Fundamental Reality VII: Does God Need a Brain?

One possible objection to Theism is this: in the case of human or animal minds, we think using our brains.  This is a rather complicated chunk of matter, that has—at the very least—a rather large amount to do with determining what our thoughts are.  Assuming that there is a divinity which transcends the material world, and everything else, it wouldn't and couldn't have anything like a brain.  So how could God possibly think?

The problem is aggravated all the more if we decide that the fundamental reality should be simple in the sense of not being composed of any kind of parts (this is a technical term in theology, not to be confused with "simple" in the sense of easy to understand or unsophisticated).  Since if it were composed of separable parts, it would be natural to seek some explanation further back about how these parts got to be stuck together.

Recall, however, that I only proposed that God is like a mind, not that his mind works in the exact same way that ours does.  Because we have brains, our knowledge is necessarily limited (because there's a limit to the information capacity and reliability of a finite piece of matter) and also indirect (because we experience things in the outside world by representing them as particular patterns of firing neurons).

If God does not have a brain, then there is no physical mechanism to determine which things he knows and which he doesn't know.  So it seems likely he would have to know either nothing or everything.  (Aristotle stands up to propose the compromise that God knows only his own act of thinking, but let's ignore him.)  Since our original motivation for Theism was that God is like a mathematician who can appreciate the mathematical elegance of the physical world, it seems only the omniscience option will do.

Unlike us, God knows things directly, rather than by the mediation of a perceptual apparatus and neural processing.  For if an omniscient being knew things by representation, then he would need an exact identical copy of the entire Universe in his brain.  If he is omniscient, the copy would be exactly like the original, which seems absurd on grounds of redundancy: everything in the world would exist twice, once in reality and once exactly the same in God's mind.  Better to say that God just knows whatever is true, or rather that God is such that his knowledge and Truth are one and the same thing!  (This, incidentally, also provides a general recipe for dispelling almost any supposed logical paradox about omniscience.  Just replace all instances of “God knows X” with “X is true”, and then you will have a new paradox which must have a solution, even if you are an atheist.  That solution is then also available to the theist.)

Some readers may think that this view of God is a form of Pantheism, because in some sense the world is a part of God's thoughts.  But I don't think this is true.  The views which I am articulating here are a form of Classical Theism, which has historically been the most important view of God in the philosophy of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.  This view might come a little closer to Pantheism than people think, but it differs in some essential details.

If God is the fundamental reality, then he exists quite apart from the world and does not depend on it for his existence.  His wisdom and power are eternal, and eternally he knows himself.  Because he is omniscient, and does not need representations, what he knows about a tree must be exactly the same as that tree (together with its context), but that is not to say that his pre-existing ability to know is identical to the tree, still less that he himself is made out of wood, like the idols that have no understanding.

A brief digression:  In Christian theology, there is one possible exception to my argument here, namely that God's knowledge of himself might well still be representational.  We believe that there is also a Divine Son who is the Word and Wisdom of God, that he eternally pre-existed with his Father before all Creation.  “Word” (λογος) is a metaphor for an expression of some idea, and this suggests that in some sense the Son is involved in God's act of knowing himself.  So, although this is getting into very deep waters here, maybe even God can't fully understand himself without recourse to a representation.  Since God is omniscient, this representation is in some sense an exact copy; fully accurate to who he is, yet distinguishable by the fact that it is the copy, not the original.

In fact, we believe that God is so full of life that there are actually two distinct self-expressions springing up out of the Father's being, namely the Son and the Holy Spirit.  When an artist paints a self-portrait, the image of himself is an expression of who he is, and in a different way his artistic style—the “spirit” of the work—is also an expression of who he is. Yet there is only one portrait, and there are not three artists but only one.  Since as Monotheists we believe that God is also One, we do not regard these as three parts of God but rather use the language of three persons within the unique divine Being.  (A person is something which can be in a loving relationship with another person.)

However, most Christian philosophers (e.g. St. Thomas Aquinas) have thought that the doctrine of the Trinity cannot be deduced from armchair reasoning alone!  (Though after we learn the fact, we can say something about how it might make sense given God's loving nature.)  Especially since it sits rather uncomfortably with the idea of divine unity; our theologians have their work cut out just explaining why the Trinity is consistent with the idea of Monotheism which we hold in common with Jews and Muslims, let alone demonstrating it from sound metaphysical reasoning.  Thus these last three paragraphs are NOT part of my main argument; I cite them only to avoid some confusions about how what I've said might fit in with what God has revealed about himself in the Bible.

