Letter to Richard Dawkins
by John Roland Stahl
I was very glad to come across your book, The God Delusion, as I have studied philosophy all of my life. My quest to understand the world began with a theological crisis at the age of six. My father was a professor of philosophy and a Methodist minister, so, naturally, being an intelligent child, I was immediately an atheist, as soon as I understood the views propounded by my father.
“Who does he think is listening to his prayers?” I would ask myself, along with the obvious question, “Well, then, who made God?” However, even at that tender age I understood that it is not sufficient to reject an idea until and unless you are able to propose a reasonable alternative. And so I began my search to understand the world without resorting to any theological postulates.
I studied everything from Christian theology to the Kabbalah, the I Ching, Hermetic alchemy, magic, and witchcraft, and many other sources, not omitting the likes of Swedenborg, Aleister Crowley, and Madame Blavatsky. Eventually, I began to piece together a world view that featured a principle by which I was able to understand the patterns of order in the cosmos. I first referred to this as “the Philosophers’ Stone,” but later, thinking I were precocious and witty, I called it “God.”
However, as my understanding of these mysteries became more and more clear, I began to realize that my labeling of this principle as “God” was not really so clever or even very original; I had just rediscovered what intelligent people had understood as God all along. If anyone had ever suggested to me in my youth that I would eventually come around to a belief in God, I would have dismissed such a notion as so far beyond wildly improbable as to be entirely negligible.
Well, here I am, and I have some views which I have not found expressed anywhere else, and I have also developed ideas which I later discovered to have predated my “invention” of them by some thousands of years. I discovered, in my readings, that many very similar ideas kept popping up, so I tried to organize those ideas in a systematic way. I had already begun to do so when I discovered the idea of Pythagoras, in which he suggested that the abstract ideas of numbers themselves are the purest symbols for the “Mysteries of Nature.” For some years I had arranged representations of the first four numbers, which I arranged horizontally, each one on a separate page (vide: Patterns of Illusion and Change, www.tree.org/patterns2.htm). However, when I stacked those images vertically, I was astonished to discover that I had exactly reproduced the Tree of Life from the Hebrew Kabbalah. What is more, every position on my designs held the exact same significance on the Tree of Life. This not only allowed me to acquire a new understanding and appreciation of the Tree of Life, but it also confirmed to me that my investigations were on the right track, since I had independently recreated the Tree of Life which was essentially identical to the design which has come down to us over the centuries.
All of that was simply an aside, to sketch out some of my preliminary lines of investigation. I turn now to your book, and the first thing I notice is that you decline to address any serious or sophisticated understanding of God. You decide that it is far easier, and much more fun, to confine your efforts to argument against primitive and fundamentalist notions of God, rather than to venture out into the more rarified air of serious discussion.
Consequently, I found your book pleasantly amusing in spots (many of your analogies are quite colorful), but not really relevant to serious contemporary conceptions of God, although I agree with many of your principle points. I share your disgust, for example, with the God of Abraham. If the Old Testament God were to come around my door, I would offer him a meal and a night’s lodging (out of “Christian charity” – not religiously motivated, however – I guess I would just find one evening with the old brute tolerably interesting), and then, after an early breakfast of toast and coffee, I would tell him to just shuffle on down the highway.
My understanding of God may be a bit confusing because I have two quite different visions of “God,” each of which seem entitled to be called “God,” for historical reasons, but it is not at all clear that the two entities are one and the same. In the first place, there is God the Creator of the Universe. I find an important role for God in the creation of the Universe, but my God is neither omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, nor even “good.” You might find my discussion interesting, and you might easily decide that nothing about it requires introducing the title of “God” to the concept. You can find this in an article published on my web site at www.tree.org/cosmology.htm.
In case you wanted to view my whole presentation of philosophy and metaphysics from the beginning, you can read my Patterns of Illusion and Change at www.tree.org/patterns2.htm. There you will find (in the Postscript to the Second Edition) my second candidate for the throne of God (“Will the real God please stand up?”). This second candidate has many important qualities long associated with God, but many other qualities are totally absent. This God, for example, is no more omnipotent or omniscient than the last one, nor did He have any role in the creation of the Universe (unless you follow a rather obscure line of logic that discovers these two manifestations of God to be one and the same after all). I don’t want to repeat the entire discussion here, but, in brief, I imagine the role of Consciousness elevated first (and foremost) to a planetary scale, and then to a cosmic scale. Following the line of thought that the higher the organism the loftier the development of consciousness, I have proposed that the Consciousness of God is even more fully conscious than human beings: a Deity with whom one might realistically be able to communicate.
