Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Why Do We Believe in God's Existence or Non-Existence?

In a nutshell:
It is a fact that no real, conclusive proofs for the existence or the non-existence of God exist. Another fact is that many rational and brilliant people are theists (believe in a certain God); and many others – rational and brilliant as well – are atheists (don't believe in any God). This combination of facts leads me to think that considering evidence for the existence or non-existence of God is not necessarily the reason for adopting atheism or theism (or any other stance). I suggest that the very wish to find a purpose to life may strengthen a theistic view, while the sense that life has no "cosmic" meaning may draw a person to an atheistic belief.

"Forty-two!" yelled Loonquawl. "Is that all you've got to show for seven and a half million years' work?"

"I checked it very thoroughly," said the computer, "and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you've never actually known what the question is."

"But it was the Great Question! The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything!" howled Loonquawl.

"Yes," said Deep Thought with the air of one, who suffers fools gladly, "but what actually is it?"

- Douglas Adams, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" (photo depicts the computer "Deep Thought" thinking)

So many arguments have been raised for and against the claim for God's existence in the last thousands of years, and yet, none of them was found to be conclusive. Moreover, it seems impossible to find but one person whose opinion in the matter changed due to any of these arguments.

Why is that?

My guess, which is at this stage more of a hunch than a solidified approach, goes thus:

Some people tend to carefully consider assumptions, which they accept as true ("beliefs"); others do not. But even the most critical people – those who try to consider all of their beliefs critically and repeatedly, to avoid false beliefs – cannot examine all of their beliefs all of the time. Also, there is a limit to any chain of reasons for beliefs. If, for instance, we believe that murder is forbidden, and base this belief on the right to life of every person (or every living creature), and maybe some more basic beliefs which justify this last one – eventually we're bound to reach the building blocks of our worldview, which cannot be justified: we cannot explain why we see them as true. We just do. These are the "axioms" of our worldview (although, of course, they are not necessarily true).

I do not think that the belief in God's existence or non-existence is one of these most basic beliefs, these "axioms". They seem to be too complex to be so basic. I suggest, instead, that our attitude towards the possibility of God's existence is dictated by a deeper intuition, that relating to our place in the world and relation to it, or in other words: the supposed origin of the meaning of life. Of course, we need not necessarily be aware of this derivation.

What does this mean? I, for instance, see the world within a naturalistic perception, as lacking any supernatural existence. Why do I see the world thus? I cannot explain. It simply makes more sense to me than believing in the existence of some supernatural entity or another. I see this as an axiom, and it's affecting the rest of my beliefs. One of the implications of this axiom is that I take myself (and any other living creature) to be no more than a grain of dust, in cosmic terms, which is fine by me. I have no further pretensions, and therefore I can find meaning in life, although it has to be an autonomic meaning, chosen by me. Meaning, according to this view, is not in the things themselves, but in what we make of them, or in how we see them.

Many people – some atheists included – see this innate meaninglessness as appalling, and the atheists among them try to find a "solution" to it, or see the autonomic meaning as a compromise. According to this second view, only a purpose to our life, if not to the whole universe, can fill our lives with meaning. I here refer to "purpose" as a predetermined end, and as such, God alone can set a purpose to a person's life (for it needs to be determined before the person is born, or even conceived). Anyone can choose ends in life, but not a life-purpose as defined here.

Just as the naturalistic view I described above leads to atheism, so this second view, involving a sense of purpose, dictates theism (in one version or another), since only an Intentional Designer could have given purpose to our life.

If I am correct, then many analyses of theistic or atheistic meanings of life miss a main point, which is that our strongest intuitions regard our life's meaning, and our attitude towards God's existence is its outcome. ,



Brian Westley said...

"I here refer to "purpose" as a predetermined end, and as such, God alone can set a purpose to a person's life (for it needs to be determined before the person is born, or even conceived)."

"only an Intentional Designer could have given purpose to our life."

I disagree with the assumptions you are making in these statements.

Adva Shaviv said...

Hi Brian,
Thanks for your comment!

