God is Not Obvious
My belief is first and foremost a matter of desire
Why am I still Catholic?
Where do I begin? This is something of a storytelling problem. One can approach the question biographically or philosophically, beginning with first experiences or first principles. The philosophical approach is more general and smacks of evangelization. The biographical approach would be truer to my purpose of giving an account of my own mind. It’s great defect is that I really don’t remember the development of my religious opinions in sufficient detail. I am more concerned with giving an account of my mind now. And when I consider the state of my mind now, I begin with the philosophical.
Philosophically, the first question to be addressed is why I believe in God. And on this my primary thought is that God is not obvious.
The existence of God has been debated for millennia by minds greater and fiercer than mine. If you read either side of the debate you will be impressed by the logic and subtlety of the arguments. The problem is, this is true of both sides. If you wish to be convinced of either argument, you will find some one very able to convince you.
I have nothing to add to this discussion. I think it probable that there is nothing that anyone could add to it, no angle, no thread, that has not already been deeply explored and signposted. Yet logic yields no victor. God is not obvious. And in any case, that is not my business here. I’m not attempting to put a capstone on three millennia or more of philosophical debate. I am simply attempting to explain my own choice to believe.
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Let me step back from the question of God for a moment, therefore, and look at the problem of belief. Why does anyone believe in anything? I think there are four basic reasons that people believe things: experience, logic, desire, and fear.1
Some people will tell you that they believe in God because they have had a direct experience of him. God has spoken to them, or appeared to them, and thus they know. I’m certainly not in a position to gainsay them. But experience is not conclusive. One’s experience could be an hallucination. We could all be plugged into The Matrix.
However convincing experience may be when you have it, no one is likely to accept your experience as justification for something they have not experienced themselves. St. Paul claimed to have had an experience of God when he was knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus. But this is not my case. I have never been knocked off a horse by a vision of the Divine. God is not obvious. At least, not to me.
Logic, as I noted above, ends in stalemate. In my youth I tried to follow the logic, to engage with the logic, but that is a project that will leave you neither time nor brain space for anything else. Ordinary people have to believe without the benefit of immersion in centuries worth of philosophy, which is inconclusive anyway. God is not obvious, and I had other things to do. I suspect, too, that most of the combatants who still battle in the logic trenches have actually chosen their sides for reasons other than logic. They use logic not to arrive at their conclusion, but to buttress the conclusion they had already arrived at by other means.
You may question why I have chosen the word “logic” rather than “reason” here. To me, reason is a concept wider than logic. Reason can recognize the limits of logic, and can decide and act when logic cannot provide an answer. We are limited in our time and in our capacities. Human life is all about deciding and acting with insufficient information. It is all we have the time and resources for. But with insufficient information, logic spins its wheels. Reason has wider tires and carries on. Reason, indeed, underlies all four of my reasons for believing.
Which brings me to desire. I am convinced that the main reason people believe things is because they want them to be true. I don’t mean that they are a matter of simple wishful thinking. I wanted to be an international bestselling novelist by the time I was 25. Wishing does not make me think it so. What I mean is, we believe things, even hard, unpleasant things, because they create a picture of the universe and of our selves and our place in it that we can live with, that can explain our lives to our own satisfaction.
Believing something because you want it to be true seems to me to be entirely reasonable. If you cannot decide by experience and logic alone, reason says that it is better to choose a hopeful belief over a despairing one, a comforting belief over a dismaying one, a belief that affirms your capability over one that denies it, a belief that makes you want to carry on living over one that makes you want to stick your head in the oven.
In my case, I want to believe that I am a free man capable of reason. I don’t think that is an uncommon desire. Most people seem to believe this about themselves. Even the people who explicitly deny it, speak and act is if they thought they were free and capable of reason. In fact, it’s really difficult to speak in any other way. We don’t have language for confessing ourselves to be automatons. Our language itself presumes that we are free and rational.
But for me to be a free man capable of reason, certain conditions have to apply in the universe. No, let me phrase that in a less absolute, less philosophical way. I cannot conceive of myself as a free man capable of reason unless certain conditions apply in the universe I inhabit. Perhaps I am wrong to believe these conditions are essential. But the point here is my desire. My desire will not be satisfied unless these conditions are met.
For me, the nature of the universe, and whether or not it allows for me to be a free man capable of reason, hinges on two essential questions:
Is the universe orderly or capricious?
