I am frankly amazed that National Public Radio (NPR) would publish this mushy reconception of religion, for it’s worse than that purveyed by apophatists like Karen Armstrong. In fact, Nancy Ellen Abrams, who is flogging her new book A God that Could Be Real: Sprirituality, Science, and the Future of our Planet, was given two mini-essays in NPR to write about her book. on her book. And that book apparently re-casts “God”, sort of, as “The Emergent Complexity of the Universe in All Its Scientific Wonder” (I’ve written about her thesis before), and so she pushes not deism, but the worship of some undefined aspect of science as a god. Indeed, her “god” isn’t even vaguely human, or sentient. This is just a semantic trick. I could consider literature or art as “god,” too, and then I could say that we have a God That Could Be Real. Or food, or wine! In fact, I’d rather worship food than the Emergent Complexity of the Universe.
Abrams’s semantic argument is simply lame, and I doubt it will convince any believers, although Library Journal extolled it like this: “A fine addition to the growing library of alternative approaches to literalism in belief, this book is suitable for academic libraries, liberal churches, and individual seekers.” Yeah, seekers!
Moreover, her argument about words is disingenuous, for it co-opts most people’s notion of what God is like (a mind without a body, and one who cares about you), and tries to show people that, despite the nonexistence of such a god, they can still have a deity—indeed, one that’s The Only Kind of God Worth Wanting.
Does that remind you of anything else—like compatibilist free will? As science has debunked our notion of libertarian free will, philosophers have diligently redefined “free will” so that we can still have it. It is a pretty exact parallel to what Nancy Allen Abrams does: she simply redefines God in the light of scientific advances so that we can still have it as well.
This bothers me a bit on personal grounds, too, for I’m absolutely sure that were I to submit to NPR a piece or two giving the thesis of my new book—that science and religion are incompatible, and attempts to turn science into religion are dumb—NPR would reject it out of hand. That station and site simply have an overweening need to osculate the rump of faith, and there’s nothing to be done about it. I can’t remember a time I’ve seen an overtly atheist piece on the NPR site. Shouldn’t they be balancing their copious coverage of religion and spirituality with alternative views? Don’t they see that nonbelief is an important trend in American culture?
But I digress. Abrams’s first piece is called “‘A God that could be real’ in the scientific universe.” Her initial point is this (Abrams’s quotes are indented):
We have to have a god because people can’t live without one.
Does God have to be part of our understanding of the universe? No. But if scientists tell the public that they have to choose between God and science, most people will choose God, which leads to denialism, hostility to science and the profoundly dangerous mental incoherence in modern society that fosters depression and conflict. Meanwhile, many of those who choose science find themselves without any way of thinking that can give them access to their own spiritual potential. What we need is a coherent big picture that is completely consistent with — and even inspired by — science, yet provides an empowering way of rethinking God that provides the human and social benefits without the fantasy. How can we get this?
Sounds a lot like what free-will compatibilists do, doesn’t it? (That’s not a coincidence, for several compatibilists have explicitly argued that we must tell people they have some kind of free will because society will fall apart if they lose their belief that they have real agency.) At any rate, I rarely tell people that they have to choose between God and science; I think I’ve said that once in my life. Rather, I try to show them that the scientific and religious ways to discern “truth” are incompatible, and then let them draw their own conclusions.
The traditional God doesn’t fly any longer because there’s no evidence for it.
What if we thought this way about God? What if we took the evidence of a new cosmic reality seriously and became willing to rule out the impossible? What would be left?
We can have a real God if we let go of what makes it unreal. I am only interested in God if it’s real. If it isn’t real, there’s nothing to talk about. But I don’t mean real like a table, or a feeling, or a test score, or a star. Those are real in normal earthbound experience. I mean real in the full scientific picture of our double dark universe, our planet, our biology and our moment in history.
These are characteristics of a God that can’t be real:
- God existed before the universe
- God created the universe.
- God knows everything.