Let me elaborate on my meaning here:

I see four possible ways to understand the "meaning" we may seek in life, and thus, four possible sources for meaning in life (these are not necessarily exclusive of one another):

a. Meaning deriving from a purpose, set to life itself;
b. Meaning deriving from values that guide the person in his/ her life;
c. Meaning deriving from ends or intentions that guide the person in his/ her life;
d. Meaning deriving from the significance, importance or value the person attaches to his/ her life.

sense c. above of the "meaning of life" applies to everyone, no matter where they stand in relation to a belief in God. However, sense a. is quite different, and refers to a purpose which is predetermined, and relates to life as a whole: it is not a purpose-in-life (which I called in sense c. "an end"), but a purpose to life-in-itself. As such, obviously no man can choose it, nor can anyone else choose such a purpose for him – not even his parents (for they may have the child for whatever purpose they wish, but it would not thereby become the purpose of this person's life). God alone can set such a purpose, and for this reason I said that this is a solely theistic kind of meaning for life. Note that it doesn't underestimate an atheistic meaning for life (some, like Paul Edwards if I'm not mistaken, think an autonomic meaning of life is actually superior to a God-assigned one).

daniel said...

Sigmund Freud said this: "Das Ganze [die Religion] ist so offenkundig infantil, so wirklichkeitsfremd, daß es einer menschenfreundlichen Gesinnung schmerzlich wird zu denken, die große Mehrheit der Sterblichen werde sich niemals über diese Auffassung des Lebens erheben können."

Traduced: "The whole issue [religion] is so openly infantile, so fanciful, that it causes pain to a humane attitude to think that the majority of mortals will never overcome this conception of life."

Adva Shaviv said...

Hi Daniel,

I quite agree with Freud. Albert Einstein also wrote similar things (in a letter recently sold for quite a large amount).

However, precisely because the idea of God seems to me so bizarre, I am amazed to see brilliant people I personally know, philosophers and others, who believe in a deity. Because I think highly of some of these people, I cannot but assume there must be some intelligent reason leading them so to think.

The problem is that sometimes they themselves think their incentive for a theistic belief is related to some argument for the existence of God. Many atheists also tend to think that they are atheists because God's existence hasn't been proved, or cannot be proved. This seems to me to be too shallow for an extensive explanation. It may be true for the (uncritical) masses, but what about reflective, critical people?

Also, I can't imagine changing their mind on the matter based on an argument. This leads me to think that there must be a deeper basis for such beliefs.

Adva Shaviv said...

(1st sentence of last par. should have read, of course -)
I can't imagine ANYONE changing their mind...

daniel said...

I think the reason is simply because it's comforting. Isn't it much nicer to think that there's someone (something?) out there (or above or wherever) that cares about you? I think it is also about the body/soul paradigm; if we believe that we have kind of an immortal essence within us ("soul") or something that somehow lives along, the idea of an however shaped afterlife is more likely

Adva Shaviv said...

Daniel, I quite agree that these are common psychological reasons to adopt a belief in God. It may also be true that most people - theists and atheists alike - mainly adopt beliefs on a psychological basis. And of course, you're a psychologist, so I wouldn't dare say this is a less interesting question... ;-)

... So I settle for saying that as a philosopher, I am more interested in the philosophical reasons to adopt beliefs, including those regarding God. Does it MAKE (philosophical) SENSE to adopt a belief about God's existence because it comforts the believer? - Pascal suggested we should take probability into account: if God exists, there is an afterlife, and we have much to lose by not believing in Him while still alive. If we do believe, and it turns out he doesn't exist, we lose much less. I think the suggested "comfort" is related to the Pascalian wager: in both cases, we care not for the ontological question - that of the truth, but only for our own benefit. This is not irrational, but suppose we DO care about the truth? How do we base atheism or theism then, given that no conclusive evidence or argument is available?

daniel said...

There can be no knowledge of the existence of a deity. You can only BELIEVE it. It is not a question of knowledge or truth but of belief. On a scientific-philosophical level it's an aporia, I would say. The history of the philosophical quest to prove god's existence or non-existence is a quite long one. Nothing ever turned out as a conclusive argument.

Adva Shaviv said...

I think it very important to distinguish between a belief, in the sense of a proposition we accept as true, and belief in the sense of faith, meaning - a propososition we take as unquestionable, no matter what the evidence.

We necessarily hold beliefs in the first sense, but not in the second. This second meaning of belief is irrelevant to this discussion. As for beliefs of the first sort 0 our reasons for holding them vary, and certainly include psychological considerations as well as rational (philosophical).

I think it IS possible to differentiate between the psychological and the philosophical considerations, when we critically examine them. Sometimes, though, we may understand that there is no logical reason to hold a certain belief, although we are psychologically inclined towards it, and yet we choose to keep it. Such a decision, though not driven by a search for the truth, may still be rational (perhaps Pascal's wager is rational, for instance), but even if it isn't - it can still be accepted after realising the different kinds of arguments, and differentiating the philosophical ones from the psychological ones.

New Life said...

Very engaging blog, thank you for sharing!

Adva Shaviv said...

Thanks very much! :-)

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