God Whispers In All of Life

I think logic and argument can suggest God. I have personally benefited a lot from apologists like William Lane Craig who do this so well.

But, of course, this is not the only way to suggest God. It is possible to make God plausible, not as the conclusion of a thread of reasoning, but as the premise of human experience. This approach says, in effect, “if God does not exist, so much of life—so much of what we simply assume everyday in the way we function—becomes mysterious and inexplicable.”

Such a strategy is often rationally avoidable. But that does not mean it is necessarily less effective in real life. In fact, in our cultural setting, many of the lonely, transcendence-starved, quietly-despairing people around us may resonate with aesthetic and existential considerations more than a logical case. Quite often the sheer beauty of the gospel is its most powerful apologetic. That is why I go back to C.S. Lewis’ fiction again and again. He speaks to the imagination so powerfully.

Here are three aspects of human life and society that are somewhat out of place—homesick, we might say—within the confines of a naturalistic worldview.

In other words, they don’t prove God—they are just kind of weird without Him.

1) Thought

If our brains are simply the epiphenomenal byproduct of a naturalistic, evolutionary process (which is very different than saying God used an evolutionary processes to produce our brains), then thought becomes something of an oddity. In naturalism, our brains function as they do as the result of the winnowing effect of unimaginable eons of natural selection. Passing on our genes has determined everything. So can we trust our use of reason, or any of our knowledge? More basically, what exactly is thought? How is it generated from strictly physical processes?

Thomas_Nagel_teaching_Ethics.JPGYou don’t have to be religious to appreciate the complexity of this question. It is a perennial challenge of philosophy. Take the issue of consciousness, for instance. Thomas Nagel, who happens to be skeptical about the existence of God, thinks that human consciousness is not reducible to strictly material process. In his excellent introduction to philosophy, he writes:

“I myself believe that this inner aspect of pain and other conscious experiences cannot be adequately analyzed in terms of any system of causal relations to physical stimuli, however complicated. There seem to me two very different kinds of things going on in the world: the things that belong to physical reality, which many different people can observe from the outside, and those other things that belong to mental reality, which each of us experiences from the inside in his own case”  (What Does It All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy [OUP 1987], 36).

This whole idea of a “mental reality,” distinct from the physical one, is curious. Why should the physical world generate this separate, mental realm?

Take, for instance, math. We tend to think of math as a strictly logical, self-explanatory phenomenon. But when you think about it, math is highly mysterious. Why should it be the case that 2+3=5, always and everywhere? The physical world is interdependent and relative—even time and space are interwoven, as Einstein showed. But the world of numbers is fixed and universal and binding. So where did it come from?

Here is a way to grasp the problem: if the entire universe collapsed into non-being, would it still be that 2+3=5? Most people say yes. But if the universe is all there is, what gives these numbers their stability? Why does the mental realm have permanence, if the material realm is in flux? What is this universal intellectual system that we seem to be able to access, that rises up all around us like an invisible castle?

abstract-math-wallpaper-49710-51389-hd-wallpapers.jpg

Even the mental aspect of human language has some similarly curious features, when you think about it. How do our local, concrete words map onto their abstract, universal referents? The word “triangle” is a finite word, made of 8 English letters. Yet when you use this word, you are accessing a reality far larger than the image of a three-sided shape you have in your mind. What is the location of this shared meaning? How do the little noises and symbols that comprise language stretch outward to encompass a potentially limitless array of actual and potential meanings, connecting our mental life with other speakers—like an invisible transit system for the intercourse of thought?

2) Choice

Choice is another oddity within naturalism. If the universe is a closed system of cause and effect, then ultimately everything that happens has a a prior material cause—like one pool ball hitting another one.

So, if we are strictly material entities (albeit highly complex ones), where would free will come from? We make choices with our brains, and our brains are physical objects, alongside the whole panoply of other physical objects in the universe, from stars to sponges to sauerkraut. What would make our choices something other than the result of an extremely complicated series of previous material events—trillions of pool balls?

Phineas_Gage_Cased_Daguerreotype_WilgusPhoto2008-12-19_CroppedHeadOnly_EnhancedRetouched_ColorIn fact, the more we understand about neuroscience, the more see how tightly our mental life is correlated with the physicality of our brains. Consider the case of Phineas Gage, who worked in railroad construction in the 19th century. He had a very unfortunate accident in which a large iron rod was driven completely through his head, up through the left frontal lobe. But he survived and slowly recovered. Unfortunately, his personality changed after the accident. (Basically, he became not so nice.) Lots of other instances like this have been documented, in which the physical brain exerts a massive influence on the sum of our mental life. This raises the question: is mind ultimately reducible to matter? If so, is our consciousness of making responsible decisions illusory? Is free will possible?

