Proving God

Some of you may be familiar with philosophers’ attempts to prove God’s existence. The simplest is put forth by Descartes, who in doubting reality, realized the only thing he could be sure of was that he doubted. Here’s my paraphrase:

I doubt, therefore I think.
I think, therefore I exist.
I doubt, therefore I am imperfect.
I am imperfect, therefore imperfection exists.
Imperfection exists, therefore perfection exists.
God, by definition, is perfection, therefore God exists.
God is perfect, therefore God is good.
God is good, therefore God would not deceive us.
God would not deceive us, therefore the world and my experiences in it are real.

This proof actually shares the same fatal flaw as the other God proof I’ve heard:

Something can exist either in thought or in reality.
I can think of God, therefore God exists in thought.
It is more powerful to exist in reality than in thought.
God is, by definition, the most powerful, therefore God exists in reality.

The flaw, of course, is that we are asked to accept that because something is conceptualized, it must exist in accordance to its intrinsic characteristics. Yet if I believe that God is, by definition, a delicious jelly donut sitting on my desk, there is still no jelly donut on my desk. Those of us not well schooled in metaphysics may not be able to articulate exactly why we know these proofs are bogus, but we do know it.

(Note: I am not a philosopher, so if you’re outraged at how much I screwed up my summary of these ideas, I apologize.)

However, in some of my musings this year, I have come across my own conditional proof that God exists. Conditional in that it does not prove God, but makes God a necessary derivative of another belief. Here it is:

If we have free will, God exists.

Maybe some of you are nodding your heads and saying “good point,” or shaking your heads and saying “nope.” You have probably already jumped ahead through everything else I’m about to say. If, however, you’re going “huh?” then you can benefit from reading my explanation.

It started in Mexico. I have no real explanation for why it started in Mexico, except perhaps that I (like Descartes, it would seem) had a lot of free time on my hands. It was then that I began doubting free will.

It seems, scientifically, that to believe in free will, you must at some point stop your understanding of physical science. Scientifically speaking, our brains are very complex systems of electrical signals and chemical reactions that form what we experience as thought. Like everything in nature, these systems react to stimuli in the environment, chug through some insanely complex equations, and churn out an answer. It’s conceptually no different from the reaction you get when you mix baking soda and vinegar, or when you charge a battery, or when you plant a seed. There are variables (how much vinegar you used, how long the battery is charging, nutrients in the soil, and so forth) that, depending on the complexity and our ability to measure them, we may or may not be aware of. But if we were to know all of these variables, we could predict the outcome. Chaos theory says that we cannot–that the universe is far too complex for us to predict outcomes like that. But if we were omniscient about the present, we would be able to predict the future.

Are you buying this? Let me ask you something: if you flip a coin, what are the chances that it will land heads? Fifty percent? Fifty-one percent? Say you flip a coin and it lands on heads. Given the exact physical circumstances of that toss–air currents in the room, your pulse, everything–what were the odds that it was going to be heads? I claim 100%. If you built a time machine, went back in time, and observed that coin toss again without changing anything (forget Heisenberg for a second), it would land on heads. Every time.

Apply the same concept to a choice. What will I eat for breakfast? Cereal or eggs? I think I’m choosing, but I’m actually just running an equation in my brain based on my hunger, how long it’s been since I last ate eggs, how much time I have before I have to be in class, and so forth. I may choose to make eggs. If I go back in time and watch that play out again, I will once again choose to make eggs, because that was the outcome of that equation (note: for this reason I don’t believe in alternate realities–at least not according to the “we create one with every choice” theory).

The end result is predetermination. Given the exact same circumstances, we will make the exact same choices, just like the same math equation will always yield the same result (and don’t give me any plus-or-minus crap or start talking about the number i).

There’s a whole concept in philosophy that assumes all this, and goes on to explain our experiences and sense of self: epiphenominalism. “In the Philosophy of Mind, a dualist theory of mind-body interaction which maintains all mental events are causally dependent upon physical events (i.e., brain states). According to this theory brain events cause mental events, but not vice versa” (Maricopa). Essentially, our experience of making a choice is actually a side-effect of our body making that choice. It’s an illusion, unintended by the brain–a “ghost in the machine.”

You may disagree, but I think all of this makes perfect sense.

So where does free will come in to play? Do we have free will? I believe I make choices all the time. I believe I have free will. Maybe I’m just suffering from the delusion of mental existence, but maybe I’m right, and there actually is free will. But here’s the thing:

To the best of my scientific and philosophical understanding, free will is impossible. Therefore, free will can only exist by divine miracle.

