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Reflections About Discernment and Belief


Jay b. Gaskill



We owe to the ancient Hebrews the idea that God has three properties-- invisibility, a unitary nature, and power above all.  And we owe to the modern, Western intelligentsia the notion that all religion is primitive superstition.


In the Western developed world, a highly secular ethos has come to dominate the intelligentsia. Deity has been denied, marginalized or simply ignored.  So people in the developed, prosperous, “sophisticated” parts of the world busily pursue the other classic god substitutes-- power, prestige, wealth, and pleasure. And they complain that something is missing.


At times like these, it is well to take stock of our relationship to the ultimate normative center of things by whatever name we choose.  Early in the last century, Martin Buber described the modern era as “the eclipse of God,” a period compared with others in the past in which the face of God was obscured, as by the passing moon.  Buber was clear that the problem was that of a vision obscured. He believed that the ultimate living presence was temporarily hidden from view, and that the “I-thou” relationship was always a triad because it included “I-Thou”. 


I have argued in a separate essay (“The Matter of Reality”) that our infatuation with comprehensive materialism is waning. Even the strict materialists among us know that reality is full of invisible entities, forces and tendencies.  They are detected by noticing their effects and traces, and by drawing inferences from these things. Building on the inferences, the mind generates a reality model.  Our inner pictures of reality are in constant growth and refinement as we experience life.  To a cat or a small child, the mail carrier might be just another looming presence in the doorway, a pair of shoes, legs and a torso.  To an adult, this is a human being carrying out the daily rounds.  The adult reality model has grown incomparably, and now imports a whole contextual field. But the contextual field necessary for any understanding of the world is not a material thing.


The invisible wind stirs trees, makes a dust cloud, and rattles the window.  One artist suggests the wind through these effects, another represents it through lines, while a meteorologist employs graphic symbols to describe fronts, temperature and pressure gradients, tracing out the schematics of invisible forces.  Wind is a force, a palpable, multi-sensory reality.


Atomic physics has developed a reality model essentially beyond all the senses.  No physicist has ever seen a gluon, the class of elementary particles that bind others in the atom, but physics is able to describe the properties of all the sub-visible entities of the atom, inferred from their effects.  From that description, a series of models has emerged, increasingly abstract and mathematical. 


Events in the world exhibit tendencies.  For example, water falling through air tends to form into drops, a classic rounded head, tapering tail shape. We find this basic pattern replicated in the evolution of many fin fish and of seagoing mammals, the cetacean family of whales and dolphins.  Evolutionary convergence and raindrops represent a tendency in certain situations toward auto-design optimization. Tendencies are invisible.


All reality descriptions import a context in which the various relationships to the larger reality can traced back and forth. Gluons are understood in the context of elementary particles called quarks, which they bind, and gluons and quarks are understood in the context of the whole set of interactive relationships in sub-visible physics.  Context is invisible.


The characters in Sesame street describe “near” in the context of “far.”   The engineer explains near and far in terms of time and speed. The context for design optimization of raindrops and fish is the set of geometrical principles and physical laws that make that shape more energy efficient than a box in a fluid medium like air.  Drops need to fall and fish need to swim.  And so it goes….


In real life, we begin making reality models as infants, and modify, expand and refine them all our lives.  From time to time, our reality models are subject to substantial replacement.  The simple solar system picture of the atom where electrons orbit like little planets has given way to a more nuanced picture, where electron “orbits” are described in a quantum wave function, where the atom is organized in a far more complex and plastic whole. But the older physical models were still better approximations than the ancient or medieval ideas about earth, air, fire and water.


A fifty year debate in physics about tiny particles has led us past the limits of a narrowly mechanical understanding of the universe.  When Einstein was in his twenties, he worked in a patent bureau, moonlighting his breakthrough discoveries that energy and matter were interchangeable, and that space and time were tied to each other in a plastic relationship.  Yet he and all in physics at that time still thought of particles like the electron as analogous to tiny billiard balls.  They had a definite position and speed, and like everything else in nature, followed precise physical laws. 