Does God exist?
If the universe is capricious, then I don’t see how I can be capable of reason. Even if I had the faculty of reason, a capricious universe would not give reason anything to work on. And besides, as part of a capricious universe, my reason would be subject to caprice as much as any other part of the universe. I might in some sense be free in a capricious universe, if freedom and caprice amount to the same thing. But I would not be able to anticipate how anything might function and so I would not be functionally rational. Thus I wish to believe that the universe is orderly.2
But if the universe is orderly, if it operates according to fixed laws of cause and effect, then my reason must be bound by those same laws. And since I observe that other people use their reason to reach different conclusions from mine, I conclude that universal laws of cause and effect don’t have any particular bias towards truth, anymore than they have a bias towards health over disease, for instance, or for building up over tearing down. There is thus no reason to think that caused opinions are true opinions. Besides which, if my reason is the product of cause and effect alone, then I am not free.
And this is precisely the conclusion that many people have come to. They believe that the universe is orderly and obeys strict rules of cause and effect, and therefore our ideas are, like everything else, the product of those rules.
The problem, of course, is that this idea must itself be the product of the same cause and effect, just like the opposing idea that we are free. Even if this idea is correct, it can only be believed by accident, as a result of a chain of cause and effect outside of our control. The universe is having a debate with itself, and the disputants are merely its vessels. If the wrong atoms bump into each other, the atheist could wake up tomorrow a devout believer and I might wake tomorrow a pure materialist. A stopped clock is right twice a day, but it is not telling the time.
This is not to argue that if human reason is free, we will always reach the right conclusions. Clearly this is not the case, since we disagree all the time, and we often change our minds. The question at issue is not whether our ideas are correct or not, it is whether they are held freely or not. And the chief reason for wanting to believe that they are held freely is simply to sustain an image of ourselves as free beings. In terms of confirming my sense of self, a wrong opinion freely held is vastly preferable to a right opinion gifted by the implacable universe.
But there is no way for me to be free in an orderly universe unless God exists. No, again, let me state that in less absolute, less philosophical terms. I, myself, can think of no explanation that satisfies my desire to think of myself as a free man capable of reason that does not require the existence of God. I’m sure there is a lifetime’s worth of philosophical debate on that question, but I don’t have the time for it. I choose to believe that my sense of my self and of my nature requires that God exists. Therefore I choose to believe that he does.
What do I mean by “God” in this context? Simply that which enables me to be free. And I can only conceive of that as something that is itself free and external to the universe. If it were internal to the universe, then it would be in the same boat I am. That would involve me claiming that I am God, or at least a god. And I have no desire to believe that. My desired self-understanding requires a God who is something more than I am. This is, at least, as near as I can come to giving an account of myself to myself, or to you.
But I also believe in the mechanical physical universe whose operations can, in principle at least, be described by reliable laws. (Whether we are actually equipped with the senses or the brains to fully discover and comprehend those laws is a different question.) This belief in the order of nature is just as necessary to my sense of myself as my belief in the existence of God. If the universe is not reliable, that would compromise my freedom and my reason. You can’t reason about chaos, and if you cannot reason, you are not free.
This does not mean that I believe my reason to be impeccable. It clearly isn’t. It also does not mean that all my beliefs are consistent with each other. It is clear to me that other people believe all kinds of inconsistent things, so why would I suppose that I am any different? If we believe things because they present a picture of the world that we can understand and live with, then it should be no surprise that we sometimes prefer to live with inconsistent ideas than to follow every idea to its bitterest conclusion?
In many cases we believe things that are inconsistent with each other because each of them is a comfortable belief in some part of our lives. Some might argue that my belief in God and my belief in a consistent mechanical universe are an instance of this kind of inconsistency. They could be right. But I suspect that they make this argument mostly because they want it to be true.
It is true, though, that I can’t explain how these two things can be reconciled with each other. Or rather, I can reconcile the existence of God and the existence of a mechanical universe. God, like a divine watchmaker, could have made such a universe and left it to run. What I mean is, I can’t explain how the existence of God allows me to be, in some vital sense, free in this mechanical universe. I don’t mean I think the beliefs are inconsistent. God could surely endow me with this capacity if he wished to. I mean I don’t know how it would work.
