Saturday, December 15, 2007

Existence of a Personal God



What would it take for you to be convinced
of the existence of a personal God?"


A good friend of mine -- who happens to be a Christian pastor -- asked me this the other day. After giving it some deep thought, I decided to put my conclusions in writing.

While he was raising this question, my friend stated that it was easy for him to believe in a personal God because how can he not believe in someone he has personally met? This experience of "direct knowing" is the evidence to which I attribute the greatest strength -- if someone has personally experienced the effects of gravity, how can one convince him that gravity does not exist?

However, this form of evidence presents a very interesting paradox. How do we explain contradictory "direct knowledge"? In particular, I am thinking of people I have known in the past who had a direct experience of their patron god and matron goddess from their primary pantheon. I am thinking of my friend's experience of directly knowing a single personal God. I am thinking of my own direct experience of the interbeing of us all, how we are each empty of independent existence. I am thinking of Charles Darwin who, in his notebooks, noted that through his studies in the Galapagos, he directly realized that the Christian religion in which he was raised -- indeed, he had been pursuing studies to become a clergyman at the time -- was false; he knew that the existence of such a God was a delusion.

It's my feeling that this paradox itself lies at the core of our absolute nature. Our physical minds are finite. So while we can enhance our five physical senses and our sixth intuitive sense, our human minds simply cannot grasp the totality of all that is. Hence, we're all experiencing some aspect of absolute truth. But it is egotistical and delusional to believe that you can encompass the entirety of the absolute; it is similarly egotistical and delusional to believe that your "direct experience" is completely true and all other contradictory "direct experiences" are false. You cannot be inside another person's mind; hence, it is simply impossible to directly compare your internal experience to another's.

Returning to the original question of what would convince me of the existence of a personal God, my answer is: Nothing. My personal religious experiences of emptiness and interbeing lie in opposition to the existence of a personal God as defined by the Christian faiths. Furthermore, were I to have an experience such as my friend's of a personal god, that would simply be an experience of another aspect of truth, one that I feel lies on a lower organizational level than emptiness and interbeing.

Many people see our world and cannot fathom how such a place could have arisen without the influence of a Guiding Hand. I side with Richard Dawkins and Charles Darwin when they share their utter awe at how nature has evolved through natural selection through the eons. A personal God is not necessary for this process to occur as we've observed, so I see no need to superimpose one over life's systems.

Many people think about the beginning of the universe and cannot fathom how it could have begun without God. The problem here is one of perspective. Our experience of time is linear -- beginning, middle, end -- and we naturally think that such a linear system must apply to the universe too. But given the span of billions of years lying between us and the big bang -- not to mention the nature of singularities in general -- we cannot know for certain what preceded the generation of our universe. One could propose the idea of a God. One could also say that there never was a beginning; generation and destruction may be cycling continuously without beginning or end.

I can hear the arguments already: "But that doesn't make any sense! How could time possibly cycle continuously without a beginning or end? Everything has a beginning. Infinite time is illogical!"

My answer to that is to ask a few counter-questions: how logical is it that time has "shape"? How logical is it that time is inextricably woven into space to form a continuum? How logical is it that an electron can never possibly be said to be at any particular location around a nucleus, but can only be said to be probabilistically located at any one point at any one time around a nucleus? How logical is it that time actually slows down as one's speed approaches that of light? My point is that many of our quantum and relativistic findings defy the limited logic of our minds. I once explained the idea of Schrodinger's Cat to my dad, who simply refused to believe it because it didn't make any sense. That doesn't make the quantum laws it illustrates any less true, though.

The fact is that we cannot know the beginning of nature. We cannot know if it has a beginning at all, regardless of what seems logical. We can conjecture all we want, but such musings are ultimately fruitless and of little use. It is infinitely more important that we accept the truth we have been lucky enough to "directly know," and accept the truth that others have been lucky enough to "directly know." It is infinitely more important to engage in whatever spiritual practice applies to your "direct knowledge," and to dedicate that practice to the benefit of all others and the world around you.

