You think you exist, that you are real. You believe that the things you smell and see, touch and hear, are real. But does God believe that you exist? And if He believes that you exist, is He interested? Why should he care? (Sexism note: throughout this essay and all my writing, as is traditional in English, all male pronouns are neuter unless there is a masculine antecedent; "man" means "human.")
These are not rhetorical questions. How about a few more?
What have you done that would make God interested in finding out about you? Do you want God to be interested in you? Have you tried to get God's attention? What will get God's attention, anyway? For that matter, do you want to have God's attention? In any case, what have you done that God might care about?
No, I'm not going to give you pat answers to these questions. They are meaningful only if God exists. So to decide whether these are questions worth pondering, we have to consider whether God exists.
Does it matter whether we think God exists? Does my belief in God, or your belief, cause Him to exist? I don't think so. He either exists or does not. Which came first, you or the cosmos? If the cosmos came first and you're a recent small addition to a vast collection of cosmological objects, why does your opinion matter? Does the cosmos care what you think about it? Is the pine tree in the forest affected by your opinion about whether it exists? Is the life of any person elsewhere in the world dependent on whether you know or believe he exists?
People have many different ideas about what God might be. Yet, there's general agreement that if God is anything, He's at least that force or intelligence which brought the cosmos into being. This means that if "the cosmos is all there ever was, or is, or will be," as the late Carl Sagan famously said, then the cosmos -- in this sense -- is God, for then the cosmos originated itself. (This is statement is equivalent to pantheism -- God is everything.)
If this is the case, then our main question remains interesting. Does the cosmos have any consciousness of the individuals it has engendered, any concern for them? If so, can we reliably detect or discern this? If not, how can we be confident of this? Is there evidence to indicate an answer? (I do not think that there is "proof.")
Whatever originated the cosmos had the ability to make it what it is -- not just the orbiting stars and galaxies and planets, but also the living plants and animals -- and humans, and speech, and writing, and social attraction and ethical concerns.
Is it more reasonable to postulate that social sensibility and abstract language (for examples) came inexorably and dumbly out of raw physics, than that they and the cosmos emanated from a great, intelligent, articulate consciousness? Only if our presuppositions demand an unintelligent, inarticulate, impersonal First Cause. If you believ this, what evidence do you have that this is correct?
There are really just a few important questions about the existence of God. None is susceptible to proof in the sense of establishing a mathematical theorem, but all are susceptible to being made credible by evidence.
First, does anything at all exist? If so, how do we know?
Another way to phrase this question is, How do we know that there is an objective reality outside of our own thoughts? Let me suggest that you know that your mother exists because she disagrees with you; and especially because some of these disagreements are surprising. We can be confident that an objective reality exists because individuals in general do not agree, and we disagree continually and in surprising ways. In parallel with this, we are confident of objective reality because of accidents: chance itself is evidence of an objective reality.
In fact, because we have vivid imaginations, we do in fact continually need to check our perceptions against events, to be sure we're not dreaming or hallucinating. Psychiatrists call this complicated and interesting process "reality testing," and when it fails people are insane. Reality testing is, in essence, continually checking to be sure that the events we perceive are independent from ourselves, are not actually under our thought control.
Let's look at this another way. We are dependent for knowledge on observation. First, our own observations; and second, the observations of others. Both must be tested against the possibility that they are false or hallucinatory. Essentially, this is done by looking for contradictions, inconsistencies, and false predictions.
Observations can be carefully disciplined and controlled; the power of the scientific method primarily lies in the care with which observations are made, as indirect observations are fraught with error. Science is successful when the primary observer has successfully established through the experiments of others the validity and reliability of his (primary) observations, and they can be repeated by repeating the conditions under which they occurred. Both the scientific method and formal logic operate primarily not to prove truth but to more easily demonstrate error.
We test the consistency and reliability of our own witness against other, previous experiences -- including reports and descriptions by other people of similar things. Regarding past events, especially those that happened before we existed or those that happen at places far away from ourselves, we are dependent on the testimony of others. In general, our confidence in others' claims is increased by the level of detail, the use of objective and descriptive rather than emotional or prescriptive language, the internal consistency of the story, its use of corroborative evidence, and -- most significantly -- the existence of one or more independent witnesses.
A particular challenge in trying to "do reality testing" with our idea of God is that He generally doesn't come knocking on doors. I haven't spoken face to face with God, and I haven't seen anyone else do this. I've talked to people who say that God has spoken to them, but it always seems to have been a private conversation that others haven't heard. This doesn't prove it was hallucinatory, but does mean that it can't be corroborated. We're likely to give credence to such a claim only from someone who ordinarily is sober, unexcitable, and not given to exaggeration or fiction at other times in his or her life.
In regards to witnesses of God we really have only history available. The only preserved testimony of independent witnesses who've spoken with God is contained in the Bible. The Bible is evidence of the existence of God, because it claims to be. You may judge it false, or you may judge it true, but it is evidence. Whether the Bible is reliable or true is completely independent of your opinion about this. You may believe or not believe, but this does not affect whether it is true or invented. All you can do is examine it for internal consistency and look for external corroborative evidence. Few people go to all that work before forming an opinion. We form opinions altogether too quickly; it's comfortable to have a formed opinion, whether correct or not. We all have them, more or less flexibly.
