Friday, December 3, 2010

God & the Fallacy of Astonishment (11/03/2009)

This was originally posted on a horrible site called Myspace. When Myspace underwent a redesign in Fall 2010, hundreds of insightful reader comments that had been left over the years were lost. I have since deleted my account there.

One of the questions we nonbelievers often get is, "So, did the universe just pop into existence out of nothing?" Let's ignore for a moment the point that if God didn't need to be created (and always existed), then perhaps the universe or multiverse didn't need to be created, either. The question of whether the universe was designed by an intelligent being or "popped out of nothing" encapsulates why faith in God, even in the 21st century, still exists: total human astonishment. Most of us assume that since many beautiful, complex things have been created by intelligent human beings, then complex or beautiful things in nature must have been created by an intelligence, too. After all, how could all of this pop out of nothing?

I can't answer that question. But the fact that I can't answer it doesn't prove or disprove anything. We human beings are astonished by the wonders of the universe — but our mere astonishment doesn't prove anything, either.

Here's an example of what I call the "fallacy of astonishment." Imagine that it's the 1970s and some anthropologists in Borneo come across a tribe that's never had contact with Western civilization. The explorers make friends and bring out a Polaroid camera. Someone takes a picture of the tribe's chief and hands it to him. As the chief sees his image develop before his eyes — he's never seen any kind of photograph before — he becomes astonished and concludes that the explorers must be gods, drops to his knees, and begins to worship them.

One can imagine such a scenario actually playing out (if it didn't in reality at some time). The tribal chief witnesses something that is so beyond his personal experience, seemingly the only logical explanation is a supernatural one. After all, from his perspective, there's no other way a two-dimensional image of him magically appeared on a little gray square. So, does this mean the explorers actually are gods? Of course not. The chief merely doesn't have enough information to make an informed opinion on the matter.

I believe that we "civilized" humans of the 21st century are like the tribal chief when it comes to questions of the origin of life and the universe. Really, we have very little information in these areas. We know that the visible universe is a certain age and size, but we know nothing at all about what's beyond the visible universe. (I've even suggested that the age of the universe is a biocentric extrapolation, and that the Big Bang never actually "happened" as a real, physical event at all.) We know how long life has been around on Earth, but we don't know how or even where it got started. We are that tribal chief, watching things apparently develop out of nothing, and then falling to worship that which must be responsible for making them happen.

The really religious people talk about the absurdity of explosions in outer space, and point out that tornadoes passing over junkyards don't create 747 jets. They speak of something coming out of nothing and life jumping out of "goo." But when I hear these cliché arguments, all I can think is, You have no idea what you're talking about. But none of us does — and that's the whole point.

I understand why so many people believe in God. It isn't easy to imagine things that lie far beyond our human-scale, human-experience personal world, and unless one can conjure up such a vision — or at least acknowledge that our origins are currently far beyond our understanding — it's quite natural to give in to our astonishment and assume that a personal supernatural being created it all.

But that doesn't make it the truth.


  1. love your work! I had no idea that you were also a blogger of intellect.

    I must admit, the whole biocentric thing confuses me to no end..

  2. Have you been reading my mind, exactly my thoughts Edward! :)

  3. Forget all of the proven events during biblical times, forget that there are many other reasons people believe in a god, and yes I might believe that being astonished by a supernatural being in an age where nothing surprises us is why so many people have religion.

  4. @Eager: Proven events? Like Adam being created from clay, and Eve being created from his rib? Or like two animals of every species (millions of animals) fitting into a small arch and not eating each other? Satan taking Jesus to a mountain from where he can see ALL the kingdoms on Earth? (If I would find such a mountain I'd convert instantly)
    And now the trillion-dollar question, if you would've been born in a secular home in China, would you believe in any of that? (hence proving that the prime reason why people believe in the Biblical God or any other organized religion's God is because their parents or society believe in him/her/it too?)