Nothing can convince me that a personal God exists. In the same way, I know nothing can convince my friend that his personal God does not exist. I'd never even dream of trying.

6 comments:

Pastor Jon said...

I am glad to see my question sparked such a well thought out response.

Let me continue with a few follow up questions: 1) Did the ancient Hebrews come to their monotheism philosophically or existentially? 2) Did the disciples come to the concept of Jesus uniqueness philosophically or existentially? 3) How do we determine who was right about Christianity, Darwin, or others looking at similar evidence coming to different conclusions?
4)How can you be certain that a personal God would be on a lower organizational level than emptiness without knowing him?

I also have one observation: There are those who honestly argue that a personal God would indeed be necessary even given natural selection. Also, even if He is not considered necessary that would not prove non-existence. How in the world could we even determine with any scientific certainty what "necessary" even was in the primordial past? I still need to get you Dr. Alvin Plantiga's book "God and Other Minds" I think you would enjoy the read.

And one riddle... never mind... I suppose if infinite time exists this message will never be read anyways.

This could be a VERY enjoyable dialogue Mike, I look forward to discussing it further over some LOTR gaming this weekend.

Mike said...

Thanks for the comment. In answer to your 1 & 2, I think they would have come to monotheism & Jesus in the same way the Buddha came to his realizations -- experientially (that wasn't an option you gave, but that would be my answer anyway). Which, combined with your question #3, is exactly the point I was raising in my essay. I don't think we can determine for certain who was right with people having conflicting experiences. More accurately, I doubt any of us are fully "right." We're all as right as we can be, in our limited states. Re: your #4, part of the reason is that Buddhist cosmology accounts for heavenly beings within dependent arising, but a personal God as you describe him could not exist at a higher organizational level with emptiness in operation at a lower level.

Re: your 2nd full paragraph, I agree with what you say. There are those who would argue that God is still necessary even given natural selection. There are also many people who would argue otherwise. Speaking from my own knowledge and the evidence I've read and heard on both sides of the equation, *I* have no difficulty seeing evolution and natural selection working without a "prime mover." And of course I wasn't trying to prove God's nonexistence via non-necessariness (yes, I just made up a word) -- I'm no logician, but that one's easy.

And regarding your infinite time argument... I rejected it the last time you presented it based on my own knowledge of higher mathematics. Perhaps my presentation of the calculus behind the refutation wasn't clear?

Looking forward to our game and talk!

LV7 said...

As a corollary question:

You mentioned that there's nothing that would convince you of a personal God's existence.

What would it take for you (either of you) to believe that Santa Claus truly exists? Is there anything a person (or book) could tell you, that would help you re-reach a natural and firm belief in his existence?

If you asked a child to explain their faith in him, or maybe even less than that.. Just details about his life, his mission, his home, his coworkers.. or asked them to explain why they know what they know to be true, what sources would they give?

Is their belief.. proof? Their faith? Books? Songs? Their experience?

Experience is where I think these topics are tough, as you rightly pointed out, Mike... If we are willing to agree that there's one Truth in the world, how much can we trust any side that claims they know the Truth, simply because they've 'experienced' it. Is their perspective full enough?

A coworker of mine told me a story the other day, saying his son wanted a very specific toy from Santa. So. They wrote a letter to Santa, asked him for the item, and waited. Then weeks later, they went to a thing supported by the Knights of Columbus (pretty sure), and sure enough, Santa was there with the exact gift his son had asked for.

His son's experience has more than enough observable facts. But.. is it truth? Truth? Or only visibly true?

--


For myself, the relative difference in reality-units ( RU's ? :) ) for myself, between Santa, and God (personal or otherwise), is nearly zero. Available to me are plenty of facts, plenty of experience-stories, and plenty of people that believe, and plenty that don't.

The question you've asked here is a truly important one. What would it take to believe?

