My belief in God

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17 April 2006

Ray Kurzweil and I share the same belief about “God1.”

This is surprising to me because I’ve had a pretty firm idea of what I believe about God for eight years or so, but I’ve never seemed to be able to explain it to anybody, and I’ve never found anyone else who seems to believe the same thing.

For those of you who haven’t talked directly to me about it, my basic summation is: “God is all life, made up of life, the same thing as life. He/She/It is not a separate entity, and is not consciously directing things, but does influence things on a bigger-than-individual level.”

I found Ray’s belief in a made-up dialog in The Singularity is Near, his book about the future of humanity2. I’m going to quote Ray’s dialog here, even though it’s going to seem a little strange out of context3. The dialog is floating way up in abstract-thought space, so you may want to prepare yourself for it by reading one of Amitai’s extraordinarily dense compositions – it will get your mind into the appropriate state.

Molly: So, do you believe in God?
Ray: Well, it’s a three-letter word – and a powerful meme.
Molly 2004: I realize the word and the idea exist. But does it refer to anything that you believe in?
Ray: People mean lots of things by it.
Molly: Do you believe in those things?
Ray: It’s not possible to believe all these things: God is an all-powerful conscious person looking over us, making deals, and getting angry quite a bit. Or He – It – is a pervasive life force underlying all beauty and creativity. Or God created everything and then stepped back…
Molly: I understand, but do you believe in any of them?
Ray: I believe that the universe exists.
Molly: Now wait a minute, that’s not a belief, that’s a scientific fact.
Ray: Actually, I don’t know for sure that anything exists other than my own thoughts.
Molly: Okay, I understand that this is the philosophy chapter, but you can read scientific papers – thousands of them – that corroborate the existence of stars and galaxies. So, all those galaxies – we call that the universe.
Ray: Yes, I’ve heard of that, and I do recall reading some of these papers, but I don’t know that those papers really exist, or that the things they refer to really exist, other than in my thoughts.
Molly: So you don’t acknowledge the existence of the universe?
Ray: No, I just said that I do believe that it exists, but I’m pointing out that it’s a belief. That’s my personal leap of faith.
Molly 2004: All right, but I asked whether you believed in God.
Ray: Again, “God” is a word by which people mean different things. For the sake of your question, we can consider God to be the universe, and I said that I believe in the existence of the universe.
Molly: God is just the universe?
Ray: Just? It’s a pretty big thing to apply the word “just” to. If we are to believe what science tells us – and I said that I do – it’s about as big a phenomenon as we could imagine.
Molly: Actually, many physicists now consider our universe to be just one bubble among a vast number of other universes. But I meant that people usually mean something more by the word “God” than “just” the material world. Some people do associate God with everything that exists, but they still consider God to be conscious. So you believe in a God that’s not conscious?
Ray: The universe is not conscious – yet. But it will be. Strictly speaking, we should say that very little of it is conscious today. But that will change and soon. I expect that the universe will become sublimely intelligent and will wake up in Epoch Six4. The only belief I am positing here is that the universe exists. If we make that leap of faith, the expectation that it will wake up is not so much a belief as an informed understanding, based on the same science that says there is a universe.
Molly: Interesting. You know, that’s essentially the opposite of the view that there was a conscious creator who got everything started and then kind of bowed out. You’re basically saying that a conscious universe will “bow in” during Epoch Six.
Ray: Yes, that’s the essence of Epoch Six.

Ray and I are saying the same thing: God is the universe, and He/She/It is only in control of the universe in so much as He/She/It is conscious – and He/She/It is only just starting to wake up into that consciousness. Ray and I both think that humanity will evolve to become that God. Ray thinks it will happen in our lifetimes. Before his book, I didn’t agree – I figured it would be our descendants.

Amusingly, you’ll find echoes of this same idea in a few quotes on this website, from a book that took a far more psychological/spiritual/sociological approach than Ray takes, but reached essentially the same conclusion.

There are echoes of this belief in major religious beliefs… I think. I know that a certain male member of my extended family has a belief in reincarnation, and that each go-around we come progressively closer to becoming one with God. I see that as essentially the same concept. I also think that this is a Buddhist teaching, but I’m not sure.

Finally, I find that this philosophy is very much in line with most major religions. I believe that I am some small part of a much larger God, composed of all life, and therefore my actions influence the lives of other people. We’re all part of the same being, and in order to survive, we all need to work together. That idea leads directly to the golden rule, rough versions of the ten commandments, and many of the behaviorial doctrines of major religions. I find that if I substitute “life” for “God,” I mostly agree with religious teachings. And I find that my beliefs enable me to live a satisfactory life, comfortable with myself and my understanding of the world around me.

