by Arthur Boyer
Perhaps the common, consensus idea of god will never be ultimately dispelled with. That is regrettable. It is a shame so many people find the pagan gods of the past so easily criticizable, while hypocritically failing to deal the same treatment to their own. Worse still, are those lamentable few who still believe in those gods of the premature stages of humankind's development. (Perhaps we're still in that stage.) Wiccans come to mind, along with a few individuals I've spoken to on discussion boards. How anyone can still subscribe to these ideas of literal gods and goddesses (or angels and demons) is beyond me, and I don't even wish to treat with that subject in this essay. I've heard subtle, defensive quotes about how the wise are ridiculed and laughed at by those who don't understand. When such a paraphrase is uttered in defense of angels, I admit it's tough to repress a slight chuckle.
Amidst the over–populated region of belief inhabited by humankind's deities and saviors, a very old and very sophisticated wisdom has been overlooked. It is the "god" for which belief is neither required nor necessary. In fact, neither is it possible. It is, truthfully, no god at all—and whatsoever it means to you, perhaps you can decide on your own by the end of this essay.
It is necessary, first, to clarify the meaning behind my usage of the word "god" and to differentiate between that and a second, anti–conceptual understanding for which that word is itself far too narrow and inappropriate, but is nevertheless sometimes misused and conflated with the former. Theists and atheists alike are guilty of this mixed and misplaced application of the word. Without this clarification, we leave the door open for more pointless debate. (I know that I am often taken to be an atheist for most of my writings. This is understandable, and true in a way with respect to all of humanity's gods, including and especially Yahweh or Allah. The misunderstanding results because "atheist" is, to be honest, a simplistic—albeit narrow—categorization for me, if you were to give me one. Perhaps after this essay, you will see that it is not entirely befitting.)
Beginning with the first and most common usage of the word "god," I will define it as follows: A personal being, or entity, that is supernatural and capable of performing miracles (that is, intervening and suspending the laws of nature). Personal here has a very particular meaning: A god is "personal" when a) It has a persona, i.e., a personality; it must have certain personal characteristics, an intent, and the ability to make decisions and b) It must be interested in human affairs and the fate of the universe. Thus, I must hold that any god is a personal god and that to subtract this personal quality from it also negates its godliness.
Now, there is a second—misconstrued—application of the word and that is when it is used to symbolize the concept as understood in Eastern philosophy, which bears no resemblance to the typical Western concept of god as the celestial dictator. The matter runs deeper than the mythological roles played by either of these characters. The heart of it lies at the matter of existence. What does it mean for a god to exist? If we understand, in the deepest sense, what is meant by things like atman, Brahman, or the Ground of Being, we realize that not only are these ideas divorced from any concept of a celestial ruler, but they do not represent, in any way, anything that can be described by the word 'god.' Joseph Campbell defended this position when he wrote in his essay, Mythological Themes in Creative Literature and Art:
Obviously, the term god is hardly fit to be used without explanation if it is to serve as a designation of the mythic being of all three of these traditions [Greek, Levantine and Indian]; and particularly, since, in the biblical sense, the god is regarded as in some way an actual being, a sort of supernatural fact, whereas in both the Greek and the Indian versions of the myth, the personages and episodes are neither regarded nor presented as historic, or proto–historic, but as symbolic: they do not refer to actual events supposed once to have occurred, but to metaphysical or psychological mysteries, i.e. an inward, backward dimension of ourselves, right here and now.
It is this theme that I am continuing with. We must proceed forth from the clear distinction between god as believed in the West, and the "non–god" as understood in the East. In the Oriental and Indian spheres, the Abrahamic god might be rightfully taken less seriously as a conceptualization of something they believe cannot possibly be conceptualized. It is this conceptualization that is so foolishly perpetuated by those less acquainted with deeper philosophical knowledge and so easily refuted by any man of reason. A positive, supernatural, existent god is precisely the one that can never—and will never—overcome any of the philosophic and scientific problems associated with its existence, just as it can never be proved to exist. It is with this in mind that I recall the message of H.L Mencken's Memorial Service. All gods eventually die out. This is precisely because of the characteristic that is at once the source of their entire power and their downfall: the fact that they possess and are endowed with identities. Nothing could be more impermanent than an identity.
