So what can the analogy offer us?
There is, and long has been, a field of study and engagement called “apologetics.” In the course of this series I’ve taken some of the arguments used in this field and applied the analogy to them, as a way of understanding them. Now we apply the analogy to the field itself, albeit briefly.
Indeed, only to say one thing: Apologetics, properly, is a defense of faith in God (or of any idea one might wish to defend). But it is not a defense of God.
Consider a story our author is writing, and one of her characters – call him Tom – becomes aware of the author’s existence. This would make for a curious story, one with potential and pitfalls; never mind the literature. Now that Tom is aware of the author’s existence, and her unbelievable power, and her extraordinary good will toward her characters, he is compelled to share the good news with others.
It should not surprise us to find, however, that some of these others are not convinced, and in fact they offer thoughtful reasons why they do not believe there is an author (or if there is, why it does not matter). Among these reasons, they even doubt whether the author could possibly be good, given some of the terrible things that have happened in the story.
Whether or not there is a God, clearly, in our illustration, there IS an author. That being the case, what should Tom’s objective be? Must he prove the author exists?
This, of course, is quite a curious thought. Let’s answer: Of course not. The truth – THE truth – is that there is an author. Of course the author exists; the failure of an argument to produce complete certainty does not challenge the existence of an author.
Considering that, consider this: What argument could Tom offer to the skeptics? Wouldn’t there always be some way to doubt his arguments? If they were radical skeptics – as many new atheists are – could the author do *anything* which would convince them of her existence? I daresay, no. But this is the foolishness of cynicism.
Moreover, to those who would say the author is not good, what ought Tom to say? There is no need to prove that the author is good. The author must be good; if she is not, then nothing is good, and the objection makes no sense.
So what defense is needed? It is to defend the belief that the author is good. It is to show the belief to be preferable to competing beliefs, to rebut criticisms and objections.
And what if Tom cannot convince a single other person? Is he, then, the illogical one?
Of course not. It would seem to be a flaw in the thinking of these others that they cannot believe like Tom does, since we know he is telling the truth.
Now, apart from appeals to a non-believer, what can a believer profit from this point?
We see, first of all, that there is a kind of special light by which we come to know God. That is, to know that God exists (to know an author exists) does not require special knowledge – it can be arrived at by reason. To know Who God is, to know what He is like, requires something for which reason is only a servant – that is, faith.
How else would we come to know God, enter into a relationship with Him, and love Him? Indeed, how else to know the ways, and the height, depth, and breadth of His love?
For the cynic, in a sense, is correct – there is no scientific way to prove that my prayers for safety, or courage, or understanding, have been answered. Science, though, is not in any position to offer this confirmation. Its silence is not a damning one – it’s a dumb one.*
The rebuttal is simple, because it exposes the emptiness of cynicism: How do you know anyone loves you? If you are married, how do you know your spouse loves you?
Of course, one could cast doubt on any answer you might give. So she has made a lifelong commitment? Big deal – that is probably to her advantage in some way, she will get to satisfy her goals; besides, you can’t prove it will be lifelong. So he sends you flowers? Again, this is no sure sign of love (the cynic wants to say) – after all, doesn’t he want something in return? If not, isn’t it at least to his benefit, to the sense of peace he has in his life, to keep you happy? And how do you know he’s not just keeping your attention off this other thing he’s doing, which he knows you would disapprove of…
Here, even a liberal and a conservative can get together in defiance of the cynic – we do, in fact, know love when we see it. Science is not the proper love-detecting tool. A person is.
In a like way, this is how we can know God loves us. Prayers are answered. We can see it. Let the cynic cast his doubts; you don’t have to bite.
Faith is what permits a person to see what God is up to. It is the thing that has opened Tom’s mind – for, why was he looking for an author in the first place? How could he arise from his story consciousness, and become conscious of a greater reality? It is a leap past what we can completely understand, but it is not unintelligible.
The beauty of faith is that, so long as it is sincere, it takes very little to see what God is up to. The cynic will never see it – by his own volition. (How good is God that He lets the cynic have what he wants?) But let the cynic quit his miserly insistence on pure materialism and the impoverished deliverances of mere scientism, and all the world opens up to him. Thus do the meek inherit the earth.
*I know at least one cynic who wants to say that science/reason would positively rule this out, but this cannot be done without begging the question, or ill-defining the terms, or – as I say – using a tool not fitted to the task.
