Reading George Fox

What I mean by “God”

A Work in Progress

I’ve taken a rather roundabout way of getting to my point, but I do eventually get there. I’ve tried to structure this essay to chart the development of my thoughts. Also, I’m not claiming any of this as radically new. Many have trod this path before me. Rather this is an attempt to clarify my beliefs for myself.

Humans have been shaped by milenia of both biological and social evolution. There is perhaps a valid sense to the definition of “Humanity” itself as the “expression of our genes and memes.” Both are so enmeshed in our being, our modes of thought, our upbringing, our environment, etc that, in some sense, there is no way for us to achieve an objective viewpoint outside of them. I don’t know if we could even imagine what such a viewpoint would entail. [1]

Human beings are also story-telling creatures, and I mean this in a deep sense. Stories are one of our primary tools for understanding the world. Given any set of experiences, we naturally create a story to explain them. This impulse manifests itself in everything from conspiracy theories to the scientific method. After all, what is a scientific theory but a story attempting to explain a set of phenomena. [2] This mode of approaching the world is so instinctual that it takes a massive effort of will to do otherwise. Take the classic bettor’s fallacy for example. Even those who know probability theory may find it easy to slip into thinking that red is more likely to come up after a run of black or that a long series of heads implies that tails should be coming up next. The probability remains the same for each spin or flip, but we have to remind ourselves of that. [3]

Given our propensity towards storytelling and the sheer variety of religious stories we have told to explain the world, faith in a literal God as revealed by such stories is hard to hold for me. Moreover, a scientific, materialistic [4], deterministic [5] approach has such a better track record at explaining the physical world, that it’s hard not to view the development of religion thru that lens. Religions arising as a way to explain and structure the world, both in terms of our relationship to the natural environment and our relationships to each other [6] seems much more believable to me than it being divinely inspired. Moreover, attempts to base a belief in God off of gaps in scientific understanding seems brittle. Yes, there is uncertainty in quantum mechanics, but the probability functions of electron states seems an odd place to ground one’s religious convictions. And science, while by no means perfectly or without detour, does a good job of slowly filling in the gaps. What does one do if evolving scientific understanding of the world negates the particular mystery one was relying on?

It seems to me that the existence of God is not a matter of empirical facts, not a matter subject to rational belief. One can either have the faith or not. It does not come from the bible, from study, from reason, but from within. [7] And I simply do not have that faith. Moreover, it’s not something I lost, rather I cannot remember ever actually believing in God.

So what do I mean when I use the word? It comes down to a question I’ve been wrestling with since at least college [8]: How does one justify and define a good, virtuous life in the absence of the divine? I believe that it is possible, contra Ivan Karamazov’s claim that without God all is permitted. Considering human social evolution, a variety of ethical teachings , examples of human behavior [9], I believe there is a way to justify/ define virtue as enlightened self-interest. [10] Caring for others, doing good works truly makes one happier and more at peace. This is not to say that it is easy to act in such a way. It takes great effort to see clearly enough to act in the light of these long term self-goods rather than short term considerations. [11]

Thus, “God” is the socially and biologically evolved aspect of our consciousness that enables us to take such a long view, that helps us place things in perspective. This is one of the beauties and powers of Quaker practice: it is designed to support and aid this facility within ourselves.

Now, I believe this view is compatible with a literal God. The story would go: He has chosen to speak to us through brain chemicals, electrical impulses, patterns of thought. In His omnipotence, He created such a pathway through setting the universe in motion. In his omniscience, he knew that we would be the result.

But, I find it more wondrous, more awe-inspiring to think of it as the outcome of random chance. [12] From a giant explosion; to the life and death of stars, to the formation of our solar system; to life’s emergence; to the circumstances that led to a group of social primates developing consciousness, intelligence, and morality; nothing was foreordained. Not that this is the best of all possible worlds, but we should be thankful for the world we do have. We should not take it for granted: it did not have to be this way. We did not have the even imperfect moral impulses that we do have. So, if listening to a bunch of neurons firing can bring us and others more peace, I say we ought to do it. It’s much less of a mouthful to name that faculty the inner light or God. And, in a sense, I believe appropriately reverent as well.

  1. This is somewhat analogous to Thomas Nagel’s point in What is it like to be a bat?. While I’m not sure I agree with his overall point that consciousness is not reducible to material facts about the brain, his discussion of our inability to conceive of what it is like to be a bat is useful. What would the experience of perceiving the world through echolocation be like? We may be able to imagine analogies (primarily visual, I’d think), but it does not seem as if we can grasp that actual experiential quality of such perception. Similarly, we may posit by analogy what a truly objective viewpoint might be, but there’s no way to get at the experience of that viewpoint. The very mental tools we’d use to do so preclude it.  ↩

  2. Apologies to any trained scientists reading this if I’m mangling the definition. And I certainly do not mean to suggest that conspiracy theories and scientific theories have equal expletive power. Rather that something like the theory of gravity is a detailed and sophisticate story explaining why a ball drops when you let go of it (among many, many other things).  ↩

  3. Another example is from Graduate School (I’m a lighting designer for performance as a “day” job). One of the most important lessons is that one must consciously consider anything and everything that an audience sees and hears. Nothing should be taken as a given. Each audience member is going to attempt to fit everything into a coherent story, so make sure it’s a choice. Strive to not see your idea on stage, but see what’s actually there.  ↩

  4. In the philosophical sense.  ↩

  5. Give or take Quantum Mechanics.  ↩

  6. To be precise about it, the latter is a subset of the former. Humans do not exist outside of the natural world; we are a part of it. However, the dichotomya seems useful for this discussion.  ↩

  7. And, if I’m understanding things right, this is pretty orthodox Quaker view as well. From the Journal of George Fox: “This I saw in the pure openings of the Light without the help of any man, neither did I then know where to find it in the Scriptures; though afterwards, searching the Scriptures, I found it.” (page 33).  ↩

  8. And, the University of Chicago, being the wonderful place that it is, actually had a program that allowed me to get my degree in thinking about said question.  ↩

  9. ie: The way in which we have to convince ourselves that we are victims in order to exploit others. This past March, I read a Glenn Greenwald article about the Koch brothers, and the story they have told themselves about our radical muslim, socialist president. Not to wade too deep into contemporary policial waters, but, in the context of western democracies, it’s pretty hard to identify Obama as any more left than a liberal centrist (and even that is a stretch). For the Koch brothers to pursue their policy goals, they have to warp their view of the worldb such that their benefits are justified by injuries done to them. Otherwise, they could not believe that lowering taxes, etc would be fair.  ↩

  10. Again, no claim to originality here.  ↩

  11. I don’t mean to denigrate the short term here; often there will be valid considerations. However, this topic is much bigger than my topic here, and this explanation is only a rough sketch of my still evolving thoughts.  ↩

  12. Yes, the concept of random chance in a deterministic universe needs some fleshing out. I do have thoughts on that topic, but I’m running rather long as it is.  ↩

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