Keeping an Anthropomorphic God Busy

Jerry Coyne recently shared this Bizarro comic:

I think the cartoon illustrates nicely some of the problems involved in thinking about God in such anthropomorphic terms.

Coyne adds the comment:

The whole nature of God for these people (and for many, many Americans) is that of a personal God, something with the characteristics of a human. To deny the ubiquity of this concept of God belies profound ignorance of religion. Either many theologians are ignorant in that way, or simply feel that such people have wrong belief.

That last point is exactly right – many theologians think that the majority of people have wrong ways of thinking about God. Just as many scientists would say that very many people have wrong ways of thinking about science and the natural world – even including those whose intention is to accept mainstream science.

I really like the title of the post: “This ain't your Ground of Being.” But as Tillich, who made that phrase famous, so strongly emphasized, we cannot do without metaphors and symbols when thinking and talking about the Ultimate. The same is true in science, when we try to talk about language-defying quantum realities. The big problem is often not the use of symbols, but mistaking them for a description of the way things really are. But in other instances, the problem is the symbols themselves, which are inadequate even as a metaphor for what they are supposed to point to.


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  • brianwestchest

    Love it. Thanks!

  • Wildwood Chapel

    So what is an example a useful metaphor or symbol for the GOAB that works better than that of an anthorpomorphic being? How would *you* illustrate or visualize it in a way that improves upon the Old-Man-in-the-Sky model?

    • James F. McGrath

      Just to be clear, I don’t have problems per se with the use of anthropomorphic symbolism. Human beings are among the most transcendent things we know of in the universe, and so it is natural to draw on humanity for this purpose. My issue is with any treatment of such symbols as though they actually depict the way God, the transcendent, the Ultimate, really is.

  • arcseconds

    ‘language-defying quantum realities’ are a problem for the uninitiated, but they don’t mean that physicists are forced into symbol and metaphor when reasoning with themselves or with one another.

    ‘quantum realities’ have as precise as description as one could want in the mathematics of the wave equation (so long that, of course, you accept the inherent probabilistic structure of quantum mechanics). And the language that physicists use to talk to one another — terms like ‘superposition of states’, ‘collision cross-section’, ‘eigenstate’, and so forth — have pretty precise groundings in the mathematics.

    One can’t (or at least, I can’t, and many physicists admit to not being able to) picture the reality itself in the sense one can picture simple classical mechanical models to oneself. But insofar as one needs pictures at all, one pictures other things, such as the Hilbert space with a vector that describes the exact state of the system, or maybe just the matrices / wavefunction equations themselves.

    I’m sure that sounds esoteric, but I don’t think there’s anything fundamentally more strange about this than, say, personal finances.

    Most of us (I’m presuming) are reasonably comfortable with what it means by saying “I owe you £20, I have to pay the bank £100 in mortgage repayment, and I’ve got a payment cheque clearing for £200, so that means I have £80 to spend down pub wednesday week”.

    But what do we picture to ourselves in such a scenario? Surely not stacks of pound coins beside the bank’s logo and a picture of McGrath, or the equivalent in MacDonwald’s cheeseburgers or ball-bearings or whatever — although we might if we were six years old. I think we picture nothing whatsoever (although we might picture the numerals or graphs, or something) : we just understand the results of owning or owing £1 enough so that we understand these sentences immediately, without any picture.

    But we don’t talk about ‘language-defying personal finances’. They’re only language-defying for someone who hasn’t learnt enough about money or arithmetic.

    • James F. McGrath

      I think that “both a wave and a particle” or “doesn’t have the property of location until a measurement is taken” are language-defying in a way that personal finances are not. The latter can at times be logic-defying, but I consider that a separate issue. :-)

      • arcseconds

        I think what you’re mostly saying here is that you’re comfortable with the mathematics of personal finances to the point where you’re competent enough with the formalism, and don’t ask for a concrete picture or a metaphor in ‘ordinary’ English, whereas you aren’t in that position with quantum mechanics.