- God intends everything that happens.
- God can choose to violate the laws of nature.
Well, at least she admits that there’s no evidence for any kind of creator God or one with any characteristics of the Abrahamic God. But she won’t stop there and just admit that she’s an atheist. No, she has to make one god further—confecting a nebulous and fuzzy god. It’s a sort-of-sciencey and emergent god, one that she tries to describe in her second NPR post, “A new way to think about God.”
I’d like to explain what Abrams means by “god,” but it’s pretty obscure. In fact, I think it’s obscure because she wants it that way (the usual tactic of Sophisticated Theologians™). Or maybe she simply doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Regardless, I have no idea what kind of god she’s describing, except that it comports with science, it has something to do with complexity, and that it’s emergent (a word that almost invariably means you’re in Woo-Land). But here’s how she explains it:
Almost everything we humans do collectively spawns an emergent phenomenon. So, for example, people trading things has led to the global economy, an emergent phenomenon so complicated and unpredictable that not only does no one know the rules, but the professionals don’t even agree on what the rules should be about. The never-ending effort to get people to behave decently toward one another has spawned governments. Our innate desire for gossip has spawned the media. [it goes on, but you get the point]. . .
But we humans are not just traders, moralizers and gossips. Far beneath those behaviors, so deep it distinguishes us from the other primates, is this: We aspire. We aspire to different things, but we all aspire. Our aspirations are as real as we are. They are not the same as desires, like food, sex and security. Every animal has those desires from instinct alone. Aspirations reach beyond survival needs. Our aspirations are what shape each of us humans into the individual we are. Without aspirations, we are nothing but meat with habits. We humans are the aspiring species and may have been for hundreds of thousands of years.
Well, other species also have aspirations, and often for the same things that we do: food, status, and sex. Much of that, in us as well as other species, is a result of natural selection acting to spread our genes. But, Abrams says, we also aspire to meaning, and she somehow not only finds that meaning, but turns it into God. If you really understand this following bit, your’e better than I am! (my emphasis):
Something new has to have emerged from the staggering complexity of all humanity’s aspirations, interacting. What is that something — that emergent phenomenon both fed by and feeding the aspirations of every human being? It didn’t exist before humans evolved, but it’s here now, and every one of us is directly connected to it, simply by virtue of being human and having aspirations. It didn’t create the universe, but it has created the meaning of the universe, which is what matters to us. Meaning, universe, spirit, God, creation and all other abstract concepts are themselves ideas that took form over countless generations, as people shared their aspirations to understand and express what may lie beyond the visible world. This emergent phenomenon has created the power of all our words and ideas, including ideals like truth, justice, and freedom, which took millennia to clarify in practice, and which no individual could ever have invented or even imagined without a rich cultural history that made it possible.
This infinitely complex phenomenon, which has emerged and continues to emerge from instant to instant, growing exponentially and shape-shifting, can accurately be said to exist in the modern universe. It’s as real as the economy, as real as the government. It doesn’t matter if you’re Hindu or Christian or Jewish or atheist or agnostic, because I’m not proposing an alternative religious idea. I’m explaining an emergent phenomenon that actually exists in our scientific picture of reality. You don’t have to call it God, but it’s real. And when you search for a name for it, it may be the only thing that exists in the modern universe that is worthy of the name God.
Okay, what exactly is this emergent phenomenon that Abrams is banging on about? She doesn’t explain it clearly—and if you look at the largely positive reviews of this execrable idea on the Amazon site, it appears that her readers don’t, either. Could a reader tell me what “god” she is talking about? Please? It clearly has something to do with science, and with dark energy and dark matter, issues she raised in her first post as well as the excerpt from her book that I criticized a few weeks ago. Here’s that excerpt:
The power of praying comes from daring to enter that mysterious place between the emerging God and us. But it’s not an empty space—it’s our own selves on progressively larger size scales, where we are participating in multiple emerging phenomena and creating emergent identities. As the ancient Egyptian world blended outward into the spiritual world, so does ours. And the higher our consciousness goes along the Uroboros of Human Identity, the more it blends into the emerging phenomenon of God. In tuning our ordinary consciousness in to those higher levels that we may have scarcely ever visited before, we approach God.
