Does God exist?

The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymous Bosch

I

Hundreds of years ago in the Western world the question, "Does God exist?" would have been met with pity and confusion; today, the question, "Does the world exist?" would be met with precisely the same kind of pity and confusion, meant to express a self-evident "Yes, of course." In the increasingly-secular Western world of the year 2021 A.D. the question of God's existence will get stuck in the throat of many university-credentialed1, scientifically-oriented atheists and agnostics. The answer, to them, is a self-evident, "No, of course." So, evidently, much has changed. It's outside the scope of this essay to investigate the causal factors that have led the Western world to this way of thinking, but it's nevertheless important to state in the strongest possible terms, "Yes, God exists" and to take it once more as self-evident.

Much of this line of reasoning hinges on a re-integration of the subjective experience, so excuse me for invoking the first-person. I am a university-credentialed thirty-something living in the United States. While my upbringing was religious (I was baptized in the Eastern Orthodox Church of my father) it was also religiously fragmented (my mother is a non-denominational Christian) which left plenty of room for religious doubt. A simple young man faced with such a situation will use common-sense to mitigate any perceived dissonance with some variation of the idea: "clearly my parents are captured by hokey religions, but because we still agree on the nature of the objective world, we can take that as 'reality' and let the rest slide." Many such young men will grow old and die with that same idea tenuously holding together the furthest reaches of their conscious understanding; others will, in a moment of Gestalt, notice that a substantial amount of dissonance2 must be embraced and integrated into the great harmonic structure of our lives, lest we accidentally let the meaning of everything slide.

Listen closely to the field of sounds occurring to you at this moment. Feel the pressure of your feet on the ground, or your back on a chair. Notice your own mood, and how it casts shadow and light over your experience. It's possible you've grown unfamiliar with this world. If that is the case, allow me to re-introduce you to your own subjective experience. Here is the field of sensation and emotion, of pain and pleasure, and of grave suffering and profound meaning. Here, also, is the only medium you have for perceiving the objective world. That is, notice that you have never once experienced the material world through any other medium than your subjective experience: touch, sight, sound, smell and taste. To understand what follows, we must acknowledge that subjective experience is, in the deepest possible sense, "real," and not a mere epiphenomenon following from some physical arrangement of matter. Staunch materialists will of course bristle at this suggestion, but anyone who has experienced suffering should admit that the most salient way to understand it is not as some obtuse material collection of neuronal activity, but as the profound subjective experience itself.

So, does God exist? Even atheists must admit (in fact, it is core to their own philosophy to admit) that the vast majority of people throughout history have had religious experiences, many characterized by similarly-described phenomena, and have confidently expressed belief in the existence some form of God.3 Thus it is self-evident that God exists in precisely the same way that it is self-evident that the objective world exists: humanity directly and manifestly experiences it, and that is what matters.4

Of course, even after accepting this understanding, one can still choose to live a life of dedicated atheism. But such a person should then also realize that music does not "actually exist" either: transcriptions of musical notation on staves is no more music than a collection of ink on paper is a story; an arrangement of compressions and rarefactions in air is no more music than particles of light bouncing off a wall is a motion picture. Music only meaningfully exists in the subjective experiences of the musicians and audience members, who demonstrate that the experience is shared by their ability to play and sing and dance in harmony. So the atheist can claim that God does not exist: fine. He can also burn the violins, mute the pianos, turn off the film projectors, tell his children (if he even cares to have them) no bedtime stories, and go to the grave satisfied that he has understood the "real" world. But if he experiences even an ounce of suffering on that journey, he will have to look over his shoulder at those who know God exists and wonder: am I wrong? Or else he will rationalize away even that while the rest of us play and sing and dance.

II

For those yet-unconvinced readers, I expect this will have been an unsatisfying conclusion, verging on circularity. Although I would, again, encourage such a reader to thoroughly and precisely examine the similarity between, "proving the existence of God," and, "proving the existence of the material world," the skeptical perspective is nevertheless appreciated. And so I'd like to offer some common objections and responses in the hope that they might settle the skeptical conscience.

