Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Island: An Inquiry into the Nature of God

Recently I had a conversation with a friend who posed to me a hypothetical situation. He proposed a situation where a group of people, recently married and with a few children, moved to a deserted island completely cut off from contact with the outside world. There these people would raise their children just like normal with one exception, they would never teach them about nor even mention the concept of God (or even god(s) for that matter). Thus the children would start with a "clean slate" and would not be affected or influenced in anyway by a preconceived notion of God. This island in a sense would be the ideal secularist's paradise.

The question involved with this experiment would be to see how the children would respond and whether or not they would naturally create a notion of God or whether these actions would sever the cultural link held by all people of a knowledge of a God. In the latter case the children would grow up without a notion of God nor would they have or create a notion of God in anyway.

Apart from the obvious problems with the logistics (and ethics) in carrying out this experiment is a broader and more important question, what is it that the parents are not supposed to teach their children? What (or which) concept of God are these parents not supposed to tell their children? If this were to be a rigorous scientific experiment then we would have to know exactly what is not to be told to the children. I would presume that it is more than simply not saying the word "God" or any comparable form of it, but would involve not mentioning anything that specifically has to do with God, religion, deity of any sort or a notion that can be construed in anyway to be a teaching of the concept of God. After all if this is to be a proper experiment and the purity of the sample is to be preserved then tight controls must be put in place to ensure that the concept of deity is not inadvertently introduced into this new blank slate culture.

So we remain with the problem of what is it exactly that these parents are not going to tell their children. Let us consider this an inquiry into the nature of God, because as I have pointed out we must first know exactly what it is that these parents are to not tell their children before this experiment (or mental exercise) can have any rational basis to proceed. Perhaps we should also look into the efficacy of parents not telling their children about God. This is to say whether or not it would have any effect or even if doing so is rational in the first place.

Now in the first case I would venture a guess than when my friend proposes this experiment the concept of God that he has in mind is the Platonic God or the god first described by Plato. Included in this would be the arguments for (or against) the existence of God and explanations of nature of God from Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant and so many others. In effect what is being proposed by this experiment would be to completely rewrite the entire body of philosophical literature, or more simple to throw it all out. That then leaves us with another problem, what then would these parents teach their children? If they took with them books on philosophy or great works of literature they would have to be carefully edited to remove any and all references to God so as to not "contaminate" the experiment. If any books on philosophy or especially morality were taken then they would have to be heavily edited to the point that they would resemble declassified government documents after having been heavily redacted.

If this were the case then the parents participating in this experiment would have to have some type of code of ethics or conduct they would teach to their children so that they could have a stable society. Of necessity for the sake of the experiment there would be no mention of God in this new morality, nor could there be any form of appeal to deity for a basis of the new morality. While this is not unheard of, many modern philosophers have attempted to give moral frameworks independent of religion or even a concept of God, it would rule out the vast majority of moral frameworks. It would be possible to use some of the moral, cultural or social frameworks but only after all references to God are removed. While this would be difficult, for the sake of this experiment, it could be done.

The thing to remember is that these things I am bringing up are not solely found in books. It not a matter of bringing along the right books or even well edited ones, because these things I am mentioning about having a moral framework, or even a cultural and social framework do not necessarily have to be written down, but can be passed down from parents to children in the simple rearing and teaching that occurs in normal every day life (i.e. the concept of a week would have to go, as it originates from religious teachings). If in the normal rearing of the children they asked how they came to the island the parents would have to have an answer for them which inherently did not contain the truth, as it would spoil the experiment. Thus the children would have no sense of history or a perspective of where they came from or who they were, as invariably somewhere in their history they would have some religion, which we would not be allowed to tell them of. So far it seems like a lot would have to be sacrificed in the name of this experiment, and I wonder if it is worth the price. But let us continue on!

At the beginning I said that this would be an inquiry into the nature of God. Up until now I have focused on how interwoven the concept of God is with our society and culture and how hard it would be to actually conduct the experiment in a rigorous manner. It would seem that I have not focused on the "broader question" on the nature of God as I said I would, and instead got caught up in the logistics of the experiment. But in doing so I have laid out an important point regarding the nature of God that must be considered. The whole purpose behind this experiment would be to remove the concept of God from a culture and see what would happen. The problem is that in posing this hypothetical situation my friend has made an assumption regarding the nature of God of which he was most likely not aware. As I mentioned earlier he made the assumption that God, or even just the concept of God was just that, a concept. This is why I said that his concept of God was invariably the Platonic concept of God. From his vantage point if the concept of God were removed from a culture then we could see what happens, or if this new society would somehow be better because the concept of God was removed.

The point is that the whole experiment, including the motivation for thinking it up assumes that God has a certain nature. If God were the Platonic God then it would be conceivable that all cultural references to God could be removed and forgotten (many religious philosophers may take issue with this, but I am pointing this out because it is the motivation behind the experiment). This would mean that if somehow all religious references, words, customs, morals, teachings, history, laws, books or experiences were somehow removed from the Earth then God would cease to be. For believers this would be a sacrilegious claim and impossible, as it would deny the supremacy and sovereignty of God. The problem is that we have again fallen back into assuming a Platonic God, which means that we are again considering one specific definition of the nature of God, and we really have not made any progress. We have not resolved anything and all we are left with is the proposal to conduct the experiment and see what happens. So if we are to escape from this apparent endless cycle of conversation we must find another way at approaching the problem.

