Asking the Right God Question

(A slightly modified version of chapter 6 from The Universe and I: Where Science & Spirituality Meet)

 

By Rev. Dr. George F. Dole

 

This post above all must be understood in the context of the Swedenborgian concept of appearances of truth, which from a scientific point of view can be thought of as model-dependent realism. My experience of walking face-first into a plate glass wall (dating back to about 1950) remains my textbook example of the fact that it is possible to be at one and the same time quite certain and quite wrong about some particular thing; and I extend this fact to a belief that if there is no necessary correlation between certainty and truth, then the quest for either is likely to lead away from the other.

The obvious theological place to start such a quest is with a definition of God: “the creator and ruler of the universe, regarded as eternal, infinite, all-powerful, and all-knowing.”[1] I would stop at the word infinite and note that practically speaking, it is the ontological equivalent of the epistemological term indefinable—to define is to delimit. [It is] my opinion that the atheists and antitheists are quite right in their insistence on the inadequacy of commonly held concepts of God, but I believe they are seriously wrong if they hold these concepts to be anything more than models of reality. Richard Dawkins seems to intend as derogatory his observation that “Einstein was using ‘God’ in a purely metaphorical, poetic sense,”[2] but he shows no awareness of his own use of metaphors (such as “midwifed a new origin of life”[3]) or of the omnipresence of metaphors within his own discipline. After all, “emergence” and “evolution” are metaphors. Models are metaphors. When Einstein said, “I think the most important question facing humanity is, ‘Is the universe a friendly place?’,”[4] he was using a metaphor to convey something he saw to be of supreme importance. Dawkins would do well to recognize both the need for and the power of metaphors as well as their susceptibility to misuse.

The word infinite tells me that I should at least try to think in “meta” terms. Stuart A. Kauffman is on common ground with Einstein in his capacity for awe. He proposes “a worldview beyond reductionism, in which we are members of a universe of ceaseless creativity in which life, agency, meaning, value, consciousness, and the full richness of human action have emerged.”[5] I am moved by his willingness to be stunned and overwhelmed. In contrast, I am turned off by Lawrence M. Krauss’s reaction to the “miraculous” appearance of snowflakes. Apparently, the best our scientists can do when faced by this miracle is “revel in [their] ability to explain,”[6] which has every appearance of an ego trip. To the best of my knowledge, too, the revelry is unjustified, since science does not know how a snowflake develops around its center with such precise symmetry, with the arms managing to copy each other. We are left with an elegant description “in which efficient material causality is nowhere to be found.”[7]

A less obvious place to start is with ourselves, with how we have come to understand the presentation of reality. Based on the quantum principle that particles form only when they are observed, we must infer an observer of some sort for the inexplicable emergence of the first particles. This argument is pursued with some rigor at the close of George Greenstein’s elegant The Symbiotic Universe: Life and Mind in the Cosmos. While Greenstein is unwilling to “accept the notion that it was God Himself who so carefully crafted the cosmos,” he also states that “it is the observation itself that brings the physical world into existence” and that “only a conscious mind is capable of performing such an observation.”[8] If so, then given the omnipresence of particles in the universe, we must endow our observer with the characteristics of omnipresence and omniconsciousness. Could this be the type of God that Kauffman is looking for? The “fully natural God [who] is the very creativity in the universe”?[9]

This suggests that Terrence W. Deacon’s frequent association of “life and mind”[10] needs much closer attention than I have given it. If conscious mind was present that early, perhaps our search of the universe for signs of intelligent life is too limited, too parochial. Perhaps life has been present far, far earlier than we had thought, and we simply have not realized what it looks like. If “only a conscious mind is capable of performing such an observation” (of what we take to be physical reality), then mind has also been present in some “obscure and primordial way”;[11] and it may indeed be that what we now identify as mind is no more than a prelude to mind that is yet to come forth.

