Monthly Archives: October 2011

Defining God

Last week, we took note of how difficult it is to define a word. Our own biases weigh so heavily into what we say, we’re always inclined to define a word in a way that best fits our own desires. So when we ask the question “if a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” we may disagree on the definition of the word ‘sound.’ To the person who wants to dismiss the spiritual relevance of that statement, they will define the word as a disruption of molecules in the air, whether or not those disruptions are interpreted by a living ear. But for those of us who have an appreciation for the impact of sound in our daily lives, we may find that definition maliciously inefficient.

If we can’t agree on the definition of sound, we certainly shouldn’t expect to agree on what we mean by the word God. But with ‘sound,’ though we may not agree that the definition above completely encompasses what it is to be ‘sound,’ we can all agree that sound encompasses at least that much. So then, let’s agree at a bare minimum what God is.

An atheist would likely start with a basic definition suggesting it was a delusion, or a symbolic metaphor of some kind, but since Christians obviously disagree with all of that, it doesn’t serve our purpose of being a universal definition. Christians may want to refer to God as the Creator of all things, Lord of man, etc. but an atheist would certainly disagree with all of that. A more neutral definition might be “the Creator of all things, according to a specific religion,” but that’s not giving a universal definition either, it’s specifically giving ownership of the definition to Christians. We come back around to atheists then, who might insist that there can be no definition that universally applies to God, because there is no God, and therefore ‘God’ means nothing. But atheists can certainly agree that when people refer to God, they’re certainly referring to something.

But what?

Of course, Judeo-Christian-Muslims are not the only people to refer to a god or gods. Native Americans refer to virtually everything as “the gods.” Egyptians had Geb and Nut and friends, Greeks had Mt. Olympus, pagans had spirits, and so on. Many modern Christians or “spiritualists” simply refer to a Higher Power, whatever That may be.

What do all of these gods have in common? Egyptians didn’t know where the sun went at night, which was a nuisance for them, since they relied heavily on the sun. Their ultimate explanation was that Horus and Set, two gods, were fighting between light and darkness, and day and night were the result. Early Greeks had a similar vision, with Apollo riding his chariot across the sky, which was much closer to how the sun actually worked, and in any case was understood by the Greeks as more of a metaphor. They didn’t literally believe that the big bright thing in the sky was Apollo. With many of their other gods, however, they were dead serious.

Many of the rules dictated in the Torah were reflections of things that the Hebrew people had observed, but didn’t fully understand. Things like hygiene and sociology. In Persia, people relied on the philosophy of Zoroastrianism, the philosophy of a successful people, until their land was violently taken over and they were driven into darker times, at which point the darker, more violent Muslim faith appeared. It explained what they did not understand — remember that the average farmer in Iran would know nothing of the Romans or Mongols, and would be unlikely to understand why their life would be changing in such a drastic way.

In this country, the predominant and most modern religion is Christianity. American Christians understand where the sun comes from. Most of us understand how we have ocean tides, earthquakes, and tornadoes. What we still don’t understand is where we came from. It’s a little difficult to wrap our heads around how chimpanzees and humans could be related, or why dinosaurs suddenly disappeared and mammals suddenly dominated. The Big Bang theory doesn’t explain how something could come from nothing. To Christians, this all points to one thing — God. Even with smaller things, God is involved. When a young child is killed for seemingly pointless reasons, they say that God works in mysterious ways. When a star athlete, raised to be humble, is asked to explain how he won the gold medal, he thanks God for his gifts. Any time that an atheist is unable to answer a Christian’s question about the world, they point to that as proof of a God.

Let’s take that last sentence and put it in its own context: any time we are unable to answer a question about the world, we point to it as proof of a God.

It is the one constant in all of history: God is what we don’t understand. God is our lack of answers. We laugh at the Hindu belief that mankind developed from a supernatural teardrop, because we know enough to know that it’s false. Christians who have disavowed many of the Bible’s stories (Eve coming from Adam’s rib, Noah’s Ark, the creation in six days) do so because we know at least enough to know what can and can’t happen. And as much as they have faith in God’s ability to heal, they still turn to modern medicine because they know it works. But as long as atheists can’t explain how the universe got here, Christians will still have an answer, and until atheists can provide an explanation for where man came from that adequately captures the grandeur of the human spirit, Christians will still have their own theory.

So if we want to disarm the Christian belief, we have to play by the Christian’s rules. As frustrating as it may be, the burden is in fact on atheists to explain everything, in a way that makes sense and still captures the grandeur of life, and until that happens, there will still be things that we do not understand.

There will still be a God.

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Posted by on October 31, 2011 in Uncategorized


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Dictating Reality

If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Yes. Yes, it does.

20111027-213224.jpgThe fact that we consider this question at all profound is very revealing of how we think. The mere thought that there could be something outside of our own perception blows our minds. There are stars that we will never see. There are countries we will never visit. There are restaurants in New York that we will never go to. There are kinds of fish we will never eat. For those of up who grew up in crowded neighborhoods, there are old high school classmates whom, despite having grown up with us, having our very same upbringing, we will never meet. There are billions of things that we will never personally conceive of, and we accept that they all exist… intellectually. But this acceptance is a learned behavior. It goes against our instincts, and we’re born struggling to believe that those things really exist.

You see it when you play a game of peekaboo with a young child. Your child has, of course, met you before. They love playing games with you, cuddling up to you, sharing their lives with you, but the second you put your hands in front of your face, you cease to exist, because they don’t perceive your existence. Then, you open your hands and there you are! The child sees you, and suddenly you’ve come into existence! The child has someone to love, to smile at, someone to care for them and feed them and—wait, no… no, the child was mistaken, you in fact never existed. All there is in life is a pair of hands.

As I grew up, at some level I believed that my Grandma only existed on Sunday afternoons. There was no such thing as an omelet in the afternoon. School did not exist when I was playing in my room. Even when I got older and moved to Portland after college, the first time I spontaneously decided to go to the ocean in the middle of the night, when I got to the coast at 2:30 a.m., I was actually pretty surprised it was there. It was at that point that I realized that I had thought of the ocean the same way I had the state fair, or Christmas season. It was only at a certain time of the year that the carnival rides were built. There was only one month in which it made sense to put a tree in the living room. And it was only in early August that we put out 187 quintillion gallons of water between Japan and Oregon so my family could watch it splash.

So I get it. I get why we feel a sense of awe when we ponder whether sound only exists for us to listen to. But it’s not a great philosophical question for which there is no answer. When forced air causes molecules to push off of each other, it creates a ripple of energy. When that ripple cascades to a person’s eardrums at a certain frequency, our brains interpret it as sound, but those sound waves don’t go directly to our ears. When caused, they go everywhere, even through solid objects.

Now, that explanation is definitely not as sexy, and more importantly, it goes against that idea of how our perception dictates reality. There’s just something… missing from a physical description of sound waves that doesn’t capture what sound is. How can we describe a recording of Pachelbel’s Canon as just “a ripple of molecules that happen to hit one’s ear”? So, we feel obliged to explain how that purely scientific description fails to address the true philosophical question. Perhaps this is a better question: “if there is no ear interpreting the disturbed molecules in the air, can you really call it sound?”

Maybe not. But that wasn’t the question. To capture that profound emotion we get from the original question, we feel the need to redefine sound. The raw science, while absolutely accurate, is unsatisfactory in describing the world around us. But if we are going to assume the authority of redefining the world around us, of dictating what is reality and what is merely in our minds, we have to be very careful that we continue to see the forest for the trees.


Posted by on October 28, 2011 in Uncategorized


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