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What Else Might We Term 'God'?

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This 2 million-year-old giant star cluster contains some of our galaxy's hottest, brightest and most massive stars.
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In her contributions last week to 13.7, guest blogger and author Nancy Ellen Abrams proposed what she calls a new way to define the word "God." You can read the posts here and here.

It isn't that she is in the least uncertain about the conventional meaning of that word. After all, she is quite clear that she believes there is no God — that is, there is no omnipotent being who created the universe, who governs everything that happens by will alone and who has the power to change the laws of nature. According to Abrams, author of A God That Could Be Real, science rules out the possibility that God exists.

The nonexistence of God — and her own view that science tells us that there is no God — notwithstanding, she insists it is a bad thing for scientists to tell the public that they need to choose between science and God. For, she says, "most people will choose God, which leads to denialism, hostility to science and the profoundly dangerous mental incoherence in modern society that fosters depression and conflict."

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One thing I object to in this thought is the assumption that science is somehow in the business of asking people to choose between science and God. God simply doesn't enter into the work of science. You'll be hard pressed to find a physics abstract that mentions God — for or against. And, anyway, as a manner of historical record, many scientists have at least avowed a belief in God.

And can we take seriously the suggestion that the opposition of science and religion, such as it is, is the cause of mental illness?

But there is a further point: Abrams would seem to suggest that what is at stake here is something like a PR campaign. She stipulates that there is no God, and then she adds that you'd better not say that to the people because they'll turn against you if you do. If you want to win hearts and minds, let's stick to God.

Abrams goes on in her articles to ask: Granted that there is no God — as the word is usually intended — is there something else, something that does exist, that's worthy of that appellation?

What a strange question. If she's asking about mere words, then it's hard to see how worthiness comes into it. We can arbitrarily define words any old way we like. But if it's not just a matter of words, then a question about whether something deserves to be called "God," it seems to me, can only be understood as a question about whether anything is God. Just as a question about whether something deserves to be called "red" is tantamount to the question of whether something is red.

So, according to Abrams, let's ask what exists that deserves to be referred to by the name "God." I'm not sure I exactly get it from her 13.7 posts, but the basic idea seems to go like this: People don't merely want and need, they also aspire. Lots of people aspiring together, just like lots of ants following pheromone trails together, must give rise to complicated "emergent" phenomena. She writes:

"Something new has to have emerged from the staggering complexity of all humanity's aspirations, interacting. What is that something — that emergent phenomenon both fed by and feeding the aspirations of every human being? It didn't exist before humans evolved, but it's here now, and every one of us is directly connected to it, simply by virtue of being human and having aspirations."

And this something, "this infinitely complex phenomenon," is what she proposes we dub "God." The great thing about it, as she insists, is that it is real — it's "infinitely complex," yes, but "as real as the economy, as real as the government."

Well, I'm not at all sure what phenomenon it is that she thinks just has to have emerged. Human life and culture?

What do we gain (a leg up in the religion wars?) by calling that God?


Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe