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We are therefore God is

God is

If a tree falls in the forest, and nobody is there, does it make a sound?

If your answer is, “obviously, yes.” stop reading now. Go out and have a coffee. Talk to a friend. Read a book. Or go for a walk. Because the rest of this post will mean nothing to you.

If, on the other hand, you are willing to pursue the idea that no – if there is no one there to hear it, then there is no sound, then we just might be able to reflect in a way that combines physics, psychology, philosophy, and theology…

So. You’re still here.

Cool!

Here’s the psychology and some of the physics bit:

Branches and trunks striking the ground create rapid pulses of air. So, what we have in hand, in actuality are rapid air-pressure variations, which spread out at around 750 mph. This, according to simple science, is what occurs even when a brain-ear mechanism is absent—tiny, rapid, puffs of wind. There’s no sound attached to them.

Now if a person is nearby, the air puffs cause the ear drum to vibrate, which then stimulates nerves only if the air is pulsing between 20 and 20,000 times a second (or less for us whose youth included rock concerts). Air that puffs 15 times a second isn’t intrinsically different from air that pulses 30 times, yet the former will never result in a human perception of sound. In any case, nerves stimulated by the moving eardrum send signals to the brain resulting in the cognition of a noise. Only then does human consciousness conjure the noise experience. In short, an observer, an ear, and a brain are every bit as necessary for the experience of sound as are the air pulses. The external world and consciousness are correlative.

When someone dismissively answers, “Of course a tree makes a sound if no one’s nearby” they’re merely demonstrating their inability to ponder an event nobody attended. They’re finding it too difficult to take themselves out of the equation. They somehow continue to imagine themselves present when they are absent.

Yes. Do read the rest of that article if you are enjoying that.

In that article, the author also said:

We’ve accepted the big bang, even though it provides no explanation for why the universe is exquisitely fine tuned to support life.

Let me add more of a physics bit to that: if the strong nuclear force, or the weak nuclear force, or the gravitational constant, or any of the other physics numbers were dialed to be even the slightest, tiniest percentage different to what they are in our actual universe – we would not exist. Sentient beings evolved in this universe because the dials of those constants are set as they are.

Still here?

[OK. Bracket bit: I often meet people who get confused what the universe is. They think it is our galaxy or whatever. Universe is the whole lot - everything we can see, measure, access via science, instruments, etc. "Other universes", "Parallel universes" are "things" we cannot access, measure, get to, examine scientifically, etc - if we can, then that's still our universe.]

So. The fine tuning of our universe is a bit of pain for atheists. And especially for anti-theists. We end up with an anthropic principle – the universe seems to be designed so that sentient beings evolve.

Most atheists and anti-theists respond with – well there must an infinite number of universes, we just accidentally happen to be in the one in which accidentally sentient life evolved. Fair enough (but wait!) Theists regularly respond to that with Occam’s razor (the simplest solution is best): you believe in multiple universes, I believe in the creating God (and important note – multiple universes existing is a belief. If you can access them scientifically then that is part of this universe). But there is another way than Occam’s razor.

Still here? Because here’s the clincher:

Those other universes don’t exist. Something only exists if there are sentient beings able to observe it.

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25 Responses to We are therefore God is

  1. Maybe it depends on the definition of “a sound”. If we define it, as event such as would be heard by a human observer with adequate detection equipment were they present, then I think we could say the tree does make a sound when it falls in an uninhabited forest.

    • It’s a game. The physical circumstances by which a human, a recording device or any other living entity that an detect sound still take place when the tree falls, whether they are detected or not.

          • No, sound, as referred to here, has but one definition, you’re confusing hearing with sound. And unless that tree is falling over in a vacuum, it produces the physical properties of sound, regardless of whether there is someone there to hear it or not.

  2. Well 429 years after his birth the Bishop of Cloyne hovers around us again. Well he was a beautiful writer which is more than I would say for most philosophical writers today and Hume and Kant could not shake themselves clear of him.
    Odd that the USA has so many memories of hi, a city with a great university attached in California, a college at Yale, an Episcopal seminary and other educational enterprises. At least the library of Trinity College, Dublin bares his name as well. All of which is brought on by your post if with no other significance.

    “I do not argue against the existence of any one thing that we can apprehend, either by sense or reflection. That the things I see with mine eyes and touch with my hands do exist, really exist, I make not the least question. The only thing whose existence we deny, is that which philosophers call matter or corporeal substance. And in doing of this, there is no damage done to the rest of mankind, who, I dare say, will never miss it. “

  3. What universe do you live in?

    The one I live is NOT <exquisitely fine tuned to support life. Even this planet shows no such fine tuning. Many parts of it are hostile to life, and while not lifeless, life in those areas fights hard to cling on and can vanish in the blink of an eye.

    And that is just our planet. How many habitable planets are there in the universe? We don’t know. But with 8.8 billion stars with potentially habitable planets in our galaxy alone, then there is a probability that we are not the only life in the universe. But we know without a doubt that there is no life on the moon or any of the gas giants in our solar system. No fine tuning for life there.

    And if any of us escape the bonds of earth, we will surely die without protective vehicles. No true space walk for humans.

    Did it ever occur to you life exists as it is, not because the universe is fine tuned, but that WE are fine tuned to live on this hostile Earth?

    Something only exists if there are sentient beings able to observe it.

    Which pretty much sums up how we know there are no gods.

    • Thanks, David.

      Nothing was being said in this post advocating the idea that “this planet shows fine tuning”. That is a whole other argument. Although the argument that this planet shows fine tuning is also often put under the same “anthropic” heading, I would argue strongly to keep them separate. Your confusing the two here leads to your confused conclusion.

      All the best [a subjunctive atheists regularly use].

    • There are many things in this universe which speak to the fact that it is fine tunes for life to exist under the right circumstances. No one said that the universe was tuned to allow life to exist everywhere and under all circumstances, which appers to be what you are expecting.

  4. Nicely written, but confused: if your conclusion was that nothing in parallel universes makes a sound (or some other viable observer-reliant properties) you’d be fine, I think, but the step from “property X of a thing requires an observer in order to be a property of it” to “a thing requires an observer in order to exist” is a step too far. By comparison: the question is not “if there’s no-one to observe the tree does it still exist?”
    It’s certainly still open to respond to the multiverse point, however, by saying that multiple other universes and God (setting aside religious experiences for a moment out of charity) are on an equal footing in terms of unobservables – and that the atheist’s preference for multiple universes is grounded in a preference for something that sounds reassuringly scientific, rather than in empirical work.

    • Thanks, Stuart.

      Yes, normally I would go down similarly to your suggested track of pointing out that multiple universes are a belief just as God’s existence is a belief – neither can be scientifically/empirically verified.

      I was trying something different here. And I continue to think there is merit. I wonder if sound, for example, is really a property of a thing… Some would make existence a property of a thing (I am hesitant about that)…

      My real struggle with your point is in what sense does a universe exist if it is unobservable (not merely unobserved)? The sound of the tree falling is not unobservable – it is just unobserved.

      And please let’s not put God in the same category. God’s “existence” is not the same existence as us, trees, or universes. We can add you plus the tree and now have two objects. We cannot add God plus the tree and you and end up with three.

      Blessings.

      • Perhaps we might say that your tree/sound position is this: X produces soundwaves, and soundwaves have the disposition to produce the experience of sound in a subject with appropriate sensory apparatus. “X makes a sound” then can only be a shorthand for something like “An observer with the appropriate sensory apparatus has experienced a sound which has been caused by X.” You must then say that “X makes a sound” is false in the absence of observers. So far so good. (Note, though, that this is different from saying that the sound exists if observ/able/. It’s the act of observation that partly constitutes the sound).

        But this is a different prospect to that of existence itself being observer-dependent. You might say that other universes’ sounds and lights don’t exist because there are no beings with appropriate sensory apparatus, but it’s a big step to say that they /themselves/ don’t exist. Would our universe cease to exist if all sentient life was extinguished? Not obviously. It seems we need an extra piece of argument in support of the claim that these things are the case. George Berkeley might be friendly to it, of course…

