Thursday, July 20, 2023

God: Where's the Evidence?

One of the first questions that atheists ask of someone who believes in God is “where's the evidence?” What is meant by “God” is rarely clear and the term “Sky Daddy” has recently emerged as a way to dismiss those who think deeply about God as childish. 

Normally we would clearly define what we mean before looking for evidence of its existence but, despite the many and varied ways to think of God, the question “where's the evidence?” comes up often enough that I want to deal with it in some detail here. To do so we will have to briefly discuss the complex nature of evidence in relation to a qualitative question like “does God exist?” Along the way I will offer some thoughts on how to think about God and why it's important to do so.

For many atheists, the unstated assumption is that scientific theories have cornered the market on the truth to such a degree that nothing outside of the scope of science can be true. In a sense the atheist's overarching theory is that “science can explain everything,” and some call this “Scientism.”

But a scientific theory is only a model built upon assumptions that is projected onto the universe and subsequently tested to see how well it fits, which I discussed in the video essay “Atheism is Untenable.” Therefore our theories are like clothes on an invisible man: they reveal his form and movement but tell us nothing about him. The following intro to the article “10 Scientific Laws and Theories You Really Should Know” gives us a sense of their limitations:

“Scientists have many tools available to them when attempting to describe how nature and the universe at large work. Often they reach for laws and theories first. What's the difference? A scientific law can often be reduced to a mathematical statement, such as E = mc²; it's a specific statement based on empirical data, and its truth is generally confined to a certain set of conditions.”

“A scientific theory often seeks to synthesize a body of evidence or observations of particular phenomena. [It represents] something fundamental about how nature works.”

Marcelo Gleiser
The authors make clear that a scientific theory describes how some part of the universe works more broadly than a law but still limited to its area of application. For example Evolution accounts for how new species emerge within the biosphere through natural selection and Quantum Theory describes the behavior of matter at extremely small scales. Even the pursuit of the scientific theory of everything (TOE), which aims to unify the forces of the universe into one, thus bridging the gap between general relativity and quantum mechanics, only strives to explain how the universe works, like a mechanic's car manual. It makes no claim about how it came to be or its meaning or purpose, which in the case of a car might include: who is allowed to drive it, where will you go with it, what color you prefer and what does it mean to you, all of which are deeply personal. Furthermore, professor Marcelo Gleiser from Dartmouth College points out that “the impulse to unify goes back to the notion of unity found in monotheistic faiths” and “the philosophy behind it [the TOE] is faulty.” Like other philosophers, he points out that we do not see nature directly using science: “what we observe is not Nature itself but Nature exposed to our methods of questioning,” which is another way of saying that we clothe the universe in theories that help us make sense of it.

The atheist dismisses all phenomena as being the mundane result of physical laws thus reducing all of existence to the status of a machine, and this has become uncritically accepted by many in Western culture. However one could easily argue that the laws of physics were created by God, as Einstein suggested, which would mean that everything in the universe happens as the result of an a priori act of God.

Einstein's views on God were complex, as we might expect from a man of such intelligence and, when pressed, Einstein said,

I’m not an atheist, and I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist... I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings. Einstein believed the problem of God was the "most difficult in the world"—a question that could not be answered "simply with yes or no". He conceded that "the problem involved is too vast for our limited minds.” 

Clearly Einstein, a scientific giant, would not refer to God as “Sky Daddy.”

Although Einstein was uneasy with the term, Baruch Spinoza, to whom he defers, is considered by many to have been a Pantheist, perhaps with some reservations – once again to be expected of an intelligent, deep-thinking man who attempts to articulate a definition of God. 

Einstein was not so bold as to claim that he could provide a definition of God and his rejection of pantheism suggests that he was not completely satisfied with Spinoza's definition either, which is summarized as

“A substance consisting of infinite attributes, each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence."

And further,

God is "the sum of the natural and physical laws of the universe and certainly not an individual entity or creator.”

Although I am partial to pantheism, more on that later, Spinoza's definition and “proof” of God comes off as a bit of sophisticated hand-waving to me, but maybe I'm missing something. 


Let's put aside the fact that what we mean by God is not clear and get back to the atheist's demand for evidence of God.