If there is divine miracle, there is God.

Comments (13)

  1. AdR

    Unfortunately, the premise “If there is divine miracle” already presupposes the existence of (a) God – otherwise it would not be divine.
    Next case, please…
    (Ein begriffener Gott ist kein Gott – Gerhard Tersteegen;
    Un dieu défini est un dieu fini).

    Reply
  2. Tim Baer

    You had me through loops for a while. For a while I wanted to say that you couldn’t prove we would make the same choices again and again because there is no time machine to prove the theory.

    On the coin flip…a flip of a coin is not a choice (unlike making eggs vs. pancakes or whatever) you could calculate the variables to produce the result before it happened. Yet, you could not produce an equation to answer a breakfast choice beforehand.

    I was watching Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chonicles Friday night. Discussing a terminator one human character says to another something like: “This macine produces more calculations in a minute than we produce in a lifetime.”

    How wrong they are.

    Take the simple wasp, one of the lower beings on our planet. It is born. Makes a nest. Procreates. Flies. Lands upside. Is generally smart enough to not drown itself. Can hover. Stings when threatened. None of this is learned behavior. Simple life is more complex than we could ever dream. It cannot be calculated.

    I believe we make our own choices. If not, than what’s the point?

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  3. nicolas (Post author)

    AdR: I say “divine” because I am claiming that the existence of free will drives us beyond all scientific explanation. By my personal faith, any miracle that does not conform to the laws of physical science must be in some sense divine, though I suppose you could substitute “paranormal” or something. This provides no evidence that God is a white-bearded guy who walks around in a garden asking where Adam and Eve went, but but my understanding of physical science, it does demonstrate that there is something more out there. If we have free will.

    Tim: My point is that, like a coin toss, a choice is (to us) a generally unpredictable outcome of complex variables. The variables involved human brain calculations are immensely more complex than those involved in a coin being tossed in the air, but, scientifically speaking, they are still natural happenings that conform to the laws of physical science. WE cannot calculate this stuff, but a being of massive intelligence with a full understanding of all variables involved, right down to the neural pathways in our brains, could. I think at some point we suspend how far we are willing to take our scientific explanations because it’s more comfortable to think we’re in control. But if we are, in fact, free beings, I think there has to be a point at which we cross beyond what science can explain, and that takes us into the realm of the divine.

    Also, my philosophy major roommate informs me that C.S. Lewis came up with an argument that much resembles mine long before I did, so apparently I once again fail to produce something new.

    Reply
  4. ST

    this post is awesome. i learned a lot. i often don’t have/don’t take the time to meta-cognate philosophically even though i do believe reflection is important and often self analyze (thinking about the possibilities of my actions on others, self, and the planet).

    anyway, thanks

    Reply
  5. vivian-x

    This is an interesting subject but I guess I disagree…

    There are lots of things that are impractical to explain in terms of atoms and particals and physical science — including love, anger, happiness, money, nationality, family, war, peace, freedom, race, culture, humor, harmony, beauty, life, death, idealism, sarcasm, loneliness – all of these things can’t be easily explained by physical science, and yes I agree with you that free will also can’t be explained by science.

    But this doesn’t say anything about God any more than it says anything about Santa Claus… It just means that science is a tool that’s better suited to explaining some things than others.

    As an aside, there are a lot of different kinds of science. Life is explained in part by biology, but biology has more room for free will in it than, say, physics or chemistry.

    Reply
  6. nicolas (Post author)

    vivian: Pursuing questions of love, anger, and so forth in this context takes us deeper into epiphenominalism, a subject on which I am no expert.

    I guess my post title is misleading because this doesn’t prove God, but claims that God is necessary to provide free will. And I use the term God loosely (essentially, “the force that gives us free will”).

    Reply
  7. faboofour

    Gosh, this is really, really good thinking. Seriously. And it works great.

    Right up until you add chaos theory into the mix.

    You got it right the first time: our “choices” would be the same all the time, every time, because our body chemicals determine our decisions. But it seems to us that we have “free will” because our chemicals react to our environment and over that we have NO control. So instead of eggs, we have cereal, not because we so choose, but because our taste buds are being stimulated by chemicals in the air put there by, say, an increase in carbon production in a little town in Belgium.

    Some of us do seem to “decide” to change our behavior, even our personalities, through, say, psychology or religion, but is it due to “free will”, or more because a butterfly wing flutter caused the “right” teacher with the “right” biology to come into one’s enviroment at the “right” time?