To be sure, this is nothing like the God whom you so effectively ridicule, but I think it accounts for the nearly universal understanding of God that people have felt since time immemorial. It may have been natural for primitive men to assume that their “God” were omnipotent and omniscient, but I do not find any reason for such suppositions. I think God (limited in most of my speculations to “Gaia,” considered as the most important theological focus for human beings, which includes all life on earth, plants and animals as well as people) is just doing the best He can, carrying the flag of Life with its order, balance, harmony, and growth in the face of the rampaging chaos that He finds all around Him.
Given the scope of a single letter, I do not attempt to develop this idea fully here, but the analogies of human consciousness and group consciousness make the idea seem very reasonable to me. It solves the problem of evil at a stroke! “How can we believe in a God who is omnipotent and omniscient as well as good, merciful, and loving, in the face of all the manifest evil in the world?” Simple – God is not omnipotent, and we are just doing the best we can.
I have read lots of very obscure treatises on many arcane subjects, and at first I would read with my blue pencil, arrogantly marking the author’s errors as I found them. I have always known, since the days of my high school debating society, that it is far easier (and usually more fun) to take the Negative position in an argument. We learn very early on that to ridicule your opponent (or his arguments; take your pick) is usually a more effective strategy than to rely purely upon reason. I think the English are usually much better at this than Americans. I remember reading some articles by Bertrand Russell which I found very funny; it was very amusing to watch him shred up his opponents (well, usually he would confine his attention to his opponents’ arguments; I must do him that justice). But much later on in my studies I began to realize that many authors may have had some interesting idea after all, even though the language they may have used to express it might have been faulty. I underwent a major shift in my reading style – instead of simply considering the words themselves, which anyone of Russell’s experience and talent could easily shred into nonsense, I began to “read between the lines” and tried to discover what reasonable or interesting idea the author might have had that he was trying to express with his inadequate words. In this way, I discovered quite a few very interesting ideas which Russell would never have noticed.
I have figured out that when authors would write about “occult mysteries” there were often some very intriguing ideas buried under their verbiage. They pretended deliberately to conceal some important Secret, without which one could not be expected to understand what was being discussed. However, I became convinced that they were not concealing any Secret at all! They were trying their hardest to convey their idea, even when the idea itself were not fully clear to themselves! They were skirting around some precocious idea that they couldn’t fully grasp themselves, but they were convinced that they were onto something important, if only they could figure it out, and they were leaving their notes for the guidance of later adepts or scholars. I have encountered some very impressive ideas which I have gleaned from writings of this sort (e.g., Coelum Philosophorum, Seven Canons of the Metals, by Paracelsus, as obscure a work as you can find anywhere, yet out of which I pull one dazzling plum after another).
Now, in the case of religion, it is easy and fun to take it on its literal face and reduce it to shreds, laughing all the while. But I suggest, Professor Dawkins, that you might miss some very interesting ideas this way.
I notice that you employ certain key arguments over and over, confident in their impregnability. One of them is that it is useless to nominate “God” as the creator of the universe, because any God capable of designing the universe in all its complexity, to say nothing of simultaneously fielding prayers from millions of devotees, would present a far more complex “solution” than the problem it attempts to solve. But, before I introduce my own solution, a “God” which is supremely simple, yet fully capable of producing the universe in all of its complexity, let us take a closer look at the problem itself.
The problem is very real. Thomas Aquinas tells us that there must be a First Cause, and that is what we call “God.” Your reply is that “God” does not advance the argument at all, but only makes it infinitely more complicated. However, I have not seen, anywhere in your book, an alternative suggestion as to how the universe came into being. It is not enough to postulate some “Big Bang.” What caused that big bang to happen anyway? Why did it happen at that particular moment? What was there prior to the big bang? If there was nothing, what does that do to the law of conservation of matter and energy? It is all very well for science to describe the Big Bang, beginning from the first twelve-millionth of a second after it happened, but what about the initial event itself?
So, for better or worse, there remain some real problems, as yet unresolved, concerning the initial cosmogenesis. I consider this a theological or philosophical problem precisely because it concerns territory upon which scientists fear to tread. Well, “fear” is not the right word, but a scientist will not speculate beyond the data (it is practically the definition of a scientist). As yet there are no clear data upon which anyone has been able to found a satisfying answer to the questions of cosmogenesis; therefore it remains for philosophers and/or theologians, who do speculate – yes, even beyond the data! As a scientist, perhaps you have no respect for this or interest in it, but there are plenty of people who find themselves desiring to speculate, even when there do not exist adequate data to allow for a scientific solution.
