Book excerpt: Knowing a Good God

I am now a terrifying 95 A4 pages into my book. I don’t really want to think about what that translates into in book-sized pages (but once the font size is changed and single spacing resumes, perhaps it won’t be too much more). I’m not done, either. So far I have had the keen eye of Fourat scour over some chapters and for that I am very grateful. If anyone else would like to give the book a read, let me know in the comments. I have been using Google Docs to write the book, so anyone with a Google account will have a better experience than those without (although I can send it off as word document, I just don’t know what it will do to the formatting). If you have a Google account and want to read it, you can leave comments in real time along the right hand side: highlight the relevant text and press ctrl + alt + M.

Although I don’t believe that nature is the product of a personal intelligent force, bear through the assumption that nature is, in fact, such a creation. Doing this will allow us to look at the fingerprint many believe God has left. Assuming God is omnipotent and omniscient, the creation It left behind is a window to Its mind; It is capable of creating exactly what It intends; to be omni-moral It must intend a moral universe.

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins describes the processes of nature as having “no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” What Dawkins argues is that nature follows certain rules―survival of the best adapted, natural selection, predation, disease etc―and does not alter them out of mercy or pity; it does not waiver for concepts of justice; nor does it find exception or preference. An ‘evolutionary arms race’, in which species whose evolutionary histories are entwined, is taking place in nature; the ability of prey to survive encourages the predator to become a better killer. These adaptations stand as testament to this “pitiless indifference”. The apologist William Lane Craig endorses this view when he says there is a clear difference between killing in the animal kingdom and murder in society or between ‘forcible copulation’ among sharks and rape among humans; this suggests that values cannot readily be applied to actions, except from within the admission of a human values system. Nature does not have an inherent values system.

This says of God that It is, at a most polite evaluation, completely asympathetic. There is no suggestion from the behaviour of species or the criteria of survival that God sympathises with our experience in this life. There may be a narrative of the afterlife that convinces the religious that God’s indifference now will be apologised for or made right, but we are not even given equal opportunity to demonstrate our worth for the preferable afterlife; we do not choose where we are born or the poverty we are born into nor the desperation we will face.

This should be an uncomfortable thought. Although this doesn’t tell us what morality is, it does tell us what Godly morality is compatible with: inequality, barbarism and suffering; predation, disease and death. It may be tempting to blame disease on some imperfection on our part, but diseases are caused by living things. So long as we continue on this narrative of assuming God as the creator, we must also note It created the parasites that burrow into our eyes―Onchocerca volvulus and Loa Loa Filariasis―or even our brain―Taenia Solium. And we are not more likely to fall victim to these because of the way we lie with other people, but by an accident of the geography of our birth.

If we focus our view to look only at ourselves, we find a circumstance that inhibits our ability to be happy. It is very difficult to sustain happiness, and if God is our creator we must assume this is not only orchestrated but part of what it means to have moral nature. The obstacle to our sustained happiness is called adaptation level theory. It states that individuals faced with an event that will change their wellbeing vary the level of change, based on past experiences. This happens through two different means: habituation and contrast. Habituation is the phenomena of being accustomed to a certain level in the quality of event that surround you; it can dampen the expected wellbeing drop caused by prolonged discomfort, poverty of imprisonment but it can also dull the expected wellbeing spike expected from prolonged wealth, comfort or freedom; it is not necessarily as if individuals become bored of their circumstances no matter how fortuitous, but their reported wellbeing will revert back to a base level.

Contrast is what mutes changes in wellbeing because of particular peak happinesses and sadnesses in one’s own past experience. An individual will not be ecstatic about the zoo immediately after visiting a safari, or rider the Waltzers after a long weekend in Disneyland. To sustain happiness, this suggests we must have a steady increase in the circumstances of our life perpetually. That is not easy and by the time we reach retirement age will have spiralled out of control.

In 1978, Philip Brickman, Dan Coates and Ronnie Janoff-Bulman did a study into contrast and habituation with a focus on Illinois state lottery winners and people who had become paraplegic or quadriplegic as the result of an accident. The point of their study was to see how a one-off big event―either extremely positive or extremely negative―that has a lasting effect on lifestyle affects the perception of happiness in the subjects. The study included 29 disabled people, 22 lottery winners and a control group of 22 people. Each group was asked to evaluate their historical, current and estimated future happiness as well as respond to different “mundane” tasks to state how happy they felt doing them. There was no significant difference between the control and lottery-winner groups in terms of their perceived historical, current or projected future happiness. Accident victims evaluated their historical happiness as higher than the control group―which is indicative of contrast―, and their current happiness as lower than the controls, but predict that their happiness will return to a base level not significantly different from the control group.