All this calls to my mind a sound bite that has often served as a motto for Swedenborgians: “We are now allowed to use our intellect to explore the mysteries of faith.”[12] With this, however, I may be parting company with Kauffman. He sees the “web of life” as “partially indescribable by natural law,”[13] whereas I, following Swedenborg, do not. I am right there with Kauffman when he writes,

I believe we need a domain for our lives as wide as reality. If half of us believe in a supernatural God, science will not disprove that belief. We need a place for our spirituality, and a Creator God is one such place.[14]

I am no longer with him, though, when he continues,

I hold that it is we who have invented God, to serve as our most powerful symbol. It is our choice how wisely to use our own symbol to orient our lives and our civilizations. I believe we can reinvent the sacred. We can invent a global ethic, in a shared space, safe to all of us, with one view of God as the natural creativity in the universe.

This may well be no more than a matter of wording, but for me, careful thought calls for careful wording. We do not invent God. We can be said to invent our models of God, and those models can and should be evaluated. They should grow as we learn. Childish models are not only appropriate for children; they are necessary. If childhood models of God are truly appropriate, they serve as foundations for the ones we adopt as we learn how to be more fully human. So the foundations for understanding quantum mechanics need to be laid in kindergarten or even preschool, perhaps with hide-and-seek games.

When we come up with models that work, we do tend to attribute to them “the quality of reality or absolute truth.”[15] We invent ethical systems, too, and I would regard these as efforts to model something of critical importance. I welcome Kauffman’s call for a wider “domain for our lives,” and I would bring attention to such similar metaphorical phrases as “areas of concern” and “fields of study”; I find myself both “at home” in Swedenborgian theology and “lost” in higher mathematics. Swedenborg explored the domain of the sacred with exemplary intelligence and integrity; he found it to be coherent and eminently practical, and he worked ceaselessly to communicate what he had discovered. But, of course, these are “only” metaphors.

Very simply, I hold to a model in which an awe-inspiring creativity has shown itself to be not random or lawless but inherently principled, pressing constantly in one discernible direction at all times and on all scales. Charles Darwin envisioned natural selection as “daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, the slightest variations”[16] (the theological names for such a phenomenon are “omnipresence” and “omniscience”). The biosphere “remains a coherent whole even as it diversifies,”[17] because creativity is always and everywhere differentiating and integrating. We can invent all the ethical systems we choose, but if they do not foster societal differentiation and integration, they will prove self-destructive.[18] According to my model, Edward O. Wilson’s “eusociality”[19] works not because we have done such a good job of inventing it but because it is in accord with the “creativity in the universe.” The domain of values is a spiritual domain, and it is indeed awesome. It is outright beautiful, stunning.

Another reason I find Kauffman’s path running parallel to my own is that he allows for different ways of “naming” God. What I miss is the recognition that for the growing individual the concept of God needs to keep changing. Anthropos is a process. James W. Fowler’s Stages of Faith, building on the work of Piaget, Kohlberg, and Erikson, proposes six stages as “logically and empirically sequential and invariant,” moving “in the direction of greater internal differentiation, complexity, flexibility and stability,”[20] because each stage “incorporates and builds on the structures of the previous stages, integrating them into a more comprehensive and versatile new stage.”[21] This could quite effortlessly be translated into a description of the evolution of the cosmos. While Fowler’s recognition of the functions of differentiation and integration shows indebtedness to Piaget in particular, it should be noted that his book relies heavily on the solid empirical grounds of an extensive series of interviews of individuals of all relevant ages.

Kauffman takes what is to me a major step in the right direction, with the statements that “agency and value bring with them what philosophers call teleological language, that is, language involving a sense of purpose or ‘end,’ as in our common explanations for our actions based on our reasons and intentions,” and that “agency is emergent and real, but not reducible to physics.”[22] This adds the final touch to Greenstein’s conscious observer, making the “metahuman” metaphor virtually inescapable.

I may have missed it, but I have not found Kauffman dealing more explicitly than this with the relationship between creativity and agency. For my part, I find it impossible to conceive of effective creativity apart from agency. . . . Such a conception points beyond my actual mental reach; and if I take seriously the finite nature of my own mind and the infinite nature of God, it always will. It demands that I think in “meta” terms. As Swedenborg puts it,

When we know how to raise our minds above images of thought derived from space and time, we pass from darkness into light and taste things spiritual and divine.[23]

What I experience as purpose, then, would be infinite creativity dumbed down to my level of comprehension, an immense simultaneity distinguished into “me-sized” bits and laid out along a temporal axis—hence, perhaps, the wondrously restless, creative paradox of determinism and free will.