Thomas Aquinas has defined “God” as “that which was responsible for the First Cause.” You can’t argue with a definition. You might not like to use the word, but that’s tough. OK, out of respect for your truculence on the use of the word (and to escape the historical baggage which it carries) let us paraphrase Aquinas by saying, “We define the Philosophers’ Stone as that which was responsible for the First Cause.” Now, it is meaningless to deny the existence of the philosophers’ stone, since it is defined in the context of whatever was responsible for the First Cause. The appropriate question now becomes, “what is the nature of the philosophers’ stone?”
Now, when we put the question in this way, we are far more likely to advance our understanding than we might have been by simply rejecting the concept. Rejecting the concept of God is just as useless as positing a God in the first place! If you reject God as the name to refer to the first mover, then what do you propose in its place? (This is simply the inverse of the child’s question, “Who made God.”)
However, it is not entirely useless to introduce a term such as “God” (or “the philosophers’ stone”). Language is built up of complex ideas to which we assign the symbols of new words, and then we are able to use those words in the construction of yet more complex concepts, in much the same way that mathematical formulć, or the theorems of Euclid, are built up out of smaller units. You may as well say that the whole of Euclid’s geometry is frivolous, since all of it is contained within his definitions and axioms anyway.
So, while it clearly does not resolve any problems of philosophy or theology, to put a term upon the agency of the First Cause is not totally useless. It allows us, for example, to proceed to the next (and far more important) question, “what is the nature of the philosophers’ stone?”
You have found that notions of God are all but universal in every culture and every time. Rather than just to reject the whole concept, it seems far more stimulating to discover just what is at the bottom of this idea. It may turn out to be nothing at all (your position), but I take the position (habitually, when considering complex or surprising propositions) that there may be some real and useful idea going on, and I try to discover what it is. In a surprising number of occasions, I discover something real underneath an idea which may, on the face of it, appear to be nonsense to the likes of Bertrand Russell or yourself.
In the present case, I propose that what is responsible for the nearly universal belief in God is a kind of collective unconscious, which I suggest is literally self-conscious, not only in the same way that a human being is self-conscious, but even more than that, since the consciousness of all life on earth would constitute a much higher organism than a chicken, a dog, a cat, or a human being. I have no trouble imagining that all of life on earth (we may call it “Gaia,” to use a simple term to stand for a complex idea) has all of the attributes of a living organism, including self-consciousness, and to a higher degree than any expression of life found on earth.
There are many surprising phenomena which might be explained by this concept (for which science has nothing to suggest, other than to reject the premise). When a mother suddenly jumps out of bed in the night, feeling that some accident has befallen her son, many miles away, it can be explained, at least in principle, as knowledge transmitted through the medium of this universal life consciousness. In the same way, prayer could conceivably make its way “to the throne of God,” and it is equally plausible to imagine that this Consciousness is able to direct the energy of life in ways that might amount to the answers to prayer. Note that since this Consciousness is not omnipotent, nor (even) omniscient, it could not be expected to ameliorate the ravages of flood, fire, pestilence, earthquakes, etc. We speculate that this Consciousness is composed of the accumulation of all lesser consciousness on the planet. Like any other being, it will have an “ego,” the function of which is to assist the organism to survive, first, and then to flourish and grow. To the extent that lesser beings contribute to this goal, they are closer to God.
Obviously, there are many people on earth who are lost in confusion, flailing around in regions of chaos, whose energy is only working against God and the survival of life. A sober assessment of the present state of the earth would suggest that God is not necessarily winning the battle of Good over Evil, another famous paradigm that appears to have some sort of meaning. I do not, however, attribute a consciousness to a force of Evil, as in the old concept of the Devil. I consider the Consciousness of God to be at a point at the “center,” a place of balance and clarity where all good things converge. On the other hand, while this point of perfection is the singularity of God, there are an infinite number of ways to move away from God into error and chaos (with progressively diminishing consciousness). By the way, I do not want to get unnecessarily complicated in this introductory summary, but I have figured out that both of these directions are aspects of “God.” The focus of clarity and balance at the center is what holds the cosmos together into patterns of order, but the movement away from the center is the original spark of life which created the cosmos in the first place. Think of the analogy of evolution: there could be no life at all unless the patterns of energy followed reliable laws, but there could be no evolutionary growth without the constant reaching out into the unknown in search of novelty.