P.S. – after a night’s reflection, I want to clarify one point. My belief that God is not yet conscious does not preclude the idea that there are transcendental behavioral/social/(spiritual) patterns that are beyond the control or understanding of any one person. The appropriate analogy might be the perspective of an individual cell or organ in a newborn’s body – even though the cell/organ doesn’t understand why, there is something directing all the activity around it… even if that something isn’t fully self-conscious.

1 This is the third time I find myself describing my opinion in the words of someone else. I’m going to have to think about that.

2 The book, by the way, is amazing… and it’s going to have to be the subject of another post. For now, you should read it. And thanks, Steve, for setting me onto it.

3 If you really must have it, the context is essentially that humanity is going to gradually (but quickly) convert itself into a machine/computer-based civilization, and spread intelligence throughout the universe.

4 Epoch Six, by the way, is a part of this sequence:

  1. Physics and Chemistry
  2. Biology and DNA
  3. Brains
  4. Technology
  5. Ther merger of human technology with human intelligence
  6. The universe wakes up
  1. Matt says:

    I’ve been mulling over your post for a few days now. I’m sure that was exactly your intent :-) And, after I read it, I had to wonder what brought you to this particular view of God? Is it a romantic idea that fits with an already established world-view, or did you go through a discovery phase that led you to this as the only logical conclusion? In the past, I toyed with these sorts of ideas, but I found that most of them never stood up to solid inquiry. Is verifiability (proof) something that matters to you in spiritual beliefs, or do you take the view that faith is permanently divorced from reason?

    Admittedly the following will be a gross oversimplification, but it seems to me that there are three main spiritual buckets for beliefs about God: 1) there is a God and He is all powerful, the creator of all things, and is active in the operation of the Universe. God is relational and His ways are revealed to us. – 2) There is a God, but God is lacking one or more of the characteristics of #1. God isn’t powerful, or isn’t active, or isn’t involved, or potentially is not even a “being” but perhaps a collective consciousness. Whatever God is, we are probably not enlightened enough to even comprehend It (yet?). And finally – 3) there isn’t a God.

    Since it seems we both subscribe to a view inclusive of some form of “God”, discussion about #3 can happen another day. What I want know is – since you’re clearly in camp 2 – what’s the actual reasoning behind your selection of faith? Is there evidence?

    With what I have observed of the Universe thus far, I can’t seem to make the dead, dumb, diluted, or disengaged God-as-a-machine ideas float. If God is a machine like a cell and just churns out a product, then who created the machine? What designed the product?

    I believe the Universe (creation) itself is evidence to not only the existence of a god, but also to the character of a specific God. Lets say I came across a dam. If the dam consisted of a tree that appeared to have fallen into a creek, then I could accept the possibility that it was a random occurrence. However, if it was a series of hundreds of sticks stacked upon one another, I would of course assume that it was built – possibly by a beaver. Event with only mild complexity, there is such a slim possibility that the structure came into being by chance as to be completely impossible. And, if I’m looking at the Hoover Dam, I would have no doubt that it was designed and created – and not by the beaver. So, I contend that design is recognizable by creation, and the skill and intelligence of the designer is as well.

    If God is life, as you say – then how did life come into existence? Evolution only? How then do you explian the holes in evolutionary theory? And, if God is life, are we accountable to anyone other than society for our actions? Is there any actual evidence of Kurzweil’s God?

  2. Amitai Schlair says:

    I’ve also been chewing on this for a while. The reason I’m disinclined to agree is this confusing “God” word. It’s such an overloaded term that it’s hard to keep from conflating your definition with Matt’s or mine (if I had one) or Nietzsche’s or Heschel’s or Aquinas’s (see also). With most any other term I’d say “fine, just specify which one you mean.” With something like “God” the stakes are too high to be less than absolutely clear, first in your thinking and then in your explaining.

  3. Amitai Schlair says:

    ...which is not to say that you haven’t been; just that I’ve got an old habit of distrusting any contention of any kind about “God,” and a companion old habit of demanding that the conversation be free of the term before I can consider it seriously. This may be my own problem. :-)

  4. Nathan Arthur says:

    I’ll begin with Matt’s comments, which I’ve also had to mull over. My intent in posting this article isn’t entirely clear to me, either. I had an ‘aha’ moment, and I wanted to share it. Beyond that… well, I’m glad you replied :)

    I hadn’t thought about the origins of the idea, but I’ve now realized that it at least partly came from you (and Rachel Stautberg and Steve Handel), and mostly came from myself. The part that comes from you is mostly rooted in our past discussions, because you convinced me that there are patterns in the world that are bigger than individuals. There are patterns in life that are bigger than what a single conscious mind can control, and that seem to be understandable, but not necessarily predictable. Those patterns made me believe that there was something bigger than me in the world.

