There is a general “waste of time” feeling I get when discussing this topic with others that I think stems from the notion that agreement will never be reached.
That may be so.
Yet, I think it is worth clarifying the points we can all agree on — and then arguing from there.
As a heads-up, I am going to tackle this question by considering what we ourselves are. After thinking about this, you will hopefully see that the question is — well — ill defined.
Let me illustrate what I mean.
Our shared experiences
I think many of us can agree that God is not an old gentleman with a beard floating in the clouds.
If you think about why you believe this, you will realize that it is because of your past experience. You’ve never seen an old man floating in the clouds, have you? So your conclusion is based on extrapolations from past observations.
Likewise, some of us may have tried the old “pact with God experiment”. It goes something like this:
God, if you are listening, then if you (do something for me) I will be forever indebted and (do something for you).
This kind of thing generally doesn’t work. The problem is, we simply don’t hear a voice in our heads that we can converse with. So the conclusion is that God, if he exists, doesn’t talk back in a straightforward way.
So, there are some things about God many of us can agree on.
What exactly are the characteristics that we would agree our God to have?
In the Jewish-Christian-Muslim tradition there is only “one” God. Actually, even though I repeat it, that claim always annoys me because the idea goes back at least to the Zoroastrians, if not to Pharoah Akhenaten in 1300 BC, or thereabouts. Put that aside for a moment. Let’s agree to think in this framework. Clearly the notion of God at least presupposes the notion of “you” and “him”.
Therefore, pretty early in the game of talking about God you are faced with the notion of “other” people or entities.
And before considering “others” we should think about our “self”.
The dismembered Self
“I think, therefore I am” doesn’t get us very far.
For me, it was much more productive to consider the question:
Where is my “self”?
The self is obviously not in our hands. We’ve seen others without hands and we don’t consider their self diminished.
And we can continue down this ghastly thought-track, chopping off limbs, and replacing organs by machines, and we realize that the self is somehow embedded in the head region, the brain. We know it’s true because people with head injuries often have deep personality changes. The self is localized in the brain.
Or is it?
The reconstructed Self
The brain is a large nexus of nerves, chemicals, a memory store. But we can store memories elsewhere, these days. Photographs. Diaries. Increasingly in our smart devices. Perhaps in the future these “external” (to the brain) memories and data will be stored “in the cloud” and we will obtain them with direct brain links. This would be amazing. Yet, it is not any different to what we do now when we read our diaries or look at our photographs — we are just talking about replacing our hands and eyes with other things. It is not a difference of principle.
What we are beginning to see here is that while most of the “self” is localized in the brain, it is very difficult to be sure that all of you is really there. At the moment memories are largely stored in the brain, but not exclusively.
Carrying this thought forward, we see that when our hands are chopped off we do indeed lose a part of our “self”.
Perhaps I’m going too fast, but you must surely have got the idea that your “self” is not an isolated entity.
Just to make sure you understand: these words you are reading are a communication from my “self” to “you”, as if I spoke them, but they are — where exactly? On Google’s servers? On the screen your reading? In the signals in your optic nerve? In “your” brain?
Am I in your brain?
Well, yes. In a sense. To a certain extent. According to a certain definition or outlook.
When does an oyygen molecule become part of “you”? When it is in your mouth? In your lungs? Crossing the alveoli? Or entering the brain?
And what if you kiss someone. Does the share oxygen in your joined respiratory systems mean that — you are joined?
The point I am making is that you and I are not clearly separate.
Let’s try another example, some other shared experience.
The case of Siamese twins is interesting.
Depending on which parts are connected (bodies, heads, brains) they increasingly become more conjoined in all senses of the word. We see here that “self” and “other” form a continuous spectrum. But the Siamese twins are an accident of biology. In the future there seems no reason why we can’t achieve such joining by non-biological means. Or perhaps by genetic engineering, if the ethics could ever be sorted out.
The outcome of these considerations is that “self” and “other” are just convenient and useful terminologies — for the time being. There is nothing universal about either. There is no universal individualism. For some reason (which people like Dawkins claim to explained) it exists to a certain extent in our world.
God or not?
Our conclusion about “wholism” (for want of a better word) has many deep and fundamental consequences. About morality, justice, the notion of competition, discrimination.
Do pause and think about it.
Coming back to the original question: is there is a God or not?
One of the consequences of the above argument is that God, if he exists, is not to be regarded as different from us — in principle. I think the question of whether God exists is therefore moot. I choose to subscribe to what I understand to be Spinoza’s view, that God is in fact the totality of what is observed. That also seems to be the essence of the Bhuddist view.
The arguments and conclusions drawn here are based on simple observations and shared experiences that we or others have had.
Now there are some who do not share such experiences, who do not admit such experiences as valid. They have their own experiences, thoughts, which I do not share, or cannot accept. There are some who make a priori definitions about what is and what is not. I do not want to say that these people are “right” or “wrong”. I only acknowledge that they are. For them, these arguments will not apply.
Did we achieve anything in this discussion? You decide.