Next: The Hard Problem of Consicousness

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St. Thomas on the Theological Method

An interesting quotation from St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica concerning what I am calling the Theological Method.  The quotation steers a middle road which avoids both fideism (the belief that faith involves the acceptance of propositions without evidence, and that this is somehow praiseworthy) and rationalism (the belief that the unaided human reason can reason its way into the correct views without help from above).  In the process, he has some interesting words about the degree of certainty attained from metaphysical reasoning.  Thomas believed that there were valid rational arguments for the existence of God that could be appreciated apart from divine revelation or even faith, but that a full knowledge of Christian doctrine requires placing one's trust in a divine revelation (although in this quotation, St. Thomas does not go into details about what criteria one would use to identify such a divine revelation).

Note that for St. Thomas, a "science" is any method of study capable of producing knowledge, while the modern definition is narrower.  Thus for him, Theology, Metaphysics, and History would all be sciences, which they are not according to the more modern definition.

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I. Q1. Article 8. Whether sacred doctrine is a matter of argument?

Objection 1. It seems this doctrine is not a matter of argument. For Ambrose says (De Fide 1): "Put arguments aside where faith is sought." But in this doctrine, faith especially is sought: "But these things are written that you may believe" (John 20:31). Therefore sacred doctrine is not a matter of argument.

Objection 2. Further, if it is a matter of argument, the argument is either from authority or from reason. If it is from authority, it seems unbefitting its dignity, for the proof from authority is the weakest form of proof. But if it is from reason, this is unbefitting its end, because, according to Gregory (Hom. 26), "faith has no merit in those things of which human reason brings its own experience." Therefore sacred doctrine is not a matter of argument.

On the contrary, The Scripture says that a bishop should "embrace that faithful word which is according to doctrine, that he may be able to exhort in sound doctrine and to convince the gainsayers" (Titus 1:9).

I answer that, As other sciences do not argue in proof of their principles, but argue from their principles to demonstrate other truths in these sciences: so this doctrine does not argue in proof of its principles, which are the articles of faith, but from them it goes on to prove something else; as the Apostle from the resurrection of Christ argues in proof of the general resurrection (1 Corinthians 15). However, it is to be borne in mind, in regard to the philosophical sciences, that the inferior sciences neither prove their principles nor dispute with those who deny them, but leave this to a higher science; whereas the highest of them, viz. metaphysics, can dispute with one who denies its principles, if only the opponent will make some concession [emph. mine]; but if he concede nothing, it can have no dispute with him, though it can answer his objections. Hence Sacred Scripture, since it has no science above itself, can dispute with one who denies its principles only if the opponent admits some at least of the truths obtained through divine revelation; thus we can argue with heretics from texts in Holy Writ, and against those who deny one article of faith, we can argue from another. If our opponent believes nothing of divine revelation, there is no longer any means of proving the articles of faith by reasoning, but only of answering his objections — if he has any — against faith. Since faith rests upon infallible truth, and since the contrary of a truth can never be demonstrated, it is clear that the arguments brought against faith cannot be demonstrations, but are difficulties that can be answered.

Reply to Objection 1. Although arguments from human reason cannot avail to prove what must be received on faith, nevertheless, this doctrine argues from articles of faith to other truths.

Reply to Objection 2. This doctrine is especially based upon arguments from authority, inasmuch as its principles are obtained by revelation: thus we ought to believe on the authority of those to whom the revelation has been made. Nor does this take away from the dignity of this doctrine, for although the argument from authority based on human reason is the weakest, yet the argument from authority based on divine revelation is the strongest. But sacred doctrine makes use even of human reason, not, indeed, to prove faith (for thereby the merit of faith would come to an end), but to make clear other things that are put forward in this doctrine. Since therefore grace does not destroy nature but perfects it, natural reason should minister to faith as the natural bent of the will ministers to charity. Hence the Apostle says: "Bringing into captivity every understanding unto the obedience of Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:5). Hence sacred doctrine makes use also of the authority of philosophers in those questions in which they were able to know the truth by natural reason, as Paul quotes a saying of Aratus: "As some also of your own poets said: For we are also His offspring" (Acts 17:28). Nevertheless, sacred doctrine makes use of these authorities as extrinsic and probable arguments; but properly uses the authority of the canonical Scriptures as an incontrovertible proof, and the authority of the doctors of the Church as one that may properly be used, yet merely as probable. For our faith rests upon the revelation made to the apostles and prophets who wrote the canonical books, and not on the revelations (if any such there are) made to other doctors. Hence Augustine says (Epis. ad Hieron. xix, 1): "Only those books of Scripture which are called canonical have I learned to hold in such honor as to believe their authors have not erred in any way in writing them. But other authors I so read as not to deem everything in their works to be true, merely on account of their having so thought and written, whatever may have been their holiness and learning."