Professors Steven Miller and Marcel Fredericks of Loyola University were concerned about the increasingly popular use of qualitative research in science and published an article on the subtle complexities of the nature of evidence in 2003. It's not an easy read and it makes reference to even more difficult philosophical works, but a few excerpts help make clear the atheist's misunderstanding of the term “evidence,” and in a moment I will explain how this demand for evidence of God reveals the nihilistic nature of atheism. Miller and Fredericks wrote:

“When do findings [...] become evidence? Our findings must stand in some relationship to what we claim to be evidence if they are to serve (in some sense) as "truth markers" (Kirkham, 1997).”

“This distinction is one that is not made clear enough in interpretive inquiry. The general idea is to show how the data (no matter how generated) stand in relationship to the question, topic, or theme of interest. In other words, in what sense do we know that the data are (or are not) evidence? Data become evidence; they are not (alone) evidence; and this is an epistemological concern.”
“What is evidence?” the authors ask. 

This is a seemingly simple question, but one surprisingly not asked in many research contexts. Part of the reason is that evidence is difficult to define. For example, Mautner (1999, p. 184), in a dictionary of philosophy, says evidence is "that which provides a ground for a belief or a theory." Audi (1999, p. 293), in another philosophical dictionary, says evidence is "information bearing on the truth or falsity of a proposition."

They then provide a lengthy discussion about the complex nature of evidence as it pertains to qualitative research, which is what we are practicing when we hypothesize that “God exists.” The authors conclude:

“How can we even proceed if there is no explicit notion of how qualitative data become evidence? Our belief is that we cannot. However, recognizing what is involved and being willing to discuss it in the context of actual research studies constitutes an important first step in showing the credibility of the qualitative research paradigm.”

The authors conclude that it is impossible to qualify data as evidence even in the pursuit of simple qualitative scientific research, and our task is anything but simple. 

So not only is there no universally recognized and accessible definition of God, but no one can even explain how observational data, which is the universe and everything in it, can become evidence pertaining to the qualitative question “does God exist?.”


Michael Brooks
It seems clear that we will never prove nor disprove the existence of God with evidence. In fact philosophers have concluded that a person cannot even prove his own existence, as Quantum Physicist Michael Brooks from the University of Sussex points out in his essay “How do I know I exist?” published in New Scientist magazine in 2001:

“In a nutshell, you don’t.”

“Philosopher René Descartes hit the nail on the head when he wrote “cogito ergo sum”. The only evidence you have that you exist as a self-aware being is your conscious experience of thinking about your existence. Beyond that you’re on your own. You cannot access anyone else’s conscious thoughts, so you will never know if they are self-aware.”

We'll come back to Rene Descartes' critical insight in a moment.

Since an objective treatment of a thesis requires evidence and evidence is not possible, the only accessible knowledge of God must be empirical. Since all empirical knowledge comes from experience, which is dependent upon individual perception and subject to interpretation, the resulting mental models must be unique to the individual even though they may be broadly similar among like-minded members of a community. This should not shock anyone because even though we can accept that an objective world exists, our conscious experience of that reality is subjective -- it is personal.

The intimate nature of a person's conscious internal representation of God makes it much more difficult to abandon than a disproven scientific theory, but the failure of any particular representation to provide a full and convincing account of God, be it Christian, Islamic or Hindu, does not nullify God anymore than the failure of the geocentric model nullified the universe.

Consciousness and Hallucination

Let's take a moment to consider the nature of consciousness since that is where the knowledge and representations of God must reside if they are to exist at all. 
Anil Seth

We have all experienced the temporary hallucination of a dream that dissolves upon awakening, but our woken conscious state is not entirely different from the dream state and can be understood as a “persistent hallucination,” albeit a very convincing one. In fact neuroscientist Anil Seth suggests that reality consists of hallucinations that we all agree upon, concluding that “we don’t just passively perceive the world, we actively generate it.” 

This idea gains support from researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine who theorize that:

“Consciousness developed as a memory system that is used by our unconscious brain to help us flexibly and creatively imagine the future and plan accordingly.” 

“We don’t perceive the world, make decisions, or perform actions directly. Instead, we do all these things unconsciously and then—about half a second later—consciously remember doing them.”