The usual charge, against which we want to consider the existence of God, is that if the arguments for God’s existence were, at any point, all shown to fail, then belief in the existence of God would (should) also fail.
This charge requires a lot from the believer, because it is meant to suppose that if logic should cease to be logic, then we should be logical (who knows under which definition) and cease our belief in God. Let me put the charge in an overly simplistic way.
If it can be shown that 4 + 5 = 10, and not 9, then we should all change our answers to that question from now on. And not only to that question, but to every question which depends on that answer, and again, to every question which operates by the same mechanics.
In a word, we must question all calculations pursuant to the previously believed 4+5 = 9, and addition itself (how did we make that mistake before? Have we been making it in more than one place?), and subtraction (is 9-5 no longer equal to 4?), division, multiplication..all of mathematics…and perhaps some logical assumptions besides.
But of course, 4 + 5 will never equal 10. No amount of special pleading, or question-begging, or emotional appeal could ever change the answer, even if you wanted to sue me for it.
Now, the objection will be that the conclusion “God exists” is never as obvious as “9” is for the arithmetic above. And that’s the start of another conversation.
As for this conversation, for the believer, it is about that obvious. My contention in the last post is that logic is not central to one’s belief in God; that logic, in its academic forms, is not necessary for faith.* Rather, the logical arguments for God are a kind of refuge or platform in a certain context, or an exercise in the breadth and depth of one’s mind, or even a devotional activity of those inclined to love Him with all their minds.
On the other hand, I have never bothered about the logical structure of my experiences with God in any academic sense. I have tried to understand them, yes, and that with a gasping desperation. In that case, however, I am more an adventurer than a thinker, more a disciple than a student.**
Those experiences seem to supersede human rationality. For example, to feel you are in the presence of God is not something arrived at deductively, and so we are not afforded logical certainty. It is, instead, something received, not arrived at. If someone brings you a gift, you do not trouble with the logical certainty that the gift exists, nor with the existence of the gift-giver. You simply receive it, and perhaps try to understand inasmuch as it helps you to appreciate the gift.
Indeed, it is tempting to have these rationalizations, to understand completely. For skeptical minds, this gives us something to sink our teeth into. Yet, it is important that the experience retains this flavor of being ultimately indescribable, or else, we are limited to what we can understand. (This, really, is the downfall of skepticism, and to persist is to be a cynic).
It is better if we take the logic and the poetry together, a balanced meal of spiritual sustenance comforting to the soul. We want the chicken with the breading, the salt with the asparagus. This is what the analogy has offered me – it brings together a full meal, one I am still preparing, and often eating. It seems like elven bread to me, the least nibble filling my stomach, nourishing me for days; better, it is like a multiplication of loaves and fishes.
I don’t promise it will do the same for everyone; this is not a sales pitch. But if you are heavy on heart, and hungry for the meat of logic, you might find your protein here. If your mind is weighed down with the complexities of argument, the leaven of a fanciful notion can lighten your spirits.
*Don’t forget the posts on Plantinga for a detailed reflection on this.
**This, of course, is not an unreasoning position, but simply an organic one, a less technical way of reasoning.
This series of posts on the existence of God is something of an extended thought experiment on my part. Several years ago, while walking along a one-lane country road under a thousand stars, I took up a mental exercise. My goal was to come up with a good answer to the riddle, “If God is all-powerful, can He create a rock so big that He can’t lift it?” without consulting any other thinkers.
I had an intuition that the question just didn’t make sense, that there was either confusion or misdirection involved. But I couldn’t readily see how it was confused; I wasn’t prepared to articulate a response.
As I turned the question over a few times, I reflexively looked up (this is how I remember the stars, and a hint of a cloud in the hazy gray on dark blue). Now, obviously God is not “up there” – but I knew that. Looking up is more of a posture – like kneeling – for the sake of the human being, rather than an attempt to locate God. Looking up demonstrates with the body what is happening with the soul.
But that was the spark – “God is not up there,” I thought, “as though He had a body.”
Now that is interesting. If God does not have a body, how would He go about building and lifting rocks?
So there was this gap between the spiritual and the physical, and I did not know the way across. I pondered that for a while.
Then I thought of an author and her story. I don’t know whether there was any step between my question and the answer, or if there was, whether it would make any sense to apply language to it. There is a common understanding that the mind works without “showing its work” – indeed, showing one’s work can be very tedious. Or, most people are familiar with the phenomenon of working through a thought process so fast, it almost seems instantaneous. Of course it’s not, but it is much faster than trying to lay it out one step at a time in clear language.
