Passes in the air

Why do people think there is a deity? (Small question. I’ll just knock off the answer in a few hundred words here. No biggy.) Partly (only partly) because of the thought that something must have created the universe – that there must be Mind behind it all. There is the regress problem – what created the mind then? – but many people simply find it more plausible to start with a mind than to start with a brute fact, or a Big Bang. Okay – but then you have to ask what kind of mind is it, and what kind of deity is it?

That’s one place you get the two-step. Mind in the form of an Intelligent Agent must have created the universe, and (unstated premise) the mind and the intelligence must be the kind of thing we mean by mind and intelligence. But that is not actually terribly likely. We think that what we have is Intelligence, generic intelligence, some of the kind of thing that intelligence is and has to be in order to count as intelligence. But maybe that’s all wrong. We would think that, of course, because it’s the only kind we know from the inside, and we’ve seen what it can do, so for us it’s quite natural to think that we have The Thing Itself, as opposed to having a set of faculties that have been adaptive (more or less) in this particular environment, which we call intelligence. In short, it could be that we’re flattering ourselves.

We don’t really know what – if anything – generic intelligence would be, or what it would be like. We think maybe like a computer, but who knows?

Our intelligence, for instance, is saturated in feeling. It’s full of evaluation, it’s always deciding what matters and what doesn’t. But what matters to us is what matters to mortal, reproducing, fragile, short-lived, hungry, greedy, easily frightened, vulnerable beings. Our intelligence is shaped by that, steeped in it. A deity’s would be nothing like that. So why do we think it would recognize us? Why do we think it would care? Any more than a filing cabinet does? It needn’t be cruel to make all this suffering – it could just be a thing that has no chip for recognizing, understanding, caring about suffering, just as (say) we don’t worry about the grains of sand on a beach bruising each other as they jostle about. There seems zero reason to think a universe-designing mind would care about us; zero reason to extrapolate from our best selves and minds to its.

It would have no reason to care about suffering because it is not (if it is for instance a First Cause) mortal or vulnerable. It has no predators, it needs no food, it has no need to choose between good and bad options – so its intelligence wouldn’t have evolved to select for that ability – as ours must have. So there’s not a lot of reason to think it would ‘think’ that way at all. We think it would – but that’s because we think that way. We can’t help thinking of it in our terms, but we have no real warrant for doing that. We have no way to think of it in alien terms (because any terms we can think of are thus our terms), but it is more likely to be thoroughly alien than it is to be reassuringly familiar.

If it doesn’t have a body it’s not like us. If it’s a star it’s not like us. If it’s disembodied intelligence it’s utterly not like us, and we can’t even imagine how it would go about creating a universe. We utter grand phrases about transcendence and unknowability, but we don’t take their implications on board. If it’s as alien as all that (as it pretty much has to be to do what’s claimed for it) why do we worship it and why do we think it’s interested in us? It seems to me that these questions just proliferate; the more you think about the putative deity, the more unanswerable they seem, and the more the confident answers given by religious authorities just seem like passes in the air. A deity as strange as this one would have to be seems to make no difference to anything.

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