Which Is To Be Master?

Our story so far . . .
“God” must, at least, include “reality as a whole.” What else is “God”? Which of the qualities that have at one time or another been said to be qualities of God are qualities that are instantiated in reality?

Candidates for qualities that have sometimes been said to be qualities of God include: “supernatural,” and “personal” (that is, person-like; knowing and wanting). I discussed and rejected “supernatural” in part 1. In part 2, I recognized an important poetic place of play for conceptions of nature/reality as “person-like" before turning to consider possibilities for "God" neither supernatural nor person-like.

In Part 3, I looked at such qualities as the final source of beauty and mystery; a power inspiring gratitude, humility, wonder, and awe; an ultimate context and basis for meaning and value; the widest (or highest or largest) reality to which our loyalty is owed, and, hence, the basis of the ethics that flow from that loyalty.

As Carl Sagan describes it, the cosmos has all of these qualities. Many people today, even though they may lack the detail of sophisticated understanding that professional scientists have, share Sagan’s sense of the natural world – the ecological, biological, and geological processes of planet Earth and the physical processes of electrons and atoms and stars and galaxies – as possessing attributes traditionally belonging to God. Let us call these people “Religious Naturalists.” They are naturalists by virtue of holding that “the supernatural” either doesn’t exist or is conceptually incoherent, and by virtue of holding that such attributes of personhood as knowing and wanting do not apply to nonliving nature or reality-as-a-whole. Naturalists may be nonreligious or religious, depending on whether they experience nature and the cosmos as beautiful, mysterious; inspiring gratitude, humility, awe; commanding loyalty, and grounding ethics.

Can we say that the cosmos, then, is God – even though the cosmos is neither supernatural nor person-like? May reality thus described reasonably be called God? May we call “God” a cosmos that has “most” of the qualities traditionally associated with God – or must we insist that supernatural and person-like necessarily must be a part of the definition? How shall such a question be answered?
'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'
'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'
'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master — that's all.' (Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll)
My mother was a physics and chemistry professor. My father was an English professor. Once, at dinner, Mom posed a question to my sister Alizon and me, as she was sometimes wont to do.

“If you throw a rock into the air, straight up – perfectly vertical – it will reach its topmost point, and then start to come straight down. At that instant at the top, is the rock accelerating?”

“No,” my father interjected. “For just an instant, it’s not moving at all.”

“At that instant it is stopped,” agreed Mom. “But it’s still accelerating. Acceleration means that its velocity is changing, and the rock’s velocity is changing throughout its trajectory – on the way up and on the way down.”

“No,” said my father, “that is not what 'acceleration' means.”

Since Dad’s specialization was 18th-century British literature, perhaps Dad had in mind Dr. Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755.

Dr. Johnson defines accelerate as:
To make quick, to hasten, to quicken motion; to give a continual impulse to motion, so as perpetually to increase.
“You scientists,” fumed Dad, “don’t get to change the English language.”

Actually, scientists do get to change the meanings of words. Sorry, Dad. Sometimes scientists even do so through an explicit and formal process, as when the International Astronomical Union, on 2006 August 24, adopted a new definition of “planet” for our solar system. Their definition excluded Pluto, which had been within the definition of planet since its discovery in 1930. More often, the shift in meaning disseminates slowly and informally.

Words change their meaning as we learn more about the things they point to. As we learned more about motion, we saw that all regular changes in velocity were mathematically describable, and we needed the word “accelerate” to refer to all such changes, not just to speeding up.

Similarly, as we learned more about a planet, the word’s meaning changed. “Planet” originally meant “wandering star.” By Galileo’s lifetime, educated Europeans had pretty much universally dropped the “star” part from their understanding of the meaning of “planet.” By 1930, the definition took in nine objects in our solar system, then, in 2006, in the light of discoveries about the Kuiper belt, the definition was refined to include only eight objects in our solar system.

Other examples:

- As we learned more about what water was, we incorporated “H2O” into its definition.

- As we learned more about “atoms,” the word’s meaning changed. “Atom” originally meant “not divisible.” When we developed the ability to split atoms, we had to change the definition of “atom” so that it no longer meant “indivisible.”

- A thousand years ago, "animal" was almost universally understood to mean nonhuman -- and "human" to mean nonanimal (Aristotle's definition of humans as the "rational animal" notwithstanding). As we learned more about animals and humans, we changed the definitions to reflect our new understanding of what humans and animals are.

Words change their meaning as we learn more about the things they point to. Our definitions of words reflect our understandings of things.

The word “God” points to a source of beauty and mystery; a power inspiring gratitude, humility, wonder, and awe; an ultimate context and basis for meaning and value; the widest reality to which our loyalty is owed; a basis of ethics. As our understanding of the reality to which the word points has evolved – so that, for many of us, that reality is no longer regarded as supernatural or person-like – then dropping “supernatural” and “personal” from the definition would seem a simple matter. Since so much of the meaning of “God” is retained, then the dropped part would seem more easily releasable than, say, dropping “star” from “planet” or “indivisible” from “atom”. After all, “star” and “indivisible” were once much bigger parts of the definitions of “planet” and “atom” respectively than “supernatural and person-like” have been for “God.”

Case closed? Not so fast. We must also consider the "does not exist" option. As our understanding of things evolves, sometimes we do indeed change the meanings of words. Other times, however, instead of redefining the word, we conclude that the word fails to refer -- i.e., that the purported object pointed to does not exist.