Theobabble! But people apparently lap this stuff up, for it sounds profound, although I can’t see any substantive content. If I were to grade Ms. Abrams’s effort, I’d give her a D and write this in the margins of her paper: “Could you please explain exactly what the emergent God is to which we’re supposed to pray? You dance all around the issue but are never explicit. Rewrite paper and submit.”
Nevertheless—and this does surprise me—the readers on Amazon have generally rated the book highly. There are clearly many Seekers out there! Here’s part of a review by “J. Peterson” on Amazon, who gives the book four out of five stars, even though he/she doesn’t seem to fully grasp what Abrams is saying (my emphasis):
This book provoked a variety of thoughts and emotions for me, thus I judge the book a very worthwhile read.
I fully admit that I did not (and still do not) grasp all of what the author is trying to say, so I need to read it again. I can’t say that about very many books.
Some of the author’s ideas are fascinating, while others I reject. I will leave other readers to decide for themselves on these, and won’t attempt to review all of them here.
One of the ideas I liked the best was her description of “god” as an “emergent” phenomenon. Perhaps I don’t get out enough, but I was not familiar with the whole concept of “emergence.” But now that I have been introduced to the concept by this book, many (non-religious) things are much more clear. Simply put, an emergent phenomenon is one that is literally greater than the sum of its parts, e.g. a living organism is composed of unthinking atoms that individually just obey the laws of physics, but when aggregated into a human body, a totally new and wonderful thing emerges – somehow. The author’s premise is that god is also emergent, which is quite interesting. I am still trying to decide if I buy this or not, but I *am* still thinking about it.
But this is offset by a one-star review by Geoff Arnold, an atheist, who said it better than I could. (Of course, I haven’t read Abrams’s book as he has, but I’ve read the long excerpts in Salon (here and here) and her two pieces on NPR). I can’t be arsed to read the book if it’s anything like what she’s already written.) Here’s part of Arnold’s review:
Now she provides no evidence for the existence of such an entity, nor does she attempt to explain what “emergence” might involve. She seems to view emergence as a mysterious process that requires no explanation — a bit like the Gaia hypothesis, or some of Deepak Chopra’s quantum nonsense. It is, of course, nothing of the kind. Biology is “emergent” from chemistry and physics, in that the latter provide a plastic framework in which information-theoretic processes can — contingently — emerge, but that doesn’t mean that biological phenomena are epistemologically mysterious. (I pinch myself for effect.)
So by the end of the first section we have an unsupported hypothesis which seems “worthy” of the term “god”. Most theists would wonder whether an entity which is so radically contingent and highly local (in both space and time) would fit the bill; it’s hardly a prime mover, or a ground of being, or a timeless and omnipotent father figure. Oddly, Abrams seems to feel that this is a case where people should just “get over it”, and the “god” is quickly capitalized. Prayers follow; rituals are not far behind.
Now, I’m an atheist, so I find most concepts of “god” pretty much incoherent. Nevertheless, as deities go, this is a pretty unsatisfactory one. After all, one errant asteroid could wipe out all human life in a moment, and since Abrams’ god is merely an emergent property of human consciousness, bang goes god. Of course we wouldn’t be around to notice it, but it all seems remarkably parochial.
Ultimately, this book left me annoyed, almost angry. A silly piece of imagination, unsupported by any evidence, framed in language which exploits and abuses scientific thought, proposed as a replacement for conventional deities. “Could be real”. What does “real” mean in this context? We’re not told. Ultimately Abrams’ decided that she wanted to believe, and made up something that she could believe in, without any evidence. That’s silly.
Give that man a Cuban cigar! He has a long career ahead as a religion debunker.