There is, of course, another lifetime’s study and debate on this question alone, and I don’t have time for it. I do think that when materialists ask these kinds of questions, though, they are begging the question. How does it work, this divine spark, they ask. What is its mechanism? They assume that the spirit must have mechanical properties in order to affect the material, but such properties are inherently undetectable, since they would then be energy and thus material. The spirit does not have mechanical properties, more or less by definition. So how it confers freedom on men and woman is a mystery beyond my reckoning. I believe it because I want it to be true, whether I understand it or not. This too is a matter of desire.
And to the atheist who attempts to rebut me, I say again, you may be right, but if you are right, it is only by chance. Some gamma ray tweaking a neuron as you sleep could turn you into a believer tomorrow, but no amount of your logic can touch my belief, because to bow to logic requires freedom, and if you are right, I am not free.
My confession that my belief is born of desire, therefore, is no concession. It is not an abandonment of reason. I claim that I am making an entirely rational appeal to desire because experience and logic do not alone provide convincing proof. Some rigorist philosophers will doubtless claim that their appeal to experience and logic provide logically sufficient proof. I don’t dispute with them. I leave that to those who claim a similar degree of proof for the contrary claim. I simply point out that no such claimed proofs have proved convincing in practical application. God is not obvious. If I adjudicate the rival claims of logic by an appeal to desire, I am not conceding that anyone else is in a position to do otherwise — unless, of course, like St. Paul, they have been convinced by a direct experience of God.
I read somewhere recently that a bunch of neurologists have come to the conclusion that the world is just an illusion created by the brain. This would have been in some popular journal, so that may not actually be what they said at all, but some headline writer’s fevered imagining of what they said. But if it were what they said, I wonder that they did not see, that the journalist who reported what they found did not see, that if this is so then the whole science of neurology and every material thing that they used and studied in the experiments is simply an illusion created by their brains.
I am aware that I am covering no new ground here, so I won’t belabor the point further. Whichever way you approach the question, you end up in contradictions or imponderables, big questions with no convincing answers. God is not obvious. I believe because I want to, because it think it allows me to be what I think I am.
But there is another an perhaps even more common reason to believe things, and that is fear. We are tribal animals and deep in the recesses of our psyche is a nomadic hunter whose life depends on being accepted into the circle of people around the fire. Only with a group of loyal companions can he protect himself or succeed in the hunt. Alone, he dies. But the people around the fire are not comfortable if there are those in their company who do not believe the things they believe. Nonconformists are hard to anticipate, they are hard to trust, they cause discord in the tribe, which could affect the hunt or the battle with the next tribe. Better to cast the oddball out of the tribe now, before they cause problems. People will believe almost anything that the tribe demands they believe because they fear being thrown out of the circle around the fire.
We can see this effect readily enough. Social beliefs about all kinds of issues have changed substantially over the last few decades, and by and large they have moved in lockstep. There are disagreements, of course. But such disagreements simply define rival tribes. Within these tribes, beliefs evolve largely in lockstep. No one wants to face the ostracism that comes with dissenting from the creed of the tribe.
The Catholic church is a tribe too. Or rather, it is an increasingly loose federation of tribes. But in recent decades, it has largely lost the ability to demand ascent to its shared beliefs through fear of ostracism. In part this is because it has become almost pathologically unwilling to ostracize. In part it is because people increasingly fear no consequence if they leave the tribe. Certainly, it is not fear of ostracism that keeps me still a member of the church. Indeed, my continued adherence imperils my membership in some of the other tribes I belong to. I can’t think of a single practical or social consequence I would suffer if I simply walked away. My problem would be, where would I go? (Consequences in eternity are a different matter, of course, but only if you believe in them. Fear cannot bind you to believe in them. You only fear them if you believe.)
But it is a very long way from a simple choice to believe in God as a precondition of freedom and reason to accepting the whole body of dogma of the Catholic church, and that will have to wait for many other newsletters.
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If you object that faith should be added to the list, bear with me. I will discuss why I omitted it in another post.
Many societies have believed that there is much more caprice in the universe than we believe in today. They may have believed that a tree or a river had caprice, a caprice embodied perhaps by a naiad or dryad. But believing that there are some capricious entities in the universe is not the same thing as believing that the universe as a whole is capricious. The belief in the caprice of naiads and dryads actually implies a belief in a base universe that is not capricious, or else why would caprice be attributed to these creatures in particular?