Notice that this concept of God would not have been present at the founding of the cosmos, nor is it omnipotent or omniscient. It would have evolved along with every other aspect of our world.
Speaking of evolution, I have noticed that when you speak of evolution, you speak about “natural selection” which has to do only with the selection of variants after they have appeared. I guess you are satisfied to go with random mutation as the cause of the variants. But I want to look into the nature of this “random mutation.” And what do I find? Funnily enough, I find exactly the same principle that I nominate as the agency behind the First Cause! Thus, while my main idea of God (this Gaia hypothesis) seems to have nothing to do with the First Cause, it turns out that all of evolution seems to proceed upon the very same basis as I am proposing for the First Cause itself! The logic here may be a bit obscure, and it is really not important to me to make any positive identification of the two ideas of God, but I find it very interesting.
So what is this motive principle that causes the Cosmos to come into being in the first place, and which causes all life continuously to reach out into further complexity? I call it “The Laughter of God” (which is the title of my most recent book, www.tree.org/b1.htm#LAUGH). The laughter of God, which causes all of this, is based upon the joke (“a separation of illusion from reality”) of attributing meaning to opposite ideas which together add up to the same thing: nothing. Specifically, the initial joke is the distinction imagined to exist between Zero and Infinity. Of course, the two terms mean exactly the same thing, at the limit, only apparently referring to two different concepts by imagining an alternation between them. This sets up an imaginary field of vibration between the two opposites. Successive applications of the same joke cause endless reaching out into further complexity, until we finally have the appearance of an entire cosmos, which is really just Maya all the time, as the entire boondoggle adds up to Zero (or Infinity), the Singularity through which it passes from time to time as it works through its cycles.
There is even a mathematical formula for this idea of God:
The source of this random mutation at the heart of evolution is that anything might switch suddenly into its opposite at any time. If it were not for this fundamental uncertainty at the basis of the cosmos, everything would have worked itself out, finally, to zero or infinity, leaving us without any universe at all. However, due to this principle (noticed at the level of quantum mechanics), we have a dynamic and interesting cosmos that goes on amazing us day after day. And Who knows to what further adventures it might lead?
You might ask where this proposed concept of mine might come from, and I can only reply that it is inherent in the metaphysics. The concepts of Zero and Infinity, along with the Present Moment: NOW, all popped into Being simultaneously, initiating the entire cosmos ex nihilo. I cannot reduce it further than that. If there is a Mystery that remains, I am content to call it God.
By the way – throughout your book you discuss numerous ideas relating to religious practices, and I find myself in agreement with almost everything you say. However, I want to point out one inconsistency that may be important, since it highlights the way circumstances can appear radically different depending upon one’s point of view. Chapter 9 leads off with the sorrowful account of poor Edgardo Mortara, who was taken from his Jewish household at the age of six and raised as a Catholic. You report how the Catholic establishment could not imagine anything other than that they were performing a wonderful good work, saving this poor boy from his inevitably distressing life as a Jew by inviting him into the warm bosom of the Catholic faith. I fully agree with your view that such an arrogant point of view is thoroughly wrong.
However, later on in the same chapter, you detail the story of the State of Wisconsin filing suit against Amish parents who preferred to raise their child in their own community with their own customs rather than releasing him to the public school system. In this case, you seem to be siding with the State of Wisconsin, lamenting the loss of education for the poor Amish boy! What is the difference between the two cases? The difference is that you seem to feel that a respectable Jewish upbringing is probably preferable to a Catholic upbringing, but, on the other hand, you have this feeling that, of course, a modern education in the public school must be better than for any child to stay at home learning his family’s values. The problem is, who gets to decide? The child? I believe the Supreme Court made the correct decision – we allow parents the right to determine the way they want to raise their children, up to the age of majority.
Personally, I happen to agree that a modern education would be preferable to being raised in an Amish culture, but it is not for me or you to dictate to other parents how they should raise their children. I can understand, in principle, the point of view of the Amish, who have their own community values which they feel are superior, in many ways, to contemporary culture. Something will clearly be lost, but something else will clearly be gained, and who is to say what is best? I will stand up for the rights of parents to make the call. Pulling an Amish child out of his home and sending him to the public school to be raised in the modern style is exactly the same crime as pulling a child out of his Jewish home to be raised as a Catholic. Your good intentions are comparable in every respect to the Catholics who were convinced that they were doing the right thing to give Edgardo Mortara all the advantages of life as a good Catholic. The moral here is always to look very carefully at the other side of every issue, and not to be too quick to be so sure that you are always right.
The Evanescent Press