2. The Identity of God
It is perhaps worth considering what a “God” actually is in the linguistic sense. Some dictionary definitions are (Concise Oxford):
- Superhuman being worshipped as having power over nature and human fortunes
- Image, animal, or other object, worshipped as symbolizing, being the visible habitation of, or itself possessing, divine power; an idol.
- Supreme being, creator and ruler of universe.
From these definitions, the essential attribute of a god is that it has a superhuman or supernatural power. The precise definition is difficult, as words that may describe a god are generally ill-defined in their usage. For example, there are many things that would be considered superhuman, like the effect of the weather, but would not be considered to be gods.
Supernatural is an even more difficult word to use, as it is more an expression of what we know about something rather than the thing itself. Something is only considered supernatural if it is not understood. Many years ago, lightning may have been considered a supernatural occurrence, but now we can say that it is an electrical discharge across two differing potentials. We may still not fundamentally understand electricity, but we have an explanation that allows it to be considered natural. If some supernatural event were to be found to be caused by the presence of aliens, or a previously unknown life-form, it would no longer be supernatural. It would then be a normal, understood event.
The Paradox in Proving God
This has important ramifications on the understanding of the presence of a God. If the uniquely identifying feature of a god is that it has supernatural capabilities, there is a receding horizon problem. As soon as evidence for the god is found, the value of the evidence is reduced simply because it exists. Although the word “supernatural” may not be used, people expect the actions of a God to be something that is not understood by humans.
Acts of God
As an example, for many years, the various actions of the weather have been considered an “act of God”. While now it is mainly useful as a classification label by insurance companies (a subset of the “bad risk” classification), it has its origins in the belief that these weather events were related to the actions of a God. In the past, the weather was very poorly understood. It basically followed a seasonal pattern, but sometimes it would do completely unexpected things. A cyclone, hurricane or tornado would be greatly devastating, but poorly understood. In a similar category are earthquakes, volcanos and tidal waves.
Because the general definition of a God's power relates to the things that are not understood, these events were closely associated with the actions of a God, or of gods. Consider the record in the Bible of the man Jonah:
Jonah 1:1.: Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 2. "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me." 3. But Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa, and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare, and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. 4. But the LORD sent out a great wind on the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship was about to be broken up. 5. Then the mariners were afraid; and every man cried out to his god, and threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten the load. But Jonah had gone down into the lowest parts of the ship, had lain down, and was fast asleep. 6. So the captain came to him, and said to him, "What do you mean, sleeper? Arise, call on your God; perhaps your God will consider us, so that we may not perish." NKJV
When faced with a severe storm, the men on the boat prayed to their gods, and they asked Jonah to pray to his god as well. You don't have to believe a word of the Bible to accept this point. It is only to establish the ideas of humans. Whether the Bible is from a God, or a grand deception written by humans, this event still portrays the understanding and ideas of people. If you accept the record about Jonah it shows that God does control the weather, otherwise it just shows that people thought that a God controlled the weather. For the skeptic, the important point is the actions of the other passengers in the record --- They saw the weather as something that was controlled by the gods.
In recent years, the perception has changed. Things like the weather, earthquakes and volcanos are better understood. This understanding is perhaps only superficial in reality as these events still cannot be controlled, and the prediction is poor. But the understanding is sufficient to have these things seen as natural events. There is now a scientific viewpoint on them, which separates it from the supernatural, and ultimately from the association with a god. With the scientific ideas of complexity, infinite sensitivity and chaos, people basically now claim to understand it. It is unfortunate, perhaps, that they know all about it only to the extent that they can classify it into a class of “things” that are too complex to understand. In other words to say that something is scientifically understood, often only means that it has been found to be like something else. It can then be classified as a particular type of system which has a name --- And if it has a name then it is obviously understood.
The important point here is that with this increase in understanding, however shallow it is, the elements of the “supernatural” class decreases. If the definition or perception of a god is linked with this supernatural class, the definition has also been changing. This is particularly important if we are to consider the visible evidence of the presence of a god.
I will pose the question: “If there was an event that showed the existence of a god, what would it be like?” If it were a one-off but very spectacular event, what would people think? If it only happened once, it would be in danger of being placed in the supernatural type classification. Basically it couldn't prove anything, as it only happened once and couldn't be understood.
As an alternative, what about an event that continued or was repetitive? An example of this could be like the pillar of file that is recorded in the biblical book of Exodus. It tells of signals that were given to the ancient nation of Israel when they were migrating through the desert.
Exodus 13:21.: And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so as to go by day and night. NKJV
Would this prove the existence or character of God? It could be very spectacular, and would certainly provoke extensive scientific investigation. There would be many excited people trying to work out how it occurred, whether it demonstrated a useful source of alternative energy, whether an enemy country put it there, and if it was (or could be) related to espionage.
After a while, however, knowledge about the pillar of fire would be gained. At that point its mechanism could be classified and its behaviour modelled. It would then be a natural event and part of our scientific knowledge. It would not serve the purpose of proving the existence of God, as it would now be considered a natural occurrence, just like the weather, the sun, and life on earth. It might be necessary to rethink existing theories to accommodate the findings, but that is not new, as there is a long history of changes in our understanding of physics.
Newton proved that the the classical philosophers were wrong, Einstein proved that Newton was wrong, Heisenberg proved that Einstein was wrong --- and no-one understands why Heisenberg should be right. It might be then that $<$the guy who understood the pillar of fire$>$ would show that Heisenberg was wrong.
To some extent this must have been what happened to the Israelites who were recorded to have seen the pillar of cloud and fire. In a matter of only a very short period of time they had doubts about the power of their God. In the very next chapter, they expressed their concerns and lack of faith to their leader Moses,
Exodus 14:11.: Then they said to Moses, "Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you so dealt with us, to bring us up out of Egypt? NKJV
Later they worshipped idols and rebelled against their God on many occasions, all in the presence of the pillar of fire and other miracles.
There is a paradox here. If something is not understood, it will not be accepted as a sign of God's existence because it is not understood. If it is understood however, it is understood and hence natural. As it is a natural part of our world, it does not show the existence of God. There are essentially two adaptive systems which act together to lessen the impact on perception that would result from a true “act of God”. So using this philosophy, it is difficult to construct an event that would show the existence and power of a god.
The paradox is even greater if the God knows, or can predict, the future. In this case there will possibly have been a mechanism in place specifically for the act in question. Knowing the future need, God could provide what we think of as the physical principles to enable this event to occur. It is likely that these physical principles would be observed before the event, and so a scientific explanation could be provided all the more easily.
The more beautiful and neat the design of the world -- at the fundamental level -- the better it fits in with the scientific model of the earth. So the the very same things that show the existence of God, support the validity of science. For example, God could have developed an amazingly good object-oriented design technique in populating the earth with animals. This would allow a coherent design method and re-use of successful anatomy modules. The response from scientists would be that the similarity between species obviously proves that creation was through evolution --- and so in their minds, God does not have to exist.