This reflection is based on remarks that were prepared for a debate on the question “Does God Exist” that was held at the University of Massachussets at Amherst on November 9 2016.
Before we address the question “Does God Exist?” we need to define some major terms, starting with Naturalism.
Naturalism: A viewpoint according to which everything arises from natural properties and causes and supernatural explanations are excluded or discounted.
Naturalism comes in a strong and weak form. Philosophical naturalism is a truth claim that supernatural forces do not exist. Methodological naturalism acknowledges that supernatural forces might exist but stresses that they cannot usefully be studied by the scientific method. Methodological naturalism therefore restricts itself to the study of natural properties and causes as a practical matter.
It is important to dwell a little more on methodological naturalism. Some supernatural explanations are scientifically testable, such as the claim that the earth was created in six days six thousand years ago. That claim was falsified a long time ago, which is why creationism is not taught in schools. The power of prayer provides another example. As early as 1872, Darwin’s cousin Sir Francis Galton was applying statistical methods to test whether prayer has any efficacy on such things as recovery from disease, life span, or newborn stillbirths. Here is a passage from his article titled “Statistical Inquiries into the Efficacy of Prayer”
The universal habit of the scientific world to ignore the agency of prayer is a very important fact. To fully appreciate the ‘eloquence of the silence’ of medical men, we must bear in mind the care with which they endeavour to assign a sanatory value to every influence. Had prayers for the sick any notable effect, it is incredible but that the doctors, who are always on the watch for such things, should have observed it, and added their influence to that of the priests towards obtaining them for every sick man. If they abstain from doing so, it is not because their attention has never been awakened to the possible efficacy of prayer, but, on the contrary, that although they have heard it insisted on from childhood upwards, they are unable to detect its influence. Most people have some general belief in the objective efficacy of prayer, but none seem willing to admit its action in those special cases of which they have scientific cognizance.
Thus, it is not capricious for methodological naturalists to restrict themselves to natural properties and causes. It is based on a long history of supernatural explanations that have been scientifically tested and rejected.
Here is another type of explanation that methodological naturalists avoid: that a God is responsible for creating all of the natural properties and causes and did not thereafter intervene. There is no way to test this claim because the “God” hypothesis does not identify any observable phenomena that are different from the “No God” hypothesis. Moreover, if you take this particular “God” hypothesis seriously, it is no different from godless atheism in the ethical conclusions that follow from it. It does not provide a basis for a religion, in addition to being scientifically untestable.
Against this background, I will make my first major claim about the existence of God. If a given conception of God lies outside the boundary of methodological naturalism, then that God probably doesn’t exist. This is a fairly strong claim, since it excludes the most common conceptions of God in all of the Abrahamic religions. Nevertheless, it leaves open the possibility that God does exist, when defined in a way that falls within the boundary of methodological naturalism.
One such conception is Gaia, or the earth as a self-regulating superorganism, which was proposed by the climate scientist James Lovelock. This is a purely scientific hypothesis, which Lovelock chose to name after the primal Mother Earth Goddess of Greek mythology. If it turned out to be true, would the whole earth qualify as a Goddess commanding our worship? To find out, we need to define two more key words:
God (or Goddess): A superhuman being worshiped as having power over nature or human fortunes.
Worship: An act of devotion, usually directed toward a deity. The word “worship” is derived from the Old English weorþscipe, meaning honor shown to an object, which has been etymologised as “worthiness or worth-ship”—to give, at its simplest, worth to something.
Based on these standard definitions, there is a glimmer of hope that the earth as a superorganism would qualify as a Goddess while remaining within the boundary of methodological naturalism. If an organism is a being, then so is a superorganism and the whole earth is certainly superhuman. If worshiping something means acknowledging its worth and honoring it by working on its behalf, then the earth as a superorganism certainly deserves our worship. In addition, numerous religions, especially the religions of indigenous peoples, come close to this conception of a God or Goddess.
Unfortunately, there is little scientific evidence that the whole earth qualifies as a superorganism. Organisms evolve by a process of natural or artificial selection among organisms. A process of between-planet selection would be required for the whole earth to become a superorganism, which seems far-fetched.
Superorganisms do exist, even if the whole earth does not qualify as one. Scientists agree that social insect colonies such as bees, ants, wasps and termites qualify as superorganisms because they are products of between-colony selection. The general rule is that any biological unit acquires the properties that we associate with “organism” when it is a unit of selection. Organisms and social insect colonies qualify and the whole earth does not.
Is it accurate to say that honeybees worship their hive? If by worship we mean subordinating ones own interest to the interest of a larger whole, then honeybees do worship their hives and the cells in our bodies worship us. If we wish to define worship in a way that requires conscious intent, then it would be a more distinctively human phenomenon. It is fascinating to note that religious believers themselves often compare their communities to bodies and beehives, as in this quote from the Hutterites, a Christian sect that leads a highly communal lifestyle:
True love means growth for the whole organism, whose members are all interdependent and serve each other. That is the outward form of the inner working of the Spirit, the organism of the Body governed by Christ. We see the same thing among the bees, who all work with equal zeal gathering honey.
Recently, the concept of superorganisms has been extended to human evolution. Small groups are thought to have been units of selection, in the same way as single organisms of solitary species and social insect colonies. Individuals work on behalf of others and their group as a whole, sometimes because they want to, and sometimes because they are morally obligated even if they don’t want to. Do such individuals worship their groups? This strikes me as a valid statement, based on the face value definition of “worship” and its etymological origin. Moreover, when people worship gods of their own construction, these gods are usually symbolic representations of their groups, as Durkheim proposed long ago and a great deal of scientific evidence has affirmed since. The gods don’t exist in a literal sense, but the groups that they stand for do exist.
Today, there are innumerable cultural entities that deserve the status of superorganisms, at least crudely, because they have been units of selection. Some are called religions, others are called nations, and others are called corporations. All of them call upon their members to work on their behalf. Those that are not called religions often have the same trappings as religions and use the same lexicon of words. Kings are worshipped and often regarded as divine. In a 1990 Atlantic Monthly article titled “The Market as God” the theologian Harvey Cox shows how Capitalism has all the trappings of a religion. The pantheon of superorganisms in modern life is like the pantheon of Hindu gods, some strong and others weak, some benign and others malevolent.
The earth is not a superorganism, but it could be. While natural selection does not take place at the planetary level, artificial selection can take place at this level if we collectively want it to. Recent developments in evolutionary thinking called the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis are overturning conventional wisdom that evolution is always undirected. The French paleontologist and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was prescient when he described humanity as just another species in some respects but a new process of evolution in other respects, which began as “tiny grains of thought” and then coalesced into larger and larger groups. Looking forward, Teilhard envisioned a single global consciousness called the Omega Point. The main updating required for Teilhard’s vision is to note that there is nothing inevitable about reaching the Omega Point. It is something that we must steer toward by mindfully selecting our practices with the welfare of the whole earth in mind. If this isn’t worshipping a Goddess that actually exists or can be brought into being, what would be?