First define "God"...

Once, when asked whether I believed in God, I replied “first define God and then I'll tell you”. Only rather later I reflected that maybe the question deserved a proper answer, not so much whether I believed but rather what I believed. What does this word “God” mean? Different religions have very different answers and modern interpretations of the Christian Bible vary from a literal reading of the text to the reinterpretation of selected readings, taken as metaphors for modern ideas. Atheists and agnostics are not necessarily immoral, believers and unbelievers alike make value judgements. Is this inclination to ethical behaviour a cultural legacy from the past, from a time when a belief in God was the norm, or does it reflect something fundamental in our nature? If so, how is it compatible with the theory of evolution?

Over the years, my challenge “first define God” has come back to haunt me, driving me to provide my own answers. I do not see the typical "Science versus Faith" debate as productive. I do not believe in supernatural beings but It is an on-going project; I hope to add more. I have been influenced by a lingering respect for Christianity and rather more obviously by scientific theories and by the history of science. Much of what follows I have garnered from my reading, so very little is original, except perhaps in the way I have chosen to connect the ideas up. Be merciful in your criticism!

In outline, I start by describing why scientific learning depends both on scepticism and, paradoxically, certain necessary beliefs. Then I think about the way the mind is programmed for learning; programmed but neither designed nor predestined. Quantum uncertainty guarantees an infinite variety of possible futures and ensures that both human learning and biological evolution are capable of exploring all possible solutions, given sufficient time. Both depend on random variation coupled with the simplest possible practical test: “does it work better?”. Intelligence evolves because it is an advantage to understand the way things work and the way your competitors are likely to act and think. Still more useful is a “theory of mind”, the ability to see things through the eyes of another. Co-operative behaviour can evolve once you are smart enough to recognize and defend against the cheat, but then our theory of mind reflects this ability to judge back on ourselves, so we each see ourselves as others see us. In this way we acquire a conscience from the paradoxical union of two separate skills each evolved for selfish advantage. Human evolution in particular has been driven by the huge advantage of sharing knowledge, creating a body of learning and understanding which outlasts and outgrows any individual. Finally, to answer my original question, I do not believe in a separate “spiritual” god; I see the universe itself as wonderful. Call the universe god, if you will, and then evolution can be seen as god’s method of creating life. Our evolved ability to judge ourselves sets us on the path to morality and to charity, when we can recognise the virtue of Christ’s commandment to love one another. Our shared knowledge is an image of the universe, of all things and all of us, of god, that continues to grow and improve without limit, guiding us and lighting our paths. This is where the spirit lives; we may justly call it holy.

You can read it all on-line here or download a pdf file (500 kB, Last updated 21 June 2007)