Letters on God

On July 10, 2007, a reader of my philosophy blog named James sent in a letter with questions about my position on God. Below is James' letter (with paragraph separations added by myself), followed by my reply:

Mr. Strain,

If you are anything like me you may not like being called Mr. so I will just call you Daniel from now on if that is alright with you. I am emailing you because I have a question for you. Do humanists believe in the metaphysical? When I say metaphysical I mean, anything that is not physical. I know my definitions may be limited but its all I know at the moment.

Are things like art, music, beauty, love, etc. metaphysical or physical? Music does not actually exist. In my understanding music is an idea, its a metaphysical understanding in the mind that categorizes organized sounds as something to be liked or disliked. Music is generally thought of as to be composed or organized, it is something that expresses feelings and emotions, ideas, etc. through sound waves. Is this accurate?

I will be frank, I have a reason for asking this question. If a person does not believe in anything that cannot be proven or empirically verified, something like music, beauty, love, art, etc. cannot be proven. Therefore, music really is only sound waves that enter the brain and are interpreted. There is no meaning in "music" Music does not exist. Love, Art, Beauty, almost anything really becomes non existent. Because you cannot prove these exist in reality, only as an idea, you cannot believe them.
You recognize organized sound that is pleasing or non pleasing though, right? But you cannot prove it exists. You can only say there are sounds which enter the brain and for one reason or another are found pleasing or non pleasing. The moment you attach meaning to the sound you have defined music and music is not empirically verifiable. We can only describe what we hear and say it is pleasing to us. What is pleasing to me though is not pleasing to you, necessarily, right? I could say that screaming and yelling, nails on a chalkboard, babies crying, are all music. Not everyone, hardly anyone would agree that nails on a chalkboard are pleasing though right? Nonetheless you cant say that its not music to my ears. The same applies with beauty, art, love, etc.

These are all ideas understood in the mind. But because you can't empirically verify what my mind thinks, then you cannot believe them. Unless what is in my mind can be expressed... I guess this is where communication comes in, language. You cannot know it exists in my mind unless I tell you, right? Which ultimately leads me to my next question. Does God exist?

When I ask that question all kinds of presuppositions enter your mind, all kinds of ideas about who or what God is. When I ask you does God exist, you have a definition of God in your mind. You then answer emphatically, no. But you do not know that the God in my mind does not exist. I could have a totally different understanding of who God is. I could define God in a way in which you could not deny he exists. Are there limitations as to what one defines as God?

Let me try to explain what I think when I think of God. When I think of God I think of two things, whatness and whoness. The whatness of God is, exactly that, what. "Whatness" is the physical or nonphysical being of God. Someone can say that God is all of existence, anything and everything that exists is God. Anything that has ever existed, exists now, and will ever exist, is God. So in essence God is everything, past present and future. God is reality, that which is.

So if I were to say this is my definition of God, then you could not disagree with me that everything that has existence, past present or future, has existed. I call this, God. You may call it something else, but this is what I call God. I am sure you have heard this before, so I dont think I have to go into detail here, but all I want to say is this: I read your blogs on ethics of debate, and I agree. This however is not a debate. I am telling that which is to me, and no one can tell me what is and what is not. I am only telling you my point of view.

Getting back to the second thing I think of when I think of God. The second thing I think of is the "whoness" of God. This we could say is the personality of God. Is God a person, does this God have a personality? I am examining these questions myself as I write this email, you are only the person I am writing it to. I am not trying to prove a point, I am not debating. I am only thinking in form of an email.
So, in my understanding of God I said previously there are two things:

1: "whatness" which I define as what God is. I said God is everything that has been, is now, and will ever be. God is all of reality, that which has ever been, is now, and will ever be.

2: "whoness" which I define as personality. This describes what this God is like. To understand what God is like all we have to do is look at the past and the present. We cannot look at the future so I left this out. All we have to do is look at reality and we can see the "whoness" of God.

