Do atheists own rationality?

I was told yesterday that someone follows my blog (thank you, we all have some narcissism!). I was told that he was amazed that anyone with intelligence could believe in God. He apparently describes himself as an atheist.

I’ve been pondering this.

It seems to me that at the heart of this view is the sense of superiority that atheists can have, that they “own” intelligence. Allied to that is their view that somehow intelligence “disproves God”. I assume here that they mean rationality, as opposed to emotional intelligence.

This argument is close to me because as an evolutionary biologist at Cambridge I had this argument flow past me in waves. Indeed I spent a large part of life summoning up the courage to confront the possibility of there being nothing, no purpose, no God. I concluded after several years of living in this space that in fact it is atheism that is illogical. Having got that out of the way – but not until my 40’s – I have finally been able to relax into the rich world of the living purposeful connection that is meaningful life.

Here’s why I don’t believe in no-God.

First, let us remove rationality from the frame. Nothing can be proved. There is no external premise or starting point from which a logic chain can reach any kind of “proof”. It seems rather (read “Godel Escher Bach” or “The Science Delusion by Rupert Sheldrake) that the universe and time comprise an infinity of nested loops. Don’t believe me, rather refer to Heisenberg (Uncertainty Principle) and Godel (Incompleteness Theorum).

Ok. So in any case logic and rationality takes you nowhere certain. You can’t either prove or disprove God or no-God. If you find a Richard Dawkins or anyone else try to convince you otherwise – simply refer to Heisenberg and Godel – and tell them they are acting as evangelists not scientists, so they should preface all their statements with “I believe”.

So, then my personal beliefs. Well, firstly I get as far, logically, as saying there is “being”, or rather there is “something”. I wouldn’t go as far as “my” being – ie cogito ergo sum, because I think that presumes what “I” am. It does seem axiomatic to me that existence exists though. I used to run the argument that time is also axiomatic and that therefore you could define God as that which began being – one of those beautiful iterative proofs you get in mathematics (inductive reasoning). On that basis I used to “prove” God. This then turned the argument about God – into one of semantics. On that basis I would say that atheism is less logical that theism – because a theist “believes” in his/her version of God, whereas for atheism to work they would have to disprove every version of God.

Anyway, I’m not so convinced about time anymore – except as an illusion that frames what we perceive as reality. I do think, though, that God and existence tie together logically. Believe in existence and God is there. Our disagreements should be fought on definitions – “God sitting on a cloud”, “God as personalised”, “God as the numbers like speed of light that define existence”, “God as relatedness, connection”.

For me then, personally, which is the richer way to live? Surely enriched and joyful reality lies in our connectedness, in the shared smile, in the sharing of sorrow. That’s certainly becoming my deepening experience.

In any event – I can state definitely that I do NOT believe that atheism has rationality or intelligence on it’s side…

Spirit Levels

I was in a pub in Edinburgh yesterday. It was packed, shoulder to shoulder. We were all intent on following the British and Irish Lions in their final rugby match against Australia. At the end “we” won via a series of sensational tries.

We were, of course, intent on the television screens around the pub. I was lifted into a space and life shared with that group in that pub as each try was scored and we all cheered. We became something separate – the momentary “we” was new and different from the collection of individuals normally described as we.. I was struck by the sense of one-ness. Looking at the people, rather than the screen – we shared the same rapturous expression – but on each of our individual faces.

This is, I believe, what we are drawn to as the joyful solution to the pain and loneliness of living and dying. We can become something different and shared; living in common and on a different spirit level. As that happens we lose our sense of self, our individuality and our ego, and become something qualitatively different. (See God as emergent property, or epiphenomenon).

Whilst I have, at least to my own satisfaction, proved God. It is a proof that touches my mind rather than my real self. It turns out that rational knowledge of the existence of God is a poor friend with which to confront death and loss. In my 40’s I lived through existential angst, a dark night of the soul. I had been fed since childhood with the comfort of the knowledge of God and my friend and brother, Jesus Christ. I had though been trained as a scientist. Richard Dawkins had been something of a hero (I majored in verebrate evolution at Cambridge) and as we know he preaches that Science somehow disproves God. Who was right – my loving mother or an angry scientist? So, I decided to live in non-belief and confront that question from a premise and experience of an atheist. It turned out for me that atheism is a belief system, with internal logic and no proof beyond the opening statement. I know that now. Atheists open with the axiom – there is no God – and from that premise (and ignoring all awkward facts along the way) go on after some verbal and logical gymnastics to restate it as THERE IS NO GOD. It’s nothing more than a circus trick, and it’s only possible because NO premise can be logically proved or disproved. (Gödel, Heisenberg). Given a premise and some logic rules you can “prove” the premise. Well I can do that from the statement there is God, and to be absolutely frank it’s infinitely more likely. Here…

Let God be that which came before existence.
Time and existence exist.
Therefore God exists.


(By the way – who wrote those penetrating words in the Anglican service which define God as.. existing beyond time, both source and final purpose. Was that really written in the 16th century?)

