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Tuesday, November 4, 2014

What God's Ideas Tell us About "His" Nature

A little over three hundred years ago, an Anglo-Irish philosopher named George Berkeley proposed a radical reevaluation of the nature of reality in his A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. In that work, he wrote: "Some truths there are so near and obvious to the mind, that a man need only open his eyes to see them. Such I take this important one to be, to wit, that all the choir of heaven and furniture of the earth, in a word all those bodies which compose the mighty frame of the world, have not any subsistence without a mind, that their being is to be perceived or known; that consequently so long as they are not actually perceived by me, or do not exist in my mind or that of any other created spirit, they must either have no existence at all, or else subsist in the mind of some eternal spirit." In other words, everything in the material world (our reality) exists because they are perceived by some mind; and without a mind to perceive them, they would not exist! For Berkeley, the material world began as a series of ideas formed first in the mind of God and later shared with humanity through the mechanism of our minds interpreting the information that we receive via our five senses. Thus we have the idea of a star, mountain, tree or a chair.

Naturally, this quickly brought to mind a challenge to Berkeley's thesis: Does the star, mountain, tree or chair cease to exist when we are not there to perceive them? To which Berkeley replied: "For though we hold indeed the objects of sense to be nothing else but ideas which cannot exist unperceived; yet we may not hence conclude they have no existence except only while they are perceived by us, since there may be some other spirit that perceives them, though we do not. Wherever bodies are said to have no existence without the mind, I would not be understood to mean this or that particular mind, but all minds whatsoever. It does not therefore follow from the foregoing principles, that bodies are annihilated and created every moment, or exist not at all during the intervals between our perception of them." Of course, Berkeley (and his Christian followers) would say that everything within the material world exists (and its existence is sustained) by the mind of the Great Spirit, the one we call God.

It is interesting to note that the notion that our reality is intimately associated with our observation/perception of it has been adopted by most of the leading scientific minds of our own age (although most of them would probably deny any association with Berkeley's views). Indeed, one of the central problems of our modern quantum mechanics has to do with this issue of observation/measurement/perception. A Twentieth Century physicist named Erwin Schrodinger rejected the notion that subatomic particles can be defined by position and velocity. Instead, he proposed that these particles exhibit a "wavefunction" which puts them in different places at the same time. Scientists, however, were perplexed by the fact that they were unable to observe the particles behaving in this fashion. To solve this dilemma, the "Copenhagen Interpretation" was born (which represents the current majority view). The thesis of this interpretation is that the Schrodinger Equation only operates when the particle is not being observed by someone. In other words, the wavefunction collapses when someone is attempting to observe it! (citation follows)

In Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), physicist Max Tegmark argues for the acceptance of an alternative view proposed by Hugh Everett's 1957 doctoral thesis. Everett rejected the Copenhagen Interpretation by simply stating that "The wavefunction never collapses" (pages 176-187 of Our Mathematical Universe). This view implies that the reason that scientists are unable to observe the particle being in two places at once is that the places exist in parallel universes. In other words, the scientist in one universe observes the particle in one place while the same scientist observes the particle in another place in a parallel universe. Too weird? Suffice it to say that both views could be said to make observation the key component/feature of the reality of where the particle ends up. Hence, one could say that quantum mechanics has confirmed some of Berkeley's notions about the ultimate nature of reality. Indeed, Tegmark goes on to suggest that everything in the material universe can be reduced to a mathematical equation. For Christians (not for Tegmark), this demands a Master Mathematician.

Is there any support for Berkeley's thesis about the material world in Scripture? And, if so, what does all of this suggest about the nature of God?

In terms of Scripture, Berkeley was especially fond of a passage from Paul's address to the Athenians. Paul is purported to have said: "God that made the world and all things therein...seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; and hath made of one blood all nations of men...that they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring." (Acts 17:24-28) In other words, the entirety of our existence is contained and sustained within God. This certainly seems to fit with Berkeley's notion that the material world is made up of ideas that exist within the mind of God.

That is, however, only one Scripture. And, if we accept this thesis, what would that suggest for the different ideas about God's nature (One God, the Divinity of Jesus Christ, the Trinity, the Godhead, the Family of God)? Let's look at some other scriptures in this connection and see where we come out!

Jesus Christ is purported to have told the Jews attending the Feast of the Dedication in Jerusalem that he and his Father were ONE (John 10:30). What did he mean by that? A little later in the Gospel According to John, we read about how Christ told his disciples that there were "many mansions" in his Father's household; and that he was going there to "prepare a place" for them (John 14:1-3). Then Jesus told them that they knew where he was going and how to get there (verse 4). Thomas, however, said that they didn't know where he was going and consequently didn't know how to get there (verse 5). Christ responded: "I am the way, the truth and the life...If ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also: and from henceforth ye know him, and have seen him." (verses 6-7) Continuing: "Philip saith unto him, Lord, shew us the Father, and it sufficeth us. Jesus saith unto him, 'Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me Philip? He that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Shew us the Father? Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? the words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works. Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me: or else believe me for the very works' sake.'" (verses 8-11) Was Christ saying that he existed as part of (an idea within) the mind of God? After going on to discuss the "Comforter" (Holy Spirit), he tells them that the world will soon be unable to see him anymore (verse 19). Then he says: "At that day ye shall know that I am in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you." (verse 20)

If Jesus Christ existed within the mind of God before he came to this earth, and we are all the product of Christ's mind, wouldn't that make all of us the ideas of both God the Father and Jesus Christ? And doesn't that fit with New Testament doctrines outlining the Divinity of Jesus Christ? "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made." (John 1:1-3) Didn't Paul say that God "created all things by Jesus Christ" (Ephesians 3:9)? The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews wrote: "God who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds; Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the hand of the Majesty on high..." (Hebrews 1:1-3). Moreover, although Berkeley saw our existence within the mind of God as proof of our immortal soul, couldn't his thesis also be interpreted to support those who reject the notion of humans possessing an immortal soul? After all, if we exist as an idea within the mind of God, why would "He" need a "soul" to resurrect us? Wouldn't God simply have to recall us to "His" mind?

Isn't this thesis also able to accommodate the Jewish and Muslim notions of ONE God? After all, doesn't this view also make Christ part of the mind of God? And as a part (or an idea) wouldn't that make Christ inferior to the whole? Hence, one could still say with a straight face that there was/is only ONE God! In similar fashion, we can see how Berkeley's thesis could also accommodate a notion of God as a family - once again all of his children existing within the mind of God.

Thus, in conclusion, it seems to me that Berkeley's thesis is flexible enough to accommodate all of the different notions that have arisen within the Abrahamic faiths about the nature of God. Nevertheless, I'm not going to get my hopes up that everyone will embrace these notions and break out into a chorus of "Kumbaya, my Lord." After all, everyone derives much too much enjoyment from feeling superior to each other because of their particular understanding of the TRUE nature of God! What do you think?

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