Anyway, once that thought struck me, the riddle fell apart. Of course an author can move things in her story without having a body within the story. She can really do anything in her story, she really is, indeed, all-powerful. (My larger response to the riddle is in the linked post).
I looked up again, and the sky was new. Rather, not completely new (this was not a vision), but it somehow stirred.
No, God was not up there, and even if I could touch the sky, I would still not be touching God. Yet, He was immanent. It was His sky, and He was sustaining it in existence, even at that moment. That was the “nearness” to God that I felt.
It could be mistaken with a vision because some of the scales had fallen from my eyes – I saw something I hadn’t seen before. But for those who are more sensitive to God – the purer in heart, perhaps – this is just an ordinary way of seeing. God is always “in the sky.”
That glimpse, that narrow opening, has been a marvelous gift. We have seen how it can aid in understanding what God is like, and some of the current arguments for God’s existence. Of course, in my life, the intellect is bound up with the spirit, and again with the heart. Thinking about God’s omnipotence inspires awe, as well as a certain pride, as a child is proud of his strong father. Likewise, I don’t want to believe a falsehood, no more than your everyday skeptic, and so the logical validity of arguments for God’s existence give a kind of assurance which – contra the usual charge – does not stand on its own, but is simply supplemental. I’d like to explain that further, and perhaps the next post is a good place for that.
We left off noting that there is a seeming conflict between God’s omniscience and human free will. By the end, we noted that mere knowing, as we know past events, would not challenge the free will of those people involved in the events. But what about knowing future events? How does such knowledge interact with free will?
Now, on the one hand, the following is a common view about future events: That is, if I could somehow know exactly what you were going to do tomorrow, down to the finest details and based on my present capacities, the only natural way I could know this is if you were a determined creature, if you did not really have free will. Call this Statement A.
There are two assumptions here, and one is hidden.
The clear assumption is that I could know all of the pertinent information about the Universe so as to predict (exactly) what you will do tomorrow. But there just is no way of having all of this information (head nod to quantum uncertainty).
Let’s think about it a step further before considering the hidden assumption. Namely, I present Statement A, above, both as the only conceivable way I could (as a mere human being) know your actions in the future, and as a regular statement of the case on the part of determinists. In other words, they would say that if we just could know everything – like, everything – we could predict exactly what you will do in the future. We could predict, in fact, with sufficient processing power, the remaining history of the Universe. In that case, it’s not so much a prediction as a reading forward of history, rather than our usual reading backward. It would be that much a matter-of-fact.
This, I note, is essentially what omniscience is, to know everything that can be known. The determinists think that if the position of God could be established – and plenty of determinists are theists – then this would sufficiently demonstrate the absence of free will (except on the part of God).
If God exists and is omniscient, there is no free will.
Or, you have the recent derivation of “open theists,” who say that God does know everything that can be known, but there are things about the Universe which even God cannot know. An example of this is that God does not know whether I, for example, will be saved. But then, no one does – it simply remains to be seen, by every being who wants to know.
If God exists and there is free will, God’s knowledge is not as all-encompassing as we once imagined, though it still encompasses everything it possibly can.
In the first case, we essentially have an Author who has written all of the characters’ lines: This God can know absolutely everything, because He has decided it.
In the second case, we essentially have an extraordinary play-by-play announcer, who knows absolutely everything that can be known, but who really does not know what is going to happen next, at least no better than a kind of cosmic chessmaster.
The hidden assumption concerns knowing and time. Or again, in other words – it assumes the natural way of knowing is the only way of knowing.
We start to address this assumption by noting that the human perspective is limited. Not only do we not have all knowledge, but we really don’t know how much we don’t have. Moreover, our abilities to predict…anything…are notoriously bad. I refer you to Freakonomics for an interesting primer on this.
More to the point: If such a thing as omniscience can be instantiated, it is fair to say such a capacity is truly incomprehensible to us. Small wonder it afflicts us with paradoxes.
But let us consider it, again with the help of our analogy. For any character in a story, what he knows is only that set of information which the author enables him to know. That is, he may walk around and gather information just like we do, because the author has put him in an environment like ours; and the author might also imbue him with knowledge, whether a priori or of a revealed sort.
