A New Year and a Deepity

A short video by Fr. Robert Barron, to start off the new year.

Here is the summary:

  • He starts by referring to what “serious theists” think about the word “God.
  • Points out that many use the word very differently, calling attention to differences between the usage by atheists and those by “serious” theists
  • He talks about the “genus of being”, and that atheists believe that God is the supreme instance of that…but that is exactly what God is not…according to Aquinas, God is not a being, a thing, or individual
  • He is the “subsistent act of to-be itself”, the “great ocean of existence from which the world in its entirety comes”
  • he contrasts this with gods, which are the supreme existence of being, and exist within nature…God does not exist within Nature
  • “The sciences in principle cannot eliminate God, because God is not an item within the natural world.  God is not some event or phenomenon which can be examined by the physical sciences.”
  • He claims that you don’t produce evidence for the creator of the universe, like you would for Yeti…this is a category error.
  • “authentic religion” begins with the extraordinary experience of the contingency of the world – the deep intuition that the world exists by doesn’t have to exist.
  • “We know there is some reality whose very nature is ‘to be’ –  that infinite source of reality that grounds and gives rise to the whole nexus of conditioned things…in you we live and move and have our being…that’s God.”
  • He ends with criticizing atheists for suggesting that the universe pops out of nothing, and accusing theists of magical thinking.  He accuses atheists of dropping the question (claiming “I don’t know”) when the question gets really interesting – why is there something rather than nothing.

I have a number of responses to parts of this:

  1. He claims that Aquinas is particularly clear, and then quotes Aquinas as saying that God is the “subsistent act of to-be itself” amongst other things.  Sorry, that’s word soup, and doesn’t mean anything.
  2. He is correct that science cannot disprove such a nebulous definition of God.  If everyone simply took this definition, and went no further, they’d be deists.  If every religious person became a deists, the atheists would have no work to do.  The problem is that religious people do not stop with deism.
  3. If God isn’t a “being”, then what does it mean for God to speak to people?   What does it mean for God to be three persons?  What does it mean for God to intercede in the world?  A personal God?  I think this guy believes, when convenient, in nebulous deism and, when convenient, medieval and Bronze age superstition.
  4. “We know there is some reality whose very nature is ‘to be’ –  that infinite source of reality that grounds and gives rise to the whole nexus of conditioned things…in you we live and move and have our being…that’s God.”  – Notice how easily he moves from nearly content-free deepity speak, and then slides in “…in you…” implying a mind, a person, a relationship.  This is the jump where he is claiming to know things he cannot know.
  5. I’d further add that the entire claim in the previous point is something he cannot know.  He refers to philosophical intuition of the contingency of everything (including the universe) but has not demonstrated it to be true.  Until then, “I don’t know” is the proper response.
  6. The only reason anyone speaks like this at all is because religion has lost its authority on nearly every level (medicine, history, astronomy, physics, biology, etc…), so that no one can take the stories seriously anymore.
  7. Just because something lies outside of nature, if it affects nature at all it can be tested.  This has been done with “miracle” claims (healings, visions, resurrections, etc…), efficacy of prayer, and models of the cosmos – and they have been all shown to be wanting.  Thus, it reduces the probability of this interventionist God claim.

If you want to retreat to a non-interventionist God, in principle immune from science, no problem…but stop claiming that that is somehow a victory.


About brianblais

I am a professor of Science and Technology at Bryant University in Smithfield, RI, and a research professor in the Institute for Brain and Neural Systems, Brown University. My research is in computational neuroscience and statistics. I teach physics, meteorology, astonomy, theoretical neuroscience, systems dynamics, artificial intelligence and robotics. My book, "Theory of Cortical Plasticity" (World Scientific, 2004), details a theory of learning and memory in the cortex, and presents the consequences and predictions of the theory. I am an avid python enthusiast, and a Bayesian (a la E. T. Jaynes), and love music.
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2 Responses to A New Year and a Deepity

  1. Steven Winsor says:

    “why is there something rather than nothing.”

    Indeed, this is my ultimate question…and it bothers me that it will never be answered with authority. I quess this is where the ‘god’ thing comes in…it offers a reason that there is something (vs. nothing).

    Brian, have you read the Dune series of books (by Frank Herbert)? He wrestles with religion through all 6 books. It was one of several reasons he wrote this remarkable story. I think he genreally looked at religion as a tool to be used to ‘tame’ a population for use by their leaders.

  2. brianblais says:

    “it bothers me that it will never be answered with authority” – well, actually, it might at some point, but not by just making up a nice story to fill our ignorance. Although I don’t always agree with him, Lawrence Krauss has a nice lecture on a Universe from Nothing, where he outlines the physical principles that are necessary to obtain a universe from nothing, and it does appear that the evidence is consistent with that. Primarily it’s as conservation of energy thing. Quantum mechanics includes uncaused events, so arguments from causation using intuition have very little sway value for me.

    As for Dune, I read the first one and liked it. Are the others good too? I’ve heard mixed reviews, so I think I avoided reading them so as not to taint my impression of the first.

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