God and Scientific Knowledge

God and Scientific Knowledge

As a follow-up to my previous blog on the use and misuse of metaphor, in which I mention Friedrich Nietzsche’s view that God is dead, I am struck by seven different positions on God and scientific knowledge over the centuries.

1) There is, first, the anthropomorphic God of Judaism and Christianity, which may actually have originated in Zoroastrianism in 1500-1000 BC. This God is the all-powerful, all-knowing Creator, Sovereign and Judge, who dictates what can be known by humans and what must remain unknown.

2) In Antiquity, one finds several expressions of a philosophical God as a great organizing principle. In the early third century AD, Diogenes Laertius paraphrases Xenophanes (560-478 BC) to the effect that: “The being of God is spherical, having no resemblance to man. It sees and hears the whole of existence, but it does not breathe; all of God is intelligence and practical wisdom and eternal.” Xenophanes may see God as spherical because the sphere is the most perfect geometrical figure, with each point on its surface equidistant from its centre. About a century and a half after Xenophanes comes Aristotle’s Prime Mover, a philosophical God. In Metaphysics (circa 350 BC), he writes that the unmoved mover, God, is at the origin of all movement in a finite, causally linked universe. The view of Xenophanes is taken up again in a work attributed to the Roman fourth-century AD grammarian Gaius Marius Victorinus, for whom God is “an infinite sphere, whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”

For the pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes, God is a sphere. Image by Gordon Johnson

3) Between Aristotle and Gaius Marius Victorinus comes the first century BC Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius, for whom the universe is made up of matter consisting of indivisible atoms; Nature has a random character (this includes human bodies), and the gods are unsettling, enigmatic and at a far remove from Nature. Indeed, the gods are no longer invoked as the supreme organizing principle of the universe since the role of the gods as initiators cannot be demonstrated.

Leonardo da Vinci, a portrait and possibly a self-portrait from the first decade of the 1500s, when he was in his early fifties. From a vintage postcard in my collection.

4) During the Italian Renaissance, God is widely seen as the architect of the universe and of Nature, and therefore as a necessary organizing principle of the universe. To understand Nature is therefore to penetrate into the mind of God. But the God of Leonardo da Vinci, for example, is not necessarily the God of Christianity.

5) By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries comes the view that God is Nature (deism, as found in the works of William Cowper, Alexander Pope, William Blake and Henry David Thoreau).

6) At the end of the nineteenth century comes Friedrich Nietzsche and his view that God is dead.

7) I come now to my own position, which is that belief in God is a private matter and is generally no longer welcome in secular scientific discourse.

Of course, there are other possible positions….

The feature image at the top of this blog is by David Mark.


The Use and Misuse of Metaphor

March 3, 2023

Empathy and Intersubjectivity

March 3, 2023

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