Even more troubling, what about our moral decision-making, specifically? If reductive physicalism is the whole show, in what sense can our actions be objectively good or evil? I have said more about this elsewhere so I move on.

3) Hope

Hope is essential to human life. As the holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl put it, “he who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” And tragically, the opposite is true. Hopelessness is unlivable. Recent headlines have sadly reminded us what we do when we run out of hope.

shawshank.jpgThe power of hope is dramatized poignantly in the movie The Shawshank Redemption, and in particular its portrayal of Andy Dufresne’s struggle to find hope in a seemingly hopeless situation. It is hope that determines whether life is worth living: “get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’.” As Hamlet puts it, “to be, or not to be; that is the question.”

He chooses to live. And, in the context of this choice, he says, “hope is a good thing, maybe the best thing; and no good thing ever dies.”

But can a naturalist agree with Andy Dufresne? I cannot see how. In a naturalistic philosophy, hope does indeed die. Just wait long enough, and there is no one around to do any hoping. In fact, not only will every individual person die, but the entire universe will eventually wind down into a heat death, and thus every achievement of every person will also be swallowed up and forgotten.

Why do we hate and fear this prospect of everything winding down so much? Why does it seem so unnatural? Sadness at death is understandable on the grounds of naturalism. But the intensity of our fear of death is curious. Why do we long for ultimate meaning, for abiding happiness, for connection to something transcendent?

It is a curious thing that a world ultimately devoid of hope should produce creatures who cannot function without it.

rahul-chakraborty-556156-unsplashListening for Whispers

C.S. Lewis famously wrote, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains.” In other words: not all of God’s speech is at the same volume. The clarity and force of divine revelation varies.

Clues of God in our mental, volitional, and emotional life are, as I see it, in the “whisper” register. These are not the most obvious or undeniable places to find God. (For those, I personally go back to the Big Bang, the resurrection of Jesus, the lives of godly saints, and my own deep-seated, undeniable sense of God in my heart and conscience.)

Nonetheless, that our world has produced creatures who think, choose, and hope is, within a naturalistic worldview, a very curious turns of events. If we listen carefully to it, we might hear Someone whispering.

6 Comments

  1. Bernard Lamb

    Beautifully done, Gavin.  Thank you.Laddie Lamb

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Evan Butts

    It seems like, “The universe will end; so, there is no hope that my children will be happy and thrive in their lifetime” is a non-sequitur. Hope can be indexed to a project, period of time, or other domain.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Evan! Good to hear from you. Yes, I would agree that the sentence you offer is a non-sequitur. There are different kinds of hope. In my post I reference “ultimate meaning, abiding happiness, and connection to something transcendent” as the objects of our hope, stemming from Andy Dufresne’s claim that hope “never dies.” These seem to me difficult to substantiate on the grounds of naturalism. The disturbance we feel at the lack of this kind of hope is interesting to me. I don’t see that as proof of the supernatural. I just see it as something that is odd to have evolved in a world without the supernatural. What do you think?

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  3. Hi, Gavin. “It is possible to make God plausible, not as the conclusion of a thread of reasoning, but as the premise of human experience.” This to me sounds akin to the transcendental argument for God; that is, that God must exist because only God satisfies the necessary prerequisites for certain immaterial features of reality. Under heading #1, in fact, you mention math, which is, I think, essentially parallel to the laws of logic—a universal immaterial absolute. Similarly, your reference to thought and choice bears resemblance to the argument from morality. You, however, feel that this form of argument suggest, but do not prove, the existence of God (contra Greg Bahnsen’s “impossibility of the contrary.”) I’m no expert on presuppositionalism or any other form of apologetics, but I certainly found this post interesting and wondered if I was right to draw this connection.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sorry to miss this comment — yes, I can track with the parallels you are drawing, especially with the laws of logic, from which I think a similar point can be made. Thanks for commenting.

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  4. P.S., I have wondered, from a strictly materialist perspective, when a person is thinking about something and decides to think about something else, what is the initiator of the switch?

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