Let me stop for a moment to be clear: in this essay I am not trying to present a "proof" for God's existence. Many people have tried to logically "prove" God as if they were proving a mathematical theorem or a formal logic proposition. That is just an exercise, because the validity of a formal proof depends both on its logic and its assumptions and presuppositions. "God" is presuppositional. One cannot "prove" assumptions and presuppositions! But they are not arbitrary, either! It makes no sense, for example, simply to arbitrarily define "God" in a particular way to suit our prejudices. This simply guarantees that whatever we define as "God" is a fiction.
The challenge then, is that the idea of "God" has presuppositional status, but if God exists, then the "definition" of God must be close to an accurate description in order to be useful. The only way in which something real can have presuppositional status and be valid is by experiencing it, either directly or vicariously. In any case, as we don't normally have the opportunity to observe God directly, and vicarious experience of God must be judged for veracity; thus, with "God" we are in the same position as with all other presuppositions or theories that try to represent an underlying reality: we must determine the logical implications of the assumption or presupposition and see if this conforms to realities that we can experience.
Thus presuppositions and assumptions are judged by their heuristic power to yield valid implications; that is, we evaluate them by examining the consequences of assuming them to be true. For example, in discussing the existence and nature of God, we can, at best, arrive at a set of assumptions and definitions which yield a set of conclusions that fit well with observation. (A challenge in this regard is to test observations for trustworthiness, a topic for a different essay.)
What I will do next is to carefully describe a (progressively more specific) range of definitions that are commonly used in discussions about the nature and existence of God, to make it easier to understand what is specifically meant when we try to discuss "God" or His nature, so if we argue, we at least are speaking the same lingo.
Let me line these up first:
I exist -> the cosmos exists -> a creative force exists -> a creator exists, an entity -> a personal God exists ->At this point we have arrived at "deism." The major elohistic religions accept these additional concepts:
verbal communication between God and Man exists -> God has expectations for the creature, Man -> God prefers a social relationship with Man -> God has moral norms for human behavior -> God judges human behavior, with consequences -> God is capable of forgiving transgression ->Christianity includes these further concepts::
God desires and seeks a companionable relationship with Man -> God can and does transform Men morally (spiritually) -> God exists in a parallel universe into which He may bring Man.Each subsequent proposition depends on the validity of the preceding. I'll develop this only as far as deism, then point the way further.
We do not start with the question, "Does God exist?" but "Do I exist?" For if we do not exist, there is no point in asking whether God does. Then we can ask, "Is there anything at all, any force or object, which is independent of the cosmos itself?" Or is the cosmos all there is?
Second, if we exist as part of the cosmos, what caused it to be formed? Let's set aside all other notions for a moment, and simply say that whatever formed the cosmos is "God." "God" might be simply equal to the cosmos (as Carl Sagan believed) or might be separate. We'll consider evidence on that later. For now, since we agree that the cosmos and ourselves exist, we somehow came into being, and to that generative principle we will give the name, "God," and simply explore where this begins to take us.
Third: Now we may ask, If some creative force or principle exists, is it distinct from the cosmos itself? I am not convinced that this is an important question, as the consequences don't seem to be all that different if God is an individual separate and independent from the cosmos, or if (for example) the earth is simply an atom in the mind of God. The more important question is, Is God a sentient entity?
There are only two possibilities. Either the proto-cosmos had within its natural forces the tendency to become as it is, including human social moral sensibility and spiritual yearning, or there was an intelligence separate from the cosmos that has in some way engendered it or guided it into being. In case this isn't clear to you, let me re-phrase this. "Modern" science quite rightly requires scientists to explain natural phenomena by discovering the natural processes underlying them. Scientists are not permitted, in explaining how a weather system develops, to abort their investigations and simply say, "I don't know. God spoke and it was so." Spiritually this may be true, in a sense of "spoke" that is not anthropomorphic, and it "gives glory to God." But it does not help us predict the weather, which does follow systematic patterns. Precise long-range weather forecasting is impossible, not because God is capricious or science is ignorant, but because weather phenomena are extremely complex and at every point subject to the influence of random events, which has only recently been understood with the development of chaos theory.
The consistency, uniformity, and predictability of natural processes are evidence that if God exists at all as a sentient and willful entity, then the rather mechanistic cosmos is a separate entity, without mind or will. There is nothing in physics, chemistry, or biology to suggest that the cosmos itself has "formed policy" or has been continually making decisions.
Yet the notion that the cosmos is all there ever was, or is, or will be, requires that this obviously mechanistic universe (within which chance clearly operates, producing variety) possess, from the start, through dumb inevitability -- intrinsic natural laws that yield, through natural processes, everything that the universe contains including ethical sensibility, spirituality, and abstract language.
