Thursday, March 02, 2006


The question Why? carries with it an intentional aspect, a presupposition of deliberate choice. We are asking, not for a cause, but for a reason--and a reason assumes motivation and an actor. Consider, for example, the question, "Why is this shirt on the porch?" It may be that the shirt is on the porch because someone dropped it there, in which case the question is well phrased. But what if the answer is "It blew there from the clothes line." In this case, the why is answered with a how, a naturalistic description of how the shirt was carried from the clothes line to the porch, with no conscious agent involved. This satisfies the original question; there is no why, it just happened to land there. There is, in fact, no answer to the question why, only to the question how. Pure blind causality supplants the assumption of intentional volition, and the answer changes the nature of the question itself.

In a debate between Daniel Dennett and Richard Swinburne, Swinburne's arguments for the existence of God fall under this Why? model. Within the question itself is an assumption of intentional volition, to which the answer is that the assumed agent is none other than God. By insisting upon an answer to why, Swinburne guarantees his own answer. But if the reality of the universe is of an n-dimensional solid composed of all possible states, then the state in which life exists, particularly human life, is simply one of the possibilities encompassed by the sum of possibilities--highly unlikely to the whole, but likely in part. We are the lucky benefactors of a local state of being, which is by no means the rule for the entirety. The why is answered with a simple how.

Taking Swinburne's tack, I feel obligated to ask, if it was God's intention to create intelligent human life, than what is all the rest of it for? Even assuming that the laws of our locale are adhered to by the entirety of reality, don't you think that God might have come up with a more efficient means of achieving sentient life? Our own solar system is comprised of nine (or apparently, ten) planets, only one of which supports life. If it were God's intention to create sentient life, why are the rest apparently dead? Why is the EM band not crowded by the boisterous chatter of a host of Martians, Venusians, Uranians, Jupiterians, etc? And why, with all the efforts of the Seti program, have we yet to discover a promising candidate for intelligent life? I'm not saying that it isn't out there, but shouldn't it be, well, more prominent? I would dearly love to have a conversation with the Vorlons, the Minbari, the Vulcans, the Wookies, and all the rest. Where are they?

Compound this with the fact that our planet has been around for billions of years, but hasn't produced intelligent life till the last million, of which all but the last century has offered a life which is nasty, short, and brutish for nearly every human being on the planet. And according to many of Swinburnes co-religionists, God is planning to call it all quits at any minute, rapture up the handful of the faithful, and throw the rest into a flaming pit. All those billions of years, all of those trillions of stars, all that space, just so that the Almighty could gather to himself a handful of syncophants. Hardly seems worth the trouble, if you ask me. And why does a Being so Great crave the adoration of some great apes from the unfashionable arm of a rather low-rent galaxy? Another mystery, I suppose.

And now we come to another of Swinburne's arguments: that assuming an intelligent creator is a simpler premise than the naturalistic alternatives. Given that it took all of this infrastructure just to get a few billion moderately intelligent and generally benign humans to appear on one planet, how is it simpler to assume the existence of an infinitely intelligent and good entity? Where did God come from? The answer is usually that God has always existed, but since Swinburne finds it highly suspicious that particles all follow the same rules across most of space and time, how likely is it that an entity as complex as God would never change? It's no good to say that God is above time, because apparently he intervenes occasionally, which situates Him as an actor in time. It is precisely this temporal existence of the divine that believers crave--a God above time is not interactive. Indeed, an entity above time and space would be so utterly alien as to be completely orthogonal to all human hopes and wishes, ruling the universe by an incomprehensible aesthetic more conducive to blind terror than comfort and hope. Modern theological versions of God are completely at odds with the chummier Man with the White Beard of ancient and medieval conception. The imposition of God as final cause raises the level of complexity of the explanation by exponential orders of magnitude.

Personally, I can imagine a universe in which teaming trillions of sentient beings of every description inhabit planets of all kinds, and ply the space in between with great ships, of cultures with pedigrees that stretch back millions or even billions of years, with means to pierce the mundane dimensions and create entirely new realities, and with the ability to transform themselves from matter to energy to pure information, enabling means of exploration and expression which not only beggar the imagination, but the limits of physical reality itself. I can think of this. Why didn't God?

If God is a being to which all superlatives are extended to an infinite degree, why did He build the zenith of his creation out of spare monkey parts? I have back pains, clogged sinuses, eyes with a blind spot, and all human females undergo tremendous duress during birth because we have a reproductive system built for quadrupeds with small heads. What was He thinking? Did he really build the world in seven days, or did he do a caffeinated all nighter, with our genetic code bearing encrypted comments like "This is a shameless hack... Not very happy about this... FIX ME!!!"

What I find most disappointed about religion is the insistence that I should worship a God who apparently isn't even as smart as I am. And I'm not saying that I'm the sharpest crayon in the box here--in fact, for the all-knowing and all-seeing, outwitting me should be a cake-walk. But apparently, God isn't much brighter than the average believer, or any other person who isn't reasonably well acquainted with the flaws in human physiology or aware of the scale of the universe and our relative insignificance in it. It's almost like they imagined a God just like them... hmmmm...

But never mind the scientific inconsistencies. The theistic explanation of the universe is hymn to human pride. Imagine, all this just for us. I'm reminded of Zaphod Beeblebrox, emerging from the Total Perspective Vortex unscathed, because after all, the universe he was in was created just for him. As the narrator at the end of that episode asked, "Is it really true that Zaphod Beeblebrox has an ego the size of the universe?" Well, apparently the faithful do.

There was something in religion about pride being a bad thing. What was that? Ah, well, couldn't have been very important. After all, the people who belong to all those religions have forgotten it.