11 December 2007

Is There a God? TED Theme

I responded to this theme at TED.com:

The question is ridiculous to me because that is like asking "Is There a Gravity?"

What can you possibly mean by "a gravity"? It just doesn't make any sense.

If you are asking about experiencing things falling down when they are not supported, then there is absolutely no question about the undeniable universally human reality of that phenomena.

If you are asking about different theories of gravitation and how I evaluate their claims of validity then I can't even answer the question because I have no frame of reference to judge them effectively (since I lack appropriate training in both mathematics and physics).

If you are asking about the variety of ways the we use the term "gravity" to talk about and explain the world on an everyday basis, then I think there may be some interesting discussion to be had.

So here's how I translate this line of thought to the discussion theme:

What can you possibly mean by "a God"? It just doesn't make any sense to me.

If you are asking about experiencing things in our lives that we cannot explain nor understand then there is absolutely no question about the undeniable universally human reality of that phenomena. No matter who you are or what your beliefs there are unknown and unknowable factors in the world that affect your life and you will come up with strategies for cognitively dealing with them, one of the most popular strategies is the concept of “God.”

If you are asking about different theories of how we explain particular aspects of our world, then I can't even answer the question because you have not specified what it is we are trying to explain. It is rather a slippery slope to try to talk about explaining the unknown and unknowable as if it is a single discreet phenomena (as religious communities have found out.)

If you are asking about the variety of ways that we use the term “God” to talk about and explain the world on an everyday basis, then I think there may be some interesting discussion to be had.

First of all, on an everyday basis, functionality requires that we dispense with the formalities. Human beings are not equipped to be strictly logical and coldly rational despite certain opinions to the contrary.

On an everyday basis the concept of “God” is useful. In this emergent creative universe in which we are embedded “God” is a convenient way to refer to the levels of reality that are both above and below our awareness. When I thank God for a parking spot, for my health, for the opportunity to be educated and well off I am not positing theological truths, I am simply acknowledging that I am not the only agency with a say in how my life works. And I don’t need to know all the details of why and how it does work. I am just expressing my sense of gratitude for what is.

Here is why the posited theme is silly to me. The existence of God is not in question because no one denies that there are aspects of life that are unknown and unknowable to them and no one denies that there are agencies that affect our lives that are beyond our control. The debates are about describing and naming the characteristics of these aspects and forces in our lives. Existence is not the issue.

Whenever we have the opportunity to reflect on all that we do not know nor understand then we are reflecting on an abstract concept that is very tricky to grasp. Therefore, it is very understandable to attribute to that concept more concrete characteristics that make it easier to think about. I have come to suspect that there are two key characteristics that we humans typically attribute to God in order to grasp the unknown and unknowable more easily; personality and presence. And I suspect that when they are combined in a simple array then the resulting set of four categories of concepts of God may be a fine explanation of the diversity of beliefs about both God and the lack of one.

You can read about this in more detail in my review of Dennett’s book, Breaking the Spell .
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