Now, compare this finite set of information with the author’s knowledge. She knows everything that can be known in that world. She knows every detail, every plot point, every character, every eventuality. She even knows which characters were imagined but not included in the story, or plot twists that were rejected, or whether there will be a sequel. There is an unbridgeable gap between the character’s way of knowing and the author’s way of knowing. Though the author could reveal, or lead the character to learn, much of what she knows, the character will never know these things like she does.
In a similar way, I propose that God’s way of knowing is just fundamentally different, and greater, than ours. We do learn, and information gathering has accelerated in recent history; and still, however much we can know, God knows more. There is no way to cross that chasm – we can chase Him, but we’ll never catch Him.*
Again, I really am not in a position to solve the dispute, but I offer this: I propose that God experiences time differently than we do. This much is already clear, in a rudimentary way, in the case of the author and her characters.
Of course, I propose it without a mechanism for understanding it, at least not one that lines up properly. But I think it is fair to say, even from our use of the analogy, that if God exists, there simply must be things beyond our understanding. What I have tried to show here, in a short summary is that:
God’s transcendence of time may be like our retelling of a true story. The characters in the story retain free will even as the author/narrator retains omniscience. If I am in the middle of the story, and know exactly how the story will end, this does not rob my characters of their free will.
In other words, mere knowing does not entail determinism. It might appear that way for finite creatures – if I were to know the seemingly unknowable, one could only imagine this by way of a calculation, by deterministic patterns, by a restriction to mere physical forces of all future action. But that conclusion is conditioned by my finitude; it does not apply to a transcendent Creator.
This cord we’ve been examining – the intertwining of love, sin, and free will – lends itself to some devotional reflections (or, for my less religious friends, to some spiritual application). After so many posts, it is probably about time to make that transition, though I can’t promise to stay away completely from these more abstract reflections.
We have seen several threads wound together into a cord, and these include love, and free will, and the potential for evil. In other words, it is free will which makes both love and evil possible. One could not love without the faculty of free will – it would not be love if it were automatic, determined. However, since it is a choice to love, it is also a choice not to love – and this is the way that leads to evil.
Free will has remained at the periphery for most of this series, and even as it has come up, it has not been dealt with head-on. We should consider it now, since we saw in the last post how it marks a divergence in the use of our analogy – that is, the author cannot really bestow free will, while God can.
I should also say, in brief, that I am simply taking it for granted that free will is real. That argument – free will vs. determinism – has been alive for some time, and I have no ambition of settling it here. It is settled, to my mind, for the obvious reason that no one takes determinism seriously; moreover, to take it seriously is a bit of a paradox. After all, if you wanted to get serious about determinism, what would be your first step? (Of course you would do that).
I also take for granted that an author, whatever her considerable talents may be, cannot really bestow free will. She may indeed have a character acting in ways the reader may not expect, as though untamed; she may present the character with a dilemma, and no clear choice; the character may seem to be entirely original; yet ultimately, the author herself decides.
Now, the divergence is apparent. Has our time been wasted, then? Is the use of the author analogy invalid?
I don’t think so. It is, again, like any other analogy – useful to a point. The components do not all line up exactly, nor should we expect them to. We are only looking for a guide, a device, even a working model through which we might understand things outside of our immediate experience. You know, it’s just an analogy.
Furthermore, there is a kind of exception here, which fits within the analogy, though it departs a bit from our original parameters. Consider some fantastic, true story in which you were the main character. Now, place yourself in our hypothetical closed system – your mind, and nothing else – and tell the story.
As you do, you’ll describe some of the actions you took, some of the things you said – in other words, you’ll relate the free choices you made in the story. The question is, does your perfect knowledge of those decisions, as you tell the story, in any way challenge your free will as you made the decisions, within the story?
The answer is, of course not. Assuming you were free to make those decisions in the first place, it makes no sense at all to argue that your decisions have been “determined” as you tell the story.
But this is a little like a snake biting its own tail, so let’s de-couple the author from the character: Imagine you are telling a story about a child. These stories often feature the remarkable, charming, silly things that kids do and say, which adults do not do or say. As the child was acting and speaking, he was making free decisions.
As you tell the story an hour later to your friend, the decisions may have the appearance of being “determined” since they are now fixed parts of the story. But it would be nonsense to take this appearance and apply it to the original actions of the child, simply because the story now is fixed.
Very well so far. It is clear that this all ties back to the apparent conflict between God’s omniscience (knowing all things that can be known) and our free will. The challenge usually starts, “If God can know all of our decisions and how we will act, then we are not really free to choose.”
