[This article is part of a larger series on “Evidence for God.” Read here for more details.]
The search for God is a quest as old as human thought but the question remains; have we found him? Her? It? What would it look like to find God? How would we go about searching? What might get in our way? These are some of the questions I want to ponder in this article, and I will do so by way of a philosophical parable.
Two scientists, Dr. Alpha and Dr. Zulu, boarded a spacecraft and flew to another planet in search of life. This is what unfolded…
What do you mean by God?
Upon arrival the two doctors disembarked from their craft on the small planet in a galaxy far, far away, and Dr. Zulu immediately began jumping for joy.
“Life! Life! It’s everywhere!!” He shouted, picking up a rock.
Dr. Alpha replied, “What do you mean; I don’t see any life?”
Zulu took the rock and shoved it in Alpha’s face for closer examination, “Here!”
Alpha took a much closer look, “Do you see microbes on the rock?”
“No,” said Zulu, “the rock itself! Life, I tell you.”
Alpha replied, “That’s a rock, it’s not alive.”
“Well, if I choose to call that life then it’s life to me!” said Zulu.
The first question we have to ask when dealing with the issue of God’s existence is a question of definitions. What, exactly (or even broadly) do we mean by the word, “God?” The various religions of the world have offered various answers which are wildly inconsistent with each other, yet there certain similarities are common to many of them.
God (or the gods) is somehow “beyond” humanity. Typically God is understood to be the creator or cause of the universe whether intentionally or accidentally. Most religions understand God to be more powerful than we are, possibly even limitlessly powerful. Usually God is understood to be morally upstanding (or at least not horrifically evil). He / She / It is usually supernatural; lacking a physical body like ours.
It would be impossible to come to a universally agreed upon understanding of God, but these types of characteristics, and others like it, paint a picture of what most humans have in mind. Suffice it to say if we find a rock we cannot declare the search for God to have been a success. New Age Pantheist protestations notwithstanding (there will always be at least some outliers) we are roughly in the ballpark of a broad definition here.
Given the general description of God that humanity seems to have roughly narrowed down on, this does create a bit of an interesting question to ponder; what would evidence for such a being look like, anyway? Given the fact that God is understood to be “beyond” humanity (and usually also beyond nature itself) it seems virtually impossible to imagine that we might see him, visually, like we might see an animal on a foreign planet. If we cannot see him directly with our five sense then the best we could hope for is some kind of indirect evidence, or evidence of a “metaphysical” nature as opposed to evidence of a physical nature.
By way of analogy, the scientists may conclude there is life on the foreign planet if they were to discover some kind of tracks or droppings, or perhaps a large sign that said “It’s about time you guys got here!” Even if they did not see life directly that would be reason enough to conclude that planet was inhabited (or, at least, it was at one point).
With respect to God, though, the only possible form of evidence would be indirect in nature. Rather than seeing God directly we would see evidence of him and/or evidence of things he has done. That will not satisfy everybody, obviously, but it seems to be an inescapable reality of the situation we’re in at this time.
Keeping an open mind
Having come to a general agreement of what they mean when they speak of “life,” Alpha took the rock from Zulu and hurled it into the distance.
“What did you do that for?” Asked Zulu.
“I’m searching for life!” replied Alpha, “Wait and see.”
So they waited a few seconds. And a few more seconds. Then a minute.
“Well, if there were a giant alien life form over there, then the rock would have scared it out of its hiding place. I guess there isn’t any life on this planet.” concluded Alpha. “Let’s go home.”
“Now hold on a minute,” protested Zulu, “just because there isn’t one kind of life on this planet doesn’t mean there isn’t some other kind of life.”
“Interesting,” mused Alpha, “perhaps there are slow moving life forms and we did not wait long enough.”
“Sure,” Zulu rolled his eyes, “but I was thinking more like maybe there is plant life that cannot move, very small animals that we cannot see without a microscope, or the life exists in another part of the planet; not just behind that rock.”
This brings us to a few thoughts that we should keep in mind. First, we must enter this with an open mind. How many times have you heard the dare, “If God exists he could strike me with lightning right now?” The objector then boldly struts around, lightning-bolt-strike-free. What does this little test really prove?