According to this, you cannot deny the existence of God because God is existence. You cannot deny existence therefore you cannot deny God. You also cannot deny that there is personality in reality. There are ideas, good and less than good. There are ideals. There is love, joy, peace, patience. There is kindness, goodness, faithfulness. There is beauty, order, art, music. There is life. God is inteligent because inteligence exists. God is personable because there are personable beings. God is order because there is order. You cannot deny that these "things" are. I suppose you could, but you would be denying reality. Ultimately I suppose we all define who God is to ourselves, we define the whatness and the whoness.

Our lives are expressions of what we believe about God (reality) You believe there is no authoritarian who tells you what to do, you are right, there is not. God does not tell you what to do. You only tell yourself what to do. God exists, God is reality. How we view reality(God)(whoness) is up to us. We all view it differently and how we want to. No one can tell us how to view it. We look at all that is around us and define Gods' "whoness" in whatever way we want.

You experience God every day of your life, you just dont call it God, you call it reality, or life, or whatever. When you hear the word God you think authoritarian, you think some supernatural being who commands everybody what to do, you think of a person with a cosmic gun to our head forcing us to obey. God does not force us to obey. But guess what! Reality exists and it has order. When we go outside that order we experience its consequences. If I want to listen to the Dr. when he tells me that if I dont eat right and exercise then I will experience certain consequences, then that is my choice, I dont have to listen. But that is stupid of me because then I experience pain. If I dont want to listen to the scientist who says that gravity is real and I chose to jump off the empire state building because I think I can fly, then fine, that is my choice. We all have the equal right to do what we want, God obviously values autonomy.

You want to know what God says? Read history. God is not supernatural in the sense that "he" works outside of nature, "he" is nature. God is supernatural from our perspective because we are limited finite beings, where as God is infinite. God certainly is supernatural, from the human perspective. If you want to see God, look around you, look at the natural created world, look at the stars, the moon, the heavens. Look at cells in a microscope, look at a human being in the womb. I am not God, I am only a product of God, God exists in reality and God exists in my mind. No one person has ever seen God in all its fullness, it is impossible. We all experience God in our lives. We are like those little sucker fishes that hook on to the side of the whale. We as humans are latched on the side of God only for a short while, the expanse of our life. But God lives on because God is eternity.

These are my thoughts, I wrote them down as they came. I have been thinking my entire life, trying to understand what is going on. This is where I am at right now. Think what you may. Thank you for your time.

God Bless


Hi James, :)

Thanks for writing. I can tell by your wording that you must have seen the program on PBS. It was fun doing the program but shows the limitations of only being able to respond to specific questions and having only a short time. Let me preface my response to your letter with a few quotes from what I've written on my philosophy blog:

"But second only to learning and exploration of nature, is that we experience awe, appreciation, and humility before it. Whether we believe the universe is the product of an intelligent creator, has always existed, or was the product of natural forces, it is beneficial to have sense of wonder before its magnificence. It is possible to have a spiritual experience before the beauty of a sunset, the luminous nebulae in a telescope, the grace of a flying bird, or when communing with the ocean womb of life on a sandy beach.

The universe is a stunning marvel of complex patterns on the boundary of complete order and complete randomness. For ages, various peoples and traditions have drawn connections between the different patterns and forms in the universe. The Taoists refer to these patterns in nature as "Li". New emerging sciences of chaos and complexity are revealing the shared underlying mathematical basis between such seemingly disparate things as galaxies and sea shells, economies and ecologies. This is a sort of organic pattern that isn't perfectly sequential, but isn't random either. It has a sense of balance and form that is unpredictable yet recognizable.

Some might refer to this holistic order as God, infused throughout creation as the stoics did. Others may refer to it as some other cosmic force. Still others may simply marvel at and study its naturalistic complexity. In all of these cases, we gain insight and perspective through appreciation of the intricacy and wholeness of the universe.