It is not hard to imagine that random processes, through long periods of time, could produce gradual alterations in development of dynamic, reproducing, living organisms over many genrations. And in fact molecular biologists are beginning to describe the occurence of evolutionary changes, for example, within particular fish species, that within a few generations, adapt them to the local conditions into which they've been planted. (e.g., Koskinen MT, Haugen TO & Primmer CR, Contemporary Fisherian life-history evolution in small salmonid populations. Nature. 24 October 2002. This study demonstrates a very clear case of Fisherian evolution in small natural populations across a contemporary timescale.
The challenge of evolutionary theory is that it requires that there must exist natural laws which tend toward development of all phenomena that exist; development of life and complex biological systems, reproduction, animal social behavior, human social structures, human language, human moral sensibilities, and human spiritual yearnings.
Enough is known about molecular biology to understand the processes of DNA conservation and repair, and of DNA insertion through phages and viruses, which permits gene insertion. The observations in the article I cited above show that there must be genetic mechanisms that permit fish to adapt optimally to disparate temperatures and season lengths, in a few generations after transplantion from lakes where these were different.
Yet there is a lack of evidence for natural processes that would engender such things as complex interdependent systems, reproduction, ecological interdependence, verbal expression, abstract thought, or spirituality. This lack of evidence could reflect Man's current state of scientific (mis)understanding: but even if such mechanisms are discovered, this does not imply that God is necessarily absent; it only implies, if God exists, that the cosmos was imbued by God with natural laws that would take it in the direction in which it has gone.
Whether life was formed through an evolutionary process guided only by chance and pre-existing natural forces of the cosmos is important only to those who demand that their presuppositions exclude a God. As I've already noted, these beliefs, or those who believe in a personal, sentient God, have no effect on whether God exists; God either does exist already, or He does not; and if He exists, then He has some particular characteristics, which may or may not be partly or fully discoverable. All we can to do is to seek evidence of His existence or non-existence; and if there's evidence of His existence, we either can define a fictitious God that satisfies our biases, or we can try to discover the nature of the God who exists.
To someone who believes in God, or in the possibility of a creator-God, evolutionary theory is simply an interesting concept of how this creator-God may have formed the living contents of the cosmos. By extension, whether the cosmos is ancient or young is irrelevant if God exists, but is crucial, if the cosmos is all there is, to allow time for chance to unleash the natural forces of evolutionary progression. In general, the debate among believers about a young cosmos is a debate, not about the existence of a creative force, but about the methods of creation and about metaphysics, and about the meaning and interpretation of scripture.
Fourth: If the creative force exists as a separate entity, is it an individual? and if so (fifth) is it a person?
By "individual," I mean that it may be something that can be named and identified, and by "person," that it has describable characteristics. These questions are irrelevant to whether God exists, but determine whether God is "knowable." If God is unknowable, then there's no point in searching for God or studying God. If God is a person, then there's every reason to seek Him out and study Him, as the knowledge of God might affect how we wish to live.
At this point, we've arrived basically at deism. We've not even ventured into theology or any specific religion. Even the "intelligent design" theorists haven't pushed this far. All Intelligent Design proposes is that the Creative Cosmos is sentient, not that it's a person.
I've not offered very much evidence for any of these positions because I'm writing an essay, not a book; and because you truly need to answer these questions for yourself rather than devouring my answers. The chief evidence against the chance-plus-time-plus-physics theory is the tight and efficient organization of life: biochemistry, reproduction, organ systems, organ integration, and ecological interdependency, including immune defense mechanisms of various organisms.
The problem for time-plus-chance is that a complex system will fail if any part of it is removed, just as you cannot remove one tire from a car, one piston from its engine, or one gear from its transmission. Nor can a complex system be gradually and randomly built up; it is non-functional until it's complete. There's no possibility for "gradual refinement." The discrete nature of genetics and the complexity of endocrine systems make Darwinian gradual evolution completely non-credible. A credible non-Darwinian evolutionary consensus has yet to emerge.
In general, when one looks at the structures of living organisms, nothing seems randomly thrown together. Nothing. Does this mean that things were originally randomly thrown together and by the present era, in the end of time, most of the detritus has been cleaned up? Deformity and disease are exceptions to normal functioning, not continual and usual characteristics that suffuse every organism.
The point is that as science has more fully elucidated the structures of biological systems, their functional parsimony and complexity have made untenable the idea that random change alone is sufficient to bring about complex interdependent systems any more than an automobile can be assembled by random processes. The only alternative is that, without a sentient designer-God, the cosmos contains within it undiscovered natural laws which ineluctibly cause development of life as it exists.
Please don't assume from this that I believe that a sentient creator did not employ evolution in creation. I'm not "anti-evolution;" it's just that, after examining all the evidence I'm been aware of over the last 40 years or so, the absence or non-existence of a sentient desgner-God is not credible to me.
Is it more credible that a sentient intelligence created us, or is it more credible that a personal creator-God has brought the cosmos deliberately into being, including all the natural processes it contains?
Now I'm going to skip over some of the steps in the logical progression of concepts I outlined far above, and go the heart of the "God issue."
Sixth: If it's a person of some sort who created the cosmos, do we as individuals (or even collectively) have any accountability to this God? This is the heart of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Each of these related monotheistic religions teaches that God is personal, God is the creator, and God is the Judge of all the earth, to whom we must each give an account of what we've done.