If this account is to be taken seriously, then the beliefs of cults and lunatics are also real. We should all agree that the Flying Spaghetti Monster does not exist, so this thesis does not stand up to scrutiny.

This line of reasoning interprets the meanings of the words "real" and "exist" in a profoundly useless way. In a purely objective sense, the Flying Spaghetti Monster does not exist and neither does the Christian-God-as-bearded-man-in-the-sky. Instead, imagine a piece of music. Does it exist? If so, in what sense does it exist? (And if not, then why can we all share the experience of music together?) A materialist could uselessly point to the musical notation or the compressions and rarefactions of the air as the place where music exists while missing the point that the music only meaningfully exists in the subjective experiences of the players and the listeners. That is the only place where ideas can exist, after all.

So we should understand the beliefs of cults and lunatics as pathologically terrible music, which nevertheless manages to attract a small and fervent listenership. Such behavior by a small portion of the population should not come as a surprise to anyone, and while it's tragic that some people will be captured by bad ideas in this way, it's not meaningful to critique such behavior on the grounds of the material reality or irreality of the purported belief.

Distinguishing between illegitimate cult beliefs and legitimate religious beliefs requires a value claim: one is somehow "better" than another. It's simpler to just reject all immaterial beliefs categorically.

True, it is simpler, but it misses the entire point. Again, we can make a helpful musical analogy. It can be difficult to claim that some music is better that other music, but it shouldn't be hard to claim that My Pal Foot Foot is self-evidently a terrible song, even though some people continue to listen to it to this day. So cult beliefs can and should be judged as illegitimate (and possibly harmful) to the extent that people can do so by leveraging subjective experience, aesthetic taste, and, occasionally, reason. This process is, by definition, not objective (it is subjective) and thus relies on strong claims by persons who have not divorced themselves from the world. In other words, it is not scientific; but it is also not relativistic because it organizes the world according to a trascendent hierarchy, putting some experiences, ideas, and truths above others. Furthermore, it is not solipsistic because there is broad and even cross-cultural coalescing around truths that have been independently discovered (e.g. the existence of higher power; the sanctity of the individual; the efficacy of prayer and meditation; the possibility of life-after-death). Whereas a relativistic, solipsistic world would manifest like billions of little non-hierarchical orthogonal cults, our world manifests as a handful of extremely large, widely-adopted, and suprisingly-overlapping hierarchical traditions.

Claiming that the world is not relativistic and not solipsistic, and yet requires subjectivity to make value judgments, still does not seem to produce a straightforward deterministic system for determining which God is the true God.

True, in this world there is no determinism. That is uncomfortable if you wish to be a computer, but shouldn't be if you agree that you are a human. Returning to the musical analogy, we can apply this sentiment to making comparisons and value judgments about Western classical music and Indian classical music. Perhaps one connects you to a transcendent feeling that the other does not. Or perhaps you recognize a familiar transcendence in one, but a foreign transcendence in the other. In any case, it is more-or-less factually true that millions of people regard each as transcendent, and a great many regard both in that way, and can agree upon the nature of the transcendent experience available to the musicians and the audience. Returning, then, to the question of God, we can apply this style of thinking to Christianity and Buddhism, or Protestantism and Catholicism. And while this is all very interesting, it does pull us slightly outside scope of this essay because, in a sense, it means that we already agree that God exists, but we don't agree on the nature of God.

Notes

  1. "university-credentialed" is the term of choice (à la Eric Weinstein) rather than "university-educated" because "educated" misleads the reader into believing universities are functioning properly.
  2. "dissonance" in this context should be understood musically as some combination of the melodies and harmonies of conscious experience, which can ring beautifully or clash violently; can consist of the simplest triads or the most complex chords; can trickle softly and slowly or grow into a riotous tempest. In the case of my parents' religions, two distinct melodies clashed because I couldn't hear the underlying harmony that unified them, and so I muted the channel. But a great composer can demonstrate that there is often unity to be found. The question is where and how to find it.
  3. Religious Landscape Study, Pew Research Center
  4. Another way of understanding this, to reference a philosophical term, would be to say that there is no evidence that the experience of the objective world and the experience of God should be separated (and the latter subjugated) as they exist in the same lifeworld, as described by Husserl.