Utilitarian and other perspectives on the question of God

Arguments for and against atheism invariably tackle the philosophical and epistemological problem of whether one can know that something doesn’t exist in the universe even though one’s knowledge of all things in said universe is extremely limited.

That sounds like a good argument against positive atheism – one that would allow a reasonable person to be agnostic but not atheist.

However, the response of the atheist is usually twofold:

  1. The definition of atheism need not be a positive claim to know that there are no gods worth having, but rather the absence of belief in God. (Thus the definitional distinction between agnosticism and atheism is somewhat blurred.)
  2. The atheist also claims that the choice not to believe in a Deity is the equivalent of choosing not to believe in Santa Claus, the Loch Ness Monster, fairies in the bottom of the garden, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM). Most reasonable people would probably state that they do not believe in any of those fairy-tale, mythological beings. People (me included) are less likely to sit on the fence and say they are not sure whether or not the FSM exists.

We know so little of all there is to know. So any argument over whether we can reasonably claim to know there isn’t a God will only go so far.

Sooner or later, it becomes germane to compare other possible options for extra-terrestrial intelligence and/or the origin of life and/or our universe. These are big unknown questions in the scientific community, even if the question of God has been largely classified as beneath modern scientific intelligence.

In contrast to the search for God, these questions tend to be framed toward fitting the epistemological constraints of scientific enquiry. Yet philosophically they are not very much different to the question of whether or not there is a God.

Epistemologically, the germane question is whether everything worth knowing can be found through empiricism.

There are a lot of other epistemological alternatives beyond empiricism.

Naturalism and empiricism look for natural, observable causes. The past removal of superstitions demonstrate the triumph of the scientific method. Modernism thus rejected the use of any other epistemological lenses to view reality.

But adherents to naturalism assume that naturalism has the answer to ultimate reality without actually ever being able to prove it. For example, the scientific method can never discover or explain the uncaused – or original – cause. I believe it will always struggle to provide any meaningful account for the origin of: matter/energy, physical laws, information, life, consciousness, morality and freedom of choice.

Let’s lay aside empiricism for a moment, and use a variety of lenses to evaluate five options for extraterrestrial or supernatural entities. The following table compares the options.

