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Brian (8)

Notes from my presentation on 29/4/15

Below are my notes used to support the view that God intends us to be uncertain about his nature and purposes. Those who attended asked me to publish these notes - they are somewhat "note-like" because I wrote them simply to aid me with my presentation so apologies for poor syntax etc.
God intended, specifically, that we be permanently uncertain about his nature and purposes

These are my ideas hurriedly put together in a few hours. So likely to have plenty of flaws and plenty of side questions. Please raise them as we go and I will respond or note them for later discussion if we are short of time. Ask someone to stand by with a notepad to collect the questions so we don’t lose them.

Most of us seem to have an instinctive need for certainty and complete understanding and an intuitive or instinctive fear of the unknown or unknowable. It’s a powerful emotion. In many ways it drives science, it drives art and it drives religion. I don’t know why this is - perhaps it is an evolutionary imperative to aid survival.

But I am going to contend that while the pursuit of certainty is beneficial - the attainment of it is not - and it is God’s intention that we do not achieve it (at least in this world). Uncertainty is mystery and mystery is there to be embraced and celebrated - not feared.

Basic Assumptions I am making:
• God exists and is personally interested in all humans.
• God has given humans genuine freedom of choice in this world.
• God defines perfect goodness. Therefore objective morality exists. Among other things, this means that virtuous behaviour is “good” in God’s eyes.
• Objective truths (e.g. God exists, the earth orbits the sun, matter exists etc etc) exist. Some people disagree with this!!!!
• Reasoning works. The laws of deductive logic work. Reasoning is the primary tool we all use to try to establish what is true and what is not.
• Direct and clear divine revelation (such as Paul’s conversion event Adam and Eve’s direct communications with God) are extremely uncommon - if they occur at all in modern times.

1. What the deep thinkers have said on certainty. The world’s best epistemologists agree that (with a couple of exceptions) it is impossible to know any objective truth with certainty.

The argument in two sentences: The study of "What humans can know” is called epistemology. The deepest and most respected thinkers in 2500 years of epistemology (from the Ancients through Hume and Kant to the best of the 20th century such as Russel and Popper) agree that there is (virtually) nothing that we can know with certainty about the world external to our minds.
What we can know with certainty is limited to logical and mathematical deductions.

The argument in point form:
1. The only way we (our minds) can come to know ANYTHING about the world outside ourselves is by experiencing that world via our 5 senses (which just collect data). We then try to make sense of that data using REASONING (logical thinking) within our minds.
2. It is almost inconceivable , then, that there is not MORE to objective reality than can be detected by our 5 senses. Science continually provides examples of this.
3. But in addition, even the data we DO receive through our senses is often unreliable because our senses are notoriously unreliable. There are endless examples of this. (e.g. dreams or differences of opinion from witnesses of the same event)
4. And then to add yet another blow for certainty - God is a transcendent being (possibly apart from one brief period 2000 years ago). So he is not able to be perceived directly by any of those 5 physical senses.
5. So we can only partially perceive all the physical stuff which exists objectively - and those perceptions are made via unreliable senses with limited capability. And we have no apparent direct means of experiencing any transcendent world at all. Hardly a good basis for being certain about any objective truth - especially about a transcendent God.

2. If I am certain about God’s nature and purposes then I must be certain about much else in life - particularly on moral questions.

If it is possible for me to be certain about God’s nature and purposes then I know for certain much else in life. For example I must know for certain what is right and what is wrong - because if God’s nature is perfectly good and I am certain what this means then I am certain about how to act in a morally RIGHT way in every situation.
(If people need to understand moral dilemmas give Jim and the Indians example or the torturing of the terrorist examples.)

So some of the greatest moral dilemmas would evaporate. Has anyone ever done this successfully?
Now, I would claim, even the most universally admired people in history (Ghandi, Mandela, Mother Teresa, Socrates, etc - Jesus is excluded from this list as I suspect he had inside information!), without exception, struggled with moral questions and showed no sign of possessing certainty on these questions. So, given we cannot find a single example of anyone in history actually achieving a state of moral certainty, it seems very unlikely that it is God’s intention that we should be able to attain it.

3. Certainty makes it much harder to be virtuous. And God wants us to be virtuous.

I wonder whether it is much harder (maybe impossible) for a person to pursue many of the behaviours which are considered virtuous - while at the same time being certain about God’s existence and his purposes.

A List of the traditional Seven Virtues/Vices:
Humility v Arrogance/Egotism
Charity v Greed
Diligence v Sloth
Patience v Wrath
Kindness v Envy
Chastity v Lust
Temperance v Gluttony

I haven’t had time to explore this so I will limit my argument to just one virtue - the greatest of all virtues I reckon - Humility. By the way I think it can be shown that many of the other virtues depend on humility.

So does certainty about such things as moral right and wrong (which we have seen follows from certainty about God’s nature and purposes) lead us towards humility. I think not. The opposite of humility is arrogance or egotism. If I KNOW I am right and that you are wrong it becomes very hard not to adopt an arrogant or patronising attitude towards your views. On the other hand if I believe I may be right, but at the same time accept that I may be wrong (and you could be right) this leads to an attitude of acceptance, tolerance and respect for your views. Acceptance, tolerance and respect for others are acts of humility.

Religion and neo-atheism offer some great examples of certainty leading to arrogance, intolerance and worse. I would argue that the common feature of all the people who we would label religious fundamentalists (in the negative sense) - is that they are all certain that they are right and that their dissenters are wrong. No different to any political fundamentalist (read dictator) you care to name.   
It seems that more certainty leads to less humility.

I suggest that God has deliberately made uncertainty a foundation stone of life in order to encourage us to become less arrogant and egotistic.

