example, A. J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic, Dover Publications, 1952.
4. Richard Rorty. Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, Cambridge University Press, 1989; 3-4.
5. Ibid; 4.
6. W.V. Quine. Two Dogmas of Empiricism. Epistemology – Contemporary Readings, Routledge, 2002; 189-90.