So a god, by definition, is a sentient, existent being—an ego, a person(ality). A god, if it exists, must be a being, fully conscious and aware. If it is anything other than this—a concept or form of energy—then it is not a god. And if it is a no–thing for which words can never do justice or describe and which no thought can ever capture, it is not a god. We arrive rationally and inescapably at the following conclusion: [a] god does not exist. It is in this, and only this, spirit which those words must be understood: that as long as we wish to remain rational and, more importantly, speak rationally, then this is how we must speak. Reason, too, cannot allow for any personal conceptions of a god. It is therefore less a positive statement of fact than simply a rational statement. Whether the rational statement is true or not, we may not be able to know, but in the words of David Hume, “a rational man proportions his belief to the evidence.”
Both the words “god” and “exist” remain unsubstantiated concepts. Neither god nor existence can ultimately be proved. Existence, for the sake of science, must always be assumed, but can never be proved. I cannot prove to you or even to myself that the table I’m sitting at exists. My senses could be deceiving me, or our entire world may be an elaborate Matrix–like simulation. In what sense, then, would the table exist? It could exist in many senses, depending on how we define existence. The object in question then “exists” or not if it meets the defining criteria. If we define it as ‘physical presence’ as YouTube user, amateur physicist and author Bill Gaede does, then we say the table exists. If we define existence as electrical signals interpreted by the brain, then the table exists because we can perceive it via our senses. But for that matter, hallucinatory visions must exist as well, which is not fitting philosophically or scientifically. What we cannot do, however, is prove existence. We can only assume it.
A god, any god, far from being proved, need not even be assumed to exist. What would we assume a god’s existence for? To explain why Mercury doesn’t drift out of the solar system? To provide a mystical cosmic force that holds galaxies together? (Technically, astrophysicists already do that—they call their magical invention “dark matter.”) To explain the cosmic order? To explain the origin of mankind? Of the universe? Presumably, if a god exists, it has a purpose (or once had). If it is deistic, then perhaps its only purpose was to create the universe and allow the events in it to unfold on their own. However, I am not fond of discussing questions of the origin of the universe, as I’ve written in previous essays. Any contemplation or discussion of creation is fundamentally irrational and rationally impossible. Stephen Hawking goes askew in this respect when he talks about the universe creating itself from nothing. Physicists who posit such inane claims spend so much time doing the math that they’ve forgotten to think it over. “Back to basics” rationality is the approach being overlooked. This approach allows us to see that creation from nothing is unthinkable, let alone theorizeable. It is unscientific.
Digressing from the magical world (or multi–verses) of contemporary physics, we return to the matter of god. We have established that the ordinary notion of god is irrational and superfluous. But what of this thing I call the “anti–conceptual” notion? I realize the paradox of that term and I hope you do too. An anti–conceptual concept is as irrational as the Many–world’s interpretation of quantum mechanics. So it is here (but only here) we must depart from reason for a little and speak in the language of myth and paradox to convey our meaning. To explain why, let me address a few questions. How do we point to something that does not “exist” in any sense that we define the word? How do we talk about something words cannot describe? How can we explain what it is?