So let us pause and consider where we are. On the one hand we have the proposal to remove all references of God from a culture and see what happens. The unspoken assumption here is that if the language of a society can be changed in such a way to remove the concept of God then God, the concept (because that is all he was in the first place), will cease to exist. On the other hand there is the assertion that this is an impossibility due to the supremacy and sovereignty of God. Any number of arguments could be given in defense of this point as the history of philosophy is replete with them, but ultimately both sides rely on the same assumption regarding the nature of God. The difference is that one side chooses to be skeptical and other side chooses to believe. So where do we go from here?

Consider this example. A while ago I was sitting in a class and my professor made the following statement: If you had a civilization that evolved on a planet entirely covered with clouds and they had never seen a star (even their own) and they had no concept of astronomy, it would still be possible for them to posit the existence of stars, white dwarfs, neutron stars and black holes. They could even give the relative sizes, densities, temperatures and pressures associated with each, all with never having seen a star. While this may seem like an astounding claim, it is something that after sufficient instruction would be perfectly obvious. I will not go into that here but I will say that it is possible, though difficult, it would still be possible. What makes it possible is that all these things (Stars, white dwarfs etc.) are part of reality and are independently verifiable, meaning they are not dependent on a particular language or cultural mindset for their existence. But how does this apply to God?

The key here is that if we do not first assume a Platonic nature to God then the possibility opens up for a God that is not dependent on a particular language or cultural mindset. This God would be independently verifiable and not subject to the cultural notions that lead to the introduction of the hypothetical island. To make my point I will restate the island hypothesis with my cloudy planet example.

If it were possible to travel to this cloudy planet and a group of parents went there with their young children (or yet to be born children) and there the children grew up never seeing a star (including their own) and all they had to go on was what they observed on the surface of the planet (and the parents never told them about stars), then theoretically they could advance to the point that they would know about and understand the existence of stars, having never seen one or even having any cultural or linguistic references to any thing of the sort. In this case it would seem illogical and irrational to perform this experiment because there would be no rational basis to not tell the inhabitants about stars. If stars do exist then why would we not tell the children about them?

If the objection is raised that this example does not transfer directly to that of the island where the suppressed concept is God and not stars, I would respond that it does not transfer if and only if you assume the nature of God is Platonic, this is to say linguistic or cultural mindset (i.e. God as the end of a syllogism or the combined cultural experiences of the human race). If on the other hand God is a reality and is part of and interacts with our experience in much the same way that stars do (including our own). In this case the island experiment would seem just as illogical and irrational as it would be to place people on a cloud covered planet and not tell them about stars. It certainly could be done, but what would be the point?

So now let us recap and consider what we have now. In the first case with the island we see that the motivation for proposing the experiment comes from the assumption that God is inherently Platonic and, at least in the opinion of some, is nothing more than a cultural and linguistic construct that has worked its way into our society. In this case the concept of God can be removed through the island experiment, but for believers this would never be a viable option to which several objections and counter arguments could be raised. But even still skeptics would remain unconvinced until the experiment was actually performed. As I pointed out for both sides, skeptics and believers, the inherent assumption here is a Platonic concept of God.

In the second case with the cloud covered planet the major assumption here about the nature of God is that He is part of reality and interacts with it in a similar way to you and me (and stars). This approach of course does not assume a Platonic God, but then again if it is true then any assumptions that we make are irrelevant. We could just as well assume that stars are large light bulbs seen from a great distance (complete with glass bulb and tungsten filament), but this would not change the truth. In this case the only assumption we would make would be that there is a God (and even then it would not be an assumption) and all we have left for us is to find out His true nature. In this case God would be independently verifiable and not subject to cultural, historical or personal interpretation any more than a star would be.

So now finally we have a way forward and a possible avenue of inquiry into the nature of God. If a knowledge of God is not bound by cultural or linguistic subjectivity as the skeptics would say, or by faith as the believers would say, then how shall we proceed? For my friend who has a inclination towards science I would suggest proceeding in a scientific manner, with a warning not to be biased by the very thing that lead him to propose the island experiment in the first place. From personal experience I would say that it is possible, and more than that it is both desirable and necessary to seek out God and His true nature. It is not something to be feared, looked down upon or ignored because as I know from personal experience the truth is more amazing than we realize and in seeking we will find things we never considered and will learn things we never though possible. There is a way, and it is easier than you think. Email me if you want to know more, or leave a comment. I see all comments before they are posted.


Daren & Patience said...

Just a quick note, at one point during the French Revolution they temporarily replaced the 7 day week with a 10 day week in one of their many attempts to remove religion from daily life...

Euripides said...

Check out Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, esp. pp. 202-207, where he argues that profane (i.e., secular) man always thinks and acts in response to the sacred and realizes the lack. The parents of your experiment cannot escape the boundaries of religious thought and hence, cannot remove the impulse toward the sacred from their children.

Izzy said...

I would argue that the experiment has already been done. The Island is earth and the people came up with the idea of God or gods in some way. The concept of God or gods has independently (and drastically different) came into existence on every corner of the earth, whether it be an island or otherwise.