Tuesday, 11 December 2007

An Alternative Explanation

Courtesy of the Enlightenment and the progress of scientific discovery, humanity has developed the fine art of identifying an alternative explanation for phenomena. To sound like a cliche, we can compare the weather. Early in history we humans have attributed this to deities, whereas today we understand the scientific relations behind weather phenomena. Ergo, we don't need deities for weather.

Eventually someone will ask whether we need deities at all. If we can explain Phenomenon A without resorting to a deity, can we not do the same to Phenomena B, C and so on? This might sound like a trivial question, but I think it has some complexity to it.

For some people, the answer is a clear, "Yes. The gods are no longer required. All mysteries of the universe will eventually be solved by science. Anything you may have heard about God is false, because it is based on an assumption that has some alternative explanation."

For others, the answer is closer to, "No. Merely identifying that one effect has a different cause to the one first posited is insufficient to conclude that the cause doesn't even exist at all." In other words, although we can demonstrate an alternative explanation for the weather, that doesn't mean God is not real, only that God is not necessarily the one that causes the weather.

A variant on this is, "No. Even though natural phenomena can be correlated to scientific principles, we must still ask about the origins of these scientific principles and laws. Who decided that the four fundamental laws of the universe must operate in the way that they do? Clearly, God set the universe in motion and we now reap the benefits of that."

All of these responses, and others like them, fall into a common trap in thinking about God. They are all assuming that the role of God is something to do with the fundamental laws of the universe. Is that really what God is about? Can we simply reduce God to a divine watch-maker? I think that we cannot. It is far too reductive a claim.

So if we take the Creator property away from God, what we have left is even more contentious. Some would feel that it is only by divine might that God has divine right to hand out morality to creation. The fault in this comes from spending too much time considering the prohibitions of law. A prohibition has a strange effect on human psyche: it is unravelled as a command. "You shall not covet" is manifest in the human will as "You shall covet." Prohibiting a behaviour does little more than encourage that behaviour. Also, along with the prohibition is the punishment. "You shall not covet, otherwise I will punish you," connects the command to might. Failure to comply will result in some negative consequence, however, being exposed to the law itself will result only in breaking the law (see above).

So, if God has nothing to do with the forces of creation, and has nothing to do with the end of the universe, where is God's right? Why should I listen to a God who didn't even create the universe? As a child I understood that I had to listen to the morality from my parents. They created me. They were stronger than me. Their might made them right. But if God does not have might in that sense, where is God's right?

The alternative explanations for natural phenomena have thrown a spanner in the works. Humanity's previous reasons for accepting the commands of mystics, prophets and priests are collapsing with each new journal article. It is from this very alternative that doubt arises. If I can explain natural phenomena without God, is God even real? More importantly, if God has nothing to do with natural phenomena, why should I follow the morality of God? And if I do follow God's morality, how do I discern this morality? If God were in the business of rewarding righteousness and punishing wickedness then the task would be easy. However, we see that there appears to be no statistical correlation between the good and the prosperous.

The question is really one of authority. What authority should I attribute to a text (e.g., a letter, an historiography, a poem)? How about a person or an institution or a tradition? When we reduce it to these levels, authority is revealed as arbitrary. Whatever it is that I declare to have authority, has authority. Authority is a victim of relativism. In the absence of terrible power, authority is arbitrary (and in the presence of terrible power, authority is imposed).

So let us expel authority from the search for truth. And what is left? Emptiness. A space devoid of imposing might and forceful power. It is the remainder after all ideologies are removed, after all institutions are dismantled. It is the remainder of all structures. There, in this space that defies the rest, is where it will be found. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world - of any world - and it seems we will find truth.
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