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Fundamental Reality VI: Comparison of the Finalists

For the reasons just given, I think the main choice is between Naturalism and Monotheism (which I will sometimes call Theism for short).

Before trying to decide between these two views, I think it is well worth emphasizing just how much they have in common.  Both of them agree that Nature is not a divine being, but instead a limited reality capable of being studied and explored—these metaphysical views are therefore the most compatible with Science, and it is not surprising that people of a scientific bent tend to adopt one of these two views.

We thus have to decide which conception to adopt of Ultimate Reality.  Is it more like a Law, or more like a Mind?

On the one hand, there is something strange about the concept of a “Law of Nature” as a fundamental entity, since as pointed out earlier, normally a law is something which is imposed by a Lawgiver.  Really it must be a metaphor for something stranger, more magical as St. Chesterton says.  Indeed, in so far as the Laws compel matter to behave in a particular, rationally comprehensible way, one can see that they are already, in certain respects, a bit more like a living mind than say a rock is.  Thus Naturalism itself borders on a form of Theism, to the extent that it implies that the Universe is governed by a rational ordering principle (λογος) similar to, but greater than, the rational ordering in the minds of the scientists who study it.  There is a risk here of introducing at least Einstein's “God”, if not the God of Religion.

But to be fair, no matter what conception of Ultimate Reality we adopt, it seems likely that we can only understand it with our limited human minds by employing some set of metaphors or analogies.  This applies to Theism at least as strongly as to Naturalism (though perhaps Theists are more often conscious of the fact that they are applying metaphors to God, than Naturalists are when they speak of Nature).  In that sense, we are all in the same boat.  If the Naturalist wishes to insist that they are using “Law of Nature” in a purely metaphorical way, which connotes order and rationality but excludes any hint of personality or mind, then I cannot say that they are employing a fundamentally illegitimate methodology.  Nearly all of our conceptions are metaphorical to some degree, even about lesser matters.

And if there are some deep questions about what the metaphysical meaning of the Laws are, at least their physical content can be precisely stated in precise mathematical terms.  Whereas anyone who has studied Theology knows that hashing out the meaning of a fundamental mind, and predicting its effects, is a far murkier subject.

For these reasons, I believe it is not possible on the basis of Cosmological Arguments alone to decide between Naturalism and Theism.  But the balance of probabilities is shifted by other types of arguments.

We might check to see if there is any credible evidence that some god has revealed himself to the world through explicit revelation, supported by manifestations such as miracles, prophecies, or visions.  In fact we should do this, but it is not something that can be done from our armchairs (not without the aid of books or the internet anyway!) so let's leave this aside for the time being.

Another set of considerations is Design Arguments.  These concern the question of whether the Universe is organized in a way that suggests the existence of an intelligent agent with particular goals.  One particular type of Design Argument was invalidated by Darwin, but there are other versions, such as the Fine-Tuning Argument, which I'll discuss in depth at a later time.  On the flip side are the Undesign Arguments that the Universe is not the way a divine being would organize it: the most convincing forms of these involve Arguments from Evil.  But I don't want to consider Design Arguments here.  Not because they are irrelevant, but because they don't have much to do with purely Cosmological considerations.

Instead let me consider what we can learn from the Philosophy of Mind and the Philosophy of Ethics.  There is a sense in which these give a continuation of the Cosmological Argument, namely that if we believe there is some Source responsible for everything else that is, then what attributes we should attribute to the source will depend on what kinds of things really exist and therefore proceed from that source.  (I say kinds of things, not arrangements of things into patterns; the latter would be more akin to a Design Argument).  We need to decide whether it would be possible in principle for those kinds of things to come from that proposed Source or not.

In the process, I will naturally have to make some rather controversial statements.  In other words, the plausibility of Theism depends on your background beliefs.  I hope that doesn't shock any of my readers too much!

Next: Does God Need a Brain?

Posted in Metaphysics, Theological Method | 4 Comments

Fundamental Reality V: Some Candidates, and a Math Test

What are the possible candidates for the most fundamental principle of reality, which is to explain everything else?  Well, what do we know about the reality which it is supposed to explain?  One thing we know from the study of Physics, is that the world can be described (at least most of the time, to a high degree of precision) by a mathematical system of equations.

