Is belief in God naive?

Is belief in God naive? Steven Pinker, experimental psychologist (would that he were an actual philosopher) seems to think so, as seen in this image (posted by a friend on Facebook, but I have given up on Facebook as a place for the meaningful exchange of ideas between people when they disagree, so I’m blogging instead):

steven pinker quote

Unfortunately, the tools of a cognitive scientist and experimental psychologist such as Prof Pinker, however sophisticated, will never be able to prove or disprove the existence of God.I realise that in saying this I am automatically opening myself up to the ‘We cannot definitively disprove Godzilla’s existence, therefore he must be real,’ kind of argumentation. However, there is a distinct difference between Godzilla and the unmoved mover/designer/creator/divine person.

Godzilla!

Godzilla, as far as the evidence from the Toho films suggests, is a physical being whose interaction with this world would leave behind positive evidence for his existence.

Unlike Godzilla, the divine being who pre-exists the Big Bang, made matter, and set everything in motion according to a plan, is a metaphysical person (hypostasis?). There will never, can never, be incontrovertible proof of the divinity’s existence. Perhaps one could find Godzilla eggs, or catch a video of Godzilla’s approach to Tokyo, or trap Godzilla somehow. But such things are impossible in the case of the divine person.

Metaphysical comes from Aristotle’s Metaphysics, so named because it comes next in his works after the Physicsmeta being the Greek prefix for ‘after’. However, what the Metaphysics deals with is what we think of as metaphysics, anyway. Beyond the physical. The world of the unobservable. Unlike Aristotle’s studies of plants, animals, and astronomy, metaphysical things cannot be discussed through observation or experimentation.

Science proper, be it evolutionary biology or experimental psychology or bio-chemistry or nanotechnology is based upon observation and experimentation.

Metaphysical questions are those such as ‘Is there a God?’ or ‘What is the best way to live morally?’ or ‘Do dogs have souls?’ Some people think they can and make silly TLC documentaries about the cooling of the body after death being evidence for the human soul. Really? That isn’t evidence.

Metaphysical questions require the answers provided by philosophy and the framework of philosophy. And philosophy, being of the humanities, is not a hard science. This means, no matter how smug some Christians and atheists feel about their position, we must all have a slight agnosticism in our hearts, knowing that our belief or disbelief in God can never be fully proven, just as it can never be fully overturned.

To return to Pinker’s likening of belief in a designer to a geocentric vision of the cosmos, saying that both are ‘naive impressions’. This is nonsense. The geocentric model of the universe was proven wrong because Copernicus had better instrumentation. We have no better instrumentation to view the metaphysical than he did, or Plato, or Aristotle.

God the Geometer

Furthermore, these are not simply ‘naive impressions’. People seem to think, for some reason, that the geocentric universe was the sort of thing believed only by the simple, that anyone with enough brains would wake up one day and realise that the earth revolves around the Sun. I realise the scholarship is now old, but if you want to read about the medieval model of the universe, I recommend C S Lewis’ The Discarded Image as well as Barbara Reynolds’ introduction to her and Dorothy L Sayers’ translation of Dante’s Paradise. Then you will see that not even things that science has overturned definitively are necessarily ‘naive’ but often beautiful and enchanting.

And the idea of God as unmoved mover is not naive; neither is the idea of God as designer; indeed, the idea of a God is not naive. Plato’s Timaeus, the Summa Theologiae of Aquinas and others demonstrate that very well. My Great Philosophers professor in first-year undergrad seems to have had trouble with this, poo-pooing the idea that Plato would actually have believed in Transmigration of Souls or that Descartes was actually a theist. But Plato did, and Descartes was.

Other sophisticated philosophers/philosophies whose metaphysical system included a divine being, beside Plato and all of Christianity (including Aquinas, Descartes, Kierkegaard), are Aristotle, Plato’s Middle and Neo-Platonic successors (e.g. Plotinus), the Stoics (Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, et al), all of Islam (including the Sufis), all of the Jewish religion, Anthony Flew. Even if untrue, the philosophy and theology of theism, of the existence of a creator god who has particular traits, is not naive.

If atheism and theism wish to have real conversations, foundational facts about each other — such as this — should be established first.

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Evangelicals read the Fathers because they are relevant

‎My friend Scott, inspiration for this post, also noted that evangelical Christians read the Fathers because the Fathers are relevant to today. His comment was the following:

“… to disbelieve all, because that which says that all are untrustworthy is included in the number of those that are so” Clement of Alexandria Stromata 8.7. He could have been speaking to any number of people in the ‘post-modern’ world.

The quotation above points to the deconstructionists of the world, the people who take apart language and ideas to the point where they have no real meaning but are entirely unreliable, the products merely of language itself or of upbringing or education or genetics. It points to the reductionists who take a thought and reduce it to a single aspect, ‘Nothing but’-ism (as Brian J Walsh once said). It points to those who look at a Church on a Sunday morning and proclaim it a distasteful place — full of hypocrites.

The Fathers know of such people, and although they get fiery at times, they are not modernists, and they do not simply quip, ‘There’s always room for one more hypocrite.’ They speak words and pray prayers and lead lives that penetrate to the situation of this world as it loses the anchor and the tower of modernism — built on a flawed foundation — tumbles down around them.

The elegant universe calls forth to the glory of a God Who has designed it and set in motion with care. A God Who sustains it, even? So say the Fathers.

A universe with chaos at its root calls our attention to the reality of a world not entirely right. Fallen, maybe? So say the Fathers.

Texts have a multiplicity of meanings. The ancients knew this — we can rediscover this reality with them, as in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture.

There is a loss of trust in the manifold structures of the institutions of this world, structures of church and state, of philosophy and family, of social norms and corporations. The Fathers can provide rootedness that goes deep, whether through the mysticism of Origen and Evagrius or the preaching of Chrysostom and Ambrose or the prayers of Basil and Hippolytus or the ethics of the Didache or the philosophy of Augustine and Gregory of Nazianzus. It is a grounding that is not monolithic, that must be tested carefully, but it can draw us to the living God, Who Himself is the surest foundation of all.

Not that God himself is fully knowable. Not that He is always what we want or expect. We must expect to have our expectations changed and shattered as we approach the Cloud of Unknowing.

And in unknowing what we thought we know, we enter into relationship. As helpful as Leo’s and Augustine’s and Cyril’s propositions are, the Living God is a real Person, living and active and abroad in the world.

The Fathers help draw us to Him. We are able to move beyond an intellectual assent to the propositions of Christianity into fellowship and communion with the One Who Is Himselfs Communion. And Communion lies at the heart and root and core of this Elegant, Chaotic Universe.

In a world torn asunder by war, by religion, by politics, by crumbling families, by disintegrating jobs, by falling marketplaces, by faceless governments, by rude neighbours, by fallen, failing humans, isn’t what we crave a deep relationship with someone who will be true, trustworthy?

I offer to you Big Brother Christ, explored in manifold ways and manifold paths by the Fathers. He is relevant to the sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, and dying of this world and our brief, flickering lives. Do not miss out on Him, for He loves you and would know you intimately.