This same sort of awe and reverence is expressed by scientists and the religious alike. It can inspire art, motivate learning, and encourage preservation and respect for the natural environment. This perspective on the universe is one foundational element of our shared spirituality."

-- from The Noble Conspectus, Chapter 2: Spirituality

You asked if Humanists believe in the metaphysical. Many people seem to regard the metaphysical and the supernatural as the same thing, but you seem keenly aware of the distinction. This, because you have recognized that the metaphysical also includes things like art, music, beauty, and love. I like to also use examples like 'democracy' and 'economics' as metaphysical things. These are things which are not objects in themselves. But, unlike supernatural concepts, these phenomena represent patterns of interaction and first-person experiences we have given labels to. Much of the field of Complex Systems Theory addresses these fascinating emergent properties. I think you'd be interested in my blog post: The Big Deal About Complexity. All of these metaphysical phenomena do indeed exist, but two things should be recognized:

1) They exist as emergent properties of the interactions between physical empirical objects:
In Phaedo, Socrates is written to have discussed ancient conceptions on the soul. As I cover in another article on my philosophy blog, Simmias brings up the notion that the soul is an like a harmony and the body in like the lyre that plays it. This seems to be a very accurate analogy by modern understandings of cognitive science. The lyre is a physical object like our brains, and the sounds it produces are like the mind - in other words, the effect of the activity of the brain. Similarly, 'democracy' is not an object one can put on a scale, but it is the effect of the activity of individual humans behaving in a certain pattern. Thoughts are the result of information processed along neural pathways in the brain, and memories (as well as thought processes) can be physically observed and tracked by scanning brains with sensors as people think about things. So, if a brain is destroyed, the function we call the mind seems to also come to an end. As to why we have a first-person experience of what it is like to be such a structure, that is a mysterious question which I am greatly interested in. If you go to my philosophy blog at http://dtstrainphilosophyblog.blogspot.com and, in the upper left corner, do a search of the blog for "consciousness" you'll see a series of posts you may find interesting.

2) We must take care not to confuse features of reality with our own definitions and applied labels:
You say that 'music does not exist' in the empirical sense. Of course, sound waves do exist. And there is a specific definition of music referring to a rhythmic pattern of sound. If the definition of music were sufficiently specific, we could absolutely say that music exists empirically. But then, definitions can be anything. We make up words and decide what their meaning will be so we can communicate ideas. But in reality, what's true is that sound waves exist, and sometimes they have a regularized pattern to them. Whether we want to use the sound "m-u-s-i-c" to describe that is completely arbitrary and up to us as a people.

Some other things you mentioned about music - you said that some sounds are pleasing to us "for one reason or another". There are likely very specific physical reasons why we find certain patterns of sound more pleasing than others, and it is probably the end result of a great many complex neurological, cultural, and psychological reasons. But what it all boils down to, is that, with detailed information we would be able to explain how a particular pattern affects the ear drum, then creates a particular electrochemical signal that travels up specific physical connections in the brain, interacting with and stimulating other regions which store information on memories, pattern recognition functions, and emotional centers - all of this according to particles interacting by the laws of physics. These reactions could then be traced outward to the rest of the body as we see the signals going forth to make the foot tap and the mouth say, "I like this song". Not only that, but if we had all the details and information on the person's brain functions, we could even determine whether or not they were being honest when they said it (see http://www.apa.org/releases/deception.html).

You also mentioned that there is 'no meaning in music' in the empirical sense. But that is the case with anything. Nothing in itself has meaning, inherent to that thing. Meaning is always a reference to a being for whom meaning exists. Nothing 'means something' on its own. It only means something 'to someone'. This is because different intelligent beings assign different categories to things based on those things' traits compared to that being's own preferences, perceptions, and memories. When a human makes these mental assignments, this is due to electrical activity moving about his/her neural brain structures according to the laws of physics as well. This is when and how meaning is assigned by that being, and this is the only instance in which something can be said to have 'meaning' that I know of. Therefore, music certainly does have meaning to myself, others, and I'm sure, yourself, because of the mental assignments we associate with it - which is all we can say for anything that has meaning (including life).

