I want to explore a word that seems to be very triggering, and thereby somehow very important, in our culture: the word God. Whether you love it or hate it, many people have some sort of a visceral response to it, and so I think it’s a fun one to dig into. Personally, it has been an important word in my own life – in a positive way – and I want to explore how I see it and what it has done for me.
A starting point in this exploration for me was the realization that “is there a God?” may somehow be a meaningless question. As this is a question of existence, it requires us to give a clear answer on what it means for something to exist – and thereby lies the crux of the problem. If we take the purely scientific approach, existence implies measurable consequences – and namely reproducible effects in the material world. But this approach will at best get us to a “god of the gaps” - a perspective where we use some divine agency to explain material phenomena lacking any other explanation. In other words, we use a “god” to close understanding gaps: e.g., if we don’t understand lightning, we conclude that there must be a god of lightning that does this. I am not so very interested in discussing this sort of a god, and I think this is typically not what people understand by the capital-G God - though they often blend the two together.
On the other hand, for things outside the realm of reproducible material phenomena, science lays no claim. We can try to extend some theoretical scientific principles (like Occam’s razor) out into that realm and argue about their consequences, but as long our predictions remain unfalsifiable, we cannot claim any authority in our conclusions. We could try to argue that science then has no need of the non-material, until we realize that our very ability to measure, to observe the material phenomena at all, is itself non-material. Any existence of personal experience, qualia, or awareness lies fundamentally outside the material realm – see e.g., the “p-zombies” argument for a nice discussion of this. Yet our experience is the one thing most real to us – and so its existence underpins the existence of any material phenomena. Perhaps we can see the existence of experience as an axiomatic assumption that science relies on – and as such, cannot confirm nor deny it.
I guess I’m suggesting here that if you try to use science to prove that God does not exist, then the same argument would show that neither do you… nor does science itself. A more abstract way to understand “exists” within science is as a useful effective theory. In what sense does a rabbit exist – over and above being just a clump of atoms? Well, it’s a very convenient and helpful way to describe the world. In the case of “rabbit,” this helpfulness is seen in that it allows us to predict and control (e.g., “I can get a rabbit to come to me by holding out a carrot” – try getting to that conclusion from the atomic equations of motion!). Here, rather than drowning in the murky waters of “what does exist mean,” I think the relevant question is whether “rabbit” is a useful word to have around. And by the same token, I think the relevant question isn’t whether God exists – since it’s not even clear what that means – but whether “God” is a helpful word to have around.
Unlike “rabbit,” the notion of “God” need not have any direct material consequences like prediction or control – but it can still be convenient and helpful. So, is it? Within atheism, one can get in touch with a deep sense of wonder at the miraculous coincidence of the atoms of the universe coming together in such an unlikely pattern that allows us to experience existence for the brief moment here and now. Within Buddhism, one can perceive the movements of consciousness that we identify our sense of “self” with, appreciating how these are contiguous with all other movements of the world, and so experiencing the “Oneness.” These sorts of notions are psychologically invaluable in grounding us in a sense of meaning (or meaninglessness) that does not depend on the ever-changing circumstances of our lives.
For me, the word “God” then merely serves to anthropomorphize these abstract and hard-to-grasp concepts, making them somehow more relatable. I find that viewing God as an agency somehow not unlike myself makes it easier to have a personal relationship and a sense of intimacy with the abstract foundations of my existence. One might view it as a psycho-hack: where the notion of a personal God helps to leverage our natural empathic pathways honed by evolution for social cohesion, to then foster a deeper sense of gratitude, wonder and devotion to this moment of existence. This “hack” then also naturally leads to other useful reflection and introspection practices, such as prayer or devotional congregations.
This view essentially frames "God" as a useful effective description of some of the more subtle aspects of our reality, which our mind cannot fully grasp anyway. Nonetheless, being an effective theory makes "God" somehow no less real than "rabbit" - or any other high-level concept we find practical in our everyday lives. As such, while I may remind myself to “love God above all else,” I can view this statement as merely a useful mnemonic that helps me to keep things in perspective - and at the same time as a claim to what I find to be an effective view of the world, no less real than "exercising makes me feel good." Other people may find other mnemonics more helpful, or other perspectives more practical – and perhaps none of us can really claim a monopoly of “the correct” understanding.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” -John 1:1