How a personal God exists for this scientist 2018.0104 DRAFT
How a skeptical hard scientist found his way to God without dividing or hiding the world.
When I was young and miserable half a century ago I longed for the joy reported by people who had “found God”, but the required leaps of faith and belief formed for me an impenetrable obstacle. Here briefly is how I made my way past that obstacle.
I was by nature and upbringing a skeptical hard scientist, the sort who knows how to make an unbiased measurement, frame an equation, and design a controlled experiment. In those early days most people who professed a relationship to or with God seemed to me at worst superstitious mob-dwellers, and at best a bit soft in the head. Nevertheless music, architecture, poetry, and noble actions inspired by love of God reliably filled me with a sense of numinous beauty. However, it was a beauty that filtered to me as if through glass. I felt that I could not love or serve God myself without first answering Yes! to the question Does God exist?
Ironically, the first defect in the great obstacle, the crack that later widened to a robust fear and love of God, arose from doubt (perhaps more accurately from unbiased and thorough inquiry). The fissure in the obstacle appeared in a college course on epistemology, the study of how we know.
In the epistemology course I discovered to my shock that I could not prove that anyone existed. All I could ever see of other people was the behavior of their bodies: I had no way of proving that a mind or being caused that behavior. My conviction that other beings existed apparently rested wholly on the evidence of my senses: I could not tell that a human being existed on the far side of a concrete wall without some evidence from my eyes, ears, and other senses. Yet in the end all my senses could provide was superficial sensation, and never direct evidence of another being’s existence.
The problem did not end with the existence of other human beings: Even when I examined myself inwardly all I could make out were fleeting sensations, thoughts, feelings, and so on, with no actual “being” anywhere to be seen. Even if I had found an inner being there was no way I could demonstrate the fact to others—I could only move my body in a vain attempt to communicate—and in any case if mine were the only being I could see directly then I could not know that what I saw was properly a “being” when I had nothing to compare it with. (This epistemological result confirms the anatta, or no-abiding-self, of Buddhism.)
I was further horrified to discover that I could not prove that Earth would continue to support my next steps or that the Sun would rise in the morning: All I could know was that up to that moment the Earth had supported steps, and that the Sun had risen as if in a manner fixed by law. However, I had no way of proving that the laws and regularities of the universe could not change in an instant.
These discoveries were deeply disturbing to the young hard-headed scientist I was in those days. It was only years later that I noticed that epistemology’s rude awakening also opened a path to beauty.
Why did the lessons of epistemology shock me so? They shocked me for exactly the reason that most people dismiss the lessons as a silly waste of time: The instincts that others exist, that one’s self exists, and that the Sun will rise tomorrow are so strong that they pose as incontrovertible facts. In fact, so strong is the instinct that a child is a being who exists, and that a train bearing down on that child will not cease to exist in an instant, that many parents will gladly sacrifice their own lives in order to pull the child to safety.
Right there was the key to my freedom: If love for a child cannot depend on proof of the child’s existence as a being, then why must love for God depend on such a proof? Epistemology taught me that my belief that a child was a lovable being was purely a matter of instinct, and that I was completely free to love God on the same terms, as a simple matter of instinct. Not everyone shares the instinct that a human is a being: Psychopathic behavior suggests as much. In the same way not everyone shares the instinct to fear, love, and serve all existence as being—as God—but for those with the instinct the way is clear and free of violence to intellect.
Epistemology even showed my way to faith, which is remarkable for a hard-headed scientist. I saw that even the simplest scientific experiment, observation or theory depended on the baseless assumption—the faith—that the future would continue to behave sufficiently like the past to allow for the possibility of natural law. Such an assumption was a leap of faith on the face of it. Thus the question was not whether as a scientist I had faith, but rather what were its bounds.
I passed through the window into the warmer world of God and faith. The question was no longer Does God exist? but rather, since I had the instinct, what effort was I willing to put into the relationship—the effort any healthy relationship demands.
In many respects the fresh world resembles the one I left on the desolate side of the glass. I did find a paradise of endless joy, but it is a joy tempered by pain, and more significantly by empathy for suffering people. Those are subjects for another day. In the meantime I hope these words have helped you and that you may be as fortunate as I have been.