All it really proves is that the word “god” does not mean “some being who can hear you no matter where you are, is powerful enough to create and direct a lightning bolt on a whim at any time and in any location, and will always strike a person with a lightning bolt when challenged to do so.” If that is the one and only understanding of God that you will entertain then I have to agree with you, God does not exist.
To declare that God does not exist because one specific test done by one specific person on one specific day did not pan out in precisely the way that person predicted it ought to pan out is, shall we say, a little presumptuous? Such tests more or less attempt to reduce God to the status of a pet monkey that does tricks on command; hardly worthy of the title God, if he did oblige.
There is another facet of this worth considering; what tools are at our disposal? Throwing a rock into the wilderness is one way of looking for life, but just as our adventurous scientists have multiple other means of looking for life so we need to consider the tools at our disposal as we search for God.
We already considered how any evidence that we might find for God’s existence will be of an indirect nature rather than direct observations. But we should consider just how wide of a net we can reasonably cast. The field of philosophy of religion is very active; philosophy surely could provide some evidence. Though we could never hope to observe him directly through science, we could possibly see some indirect pointers to him as we sort through the scientific data. Mathematics could contain clues of his existence. Perhaps even the domain of psychology? What about the arts? Biology? Could fields like engineering, accounting, or even auto mechanics give us indirect reasons to believe that God exists?
I bring all of these up not because I believe each of these fields does provide evidence for God’s existence (or even could) but to get us thinking about what that might look like to see indirect evidence for God in each of these fields. I’m not trying to answer the question, but I hope you will ask it.
As they rounded a corner Alpha and Zulu both froze in their tracks. Just steps ahead of them on the ground was a small animal – about the size of a cat – with some of the most unusual features they had ever seen; the creature was utterly unlike anything on earth. It didn’t even seem to fit in the traditional categories of mammal, reptile, insect or anything like that.
“Amazing!” Alpha whispered, in awe.
“It’s beautiful,” replied Zulu, reaching down to pick it up.
“STOP!” cried Alpha, “it could be dangerous!”
“It looks harmless to me,” replied Zulu, “we need to take it home for further study.”
“How do we know it would survive the trip home?” Alpha asked, “We don’t even know what it eats; does it need water, air, what?”
“Well then what do you propose we do?” asked Zulu.
And therein lies the most important question for each human to consider if they take the search for God seriously; what would you do if you found him? Unlike finding an animal on some foreign planet the concept of finding God carries with it – shall we say – more “weighty” implications. Some other animal is a fellow creature like us; God is Creator. Many religions believe that God has expectations of humanity; expectations that may or may not line up perfectly with our own preferences and desires. He will probably expect moral change, for instance. If God has expectations of us are we willing to accept his authority on those matters?
We might ask what right God has to tell us how to live our lives but, frankly, that question is answered by the very nature of who it is we are talking about. If God exists (as humanity understands him) then he made us. He can destroy us. Like it or not, this is the kind of guy we really need to listen to, speaking purely pragmatically. It may be the case that what God expects of us is something we would like to pursue regardless, but it might be the case that he has expectations of us that we would rather avoid. We should at least ask ourselves if we would even entertain that possibility, if we were to discover him.
A second question parallels this one; could we be personally motivated to find – or avoid finding – God? Might we be a little too eager to conclude he exists? Maybe we have certain expectations of him that drive our search – expectations of what he might provide for us – expectations that may end up being false.
Or, the flip side of that possibility, might we be reluctant to follow the evidence where it leads? Could we be avoiding him? As soon as we consider that God might have some demands for our lives we might find our motivation somewhat diminished (to put it mildly).
In other words it may be possible for those who yearn for God to see him behind every shift of the breeze. It might be equally possible for those who are less-than-eager to come face to face with their Creator to ignore the evidence, even if it is placed right before their eyes. We are human, after all, not God. Let us keep these questions in the back of our minds as we consider whether there might (or might not) be any good reason to think that God is out there.
The search for God is likely the most important quest humanity could ever engage on. Let’s make sure we do it right!