A Zen Priest’s Argument With the Argument from Design
A Bit of a Meander on Why I Don’t Believe What I Don’t, and Why I Do Believe What I Do, Concluding with a Call to Something.
James Myoun Ford
A Facebook friend who I really like is currently on a family trip to Scotland. Today he posted a picture of that statue of David Hume with his toes rubbed shiny from generations of students hoping for some of his brilliance rubbing off on them.
My friend’s comments held up an exaggerated version of Hume’s resistance to assuming causation simply from correlation. He then pointedly claimed that Hume’s putative resistance to causation from correlation led him to not “infer a Creator from the creation.” And with that in one fell swoop collapsing issues of causation with that traditional “argument from design” regarding whether there is a creator. Okay, my friend is an Episcopal bishop. And so maybe mushing a lot of things together for rhetorical purposes is understandable. Still…
Actually over the many years that argument from design has been and continues to be the most revisited justification for a deity who is a creator of the cosmos. Simply put it goes “how can something so beautiful, so integrated, so complex not be the product of a conscious creator?” It has captured any number of hearts as well as been the pole to which many others have tied themselves in the face of a boatload of arguments against any divine.
And, me? Thanks for asking. Frankly, I look at all this great mess, in all its complexity, beauty and horror, and I stand in awe. But I see no necessary next step. My experience of awe doesn’t lead me to infer some human-like consciousness at the center of it. I stop with awe.
That said. An old friend was asked if he believed in God? He replied no. He was then asked if he were an atheist? He replied, no. Frustrated, the questioner asked, what do you believe? He replied, as little as possible.
That’s my position. My North Star. The pole to which I lash myself in the storm.
I consider this the great method of spiritual inquiry: Look. Listen. Touch. Feel. Smell. Consider. And don’t draw conclusions too quickly. All along the way believe, hold some view as axiomatic only when you must, when the evidence of your experience and the cautions of those elders who have gone the way before are all taken into account. And even then always be prepared to revise your belief in the face of new information. This is hard. I know. I constantly find in myself beliefs that I have not subjected to this, how shall we say, “hermeneutic of suspicion” as someone said, “deep not knowing” as I find more accurate.
This doesn’t mean there is nothing to find. Far from it. Rather, I believe those of us on a quest for meaning within this world are often looking in the wrong direction and using the wrong tools. And different folk use different wrong tools. You know, just to keep it interesting.
Unlike my hard atheist friends I do not find belief in a deity the source of the ills of humanity. Not that people haven’t done very bad things in the name of various gods. The truth is people do bad things. And they seem always able to find a good excuse for doing those bad things. Now a god telling them to do what they want to do has been pretty standard operating since from just about forever.
However the rise of the modern atheist states have shown how easy it is to substitute another outsized justification to do the ills to others if we really want. One need go no further than the Khmer Rouge’s reign of horror for a concrete example. Frankly, as far as the propensity to violence goes, no big religion is off the hook from Hinduism to Buddhism to Judaism. As a Buddhist the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar comes immediately to mind.
Of course as to whether there is a god or not, this is a bit of a digression. God’s existence does not depend upon the deity turning out to be good or evil for we humans. That said, I do not believe there is a god in the sense of that entity with a human-like consciousness that exists outside of the causal world, pointed to at the beginning of this reflection by my Episcopal friend.
For the most part I find the belief in a creator and occasional interferer in the play of history patently human projection. The evidences of intervention offered up tend to be kind of shabby and often sad. Like the saving of one child from some horror while tens of thousands of others are not rescued. The arguments I’ve seen in favor of such a god existing simply do not convince me of anything beyond human being’s need. Many different needs attached to that idea of a god. And out of that bundle of desires perhaps directly connected to a human need for some kind of order to things, we come up with arguments to prove there is a deity.
The most compelling of them is probably that argument from design. Of course for my Christian and other theist friends, this requires setting aside that it supports none of the major religions. Only a creator of some sort or another. And, one that has no evidence of subsequent involvement. It ultimately is a deistic argument.
Me, I simply see no necessity in leaping from seeing everything exists in patterns to thinking a human-like consciousness is at the source of it. I think there’s a vastly more useful conclusion to draw from the observation of pattern in the universe and our human lives. And it is that we human beings can discern them, and discern them in ways with practical application. This suggests to me, not a deity at the heart of it – but that we can know things, not all things, but many things with relative accuracy. And there is magic in that. Something wonderful.
But, to finish with the deity and the closely related (although not necessarily connected) idea of a soul, before moving on to things that I believe are true. I do not think believing in a god or gods a kind of mental illness as some of my friends opine. Nor do I think there’s no strong evidence one way or the other and intellectually honest people can go either way.
I think the belief in a god and the idea of a soul an unfortunate consequence of the way our brains work. Some animals are fast, some are strong, some can fly. We are smart. We observe, and can slice and dice what we observe, and project from that and make decisions. This has made us the most successful creature on the planet. But, like with any animal gifted with an edge through the workings of evolution, that thing isn’t a perfect thing.
And it turns out the shadow of our ability to observe and plan is an inclination to reifying the things we see. That is we see ourselves as nouns when in fact we are verbs. What has been useful for us in many ways, when it comes to how we understand ourselves, this skillset betrays us. We think we are permanent when we are not, and we project our image into the sky and worship it, when the universe is vastly more complex and mysterious and wonderful than our imaginings.