The authors of the Biblical Book of Job evidently wrote for a populace that took leviathans to be real entities. Now we say they don’t exist.

From the late 17th-century until the late 18th-century, the phlogiston theory of combustion postulated that a fire-like element called phlogiston was contained within combustible bodies and was released during combustion. Eventually, the phlogiston theory of combustion was replaced by the oxygen theory of combustion that we have today. Scientists did not re-define “phlogiston.” Instead, they expressed their new understanding by saying, “phlogiston does not exist,” and “there is no such thing as phlogiston.”

Which route should religious naturalists take? Should we say that God is the cosmos? Or, instead, should we say that there is no God?

In the history of the evolution of human knowledge, re-definition is the norm, and the “doesn’t exist” route is the rarely necessary resort. Had there been any actual beasts that were at all close to leviathans, even if significant features of the mythical understanding were missing, we would have retained “leviathan.” Phlogiston was unusually awkward: it turned out that combustion involves the taking in of something (oxygen), rather than the giving off of something. The process itself was entirely opposite to what phlogiston theory had said. So redefining “phlogiston” as “oxygen” would have required unusual conceptual gymnastics. Moreover, the “phlogiston” concept itself was new, never broke out of scientific circles to become well-anchored in cultural understandings, and lacked a long history of accumulated associations that might have given it meanings we wouldn’t want to throw away. Phlogiston was a rare case of an easily disposable concept.

The word “God,” however, has a very long history of referring to a source of mystery and meaning, an origin, a basis for values and commitment, an ultimate the contemplation of which cultivates well-being, humility, peace, and an ethical vision, as such contemplation does for religious naturalists such as Sagan. The list of the functions of the word “God” that are retained by religious naturalism is much longer than the functions dropped.

The great advantage of the word “God” is clarity of communication. That word, better than any other, clearly and directly specifies that what we’re talking about is indeed an ultimate ground of both concrete values and commitments and at the same time incomprehensible, mysterious, full of powers we can but dimly apprehend (e.g., dark matter; 128 dimensions; the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle; reproduction; immunological response; consciousness) – a reason for living, and a beauty beyond reason.

What humans have been pointing to with that word, “God,” turns out, for religious naturalists, not to have beliefs and desires. We can now drop that nonessential meaning and speak even more clearly of the holy within which we live and breathe and have our being.

Words change their meaning as we learn more about the things they point to.


Religion brings us together, binds us, makes community of us. A religion offers a basis for an ethics. We might say that whatever is your basis for ethics is your religion. Religion is a context for cultivation of virtues. It is a field in which wisdom slowly grows. Through all this is an account that responds to the question: Who am I? Who are we? What sort of world is this? What is reality?

A shared account of what reality is supports religious community-forming power. It supports the ethical grounding and the virtue aspirations because what we hope to be and can be is framed by what is. Today our best account of reality – a dynamic and constantly shifting account – emerges from the researches of scientists. To know it as best we can gives us shared reality to ground community and hopes. And it opens for us a world of wonder, even as it affirms connectedness.

In the Book of Job, the Hebrew and eventually the Western Mind addressed suffering. “Why do I suffer?” cries Job. Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, come to visit him in his misery. They offer the trite moral simplifications: “You must have done something wrong to bring this on yourself; you must have sinned to incite God’s punishment.” For these friends, the universe is mechanically moral: Goodness in, reward out; badness or evil in, punishment out.

Finally, God himself/herself appears to answer the charge that Job’s suffering is unfair and without basis. It’s not clear, however, that what God proceeds to say can be accurately called an “answer.” God unleashes four chapters of rhetorical questions that invoke the wonders and grandeur of creation. A sampling:
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?... Or who shut in the sea,... made the clouds its garment... Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place... Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?... Has the rain a father, or who has begotten the drops of dew?... Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion?... Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?...Do you give the horse its might?... Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars, and spreads its wings toward the south? Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes its nest on high? (Job 38: 4, 8, 9, 12, 18, 28, 31. Job 39: 1, 19, 26-27. NRSV.)
God goes on also to invoke leviathans and behemoths (and unicorns, too, according to the King James Version, though later translations say "wild ox" instead). God’s speech is not an explanatory “answer” to the question Job had so plaintively raised to the heavens, "Why do I suffer?" Yet confronted with the vast awe of creation, Job’s complaint is stilled. Humbled and speechless, Job abandons his plea, for he grasps that the mystery of the cosmos is so much deeper than principles of justice.

What about you and me? Amidst our daily and variable discomforts, distractions, and all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, where shall we look today for the “speeches of God” that will fill us afresh with such profound wonder that our sufferings fade into insignificance, replaced by an awe unto joy? We look to nature, just as God directed Job to look. Such "speeches" today are read through the Hubble and other telescopes, inscribed by particle accelerators, displayed with electron microscopes. Those of us without the training to decode those cryptic signals can nevertheless find abundance of beauty and mystery in more popular science writing. We find it in looking, naked-eyed or with simple binoculars, at the night sky or a distant flock of cranes. We find it in walking amidst uncultivated undisturbed flora of the land of our belonging.

Near the end of his life, Carl Sagan wrote in Pale Blue Dot:
In some respects, science has far surpassed religion in delivering awe. How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, 'This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?' Instead they say, 'No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.' A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.
Dear Carl: It’s here.

Thank God.

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This is part 4 of 4 of "Science, God, and the Universe."
Previous: Part 3: "Saganic Verses"
Beginning: Part 1: "Not Supernatural"