For me, the answer lies within the re-asked question about Santa. For the same reason that words, and books, and experiences don't provide enough perspective to authoritatively prove Santa's existence... words and books, and experiences don't provide me enough perspective to authoritatively prove Gods existence, either. I don't believe we sit at an appropriate angle to see all the facts to know the Truth.

--

Something you didn't ask, and I spose I'll add while i'm here, is the other other question.

What would it take for you to believe there's -no- God. Anything? Proving a negative in almost any case is difficult.. much harder at this level.

I have the same issue with the Athiest side of the house.. I don't believe they hold a position relative to Truth that lets them truly know that there's no God. In much the same way, I truly don't know what they could possibly say or write, or show through experience that could truly convince me that they're right. You?

Mike said...

Loki: You raise a great question. What would it take for you to believe there's no God. Well, the answer would have to be the same as I gave for belief in a God: Nothing. For the same reasons I mentioned, and you mentioned as well -- there's just really no way to know without a shadow of a doubt what Absolute Truth really is. This is a big reason behind the Dalai Lama's perspective that we NEED to have many religions operating in the world to fit all the different types of people in the world. All we can do is judge for ourselves, using whatever evidence we see as convincing, what visible truth is to each of us. And that WILL differ among people.

I like the way you phrased this: "I don't believe we sit at an appropriate angle to see all the facts to know the Truth." I think that's true, and I'd add that not only are we viewing it from an inappropriate angle, our limited minds cannot encompass all that is. Hence, we have to rely on ourselves to find our individual truths.

The Buddha once was talking to a group, who asked him, "What about all these other people who present us with different teachings than you?" The Buddha answered, telling them not to believe these other teachers. They then asked him, "What about your teachings?" The Buddha replied, "Don't believe me either!" He explained that the proper approach is to take a teaching and apply it to your life, and judge its truthfulness for yourself. "Only then should you believe my teachings."

ulrich said...

Interesting discussion, but at this age, stage of my life I participate in philosophical dialogue only for light entertainment. Once, when i wrote a couple of books on philosophy, I still lived for philos=love of sophia=wisdom, alone.
In the end it is 'faith'/attitudes why people accept a personl god, or an impersonal force, or the necessity for their existence of a the idea of a god/s. Vedanta's self-realziation of the Self is more than enough; as Buddha's enlightenment to or waking up from all delusions (not enlightenment as some special place in time and spce), but 'merely' the realization to be awaken from all delusions (in the buddhist sense of the 8 fold path, etc); Sufis and xtian mystics call it in their duality terms to be united or one/d with the Beloved as a person. I wonder if the philosphical question of the existence of other minds does not help with having experience of or knowing the mind, or at least the will of god/s? Yes how can anyone express in our spatio-temporally restricted conecpts that what is meant to be eternal and infinite? Unless of course one first wishes to become and expert in mathematics or theoretical physics; but everyday cocnepts and everday use of such cocnepts won't do the trick. An example the historival Jesus was restricted in time and space. To know him one had to be in his place, 1st Century Palestine, not in Rome or the americas in his days; to know him one had to be in his time, not years before or after. But the post- resurrection Christ is no longer restricted by categories of time or space, but is universal, everywhere, and infinite any time (and place). I've a Yahoo list for monastic subjects, spritiuality etc (a friend of mine, secular humanist, is spiritual but not religious, His book and website is Spirituality Without God). Url of my list, inter-denominational is http://groups.yahoo.com/group/monasterion. And I'm a solitary/hermit in a community of hermits with associates in many countries see http://directory.ic.org/records/?record_id=21574&action=view or

for my non-xtian friends at http://directory.ic.org/records/?action=view&page=view&record_id=21567
An apology that I tried to and did say so and too much, silence is better kept as it often leads to insights, understanding and wisdom, rather than tyring to play a trump card by being one up on others and trying to have the last egocentric word.,
best wishes for being meaningfully in the present here and now, and universality and infinity will take care of themselves.

monk

Anonymous said...

are we saying that truth is unknowable or relative or that it doesn't matter as long as whatever we believe in benefits ourself and others?

rk