Using the discoveries of Isaac Newton and Johannes Kepler, astronomers predicted the orbits of all celestial objects exactly.  This gave rise to the thought that we lived in a giant clockwork universe.  A universe of billiard balls played out in the heavens and on the sub atomic level.  Scientists in Einstein’s youth thought that if they just knew the exact position and momentum of every particle in the universe, the entire future forever could be predicted.  In principle, everything was foreordained.  Science just didn’t have all the data yet to make the predictions accurately enough. Better science would fix that in time. Many scientists still cling to a naïve Newtonian determinism, but many more know better.


In the first half of the twentieth century, Vernor Heinsenberg, (who reluctantly worked for the Third Reich on the atomic bomb), initialized an intellectual revolution when he advanced the “uncertainty principle.” It was possible to know only a “bit” of information about a particle like the electron.  Science could know its speed to perfect accuracy, for example, but that defeated any attempt to know its position with any accuracy.  And the converse. For decades scientists clung to the view that determinism itself continued behind a veil of  quantum ignorance.


Physics also discovered that these sub-microscopic “billiard balls” that made up light waves engaged in some very un-billiard ball behavior, like splitting and recombining.  Particles acted like waves sometimes and waves like particles.  As Alice would say, it was getting curiouser  and curiouser. Before he died, Einstein denounced the theories of quantum mechanics (the name given this weird set of developments) as “spooky” and rejected them without being able to come up with something better. At core, Einstein was a determinist.


It took physics until very recently to begin to understand that small energetic particles, quanta like the electron, seemed to enjoy a new form of existence.  This notion is an authentic revolution.  It isn’t just a matter of not knowing where the little objects are.  Their very existence is smeared over a defined section of time and space, neither fully here or there, now or then, until an event links them with the larger world. Q scientists sometimes call this defining event a “quantum wave function collapse”. Only at that moment, after the fact, are we allowed to find the path where the particle “was.”  As Richard Feynman’s famous diagrams seem to imply (he called them “sum over histories” and got a Nobel prize for the technique), quantum particles seem to have overlapping inconsistent potential histories for a good part of their existence.  Precise prediction completely breaks down at the sub-atomic level because mechanical ontology breaks down. Reality at that level becomes a sort of bounded stochastic realm.


At the level of extremely complex processes, like the turbulence of water, weather patterns, and the operations of the mind, science is virtually incapable of precise prediction. This incapacity is prefigured in mathematics itself. As Dr. Roger Penrose has pointed out, some problems are inherently “non-computable”. Some deceptively simple computational processes that we might expect to yield a definite answer, cannot be completed within any finite time scale. 


Another surprise.  In mathematics, chaos theory shows how in seemingly randomly varying numbers generated by certain algorithms, an unexpected order nevertheless emerges.  This can be demonstrated graphically using a mathematical trick called “phase space” where gradually emerging forms are generated from non-repeating numbers. Some of them very beautiful and are mirrored in natures patterns. A kind of order emerges from chaos. For many large scale complex processes, any algorithms designed to accurately model of these processes would take as long to run as the physical processes themselves.  A great deal of what is going on around us in nature can only be modeled to produce approximate predictions. On some level the universe as a whole is the sole computing process capable at arriving at the shape of the future. Reduction is a useful but imperfect heuristic tool. In other words, some things are not predictable, even in principle. And yet… patterns of order keep emerging from apparent chaos.


As our reality models become more and more sophisticated, comprehensive and audacious, they become more stochastic. We have good reason to become more and more humble.  These insights are appropriate for anyone who chooses to approach the problem of the invisible God.


I’m not proposing to advance yet one more “logical” argument for the existence of deity, but to appeal to those who have encountered a level of personal experience in which ultimate being seems to present itself unbidden to us.  Such experiences go far beyond “mere psychology”. They are, in fact, glimpses of ultimate reality.