Obviously, knowledge of how a person did act (in the past) does not challenge his free will whatsoever. So much for the past tense; the challenge, it would seem, is in the future tense.
We now have a platform – such as it is – from which to observe what it means for God to be all-loving.* As mentioned above, here we are taking just one angle, and it can be no more than a guide. The analogy is not the reality.
If souls – or centers of consciousness, if you like – require a medium to communicate (indeed, a medium through which they can be fully actualized), then God must set the stage.
Our author likewise creates a world in which to tell her story, and we imagine that she is creating for the sake of the characters themselves, and not for an audience. Or, in a sense, the characters are also the audience.
Now the good of the characters is for each of them to realize their innate potential, that which the author has invested in them. Though we don’t have time to fully articulate the point this is more than an semi-inspirational notion. This is, rather, the notion that some part of their being lies in wait, requiring perhaps the right circumstances, or an act of the will, or even the impetus of the author herself, in order for that potency to be actualized. “Be all you can be” is a nice slogan, but it imposes a limit of only those roles the Army can provide; it does not exalt the very being of a person beyond this world. At best, in the sense we mean it, the Army could only be a stepping stone, however deep or shallow that might be.
To love the characters, then, is to desire and provide for their good – to aid in their self-actualization, to fulfill the purpose for which they were created.
Can the author, then, be all-loving? We have said she created the characters for their own sakes, and the story is told for them. She must simply desire – and provide for – the fulfillment of their purposes.
But this is trivially true, isn’t it? Even in a bad story, the author wishes for the characters to fulfill their purpose – usually, entertaining an audience – and she tries to provide for it, even if she is not quite effective in achieving entertainment.
Maybe this isn’t perfect love, then – for if, despite the author’s best efforts, the characters fail to entertain, then they truly have not achieved their purpose, nor seen their potential actualized. It may be truer than expected to say that the more an author really loves her characters for their own sake, the more they are likely to achieve the purpose she has for them. But the waters get muddy here, and we have some ground to cover.
Our better author, then, who creates her characters for their own sake – can she be all-loving?
If I may skip to the point, this seems to pivot on the concept of a villain.
Of course the author will love the hero – at least this love is more readily obvious. The villain embodies the problem of evil, which we have reflected on at some length, and so poses the chief obstacle here.
The villain, in fact, is almost a utility, a force and source of drama, and even to respect a villain enough to make him “three-dimensional” is uncommon. He is, in a certain sense, already actualized, fulfilling his purpose from the start: He is evil, because the hero needs something to conquer.
If that is true, this is a peculiar kind of love indeed; but can we say it is not love? In what respect, since he is the author’s creation? It is not his purpose to be “good,” according to the standard of the author’s will.
This is not far off from the problem of evil, and even the narrow way many of us – or even all of us, some of the time – conceive of the world. Politics is finally useful: To the liberal, conservatives are wrong, evil; and vice versa. And they are largely irredeemable, we think, and thus only obstacles to be conquered. Imposition of our (good, right) will upon them is the only suitable course of action. Otherwise the world is doomed – the story will end the wrong way.
We, however, need not be restricted by this view. And whatever we do, God is absolutely not so restricted.
Here, God shakes the earth, loosens the analogy from the reality, and it is done by the introduction of a simple and terrible faculty: Free will.
The author, even the best author, can only hope to imitate free will, to give us the impression that a character really is choosing from among options, that he may do something unexpected according to our understanding, that he is in some sense untamed. But God truly gives it, and from our minds and hearts spews all the good and evil that threaten the world in a suffocating tumult. Chesterton has rightly said: We are always at war, and sometimes peace breaks out.
The love of an author is thus limited, because she cannot bestow on her characters the ability to love her back, much less to love each other.
But God – with God, there are no villains. Even he who appears to be a villain may change his mind. The purpose of a soul is that exaltation of his being, and evil does not provide it. Evil is a regression, a descent to a lower state of being.
God is pure actuality, and we retain some measure of potency within us. Our betters on earth may help us on the path to self-actualization: I testify that a good woman can do this for her husband (and he hopes he does likewise for her). A good teacher, a holy man or woman – even a child can be the better of an adult in certain ways.
But to achieve full actualization – whatever that “looks” like – requires one who is fully actualized. In other words, only God can love us so perfectly, so completely, so fruitfully. Only that which draws us near to God can be thought of as an act of love, because there we find our true fulfillment.
