I worry sometimes about God. I suppose I’ve been a fairly consistent atheist all my life, though not particularly zealous: I realise that many people far cleverer than me have been committed believers in one religion or another and have written enlightening stuff about it which is well worth anyone’s time to read. I don’t really understand the apparently visceral hostility which people like Richard Dawkins display towards theism; for me it’s more that in itself it doesn’t seem a useful idea; instead it seems to be among the wilder pieces of metaphysics you could go in for (I enjoy wild metaphysics, of course – nothing better – but I don’t adopt it). Be that as it may, I used to think that certain conceptions of God were rationally available if you wanted them. ‘Geometrical’ Gods would be one example, where you just define something like ‘the universal total of awareness’ or ‘the origin of everything’ as God, and then stick to it even though on careful examination your defined entity turns out to bear no apparent resemblance to the one people talk to in church. A little more scary, Gods that are absent, indifferent, unkind, or systematically deceptive seemed viable enough so long as you realise they’re not really going to do any useful ontological work for you. They have a tendency to leave you with a theoretical mess slightly worse than the one you had to begin with, but if you want you can bring them along for the ride without egregious inconsistency.
Or so I thought: but in recent years I feel it’s been getting more difficult to accommodate the idea of a non-material conscious entity. In the old days, when we had no idea how any of this worked, God was useful as the source of consciousness: he’s got it and he bestows it on us. This view has not gone away and perhaps a modern version might be Peter Russell’s equation of God and consciousness. If our consciousnesses are God it puts a strangely introverted complexion on prayer; but I think what he really means is that our consciousnesses are fragments of the universal version which is God. For me, that has too strong a flavour of gnosticism (roughly, the belief that we’re all fragments of a divine being trapped by a ghastly cosmic accident in lumps of meat, and subject to a demiurge who falsely believes himself to be God. Why is gnosticism so popular, by the way? The secret esoteric doctrine always turns out to be gnostic. Come on, you heresiarchs: I was promised wild metaphysics!): I’m afraid for me gnosticism is one of those doctrines that resemble the legendary town in the mid-west of America that had a big sign saying Friend, if you’ve ended up here, you musta got on the wrong train somewhere.
At any rate, I find myself more in sympathy with Matt McCormick’s case that an omnipresent God wouldn’t be able to think because of his inability to draw the distinction between himself and the rest of the world. Although McCormick makes a cogent case, a determined theist could probably lash together a way of dealing with the problem of conscious omnipresence, but then there are others, possibly worse, associated with omniscience. God knows everything at once: he doesn’t suffer from our form of the binding problem (the issue of how our brain makes a smooth coherent sequence out of sounds, vision, touch, etc) because all the correct things are linked up; but has a worse one of his own because everything is bound with everything else. He can’t perceive some events as simultaneous and others as not, because he can’t stop thinking about any of them. How right the theologians were then, to say he lived in eternity rather than time: it was bound to look like eternity to him, at any rate, because he’s incapable of perceiving change.
But surely that’s all wrong: God can’t have a binding problem because the binding problem relates to the synchronisation of sensory data; and as a non-material being, he can’t have any senses (to see, you need material parts that can be affected by light, for example). But then he needs no senses, because he already knows where everything is and what it looks like. What he has a problem with is coherence and progression. Consciousness, we know, is a stream, and thought is a sequence, but it seems God is going to be incapable of either because everything is constantly in his mind.
But again, perhaps that to is wrong, and we need to distinguish between what God knows and what he’s actually thinking about. We, after all, know lots of things without having them constantly in mind. That’s an attractive way of looking at it because it suggests that although God knows about your sins, he will most likely never get round to giving them any attention, given all the things he has to think about – a comforting if heterodox view.
Picking on the ‘omni’ problems – omnipotence has its own long-standing difficulties - may be attacking a soft target; unfortunately there are less abstract ones, too. We sort of know by now that consciousness is associated with the activity of complex neural structures, and an immaterial God hasn’t got neurons. We sort of know, too, that consciousness is associated with a family of cognitive abilities displayed in different degrees by different animals and arising out of a long process of evolution. We can see these abilites as being about the linking of sensory inputs and behavioural outputs, all the way from simple tropisms and reflexes through instinctive and thoughtful behaviour all the way to our largely detached meditations. We’ve already noted that God has no sensory inputs, and it’s a little hard to see how a non-material being can have material outputs either. Our minds grew out of processes intimately connected with the needs of a physical animal – the ’three Fs’ of feeding, fighting, and reproducing, all of which seem to be at best optional extras as far as God is concerned. Why would an immaterial being ever go through cognitive processes primarily designed to facilitate existence in a domain entirely alien to it, and if it did, what could it use to implement those processes?
Perhaps a theist would say that I’m harping far too much on the lower aspects of consciousness: sure, it helps us avoid the sabre-tooths and chip flints, and obviously God isn’t much bothered in those areas; but what about the fancier aspects: what about qualia? A while back there did seem to be a move to recruit the Hard Problem as a crack in the otherwise solid wall of materialism which God might slip through, but it’s hard to see how God could have phenomenal experience. To begin with, it seems he doesn’t have sensory experience at all, for the reasons mentioned above; then again, if qualia are merely a matter of knowing what x is like he must have them in horrifying, mind-crushing, infinite simultaneous abundance.
What about intentionality, though? Perhaps God is a being composed of pure meaning, which would nicely account for his non-materiality. It looks attractive, but we surely don’t want God locked up in the Platonic realm where could have only the status of an inert abstraction. Yet in the ordinary world intentionality only appears in two places: things made meaningful by us, and in those same old complex neural assemblies our brains, which God hasn’t got.
These random noodlings of mine don’t, of course, come near ruling out every possible conception of God (in fact the old man with a beard sitting on clouds starts to look pretty good, so long as he’s not immaterial); but he seems to be slowly getting more and more problematic. In the past it’s always been possible to shrug and take it that God is so far above our comprehension we shouldn’t expect all the answers; but the conclusion that God can’t be conscious seems too alarming and at the same time too clear to be dismissed.