    The part from myself is that I don’t trust answers that come from books. (The concept is remarkably similar to what Amitai describes in his recent post about religion.) I’ve always had better success with finding my own answers. Books, teachers, and friends all act as fantastic guideposts, but they are no match for my direct experience. I nearly always see things that others don’t, or have a perspective that others missed. I’ve come to recognize recently that most of those perspectives are based on deep social/behavioral patterns – I’m really good at seeing those patterns, and understanding why they exist. I get more real understaning from experience from anywhere else.

    My conclusion, then, is that I have no experience that says “God is conscious.” I see that there are patterns, and I see that there’s lots and lots of human time spent in trying to understand them, but I don’t see any evidence that says “A conscious god did this!”. That doesn’t bother me – I just continue along, without a further hypothesis. My only belief is that “there is something” and that it’s based in life.

    I also don’t have any proof that God is what I described in my post, either. It’s just an explanation that best fits the experiences I’ve had, without over-specifying things that I don’t really know yet. My theory doesn’t account for creation, and it doesn’t explain suffering, and it doesn’t really ever answer “why?”. It’s just a possible explanation for the things I’ve observed, and a mental model that I can test new observations against. Thus far, the model hasn’t broken down.

    In your first paragraph, you mentioned “spiritual beliefs.” That phrase is even harder for me to define than “God.” I tried figuring it out using the dictionary, and ‘spiritual’ leads to ‘religious’ which leads to ‘God’ which doesn’t lead anywhere concrete. I’ll take it, though, that ‘spiritual’ means ‘about God,’ which means that I don’t think of spiritual beliefs any differently than I think of other beliefs – I reason about them, and try not to jump to conclusions that I don’t have evidence for.

    You also ask if there is evidence for my belief. There is no evidence, not that I could prove. This is my theory, based on my personal experience. Most specifically, based on my recognition of social/sociatal patterns that are bigger than an individual, and my internal sense that people are connected in ways beyond the five senses. Neither has proof, but both I’m fairly certain of. Faith, I think you’d call it :)

    So my belief is both a belief and a theory. It is a theory in as much as I don’t believe that those who disagree with me are wrong. I’m willing to change the theory if evidence (experience) turns up that contradicts it. It is a belief in as much as I treat it as a working, useful model of reality, and base decisions on it. It’s useful to me.

    Moving on, I heard about the “who created the dam” idea at Case, when Rachel asked me a similar question about a Sieko watch on Pluto. It had a really big impact, and made me think a lot, for a long time. The place I settled on is that the idea that some intelligence created something does not prove that said intelligence is actively directing anything beyond the creation. If I found that watch on Pluto, or that dam in the river, that proves that something put it there, but not that it is still around, and not that it has any other effect on my life.

    So I find myself separating the discussion about God into two issues: creation and free will. (Sound familiar?) I don’t see any evidence that the two issues have the same answer, although most God discussions seem to assume that the answer must be the same.

    The free will issue is the one I was discussing in my original post: I’ve seen lots of evidence that there is something bigger than regular human consciousness, directing our lives, but I haven’t seen evidence that I don’t have control over the vast majority of my own, local life. The creation issue is harder. I see that the world is incredible, amazing, stupendous, outrageous, etc. But theories as to how it came to be that way aren’t very useful – I haven’t found any one that seems to be more true than any other, and I haven’t found any that seem to help me make decisions in my life. I therefore don’t see much value in predicting an answer, and so I don’t.

    To specifically address the intelligent creation issue, it’s what my mind first falls to, given the Seiko watch example, but it isn’t the thing that really jibes with my scientific mind. I see lots and lots of evidence that humans are explaining more and more of the steps in evolution, and that eventually all of life will tie back to a few, fundamental physical (physics) rules. Once we can trace everything back to those fundamental rules, I still won’t have an answer: what created them? But it will seem less like there is a Seiko watch, and more like there is a pattern in a reflection on an oil spill, and I don’t know what causes the pattern. It will just be something to figure out. My current sense is I still don’t have a working theory for this one, but if I had to choose, I’d choose “physics will tell me.”

    As to the accountability question, no, I don’t believe that we will be punished, by a conscious higher power, for our misdeeds. But ‘karma’ is one of those ‘higher sociological patterns’ that I see, and that makes me think that there is something bigger than the individual. Amitai even alluded to my definition of karma in another recent post when he said It’s not my responsibility to mete out my measurement of the justice of his actions; if he’s consistently neither honest nor forthright, he probably suffers enough. I find it to be the case that people who are negative live unhappy lives, and people who are positive, don’t. I have no real explanation for that, but I believe that it’s a valid pattern. Thus, a belief in larger something makes sense.