One philosophical argument against the existence of God is “the god of the gaps.”  This is a critique of the conception of deity as master controller of the universe, as the direct cause of natural events, as opposed to the explanations of natural science.  As the range of confirmed scientific theories increases, (for example explaining heavenly motion through celestial mechanics and the origins of life through natural selection), the domain of God’s action (seen as a mechanical, controlling agency) retreats.  God lurks in the shrinking gaps where science has not yet developed a “natural explanation” based on the inexorable, impersonal operation of physical laws. Doubtless (as this line of argument runs) all the gaps will be eliminated.  This, of course, is a faith stance.  Under the spell of Newtonian determinism, it is thought that with knowledge of the position and momentum of every particle of the universe, science can, at least in principle, foretell the whole future. This is thought to eliminate the “need” for God entirely.


All of our reality models (including our “God models”) are subject to ongoing refinement, revision, and occasional replacement.  That the model associating God with naïve superstition has been discarded no more discredits spiritual belief than the rejection of the “billiard ball” model of atomic structure discredits the scientific enterprise.


Let’s consider a fresh class of “God models”.  Think of deity that represents (but is not fully described by) the ultimate integration of all reality; the infinite well of creative possibility; and, as ultimate conscious being, as the ultimate parent source all local conscious being. For any given moment in finite time, the creative possibilities within deity’s resources would far exceed the capacity of space-time bounded reality to express them.  A permanent creative tension pervades the world because the total integration of deity (as the information repository of infinite creative development) with unfolding space-time reality is always be incomplete.  [Any natural universe is a huge repository for creation, but not an infinite one within any given time frame.] Integration of God and space-time bounded reality within finite time is a forever retreating goal, just out of reach.  This turns the God of the gaps argument on its head. 


Consider that God is invisible because God manifests subtly as the comprehensive unity binding all reality, then, now, and in the future, in space-time and outside space-time, both a part of all apprehended reality and outside it. Consider that our minds have emerged/evolved in consonance with this organizational feature of reality. We are able to apprehend the deep unity within space-time’s teeming diversity via cognition, the internal workings of the intelligent mind, not the senses. Therefore unity is inherently “invisible.” Consider that God’s creative agency is also invisible because, while the emerging fruits of creation are evident, their ultimate source is not.  This is the “vision” of the God of emerging creation and the reality binding God.  The invisible God, by whatever name.


If God is truly a comprehensive unity binding all reality, the reality within conscious experience and outside it, the reality within space-time, and outside it, this means that the divine context exists both within and outside space-time.  I think the artificial distinction posited by Kant and other philosophers between “fact” and “value” is absorbed in the divine context.  We are fully part of God’s context.  No fact can be isolated from a value context in the divine frame of reference.  It follows that moral truth is subject to discovery.  It resides in the divine nature.  The Hebrew intuition of God’s unity was on the mark, but that the scope of that conception has been in a sate of constant expansion. God’s full nature, the character and scope of divine being will always elude us. 


Two insights: All human contexts must be continually expanded. Any models of reality that fail to integrate all reality are provisional and incomplete.


All reality models that omit “context on the God scale” are reduced. Naturally, this includes the carefully restricted context of physical experiments. This is not a proposal to add some “God context” to all experimental situations.  On the contrary.  Science works and has  made great progress by using reduced or dramatically simplified descriptions of reality. 


The goal of a typical experiment is to control or eliminate all troublesome variables so that the results produce a clean, useful model that can be replicated.  For example, in trying to prove or disprove that adding a dissolved salt changes the freezing point of water, non-essential or irrelevant parts of the experimental situation are eliminated or ignored.  Things like the incidence of cosmic radiation at the time and place of the experiment, the presence or absence of a gravitational anomaly nearby, and whether the lab is sited in the Northern or Southern hemisphere are irrelevant.  And this is reasonable.  But the habit of mind that always reduces the experimental parameters can lead to conceptual errors when much larger issues are considered.