“Consciousness was subsequently co-opted to produce other functions that are not directly relevant to memory per se, such as problem-solving, abstract thinking, and language.”

The implication is that there is a deeper “you” that perceives and decides in the moment – the unconscious part of you – and it is more fundamental than your brain's higher functions.

If our real-time perceptions and decisions are made unconsciously and only later preserved in conscious memory, what is the nature of that unconscious self? Is it not god-like to us? And what lies even deeper than that unconscious self? 

Perhaps our ancestors intuited this and tried to capture their experiences in the form of sacred stories with God, the unconscious mover, as the main character. It is not hard to imagine them interpreting the stirring of their unconscious selves as “God moving within.” In fact, as we shall see shortly, “I am,” which is the name of God given in Exodus, emerged in just such a manner.

I am, but what am I?

In our present positivist Western culture, we are all encouraged to identify most strongly with our consciously created self-image and, if recognized at all, the unconscious observer / decider within is often dismissed or denied – as is God. But if our consciousness is only a memory system which holds the conscious identity, this whole process becomes circular: the identity is created within the conscious memory system and then validates itself by its claim of consciousness, unaware that it is not the decision-maker. In fact the practice of psychotherapy exists only because our conscious selves are prone to drift away from reality and thus become disconnected from the world in which our unconscious bodies exist.

Furthermore, since the unconscious is more closely connected to the body, which is a fragment of the universe, disconnection of the conscious mind from the unconscious self means that we become disconnected from the universe, or in other words, we become disconnected from God. I will come back to the idea of the universe as the body of God in a moment.

As convincing as your reality seems, you are not what you think you are: you have invented it, you are dreaming it. You have incorporated the mysterious machinations of your unconscious into the memory system that we call consciousness, structured it as your identity, and then you have denied its origins – you have denied God. But your waking life, as you believe it to be, is only a persistent hallucination in which your true self is all but invisible to you. 

Even less perhaps is the universe what you think it is, but let's get back to René Descartes.
Rene Descartes

Although you cannot prove your own existence, as pointed out by professor Brooks, Descartes' conclusion, “I think, therefore I am,” which he later modified in the Meditations to “I am, I exist” is helpful to our exploration of God, and his related ontological argument for the existence of God is still discussed today, attracting both praise and criticism.

Descartes concludes that “I exist” in conjunction with the claim “I am” in the manner of God in the Book of Exodus:

Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”

God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3: 13–14)

The name of God is presented in Exodus as “I am” and Descartes declares the same, concluding that “I exist” by reason alone. To deny one is thus to deny both for they are intimately related, as Descartes suggests, and they will never submit to evidentiary proof, as demonstrated above. 

The “I am” of Exodus emerged from the human unconscious thousands of years before Descartes' conscious argument for its validity, and similar ideas have spontaneously emerged in other cultural traditions as well. Both the Greek and the Egyptian creation myths claim that the universe emerged from a state of nothingness which they call “Chaos,” which in a way parallels the emergence of the insight “I exist” from the “I am” of the unconscious as recorded in Exodus. From Chaos came the universe; from “I am” came “I exist.”

Hinduism claims that “the universe was created by Brahma, the creator who made the universe out of himself.” In this case “I am” is Brahma the creator, and “I exist” is the created universe. The universe is made from Brahma, God the creator, and every part of it is Brahma – every part of the universe is God. Existence is inseparable from God. 

Hinduism is complex and its sacred texts, the Upanishads, contain an enormous amount of detail. For example it postulates that two other gods – Vishnu the preserver of the world and Shiva the destroyer, both of whom we might liken to forces of the universe – took over after the universe was created, but these details do not concern us. What is important is the similarity of the revelation that emerged from the human unconsciousness in different cultures, a revelation deemed important enough to preserve through millenia and later affirmed through reason alone by Descartes. 

The universe emerged from Brahma just as 
“I exist” emerged  from “I am.” 
The conscious thought and memories that you identify as self
 and Descartes identifies as “I exist” 
emerged from the unconscious god “I am.” 

God created the universe out of himself, and thus “I am” and “I exist” are inseparable.