So the world is made of math!  (However, we should bear in mind here Bertrand Russell's observation that the fact that the constituents of the world are ordered in a particular pattern does not actually tell us what is the internal nature of those constituent parts...this will come back to bite us later.)  Here I am speaking loosely, in the same rough sense that I said earlier that things happen due to magic.

Well, what should we conclude from the mathematical nature of physics?  I can think of two obvious hypotheses.  Either (1) the fundamental reality is something a bit like an mathematical equation (yet not a mere abstraction, but something which actually makes the world go around), or (2) the fundamental reality is something a bit like a mathematician, i.e. a mind capable of appreciating mathematical relations.  (I don't mean either of these descriptions to be taken too literally here, obviously the fundamental entity cannot be exactly like a set of symbols on the blackboard, or a human mind, but the choice of analogy makes the difference to what effects seem likely to follow.)

If the former hypothesis is true, we would have Naturalism, a worldview which takes the universe as revealed by the Natural Sciences to be the ultimate reality, so that everything else must depend on that.  If the latter is true, we would have a Supernatural or Theistic view of reality.

I don't mean to suggest that (1) and (2) are the only possible candidates for the fundamental entity, just the ones I find most plausible.  Some naturalists might instead propose that the ultimate thing that explains everything else is A) the entire Universe “taken as a whole”, B) the first moment of time, C) the most elementary constituents of matter (whatever they are), or D) some vague principle or force, not structured like an equation, “out of which” the Laws of Physics emerge for some unknown reason.  But I don't think these are quite as plausible as compared to (1).

I only have time to do a drive-by shooting of these proposals: (A) seems problematic as the unexplained source of everything, if we take the term “Universe” literally.  For the Universe (as defined by Naturalists) is just the collection of all the things which exist (e.g. my cat).  So if we say that the Universe as a whole just exists and has no explanation, that would imply that my cat, being one of the parts of the Universe, just exists and has no explanation.  We could try to clarify this hypothesis by saying that actually only certain necessary, eternal, basic features of the Universe that have no explanation.  But then it is no longer the world taken as a whole which is fundamental, but only some aspect thereof.  We are then obliged to give a more specific account of what we mean by that aspect, and this is tantamount to adopting one of the other hypotheses.

If we say (B)—which obviously only works if there is a first moment of time—it seems problematic that the fundamental nature of reality should pass out of existence, and odder still why it should result in consistent laws of physics at later moments of time.  (C) means that there are rather a lot of fundamental realities, and raises difficult questions about what makes them capable of interacting with each other, and how they can be limited to particular places or times.  Without more details (D) is too vague to really be criticized, but in any case it is starting to verge on a (rather murky) Supernaturalism.

Now let's do a survey of Supernaturalistic views, in which there's one or more divinities, conceived as capable of having some degree of understanding, power, and purpose, although it or they might not be very much like a human mind.  One could accept Pantheism and identify God with the Universe.  Or one could embrace Polytheism and believe in multiple gods who are collectively responsible for the Universe as we know it.  Finally, one could invest all of the responsibility in a single Deity who is the source of everything else, which is Monotheism.

Pantheism seems to be open to much the same types of objections as (A) above. (Many forms of Pantheism say that the universe of our senses is an illusion and all that really exists is God, but I have difficulties making logical sense of this position, so I won't consider it seriously.)  Also it is not entirely clear, if God is identified with the Universe, how this viewpoint can distinguish itself from Naturalism, although some Pantheists might have answers to this question.

Polytheism seems to me susceptible to fatal objections, at least if the gods are regarded as metaphysically fundamental.  It seems rather strange that a bunch of fundamental entities should coexist without there being any higher principle which determines why the Pantheon is related to each other in the way that they are.  What decides which god gets its way in the case of a disagreement?  (Or if they always agree, that would seem to suggest something deeper than any of them which causes them to agree.)

Indeed the actual historical Pagans, despite worshiping multiple gods, very seldom conceived of the vast panoply of gods as being fundamental aspects of reality.  Instead they usually invented elaborate theogenies explaining how the gods themselves came into being (by a variety of scandalous sexual or asexual means of reproduction) from pre-existing matter or divinities.  Often one has a henotheistic setup: worshipping one chief God who is regarded as the primary Creator, together with many lesser gods valued as mediators to the heavenly court.  Or else the different deities are regarded as modes or manifestations of a single one.  Thus, even in polytheistic cultures, the philosophers tend towards Naturalism, Pantheism, or Monotheism in their fundamental philosophy.  This is a tell-tale sign that a religious belief is philosophically untenable: if even the philosophers raised in a tradition cannot accept it.