I am deeply taken with the Buddhist analysis that points out the dis-ease of our human condition, the anxiety, anguish, longing we find as universal human experience comes right out of this misunderstanding of who we are and our place in the universe. I think there are some internal contradictions within the Buddhist analysis that need to be questioned, but the general thrust that we find ourselves wounded in some real way, and that it comes out of our misunderstanding of who we are a critical insight.
Based on what I’ve said to this point it should be obvious I’m a big fan of human reason, and its most lovely child, scientific method. Big fan. These have proven to be the most reliable tools we have among the many tools we use. But, of course, they are tools. What reason and scientific method lets us do is know the world around us, and the ways we ourselves are made up with ever increasing accuracy. They allow us to approach the how of things, and with enormous consequence.
What they do not do is explain the why of things. No great revelation in this observation. People have noticed this for a long time. Now, for ages religions were the repository of our collective wisdom about both how and why. Over the years science in its various disciplines have all separated from religions, and in my opinion to the good of both. We still see religions attempting to describe the how of the world by reference to ancient texts, and how persisting in that brings disrepute to the whole religious project. The sooner they get over it, the better for everyone.
But, what about that why? I find as I disentangle the sacred texts of the world that I’ve read, not a whole lot, but the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, some of the Vedas, a bit more of the Upanishads, a variety of the Chinese texts including the Dao De Ching, the Analects of Confucius, the Chuantzu, a handful of other writers, a fistful of Buddhist Sutras, and most deeply the koan anthologies, and of course commentators on much of the above.
They are all subject to critical analysis. The older the texts the more likely they are patched together and represent a variety of opinions only loosely congruent. So, as best I can tell from my reading the scriptures for instance, seeing coherence in the Bible taken together is more an act of will than of anything else.
I believe the official sacred texts are neither collections of adages and prejudices that simply exist to order society, nor am I precisely a perennialist, that interesting assertion that all the world’s religions are at core teaching the same thing, and that these texts all teach some same message. Rather I think they represent the best efforts of human beings to get a handle on the great why.
I have a deep and abiding sympathy for the religious project, the great investigation of why.
Of course, there is another question bubbling within that why. Why a why?
I find it some deeply human thing. It is about the hurt of our lives. It is about uncertainty. Pursuing the why of things is about human love.
And it is here while I find the scientific enterprises have been helpful, they hint at some of the hows of the quest for why, but they cannot carry me across the river. And I believe there is a farther shore.
The story of Job speaks to that place, where in the end Job’s prayer is answered, not by words but by presence. A terrible and beautiful presence. Which we tend to experience as love.
And it is that thing upon which I hang all my hopes.
And it is here I find myself mining the spiritual traditions.
I’ve come to cherish a handful of writings considered primary sacred texts. The book of Job, Ecclesiastes, the Gospel of Mark, the Dao De Ching, the Heart Sutra, the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Ancestor, and the Gateless Gate. A few others. A few more that would considered commentarial or secondary. Mostly these are Zen Buddhists, but also mystics from the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions. Some Hindus. Several Taoists.
But nothing has proven as useful for me as the two great disciplines of the Zen way. The first the practice of presence distilled into an active sitting, engaged with the moment. The second a path of inquiry into the realities of our lives through ancient questions, guided by people who have found them pointers of the heart and who have lived with them for many years.
In my youth I prayed to know God. I prayed with complete earnestness, with the fullness perhaps only a youth can muster with a deal. Show me your face and after that you can kill me. I meant it. And I was met with silence.
Many years have passed. Today, by most conventions I’m an atheist. That is I do not believe in a human-like consciousness that directs things. In a universe of uncertainty I come as close as a human mind can to certainty that there is no deity that acts within history.
And, within my experience there is something. Sometimes I call it presence. Sometimes I call it love. I suspect I know the grubby roots of that love, how it arises within my mammalian consciousness. But, it seems to have a larger existence, as well.
I’ve found how the Unitarian Universalist two truths that the individual is precious and that the individual is created out of a world of mutuality results in an experience of love. I’ve found how the (Zen) Buddhist two truths that everything and everybody in the universe is mutually created through a dance of causality, and that everything and everybody in the universe has no substance, but rather is wildly open, boundless results in an experience of love.
Of course this love is completely a-moral. It is desire and it can extend beyond desire. And it is here I think we find our work as human beings. The Hindu sage Sri Nisargadatta gives a further wrinkle on it all, when he says “wisdom is knowing I am nothing. Love is knowing I am everything, and between the two my life moves.” I find a pointer in this.
How my life is directed out of this experience, and how a range of behaviors as ideals and as pointers, and as warnings emerge. The five Buddhist precepts perhaps the clearest of the many intuitions of this path of intimacy, this path of love.
What I find in this world of hurt and loss is something precious and powerful, terrible and beautiful.
Out of the silence I have indeed found something. As a word love falls so short. It has to do too much work, standing for sentimentality and the burning away of self and other, and so much in between. And presence, well, it doesn’t quite work, either.
But. Language is like that. Falls short. And, and, points…
If we want a meaning in a world that exists beyond meaning and meaninglessness, I suspect this encounter with, if you’ll excuse the image: the face of the divine, is it. Not the god who created heaven and earth, but the god beyond all ideas of a god. The silence on the other side of our chattering about a god. Another name: Presence. Another name: Love. This place this presence is a path to walk. It is a sea in which to swim.
Our source and our sustenance and our destiny.
A terrible and beautiful presence.
What to call that God?
I have no argument…