I’d like to share a quote by General Stanley McChrystal I came across. “I have found in my experience that the best answers may be counterintuitive. The opposite of what it seems you ought to do is what ought to be done. So when I am asked the question: What approach should we take in Afghanistan? I say, humility"

4. Let’s imagine a future world of certainty. Humour me with a quick thought experiment.

Lets try to imagine a world of certainty. Certainty removes mystery. So think about a world without mystery. Everything important is known with certainty. Google provides a clear description of everything that is objectively true.

God is directly present. His purposes are clear - they are published via google in a modern expanded version of the Judaic Law. You can search any moral situation imaginable and the answers will be there.

Science has become redundant because we know all the physical laws, the constants, the particles, the forces and even the deep mysteries of quantum physics are now explained.

Because there is scientific certainty there is no more scope for ingenuity in design and engineering. The best engineering solution for every problem is known. If you want to buy a product with certain specific functionality (e.g. the best downhill mountain bike, the most fuel efficient commuter car, the most manoeuvrable surfboard capable of catching big surf) there is only one product available - because any variation is inferior.

Great art (visual, literary, musical - the lot) disappears. I quote Robert Hughes (one of the worlds most celebrated art critics): "The greater the artist the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize."

Because science is certain, all physical events in the future can be predicted (assuming we have enough computer power). The only unpredictable variable is human free-choice (thankfully). Even this is gone for those who do not accept the existence of a transcendent world.

Disease is conquered. Certainty is not all-bad!!!

Life after death is no longer a mystery. It’s all explained in google. If you like the look of it you get there quicker by jumping off the next cliff - most would if heaven is as good as it sounds!

I will finish with a quote from Einstein: "the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed”.

It seems to me that God might want us to EMBRACE uncertainty. - view it as a precious gift??

What do you think?


Brent (9)

I love this stuff

Thanks for posting these notes Brian. I agree that some of it is embryonic thinking and ought to be teased out further, but the core of it seems right to me.

You mentioned that many think we can be certain of logical and mathematical deductions, wile most everything else must remain uncertain. So at least it seems there is a continuum which must include some uncertainty. I would agree that there is more uncertainty than certainty in the important issues of human life, relationships and meaning.

The most interesting thing here is that, given the assumptions you stated - ie. that there is a god who is personally interested in humans, you have gone on to draw the opposite conclusion to that drawn by most religious folk who share that assumption.

The pivot point of this swing seems to be fear. You mentioned the fear of the unknown and the unknowable and that it drives religion, as well as science and art.

Here our discussion about the nature of God becomes particularly pertinent I think. The question becomes, If there is a God and we cannot be certain about that being or about what our response to such a being ought to be, then what kind of being is it? If we are loaded up with preconceptions about a judgemental and condemning character who casts a light of inadequacy over humanity and our own self-perceptions, if sin and evil are the issues that religion must alleviate, then uncertainty does not fit into the picture. Uncertainty erodes the whole system because we become uncertain about our sinfulness and therefore our need of a priest etc.

The religious institution must establish itself as the vendor of truth. It helps us by telling us the truths we cannot otherwise know. It usually appeals to an authoritative scripture as it's basis for such authority and then elevates to sainthood, certain figures, (usually posthumously to avoid any dispute) who can add weight to these claims. Religion, by it's nature seems to need certainty. So is it all fabricated?

We have spoken about this adopted certainty, where someone you respect tells you that they are certain and you become certain too without any substantial reasons behind that feeling. A social environment where this adopted conviction is commonly shared, strengthens the conviction that we are right and bolsters group identity and cohesion. In this setting, certainty becomes very important for the group because it starts to define it and its purpose - usually to share those truths with those who are still ignorant.

It's a long way to fall from there if one becomes aware of pervasive uncertainty. You lose your social identity, confidence in those who have lead you and your purpose in the world. And what do you get in return?

An adventure, a sense of safety and freedom. Why? Well first you have to build a picture of a god-being who doesn't mind you experimenting, being wrong, who offers no special formula for his/her approval, who must therefore be more natural and organic in expectations/relationships.?

You are forced to realise that the billions of people who follow other religious convictions are likely to be as right and as wrong and perhaps even as loved by god as you are. This is the first chance you have had to see God as a merciful gracious and just being. I contend that it will be the first time you can intellectually "love" God.

You realise that some of the doctrines and ideas that have produced dysfunction in your life and character should simply be abandoned and that having done that, you can find a better way. The places where you have been wrong, either by your own assumptions or by the errors you were spoon-fed, are all areas of potential. Not the potential of being absolutely right and finding the best way, but of growing toward being truer and better in an ongoing process.

This is a much better outlook on life in my view. Yes it is requires and continually reinforces an attitude of humility. It opens discussions of true discovery between a much broader group of people an ideas. It replaces guilt an fear with wonder and security.

Has anyone else experienced any of this?

Brian (8)

The doctrine of God's 'intended uncertainty'

I am also growing to love this stuff!
Your words above are great.  Clear, succinct, loaded with content - and obviously personally felt.
In particular your summary of the personal consequences of coming to see the idea of pervasive human uncertainty as a foundational (and necessary) part of God's intententions.
As you say, this idea is devastating to the 'self-interests' of most institutional religions.

But is this 'doctrine (I prefer 'idea') of God's intended uncertainty' true? (Remembering that claiming something is true, for us, is claiming that that thing is more likely to be true than not!)

I would like to keep working on the answer to this. We can look more closely at the reasoning we are using to support it. We can also look at the biblical texts to see what light they may shed on it. 
Any ideas on the best way to do this in amongst all the other stuff going on?