*Indeed, it is not false modesty to say this is a shabby platform. It is, even according to its builder. I would like to build a better one, eventually, if my thoughts could be clear and constructive enough. Still, with the reader’s charity, we can at least have a look at things.
In the last post, we saw how an author typically borrows the Universe she lives in to create her own world; well and good. We also saw that this world is created in the first place to communicate something abstract, which could not be created without a fitting medium. From there, we began to explore particular instances of this dynamic – namely, what is the significance of particular physical things?
I pointed to a gun, which is signifies the means to defend oneself, and/or to attack. It might be said to convey the soul’s desire for self-preservation; or again, to impose upon the existence of another being.
Also mentioned was the idea of a talisman – let’s say a mailbox. In our world, the mailbox has a mundane significance: It is a channel for printed communication. But our author might write a story granting the mailbox a magical significance: Perhaps it tells fortunes, or dispenses memories which may be swallowed up and assimilated into the experience of the consumer.
Now, what about love?
Love, I would like to assert, is desiring and, where possible, providing for the good of another. And what is “good?”
Good, I might say, is that which is directed toward the fulfillment of a thing – what might also be called the actualization of a thing’s potential. And now, we are bound either to an endless cycle of abstractions – which would ultimately mean nothing – or we find a terminus, a ground of good. Good itself, if you like.
Let us take the author as the terminus, as we did in a previous post. The author creates a main character, charming and impetuous, short and slim. What is the good of that character? How would the author (or any other character) love this main character?
We would have to know, somehow, what the character was created for.
Now, setting aside our hypothetical author for a moment, who we said created for a unique purpose, let us look briefly at a common author. A character is often created for any number of reasons, including a kind of self-projection, or thought experiment for the author, or even for the purpose of targeting a certain audience. The unifying – perhaps the highest – reason is that the character was created for the good of the story, to entertain, to captivate, move, inspire.
In this way, most characters are reduced to utilities. No reader much minds them, except as they might reflect real people, or as far as they provoke and inspire. They are a medium for delivering a feeling, a thought, a conviction.
Consider now our hypothetical author and her unusual purpose: She creates her characters for their own sake. She calls them into being, from nothing into a kind of existence (again, within her story). Perhaps she shapes them a certain way, invests them with traits and talents, burdens them with troubled pasts.
Now, what is the good of such characters? How might they be fulfilled? What is the potential that may be actualized?
We might, in this context, phrase it another way: What is the highest existence these characters can attain?
The upper limit: They cannot ever have the same ontological status as the author. That is, they can never have being in the same way the author has being – the author possesses it more fundamentally. If the author ceased to exist, so would they; moreover, the author might continue to exist, but cease to think of them. Then, too, they would die.
This is the unbridgeable gap between the Creator and the created.
Very well. Respecting this limit, what is the highest existence these characters can attain?
I think we must say that they can have as high an existence as the author can possibly devise. Consider that: If you created a character this very moment, what is the highest existence you can imagine for them?
Would it be to make them royalty in their lands? To give them the ability to fly? To give them endless worlds to explore? To make them a being of pure light? To annihilate them in an experience of Nirvana? (And what, exactly, would Nirvana be?)
If we consider the author as all-powerful, we might see how the author could be forever inventive in this way, or at least inventive for a long time. Of course, this mere inventiveness – this endless string of novelty, or (merely) exalted sense of being is not quite the same as the Beatific Vision. The difference is critical, and shows us how even our hypothetical author does not really show us the breadth and depth of God.
But it is enough to say, by way of analogy, that if the author creates the characters for their own sake, she fulfills them by an exaltation of their being, and not by a measure of their usefulness for some other purpose.
With the cautionary words of the last post in place, we proceed to creation – all things seen and unseen – and the analogy from a story.
Now, the thing we must keep in mind is that when God creates the Universe, he does it out of an overflow of love, and not for his own need or want. Rather, if it can be imagined, he creates for the good of that Creation, for the sake of those sentient beings who will inhabit it (and for other things besides – is it not better for a tree to exist, rather than not to exist?).
This differs from the typical purpose of storytelling: A story is told for an audience. So, here, we must imagine that our author is telling her story for the sake of her characters, and if it were not for their sake, she would not tell it.
And that, at least, is a cursory look at what it means to be all-loving.
