22 March 2011

Defining God

Sean Carroll at Cosmic Variance, in an essay entitled "Does the Universe Need God?", highlights a definition of God and picks at it:

[T]he God hypothesis seems simple and precise – an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent being. (There are other definitions, but they are usually comparably terse.)

In the comments, I suggest an alternative definition, and restate (with edits and some expansion) here:

Definitionally, a definition of God as "an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent being" while traditional (was it Aquinas that made it a standard?), isn't a very good operational definition of how we separate religious and non-religious thinking. It is a poor fit to polythesism, animism, or many Eastern religious concepts like Tao and Kharma.

More useful as an operational definition of that which is divine would be "some being or power that acts with moral purpose or an agenda for human events, in the lives of humans, that is not human, a human creation, or an ordinary animal." One can worry the "ordinary" part of animal a bit, but the notion is to exclude the moral acts of gorillas and dolphins and dogs and cats and the like, without necessarily ruling out the like of angels, demons, jinn, ghosts, Gaia, and so on. Charlotte of Charlotte's Web is perhaps a gray area in this definition -- she being no ordinary spider.

Under this operational definition, the deist conception of a Newtonian clockmaker God, reimagined as something setting the Big Bang in motion and fixing the laws of nature, without more, would not constitute God, even if it were done by some gray haired titan surrounded by an Army of angels. This operational definition also excludes a truly pure version of a scorekeeper God, one who rewards and punishes us solely in the afterlife, but unlike the Abrahamic Gods, does not tell anyone what the rules by which God keeps score happen to be.

On the other hand, it would include the Star Wars saga's mitcholorians, or some supernatural ancient astronauts who brought humanity to a next stage of consciousness and influenced our evolution, even if these being themselves have an evolutionary history of their own (a la Arthus C. Clark's "2001"). It also permits gods of less than infinite power who are not "omnipotent" or "omniscient" (such as the Greek pantheon, and even the Judeo-Christian God in Genesis who sometimes lacks knowledge of what the humans are up to until he pays attention and discovers their acts), cruel gods who are not "omnibenevolent" (e.g. Satan or the Zoroastrian force of evil), or divine forces who seek balance rather than good (e.g. Taoist conceptions of the divine), or minor divinities like fairies, who may be neither actively good nor bad, but simply like to screw with us to see what happens (a bit like the relationship of scientists and lab rats from the rat's persecptive).

Gods that people care about, fear, love and worship, the kind that act with moral purpose or an agenda for human events of their own, might very well be entirely separate and unrelated to gods that establish laws of the universe. They also give a very real meaning to the notion of playing God, either by changing the ammoral course of nature, or by intervening in human affairs of people in general from some position of power with some sort of agenda in ways that change their lives.

Under this conception of God, we can reason directly that none of the known inviolate laws of nature have any apparent moral purpose or agenda for human events, at least on their face. They may, as an anthropomorphic principle does, include a purpose that makes it possible for human beings to exist, but the have no preference for good or evil or anything else we do in human affairs; they are nihilist.

Thus, for this conception of the divine, we must assume that God is a "god of the gaps" who is very shy and acts only through an exquisitely balanced manipulation of random quantum events, and that such a god would be particularly invisible in quantum events measured in laboratories or observations of distant stars, because in such events outcomes have no moral purpose or agenda for human events for God to implement. This kind of divinity looks more like a morally purposive fate ("cruel fate"), like kharma, like a luck in a sense that has favorites rather than being truly random.

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