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I'm James Maxey, the author of the Dragon Age fantasy series of Bitterwood, Dragonforge, and Dragonseed, the Dragon Apocalypse series of Greatshadow, Hush, and Witchbreaker, as well as the superhero novels Nobody Gets the Girl and Burn Baby Burn. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Imagining God

My last post generated what may be the most comments I've ever gotten on a topic that didn't involve pictures of my cats. John Brown, a fellow SF author, whose Dark God trilogy is being published by Tor soon, has heroicly been refuting my critiques of Biblical based theology. I felt like his last post was interesting enough that I didn't want to take the risk that it might get overlooked by folks who didn't want to dig down through multiple levels of comments. So, here's John's argument on why it's not difficult to imagine there's a God:

I find it interesting that any lover of science and science fiction has a hard time imagining a God. I can see how it might be difficult to accept some of the specific Gods offered up over the centuries, but the idea of a God in general?

We can imagine man terraforming planets, we can imagine immortality, genetic manipulation, technological singularity, even FTL travel, but we cannot imagine that there's a being out there who has already learned all this stuff?

I find this as geo-centric a view as any astronomy that suggests the universe was created solely for the inhabitants of this earth. Is it not possible that somewhere else in this vast universe life exists and progressed long before humans ever arrived on this earth?

If so, then why is it so hard to imagine that they have progressed far enough to do what we say God has done? Build a world. Terraform it. Do things people not of his technological level find hard to explain.

It seems to me that it's difficult for science and SF not to lead the mind to a belief in supreme beings. Maybe not the specific beings described by any given creed, but certainly supreme beings. And if this is a possibility, then why is it so hard to imagine that they just might be involved with us?

Of course, then we find it hard to imagine anyone without human failings. Anyone with that much power just pulls out a Death Star and begins to blow up worlds. Again, why do we limit ourselves to such a homo-centric view? In all the vast universe, nothing arose more benevolent than men?

Are you truly saying that you find the idea that life has arisen elsewhere and progressed past the intelligence found here on earth fantastically remote?

John, these are some interesting arguments. But I think they are arguments for atheism, not for theism.

I don't in the least find it implausible that intelligence greater than our own could have arisen elsewhere in the universe. Of course, the evidence of our own world would argue that intelligence sufficient to produce beings capable of such basic technology as writing is exceedingly rare. Still, I can definitely imagine hundreds or thousands of worlds with intelligent beings that might know more than us. Unfortunately, even if there were ten thousand such races, they would be scattered randomly among the 70 sextillion stars currently visible using modern telescopes. They would exist at such vast distances that our odds of actually discovering and interacting with them is exceedingly low.

But, let's say that the odds are improved greatly if a highly involved intelligence on a nearby star decided to make our world a test lab. They spot our world forming billions of years ago, do some math and figure out it's going to be in the sweet spot in our solar system where liquid water is going to be possible, and decide to seed the world with genetic material. Then, since they are very patient aliens, they just wait four billion years for intelligent life to arise. From time to time, they send messages to the intelligent species to nudge along their development into good neighbors. They are benevolent, kind hearted aliens who want mankind to evolve out of its more animalistic tendencies toward war and violence and self destruction until, eventually, they can be full partners in the galactic community. But, it's important that they don't just drop in and give mankind all the answers to everything. They want to make sure man figures out the toughest problems on his own. It's the only way he will ever become a mature, intergalactic being.

I can definitely imagine this. (Although Eric von Daniken and Charles Forte beat me to it by several decades.) It seems plausible. I could write a SF novel on this premise and sell it, and folks who would read it would willingly accept the premise.

But here's the key point: The fact that I've imagined it doesn't make it real. In fact, I am able to recognize it as specifically unreal, an artifact of human imagination, since I was present as it was being imagined. When I write my books, I create worlds that feel real to me as I write them. The characters seem to come to life... I have plans for them as an author, but then the characters somehow defy me and create their own actions and dialogue. I wind up talking about Bitterwood and Jandra and Burke as if they are real people. I have readers who get emotionally invested with the characters as if they are real people.

They are not real people.

Given how easy it is for me to imagine worlds and peoples and new gods and new religions, it seems highly likely to me that all such religions are the product of human imagination. Some just happen to hit the right mix of gut level plausibility that they become wide spread, at which point tradition and culture start reinforcing the plausibility of the imaginary God, taking it as real and regarding those who think God unreal as kooks for disbelieving what everyone knows to be true. Religions also evolve to reflect the dominant mores of society; today's Christianity has no problem with rich people getting into heaven, for instance, and we revere the Ten Commandments even though, if asked what they were, most folks could probably name about four before getting stumped.