A second study by Brickman et al, published as part of the same paper, investigated the effect of perceived wellbeing when the questions are asked in particular contexts: that of a study into daily life, or that of a study into the lottery. When the study is presented this way, the people told they were part of a study into everyday life reported their past happiness as higher and predicted their future happiness as lower than those who were told that the study was about the lottery winners. This suggests a type of contrast, called social comparison, takes place, where people who believe the study is about the lottery compare their happiness with the perceived happiness of a lottery winner.

Dracunculus medinensis―a parasite that causes the excruciating pain of a guinea worm infection―is testament to another less-than-preferable aspect of nature that must be, if we believe God is the creator, an intentional aspect of nature: we feel pain. Our learning experience of what teaches us how to maintain our own personal security needs pain. It does not rely on merely understanding risks, an inherent understanding of dangers to our health: we must experience the dangers to comprehend them. In a situation that appears entirely impersonal and natural, we learn our self restraint not through divine revelation or pain-sensations that do not cause suffering, but through suffering itself. And in the specific example of the guinea worm infection, it is near-impossible to tell what we supposed to learn: not to drink water? The lessons learned from guinea worm are of hygiene, but there is not greater lesson learned that ‘you really do not want guinea worm’. The lesson is self-enclosed and if the guinea worm were to be entirely removed from the universe it would be of only favourable consequences: water would be safer and the suffering caused by that worm would vanish. This is not the only suffering we are capable of: we suffer loss of loved ones. Yet, if God has planned to consider our wellbeing, It could have created a world where we interpret loss as a natural cycle or naturally celebrate the life of the deceased to mark their end; the religious do not seem to see death as a passage into a better place, despite the fact that is their explicit belief, and instead also lament their loss. We suffer, and it is not needed.

Although it is not the point of this section to offer counterapologetics (it is to explore what we can know about God), it is worthy of note that suffering is well understood and makes sense on a biological level: the benefit of being averse to pain is that pain can result from something that inhibits our evolutionary potential. Thus, a mechanism develops that encourages us to be averse to pain and try to prevent it. That mechanism, however, is natural; it cannot show preference or cease out of a sense of justice or waiver out of consideration; if it works, it always works. This is “pitiless indifference”, but it is how nature works. However, with the idea of a loving overseer, the pointless suffering―the drowning, the heart attacks, crohn’s disease―these things where an opportunity to learn simply isn’t available, the pointless suffering doesn’t make sense. Divine mechanisms do not have to be bound by the things that  nature is bound by: pain could be caused by the potential to learn, or even managed by God on a case by case basis. The pain in death serves no function, on any scale, and anything that loved us would want it to stop. The same is true of guinea worm, where the “purpose” seems to be the survival of the guinea worm and not the wellbeing of things in general; this is best understood in evolutionary terms. The terms presented by religion, where a God loves us, simply doesn’t make sense of these situations. Not without a significant rehaul of what “love” means.

There is another suffering we could be protected from. Where God could design the laws of nature in such a way that we only suffer where there is education to be had (or designed our psychology in such a way that pain isn’t suffering), God could also protect us against the intentionally caused suffering from other people. This problem―of suffering caused by other humans―is normally dismissed as requiring a violation of our freewill. Yet, physics and our psychology already violates our freewill: I can’t fly, generate a wormhole and travel through time and, no matter how hard I wish, I cannot become Spider Man; less facetiously I have met people who wish to be more fearless for the purposes of public speaking or even retribution because they cannot stand up for themselves or deliver presentations. There are also other people who violate our freewill by committing a crime against us.

I cannot punch my brother in the face. He’s only 9, and although it is within the known laws of physics and I reckon I could get away with it legally (who would ever know?) but I still can’t do it. The obstacle, though intangible, is very real: moral intuition. Something about the way my mind works has the physical manifestation of me simply not being able to punch my brother in the face. It’s not that I can’t will to do it, I can’t even will to will to do it; I cannot make myself want to punch my brother. This is a very real and consequential limit to my freewill. It could be empathy or fear or retribution or moral awareness, but it is real. No one calls this a “violation” of my will, but it is a limit. I know people without these limits; people who swindle old ladies or take advantage of the vulnerable or are physically violent. The limit is very possible―I’d even wager that a majority of the population has similar limits―yet it doesn’t offend our sensibilities to notice them.

