Does God Exist?
What I Believe
By Gerald Alper
Here's a final thought experiment. Imagine what has seemed impossible actually occurs: science proves that God exists. With, of course, a big assist from God who, as even Richard Dawkins noted in The God Delusion, “Could easily reveal himself” if he chose. And how might he reveal himself? Well, the philosopher Bertrand Russell once said that were he one day to see all the events of tomorrow clearly and accurately written across the sky, he would then believe in the existence of God. But there could be other ways. God might return to earth, in whatever shape he wanted to, and just keep performing one miracle after another, until even the most diehard atheists would have to cry uncle. Once we make the assumption that God has chosen to reveal Himself, we see how easy it would be. There would, of course always be the chance that the God who was revealing himself was not a God we have always believed in, the God of the Bible, but a trickster God. Or not a God at all, but a superhumanly intelligent and unimaginably scientifically advanced extraterrestrial who, for one reason or another, was interested in duping us, but few would take such doubts seriously.
Now what would the impact be on science as a body of knowledge, in particular on professional skeptics such as Carl Sagan (supposing he were still alive) and Richard Dawkins, who have bankrolled their careers on the opposite result? As for science, the proof of the existence of God would not only constitute by far the greatest scientific discovery in history, but it would necessitate at the very least a revolution in the structure of physics. To the four fundamental forces – electromagnetism, gravity, the strong and weak nuclear forces – the supernatural power of God would have to be added. For who could now deny that miracles – in the strict scientific sense of immaterial, invisible, supernatural forces being able to interact with wholly physical objects – really do occur?
It would, however, be a somewhat different story for someone such as Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins. I guess at first they would have to be more than a little red-faced. But the core of skepticism is fearlessness in the face of the most unpleasant of truths, so I see them rallying quickly, climbing on the bandwagon and eager to be on the cutting edge of a glorious new scientific frontier — the race to understand how God created the universe.
Now what about the reverse – what if science disproves the existence of God? Although traditionally religion has long counted on the impossibility of this ever coming to pass, it is far easier to imagine than the opposite. Think of science advancing to such a mind-boggling state that it can (as per Alan Guth) create universes in a laboratory, engineer life in its full complexity at will, explain in a thoroughly naturalistic way exactly how the big bang happened. Or imagine biblical scholarship so fantastically developed that it can go back in time and piece together thousands of historical facts that unanimously and conclusively demonstrate that authorship of the Bible was wholly and only human?
In the advent of such an admittedly astounding occurrence, it would require no leap of the imagination to see that the foundation of theology would be demolished and that the belief system of the devoutly religious would be dealt at the very least a crippling blow. It is one thing to say, as the skeptic does, “I prefer to live in a world ruled by reason and humanism.” It is another to say, as the believer does, “I cannot imagine and would not want to live in a world without God. Such a world would be without meaning.” But what if life without meaning in the cosmological sense, what if life arose accidentally, as many leading scientists believe, a random if incredible, statistical fluke?
Saying this, I am aware in this thought experiment that the skeptic after all loses only a single important belief. The believer, however, has lost just about everything that matters in the world. My point is just that, although everyone ultimately must choose their own cosmology, hopefully that choice won’t be based on fear, magical thinking or childlike neediness.
If the practice of psychotherapy teaches anything, it shows that life is a neverending struggle of encounters with unimaginable and unacceptable realities. No one, for example, thinks they or anyone they love are going to die, but everyone does. No one can imagine what it can be like not to exist, and yet everyone – in the sense of one day having to give up everything about their life on earth that they treasure – will meet that fate. Nor is this particularly mysterious. We are programmed by evolution to be born, to live, to suffer deeply, to celebrate when we can, to endure random tragedy and to die. And like it or not, we all find that somehow we are able, however imperfectly and resentfully, to do this.
The unfortunate clash between science and religion is not one between reason and emotion. The skeptic is not or does not have to be, as many believe, cold-hearted and mean-spirited. At his best, as in the case of Carl Sagan, he has passion and wonder, as well as reason and doubt.
As a therapist, if you look in the eyes of someone who is talking about the afterlife, you often can see a childlike self. You see a core of wonder we all start out with, but that somehow has ceased to grow. Both culture at large and religion are complicit; both have tried to manipulate and micromanage that innate cosmic curiosity. But no one, no authority can tell you what your life means to you or should mean to you. Science or theology can tell you what they think their answer is to what exists out there, what lies in store for us, and what came before us, but they cannot tell you what the answer means to you. An individual’s truth can only be individually interpreted. You can hand that over to an authority, but you are still making an interpretation: to attain truth is to identify with someone who represents it.
Having said this, it is obvious that my own belief system does not matter, or should only matter to me. But if I were asked, I would say I personally believe:
That the Bible is a great but flawed book, best understood in the context of the times in which it was written; a repository of wondrous poetry and timeless wisdom, but not an infallible guide on how to live one's life in the modern world; not a blueprint of how heaven and earth were created, not a picture of the afterlife. That the cosmologists are the true theologians of today, the ones most likely to take us closer to the mystery of how our universe was created. That the meaning of our lives is not measured by whether the cosmos is indifferent to our suffering or not, but depends far more on what we make of our relationship to the world in which we find ourselves. That the best answer to the meaningfulness of our death or the question of the afterlife will be found in the life that preceded it. That as a nation, far more than scientific illiteracy, we suffer from what could be called existential illiteracy: the failure to wonder in an intelligent, creative and mature way about greatest question of all – the puzzle of our own existence.
As I write this, there is a report on the science channel on the latest findings of SETI, which always seem to be the same. Decades of the most diligent, ultra high-tech astronomical scanning of the skies have yet to produce a single authenticated instance of a message being received from an extraterrestrial intelligence. Undaunted, they continue to search. Some of the best minds in the world are devoting their lives to finding in the vastness of the cosmos a possible clue to the riddle of our existence, the mystery of life. Whatever the answer may be, whether it be joyful and inspirational or dispiriting, frightful and isolating – they are more than ready to accept it, to deal with it, to discover whatever meaning there may be.
I, for one, find that not only comforting, but uplifting.
For readers wishing to pursue these ideas further see my new book God and therapy: What we believe when no one is watching (iBooks, Alper).
Published April 20th, 2016
Gerald Alper is an internationally recognized psychotherapist who is the author of 20 books. These include besides the celebrated Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Patient, The Paranoia Of Everyday Life, The Dark Side Of The Analytic Moon, The Puppeteers, The Elephant In The Room: The Denial of The Unconscious Mind, and more recently the just published God And Therapy: What We Believe When No One Is Watching (I Books, Alper). He's been a Fellow of The American Institute of Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis since 1985, a reviewer for The Journal of Contemporary Psychology, a contributor of articles and essays to leading professional journals, a frequent guest author appearing on public access radio programs throughout the United States and Canada. His classic paper, A Psychoanalyist Takes the Turing Test, was included in the 2004 pioneering interdisciplinary anthology by Italian neuroscientist Franco Salzone who brought together seminal papers from both psychoanalysis and neuroscience. He lives with his wife in New York, stays in close contact with his two grown sons who remain hunkered down in Los Angeles and has been a practicing psychotherapist in Manhattan for the past 25 years.