For example, physics may describe a “closed system” of energetic particles and show how the entropic tendency of the second law of thermodynamics means that the system will eventually reach a state of even distribution of energy, the stasis of so called “heat death.”  But, in the real world, the achievement of an absolutely closed system is probably impossible. In fact, at the quantum level, the notion has little meaning.


The whole of reality, including the realm of  unexpressed creative possibilities, i.e., the domain of deity, cannot be analogized to a closed system.  The second law of thermodynamics is thought to rule out perpetual motion, but the prospect of ongoing creation (especially as that may include the creation of new universes) is outside such any closed system.  The evolution of physical reality from the undifferentiated primordial plasma to the complex system of elementary particles and forces that make up matter, to stellar formation, the periodic table of elements, to the chemistry of biology, to the emergence and differentiation of life forms, in effect, from “Big Bang to big civilization” is beyond experiment.  It is also beyond purely mechanical description, except a strikingly incomplete one.  The “God context” is necessary to understand reality on the largest scale and to integrate conscious being with the merely material at any scale.


The “god of the gaps” argument ultimately was a claim about the absolutely comprehensive scope of scientific explanation.  It was closely allied with the picture of physical reality as essentially mechanical, even to the exclusion of the realm of the mind and the concomitant domain of non-material form and order.  Historically, the entire secular, scientific revolution was the replacement of simple, magical explanation and prediction (as in the world rests on the back of a giant turtle and the gods must to propitiated to ensure a good harvest) with a rational understanding of how things really work.  And it was a reaction against the picture of pagan deities as powerful “personalities in charge” who directed all events down here on the earth.  As monotheism took hold in the west, additional, moral problems were pointed out.  The world is full of evil and suffering.  Therefore God (as the argument goes) is either malign, or does not exit at all.  In this way, the misunderstanding about the scope and domain of science and about the nature and relationship of deity produced the eclipse of god.  So we achieved God marginalization, then extinction. From invisibility to putative non existence in two centuries.


There were several fundamental things wrong with this line of argument, among them: (1) the picture of deity as the master controller of all events in the universe, as the grand puppeteer, (2) the picture of reality as exclusively material-mechanical; (3) the picture of all events in nature as the predetermined outcome of natural law-governed mechanical forces; (4) the failure to understand the role of conscious being as bridging the material/mechanical domain of reality with the non-material/spiritual domain.


The eclipse of God passes away as we begin to understand the implications of three insights: (1) that reality is not just physical-mechanical, but consists of two equally real and authentic phases/domains: the material/physical and non-material/“spiritual”; (2) that events in space-time bounded material reality are not absolutely predetermined by physical law; and (3) that all reality is deeply integrated. If we are to take this latter notion seriously, reality models that exclude mind, for example, or claim that the spiritual domain is “just electrons,” are fatally incomplete. 


One implication of the first insight is that we are legitimately entitled to look deep within our own conscious being for aspects of the truth about ultimate reality.  One implication of the second insight is that natural, physical forces do not account for everything that happens.  Beyond the electrons in the brain there is the recognition of beauty, the value of other beings, and the possibilities of creation.  The “software” of consciousness and its connection to the “master operating system” outside the narrowly mechanical realm are essential to self-understanding.  Another implication is that the scope of deity’s action in the world may most evident the special realm where natural law is weakest and the impact of information driven effects (see the essay “the Matter of Reality) are the strongest.  The third insight-- the understanding of deep interconnection, integration, and unity, leads us back to relationship with ultimate being, to the divine.


It is worth noting that the second and third insights (no absolute determination and the expectation of coherence, unity or integration) come from the scientific community itself.  Chaos and quantum theory strongly support the notion that the specific events in the physical universe are never completely pre-determined. Moreover, the intuition of a yet undiscovered comprehensive theory integrating of the laws of the universe has long been the holy grail of theoretical science, the faith stance, if you will, of the entire scientific enterprise.