        So on to your question of the sense in which unobservable things exist. I think there are two things which need to be distinguished: the short answer is I think that unobservable things exist if they are real (as a theist I might add ‘if they’re on the list of things God created’, but let’s leave that aside). A separate issue is whether we have any reason to think they exist. In the case of sounds, your argument is that a hearer is a reason to think that there is a sound and no hearer is a reason to think that there is not a sound. And here I think that there are a variety of unobservable things that we have reason to think exist (certain subatomic particles, for example, of which it make sense to posit existence, in order to explain phenomena that we /can/ observe. Other universes might be like that.) There are other unobservable things that I think we have reason to think do not exist (Santa). But I do agree that unobservability constitutes a prima facie reason (ready to be overridden by others) for lack of existence. However, I would apply that to God as well as objects or whole universes, which is where I was going with my previous comment.
        Meanwhile, what I take exception to – to clarify it in the terms I’ve been using – is the position that anthropic balance itself constitutes a reason to think that other universes exist: this does not so much explain observed phenomena as explain away perceived improbabilities, to my mind.
        Hopefully this clarifies things rather than obscuring them… :)

        • Thanks, Stuart. I’m going to rephrase your question in your second paragraph to, “did our universe exist prior to sentient beings evolving?” This underscores, I think, a serious problem in my point (at least prior to my first cup of coffee for the day). Could you expand your last paragraph some more (the “exception to” point). I think it is going along the line I previously alluded to – resolving the anthropicness of the universe by positing multiple universes and pretending that is science. Blessings.

          • In his volume, The Dream of the Earth, Thomas Berry posits that with the rise of sentient beings, the universe became self aware.

  5. Human beings exist ultimately because the parameters of the universe set at the big bang allowed us to evolve. We have no way of getting behind the big bang to see why those particular parameters existed (whether this is due to the limitations of our present understanding and tools or whether it is in principle unknowable, I don’t know).

    As I understand it, there are three possibilities. It may be that the big bang was the moment of creation by a being outside the universe. It may be that it just happened that way. It may be that some or all of the possible physical parameters are gone through in successive or alternate universes for some reason.

    Even if the big bang was a moment of creation, I don’t think that proves that the creator was the God that we as Christians believe in. All we can say is that the scientific evidence we have is not incompatible with our belief in God.

    • Yes, Robert, very helpful. We cannot go: there is an uncaused cause – therefore the Christian Trinity is true and Jesus is divine :-) I’m a bit more cautious about “a being…”. I understand God not as “a being” like other beings, God as “a being”, and God’s “existence” are analogous terms – they are different to you as a being and your existence. Blessings.

  6. What a delicious post, Bosco. Many thanks. I remember it was far too late in life that the thought occurred to me that all the fascinating phenomena of the universe that we have observed (from nebulae to dinosaur bones) only became meaningful to *us* once we had observed them. But that doesn’t mean that they were meaningless before that — not if there was an “observer” other than us.

    I remember reading (I forget where) that “it is a remarkable thing that there are answers to questions”. Our curiosity, our discoveries, are a partaking in a reality much higher than our own capacity for observation: the Creator’s beholding in love of a beloved creation.

    Incidentally, have you come across the work of the palaeobiologist Simon Conway Morris? I used to lunch with him when I was a post-doc at Cambridge. He considers that convergent evolution shows that the laws of life, at least on this earth, are rigged to lead to the emergence of intelligence. He once said, provocatively I thought, that evolved brains don’t create minds: they are like antennae that “receive” minds. I was puzzled by the metaphor, but I think your reflection above actually clarifies something of what he meant. He has a very edifying website called “Map of Life” (http://www.mapoflife.org/).

    • Thanks, Jesse. Yes I’m conscious of how some of these ideas dialogue with spirituality – our human need to be known. I “exist” (scare quotes to indicate that I’m now using the word not in the physics sense) because I am known (and as you say, loved). The sense an isolated hermit might make of his/her existence through understanding s/he is known and loved. It might be interesting to dialogue with, say, an atheist Buddhist isolated hermit about this – but I guess in doing so the Observer Effect kicks in. I will look at the website. Blessings.

  7. Surely fine-tuning will be very easy to test.

    If the Sun became a red giant, it would kill all life on Earth.

    Challenge atheists to show that the Sun is the sort of star that is predicted to become a red giant.

    Watch them try to squirm their way out of that one!

    • No one is stating that everywhere and at all times the universe is supportive of life. Paul Davies, a physicist has stated it differently, “The conclusion is not so much that the Universe is fine-tuned for life; rather it is fine-tuned for the building blocks and environments that life requires.”

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Rev. Bosco Peters Welcome to this ecumenical website of resources and reflections on liturgy, spirituality, and worship for individuals and communities. It is run by Rev. Bosco Peters.