        Imagine if you were asked to explain personal finances to someone who might barely be able to add, but otherwise has a very poor grasp of arithmetic, and can’t think of it in anything other than concrete terms. You might well end up asking them to imagine stacks of pound coins on a table. Eventually you get into the position where you have to explain to them what being in debt means, which is mathematically the same thing as explaining to them what a negative number is. This doesn’t fit into the stacks of pound coins picture, and so long as that’s their only tool for reasoning about the situation, they are going to be pretty baffled and perhaps conclude that negative numbers, and thus debt and personal finances, involve weird properties that can’t be pictured, and hence are baffling and ‘language-defying’.

        (And, in fact I understand when negative numbers were first introduced into mathematics, there was a bit of an outcry. People felt they couldn’t possibly have any meaning or refer to anything real, and were some kind of trick, if not an abomination. )

        A physicist doesn’t think in terms of electrons being both waves and particles. That’s an attempt to explain the situation to a layperson, who doesn’t understand the mathematics and wants a picture. I would say, following the statements of more careful physicists, that an electron is neither a wave nor a particle, but rather is its own sort of entity which behaves a bit like a wave under some circumstances and a bit like a particle under others, but is ultimately not much like either thing. Just as your financial situation is a bit like a stack of pound coins, and in some ways a bit like temperature (as it can take negative values) but isn’t really all that much like either. There are some situations where the stack of pound coins isn’t too bad, though.

        (“Travels as a wave and arrives like a particle” is a better statement.)

        Again, “doesn’t have the property of location until a measurement is taken” is the sort of thing that physicists would say to a layperson, but not to one another. They say things like “the position operator and the momentum operator are non-commutative with respect to one another”. That’s a perfectly meaningful, well defined and unambiguous statement derived from the mathematical formulation of quantum mechanics that no physicist with any competence in quantum mechanics will be confused about.

        (A quantum particle does have a probability distribution over all possible locations. Restricting this to a volume where it’s 99.99% likely to be located usually results in a very small volume, which could be sensibly referred to as it’s ‘location’. That’s not normally how we think of a ‘real’ location, but it’s not as though we’re unused to thinking in these terms altogether. Where’s your cat? “Oh, somewhere in the house, probably, I just heard it before”. My point here is that sometimes the language used to describe quantum mechanics makes it sound more alien than it needs to be. )

        I suppose your analogy does work in the sense that the language of *laypeople* is inadequate to describe quantum phenomena, and leaves them dependent on metaphors which might be useful but ultimately have their limitations. But physicists aren’t in this position: they have a mathematically precise way of describing the state of a quantum system and language for talking in physicist-English about it derived from the mathematics.

        • James F. McGrath

          I don’t think it is just laypeople. Ordinary language breaks down with respect to quantum phenomena, even for physicists, I think. Math, as you said, does not. And so it has its own “native language” from which it seems it is impossible to translate effectively.

          Perhaps we could say that the natural languages for exploring transcendence are music and poetry?

          • arcseconds

            I’m not sure what you mean by ‘ordinary language’ here. Do you mean to include or exclude physics jargon like ‘superposition of states’, ‘linear combination’, ‘eigenstate’, ‘hamiltonian’, etc.?

            Normally I wouldn’t think this to be ‘ordinary language’, and if so, I agree, physicists can’t use ordinary language to describe quantum phenomena. They use a specialist language to describe quantum phenomena, which is quite adequate to the task, in my opinion. It’s no different from any other specialist discipline in this respect. The language is closely related to the mathematics, of course, but in this it’s no different from any other mathematical discipline.

            You must have surely encountered the problem of translating from a specialist language to ordinary English in your own field. Us layfolk happily assume that texts are immutable over time, and have one author, and that author had definite things in mind when writing the book, and when reading the book you’re getting access (or trying to get access) to the reader’s mind. But the world of texts is quite a lot more complicated than that, and you have all of these opaque terms like ‘recension’, ‘redaction’, ‘interpolation’, ‘majority text’, ‘hermeneutic circle’, etc. If you master these terms, it seems to me, you see the world differently (texts become much more complex beasts, for a start) and people who know nothing of it might well think what you’re up to is fundamentally mysterious.

            Unfortunately, because biblical scholars are not as highly regarded as physicists, they’re more likely to see you as a kind of bullshit artist rather than a sort of magician.

          • James F. McGrath

            I don’t think that terms like redaction and interpolation are particularly difficult to translate into non-technical language. I don’t think that Biblical scholarship has the sort of problem that theology or metaphysical philosophy does. It deals with something tangible in the human domain, namely literature.