The insights about the full integration of reality (including the non-physical realm visited by the mind), and the partly indeterminate, open, unpredictable nature of space-time, change the “god of the gaps” argument totally.  Consider that the largest gap in scientific explanation is the interior reality of conscious experience.  No attempt to “explain away” this reality can diminish the fact of our interior knowledge or our sense of being (though it can inhibit our confidence in these realities).  Descartes had it backwards.  “I think therefore I am,” was his attempt to reconstruct truth after doubting everything that could be doubted.  He reasoned that, by doubting, he had proved his own existence, because it takes a mind to doubt.  Then he set out to rebuild that which his doubts had destroyed.  This is an extreme example of thinking too much.


Invisibility is not the same as undetectability.   We have been given a powerful instrument for the task of detecting the presence of God.  It is the mind’s access to non-physical reality. Of course our conscious experience is a self validating reality.  The real problem is how we get out of that box to deal with the rest of reality. 


The heuristic key that unlocks the door is the core insight that drives the scientific thirst for explanation.  This is the intuitive recognition that all reality is unified on a very deep level. This innate understanding drives all science and logic, the instinct to reject the arbitrary explanation, and the attraction to the understanding based on elegant integration.  We simply need to take this insight to the next step -- that the so called mechanical/ physical and the non-material/spiritual are related integrated aspects of unitary reality.  Once we have sufficient confidence in that profound and comprehensive reality integration, that this unity of being necessarily links our own interior reality as a conscious, living beings to everything else, we can begin to understand how we are linked it with the timeless, ultimate part of reality.  It is within just this aspect of the real, that of the non-material or “spiritual” that we glimpse the universal elements within our own conscious being and learn to find them in the experiences of others.


Consider, further, that the recurring human intuition of a perfect and complete creation (glimpsed by the mind as an ideal) cannot be reconciled with this world…. except by the understanding that the world is unfinished.  This is the second core insight: we inhabit a universe filled with ongoing creation.  The world is a work in progress in which we humans, have emerged from within the biosphere with painful slowness, (by the glacial speed of creation through biological evolution); and in which we have become the venue of greatly accelerated creation. In the human mind the processes of evolution have been hugely accelerated.  Consider that the pace of innovation in human invention and culture over 10,000 years has exceeded that accomplished by natural selection in nature over 200,000 years.  In other words, as the conscious actors in an unfinished world, we have become agents of creation.  A corollary of our emergence in this role is that we have become the moral agents, too.


God does not reside in the gaps of scientific explanation about physical processes, but as the grand common organization of reality and mind that makes the scientific inquiry possible.  Indeed, as the grand integration of all reality, God is the hidden object of the quest that constitutes the driving goal of theoretical science. In this sense, both the scientific and creative endeavors of humankind represent the pursuit of divine goals. In science, we move toward a greater and more comprehensive understanding God’s profound reality integration. In our creative activities, we move toward the actualization of God’s ongoing creation in space-time.  In this sense, science is a holy activity.  Creation is a holy activity.


Knowledge of God, as the unifying presence in deep reality, as the central being (or

beingness”) of that reality, and as the source of all creative tension within reality, the wellspring of all future creation, enables us to integrate (or as an act of faith, to believe in the integration of) the four separations that trouble us mortal beings the most:

  • The separation of our internal and external being;
  • The separation of our being and other beings;
  • The separation of our transient and our enduring being;
  • The separation of our individual “I am” with the center of ultimate being, the integration of which ignites the call to creative and moral engagement.  [This last integration is a perpetual work in progress.]


There you have it: the template for a lifelong enterprise.  To apply these insights in the business of daily existence is not a task for the inert or disengaged. Few of us can do this alone, but our individual space time “world lines” vary as do our religious and secular traditions.  We know that intellect, alone, is not adequate, and that faith falters.


