by Patrick Lewin
from Signs of the Times No. 28 - Jan 2008
[Other parts: • part 1part 2part 3part 4part 5]

Now in conclusion come the 'Big Untidy Questions'. 'Mummy, who made the world?' 'God did.' 'Then who made God?' 

'Philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains.' Whitehead, expanding Socrates in Plato's Theætetus.

How easily is that most precious sense of wonder lost. The first wonder is under our noses and most adults never give it a thought: that there is anything at all, that there is something rather than nothing. Everything around us is what the schoolmen of the Middle Ages called 'contingent'. It is temporal. It might not have existed, it is dependent on something else to bring it into existence, and at some time in the future it will cease to exist. Even an infinite series of contingent entities would be dependent on something that wasn't contingent, something eternal, what the same philosophers called 'Necessary'.

Isn't that the first cause/cosmological argument for God?

Yes, though many philosophers have denied its validity. A minimal Eternal Something might be a creative principle giving rise to the temporal process by actualizing possibilities, a process possibly having as great an effect on the One as on the Many, the One sharing and learning from their experiences, developing self-consciousness, love of truth and beauty, and a high moral sense, God and World making each other through interaction (Whitehead developing Plato's speculation; Tillich) the alternatives being that the Eternal learns nothing or has nothing to learn.

That is far from proving the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient Designer-God. Such a God would be responsible for the state of the world. Hume's posthumous Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion remains the enjoyable locus classicus. An imperfect creation cannot be evidence of a perfect Creator.

Some have gone further, arguing that God exists because of 'ethical requiredness'. This is strange reasoning since if there were absolutely nothing at all, no God, no spacetime, no matter, energy or laws of physics, nothing and nobody to require anything, how could there be ethical requiredness?

What is humanity's place in nature?

We are no longer centre stage. Our universe, probably one among innumerable others that exist or have existed in the multiverse, is thought to be c .13.7 billion years old and expanding at increasing speed. Our solar system is c .4.6 billion years old, a tiny part of our galaxy, the Milky Way. The Hubble Space Telescope has observed upward of 3,000 visible galaxies; estimates of the total number in our universe range as high as 500 billion. If one theory is correct, Mitochondrial Eve from whom we are all descended through the female line lived 150-250,000 years ago, probably in Africa. The last ice age ended about 11,500 years ago; 6,000 years later the 'first recognizable cities had emerged'. ( Encyclopedia Britannica ) The first pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, Thales ( c. 640- c .546 BCE), in that timescale our contemporary, said, 'Take Time by the forelock'. There's little time left; we're in deep trouble. Every passing day provides evidence we are not going to curb our energy use (we must maintain standards, use the car, fly on foreign holidays) sufficiently to avert catastrophe. Fortunately, scientific method, empirically based on observation, experiment and the conviction that there are no miracles, in the sense of irruptions from a supernatural realm, is an immensely powerful resource. It's a race between science and stupidity. Nor should we arrogantly consider ourselves the crown of creation. There may already be life forms in this or other universes far more advanced.

What are the consequences if there are no miracles?

There are no special revelations, no infallible scriptures or traditions, no miraculous cures, no certainties. We must be content with probabilities. Where does that leave Religion? Denying miracles is denying omnipotence, not the divine presence everywhere. In the absence of modern science, with its medical and other benefits, it has been an invaluable source of comfort and strength, and will for many continue to be. Its social role is important, particularly for minorities. But it has also been a thumb and a blanket, a crutch, and its placebo effect would be severely diminished without myth and ritual.

Miracles belong in the nursery of the past. Stories taken literally trivialize reality. What in Christianity appeals to all that is best in human nature? 'The Mother, the Child, and the bare manger: the lowly man, homeless and self-forgetful, with his message of peace, love, and sympathy: the suffering, the agony, the tender words as life ebbed, the final despair: and the whole with the authority of supreme victory' (Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas ).

Where truth should be paramount, religious affiliation is largely determined by accidents of birth and geography. Christians believe Jesus died to save us. Then we meet those of other faiths and realize that if our parents and those around us had been Buddhists we would probably believe in reincarnation...  Born in a different street in Belfast the Catholic might have been Protestant. Does not love of truth demand a radical rethink from shallow atheist and religious dogmatist alike?

Still the strongest force for good in the world, selfless dedication in the service of justice and love for the poor, the sick, the ignorant and the oppressed, religion also remains a bastion of prejudice, a cultural ghetto, pride's morally defiant backwater. What in educated people outside the religions would amount to inexcusable, wilful blindness can only be attributed to the mind-numbing power of traditional dogma. Violent, fanatical hatred? 'Religion makes nice people nicer and nasty people nastier.'

'As long as you pray to God and ask him for some benefit,' wrote Einstein to Szilard, 'you are not a religious man.' He felt Spinoza had come closest to expressing what he believed. Exceptionally lucid on Spinoza is Timothy Sprigge, Theories of Existence , 1985. A rare philosopher expert in cosmology, John Leslie draws on Plato and Spinoza. See Immortality Defended , 2007, with its suggestions for further reading; George F. R. Ellis, ed., The Far-Future Universe , 2000; Stuart Hampshire, Spinoza and Spinozism , 2005; Keith Ward, Pascal's Fire , 2006.

Spinoza was really a panentheist, panentheism ('All is in God') being arguably the sensible modern form of deism, pantheism, and theism, but many have given up on religion and metaphysics. Who can blame them? We no longer like Hamlet fear an afterlife. If there is one, it's a bonus. Our business is here, living the examined life while demonstrating that 'work is love made visible'. Peter Singer's outstanding How are we to live? makes the secular case, with illuminating examples, for a fulfilled unselfish lifestyle.

Death, Hope, and the Eternal's Life

When someone we have known and loved dies, grief can be overwhelming, but they have become so much part of us we never wholly lose them. Is it possible death is not the end? To paraphrase C. D. Broad, That we shall just have to wait and see or, as the case may be, not see. 

To return to the Eternal, also called the One:

  1. if the Eternal cannot control evolution, there will always be a crucial civil war at the psycho-social level, winnable by the good acting in concert; alternatively, the 'omnipotent' Designer-God built free will into creation, for without choice there is little that makes self-conscious life worth living, the 'collateral damage' being random mutations, the biological food chain, tsunamis, and human cruelty;
  2. if each fleeting temporal note sounds forever in eternity and is there harmonized, then, conscious of it or not, we may live in the Eternal memory;
  3. the Eternal deserves the title 'God' if suffering is shared voluntarily and love proves redemptive.

Time being a measure of change, eternal changeless perfection suggests a lifeless marble statue. The only immortality immune from becoming a hell of boredom would be fuller participation in the Eternal's life, in Christian symbolism, reigning thorn-crowned on the Tree. Could our lives be the dreams of God, an old surmise? Why all this love and loss, this weal and woe?/Only when dreams are over may we know. Though agnosticism is philosophically the default position, life demands engagement. C.S. Peirce's subjective 'Neglected Argument' for God is surprisingly powerful. Relaxed, let life wash over us. Hope is natural, healthy; no pessimist is entirely sane.

Spes mea in Deo. In God, nothing of value is ever lost. Seized by pity and wonder, we may, like Kierkegaard, choose 'passionate commitment in objective uncertainty'.

[Other parts: • part 1part 2part 3part 4part 5]

Patrick Lewin was convenor and chair of a philosophical society and is a Modern Church council member.