Just because a majority of people believe in something isn't evidence of reality. A recent survey found that 58% of Britons thought that Sherlock Holmes was a real person. And why not? We know a lot of facts about his biography; we know who his friends were, we know approximate dates of important events in his life, we even know where he lived and you can visit that very address on a tour of London. There are photographs and drawings of him. I'm betting somewhere there's a building where you can go and look at his pipe and hat.

My problem isn't that I find God difficult to imagine. My problem is that I find God very easy to imagine. Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy are easy to imagine when you're a child. But part of growing up is learning to separate what's imagined from what's real. I think the fact that it's so easy to construct a plausible God purely from imagination is an argument against his reality, not an argument for it.

The fact that other people believe in imaginary things doesn't bother me in most circumstances. If a person believes in bigfoot or ghosts or King Arthur, it does me no harm. Where things get tricky, though, is when people take the advice of their imaginary friends and try to make other people live by this advice. An imagined God said a few discouraging words about men sleeping together a few thousand years ago, and suddenly this becomes a factor in picking our presidents. Or some guy wanders in from the desert in the seventh century and claims to have been talking to God, and today people are willing to blow up busses based on their interpretation of this wisdom.

Hopefully, one day, we'll get better at sorting out imagination from reality. At least, I can imagine such a day... even if there's not a lot of evidence for it.

15 comments:

Loren Eaton said...

James, what would you make of arguments from revelation, the idea that God (who knows everything) has spoken into history and has told us some things that are good and true?

James Maxey said...

Loren, the notion that God has spoken to certain humans at certain times in history is built on what seems to me to be thin evidence. You have some eye-witness reports of God appearing to various prophets and given them a lot of varied and contradictory messages. IE, the God that spoke to Mohammud seems to have a different set of priorities than the God who spoke to Moses. Jesus spins old testament lessons differently than old testament patriarchs, dropping prohibitions against eating certain foods, for instance.

If God feels that there is something important for humans to know, something important enough that he's willing to contact one of us... why not contact all of us? If there is some core teaching he wants us to learn, why not carve it mile high letters on the moon? The biggest argument against God attempting to give humans moral lessons is that he seems to be so awful at it. And if he is speaking to us... where's the evidence? Sorry to sound like a broken record, but it would be nice to see something, anything, supporting a claim that God has intervened in human morality.

James Maxey said...

Also, I think there is genuine harm to humanity in attempting to live in accordance with the moral lessons of imaginary beings. It places our lives in the hands of an outside authority--an imaginary outside authority--rather than forcing people to actually think about their interactions with fellow humans. It's right to oppose gay marriage, for instance, because God is against it. How do you argue with such a starting position? God is also against eating oysters. The sheer arbitrariness of what we pick and choose to obey is maddening.

Mr. Cavin said...

The problem isn't that I can't imagine a god. I can. By either Mr. Brown's plausible modern revisionisms here, or even by the superannuated mythology of whatever storybook you might wish to reference. I can imagine all those gods. I can imagine them all at once, if I want to.

No, the problem here is that I must imagine god. Imagination is the only evidence I have at my disposal.

James Maxey said...

The church I grew up in regarded the Bible as strict documentary evidence. The Bible was infallible because it said it was infallible in Revelations: "For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book."

I am exceedingly grateful to have been brought up in a fundamentalist tradition where faith in the Bible was an all or nothing affair. It made it sooooo much easier to leap to atheism than, say, Unitarianism, which seems flexible enough to absorb just about anything you throw at it.

So, there are hundreds of bits of documentary evidence: The King James Bible, the Koran, the Book of Mormon, the Vedas, Dianetics, the Iliad, etc. And, of course, there's eye-witness testamony. I can go out and start knocking on door and I doubt I'd reach the end of my street before I found someone who will testify that they have seen a genuine miracle or heard the voice of God.

Of course, I can also probably find someone who was abducted by aliens if I knock on enough doors. And, purely from documentary evidence, a reasonable person might deduce there really are vampires in the world--almost every culture has legends of some creature that fits the bill, and there have been thousands, if not tens of thousands, of books written about them, which people eagerly devour, indicating to me there's a vampire-shaped hole in the souls of some people, and why would we have such a hole, such a need, if there were nothing there to fill it?

The Red Queen was a slacker to only believe in six impossible things before breakfast.

Mr. Cavin said...

"The Bible was infallible because it said it was infallible in Revelations..."

This is about the best example of begging the question I've ever come across. In just twelve words, too. You should teach semantics.

It is entirely possible that apostolic Pentecostalism uses the word evidence somewhat more loosely than I was here. I do not, as a rule, include the byproducts of someone else's imagination as any more of a credible evidence than my own wild nostrums. Especially while being used in the service of furthering whatever backslapping privileges old patriarchs deem worthy of offering themselves socially. That's my definition of begging the question, but in rather more words.

James Maxey said...