How do we come to grips with the profound separations in space time, with the innate distance between beings? With the pain and the pleasure of life? With the transience of existence?  With the reality of goodness and evil?


I have found several helpful insights.  These are not pat answers to be learned rote in any catechistic sense   That level of truth is deeply individual and can only come from one’s individual lived relationship to ultimate being in the struggles of an introspective and extrospective life. 


The potent seeds of your Big Answers might come from grace, the active sense of a divine presence, from bidden or unbidden inspiration or enlightenment.  But these seeds tend to fall into one’s life with great infrequency, and they rarely sprout without effort. The initial inspiration almost never falls into an unreceptive mind…unless you are riding a horse to Damascus in the first Century.  For everyone, deep thought must follow the blinding light.


A few insights have helped me.  I list them in the hope that one or more of them might connect with your own path.  There is no intended logical sequence or order of priority.


·         Faith is the belief stance that allows the intelligent mind to adopt a larger reality model than can be empirically verified.


·        Reasonable faith is the irreplaceable companion of all non arbitrary action.


·        Belief in the existence and normative significance of other minds is a reasonable faith judgment.


·        Revelation is a form of cognitive discovery that requires an element of faith.


·        Consciousness is the bio-technology through which revelation occurs.


·        The conscious mind can be understood as a being-state that merges or bridges the ontological phases we call physical/material reality and non-physical/non-material reality. Thus, the discoveries made within the conscious field can be cross correlated with the confidence that aspects of reality are being revealed.  See point four, above, revelation is a form of cognitive discovery.


·        The basic numinous revelation:  Our subjective being is a product of a connection with the meta-being which is the archetype of all conscious being.  It is as if there were a divine modem reaching into space-time that initializes a partial copy (a scaled down one) of meta being, causing individual conscious being to boot up whenever the necessary threshold conditions are locally met.


·        Ultimate being is in you and every other conscious sentient creature.  The source of your sense of aliveness is ultimate being itself.


·        We are the agents of creation and reconciliation between the other agents of creation in an imperfect world.


·        The world is imperfect because it is incomplete, and it is incomplete because it is still in the process of being created.  Our experience is confusing sometimes because our conscious lives play themselves out on a very rapid time scale, like one year elves living in  a thousand year redwood. 


·        We are ultimate being, replicated, imperfectly incarnated in the world, initially separated form each other and ultimate being in space-time, with no memory of our ultimate origin. We awake to the world, feeling as if we are alone.  But we are never alone.  We exist in the here and now to savor existence in its raw form and to change things for the better. 


·        Evil is the unavoidable side effect of the conditions that allow us to exist in the world as the conscious agents of creation. This is because the emergence of creation into space-time requires just enough freedom (indeterminacy) that free consciousness can potentially be captured by evil.  So evil is very real.  It manifests itself as malevolent motivation, a pull toward anti-life and anti-creation.  If there were so little freedom in the universe that evil could not exist, we could not exist either.


·        Goodness is real. Goodness is a product of creation itself, of our origins in the well of creation, of our authentic being which is from and part of ultimate being. Goodness manifests itself in kindness, compassion, integrity, creation, and the willingness and courage to oppose evil.  All good things that happen to us or that we are able to accomplish or help bring into being are a blessing.


·        All bad things that happen are an obligation to make things better.


·        Great solace and power flow from the ability (which we must continually cultivate) to feel the presence of ultimate being in our aloneness, our togetherness, and our crises.


·        Goodness is holy.


·        Creation is holy.  Especially when we create or help creation in that spirit.


·        The felt presence of ultimate being in us or anyone is holy.


I choose to believe that as long we can know the presence of ultimate being, by whatever name or no name at all, even when we can’t feel that presence, we are carrying the deep knowledge of holiness in our lives. As we integrate this knowledge into our souls, we need never despair, even of death, because this life, our brief space-time separation, is a hero’s journey, not an exile….


Jay B. Gaskill