The best we can do is talk about what it is not, or speak of it in a way that is understood as indirect. The best way to illustrate that is by an analogy: picture that an artist can imply the shape of a circle by painting an entire canvas black, except for a round area in the middle he leaves blank. The artist has created a circle without ever drawing one—but its shape was incidentally defined by the background. This is how we approach the issue. The philosopher can create an impression in your mind of what he means without ever directly referencing it, because in this case to do that would be to miss the mark entirely. It may be difficult for anyone to understand what I mean if they haven’t read Alan Watts' s Philosophies of Asia or is familiar with any other of his work. I’m certain any basic understanding of Hindu, Taoist, or Zen thought would be sufficient. The first words from Lao Tzu in his Tao Te Ching are that the Tao cannot be described—and if it can, that is not the Tao. We’re faced with an immediate paradox from a man who says this then proceeds to write an entire book about it. But you see, that is the language of Eastern thought. The language becomes paradoxical because we are no longer using rationality; that is, we are deliberately speaking irrationally and sometimes mythologically to convey something that is beyond description and must be experienced directly.
I tread carefully over ground like this: to make sure I am not mistaken for a mysticist. The problem with mysticism is that it is, by its very definition, unintelligible. A “mystical” idea is technically not an idea. And so, by our rigorous definition of “exist,” mystical concepts don’t exist—in the same way the Hindu Brahman doesn’t exist. This is a problem for science and Western philosophy, because it means that mystical concepts cannot be translated scientifically or logically. And it’s true; they cannot be. Great philosophers like Alan Watts who have understood this, do not even attempt to explain mysticism rationally—because it is fundamentally irrational. The language he employs to explain it must be mythological. I have been questioned in the past as to how I reconcile the analytical, rational Western scientific attitude with apparently mystical Eastern philosophy. Too many pseudo–philosophers find in these ideas permission to depart from naturalism, and then criticize it as too narrow a world view. The very notion of spiritualism is to me a brittle one. Like “god,” it probably has multiple meanings, interpretations, and equally as much nonsense associated with it. Yet “mystical” (I’m a little unfond of that word for its implications and misuses) philosophies in the East make no positive logical statements of fact that could conflict with reason. And if some mystics do, they are in error. The mystical and the rational meet when the philosopher acknowledges that when he wishes to operate within the restrictions of language, he must do so (and try to not violate the rules of logic). This is the realm where human intelligence is possible and plausible. Anything beyond that is unintelligible and mystical and, I submit, ought not to be described rationally and rejected if it is (attempted). It’s for this reason I tend to reject metaphysical or spiritual claims. If the philosopher wishes to explore mysticism, he can—at the cost of rationality, which in this case would be an unnecessary accessory. I reconcile the mystical and the rational with a paradox: they join when they are distinguished.
Although agnostic myself over the issue of life–after–death (though very skeptical, I admit), I do not find in the ineffable experience of Brahman or the Tao a reason to believe there are any supernatural powers at work in our universe. Nor does our anti–conceptual “god” necessarily suggest an extra–corporeal soul. It may, but it may not—and I find myself fluttering back and forth foolishly over the possibilities. But the ground of being is an ineffable nothing (a non–thing) and so of no consequence to the things of the universe, other than an unacknowledged source of those things. For this reason, the methods of science cannot be directed at this nothingness, this void, or anything “outside” existence. Science is an investigation of things (concepts, objects, theories, etc.). It is my position that any rigorous investigation of the god concept by any man with an ounce of rationality leads to its dismissal.
Not even in our “mystical” philosophy of being is their necessary room for a spiritual monarch, a supernatural supervisor who “can watch you while you sleep and convict you of thought crime,” (Christopher Hitchens) or who knows everything that can or will ever occur and has total, conscious control over it (as the voluntary control a human has over his arms or legs and appendages). By contrast, this is not the Hindu view at all. If the word “god” could be used to describe their ideas (and it cannot), we would say their ‘god’ is one, not who exercises control over all that is, but who is all that is; who acts out the universe and who is that aspect of it that beats your heart and grows your hair and ages your skin—the processes over which you have no conscious control, but which “you” do nonetheless.
The second part of this essay will continue to explore reasonable and mystical philosophies of god. I will make the argument that the extent to which a theist immunizes his/her divinity from criticism depends directly on the extent to which s/he abandons their traditional concept for what I call the “anti–conceptual” (or the mystical) notion. One that, since it evades description, is foolish to defend. But more on that later.
Thanks for reading.