So given that I am, what exactly am I? And what am I if not a fragment of the universe? And if I am a fragment of the universe, which God created from himself, am I not a fragment of God? 

This is a description of pantheism and the issue with pantheism is that it denies, or at least ignores, the existence of anything outside of creation – the transcendent God -- which one cannot definitively conclude. For now, I will trust that any aspect of God outside of our universe – the “uncreated” and/or the “uncreated creator” categories – is also outside of my concern, though I recognize that the boundary between immanent and transcendent God is far from clear and may even be arbitrary. 

Evidence of God

To demand evidence of God is to misunderstand both evidence and God. Our endeavor to know God is a qualitative exploration of the universe that lies beyond the reach of science, and behind the theories with which we have clothed the universe –  it is the effort to understand ourselves and to find our place in the universe. This is necessarily an introspective journey, with evidence only able to hint at what might or might not be. It asks us to synthesize and interpret all of our knowledge – objective and empirical; scientific and philosophical – into a cohesive, personally meaningful whole. 

However, the clothes that we have invented in the form of scientific theories reveal the form and movement of the universe so well that a great many among us have become convinced not only that there is nothing under the clothes but that only a fool would even speculate. 

Similarly, we are now creating a plethora of identities from bits and pieces of our culture only to wear them like battle armor in an increasingly bizarre war centered on gender and ideological affiliation. This armor not only defines the relationships that we must create and maintain in order to function in a complex society but it also hides us from one another. More importantly, having been convinced that there can be nothing beneath the armor, or clothes, these “identities” hide us from our deeper selves, encouraging us to drift away from reality.

We clothe the universe in our theories and we clothe ourselves in our identities. But both our theories and our identities only exist within the persistent hallucination of the conscious mind. They are not real. They are only representations of what is real, like a hologram.

It is no coincidence that proof of God is as elusive as proof of your own existence because they are one and the same dilemma. You are a fragment of the universe observing the universe. The desire to know what that means is the yearning for God, and the first step on that journey is to recognize that neither God, the universe, nor your identity can be restricted by the persistent hallucination of your consciousness. Your identity must be sought below the level of the conscious self. It must be rooted in the body; it must be rooted in God. It must be discovered more than invented, and the reason that identity politics has resulted in such chaos is that we have disconnected identity from its authentic root: your unconscious self, your physical body, the body of God. 

The role of the persistent hallucination of consciousness is to serve the body – your fragment of God – to protect and nurture it, not to rule over it. But rather than adopt the humble role of servant, identity politics glorifies the egotistic effort to make our bodies conform to our fantasies.

Thus the denial of God is the nihilistic denial of the observer/decider within and the refusal to accept the task of understanding oneself – the task of becoming an integrated whole. It is a profound rejection of the deepest, most personal dimension of your own own being, and this is at the root of our present obsession with identity politics, environmentalism, feminism and the explosive transgender phenomenon, all of which seek to fill the void left by the denial of God and your relationship with him.

                                                        Steve Brulé


Thomas Berry
Previously I have argued that atheism is untenable, that neo-atheism is fraudulent and that religious fundamentalism is seriously flawed. But we cannot move forward without a way to understand our inner world, including the unconscious seat of perception and decision-making, and our relationship with the world around us, including our place in the universe. I agree with Thomas Berry who pointed out that our present [sacred] story is failing us and that the most important task of our age is to create a coherent modern cosmology that is consistent with our present understanding of the universe and that can provide meaning to our work and context to our lives, suffering, and death  – a story of God, the universe and our place in it. 

Readers might conclude that I am dismissive of the transcendent nature of God, but this is not my intention. Neither the transcendent nor the immanent God can be dismissed and the boundary between the two is far from clear -- and may even be arbitrary – but the unconscious observer / decider described above might be thought of as the bridge between the two.

Another way to think of the universe and God that is not quite captured by pantheism, pandeism, panenthism, Hinduism or any tradition to my knowledge, is to think of the universe as God being born rather than as God's creation in its finished form. 

The idea that the universe itself is the body of God in the process of being born accommodates the theory of evolution and implies not only that the universe is inseparable from God but that it is alive and not yet finished. It implies not only that we are part of the body of God, but that we are also part of a story much larger than humanity, and that there's more to come.

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