Next you spoke of the subject of God, saying:

"When I ask you does God exist, you have a definition of God in your mind. You then answer emphatically, no."

If you can find an emphatic statement "God does not exist" anywhere in my blog or philosophy sites, please let me know about it, because it shouldn't be there since I would never say such a thing, and haven't to my recollection. In fact, even if you can find a non-emphatic statement that "God does not exist" that too would not be my position. Here is a quote from my essay, "The Humanist Contemplative":

"Humility comes into play first, in recognizing our limitations. Human beings are not omniscient (all-knowing) and our senses and ability to know are imperfect and limited. Because of this, we do not attempt to make claims or hold beliefs in things of which we have no verifiable evidence. When asked ultimate questions such as ‘how or why did existence come to be?’ or ‘does anything exist outside the observable realm?’ we are content to admit we don’t know."

Thus, if anyone says that something exists which is invisible or not measurable by empirical means (including most notions of God) then I would say I do not know. This, by the way, means that I lack a "belief in God" in the typical usage of the term and am therefore non-theistic or a-theistic (i.e., an atheist). Although some do, all atheists (most I would guess) do not necessarily hold the opposite belief (that God does not exist). However, that misconception is so rampant it has even made its way into many a dictionary. For more on that, please see the Wikipedia articles on Antitheism and Atheism and the page on religioustolerance.org (none of which I had a part in writing).

Having said that, it is true that when I speak of God, I am referring to the popular conception of a separate supernatural thinking, personal being with opinions that makes decisions, and created the universe. This is what the vast majority of human beings who say they believe in God are referring to when they use the word. If you are using another definition then it's true that little of what I have to say about God would necessarily apply. I may as well be talking about a desk while you are talking about a chair.

Now to your definition of God. It's very true that I admit that 'everything in the universe, past, present, and future' exists. It's also very true that within that reality are intelligences and thoughts and personalities. Therefore, by your definition of God, I am a believer in God. But if you were to call a well-cooked hamburger God, then you could similarly say I am a believer in God. You could even say I love God!

Far be it from me to tell you what words you choose to use for what in your worldview. But it seems to me that if we reality-believers, you and I, were to call our belief "God" we are inviting a good degree of confusion and misunderstandings when we know that most people aren't talking about a bunch of atoms, energy, and emergent properties when they're talking about God. There are also some other subtle difficulties that arise when we use the word in that sense. For example, you said, "God obviously values autonomy". If we plug what you mean by the word back into this sentence, you are saying, "'all-that-exists obviously values autonomy". But if all we currently know of that exists is us, possibly other intelligent beings on other worlds, and the rest of inert matter that is not us, how can we say that the universe "values" anything? Don't you have to be an intelligent entity to value something? Perhaps we could say this as we might say, "My phone wants to ring loudly" if we can't figure out how to make the ring quieter. Of course, in such a case we are just speaking loosely and personifying the phone - phones don't "want" anything.

Or, perhaps you mean the universe values autonomy because we, the intelligent beings that are part of that universe, value autonomy. That's fair, but then again, it's leaving a lot open to misunderstanding because it sounds to the casual observer that you're personifying rocks and planets and gas, etc. In a similar line of thought, you end your letter with "God Bless", which is commonly understood as shorthand for "May God bless you". Again, "bless" is normally thought of as a verb, performed by an entity that makes choices. If, on the other hand, you are saying "may the universe bless you" then you are essentially saying "may things work out such in reality that you experience good things". Either way, I appreciate the sentiment, but you can see how, by your definition, this is not much different in accuracy than saying "my phone wants to ring loudly".

In essence and substance, I don't think we disagree as much as you might think. Feel free to use the label "God" for reality if you wish, but I prefer to simply speak of my appreciation of nature and the universe.

Thanks again for your comments and for reading, and may the universe operate so as to bring you good fortune as well! :)