This moral limit is one example of an entire genre of similar phenomena. People with phobias may notice this about other people: how come one person is capable of handling a spider, whereas an arachnophobe would be paralyzed with fear? Some people are not timid or shy; others do not get so easily nervous; many can walk into a room and give a presentation. For many, these things seem impossible for them. We each have our own limits.

What this means is that, continuing with our assumption that God is the creator, there exists such an ingredient for the universe that hinders people’s ability and propensity to be unkind to each other. I have it, Gandhi probably had more of it, and Charles Manson likely had less of it. In nature we would call this ‘variation’ and because there is no intelligence or personal agency behind it, nature would be immune from moral criticism. This is not the case for God; It is a personal agent and judgements can be passed. By not endowing some individuals with enough of this ingredient, the creator has permitted atrocities: murders, sexual assaults, violent, genocide, child abuse and other intentional vandalisms of wellbeing.

What about at the clash of will, where one person acts upon another and one doesn’t want to be acted upon; what about child abuse? The will of the abuser is to continue committing the offense. That freewill is protected. The will of the abused is to have the abuse stop. That freewill is violated. In nature, which will is successful is about the force of the actors: if the abused is mentally and physically stronger than the abuser, the abuse stops. Abuse cases are cases where the abuser has the advantage, and that allows their will to be realised. This is not preferable, but again there is no intelligent or personal agency managing the situation. But we are dealing with the hypothetical of an intelligent and powerful agency managing the situation, so it is more that not preferable; someone can be held accountable for allowing it. (Don’t get me wrong, the abuser is accountable in both scenarios! Always. It is the permission wills for which there is only accountability for in a world made by Gods.)

Because some religious people like to define God as being morally good, we cannot call this behaviour morally bad. But if the above is a description of morality looks like or is compatible with, the word is vacuous and we need a new word for what our goals are here on earth. We want to protect the wellbeing of conscious creatures. Morality, from what we have seen above, is entirely divorced from this idea. The word morality becomes meaningless, in fact. But it is not only morality that becomes meaningless, but as the God is meant to be loving, so does that word. A loving God, who is “moral” in any sense of the word we would recognise, simply does not account for nature as we see it.

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8 thoughts on “Book excerpt: Knowing a Good God”

  1. Looks like the book is coming along fine. One phrase struck me, though, “Assuming God is omnipotent and omniscient . . .” I wonder why we do this. Is it an attempt to purify our concepts or to extrapolate them? I do not know. What I do know is the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scripture describe no such powers. The god described there is variously as disappointed, pleased, angry, confused, petty, of two minds, vengeful, etc. In no way would an all-knowing, all-powerful being behave this way. Are we creating this “omnipotent and omniscient” construct for philosophical reasons? What would happen to our arguments if we created a carefully constructed profile of the god as described in scripture. Anybody seen a profiler around?

    I guess I would start with with a human model until it no longer applied and then pull the human props out from under that new construct and addressed it as an “alien being” simply because it was clearly not human.

    This all came about from a John Zande quip “If god were God …” how would he behave? Clearly there is a mental construct (“God”) that conflicts with the “reality” of scripture.

    1. I like the pace too.
      John, I think he could make use of the case of a malevolent god in some of his passages and even the assumption that Steve has raised above of an all loving and all powerful god he could be persuaded to drop.

      1. Hi Mak and John,
        Thanks for the feedback. I’ve added the following the paragraph (based on a post I’ve made before somewhere. I assume it must have been on Enquiries). I’m still working on it. A dispassionate God is something I haven’t given much time: how would we know it exists? Is it simply an argument from ignorance? Anyway, here it is:

        We could posit a new God here: a dispassionate Creator or an evil God. An evil God, which has a omnimalevolent character instead of an omnibenevolent one, better accounts for the Universe and is a more reasonable claim (although, in all, still unreasonable). The parasites that cause us pain suffering and death; the amiable ingredient missing in inconspicuous sociopaths and psychopaths wandering our streets; the inherent challenge to sustain happiness; the capacity to suffer pain, instead of just experiencing it; the agony of death and loss: all of these need complex ad hoc excuses to apologise for the idea of a benevolent God. Sophistry and rhetoric need to be employed to defend the idea that this is representative of what it means to be good or moral. The result of all this is that morality becomes an obscurity and a meaningless assertion. Alternatively, malevolent God requires only that we quote Bane from The Dark Knight Rises: “there can be no true despair without hope”. It is not that we need to assert this: studies into habituation and contract, like the study into disabled people and lottery winners by Brickman et al, demonstrate Bane’s quote is true.

        (Now to go back to an earlier section and look at where Steve’s advice fits.)

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