Returning to the point, we have an author who wills to create characters and give them life. Now, just how could she do this?
It will help to draw a distinction, in this world she is creating, between the abstract realm and the physical realm. That is, she can begin to create a character who is charming and impetuous without having to decide whether the character is tall or short, fat or slim. Then the question is, how will we know this character is charming and impetuous?
Can a person be charming without speaking? Without having a body? Even if a person can be charming without speaking and without having a body (as some would describe God), can a person be those things without a medium through which to convey them?
That is, we experience God’s charm through some coincidence, or by the impression of natural beauty, or else by a sense of peace at an unexpected time. If you existed only as a mind, without a Universe, how would you convey charm?
That an author chooses a medium analogous to our own is not important (and more than analogous – in imitation of our own), so much as that it is also a medium. She can’t tell the story without some analogue to our physical realm. The characters need a “place” in which to dwell, with “matter” they can manipulate for their (abstract) purposes, and “time” in which to carry out their (abstract) plans and desires.
Moreover, they need a realm within which they can relate to each other. These relationships are often the chief focus of drama (apart from “man v. nature” stories) and the means by which they find and communicate (abstract) meaning.
There is no relationship, therefore, between you and your significant other, apart from the physical world. But the purpose of your relationship – love, hopefully – is abstract, transcending the physical means you have chosen to convey it.
(I pause now as I am positively inundated with possible lines of thought. It is like standing on the South Pole and deciding to move north – you can choose from countless angles which way you want to go).
The physical realm – this very moment – gives me a means by which I can communicate with you, and perhaps all activity in the physical world is communication of one kind or another. Habits and drives pose an interesting challenge here, but this is not the direction we want…
And so our author, at any rate, creates a world for her characters. Typically, this world will imitate our own, but it often attempts a departure of one kind or another – whether in geography, cumulative history and culture, or some other significant way. As I said before, the only important thing is that it IS a medium, or else her characters could not relate.
Imagine it this way – she creates a character who is impetuous and charming, and another who is shy and harsh. Now, without creating a world – remember, no bodies, so no speech, no vision, nothing physical – how shall they interact?
One might even ask at what point they will achieve personhood – surely the quality of being charming is not equivalent to personhood. What must be added? (Yet another question for another day)
Perhaps, with so many directions to take, there was something hidden in our point of departure – that is, the earlier thought, that “There is no relationship, therefore, between you and your significant other, apart from the physical world. But the purpose of your relationship – love, hopefully – is abstract, transcending the physical means you have chosen to convey it.”
The author, in choosing to imitate the real world, takes many things for granted, and this is just one way we can see how any human author is inferior to God. Nevertheless, the author takes on – or challenges – the (abstract) significance of things in the physical world. For the author, those physical things in the story really do mean something (abstract). In more mundane stories, a gun means essentially the same thing it means in our world; but a talisman is something our world finds mundane, while the story finds it magical.
In the next post we’ll develop this a bit further, and attempt to bring together the abstract and the physical.
Before wrestling with what it means for God to be all-loving, we might find some benefit by shifting the emphasis.
Namely, we’ve focused primarily on God, appropriately so, in consideration of the analogy of an author. We have seen, for example, how the human author shows herself to be all-powerful in the context of the story; so, by analogy and at least to that extent, we may say that God is all-powerful in reality, and there is nothing impossible or incoherent about such a notion.
But what about the story? What about creation itself?
The first word I would offer is a word of caution: The analogy should not be applied too stringently. It is more of a guide, a way, an open door. It is not a complete map, much less the journey itself.
So, for example, I think it would be fun to ponder the notion of “elementary particles” within any given story, and what, if any, significance there might be here. Indeed, I do think there could be some.
However, it is important to see two things: Whereas the analogy is metaphysical, elementary particles are proposed as simply physical realities. The analogy will not teach us physics – we cannot observe the world of “War and Peace” and discover something about the force of gravity. (At least not anything which Tolstoy had not already discovered himself, from…observing the real world).
The second is also a basic distinction: God is the greater mystery, the more fundamentally real subject of our discussion. The author is not an exact analogue to God – even if we can confirm a truth about the author, it might not necessarily show us something about God. Rather, God is the One we are groping for, as if in the dark and cavernous space of the entire Universe, and we are hardly able to leap off our own pale blue dot. The analogy may give us an idea of what we are looking for, perhaps how the search should proceed, perhaps even correct our course from time to time – but it is not the same as contact with the living God.