Lens Intelligent beings outside earth Creator God Multiverse Loch Ness, FSM, Santa, Fairies Nothing exists outside of our knowledge
Experiential evidence existing? None of significance Yes. Significant. Many people report their lives being profoundly impacted by encounters with God. None Limited Not logically applicable
Empirical evidence existing? None, though SETI has tried hard to find it Not reliably reproducible. Many would also question validity of claimed evidence. None None Not logically applicable
Evidence or logic that precludes this None None None Strong Yes – we frequently discover that we previously had not observed everything there was to observe
Possibility of being able to verify Strong From human perspective, weak. From God’s perspective, strong (if He indeed exists). None, insofar as our current definitions go Strong (i.e., to verify absence) Impossible
Logical / philosophical case Neither strong nor weak Strong (see below) Neither strong nor weak Weak Weak (see above)
Hypothesis of its existence lends itself to scientific enquiry Yes No No Yes, to the extent that one can be convinced that these don’t exist. Yes, though frequently disproved
Utility of this belief None so far Pascal’s wager suggests significant Limited Negative Negative (stops enquiry)
Moral consequence if proven true Unknown: potential for catastrophic conflict or synergistic benefit Humans have a responsibility to their Creator None None No change
Life’s meaning & purpose To the extent that they were not involved in our origin, limited. Profound (to the extent involved in our origin) Limited None None
Life’s origin Unknown Fullest and most complete answer available, acknowledging a possible follow-up question of “what caused God?” Would take the search for the ‘uncaused cause’ a step further back None None
Life’s destiny Unknown: potential for catastrophic conflict or synergistic benefit Full and complete answer None or limited None None
Votes for this A few key thinkers such as Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, Paul Davies, Carl Sagan. Almost everyone until around 150 years ago. Still majority of world, and significant portion of current thinkers, leaders & scientists A few key thinkers such as Stephen Hawking and even Richard Dawkins to some extent. None None (in its purest form, though some objectivists & empiricists, as well as subscribers to scientism & logical positivism come close)
Plausibility that this extra-terrestrial being exists but would hide itself (at least in our lifetime) To be determined once identified. On current knowledge, plausible. Plausible, even necessary based on Great Controversy meta-narrative By logical necessity Relatively implausible N/A
Motivation for acceptance Search for answers to limited carrying capacity of planet Love of God awakens response of love in our hearts. OR: fear or selfish desire to escape suffering. Philosophical pursuit of answers. Emotional sentimentalism and/or fear Desire to maintain status quo
Motivation for rejection Difficulty of identifying Desire to avoid responsibility for our choices. Perceived impossibility of verifying and thus desire to dispel false hope or fear. Impossibility of verifying Desire to dispel false hope or fear Desire to explore, discover
Aligns with these components of experiential reality Limited. Some observed phenomena that currently do not have better explanations Aligns with our observation that matter, life, consciousness, morality, love, altruism and free choice all exist. Aligns with the difficulty (i.e., impossibility) of establishing deterministic explanations for experiential phenomena. None Almost none. From perspective of children, Christmas presents align with the story of Santa. If we continually repeat previous experience, yes
Related phenomena that would prove difficult to explain otherwise UFOs, to a very limited extent. (I.e., almost none.) Many: consciousness, life, freedom of choice, fulfilled prophecy. Also growing scientific evidence that aligns poorly with naturalism. (See Ashton, Lennox, etc) The existence of our universe (not that the multiverse theory is the only option here) Almost none. History repeating itself; “Nothing new under the sun”
Observed phenomena that this fails to explain and thus is weakened by Fails to explain a lot of things but is not weakened by any of these omissions Experiential phenomena such as suffering and evil can be difficult to reconcile with a loving, all-powerful, all-knowing Creator. There are also some scientific discoveries that, at face value, appear to contradict the typical account of a Creator God. E.g., natural selection, evidence for the Big Bang, the geologic record Fails to explain a lot of things but is not weakened by any of these omissions Agency of known mechanisms to account for Christmas presents etc. Constant discovery of new knowledge
What lost if turns out to be true Unknown: perhaps some freedoms? Independence and autonomy (perceived) Little – maybe Uniqueness Little – maybe safety Hope for discovering more ‘out there’
What gained if turns out to be true Unknown: perhaps some opportunities? Infinite eternal happiness Little? Little – perhaps realization of children’s fantasies has some value? Removal of fear of the unknown
What lost if turns out to be false All the money poured into SETI Little – maybe hedonistic pursuits Little? Little – maybe children’s fantasies squashed Opportunity to discover more
What gained if turns out to be false Unknown: perhaps some freedoms? Independence and autonomy (perceived) Little – maybe Uniqueness Little – maybe safety Hope for discovering more ‘out there’

Under the “Creator God” heading, there are a number of possible options for which deity. At the high level of this comparison, this should really only be a comparison of theism to atheism.

If there is a Creator God, it would be plausible that there could be multiple interpretations/perspectives of His character and attributes. That need not weaken the case that such a Creator God exists. Especially if it is assumed that the Creator God gives freedom of choice based on love. If he/it were a coercive god, then any argument against the existence of such a deity would be more compelling on the assumption that he/it would be more likely to coerce everyone to form uniform perceptions of who he/it is.

My belief in God is that He is a love personified – the opposite of coercive. This may be reflected in some of my entries under the “Creator God” column in the table above.

The only gap in the above analysis, according to the modern scientific mindset, is the lack of consideration of empirical evidence. But since when is empirical evidence the only way to knowledge? Modernism gave way to post-modernism precisely because of the overwhelming realization that there are other valid epistemologies.

Coming back to empiricism, though, I will let the words of John Lennox assist in wrapping up my blog post. Having systematically exposed the weakness of the empirical claims of atheism of Richard Dawkins et al, he concludes:

In conclusion, I submit that, far from science having buried God, not only do the results of science point towards his existence, but the scientific enterprise itself is validated by his existence.

Inevitably, of course, not only those of us who do science, but all of us, have to choose the presupposition with which we start. There are not many options – essentially just two. Either human intelligence ultimately owes its origin to mindless matter; or there is a Creator. It is strange that some people claim that it is their intelligence that leads them to prefer the first to the second.

So I conclude, then, that the case for a Creator God is the strongest of the above options. (I have made five options to help demonstrate the comparative utility of theism and futility of atheism, but they can be boiled down to the two that Lennox presents.)

Theism wins easily, in terms of utility, risk management & opportunity maximization, and philosophical/logical coherence. And, according to Lennox, empirically, to boot.

Try the varied epistemological approach for yourself, using the above table as a starting point if you wish. I’m curious to see how my framework withstands scrutiny and critique. Are there elements that are wrong, arguable, incomplete or missing?

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