Notwithstanding the platypus, it seems rather unlikely that Nature was designed by committee.  It has too much internal coherence for that.  Atheists are frequently heard saying that Modern Science is in conflict with Religion, and they are quite right, always assuming that by “Religion” they mean Paganism.  It is quite untenable in a Scientific Age to believe that there is one divinity responsible for lightning, another one responsible for erotic love, another for birds and so on.  The natural world isn't really divided along those lines.

As far as I know there are no polytheists who worship the actual forces of nature as four different gods.  The best I can do along these lines is to suggest that Thor = electromagnetism (obviously!), Odin = gravitation (he's the most subtle), Freyja = strong force (she who binds with ties of love), and Loki = weak force (too busy wreaking mischief to bother holding anything together).  But I think this new cult is unlikely to take off among any demographic group I can think of!

Next: Comparison of the Finalists

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Fundamental Reality IV: Necessity, Eternity, and Power

It is natural to suppose that these fundamental entities are in some sense necessary.  I don't mean this term to imply that they can be rigorously proven from pure logic (logical/conceptual necessity) or even that we personally can be sure that they exist.  What I mean is that they are necessary considered in themselves, that (regardless of what we think or know) if we could only understand the fundamental nature of reality, we would know that they had to exist.  They are metaphysically necessary.  (This is quite distinct from the sort of conceptual inevitability described in the Chesterton quote previously.)

The way I have stated things, this may seem almost like a tautology, since we have stipulated that these things are the fundamental entities which explain everything else.  Given that they are the nature of things, they cannot not exist given the fundamental rules of existence, which is themselves.

Some people, though, would argue for the exact opposite, and say that the fundamental nature of reality, because it cannot be explained in terms of anything else, is just the ultimate inexplicable “brute fact”.  They would conceive of it more along the lines of the most wildly contingent thing there is, since it has no particular reason to exist and yet it does.  But this way of looking at things doesn't make intuitive sense to me.

If the fundamental nature of existence just happens to exist, with no internal necessity, why should we suppose that it should be at all simple or rational in its effects?  If it is completely inexplicable, then there are no constraints.  And if it is contingent—meaning something which might either exist or not exist—then it seems strange that there would be no process controlling whether it or something else (or nothing at all) comes into being.  If there are brute facts, then the entire world rests on a fluke, and the ultimate nature of reality is completely arbitrary and irrational.

Furthermore, if anything about the concrete physical world occurs necessarily, because it had to be that way (besides mere truths of logic) then a fortiori the fundamental nature of existence must be like that too.

If the fundamental entities are necessary, then it stands to reason that they are also eternal, since something that exists necessarily cannot come into being, or cease to be, or indeed change in any way.  They must just exist timelessly.  Besides which, if they explain what happens at all moments of time, it doesn't seem plausible that they should only exist for certain moments of time.  For similar reasons, one can argue that the fundamental entities can't be limited to just one region of space.  Their influence must be present everywhere.

It also seems that the fundamental entities (taken as a whole, if there is more than one of them) must be powerful, insofar as their existence is capable of explaining the existence of all other things.

Power here means causal efficacy (I obviously don't mean force times distance per time in this context!).  Earlier I tried to avoid making too many controversial assumptions about causality, but I also argued that the very concept of explanation or “because” involves a certain notion of causality, so if you like you may take the notion of power in this sense.  (One needs some concept of causation to say that anything is powerful.)

In fact, the fundamental principle(s), taken together, must be all-powerful, and that in two different senses: (1) all the other powers that may exist in the world are explained by reference to theirs, and (2) nothing outside of themselves can prevent them from doing things, because there IS nothing outside of them; only themselves and things whose natures are, by stipulation, subject to their dominion.

This does not, however, prevent there from being constraints on what these beings can do, based on them having some type of definite nature, which only does certain things.  And, since everything that exists obeys the rules of logic, it is clear they cannot do logically absurd things, such as causing themselves to never have existed.  So none of those silly logical puzzles about whether an omnipotent being can make stones too heavy to lift are relevant here.

All of the metaphysical reflections above, I would endorse whether or not I believed in God.  Nothing I have yet said is designed to discriminate between Naturalism and Supernaturalism.

Next: Some Candidates, and a Math Test

Posted in Metaphysics, Theological Method | 6 Comments