So, it has has been a surprise and a relief to see through the ill-logic, one might say intellectual conceit, of materialists; and to move from the lonely existentialism of Sartres to the connected existentialism of Martin Buber. To perceive Whitehead’s rationale of our life in process at the ever moving edge of spiritual present as we crystalise the past out of the future.

But understanding is not the trick. It is in the moments of loss-of-self into the commonwealth of spirit in which there is intimation of immortality. The loss of our-self into the crowd in the pub, the shared smile, the surge of love for wife/mother/brother/friend/child, the rapture of connection with the countryside. Those are tangible glimpses of the next spirit level.

I have recently conceived of the moment of dying as a “fading to joy”, losing one’s identity into God. I now see that a better expression would be “surprised by joy”. Has that been used before?

Godel, Escher, Bach

Review of Gödel, Escher, Bach (Golden Eternal Braid) by Douglas Hofstadter.

This is an intellectual tour de force, a sweet confection of themes. Ultimately though it disappoints; he attempts to bind his thematic threads into a tightly structured fugue or rope, but achieves only candyfloss. As the title suggests, the writing pans across mathematics, the arts and music. On the way it takes in logic, philosophy, Zen Buddhism, linguistics and artificial intelligence. Indeed so extensive and brilliant are the references and insights that one suspects a touch of narcissism on the author’s part. He is certainly clever, and as a survey of thought this book is a must-read, however his final conclusions are just plain inconsistent.

One fundamental premise is that our material world is constructed around paradox and infinitely self-referential loops. The “Gödel” of the title is Kurt Gödel, a mathematician who proved that our knowledge must always be incomplete. We can not know all things. But, the link from that “voice” to the Escher and Bach of the title is not clearly formed. Rather these are separate themes which Hofstadter weaves into his “Golden Eternal Braid”, rather than inversions of the same theme which forms a satisfying fugue. The Escher leitmotif – that perception cannot be trusted, is illustrated by the manipulation of self-referential loops. Bach is recruited as a master of fugue, where the theme is woven together in different voices to create a new experience. In other words from individual threads he creates new – emergeant – reality. An epiphenomenon.

Though not appearing in the title, the concepts of Zen Buddhism are woven into the braid – pointing up the essential duality of existence and encouraging us to UN-think as a route to perception and integration. (see Karl Jung).

So in summary, Hofstadter’s braid is shaped from:

Gödel, all knowledge must be incomplete – definitively.
Escher, reality is not what it seems and comprises an infinity of self-referential loops.
Bach, threads are woven to create an epiphenomenon; whose sum is qualitatively different from its parts.

Given these premises he nevertheless concludes “I have no doubt that a totally reductionist.. explanation of the brain exists” (and he equates brain with mind and consciousness).

With all of these fascinating themes, the false logic of this eventual conclusion shocks. His statement is a axiom or belief, but is presented as a theorem (he has this in common with Dawkins and many other materialists). Having established that the great thinkers in different disciplines have all demonstrated a fundamental limit to our ability to know via thinking, he then goes on to state that he has “no doubt” that we will eventually completely understand the mind and consciousness in terms of materialist reductionism.

He would have been wiser to end with these, his own, words:

“By the way, in passing, it is interesting to note that all results essentially dependent on the fusion of subject and object have been limitative results. In addition to the limitative Theorums [eg Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorum], there is Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which says that measuring one quantity renders impossible the simultaneous measurement of a related quantity. I don’t know why all these results are limitative. Make of it what you will.”

For a truly penetrating (and consistent) philosophy of the link between mathematics and reality I would urge you to turn to Alfred North Whitehead – Process and Reality.

The Phenomenon of Man – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

De Chardin’s work is scintillating – a brilliant piece of philosophical science. But, oh how difficult to access! It appears as a work of nineteenth century charismatic spirituality, language calculated to repel a positivist scientist. Yet it deals with concepts and theories that bring together quantum mechanics, relativity, geology, evolutionary biology and anthropology. One struggles to absorb the width of his landscape.

And he distils some compelling concepts.

Material evolution started at the big bang with occasional phase-shifts from plasma to atoms, from giant molecules to cellular life, from complex organisms to the birth of ideas. Evolution within the geosphere (the crystallising and polymerising worlds)  leading to the biosphere and now the noosphere.

A duality of material and spiritual, which he calls the “without” and “within”. He traces the development of the “within”, an evolution of consciousness. He names man as a stage in that process associated with the phase-shift from the evolution of biology to the evolution of ideas.

He shows that everything, both material and spiritual in each phase has common properties – plurality, unity and energy.

His ideas have of course been widely adopted, but almost by stealth and by others. He was a Jesuit priest, and the church tried to gag him. He bowed to pressure, because of his vows of obedience, and much of his work came to light after his death. . De Chardin’s work gloriously and selflessly witnesses the growth of God within and between us. What an irony that the entombed treasury of his ideas was pillaged most famously by Richard Dawkins (memes? Noosphere…), who is of course the Ian Paisly of atheism.

It is meat and needs to be chewed, but it is rich meat and will repay the effort.