What is God, and How Does the Brain Handle Mystery?
There seem to be phenomena that are not just unexplained but unexplainable, and so the deepest divinity is the mystery and the glory and the order of the universe.
September 14, 2009
Fred Foldvary, Ph.D.
Economist

God is the mystery and the glory and the order that is inherent in nature.

There are many religions, each with its own conception of God, and the religion of atheism believes that there is no God. But there is a common conception beneath the rather superficial differences in belief. Ultimately, man looks at nature, and realizes that there is more there than meets the eye.

The mind pierces through the appearance and seeks to understand the underlying order. The human mind then realizes that nature has more than order; it has glory, the splendor, and beauty of a waterfall or the stars or a butterfly.

Science and philosophy cannot explain it all. Life is programmed matter, and a program implies a programmer. But then who programmed the programmer? The mystery is inherent.

The dominant religions envision God as the designer, creator, and ruler of all that exists. In this vision, God is eternal, all powerful, and benevolent. The latter poses a problem. The puzzle has been, how can we reconcile a benevolent God with the presence of evil and suffering? The conventional answers are not deeply satisfying. To say there is some ultimate unknown purpose or that it is part of the mystery is to not really answer it.

Philosophers and theologians have sought to prove the existence of God, but they have not succeeded. For example, some have claimed that there must be a “first mover,” but it is also possible that the universe is eternal, without any beginning. The big bang of the current universe may have been preceded by a collapse of a previous bang, or a disturbance in the space-time continuum.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are witness religions. There was a historical event, such as the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which was witnessed by many, and they passed on the story. But since we cannot go back in time to personally witness the events, those of other religions remain unconvinced, since all we have now is texts.

Some atheists claim that God is a human construct, just as Santa Claus is made up. But there is a significant difference between God and Santa Claus. Purely made-up figures are bizarre. The concept of some man living near the north pole, making toys, and riding rain deer is too bizarre for serious belief. But the concept of God is not bizarre, because the universe itself is bizarre. The physical constants had to be just the way they are for the universe to exist, and there is no logical reason why it had to be so.

The belief that science can potentially answer the mystery, or that the universe is purely physical, is also a faith, a religion, since it cannot be proved.

What can be proved are conclusions from logic. If a creator God exists, then one can ask whether God must follow the laws of logic, or whether God created logic and then made the human mind to believe in the logic, so that logic appears to be, well, logical.

It is inconceivable to me that 3 plus 4 can be anything else but 7. Perhaps my mind was programmed to believe it, but that programming then makes the proposition unbelievable. Moreover, physical reality is based on logic, and if our conception of logic is arbitrary, we would not be able to survive in reality.

Logic is thus superior to God in that even God must follow the rules of logic. Logic is eternal, unchanging, and omni-present. Logic thus has the features we want in God. Moreover, logic does not require sacrifices or worship.

A principle of logic is cause and effect. Every effect has a cause. Quantum physics seems to throw this concept into doubt, as phenomena are perceived to be probabilistic, but on the other hand, Einstein said that God does not throw dice. He said that an “inner voice” told him that quantum mechanics is not yet the real thing. Even when a die is thrown, physics will determine which face a particular throw will fall on.

If all is cause and effect, then all motions are determined, and there is ultimately no free will. Every human action has some reason and cause. The action may begin in the subconscious, and we may only have the illusion of freely choosing. However, because we do not know the future, and because we feel and think that we can choose, that itself becomes, in practice, free will.

But it can be comforting to believe that what has happened, had to happen. This can be more comforting than the belief that what happens is God’s will. Maybe God’s will is also determined, which then leaves little distinction between atheism and theism.

Ultimately, eye-witness events handed down in texts is not the basis of religion. These are historical tales which may or may not be believed. Most folks believe in religion because they believe in tradition, but tradition does not hold up to logic. Deists have recognized that the origin of deity is a design not able to be explained without a designer, even though the designer too remains unexplained.

Science can explain how order works, but not why there is order. Science does not explain why we perceive the design as glory. The perception of glory does not seem necessary for human survival. There seem to be phenomena that are not just unexplained but unexplainable, and so the deepest divinity is the mystery and the glory and the order of the universe.

In economics, there is a spontaneous order in society and markets. There is a coordination of production, exchange, and consumption, beyond the ability of a central planner to organize. An economic czar would only make outcomes worse. The economy thus has no need for God as a creator and ruler. The universal ethic, which gives a pure free market its meaning, can be derived from human nature.

But economies worldwide have not been in harmony. We are plagued with depressions, pollution, poverty, and conflict. The human mind acts from reason, yet without instruction will not grasp the reason of the universal ethical imperative. People readily believe in propositions that have no basis in logic and evidence, and often despite contrary evidence and logic.

Religions have failed to provide on earth, as they believe it is in heaven. People do not believe that there is an order to the market, as they call on government to “correct” it. They disbelieve in the glory of free choice. The economic mystery is why people reject nature’s offer to pay for collective goods, and instead seek to inflict costs on the very economy that sustains them.

Many people say they believe in God, but they do not truly believe if they seek to murder, kidnap, trespass on, steal from or arbitrarily restrict those whom they disfavor. They do not believe in equal self-ownership, and they plunder the planet, thus they deny the glory of humanity and of earthian nature. Those who truly recognize the mystery and the glory and the order that is inherent in nature will respect human and non-human nature in their deepest sense.

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Fred Foldvary, Ph.D.
Economist

FRED E. FOLDVARY, Ph.D., is an economist and has been writing weekly editorials for Progress.org since 1997. Foldvary's commentaries are well respected for their currency, sound logic, wit, and consistent devotion to human freedom. He received his B.A. in economics from the University of California at Berkeley, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University. He has taught economics at Virginia Tech, John F. Kennedy University, Santa Clara University, and currently teaches at San Jose State University.

Foldvary is the author of The Soul of LibertyPublic Goods and Private Communities, and Dictionary of Free Market Economics. He edited and contributed to Beyond Neoclassical Economics and, with Dan Klein, The Half-Life of Policy Rationales. Foldvary's areas of research include public finance, governance, ethical philosophy, and land economics.

Foldvary is notably known for going on record in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology in 1997 to predict the exact timing of the 2008 economic depression—eleven years before the event occurred. He was able to do so due to his extensive knowledge of the real-estate cycle.