Friday, 20 May 2011

Chris Port Blog #259. The ‘God’ Measurement. “It doesn’t really matter, does it? I think we’re both talking about the same thing…”

© Chris Port, May 2011

I am philosophical about life. Philosophy is all about the questioning, challenging and undermining of dogmas.

Since all religions are dogmas, ergo I am areligious (or apatheist as I once joked - one who is apathetic about God). However, this is not the same as being anti-religious (since this would, in itself, be a dogmatic position).

The mono-veracious claims of competing religions (while self-evidently fallacious) do not make their central conceit (the supernatural) disappear. Religions are like the blind men groping an elephant. They may squabble over their parochial descriptions, but this is not the same as saying that there is no elephant in the room.

“He maintained, for example, at one time that all existential propositions are meaningless. This was in a lecture room, and I invited him to consider the proposition: 'There is no hippopotamus in this room at present.' When he refused to believe this, I looked under all the desks without finding one; but he remained unconvinced.” (Bertrand Russell on Ludwig Wittgenstein)

The 'elephant in the room' analogy is further complicated by the fact that ‘God’ (whatever that may be) is usually apprehended not as a physical object but as a metaphysical concept.

The supernatural has no place in science because science is properly concerned with the study of natural phenomena. The battle between science and religion has intensified over the centuries as science has found convincing natural explanations for phenomena which were previously thought to be inexplicable and thus relegated to the unknowable supernatural.

It is quite in order for scientists (positivists) to discount the concept of God from their dogma. Positivism is (tautologously) a dogma since it is only concerned with ‘that which can be measured’. It refuses (quite rightly) to become sidetracked by semantics. The concept of ‘God’ (whether you believe in a deity or not) is, by general consensus, supernatural and unknowable, and thus cannot be measured.

Let’s borrow from perturbation theory and find an approximate solution to the ‘God’ measurement by doing a simpler calculation.

Sensible scientists would not dispute the ‘existence’ of unmeasurable concepts such as ‘love’. They would merely regard such a concept as outside of their field of study and best left to other disciplines (such as the arts).

‘Love’ is a semantic interpretation of various physical phenomena (e.g. hormones). While it would be absurd to distil ‘love’ into a test tube, it is quite in order for scientists to measure hormones and their interaction with the physiology. The biochemical mechanisms of ‘love’ fall well within science’s remit here. Psychological and sociological measurements are also perfectly in order. Data analysis of behavioural patterns could provide useful insights. Such insights could be used to predict, identify and alleviate some of the darker passions unleashed by ‘love’ (e.g. jealousy and melancholy).

However, with such a uniquely human phenomenon as ‘love’, no sensible scientist would claim that the data is the feeling. The ecstasy and the agony (and the literature) of love are, from a scientific perspective, just further data for analysis.

So, scientifically, does ‘love’ exist? No. Only the data exists. ‘Love’ is just a story told by human beings to comprehend and express an emergent feeling.

Ditto God. God is a feeling rather than an object or analogous data. It is quite possible for scientists to explain away ‘God’ in the same way that they can explain away ‘love’. But so what? ‘Love’ is an emergent feeling arising from insentient particles and processes interacting within the organism. Analogously, ‘God’ is an emergent feeling arising from natural particles and processes interacting between the organism and the rest of the universe.

‘God’ is everywhere. In much the same way that James Lovelock’s Gaia Theory proposed that the Earth’s biosystem behaves in a way that is analogous to a single organism, I would just extend this analogy to the whole universe. ‘God’ is not the creator of the universe, or outside of it; ‘God’ is the universe.

So, scientifically, does ‘God’ exist? No. Since scientists have no particular organism to study, they have no particular data to analyse here. The ‘measurement’ of God would be as impossible and pointless as the measurement of the entire universe. This is clearly not the same as claiming that the universe does not exist. We are discussing semantics, not data here. Like ‘love’, ‘God’ is a story told by human beings to comprehend and express an emergent feeling.

It is a common misconception amongst atheists that ‘God’ does not exist (or God’s existence is overwhelmingly implausible) because there is no physical evidence to suggest otherwise. The religious rebuff that there is no physical evidence for God’s non-existence is rightly laughed out of court by the positivists. They are quite right to put the burden of proof on the theists, and I leave them to fight their own battles.

For myself, I would say this. When religionists point at various doctrinal texts and babble on about ‘God’ I literally have no idea what they are talking about. I regard some religious texts to be interesting for a variety of reasons (mainly historical and aesthetic). Some contain wisdom and compassion, art and beauty. Some are merely irrational, intolerant gibberish. The only ‘evidence’ in religious texts is evidence of the human imagination.

So is there a ‘God’ anywhere else?

Sometimes, like other human beings, I allow myself a moment of awe and gaze at the stars. Sometimes I read a wondrous poem, listen to a wondrous song, ‘see’ a wondrous idea. At these moments, I briefly experience an ‘epiphany’ - the joy of being alive, sensing and thinking.

To elucidate these sensations in scientific terms would not communicate the feeling as I experienced it, and wish others to comprehend it. So I just label it instead. I give it a word: ‘God’. A devout atheist would probably frown and choose other words. But so what? I would probably just grin and say: “It doesn’t really matter, does it? I think we’re both talking about the same thing…”

Mitchell and Webb in "Big Talk". "Does God Exist?"


  1. In response to a query about 'Perturbation Theory' on the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason (Official) FB page...!/permalink.php?story_fbid=188293897885006&id=8798180154&notif_t=share_comment

    Perturbation theory is a method used in various branches of maths and science. In essence, you can sometimes make quicker progress if you break a fiendishly complex calculation down into simpler ones. The simpler calculations will give you a 'ball park figure'. You can then refine your approximations to give you a more accurate result. I've just borrowed the idea and transposed it from maths to semantics. The 'love' delusion seems to be simpler and less contentious than the 'God' delusion, so clarifying the former is a quicker way of clarifying the latter. Even scientists are happy to suspend their logical positivism and love their partners and children. If you pointed out that this is just a biochemical bundle of sensations rather than a Platonic form, they would probably just grin and say: “It doesn’t really matter, does it? I think we’re both talking about the same thing…” I'm just extending the analogy a bit further...

  2. On the 'redefinition' of God...