Waiting for Carnot
I used to smart off by saying “Of course I’m an atheist. I’m a high school graduate.” The God that everybody knows doesn’t exist isn’t the only God on prospect, however. Myths are always what somebody else believes. More evolved types of Christians, Jews, and Muslims don’t take their own religion literally. They simply assume that some sort of meaningful concept of God lies somewhere beneath the accretions of tradition and fable, even if just what it is they believe is something they haven’t got around to defining, something they are willing to leave to a theologian to be named later. They have bought the meaningfulness of their faith on credit, assuming there’s a formula for theism they would endorse if they encountered it. If you make a pest of yourself, though, you can usually get them to posit this much: God is a person, i.e., an entity that has purposes and cares about the world. That sounds vaguely edifying, especially to secular people who insist that appearances to the contrary they are actually very spiritual. For me, though, perhaps because I’m so unspiritual, the personhood of God is the religious idea that I have the most problem with.
If you talk about God as the first cause, the prime mover, the ground of Being, necessary Being, or Being qua Being. I may not agree with you; but I I understand what you’re saying. Perhaps god-talk may be meaningful, at least at an abstract metaphysical level. What I haven’t been able to process for a great many years is the personhood bit. That it makes sense to talk about an infinite, all-powerful entity that, like us, acts, cares, suffers, and lives.
My puzzlement has very little to do with the usual complaints of the atheists, but then both those hostile to religion and those who defend it aren’t usually proposing philosophical theses. Creationists don’t give a shit about biology, but atheists don’t really care much about First Philosophy. Belief in God for many people is basically a loyalty oath to society or a certain kind of society; and disbelief in God caries its own political freight. It’s eccentric of me, I recognize, but I do care about the philosophical side of these questions.
What offends my scruples is the way that the pedigree of the God concept is never provided. That’s not so obviously a problem if you buy into one of the Gods of the Philosophers because many of the characteristics or dimensions of such deities are drawn from logic or physics—that’s where Kant derived his idea of god, for example. Once you imagine a God that is alive and has purposes, however, you’re abstracting from living things, specifically animals; and that’s what strikes me as extraordinarily dicey. It’s not just that it seems rather unlikely that gaseous vertebrates exist. All the living things we have encountered have metabolisms, and anything we run across in the future will have a metabolism or we won’t count it as alive. So is God an autotroph or a heterotroph? The Chandogya Upanishads represents Atman as chanting “I am the eater! I am the eater!” So what’s it eating? Once again, that’s not a problem for the utterly replete spherical God of Parmenides who needs nothing at all, but that God or any other God eternal, infinite, and complete isn’t alive because to live is to persist on a thermodynamic gradient like a vortex in a tea pot. (I take Carnot’s word for that one, hence the title of the piece.)
A non-living God seems otiose or disappointing since such a being simply cannot act, care, or will. We might love it, but it wouldn’t make sense for it to love us. A finite God, some sort of friendly or not so friendly Cthulhu, at least makes sense; but if you are going in for that kind of science fiction God you might as well believe in Baal riding the storm clouds. At least that way you don’t have to finish high school.