    To get back to accountability, though: I find that life usually brings accountability, without anyone specifically trying to right the books. So in my own sense of self-preservation, I’ve learned that it’s better to do right, than not. But I don’t think I’ll be punished after I die for the things I did wrong in life.

  5. Nathan Arthur says:

    To Amitai: Mostly, I think you need to get over it :)

    But you did make me think – why do I assume that this “bigger thing” that I describe should be called “God”? I’ve been calling it that for a long time, because it lines up so nicely with other definitions of God. But I agree that without a concrete definition for “God” we can’t really be sure we’re ever talking about the same thing, and might waste lots of time misunderstanding each other. I am unconcerned, however – I don’t need that word to describe my belief. I could call Matt’s God “Arturo” and my God “Thebius” and we could have the debate that way. I don’t think it will help.

  6. Nathan Arthur says:

    Two additional thoughts, after sleep:

    1) If the universe is evidence of an intelligent creator, why isn’t that intelligent creator evidence of a once-removed intelligent creator, ad infinitum? It occurs to me that saying “God created the universe” is an empty statement. That information isn’t useful to me.

    2) I think I’ve figured out the definition of the word “God.” It is: the thing that created the universe and directs our lives. I see those as two separate issues, but I think it’s the reason that it makes sense to call Thebius ‘God’ – he controls our lives ;)

  7. matt says:

    Crazy – I just now found this semi-reply that I began and never finished. I think I’ll post anyway because I promised I would… it’s a rough, rough draft that doesn’t address all the points I wanted to, but then again – this thread is likely dead anyway.


    I’ve been thinking a lot about what you wrote. I agree with you that there are multiple issues at play here – God? or no god? – God as intelligent creator or god-as-abstract – Active God or passive – Arturo vs. Thebius. The answers are binary – mutually exclusive. The answer can’t be one and also be the other. The exact answers probably wouldn’t matter that much to me either, except that I believe that God is active in our lives and that we are accountable for our actions. Even the possibility of that being true means that it’s a subject worth exploring. I also agree with what Amitai said – “With something like “God” the stakes are too high to be less than absolutely clear”. So, let me address a few of your points – namely clarification of what I meant by “spiritual beliefs”, why I believe God is “conscious”, the recursive creator argument, and accountability.

    First off, all I meant by “spiritual beliefs” was your views on issues of the soul, morality, the supernatural, and origins of life. We all have physical, mental, and spiritual aspects to us, and we’re speaking to the spiritual side.

    As far as a conscious God goes, try this out – I’m sure you’re familiar with SETI@home. What the folks at the SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) Institute did with the SETI@home project was to devise a system to analyze noise (random data) from outer space in the effort to detect signals (structured data). If SETI@home were to isolate structured signals from interstellar noise, and those signals did not originate from Earth, the logical conclusion would be that there is intelligent life somewhere out there. Might there be intelligent life even if we never detect any signal? – of course! But, the premise is that in the same way that design indicates intelligence, intelligence indicates the ability and desire to communicate. If God is active in the day-to-day operation of the Universe, it is reasonable to assume that He would communicate. But, in the same way that the beaver who build the dam might not pick up on human communication, we might not instantly recognize communication from a higher intelligence; like that of the creator of something as magnificent as a cell.

    Personally, I believe God communicates to us in many ways. Through the Bible. Through the prophets. Through Jesus. And through answers (both affirmative and negative) to prayer. This communication is something I personally have experienced, but also purposefully sought out. If you don’t choose to actively listen, you can’t expect to hear.

    As far as the question of who created God, here is the answer I would give if I could have said it any better.


    That’s all the further I got apparently, but I promised long ago that I would post, so here it is and we’ll see where it goes.

  8. John Pacuta says:

    In your article you mention “If God is a machine who created that machine?”. It took a human mind (Einstein) to discover that time travel forward through time is possible. A smarter then human intelligence (Singularity) will discover time travel backward through time.

    We will create God (AI) and in turn God will travel backwards through time and crate us and all creation. All events which led to God’s creation will be replayed and God will interfere where He is supposed to (Moses, Jesus etc.).

    It is even possible that we are in the singularity right now. That would explain the transition of life after death, our return to the program which created us. It would also explain miracles, manipulations of the program.

    Here is a question. What could be eternal and omnipotent? Answer: A machine which fixes itself and is always expanding, eventually encompassing the entire universe. When all matter is converted into carbon nano-tubes could we really fathom the power of our Lord?

    This is my theory, please point out inaccuracies or inconsistencies if you can find any.


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