    That’s why I’m down with Taoism, don’t ‘cha know. Jes’ follow the path, ‘cuz you can’t really get off it anyhow.

    I guess that means I believe in “predestination,” but, again, given chaos theory and the size of the universe, it may not be literally true that anything’s possible, as far as we can perceive with our tiny li’l brains, it’s certainly virtually true.

    (Apologies if my my understanding of chaos theory is foxed up. :) )

    Reply
  8. Tosheroon

    Thats true, if we have free will then we can choose to believe in God, if there’s not then we can’t choose. But proving the existence of a God isn’t the same as proving that she is good for us any more than it proves its not a planet eating black hole that spews matter out as big bangs in alternate universes.

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  9. Tosheroon

    ..and if we don’t have free will then perhaps it’s chemical imbalance of the blodd that deprives me of that comfort rather than fate.

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  10. Nevin

    Nicolas,

    I think the main difficulty with your argument is your assumption that if naturalism is true, determinism follows. There are good arguments for this position, some of which you articulated, but it’s by no means necessary. Indeed, I think most modern physicists are probably indeterminists, because of what we’ve discovered about quantum mechanics. According to most interpretations of quantum mechanics, even if you are given all the conditions of the universe at a given time, that will only allow you to predict the *probability* of future events, not say what will definitely happen.

    Of course, whether quantum indeterminacy can be made to support free will is a whole ‘nother question. John Polkinghorne thinks so, but he’s in the minority. Libertarian free will is problematic no matter how you slice it. But if other things in the universe are indeterministic, it at least seems more plausible that perhaps our actions are also indeterministic.

    At any rate, even our best physical theories of the universe are not infallible. Especially when it comes to quantum mechanics, there are good arguments for anti-realism–the position that science tells us what works, not what is literally true.

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  11. Nevin

    And if we don’t know exactly what the structure of the universe is, I see no reason to suppose that there couldn’t be some good explanation for our having libertarian free will consistent with there being no God. There’s the whole question of what consciousness is, and how it interacts with the world; and it’s at least possible that consciousness(es) can have an effect in the world without there being a God. How, I haven’t the foggiest, but I don’t see any reason to proclaim it impossible.

    (I submitted that before I meant to. That’s why this went on to two posts.)

    Reply
  12. lukelm

    My thoughts on this:

    God is not a mental concept, nor a “thing”, nor an idea. God can never be proved – only certain mental constructs can be proved or disproved, and then only based on underlying presuppositions which themselves must remain unproved.

    God as a mental construct is not God. God can only be known through presence, through subjective experience of oneself as contained in and by God. God can never be the object on experience – God is the subject of all experience. To draw near to God is to experience one’s own consciousness as more and more like God.

    Christianity has a whole mystical tradition addressing the direct experience of God, but we haven’t heard much from it in the last 500 years. Our ways of thinking are formed almost entirely by post-Enlightenment empiricism, so much so that we now try to “prove” the Bible based on pseudo-scientific arguments rather than understanding it as an opening into a journey toward God. The mind’s concept about faith – I think this is what some people mean when they use the word “belief” – get substituted for the thing itself.

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  13. Nevin

    Luke,

    I’m trying to understand exactly what you mean when you say that God cannot be an object of experience, for he is the subject of all experience. Are you saying that my sense that I, a being purportedly independent of God, am the subject of the sensations associated with typing on a keyboard, is in fact illusory, and that in fact God is the subject of this (as well as all other) experiences? The only way that I can make sense of this is in an understanding of consciousness usually associated with eastern religions such as Buddhism, in which the self is ultimately an illusion, and God is, in some sense, the unity of all consciousness. This is by no means a silly view, and although it’s not exactly orthodox Christianity, it may well be that some Christian mystics would have identified with it (I don’t know enough about Christian mysticism to say myself). Is that what you’re getting at?

    Incidentally, if this view of God is correct, then God ought to be provable (or at least arguable for) in an analogous way to how one proves one’s self–I think therefore I am. I think that Descarte’s proof works, personally–I think it’s absurd to say that there is no such thing as subjective experience, as some empiricists are wont to do. But by your logic (if I’m interpreting you correctly) we can simply take this proof a step further, saying that yes, that’s right, but your sense of your self isn’t quite right–in fact you are (or are a part of) God. This is not proving God in the way we prove (or rather, give probabilistic support for) the existence of material objects, but then I don’t think anybody thinks that God is a material thing. And actually, some of the most popular arguments among Christian philosophers for the existence of God at present are arguments based on religious experience (although they might understand it differently than you do).

    Reply

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