There is, rather, something wild and lonely and exhilarating about that journey, and it is never enough merely to consider the map in comfort.
So with that arduous caution in place, we’ll take up creation in the next post.
As we conclude our reflections on the moral argument for God’s existence, I want to pursue the analogy of the author and see what else might be understood about moral grounding, and the moral argument. In the last post, I reflected on God as “that which is good, if anything is.” From here, we saw how morality may be seen as a sense of our relationship to God, of our closeness to Him and our momentum toward or away from Him at any given moment.
In this post, I want to explore the difficulties in positing both atheism and objective morality. We have done this in brief, of course, when considering what else could step in for author – in the context of our analogy – and be the ground of moral ontology. Here we will look at this problem in some detail.
Let us assume, then, that the story is underway – but so far as anyone can tell, either within the story or outside of it, there does not appear to be an author.*
If there is no author, where shall we begin to determine what is good? Following the pattern of the previous post, let us consider what there was “in the beginning” – for again, surely whatever existed solely and necessarily must be good, if anything is good.
What first comes to mind is what naturally came to mind to atheists up until the early to mid-20th century: The Universe is eternal. It is a brute reality, exists without explanation; even beyond the dawn of the Big Bang Theory, Carl Sagan saw fit to say that “the Cosmos is all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever will be.”
Of course, it became clear that this is not true of our Universe – it had a beginning, before which there was nothing. (Recall that, even in the case of a multiverse, the same rule applies – it must be expanding, and any Universe with an average expansion greater than zero must have a beginning in the finite past).
And it seems true enough of any given story, as well. It is not clear that we can imagine a beginningless story, no more than we can now start one.**
So we are speaking of a story that has a definite beginning, as all stories have, though we are inclined to deny an author. But let’s allow a more modest wording – let us say the existence of the author is at least unclear, if not improbable. In any event, as we consider the ground of morality, we exclude the possibility that the pre-existing author is that ground.
Very well, what is left?
We may have something like Plato’s forms, mentioned in the footnotes last time. That is, “the Good” just exists, and we find that people act according to it, or else are otherwise animated by it. Likewise, perhaps, for “Justice.”
The first difficulty encountered is that, even if these forms are permitted, they still do not rule out the need of an author to tell the story. Sure, an author may have her themes, which in some sense exist independently from her (or do they?), but they themselves do not write the story. Yet, we have granted that a story is being told, and we have agreed to let go the idea of an author.
But this is the problem, isn’t it? Isn’t an author (some intelligence, at any rate) required to conceptualize a theme? By merely asserting the existence of a theme (or form) we don’t seem to get around the need for these forms to come from somewhere. It is not, even at face-value, any better than asserting an author. In any event, an explanation of the existence of a theme (or form) would be necessary.
Now, assuming both that there is no author and that these themes exist (we are far afield from any plausible cause for believing such a thing, but let’s chase it down one leg further), it becomes unimaginable to believe that a spontaneously arising story with spontaneously arising characters should also follow along with a theme, much less that anyone should find the confluence to be a valuable thing. After all, this incomprehensible fluke would still be a fluke – why be troubled over whatever is “Good” or “Just”? They have no greater explanation for their existence than I have!^
We have previously seen how moral ontology could not arise from evolution, so it requires no more than a passing glance – even if the characters in a spontaneously arising story did begin to develop ideas about what is “good” and “evil,” these things obviously correspond to no transcendent ground. Moreover, they must assume – without justification – that the survival of the characters (and/or their species) is an objective good, rather than a subjective one. It is hard to see how that would be the case in this particular story.
This concludes our reflection on the moral argument in particular, but the concepts here will provide a useful basis for understanding God as “all-loving.” It also marks one of the first significant weaknesses of the author analogy, though the analogy is nevertheless useful in seeing the greatness of God.
*While some thinkers grasp that atheism entails a kind of paradox like this, that is, something defying our understanding of everything else in and about the Universe, it has seemed to me that most casual atheists do not. They take the Universe for granted, and shift the burden of proof – “Now let the theist prove that God exists.”
**The burden of proof is shifted back.
^I take the perspective of both a hypothetical reader (yes, reading an authorless story) and an uncommonly self-aware character. From either of these perspectives, can there be anything valuable about the confluence of two spontaneous phenomenon? One might wonder at it, but would it make any sense to heed it, or to read into it, or to think it applies to one’s own life in any way?