I agree that the "evidence" seems a bit weak by most objective standards. On the other hand, eye-witness testamony is used time and time again in courts as the only evidence needed to convict people of serious crimes. If you can send a man to death row based on the testamony of single witness, why not believe in God for the same reason? Sure, plenty of times later DNA evidence has cleared men of their crimes, but we're unlikely to uncover DNA evidence in the God case, so why not just roll with it? Who gets hurt?

I suspect I'm never going to be allowed to serve on a jury after this post.

Mr. Cavin said...

Well, sticking with the same metaphor requires some adjustment. In this court, we don’t have any witnesses who saw god do it. What we have a lot of witnesses who have been told, by council, that god is known for doing this sort of thing. Told that, heck, they have a deposition that god’s guilty of this much and more, and that he’s the only defendant who is capable of doing this stuff. Course, god isn’t actually sitting there to answer for himself. As a matter of fact, the jury is still deliberating on whether or not he exists at all; and, if he does, just what the hell he actually looks like--maybe an old man or maybe a elephant-headed multi-armed giant or possibly both halves of married Egyptian fraternal twins. But yeah, our witness is sure that god must have done it, right, because our witness cannot imagine another culprit. Because in this court, god is usually guilty until proven innocent.

John Brown said...

I just got back from a busy Saturday and Sunday, eager to read James’s response. And it did not disappoint. However, it’s also a wily response because it sets up a straw man argument.

My observation was never about the imagination of unbridled fantasy, but the imagination of things that scientists and SF writers deem not only plausible but likely because there is scientific evidence for them or because they’re already in the works. There is a significant difference between imagining a tooth fairy and imagining how manipulating telomerase might help people live as long as Methusela. To say they’re the same thing is to commit a fallacy of equivocation.

Furthermore, the argument that God can’t exist because one doesn’t agree with a stance on a current issue that’s based on a verse in holy text employs the truth by majority fallacy decried in the original post. Our opinions of a subject are really a weak form of evidence for or against anything, including our opinions of current issues. This argument also rests on another fallacy because it picks the stance of one group and says since it uses the Bible then all other stances that use the Bible must be the same.

Finally, a small tangential point: James wrote that the Bible claims it is infallible by quoting a scripture that says no such thing. Go back and look at it again—it does not say the text you hold in your hand has never and will never be messed with. It simply warns people not to change that specific text, in this case John’s Book of Revelations (just as Moses warned his folks not to change the revelations he’d received in Deut 4:2) and that there are consequences for doing so. But a warning is not a Divine seal of veracity. No such thing exists anywhere in the text of the Bible itself.

I think the key issue here is the evidence for God. And I think that’s been James's key plea all along. I’ve found very few issues of the sort raised here that can’t be explained. But they all rest upon the veracity of the models that explain them.

So let’s just look at the types of evidence available that can be examined.

But before I do this I want to make clear that a comment thread is NOT a place to cover this subject in full. Furthermore, this not a subject I wish to argue until one side capitulates. So I’m just going to suggest a few answers.

We can group evidence in many ways. One way is to divide it into direct and indirect groups. Direct evidence would be something I experience or observe. Indirect evidence would be something that supports an explanation but requires a more significant connection of the dots.

Direct
- Can run a test and see generations of fruit flies adapt (scientific method)
- Can observe the same thing out in the field informally without controls (anecdotal evidence)

Indirect
- Scientists who have observed fruit fly adaptation report it to us (authority)
- Geologic record
- DNA mappings (btw, interesting article in NewScientist about how Darwin’s tree of life is having to undergo some significant changes)
- Birds with different beaks but other commonalities

So if we use these two groupings, let’s look at the evidences available for God (or at least supernatural beings).

Direct
- I see God
- I see an angel
- I receive a communication from God

Indirect
- Someone else receives direct evidence and tells it to me (authority)
- Experience with promises given by authorities. I follow instructions given by an authority and they seem to work: get an answer to prayer, work a miracle, live longer because of a health code, get insight, change my desires, etc.
- Occurrences that are difficult to explain otherwise.

Others may add to this list of indirect evidences, but I think these are the strongest. Of course, all the benefits and limitations of reason, science, authority, and personal experience apply just as they do with evolution or anything else. And ALL of them have limitations--the scientific method, while wonderful, has significant limitations because it is based on what you can sense, measure, and control. There are simply too many things for which we cannot use science to obtain evidence because we cannot sense, measure, or control to any degree of usefulness.

So I will tell you what I’ve found. There are many experiences and occurrences used as indirect evidence for God that fail a post hoc investigation. There are many authorities who may have had an experience but who I cannot trust to the degree to believe they actually had a direct experience with God. There are outright shysters.

But just because some or even most evidence fails, does not mean all must. It’s a fallacy to think so.

