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God Is Dead

God Is Dead. So What?
Richard Ostrofsky
August, 2015

Nietzsche declared that God is dead. I think I understand what he was trying to say, and I agree with him; but I would put it a little differently. To my mind, God is not so much dead as technologically unemployed. Until Nietzsche's time or just before then, there was a job for that old guy on the Sistine Chapel's ceiling, a necessary job that only he could do: Thinkers
needed the idea of him to explain order in the cosmos; and, in particular, to explain life. To explain why there was a cosmos at all. Science gives better explanations now, but many people still prefer the old ones. To that extent, God is still very much alive. But as a paradigm for research – for asking important questions and then interpreting and collating the data into a coherent story – God is no longer needed. Worse than that, he is in the way, cluttering up the public discourse and causing trouble.
We can replace God now. We can design intellectual machinery to do most of his work – nearly all of it, in fact. Where we remain ignorant, it seems clearly better to keep the questions open than to use a God to sweep them under the rug. But there is a big difference between knowing how to design machinery and actually getting it built and installed. This difference is the answer to my title's question. God is obsolete, and we have the
paradigm of self-organization to replace him – the ecoDar-winian paradigm as I call it. But there is still a lot of work to build the actual machinery that can do his job. Specifically, there is much we don't know as yet in at least the following areas:

Fundamental physics is a mess now. We are still guessing at how this universe came to be, and why its fundamental laws are as they are. Given a 'Big Bang' and the laws that we've worked out, we can tell a fairly complete story about what came after. But the origin of these laws, and the the fabric of spacetime itself are matters for mathematical speculation
beyond experimental testing. General relativity and quantum mechanics are each highly confirmed in the domains they cover, but inconsistent with one another. Perhaps the central question of physics today concerns the nature of nothingness: the properties of empty space itself.

We know quite a lot about the mechanisms of evolution and self-organization, but understand the role of ecology and context only in principle, and perhaps not even that. We lack the means to study ultra-complex systems (like climate, the daily weather, our planet's biosphere or a human society) at any depth. For the study of such systems, controlled exper-iments are not possible, and mathematical calculation is prohibitively difficult. Simulation may be the only real tool we have; but we have models and the computing 'horsepower' only for relatively crude simulations.

But the most important field of relative ignorance and central concern in the culture wars between science and religion, is (what has been called) “the human condition.” In the past, the world's religions gave their descriptions of our predicament. They claimed to tell us what we are and what our lives are essentially about. They got their knowledge from the ancestors, and from sacred texts by way of 'revelation.' But the human
condition has been changing rapidly in recent years. It underwent several big changes – medical, epistemological, economic and social – even in my lifetime. Most lives are no longer mostly about survival. It's very clear that our condition is changing, but that some features of it are still much the same. We may find that old religions offer some useful guidance, but they are no longer authoritative or sufficient. No wonder so many people feel bewildered and threatened in their basic commitments and identities! No wonder there are 'culture wars' between those still clinging to the old answers, and those (like me) who reject them while offering only difficult questions in their place.

Closely related to philosophical questions about the human condition are very practical questions about psychology and social science. For example: How are human identities constructed, and what kind of help do children need in forming their identities? Conversely, what sorts of training are societies entitled to provide and require to form the future citizens they
want? The field of education is a battleground now, especially where vestiges of religious authority still linger. In its heyday, religion provided a consensual ideology at the core of children's education. In fact, it held an effective monopoly; and in that way settled the issue beyond questioning. Today, we have no such ideology or consensus. All we have now to guide educational curricula is the scramble for lucrative employment. We are clear that it is important to launch children into the job market. We agree about little else.

But education is just one part of the issue of relationship between the individual and his or her society. Granted that this relationship is something that people must ultimately work out for themselves, they are always subject to influences from parents and relatives, from teachers, peers and employers, and from celebrities promoted and chosen as role models. Traditional religions played an enormous role in setting norms and patterns for what we have learned to call “the social contract” – the customary rights and duties of the individual in society and of society toward its member individuals. With the decline of the old religious norms, almost every clause of this 'social contract' has become a point of contention.

A Victorian poem, Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach, published in 1867, clearly expressed the loss that many felt with the retreat of God and religion: “The Sea of Faith was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. But now I only hear its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, retreating, to the breath of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear and naked shingles of the world.” The whole poem is less than a page long, and well worth reading even by
atheists today. It can be found easily on the Web.

The question I want raise is: What, if anything, can replace the loss that Arnold was pointing too?” But actually, this question doesn't need much raising. What it needs, until a satisfactory answer appears, is patience, some mutual understanding, clear thinking and intellectual honesty. It dominates the culture wars of our time like an invisible gorilla in the room; but we are fighting over it, or hiding from it with various religion-
substitutes, instead of facing it with intellectual honesty and courage.

The worldview from modern science affords numerous applications that everyone covets – even if they don't accept the ideas which make those applications possible. But the modern worldview proves invidious and highly divisive: Its fundamental vision is not 'drear' at all, but awesome, luminous and beautiful – but only for those who have the education, will
and leisure to get their heads around it. Unfortunately, to very many the worldview of science is severe and forbidding and likely to remain so. It willfully steers clear of value-issues that are of fundamental human concern. The result is that where modernists tend to see traditionalists as ignorant and superstitious, they see us as willfully in denial of what to them
are matters of spiritual life and death. We feel contempt for them and they feel resentment and rage for us – fueled in many cases by economic and social envy. These attitudes do not make for peace, nor do they help make good the loss that Arnold and many others have pointed to.

Table of Contents

Page title Most recent update Last edited by
Group Minds and Human Ones April 6, 2016 5:27 PM Richard O.
Self-Organization November 26, 2015 7:01 AM Richard O.
God Is Dead August 21, 2015 5:15 PM Richard O.
Recommended Background Videos and Reading July 20, 2015 10:05 AM Richard O.
About Montreal Skeptics, Secularists and Freethinkers August 21, 2015 4:56 PM Richard O.

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