 

George F. Dole holds a BA from Yale, an MA from Oxford, and a PhD from Harvard. Now professor emeritus, Dr. Dole taught ancient languages, the Bible, and theology at the Swedenborg School of Religion in Newton, Massachusetts. He has served as a translator for the New Century Edition of the Works of Emanuel Swedenborg, and he is also the author of Freedom and Evil, Sorting Things Out, and A Book about Us. He lives in Bath, Maine.

 

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Notes

[1] Webster’s New World College Dictionary, s.v. “God (n.),” accessed October 17, 2017, http://www.yourdictionary.com/god#websters.

[2] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006), 18. His dismissive attitude toward poetry is surely open to challenge.

[3] Ibid., 137.

[4] From “Reflections on September 11,” accessed October 17, 2017, http://www.nlpu.com/Articles/Sept_11.html.

[5] Stuart A. Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion (New York: Basic Books, 2008), 2.

[6] Lawrence M. Krauss, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing (New York: Atria, 2012), xi.

[7] “As Richard Feynman said, ‘The more you see how strangely nature behaves, the harder it is to make a model that explains how even the simplest phenomena actually work, so theoretical physics has given up on that.’ Quantum physics forsakes genuine explanations for amazingly accurate mathematical descriptions in which efficient material causality is nowhere to be found” (Bruce L. Gordon, “Hawking irrational arguments: Theoretical physicist takes leave of his senses,” The Washington Times,October 1, 2010, https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2010/oct/1/hawking-irrational-arguments/).

[8] George Greenstein, The Symbiotic Universe: Life and Mind in the Cosmos (New York: William Morrow & Company, 1988), 197, 222, 223.

[9] Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred, 6.

[10] Terrence W. Deacon, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2012), 146.

[11] In the Big Bang model, I find an analogue of my own nature as a human-type being in an evolutionary process of becoming more fully human, though perhaps only in some “obscure and primordial way,” to use a phrase of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s (The Phenomenon of Man [New York: Harper Perennial Modern Thought, 2008], 71).

[12] Nunc liceat intellectualiter intrare in Arcana fidei (True Christianity §508:3). The translation takes arcana to be related to arca, “a chest,” in the same way that urbanus, “a citizen,” is related to urbs, “city”; and therefore, arcana connotes both the hiddenness and the value of what one would keep in a chest.

[13] Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred, xi.

[14] Ibid., xii–xiii.

[15] Stephen Hawking and Leonard MlodinowThe Grand Design (New York: Bantam Books, 2010), 7.

[16] Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952), 42.

[17] Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred, 6.

[18] This is intended as a prediction. For a trenchant examination of the “differentiation” extreme, see Eric HofferThe True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements(New York: Harper Perennial, 2010). “All active mass movements strive, therefore, to interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world. They do this by claiming that the ultimate and absolute truth is already embodied in their doctrine and that there is no truth nor [sic] certitude outside it” (p. 79). Dialectical materialism wore all the trappings of such a mass movement, and scientific materialism may very well be running the same risk.

[19] Edward O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth (New York: Liveright Pub. Corp., 2012).

[20] James W. Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (New York: HarperOne, 1995), 49.

[21] Ibid., 79. I would note in particular Fowler’s observation that “in many ways religious institutions ‘work best’ if they are people [sic] with a majority of committed folk best described by Stage 3” (p. 164). A significant feature of Stage 3, “Synthetic-Conventional Faith,” is the sense of security found in willing conformity. “Religion,” “faith,” and “religious institutions” are not synonymous with each other.

[22] Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred, 12.

[23] At qui scit elevare mentem supra ideas cogitationis, quae trahunt ex spatio et tempore, ille transit e caligine in lucem, et sapit spiritualia et Divina (Divine Love and Wisdom §69).

 

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