I have also found there are people who give me no reason to doubt their direct experience of speaking with God and angels, face to face, and to receiving communications. People who have died and others now alive, some of whom I know well. I’ve found there are experiences and occurrences in my life that do not yield to a post hoc analysis. Most importantly, there are other experiences I’ve had that would constitute direct evidence. I’m not claiming to have seen God or spoken with angels. But I can claim other direct evidence that passes the tests used on such things.

More importantly, these evidences are not special. I’m certainly not special. This model of God’s dealings with us includes a promise that all who desire can get the direct evidence required.

Now, I write this NOT to prove to anyone here that God exists. Just as I wouldn’t publish a report of scientific experiments to prove a theory. All I'm doing is sharing my findings. In the end, each individual needs to examine the evidences offered and see if they cannot obtain direct evidence for themselves.

What I do hope to do is point out that just as there are issues with many evidences offered up for the existence of God, there are many issues with the evidences that have been used to say God doesn’t exist. This is not to say there is no evidence I've seen that can be used to support the idea that God doesn't exist. Just that some of the arguments, a few I’ve tried to address here, rest on assumptions that are faulty.

Loren Eaton said...

Wow, I go away for a day and look what happens! Interesting stuff.

James, the reason I brought this up in the first place was the last paragraph of your previous post: Hopefully, one day we'll get better at sorting out imagination from reality. If we have to sort through the contents of the universe to discern reality -- an admitted impossibility -- the best we can hope for is Rorty-esque pragmatism. But if we're willing to consider the God-who-speaks axiom, the search narrows significantly.

On another note, I'm waiting for you to post about the stimulus.

James Maxey said...

"But if we're willing to consider the God-who-speaks axiom, the search narrows significantly." Loren, as I understand the word "axiom," it means a fundamental truth taken as self-evident. I suppose that, no, I'm not willing to consider it as self-evident. On the other hand, if someone wants to present me with a truth handed down by God--say ten rules carved into a slab of stone and hauled down a mountain--I promise to listen as the presenter of said evidence makes their case.


John, the most intriguing point of your post is this: "I can claim other direct evidence that passes the tests used on such things."

I understand that you may be reluctant to spell out your direct evidence in the threads of a forum such as this. But, do you have it documented elsewhere? And if it boils down to personal testamony, while I respect you, and don't think you're a kook, how to I decide between your personal testamony and the personal testamony, say, of the folks who used to speak in tongues around me as I was growing up? What are the standards you'd recommend for weighing such claims?

James Maxey said...

Oh, and Loren, on the stimulus, I'm against it in general. I don't see how it's greatly different from what was tried in Japan in the 90s, and their downturn lasted a full decade. The reality is our economy hasn't crashed to some artificial level of wealth and spending. It has merely adjusted downward from an artificially inflated level of wealth due to the housing bubble, an easy credit bubble, and a corresponding stock market bubble.

I don't think the stimulus as structured will have much effect other than to increase the deficit and make the dollar worth even less. On the other hand, I'm desperately hoping that I'm just flat out wrong, since the stimulus is going to be the law of the land no matter what my feelings are. My congressman, David Price, has stopped even sending me form responses to my emails. I'm hoping that I'm not as smart as I think I am, and that spending this trillion dollars is exactly the right thing to do, and that by this time next year we'll be back in the land of milk and honey. In this matter, I'd much rather say, "Wow, was I wrong," than, "See, I told you so."

Loren Eaton said...

James: The Wall Street Journal agrees with you about the stimulus.

John Brown said...

James, I suspect "personal testimony" is used differently in the various religions. How are you using it?

If I look at the outline of evidences I listed, I'm assuming a personal testimony is simply someone stating their belief in God and then sharing indirect or direct evidences they think support it. Is that what you mean?

If so, then I'd assume you'd examine the evidences given for their common limitations to see if any clearly apply. For example, Bill says he talked to an angel. Is Bill a reliable source of information? Could he have been high? Etc. Or are you talking about something else?

However, I'd think the ultimate objective, just as it is with science, would be for a person to obtain direct evidence for himself. Even if there are others with direct experience you implicitly trust.

As for sharing, I'd be happy to do that offline. I'll email you.

John Brown said...

The cover issue for the Feb 7-13, 2009 NewScientist is called "Born Believers: How your brain creates God"

It presents a summary of the idea that there's a "god module" in our brain just as there is one for language. We're hardwired to believe in the supernatural, this view claims. As for why this would evolve, these folks claim it wasn't an adaptation, but a by-product of another adaptation.

Although the article does make the point that none of this "says anything about the existence or otherwise of gods...whether or not a belief is true is indepedent of why people believe it," these ideas, nevertheless, exclude direct evidence and focus only upon indirect evidence based belief.

Still, it's a very interesting report.

http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20126941.700-born-believers-how-your-brain-creates-god.html